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Dominic Santelli - Prepper

Jerry D. Young Library

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Dominic Santelli - Prepper

Dominic looked over his shoulders in each direction before kneeling down on the ground. Hopefully he would have time to dig up the bucket. He’d stepped the distance from the fence corner exactly thirteen paces forty-five degrees west of magnetic north by the small compass on his leather jacket zipper fob.

The shovel he used to dig up the cache he’d recovered from the far corner of the wheat field, from under a thick layer of leaves and thin layer dirt. He’d left the entrenching tool there, double wrapped in heavy weight plastic trash bags at the end of the tree line that marked the southern end of the field when he’d buried the bucket cache five years earlier.

He wasn’t worried about the cache being out in the middle of the wheat field. The farmer practiced no-till farming so none of the farming implements penetrated the ground more than a few inches. The top of the cache was well below that level.

It didn’t take very long to dig down to the bucket and around it. Dominic had brought in several bags of mortar sand to fill the hole with, instead of the dirt he’d dug from it, which he carried well away from the hole. But it was a double bucket cache with a blind third cache. Rather than just taking the lid off the bucket where it was, and removing the items it contained, Dominic worked the bucket around some and was able to lift it free of the other bucket in the cache.

In the bottom of that second bucket was a cloth bag made from denim cloth from an old pair of blue jeans, a semi automatic pistol in a clip on holster, and six spare magazines. Dominic removed the holstered pistol and stuck it behind his belt in the small of his back, the magazines going to different pockets. He reached down into the bucket again and lifted the bag out. When he set it on the lid of the first bucket it clinked slightly.

Ignoring the sound, Dominic looked around again to make sure no one had cleared the ridge to the south. Seeing no one, Dominic stretched out on the ground on his belly and dug around the bucket still in the ground, grunting with each shovelful of sand he tossed out of the hole.

Having dug barely a third of a way down the sides of the bucket, Dominic was able to work the slightly tapered bucket free from the sand around it. There was nothing to see but more sand in the bottom of the hole. But, nearly upside down, his shoulders in the widest portion of the hole, Dominic reached down with both hands and scraped a thin layer of loose sand to the sides of the hole, exposing an eight inch plastic pipe plug.

Gripping the square protrusion on the plug with both hands, Dominic turned it, grunting at first with the strain. The plug had not been seated tightly, being sealed with heavy grease on the threads to be waterproof but easy to open.

Once more Dominic lifted something from the hole. A six-inch pipe four feet long, with a handle attached to the top, slid easily out of the eight-inch pipe. Working even more quickly now, Dominic unscrewed the plug in the top of the six-inch pipe and tilted it slightly.

As he worked the long cloth bag out of the pipe, a bandoleer of ammunition for the rifle that was in the silicone-coated bag came out with it. Then a nylon pouch slid out of the pipe, propelled by five twenty-round magazines.

Dominic winced at the thumping of the items banging into each other and the ground. Each magazine was loaded with twenty rounds of 7.62mm x 51mm 147-grain full metal jacket ammunition. The custom sewn cloth bandoleer held another one hundred rounds of the same ammunition.

Dominic took the Springfield Armory M1A out of the treated gun sock and looked it over. Not a trace of rust. He picked up one of the loaded magazines and slipped it into the magazine well and then set the gun down on the green wheat.

The rifle magazine pouch went onto his wide leather belt on his left side, and the final item out of the tube, a Cold Steel Oda knife in a scabbard, went on the right side. Dominic took the denim cloth bag and slipped it into an inside pocket of his leather jacket. Next, fighting off feelings of panic at the time he was taking out in the open, Dominic unscrewed the Gamma seal lid of the loaded bucket and pulled out a Kifaru military backpack.

It was pre-loaded. Dominic took a moment to remove one of the stainless steel water bottles and take a long drink. Replacing the water bottle, Dominic took a couple more precious seconds to refill the open hole. There was far too little sand to fill it completely, but at least it wasn’t a gaping hole the farmer might step into or drive a tractor into, or now, more likely, a team, into it.

Attaching the Cold Steel Special Forces entrenching tool to the Kifaru pack, he lifted the pack and swung it around easily onto his back. A moment to fasten the belt and sternum strap, and then pick up the M1A and fasten it into the Gun Bearer option the Kifaru pack boasted, Dominic headed for the ridge line to his north at a steady jog, carrying the two empty buckets with him.

He stopped once to adjust the pack, and the lay of the handgun hidden beneath the pack, and was then on his way again. He made it back to his simple camp, shrugged out of the pack straps, and sat down to rest, the rifle across his knees.

Dominic waited for a full hour before getting up to break camp. Apparently the men after him had given up. He wasn’t going to back track to check. Not this time. There was too much open land, planted mostly just like the field where he’d dug up the cache. The wheat was still short and green.

The silnylon tarp was rigged as an A-frame tent, the support rope slung from two trees. A poncho with Ranger Rick modified liner was beneath it as a bed. It took Dominic only a few minutes to strike the camp, bundling up the tarp, poncho, and liner around the 550 cord and MSR Groundhog stakes.

He lashed the bundle to the Kifaru Marauder cargo shelf, put the pack on, set the M1A in the gun bearer once again, and slung the large leather tear drop single shoulder ‘healthy’ pack on his left shoulder. The single shoulder pack was his GOOD (Get Out Of Dodge) bag and had carried the camp components, water bottles, Millennium ration bars, jerky, and gorp, along with a Buck 110 folding lock-blade knife and Katadyn Hiker Pro water filter.

He’d had to stretch the food and water to get to this cache, as the first cache on his route to the retreat was compromised. It was still there, as far as he could tell, but there must have been fifty people in and around the campground where it was.

The first cache was an identical leather single shoulder teardrop bag with the same gear as the GOOD bag in the top bucket, with several magazines for the Walther PPK .380 ACP pistol on his left ankle in the bottom of the second bucket.

There was no gun tube under the second bucket, but there was another pouch of gold and silver coins he really would have liked to recover. “Perhaps one of these days…” Dominic thought as he headed for the next travel route cache on his way to his retreat property down in the Middle of the Ozark Plateau. “The coins and my truck…”

Dominic’s bug-out plan had called for him to pick up supplies at home, if he was at work when the balloon went up, and drive down to the retreat property. Fortunately he had alternate plans.

The powers that be ordered an evacuation, which was fine with Dominic. That was his plan, too. However, the government planned called for the use of transportation that they arranged. That included municipal busses, school busses, the light rail trains, and trucks with semi-trailers, and commandeered personal vehicles that would still run after the HEMP attack twenty-four hours earlier.

Dominic thought about trying to make a go of it in the truck, anyway, but there were already sounds of shooting going on near the interstate. Better to leave the truck out of sight, for possible future use, than let what he was sure would be a mob get their hands on it.

He took a few minutes to disable the truck, hiding the parts in the basement shelter. The door to the shelter under the garage was camouflaged in the basement, and Dominic didn’t expect anyone to get into the house, much less find the shelter and the supplies.

Had a nuke attack occurred without warning, Dominic would have taken shelter there at the house. But St. Louis was undoubtedly a target. Better to be away from the city if things escalated.

That meant leaving on foot, with just the GOOD bag. Dominic debated on what gun to carry on the trip on foot. He had several options there in the shelter. But a few moments of thought and he decided not to become a target of the authorities for carrying a gun. The announcement about the evacuation had clearly stated that people were to leave their guns at home. But he wasn’t going to be totally unarmed. He put on the ankle holster and put the PPK in it, with a spare magazine. Two additional magazines went in the matching pouches on his right leg. He also stashed a couple in his pockets and two more in the GOOD bag.

Getting out of the city proved easier than he expected. He picked up the railroad tracks and followed them out of town. A few other people were doing the same thing to avoid the masses of people moving at a slow shuffle on the main roads.

Several of them were carrying a rifle or shotgun or holstered pistol, despite the warnings. The first secondary road crossing had two police cars sitting on it. A gunfight broke out between the armed civilians and the police when one of the men evacuating just started shooting before the officers could say anything.

Dominic dived down into the ditch running along the tracks until the first flurry of shots ended. There was screaming and yelling and crying going on. Peaking up his head, he saw his chance and made a run for it away from the fight as it resumed. He went well down the road as fast as he could run, staying low and keeping the abandoned cars on the road between him and the fight. When he decided he was far enough away, he cut back south to pick up the tracks again.

There were fewer people on the tracks now, and Dominic made good time, his long stride eating up the miles as he passed person after person, like him, carrying some kind of bag. Some had suitcases. There were a few bicycles with who knew what piled on them, being pushed down the track. The spacing of the ties made it difficult to walk for some, and very difficult with the overloaded bikes.

But Dominic matched his stride to the ties the best he could and continued traveling. He traveled for two days on the tracks. The second day he didn’t see anyone. When he came to a road crossing the tracks late the second day he took that road, headed for Interstate 55.

It too had quieted down, compared to what it was near the city. He didn’t stay on the road for long. His pack was getting the eye from more people than he liked. The first cache was just up ahead in a camp ground and Dominic took the side road to it to check on it.

It had been a bad choice, he realized now. Anything like what was happening would mean campgrounds all over the country would be full with people fleeing the cities. But he found an out of the way spot, after using the crowded facilities at the camp to go to the bathroom and refill his water bottles, set up the silnylon tarp with the poncho and liner bedroll.

Dominic took off his boots, but kept his clothing on as he had the first night. He slid into the bedroll, with the PPK under his leather jacket that he was using for a pillow. Though he woke up several times, it was the normal night noises of an over full campground. He broke camp the next morning, taking the pack with him again to use the facilities.

There was a huge line, so Dominic decided to do his business a little later in some private spot off the highway. With the PPK now in his jacket pocket, Dominic shouldered the pack and hit the road again.

He hadn’t gone far, after taking a break in the woods along side the highway, when he caught up with three men traveling together. None were carrying anything except near empty water bottles.

Dominic swung wide to go around them.

“What’s the matter, Dude! We ain’t got cooties! Why don’t you be more sociable?”

Against his better judgment, Dominic slowed his pace and let the three men come up to him. When one of them quickly looked all around, Dominic knew he’d made an error. The other two were already leaping for him.

“Give us that pack! We’ll let you go! We just want some food. You got any food?” Dominic couldn’t tell who was saying what as he fought his way backwards, away from them.

His hand dived into the jacket pocket and came out with the PPK. He pointed at the center man and kept backing away. Considering their lack of fighting skills, and how slow they were, Dominic gave himself a little more room, and then turned and took off at a lope.

He glanced back from time to time. They men were actually trying to chase him, but he was pulling well away. Dominic didn’t see them again until he was up on a ridge the interstate was crossing. They were well back. Dominic slowed his pace to catch his breath. He hadn’t run any great distance at any great speed for a long time. He was more winded than he thought he’d be.

Dominic left the Interstate and headed for his next cache. It was one he almost hadn’t planted, doubting the need for it. But having to leave with just the GOOD bag, the cache, if he could recover it, would make him feel a very great deal better.

He couldn’t believe his eyes when he stopped to rest at noon. The three guys were still on his trail. “How in the world did they know I took this road?” Dominic simply didn’t understand the impression he left on people.

With his erect posture and long stride, dressed in khaki clothing and brown leather jacket with a wide-brimmed felt hat on his head, the large leather pack slung from one shoulder, he was noticed. He was dressed as he was to avoid notice, and most wouldn’t have given him a second look. It was his demeanor and projected attitude that brought the attention.

The three men merely had to ask those on the road if they’d seen a man of his description. People had, and though many were reluctant to say anything, for reasons they couldn’t explain, enough sensed the menace to themselves if they didn’t tell what they knew. Three different people all said the same thing. The man the three were looking for had taken the side road.

Dominic frowned and cut his short lunch even shorter. Pushing himself slightly, he headed for the cache, intent on getting it recovered before the men could catch up to him. If they were able to follow him.

Now, well armed, with enough supplies for several days now, Dominic wondered idly where the three men were and what they were up to. He’d seen no sign of them since that lunch break three days previously.

Staying on the secondary roads he had scouted over the years, Dominic made good time, even catching a couple of rides on working vehicles, one of them a tractor pressed into passenger service. He got a few looks because of the rifle, but he wasn’t the only one armed and no one made any objection about it.

He went around the various road blocks the police had set up to control and direct evacuees. He’d seen one man, stripped of his weapons, handcuffed and led to an old pickup truck that the police were using in lieu of their non-functional police cars. That was when Dominic decided completely avoiding the authorities was probably a good idea.

Dominic debated stopping at the next cache on the travel route to his place in the Ozarks. He would have to buy, beg or borrow some food on the way if he didn’t. He could hunt, but that would likely draw some unwanted attention. He had a couple of traps in his gear, and could make more, but he didn’t want to take the time for trapping.

He adjusted his route to the next cache. Picking up US Highway 67, Dominic, still a bit concerned about the three men trying to follow him, checked his back trail often. There were almost as many people traveling south as there had been on I-55.

Somewhat against his better judgment, Dominic stopped to help a family of four traveling on foot. The man had a huge pack on his back, made larger with everything that was tied onto it. The woman had a much smaller pack. There were two children walking beside them. The boy had a small pack on, too. Both the children were, Dominic estimated, under nine years old and were having a hard time keeping up. The youngest, probably five, kept asking to be carried.

“Mommy! Carry me! Please!” she pleaded.

“I’m hungry!” said the boy, older. He had the leash of an Irish Setter in his hand. Even the dog had a pack. Dog food was Dominic’s guess.

The man and woman looked haggard.

“Can I lend a hand?” Dominic asked when he came up even with them.

“I don’t think so,” the man said, giving Dominic a quick look. The sight of the rifle, carried fairly unobtrusively in the gun bearer, still scared him.

“Thank you, but no. We’re…”

It was then that the little girl reached up to Dominic to be carried and the Irish Setter nosed his leg and then sat down beside him.

“John, Toby likes and seems to trust him. What do you say?” asked the woman. They were stopped in the middle of the road.

After a long pause the man nodded. “But don’t try anything. I have a gun,” the man said, drawing a startled look from the woman. Dominic was sure it was a bluff, but he didn’t blame the man for trying anything to make sure his family wasn’t harmed by some stranger.

“Here,” Dominic said to the boy. “Hang these by the handles on my pack.” Dominic gave the boy the two buckets and he dutifully slipped the handles over handy projections on the pack.

Dominic picked up the girl and settled her on his hip opposite the rifle. “How far are you going?” he asked and took a step.

“Poplar Bluff. We have family there. On a farm.” It was the boy. He seemed to be a chatty one, now that Toby, the Irish Setter, had okayed Dominic. “They have horses and cows and chickens and pigs, and…”

“That’s enough, Bobby. I’m sure the man isn’t interested.”

“But he asked…”

“He doesn’t need to know everything,” John replied, cutting Dominic a look to see how he’d taken the statement.

“You’re dad is right,” Dominic said. “Don’t want to give out too much information in a situation like this.”

“What about you?” John asked. “Where you headed?”

Dominic smiled. “Ozarks. Got a small place there where I can camp out until this situation resolves itself.”

“What do you think will happen?” asked John. “You really think there will be nuclear war?”

“Already is,” Dominic said. The little girl, Debbie, was already nodding off in sleep. Dominic kept his voice at a low conversational level. “Those HEMP devices… That is, High altitude Electro Magnetic Pulse devices were nuclear. Just very high altitude explosions. That’s what killed most of the electronics.”

“Our car wouldn’t start,” the Bobby said. “Why do some start and some not?”

“That’s a complicated thing,” Dominic said. “Too much to go into right now.”

Bobby nodded in response.

It was getting late in the day, and a good camping spot was just ahead. It wasn’t occupied yet and Dominic suggested, “That’s a good spot to camp. You want to stop this early?” he asked John.

“Please,” the woman said. “John, I don’t know if I can go much further.”

“Okay, Pattie. We’ll stop.”

Well off the road, in a small cope of trees, Dominic woke Debbie and put her down. He helped John out of the huge pack he was carrying. It was actually a medium sized pack, with many items tied on the outside. Dominic judged the weight at seventy pounds. Much more than a man in John’s obvious lack of condition should be carrying.

“I’m going to set up my camp back over here,” Dominic said. “If that’s okay with you, John.”

John hesitated, but Dominic seemed much more helpful than dangerous, despite the rifle. He looked at Pattie. She nodded. “Sure… uh… what’s your name?”

“Dominic Santelli. From St. Louis.”

“John Smithlowe and family,” John said, reaching out to shake Dominic’s hand.

“You’ve come all this way since they announced the evacuation?” Pattie sounded incredulous.

“Caught a couple of rides on working vehicles, and I have a long stride. I walk rather faster than most people.”

“Well, thank you for helping. I don’t know how we’re going to make it to my brother’s place, traveling just a few miles a day,” Pattie said. John was helping her off with her pack.

“We’ll manage, Pattie,” John reassured her. “We have to.”

Dominic went to the spot he’d selected for his camp and, with the weather still holding, put up the silnylon tarp and laid out the poncho/poncho liner sleep system on the ground under it, rather than put up his tent and use the sleeping bag that was part of the gear in and on the Kifaru Marauder.

When the simple camp was ready, Dominic walked over to where John, Pattie, and Bobby were setting up their camp. “There’s a drainage ditch down a ways. You have any water bottles you want me to fill?” He held up the two six-gallon buckets.

“We need water,” Pattie said, “But I’m afraid of drinking water from a place like that.”

Dominic nodded. “I have a Katadyn Hiker Pro water filter and MP-1 purification tablets. Double whammy. It’ll be fine.”

“Bobby,” John said, “Get all our empties and help Mr. Santelli.”

“Yes, Sir.” Bobby rummaged through their belongings and came up with several Aquafina water bottles. They were all empty. “I’m glad we didn’t throw these away. You were right, Dad. They’re really coming in handy.”

“Leave them here,” Dominic said. “We’ll carry the water back and filter it here.” With Toby along on a leash, man, boy, and dog went the eighth of a mile to the drainage ditch. The water was high, with the recent rains in the area, and looked fine, but Dominic knew that could be deceiving. He dipped up a good five gallons in each of the six-gallon buckets.

Setting them down, Dominic took the package of water purification pills and added enough for the five gallons of water to each bucket. Picking up the buckets again, the three headed back to the camp. A couple of other small groups were setting up camps in the copse.

After waiting for the chemicals to kill any bacteria or viruses in the water, Dominic and Bobby began pumping the water through the filter into the family’s water bottles, and then Dominic’s canteens, the hydration bladder from the Marauder, and an MSR ten-liter dromedary bag.

Pattie was rummaging through her pack for their food supplies as John got a small fire going. From the looks of things, Dominic decided the family had done some camping before and weren’t totally at a loss on how to travel this way.

“I’ll refill everything you empty, later,” Dominic said, standing up with the water filter, stainless steel water bottles, bladder, and bag in the empty bucket.

“Thank you,” John said. “It would have been an almost dry camp, except for that. We can have macaroni and cheese with tuna. How about that, kids?”

Debbie looked up, but hesitated. They didn’t have all that much food. Dominic saw the hesitation and quickly said, “I’m going to fix my own supper, so I’ll leave you to yours.”

He saw the look of relief on both Debbie’s and John’s faces. In his own camp, Dominic took an MSR Firefly camp stove out of his pack and connected it to a fuel bottle that already had the pump mechanism in it. A few pumps and Dominic was heating water with which to prepare his evening meal. It was a Mountain House Pro-Pack single serve freeze-dried meal. Beef stew.

Sitting on the empty bucket, Dominic savored the food after it had reconstituted with the hot water he had added. The main course finished, Dominic fished out a vacuum-sealed zip-lock bag of homemade gorp and slow ate a handful.

On the off chance that they weren’t carrying much, if any, comfort food, Dominic slipped the zip-lock bag in his jacket pocket and went back to the family’s camp.

“I’ll fill up those containers for you now, before I go to bed,” he told John.

Bobby jumped to lend a hand. He looked a little forlorn when Debbie asked Pattie for a candy bar for desert.

“Honey, we don’t have any more,” Pattie said gently. “They’re all gone.”

“Can they have trail mix?” Dominic asked. “Not allergic to nuts or anything?”

Bobby looked hopeful. Debbie was just pouting.

“Oh, Mr. Santelli! We couldn’t,” Pattie said.

“Why not? I’ve got plenty. Here.” Taking the zip-lock from his jacket pocket, he tossed it to Pattie.

Bobby and Debbie gathered around their mother to get their portions. “We’ll save the rest for later.”

Finished with the water treatment, Dominic went back to his camp, made a pit stop deeper in the copse, and then turned in for the night.

Dominic was up early the next morning, despite sleeping very lightly. Nothing had disturbed the quiet of the night. He quietly had a breakfast of two packages of instant grits, a handful of gorp from another vacuum-packed zip-lock bag, and a cup of tea.

Taking a quick look around the Smithlowe camp, and then the other, similar camps in the copse, Dominic decided on a plan of action. There had been no announcements over the NOAA alert radio that was part of the cached goods he’d picked up, so Dominic decided that perhaps they had a few more days before anything more happened. Enough to see the Smithlowe family to their destination.

But with the children afoot, and John bogged down with the heavy pack, Dominic knew it would take weeks, not days, to get there. With that in mind, Dominic broke camp, packed up, and headed out before anyone in the other camps was stirring

He traveled at a quick pace, wanting to get done what he was headed to do, and back on 67 before the Smithlowes could pass him by.

He was there by noon, looking around carefully. This particular cache was the largest one he’d deposited. It was in sections. One deep pit held ten five-gallon fuel containers with stabilized diesel for his truck. Another spot nearby had two complete spare tires. A third held the identical elements that he’d recovered earlier. He didn’t disturb them.

With the e-tool he already had with him, Dominic dug up another of the grouped caches. He uncovered a plastic wrapped heavy-duty game cart from Cabela’s and quickly put it together with the tools cached with it.

Another bit of digging and Dominic uncovered a double bucket cache. This one held only food. Unlike the other bucket cache, he left the buckets where they were, without disturbing what was in the second bucket or what was underneath it. He was careful to return the site to its appearance before he dug up the caches.

He dug up a second, similar cache some distance a way. Again he left the second bucket contents and hidden cache contents alone, only emptying the top bucket before spinning the Gamma lid into place and covering it back up.

This was his main cache for the trip by truck from St. Louis to his place in the Ozarks. What was left still might come in handy in the future. The game cart had been included for the very reason he was there to get it. It would make moving a much heavier load much easier and faster.

With everything secured on the game cart, the rifle now slung over his shoulder, Dominic picked up the handle of the game cart and headed for US 67 again, taking an angling route to be sure he got ahead of the Smithlowes.

He was waiting, sitting on one of the buckets on the side of the road when he saw John and the others slowly approaching.

“It’s you again,” John said when the group came up to him.

“Yeah. I thought you might need a little more help. No strings.”

“I don’t know…” John said. Pattie looked hopeful. Bobby and Debbie just looked awed. Toby laid down and panted for a while.

“Look,” Dominic said, taking John a few feet from the others. “There may not be much time. If you want to get as close as possible, if not there, quickly, this is the only way to do it, barring getting a ride. I don’t think you have much hope of that.”

Reaching under the leather jacket, Dominic pulled out, holster and all, another Walther PPK .380 ACP. John started, but Dominic merely handed him the holstered pistol. “It’s a belt clip holster. Just slip it behind your belt.”

Reaching into one of the jacket’s pockets, he removed a twin magazine case with two spare magazines for the PPK. He handed them to John, too. “I expect those back when we get there. Being armed should give you some confidence that I’m not going to try anything.”

“I haven’t held a gun since I was a teenager.”

“We’ll go over it later. I just wanted you to have it for some peace of mind. Now what do you say? Pack your loads on the cart, along with Debbie, and help me pull it?”

John nodded. He didn’t know who this man was, but he seemed sincere in his attempts to help the family.

Bobbie looked on with interest as first Pattie’s pack was added to the game cart, and then John’s, and finally Bobby’s and Toby’s. They were secured, leaving a place where Debbie could ride.

“Ready?” Dominic asked, taking the handle bar of the cart.

John nodded and the group set off, moving much faster than the shuffling pace they’d only been able to maintain before.

The two men switched off pulling the cart, both taking hold to go up the steeper hills. Though they were going slower than Dominic would have on his own, the family was making almost double the distance in the same time they’d been making alone.

Dominic could see that John wanted to protest when they stopped for the noon break and Dominic handed out pieces of jerky, a Millennium ration bar apiece, and then offered everyone a handful of gorp from another vacuum-sealed zip-lock bag. But it was a quick, easy, and relatively good tasting meal. They were back on the road after a thirty minute rest that would have been well over an hour if the family had stopped the way they usually did, starting a fire and preparing a hot lunch.

The pace was hard on Bobby, so Dominic and John took turns carrying Debbie while Pattie helped the other pull the cart, letting Bobby ride for a while. Both children were able to catch up on sleep while riding, something they really needed to do.

Though John had money in the bank, he was unable to purchase anything in the small towns they passed through. Dominic offered, and John finally agreed, to take a check for cashing later in return for cash. Despite the cash, pickings were slim. Five days after the HEMP attack the stores were running out of everything.

Dejected, John continued to accept Dominic’s contributions of food, and his help at the campsites. Though he wasn’t a rice person, Dominic’s creations using the large bags of rice and three kinds of beans that had been in the last cache were filling and tasted good. Not to mention stretched their other supplies.

Everyone was on edge as the days passed and they continued traveling south at a good clip. There was simply no news to be had. Dominic kept his NOAA alert radio on, keeping batteries charged with a Brunton Solarport 4.4 and BattJack solar battery charger he kept.

The closer they got to Poplar Bluff, the fewer people there were on the road. Finally, during a light rain, the group turned into the long driveway to Pattie’s brother’s farm. The farm was well north of Poplar Bluff. Andrew was out working one of the fields that bordered the driveway. He stopped the tractor and ran to meet the group.

He and his sister shared a hug, and then the children. Andrew shook hands with John and then looked at Dominic somewhat askance, taking in M1A with a frown.

“If you want to help with their gear, I’ll be on my way,” Dominic said, aware of the animosity that the M1A was causing in Andrew.

“But don’t you want to stay here and see what happens?” Bobby asked.

Pattie looked at her brother hopefully. But the open presence of guns was more than a look, or even a plea, could change Andrew’s mind. But she asked, anyway. “Andrew? He helped us get here…”

“I thank you, sir,” Andrew said, not looking at Dominic. Andrew was already helping John unload the cart, Bobby and Debbie standing with their mother. With the family’s gear on the ground, Dominic stepped forward and secured his gear the way he wanted it.

“Dominic…” John said, after a quick look at Andrew. “Thank you for all your help. I’m not sure we would have made it without your help.” John handed over the holstered PPK and the pouch with the spare magazines, drawing a sharp look from Andrew.

“No problem,” Dominic said. “Good luck.” He spun the game cart around and headed back down the driveway without a look back. He sincerely hoped not, but Dominic thought he might have just dumped the family into almost the same situation as the one from which they’d left.

He shook his head. He’d done what he thought right. That’s all he could do. People were responsible for themselves and their children. Cutting due west to avoid going through Poplar Bluff, Dominic picked up the pace. It was slower than when he had just the leather single-shoulder bag, but faster with the cart than he would have been carrying the pack and other gear on his back.

There didn’t seem to be anyone within miles when he checked his back trail again, as he did often. He didn’t think it could be the same ones, but there were three people about a mile back. Dominic took a moment to get his Steiner binoculars from the gear on the game cart. He lifted them to his eyes. Sure enough, it was the same three men. Now equipped with back packs and at least two long guns and a pistol.

Dominic saw the men suddenly stop. One of them was pointing directly at Dominic. Dominic muttered a bad word, let the binoculars down against his chest, and grabbed the handle of the game cart. He set off westward again, his eyes scanning the area ahead for a good ambush site. There was no way he was going to be tracked to his property in the Ozarks.

The road took a sharp turn to the south and as soon as Dominic was well into it, he left the road and went into the woods the road went around. He took his time and cached the game cart. With the M1A at port arms, Dominic went back to the road and scouted out a good place to take up a position to wait for the three men.

It took them awhile. They might have hurried up to the point of the curve, but they came around it slowly and cautiously. But they were bunched together, right out in the middle of the road. They did have their guns in their hands, ready.

Dominic, prone, sighted in the man with a rifle. He wondered for a moment where the men had obtained the packs and guns. “Had to be by nefarious means,” he muttered. “Okay, gentlemen! Stop right where you are. You know I’m armed! I don’t want to kill you, but I don’t want you on my back-trail, or in front of me in an ambush. What do you propose we do about this situation?”

“You got that little pea-shooter!” one of the men yelled and Dominic realized that the men hadn’t got a good look at him since he’d hit the cache where he picked up the M1A.

“Give it up, man!” yelled the second man. He had a shotgun. “We just want your gear. You let us have it and we’ll let you go.”

“Yeah. A little the worse for wear, to even up things a bit!” That was the third man. The first two both told him to shut up.

Loath to just execute them where they stood, to get them off his trail, he decided to give them a chance. “Turn around, go back the way you came, and don’t let me see you on my back trail again, or I’ll kill you.”

“Big talk for a man with a little pistol!” said man number one. “We outgun you. You may just make us mad enough to kill you if you don’t stop this crap and give us your gear.”

It was the third man. The hot head. The one with the pistol, that started it. He lifted the revolver and fired. The sound from the .357 Magnum round was deafening in the silence. The man nearly lost the gun, not used to the recoil, but brought it back down for another shot.

The battle started, Dominic fired. Not at the man with the handgun, but the one with the rifle. He’d had some training for he went down to one knee as he raised the rifle up to eye level. Dominic put one of the powerful .308 rounds in the man’s chest, just catching the bottom of the magazine of the AR-15 derivative rifle, causing it to start tumbling before it even entered the man. He fell over, dead, his heart torn open by the bullet.

The man with the shotgun hesitated, but the third man screamed and ran toward Dominic’s position, firing the revolver as fast as he could control it. Dominic sighted him next and squeezed the trigger. It was another heart shot.

Dominic didn’t want even one of them left to track him, and he didn’t want to shoot the man in the back if he ran. Before the other man could turn and run, or even raise the shotgun, Dominic dropped him, too.

He waited a few minutes, just in case, but none of the three even twitched after they went down. Dominic got up and went to check them. The bullet that had killed the first man had knocked the magazine floor plate off the magazine in the rifle and there were .223 cartridges all over the place.

Looking the three men over, Dominic started to go through the contents of the backpacks and take the guns. But though a balloon had gone up… A very big balloon… There were still laws and law enforcement personnel.

Dominic left the scene without touching anything, hurrying to get back to the game cart and get away from the area as quickly as possible. He didn’t want to be connected with the three men’s deaths, and certainly not with whatever had happened to the people they had taken the guns and gear from.

He cut southwest as soon as he could, putting the scene miles behind him before he stopped to make camp. It was much quicker and easier without helping the Smithlowe family.

The next morning, after a very early start, even for Dominic, a rusty old Ford truck caught up with him on the road. Dominic stepped well out of the way and waited for the vehicle to pass him by. But the truck came to a stop and the very epitome of a 1950’s farmer, overralls and straw hat included, looked through the passenger window opening and asked Dominic if he wanted a ride.

“You sure?” Dominic asked.

“Sure I’m sure. I ain’t afraid of that big ol’ gun of your’en. Got one of my own.” The man lifted up from his lap what looked to Dominic like an original Colt Single Action Army revolver. “Put that whatever you call it in the back and I’ll take you as far as I’m going.”

Just a bit concerned that the man might take off without him, but with the cart, Dominic stayed ready to leap into the bed of the truck or into the cab if the man tried it.

But there was no cause to worry. The man waited patiently while Dominic loaded up the cart and got into the passenger seat of the truck. With the M1A between his knees, Dominic sat back and looked over at the man.

Putting the truck in gear, the man let the clutch out and they were headed down the road at a sedate thirty-five miles an hour.

“That an M-14 you got there? Carried one of them in ‘Nam. Best rifle I ever shot. Had to shoot the moon when it was on auto, but squeezing off a round at a time it was deadly. How’d you get one? Thought McNamara had them all junked.”

“It’s a semi-auto reproduction, by Springfield Armory.”

“Really? What’s one of them go for?”

Dominic told the man how much he’d paid for the rifle and the man whistled. “Keep my ol’ ’94 Trapper .30-30, I guess. What’s your name, son?”

“Dominic Santelli. I’m headed for the Ozarks.”

“Sam Houston. You already be in the Ozarks, Dominic, or didn’t you know?”

“I know I’m in the edge. Where I’m going is right down on the border with Arkansas, near Billmore.”

“Never been there. What’cha think about all this trouble with the radios and cars and TV’s and such?”

Dominic explained what he knew as Sam listened quietly, his eyes constantly scanning the road ahead and behind. “Have you heard anything else?”

“Nope. Country’s going you know where in you know what. Maybe this’ll wake up some people. War usually does.”

“If it’s not too late.”

“It’s never too late,” Sam said. “As long as there is enough people to make healthy babies, things will be better a long time after, than they are now. Sure pity those that didn’t see this coming.” Sam looked over at Dominic. “You one of them survivalists, heading to your retreat?”

“Not exactly…” Dominic said. “I’m more of a prepper. Don’t like the word survivalist. Main Stream Media has made that a ‘hate’ word. But essentially, yes. I have no intention of bringing down the government, like the media says survivalists are.”

“Yeah. Don’t care for the media myself. Usually listen to shortwave for my information. That and talk to other hams. We got us a pretty good network around the world.”

Dominic was surprised. “You’re an Amateur Radio Operator?”

“Don’t it beat all? Me being a hick farmer and all, too.”

“I didn’t mean…”

“Lighten up, son. I was messing with you.”

Dominic smiled. “How far are you going, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Don’t mind. Going to pick up some extra breeding stock, just in case, you know? Got good herds, but if this war talk is right, going to need to have as broad a base of genetic diversity as possible to ensure the herds continue strong. Too much inbreeding is bad. Just look at Washington. And the EU.

“Bunch of us keep our lines bred so we can cross breed, but there ain’t that many that are going to survive this, if it goes you know where in you know what.”

“You have a point.”

“Oh. Yeah. Going to Gatewood to pick up that trailer with the stock. Billmore is just past that. Be at the Marster’s farm about five, give or take.”

“That puts me close. Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me yet. We ain’t there and you never know what might happen.” A shiver went down Dominic’s back. Hopefully Sam wasn’t prophetic.

It was shortly after five when Sam stopped the truck. They had not met or been passed by any other vehicles or people. “This is the road up to the farm. Take good care of that rifle, and it’ll take care of you.”

“Thanks, Sam,” Dominic said and shook the old man’s hand. “Take care of yourself.”

Sam drove away without a backward glance and Dominic turned west on the road. He’d be at his property mid-day the next day. He knew a good camping place on the road so he pushed on well after dark until he made it. It was trying to rain again and Dominic took the time to set up the tent. He was glad he did when a heavy rainstorm blew through near midnight.

Anxious to get where he was going, Dominic was up early the next morning and broke camp in a light shower of rain after making a hot breakfast and drinking two cups of tea to fortify himself for the final quick leg of the trip.

He was at his ‘hunting cabin’ shortly after noon. With the rain still coming down as a drizzle, Dominic scouted the area around the cabin before he parked the game cart and set about getting the cabin ready for occupancy.

It was a process. There was no door in the doorframe of the reinforced concrete block structure built back into the base of a rock bluff that was just below the highest point of Dominic’s property. Just an old tarp hung from hooks above the doorframe kept the elements out. Sort of.

Dominic was surprised that all of the clear glass building blocks inserted in various places high in the front wall of the building were intact. Going inside the building there was just enough light to look around without using a flashlight.

There had been people inside, probably some of the hunters he’d agreed to let use the place for keeping an eye on it. All they had to do was replace any wood they burned in the fireplace. The place needed to be swept out, but that was all.

The heavy metal frame double bunk bed was intact, as were the other all metal furnishings in the cabin. Some showed some effects of being hammered on, but there really wasn’t much a person could do to the steel but make a few marks on it.

The only things he was really concerned about had been the glass blocks that provided some daytime light, the cast iron water pump next to the shop built kitchen sink, the similar pump that put water in the shop built steel toilet in a alcove with another tarp for a door, and the toilet itself.

It was a simple toilet made much like a portable chemical toilet, except it emptied into a sewer line that went to the same small septic tank and leach field that serviced the kitchen sink.

Grinning at his good fortune, Dominic went back outside and over to a spot where the bluff was covered in vines. It was tough to do, which Dominic had intended, but he was able to finally slide out from behind the vines a steel clad door almost heavier than he could handle.

Half carrying and half dragging the door to the doorframe of the cabin, Dominic then pulled the pins from the hinges on the door, maneuvered the door into place, and dropped the pins back into the hinges. Trying the door, it opened, closed, and latched perfectly.

First Dominic brought in as much firewood as would fit in the woodbin, and then brought in the game cart, closed and locked the door.

Going over to the fireplace assembly, Dominic knelt down and reached up into the fireplace opening on one side and pulled down what could be taken as a damper control. It wasn’t. The fireplace damper was an external one, on top of the chimney, operated by a handle on the other side of the fireplace opening.

What Dominic did was slide a spring loaded pin that unlocked a section of wall abutting the fireplace. Dominic stood up and leaned against the wall right where it supposedly connected to the fireplace. The wall pivoted at the other end and created an entrance into another section of concrete block structure. There was no back wall, only the opening to a natural cave.

Taking a wind-up flashlight from a shelf near the door, Dominic cranked it a few times and turned it on. Like the cabin, there were no signs of disturbance. After bringing in the game cart, Dominic closed the camouflaged door and breathed a sigh of relief. It was the first time he hadn’t been on edge since the HEMP attack.

Using the windup flashlight, Dominic went over to a control panel mounted to a section of the block wall and flipped a switch. A series of very bright LED light fixtures came on and Dominic turned off the flashlight. He checked the control panel. The two banks of six each Surrette 8-volt, 820-amphour deep discharge batteries were at floating at ninety-six-percent charge.

Apparently the four 48-volt, 300 watt solar panels had been doing their job. Like the small antenna farm Dominic had on the highest point of the bluff, the solar panels were essentially invisible, except from right above. Getting to the top of the bluff took climbing equipment. That was how Dominic had done the construction up there early in the process of putting the retreat together.

The water tank that the two hand pumps in the cabin pulled water from was full. A solar powered pump on a float switch kept it topped off. There was an electric pump connected to the tank for a small pressure water system in the shelter area that supplied a sink, a flush toilet, and a shower.

There was even a Staber clothes washing machine, but no dryer. Dominic planned on hang drying the washed clothing in the cave. There was a steady, if light, breeze blowing through it all the time.

A wood fired kitchen stove allowed for cooking and made hot water, as well as easily keeping the place warm enough for comfort.

After unloading, and then rearranging the equipment on the game cart, Dominic went over to the bunk beds against one wall of the concrete block portion of the shelter and lay down. He was asleep almost instantly.

He woke up groggily some time later, trying to shake the images of a fire truck from his mind. But Dominic suddenly sat up straight, almost banging his head on the upper bunk. That was a siren he was hearing. Or, more accurately, the NOAA weather radio alert signal.

The shelter had one of the radios kept attached to a short outside antenna. Dominic went over to the communications desk and sat down to listen to the emergency report. It never came. The radio speaker squealed and then went silent.

“Not good,” Dominic said. “Not good.”

It was three days later, while trying frequency after frequency on the Amateur Radio bands, that Dominic found out what had happened. Though there had been no radiation showing on his remote reading survey meter, Dominic had not gone outside. Not even into the cabin.

“It was the Chinese that started it,” Dominic heard one Amateur telling another, that like Dominic, hadn’t been in touch with anyone for days.

“First that HEMP attack to try to get us to just surrender. Just surrender. Can you imagine that? But anyway, according to my son, who was in the know, the President tried to negotiate some sort of settlement.

“But it was just a ruse to get some things ready for our own attack. That’s why it took so long for the other nukes to fly. But the President then gave the Chinese an ultimatum. Stand down their nuclear forces and offer reparations for the HEMP attack. Or else. That’s when China pushed the other button. From what my son could get before they went hard, was that just about everyone else with a nuke was shooting it at somebody.

“Apparently most of the mid-East problems are over for a while. It’s just a bunch of glass parking lots now. Russia hit China, but us, too, along with some missiles to military targets in Europe. The word is now that Europe and Russia are at war, down to using sticks and stones, just like Einstein said would happen.”

There was a pause and Dominic identified himself. He asked about St. Louis.

“Airport and downtown. Lot of the western side was okay, but got a ton of fallout from the missile silos at Whiteman, despite them being empty. Chinese didn’t take our word for it, I guess. Jefferson City was hit, so east of there got some fallout from them.”

Dominic thanked the man and sat back and listened to the other operators talking back and forth. Chances were that his place was still okay, if still pretty hot from the fallout. But that radiation would fade. He might be able to go back and get the rest of his gear. For the meantime, he had what he had stored here on the retreat property.

Dominic decided to just take a few days off and laze around. It didn’t work to well for him. After a day of doing nothing, he decided to check the surrounding property. He had managed to find one of the few privately owned pieces of property in the middle of the Mark Twain National Forest that became available from time to time. The area of the National Forest around his plot of land wasn’t used much. There were no campgrounds near, but he was only a mile from the Eleven Point River, which attracted many fishermen, canoers, and kayakers.

Dressed in his normal leisure clothing, Dickies Khaki work pants and shirt, a pair of Redwing boots on his feet, his leather jacket and broad brimmed hat in place, Dominic added a magazine carrier for four M1A magazines and four Glock 21 pistol magazines to the stout leather belt that just fit through the belt loops of the pants.

The holstered Glock went on the belt and the M1A went over his right shoulder. He made sure the door into the shelter from the cabin was locked, than then headed deeper into the cave. He came to the concrete block barrier he’d installed and opened the locked door to go through.

Dominic had been worried that it might cut off the natural airflow through the cave, but learned that all the smaller passages, too small for a human to get through, along with the myriad cracks in the cave maintained more than enough airflow to be safe.

It wasn’t long before Dominic had to take the rifle off his shoulder and carry it in both hands, crouching over slightly as the cave became both more narrow and lower in height. He was bent over when he reached the heavy iron bar grate that kept thrill seekers from entering the cave. The grate had been installed in the 1930’s when the area was logged and the cave discovered.

Dominic had modified the grate to allow it to open, but made it even more entry proof than before. Manipulating the manual lock mechanism by feel, Dominic opened the grate and slipped out, his head swiveling much like a meerkat emerging from its burrow. When he saw nothing out of the ordinary, he stepped out of the cave, firmly closing the grate behind him. A stout shake proved that it was locked in place again.

After surveying the area right around the cave entrance and deciding there probably had not been anyone in the area since his last trip to the place, Dominic headed directly to the river from where he was.

Though no longer an avid hunter, Dominic had done a lot of it in his day, and watching for game was second nature to him while in the wilds. So it was no surprise for him to suddenly go on alert and stop moving, carefully scanning the deep woods to his eleven o’clock position.

Sure enough, after waiting for two long minutes, the movement came again. It was a small whitetail deer moving cautiously through the forest. Making only small movements of his head, Dominic scanned the deer’s back trail. A deer shouldn’t be moving about at this time of day.

He still hadn’t spotted anything when the shot came. Dominic couldn’t help it. He jumped slightly. The deer went down, and Dominic went to one knee, continuing to watch the area of the forest from which the deer had come. With only the one shot fired, Dominic couldn’t pin down the location, but his suspicion that the deer was being tracked proved true when two shapes, clad head to foot in camouflage clothing, suddenly appeared in a small clearing just short of the deer.

Dominic had to look closely to see the men when they went through the last stand of trees to get to the downed deer. Continuing to watch silently, Dominic saw the two men expertly dress out the deer, cut it into quarters with a game saw, and then head toward the river, each man carrying one quarter of the deer.

Twenty minutes later the two men were back and picked up the two hindquarters. Moving much as the hunters had when stalking the deer, Dominic tracked the two men, staying to their right rear, moving quietly from shadow to shadow, avoiding the small clearings the two went through without a worry.

Ten minutes later and Dominic was examining the two men’s camp from the cover of the forest, using his binoculars. It was an elaborate camp, and immediately obvious that it wasn’t just for the two men.

There were no less than five small boats, two canoes, and three kayaks tied up at the river’s edge. Five tents were set up in a circle around a large fire ring. There were two tripods over the long fire, and a large grate set on four rocks.

Several pieces of cast iron cookware was visible, as well as the normal accoutrements of a large camp kitchen. Watching until he was fairly sure of the number of residents in the camp, Dominic finally spoke from the edge of the woods.

“Hello the camp! May I approach?”

Everyone spun around, and three men and two women reached for long arms. Bolt action rifles all. “Not here to cause trouble,” Dominic continued. “Just want to see who is on my property.”

“You Dominic Santelli?” asked one of the men, surprising Dominic no end. He didn’t have a clue who the people were.

“That be me. May I approach the camp?”

“Sure. Come on in. Heard you were a loner and didn’t come down here much.” It was one of the men still in camouflage that had taken the deer.

With the rifle slung, but the thumb break of the Glock holster undone, Dominic stepped forward.

“I’m Frank Garret.”

Dominic shook the man’s outstretched hand. “This is my extended family.” Frank made the introductions that Dominic knew he wouldn’t remember immediately.

“We knew we were trespassing, but this is a very good spot for what we wanted to do,” Frank said. The other adults went about their business as the six young children sat nearby and watched Dominic and Frank.

“And, if I may ask, what might that be?” Dominic asked, taking the proffered camp chair. He leaned the M1A against his leg.

“Getting away from the riots and killing.”

“Where?” Dominic asked.

“Anywhere. Everywhere,” Frank replied. “We were just unloading our gear, getting ready for a week float trip here on the river when the electricity stopped. We decided to wait things out here in National Forest. We bought all the food we could get our hands on, and then came on down the river.”

“How do you know me?” Dominic asked.

“Was thinking about buying a place here in the forest, too. Did title searches, looking for someone that might want to sell. The property is listed in your name. That was a couple of years ago. Just happened I’ve got a great-uncle by the name of Dominic. Your name just stayed in my mind.”

“Why this spot?”

“Just about equidistance from everything. We’ve passed this spot several times while running the river. Good place to beach the boats and set up camp.”

“You came on a camping trip ready to hunt deer?”

“Well… About that… Guess there won’t be any game wardens about for a long time to come. Sometimes Greggar and I have been known to take animals out of season. Just to feed the family, mind you. We never sold anything, and always use all the animal we possibly can. Never over hunt. From the size of the deer we took today, the herd probably needs thinning. It wasn’t very big. Used to see some real monsters in here, back in the day.”

Dominic nodded. He wasn’t too concerned about the group taking a deer or two. Frank was right. The herd needed thinning down to allow the remaining animals to have more forage.

“What were you going to do about radiation?” Dominic asked.

John sighed and shook his head. “I don’t know. There’s supposed to be a cave on your property somewhere. We looked for it, but couldn’t find it. Did find your hunting cabin. Thought we’d use it, if push came to shove.

“Would have been really crowded, but that’s better than getting nuked. Would have had to do something about the door. Built one out of dirt and logs, I guess. That old tarp sure wouldn’t keep out much radiation, the way I understand it. Read some of the stuff the government was giving out when this mess all started.”

Dominic admired the man’s truthfulness. But he wasn’t about to give away any secrets. “The opening is about thirty minutes from here. But you’d be disappointed. The cabin would have been your best bet. The cave has this super heavy grate on it to keep out thrill seekers. Take some dynamite to get through it.”

“Not surprised. Lot of people disappeared out in the boondocks here. I guess the CCC blocked off a bunch of caves when they came through here in the thirties, after the place was lumbered out.”

“That’s my understanding,” Dominic said. “I don’t worry about it.”

“Do you know if we got any radiation here?” Frank asked. “We didn’t see anything, but with the rains…”

“No. I have a meter. We got very lucky,” Dominic said.

Frank breathed a sigh of relief. “I’ve been telling the others that we shouldn’t worry, but I have to admit, I was. It’s good to know we’re okay.”

“When do you plan on heading out?” Dominic asked.

John looked down at the ground for a moment. “You evicting us?”

“No,” Dominic said sincerely. “Just wondering how long you were set up to stay. Unless you bought out a super store grocery, you’re going to run short of food, unless I miss my guess.”

“Yeah. That’s why the deer. We had two weeks provisions to start with, and got another four weeks before we came down the river. We still have another two weeks worth, if we’re careful, but I thought stretching it with some game would help. Kids are getting tired of fish. Thought some red meat would be a good change.”

Looking at Dominic somewhat sideways, Frank asked, “Don’t suppose you have some you’d want to sell? Still have plenty of cash.”

“No cash, thanks. But we could probably work something out. I might have something to help that won’t cost you much.”

Frank looked at Dominic expectantly. Dominic asked, “You know what a guerrilla garden is?”

Frank shook his head.

“It’s a garden planted out among natural growing local plants. Chances are you saw some of the things I’ve planted, but didn’t notice they were food producing plants.”

“Did pick some tree fruit that was almost ready. Ate it, but it wasn’t quite ripe. If I’d seen a tomato, I’d have recognized it. Or corn. Anything else… I kind of doubt it.”

“That’s the point. I planted the fruit trees here and there when I bought the property, and set up a dozen guerrilla gardens. Pretty much things that will reproduce on their own, from the non-hybrid seeds I planted. If you want, I’ll take you and a couple of the others around so you know where they are.”

“What would you want in return?”

Dominic smiled. “I’m a little on the lazy side. A portion of what you harvest, and some labor to improve the gardens. They may be important for several years to come.”

“You could be right about that. You’ve got a deal. Let me get Julia. She’s a gardener.”

Dominic stood up and waited, glancing around the camp casually. His eyes settled on a young woman in cargo pants, tan polo shirt, hiking boots, and a floppy cloth hat. I turned out that the woman was the one Frank was going to get.

“Julia Wainwright,” she said, taking Dominic’s hand for a quick shake when Frank brought her over.

“Dominic Santelli.”

“Frank tells me you have what is called a guerrilla garden out in the forest somewhere,” Julia said. “We found some fruit trees, but nothing more, when we first stopped here.”

“Things area spread out somewhat,” Dominic replied. “If you have a topo map, I’ll show you where they are so you can start harvesting things as they ripen.”

Frank picked up his rifle and followed Julia, who had just stepped up beside Dominic.

It took the rest of the afternoon for Dominic to take the pair to each of the garden spots. Enthusiastically, Julia examined each plot, going to her knees to dig into the ground with her hands where there were root crops.

“I’ve been through this section a couple of times,” Frank said once. “Never noticed a thing. So those are what potato plants look like?”

Julia looked up at Frank and nodded, a pleased smile on her face. “Very good looking potato plants. “You made good choices,” Julia told Dominic. “Both in what you chose to plant, and where you planted what you chose. What are you getting? Forty… Fifty percent recovery?”

“Don’t really know,” Dominic replied. “I’ve just taken what I wanted and replanted where necessary.”

“Shame for such production to go to waste,” said Julia.

Dominic reddened slightly. “Well, it won’t go to waste now. You and your group can collect all you can, as long as I get a little share, and the gardens are kept in good shape.”

“Of course,” Julia said. “In the future we’ll compost all the fish parts we don’t use, and the bones, plus everything not eaten from the gardens. We’ll apply it to the most needed areas when it’s ready.”

Dominic looked at Julia in surprise. “You think you will be here long enough to do that?”

Julia looked over at Frank. “I don’t know. We haven’t thought that far ahead, I’m afraid.”

“Well, it needs to be done, whether we stay or not. You should keep up the practice after we’re gone,” Julia added.

Julia climbed to her feet and watched Frank mark the spot on their map. They traveled a short distance and Frank exclaimed, “Melons! Watermelon and cantaloupe! The kids will love these!”

It was growing dark when Dominic went back to his cabin. He didn’t think John would have him followed, but didn’t want to chance going through the cave entrance. He immediately went into the shelter and started something for supper, his thoughts on what to do about the John and the squatters, or if to do anything at all.

He was still wondering the next noon while eating a light lunch. The computer camera system was on and Dominic saw Julia, Frank, and three others approaching the cabin. They were carrying various sized containers. He quickly slipped through the door into the cabin in time to answer the knock on the door in a timely manner.

“You have a door!” Frank said. “Didn’t used to. Did you bring that with you?”

Dominic smiled and shook his head. “Leave it off, when I’m not here, hidden in the undergrowth, so people aren’t tempted to take up residence.”

Frank laughed. “You’re probably smart to do it that way. We very well might have at least used the facilities on a regular basis if there’d been an outside door.”

“Not much in the way of facilities,” Dominic said. “Just the kitchen sink and a toilet. Not even a shower.”

“Yeah. The lack of a shower was what kept us from using it. If there’d been a shower, with hot water, we’d probably being coming up here on a regular basis, door or not. We’ve got several sun shower bags, so we’re in okay shape that way. Same way with the toilet. Have two with enclosures at the camp. Just wasn’t much reason to come this far for so little.”

“So,” Dominic said, changing the subject, “Looks like you’ve been shopping. Come on in.”

“Yes. We’ve still got four people out gathering the bounty,” Julia said. She put a large Tupperware container on the kitchen counter.

“You brought all that or me? Remember? No refrigeration in the cabin, either.”

“It should all keep, it’s getting cool already,” Julia replied, taking a smaller container from one of the others, and setting it on the counter, too. There were four of the containers, each a different size.

Dominic began to empty them onto the counter. There were fresh potatoes, carrots, onions, and turnips. Sweet peas, green beans, and even corn and tomatoes. “Don’t know how I missed them,” Frank said. They were right out there in the open.”

The forth container held strawberries, blackberries, and blueberries. The fourth container held tree fruit. Apples, peaches, pears, and plums.

“Are you sure your group doesn’t need these?” Dominic asked. “Some of this may go bad before I can eat it.”

“We have more than we need for the time being. There is more growing than we can use before it goes bad. We only picked the best.” Julia was looking around as she spoke. She hadn’t been to the cabin before.

She turned and looked at Dominic. “Rather sparse accommodations.”

“Suits me,” Dominic said, and quickly changed the subject. Anyone with a modicum of intelligence would soon figure out there was something strange about his living arrangements if they put their mind to it. Julia looked more than intelligent enough to pick up some of the clues there was more to Dominic’s digs than met the eye.

“So, how long do you think you’ll be staying… on the river?” he asked.

Frank looked at Dominic askance. “Same answer as yesterday,” he said. “Not really sure. Food is going to be the determining factor. Or if someone gets sick or hurt. I wish we had better communications equipment. Find out what’s going on, where.”

Dominic touched the NOAA alert radio on his belt. “If I hear anything important, I’ll let you know.”

“Okay,” Frank said. “Thanks. Oh. We’ve got a surplus of fish, but a dearth of sweets for the kids. Be open to a trade…”

“I have some stuff cached,” Dominic said, drawing a quick glance from Julia. “I’ll see what I can come up with.”

“Thank you,” Julia said, studying Dominic’s face. “Come on, Frank,” she continued, turning to the door of the cabin, the nestled containers in her hands. She and Frank joined the other three, who were waiting outside.

“We gather more, we’ll bring some by,” Frank said. With a last backward glance at Dominic, Julia joined the others as they left.

“Shoulda left some of my gear in here,” Dominic muttered, taking one of the apples and polishing it on his shirt as he looked around the cabin. “Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda. I’ll fix that right now.”

Putting the apple down, Dominic went about moving a few key items from the shelter to the cabin, to make things appear a bit more lived in. Then he took a map and overlay, the e-tool and the apple, and headed out into the forest. Taking a bite of the apple from time to time, Dominic located and dug up one of the many caches that were buried all over the property, containing a myriad of items.

The particular one he dug up this time was a simple single bucket cache with comfort food items. Dominic had a bit of a sweet tooth, and acknowledged the fact by caching some things to feed it when the urge came upon him.

When he pulled the bucket free, he took it back to the shelter and opened it up. It was filled to the brim with home-made, vacuum-packed bison jerky; home-made gorp; bags of Tootsie Rolls, peppermint, and butterscotch individually wrapped candies; and repackaged and labeled brownie and cookie mixes. In the bottom of the bucket were several packages of Hershey Bars, Snickers, and 3-Musketeers.

Like many of the other items Dominic had cached, the sweets were there for several reasons, not just to feed Dominic’s sweet tooth. They were also prime bartering goods and for humanitarian distribution, if the circumstances warranted it. For now, satisfying Dominic’s sudden hunger for a 3-Musketeers, and giving some to Frank’s family was enough reason to have dug them up.

Dominic put a selection of the items in one of his single shoulder teardrop leather packs and slung the M1A over his other shoulder. Then he headed for the camp on the river. He called out to the camp from the edge of the forest. When Frank acknowledged him, he entered the camp and handed the pack to Julia.

“That was quick,” she said. “Wow! You travel well prepared,” she continued, after unzipping the pack and looking inside. Thank you. The kids… and a couple of adults… will really enjoy these.”

“Afraid we don’t have any fish on hand,” Frank said. “But part of the next catch is yours.”

“How are you fishing?” Dominic asked, not seeing any poles set out on the bank.

“We trotline. Run them twice a day. Fishing has been good. But then, like I mentioned, we’ve been eating a lot of it. Mostly carp and catfish. Some suckers.”

“Suckers?” Dominic asked. “How do you eat them? They’re about the boniest fish going.”

“Easy. Just score the flesh down to the skin, creating a grid of about one-quarter inch to three-eighths inch, and deep fry. The bones turn brittle and you eat bones and all. Almost like eating candy. Not quite though, according to the kids. Thanks, Dominic.”

“We’ll bring some up when we get it,” Julia said.

“Uh… If I’m not around, just set it on the counter,” Dominic replied. “I do a lot of scouting around.” He wanted the group to have it in mind he might not always be in the cabin, without wondering where he might be.

Frank and Julia both nodded. It made Dominic a little nervous the way Julia seemed to study him every time she looked at him, so he made his leave, heading on down the river, rather than back up what was becoming a track to his cabin.

Dominic let his mind roam a bit, as he took in the sights and sounds along the river. He felt like he needed to decide what to do. His immediate future was secure. The shelter in the cave, and the various caches in the forest around it, assured it, barring an accident or outside interference.

But he couldn’t stay here in the forest forever. Supplies would eventually run out. Plus, he had the supplies and equipment at home that he wanted to recover, assuming he could stay there and continue with his life.

There were several options for the trip back to St. Louis. Inside the cave Dominic had a good mountain bike and trailer. There was also a ROKON two-wheel drive off-road motorcycle. Of course he could travel the same way he’d come to the property. On foot with the game cart. Even on foot, living off the land.

“Naw,” Dominic said to himself. “Living off the land is too chancy. It’ll have to be one of the bikes, and take supplies.”

Now the decision was between the ROKON and the mountain bike. He might be able to carry enough fuel, plus there were the caches… “No. The mountain bike and trailer.” Dominic said it aloud, looking at the available equipment in the shelter.

The next day, it didn’t take long to get the bicycle and trailer loaded with what he would need. Dominic walked down to the river and hailed the camp.

“Dominic, come on in. You’re welcome here anytime,” Frank said. “What can we do for you.”

“Nothing. I just came down to tell you that I’m going to be gone for an extended spell. Going back to St. Louis to get the rest of my gear. Take a look around. See what I might want to do long term. You’re welcome to use the cabin. I’m going to leave the door in place.”

“Thank you, Dominic. That’s nice of you,” Frank replied. “When are you leaving?”

“Just a few minutes. I just wanted to let you know I was leaving.”

“How are you traveling?” Julia asked. She’d walked up in time to hear Dominic say he was leaving.

“Bicycle and trailer,” Dominic replied.

“Got an extra?” Julia asked then.

“Uh… Well… Actually… I do. But why?”

“Thought I might travel with you. There are some things at home, if it is still there, I’d like to pick up. Some pictures. Mementos.”

It caught Dominic completely by surprise. “I don’t think that would be a good idea.”

“Why? You’re going.”

“Yeah, but…”

“I can hold my own. You’ll hardly know I’m there.”

“I doubt that,” Dominic muttered. “I don’t know. I do have supplies… and there is room in the trailer for a second tent. And a privacy shelter, I suppose…”

“You don’t have to make special provisions for me. What kind of tent do you have?”

Dominic told her about the Mountain Hardwear Trango 3.1 three-person, four-season tent, and winced when she said, “See. Plenty big enough for both of us. I have my own sleeping bag. And can do the cooking if you’ll supply some of the food, until I can salvage some somewhere. I don’t want to take too much from here.”

“What’s your family going to say, you traveling alone with me?”

“Nothing, if they know what’s good for them.” Julia looked around at the group that had come up and were listening intently to the conversation. With Julia’s last comment, the group broke up, the individuals finding something to do quickly and quietly.

“Won’t the family need you here?” Dominic was trying to think of some strong reason to get out of what was rapidly becoming a done deal.

“I’ll be of more use if I can get some of the things from home,” she said.


“How long until the other bike and trailer is ready?”

“A couple of hours,” Dominic replied, but…”

“I’ll be ready.” Julia turned away and headed for one of the tents.

Dominic looked at Frank for help. Frank just shrugged. “She’s just like that,” he said. “Gets something in her head, and there is no use trying to get around it.”

Debating on just taking off when he got back to the cabin, Dominic found himself taking out the second bike and trailer. He’d found a deal and bought four sets at once, more or less on a whim. He was wishing now he hadn’t.

Dominic added food to the trailer, essentially the same amount he’d packed for himself. He was about ready to put the second bike and trailer in the cabin and take off by himself when Julia showed up at the edge of the clearing.

She had a relatively large pack on her back, and a rifle slung over her shoulder. Her pants belt carried a leather flap-style holster and two twin magazine pouches. The handgun was obviously a semi-auto, of a medium size, from the looks of the holster and pouches.

Julia took the rifle off her shoulder and handed it to Dominic so she could remove the pack and put it in the trailer of the second bike. Dominic was pleased to see that the rifle was a quality arm in an effective cartridge. Namely, a Remington 700, in .30-’06, with a variable Bushnell scope on it. A pair of leather cartridge boxes for the .30-’06 rounds were on Julia’s belt behind the pistol holster.

Julia took a few minutes to adjust the mountain bike seat and handlebars to suit her. After looking over the contents of the trailer, and securing her pack in it, Dominic handed her the rifle. She slung it across her back, the same way Dominic had his M1A. Not the fastest to get to, but available if they had to bail off the bikes.

“I’m ready if you are,” Julia said, throwing a leg over the bike as she looked over at Dominic.

He didn’t say anything, just climbed aboard his own bike and pedaled away. Julia smiled slightly and followed, careful to follow Dominic closely. There were places in the forest that the trailers wouldn’t go. Dominic seemed to know how to avoid them, though Julia had to maneuver carefully to get the bike and trailer through some of the spots Dominic just sailed through.

The going was easier, though not by much, when they hit a fire trail and Dominic turned downhill on it. It hadn’t seen use or care for several years, and saplings were already growing in the cleared strip. There were several places where water had washed down the path and created some tricky terrain to follow on the bikes, primarily because of the trailers.

Dominic came to a stop and got off the bike at the point the fire trail turned into a dirt road in only slightly better condition. “It’s still early,” Julia said. “Why are we stopping?”

“Want to stay in the forest for tonight. We’ll be more in the open starting tomorrow. Plus, I need to break in my legs and thighs on a bicycle. It’s been a long time since I’ve ridden.”

“Just as long as you aren’t stopping because you think I need to.”

“I figure if you need to stop, you’ll tell me.”

“I will,” Julia assured him, getting off her bike.

Though Dominic didn’t ask, Julia helped him pitch the Trango 3.1 tent after checking to see what he was doing. It took only a few minutes and the two were laying down self-inflating mattresses and sleeping bags.

Dominic took out his camping stove, an MSR Dragonfly, and set it up. He had water boiling shortly and added some to the Mountain House Pro-Pak entrée he’d selected, and then to the one Julia held open for him that she had selected from the bag Dominic had provided for her.

They ate silently as the sun dropped behind the tree line. Dominic took the Cold Steel e-tool from its place in his bike trailer and leaned it against the tent fly. “Here you go, for when you need to go. There’s TP in this container,” he said, setting down a deep red plastic container.”

Julia nodded. “I have some, too,” was all she said.

After what little needed to be done to clean up the camp, including putting away the stove and burying the trash outside the camp, Dominic took a small pack from his trailer and set it inside the tent. “There’s a Brunton Glorb LED tent light in the bag, and I have a windup LED flashlight if you need to get up in the middle of the night. Wake me up if you do. I’m not used to having a tent mate and might not react too well if you come back in unannounced.”

“Understood. Give me a minute or two before you come in?” Julia asked. Dominic nodded and stood with his back to the tent, letting his eyes acclimate to the darkness until Julia said, “Okay. You can come in.”

Dominic undressed down to his insulated underwear and slid into his sleeping bag. He reached over and pulled his small pack close and set out the wind-up flashlight. He set it within Julia’s reach. Then he turned out the Glorb lamp and the tent went dark.

There were a few minutes of minor shuffling around as the two got comfortable in their bags, but finally there was silence, except for soft breathing and the night sounds of the National Forest.

Dominic came awake instantly when Julia called to him softly. “Dominic. I’m getting up now.”

Dominic just grunted and kept his eyes closed. Only after Julia was out of the tent did he look at the luminous dial of his Hamilton self-winding field watch. It was five thirty in the morning. Julia was an early riser.

A few minutes later Dominic, dressed now, met Julia at the edge of the forest. She handed him the e-tool and the old plastic Prince Albert tobacco container with the TP in it.

When he returned to the tent a few minutes later, Julia already had the stove out and was heating water. The two had a double serving each of instant grits with bacon bits and then packed up the tent and got ready to leave, the sun just clearing the trees.

Dominic led the way again, taking it easy until his muscles limbered up some. Then he picked up the pace slightly. He looked around occasionally. Julia would smile at him. She was keeping up without a problem. But Dominic had nothing to prove and kept the pace at steady and moderate, so he could keep an eye out for danger.

For the first three days, nothing untoward happened. They kept a decent pace, picking up speed a little each day as their muscles became accustomed to the new activity. Dominic chose to stop relatively early each day, when he found a good camping spot. So far, they had not seen anyone out and about on the route they were taking.

Julia asked Dominic, “We going through Poplar Bluff?”

Dominic shook his head. “Don’t want to go through any cities or towns that we can avoid. My goal is to get to St. Louis, take a look around, and if no opportunities present themselves, I’ll get my gear and go back to the retreat until I figure out something else.”

“I see.” Dominic looked over at her, but she said nothing else and they kept pedaling, now headed up US 67.

For the most part, it was easy to go around the small towns along 67. They saw very few people, and all seemed to be taking as many pains to avoid others as Dominic and Julia were. Dominic hesitated before he turned up the driveway to Pattie’s brother’s farm. Julia didn’t ask any questions, just followed Dominic when he peddled up the driveway.

He almost wished he hadn’t when he was met by a ragged looking John, carrying an old single-shot break open shotgun.

“Dominic! You’re back! You planning on staying a while?” John asked, rather eagerly, Julia thought. John’s eyes had swept over her, but had gone back to Dominic.

“No. Just passing by. Wanted to see how you and the family were doing,” Dominic said.

John sighed heavily. “Not too good. I’m not much of a farmer. Andrew was killed a few days after we got here. We’ve been hanging on ever since.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. But Pattie, Debbie, and Bobby are all okay?”

John nodded. “We’ve all lost weight. Just barely enough food to keep us going. And I’m not getting much sleep. Trying to keep a watch at night for people trying to steal our chickens and other stock, and things out of the garden.”

Dominic was tempted to stay and help for a while, but the thought came to him that he couldn’t save everyone. Perhaps, on the way back, he could stop and help for a while, if he didn’t find something in or around St. Louis.

Dominic took a moment to open up one of the bags in his bike trailer. He tossed a bag of gorp to John. “I know it’s not much, but we’re on the way to St. Louis and have just enough to get there, if there aren’t any problems.”

“I understand,” John said. “I’d like to just give this back… But the kids are so hungry for sweets it hurts me to know I can’t give them any… Thank you, Dominic.”

Dominic was sure there were tears in John’s eyes when he turned around and trudged up the driveway, without the invitation to stay for a few minutes and see the rest of the family. It wasn’t until John was out of sight that Dominic sighed and got back on the bicycle. He let the bike roll down the driveway until they were at the rode again.

“You want to talk about it?” Julia asked when they stopped for their regular lunch break of jerky, gorp and water.

Again Dominic sighed. He hesitated, but shook his head.

“Well, if you decide you do, I’m known as a pretty good listener.”

They didn’t run into their first trouble until they reached the US 67 intersection with Interstate 55. All the ramps were blocked and a group of very rough looking men were taking a toll to get on the highway.

Dominic didn’t like the way one of the men was looking at Julia. “Let’s go, Julia,” Dominic said, as soon as the apparent leader of the group told Dominic the toll was a day’s worth of food each.

He wasn’t going to pay it, but more importantly, one of the men in the background called out, “Give us each a half hour with the woman and you don’t have to pay the toll!” There were many laughs and cat calls.

Julia didn’t waste any time turning around and riding next to Dominic as they backtracked, putting some distance between themselves and the roadblock, in case the group decided they wanted to pursue them.

They went all the way back to Olympian and cut north on state roads. Again Dominic decided to stop early, to use a good camping spot, rather than keep traveling and chance not finding something by dark. And darkness was coming earlier and earlier, as fall approached. Though daytime temperatures were still very warm, with high humidity, the nights had started to dip into the low forties.

Though they were accustomed to seeing vehicles abandoned on the road, as they got close to the city proper, the numbers mounted. Long stretches of the surface streets were blocked, and I-55, when they could get a glimpse of it, was packed solid in most places.

Dominic and Julia both keep a sharp watch. There were signs of people in the area, but not many. Dominic stopped when they reached the I-270 loop. His RadDetect PRD-1250 keychain radiation alarm let out a click, and then another.

“Radiation,” Dominic said. “Low levels. I aim to continue to Sappington and get my gear, but we can find a place for you to hole up until I can get back to you.”

“No,” Julia said. “I’m staying with you. I feel like we need to watch each other’s backs more than ever, now.”

Dominic didn’t argue. He had that crawly feeling himself. “Okay. We do a dash and get the stuff and get out.”

Julia nodded, and began pedaling, following Dominic a bike length behind him. Both were sweating, despite the cooler temperatures when Dominic took a side street, and then another, and then pulled up the short drive of a small house in Sappington.

“Keep an eye out,” Dominic said, leaving his bike and going to the garage side door. It took only a moment to get it open and go inside. He lifted the garage door manually and took his bike and trailer inside, Julia doing the same.

Dominic lowered the garage door and then flipped a switch on the wall. The overhead light came on.

Julia looked astonished. “You can’t possibly still have power!”

“Small solar power system. Just some key circuits,” Dominic said. He retrieved the parts he’d removed from the engine and quickly installed them. He tried the ignition. The truck started right up, ran a bit rough for a moment, and then smoothly. He turned off the key.

“Truck is fine,” he told Julia. “Go ahead and break down the bikes and trailers. I’ll start moving gear.”

Julia’s nod went unseen as Dominic went into the kitchen from the garage, and then down into the basement. He moved the bookcase that concealed the door to the shelter under the garage.

He began carrying boxes and totes up to the garage and setting them in the bed of the pickup truck. When Julia had the bikes down to their components, she followed him into the house.

“Wow!” she said when she went into the basement and then into the shelter. “No time for a tour,” Dominic said. “I think we may be on borrowed time. Grab that tote.”

“Is everything going to fit?” Julia asked a few minutes later.

“Yeah. Just stack what we’re bringing up now. I’ve got a trailer in the back, but I don’t want to hook it up until we’re ready to just load it up.”

Julia nodded and hurried down for another tote. Finally Julia had to take a rest. Going up and down the stairs had winded her, despite the last days of riding a bicycle for miles every day. Dominic didn’t say anything. He just kept working.

When Julia went back downstairs after the short rest, Dominic had a gun safe open and was putting guns in gun socks. “Behind the seat of the truck,” he said and left with an armload of long arms.

Julia followed suit, taking only four. She didn’t want to drop any of them. Some looked to be very expensive collector’s items and while the light gun socks were good for protection against the elements, they wouldn’t do much to protect the gun if it fell onto concrete.

She was glad Dominic finally took a break. She sat down beside him. “You’ve been doing this a long time, haven’t you? Prepping.”

“Yep. Since before I got out of high school. How about you and your family?”

“Just fairly recently. Always been outdoors people. Shooters, hunters, fishing persons, four by four pickups. We just changed lifestyles a little to make the preps. But it was mostly for economic breakdowns, riots, natural disasters… Weren’t really prepared for a nuclear war.”

Dominic nodded and stood up. “Not much more. Go ahead and keep resting.”

“That’s okay. I’ll help.”

A dozen more trips each, some of them from upstairs rooms, and Dominic said, “That’s it. I was going to pull the solar panels, batteries, and controller, but I’m afraid we won’t have time.”

Julia just nodded, taking the chance to sit down again.

“I’ll go get the trailer ready for hooking up. Can you open the garage door and bring the truck out?”

“Sure,” Julia replied.

They both went to the garage and Dominic went out the side door while Julia got the truck started and then opened the garage door manually.

“Whoa!” she said, startled when she gave the accelerator a bit too much pressure and chirped the rear tires. Being extra careful after that, she backed out of the garage, down onto the street, and then backed up the driveway. She followed Dominic’s hand signals to leave the driveway and back beside the house to a detached garage. The door of it was open and Julia saw a large tandem wheel trailer with sideboards.

It took only two tries and Dominic clenched his fist for her to stop. He ran the tongue of the trailer down and locked it on the ball mount of the truck. “Okay,” he called to Julia. “Back it up the attached garage.”

While Julia did that, Dominic took one last look around the detached garage, and then closed the door when he left. There just wasn’t time or room to take everything.

Another thirty minutes passed as Dominic and Julia loaded the stacked totes in the garage into the trailer. Another last look around and Dominic closed that garage door, too, and went to the driver’s side of the truck to get in. Julia headed for the passenger side.

“Nuts!” Dominic said as he started up the truck again. There were half a dozen or more men running up the street toward them. All were brandishing weapons and one stopped to fire a round. The bullet skipped on the windshield glass, but didn’t break or even scar it.

Dominic put the truck in gear, and steering with his left hand, picked up the Remington 11-87P semi-auto shotgun he’d leaned against the seat with his right hand. He rested the forearm on the window sill and fired all seven rounds of double ought buck at the group one handed.

The shotgun empty, Dominic dropped it to the floorboard and drew the Glock 21 with his right hand. He pointed it out the driver’s side window and emptied all fourteen rounds at the group, causing them to stay under cover, or to take to cover if they hadn’t all ready. It was enough distraction to allow Dominic to get the truck on the street, headed away from the men.

The supercharged diesel roared and despite being heavily loaded, the pickup lurched forward and began to increase speed. Julia had her pistol out and was leaning out her window, taking partially aimed shots as the group behind them tried to reorganize. From the sound of the pistol, it was a .380. Dominic had a chance to confirm that later that day, but it was just a passing thought as they got away from the group.

Dominic took the first right turn, and then a left, getting as much material between them and the group on foot. “You think we lost them?” Julia asked.

“I don’t know. Probably. Unless they have an operating vehicle.” Dominic continued to take a zigzag course until they got back to I-270.

“You know,” Dominic said, “I never asked you where you were headed.”


Though I-44 was close, and the most direct route to Pacific, Dominic, with Julia’s agreement, stayed on the state and county roads to get into the outskirts of Pacific. Dominic’s key-fob PRD-150 finally quit sounding after they were past the I-270 loop.

Dominic had to admit the citizens of Pacific knew how and where to put a roadblock to protect their city. He was on it, and had no place to maneuver, even if he didn’t have the trailer attached, before he realized it.

“That’s one of our police, Charlie Carlson,” Julia quickly said. “We know each other.” Julia hopped out of the truck before Dominic could say anything and approached the uniformed police officer.

It took only a few seconds and the two were hugging. Then Julia turned around and waved Dominic up to the checkpoint.

“Charlie,” Julia said, “This is Dominic Santelli. Dominic, Charlie Carlson.”

The two men shook hands. “You looking out for Julia’s interests?” Charlie asked Dominic. Julia didn’t look like she appreciated the question much.

“She’s looking out for her own. I’m along for the ride, now.”

“Lot of stuff,” Charlie said, looking over the heavily loaded truck. “I hope you can tell me truthfully that you haven’t been looting.”

“No, Charlie! Honestly,” Julia said, before Dominic could reply. “Dominic is one of the preppers. This is all from his house in the city.”

“You know there’s still heavy radiation near the ground zero’s of the weapons…”

“I have a detector. It was light where we were. And we haven’t had much other exposure. Where we’re going there wasn’t much, if any, fallout.”

“That’s good,” Charlie replied. “Wish we could say the same. Whoever the idiots were hit the old silos at Whiteman. We got some of that fallout. Lost a bunch of people. We’re doing okay now, but it was really rough for a while.”

“Your mother?” Julia asked.

Charlie just shook his head. “Not a single person in the home survived. We tried…” Charlie looked grim.

“Is it all right if we go get Julia’s families’ stuff?” Dominic asked after a moment of silence.

“Yeah. Go ahead. Supposed to have an escort to prevent looting. But I know I can trust Julia. And if she vouches for you, that’s good enough for me. Don’t really have anyone loose that can go with you, anyway.”

“Thanks, Charlie,” Julia said and got back into the truck after Dominic got behind the wheel.

Dominic followed Julia’s directions to five different houses in town and helped her load what she wanted from them into the last bit of space in the trailer. “You sure that’s everything?” Dominic asked. “We can get a second trailer from U-Haul. My trailer has a hitch.”

Julia shook her head. “I think we’ll be coming back. I, and some of the others, just wanted certain things, in case there was more trouble and we couldn’t make it back.”

“It’s good that people are doing their best to keep civilization alive.”


Dominic headed back the way they’d come and stopped at the roadblock again as a courtesy for Charlie, so he could get a look at the additional goods in the trailer. “Okay. You guys are good to go. I take it you have some means of refueling.”

“Got it covered,” Dominic said. “Extended range tanks, and storage at the other end.” He didn’t mention the cache with fuel.

Julia gave Charlie a little wave, and Dominic pulled past the roadblock and headed south on the first road he came to that would take them that direction. After a short discussion, Julia agreed with Dominic to stay on the back roads, though it would take longer, and use more fuel. But Dominic thought it would give them more options in case of trouble. Julia agreed. Having an operating vehicle and trailer obviously full of prime goods made them a target.

After musing on it for a while, Dominic detoured to US 67 to get to the Smithlowe farm. There, amidst much crying and thank you’s, Dominic unloaded what he hoped would be enough food, combined with what they were producing, to get the family through the winter. Dominic took a few minutes to show John the use and care of an SKS rifle. He left John the rifle and five-hundred rounds of ammunition.

Though he took John off to one side, just before they left, Julia saw Dominic give John a small denim bag. Julia could see the tears in John’s eyes when Dominic quickly turned around and headed for the truck.

Upon leaving the Smithlowes, the two picked up their journey using the back roads again, hoping to avoid trouble.

As it turned out, they had only one more spot of trouble, and that was as they were bypassing Poplar Bluff again. Three men on motorcycles chased them for almost a mile before Julia managed to pick one of them off, and Dominic got another, when Dominic brought the truck to a stop on top of a road crest and the two got out with their rifles.

Dominic decided that Julia was a crack shot with her Remington 700, for it took only one shot and the lead motorcyclist went flying. It took him three shots to get another. The third laid his bike over in the grass and didn’t move until Dominic and Julia were on their way again.

When Dominic made his round about way back through the forest to get to the cabin, Julia looked at the cabin a minute and then said, “There’s more to this place than there appears, isn’t there?”

Dominic had come to trust Julia implicitly and nodded. “Yeah. There is. Where else would I put all this stuff?”

Julia smiled and followed Dominic on a quick tour through the cabin and into the shelter and cave. “I had a feeling all along,” she said when they went out to start unloading.

It took most of the rest of the day, and then, with the trailer parked, and Julia’s recovered possessions in the pickup, Dominic again found a path with the truck, this time to the river. It was an amazed group of people that saw the truck emerge from the forest and stop at the edge of the camp.

Dominic noticed the work done on the camp in the time he and Julia had been gone. Large, semi-permanent Baker Tent shaped structures, in pairs, facing each other, replaced most of the tents. The structures were constructed with native materials, with tarps as coverings for the roofs, for better water tightness.

Frank and the others were obviously planning for the winter. In addition to the living structures, there were several racks for jerking meat and fish. Dominic discovered later that there were two root cellars to store all the produce harvested from his guerrilla gardens.

“You realize that you don’t have enough to get you through the winter and next spring until the gardens start producing again, don’t you?” Dominic asked Frank after the tour Frank gave him.

Julia watched Dominic closely when he responded. “Well… Look… I’ve got plenty of supplies, now that I picked up my stuff in St. Louis. If you are short of something… Let me know. If I have it, you can have it. I only ask you consider a long-term move to a farm next spring, if you don’t decide to go back to Pacific. And if the weather gets too bad… Well… there is more to the cabin than is obvious.

“I was a little… less than forthcoming about the cave. It does have one end blocked off like I told you. But there is another opening. Through my cabin. If things get too bad, everyone can crowd inside for short periods at a time.”

Frank looked over at Julia and she nodded. “Well,” Frank said, somewhat at a loss for words. “Thank you. And what’s this about a farm?”

Dominic told him about the Smithlowes. “If they survive the winter, and that’s a big if, they are going to need help making a go of that farm. They’re basically clueless, except what they’ve learned by the doing.”

“That will need to be discussed by everyone,” Frank said. “There is no way we can promise anything like that at this time.”

“I know,” Dominic said. “It’s just something I hope you will consider.”

Seeing that Julia wanted a word with Dominic before he left, Frank made his excuses and joined the others in the camp unloading the truck.

“Thank you, Dominic, for getting me and the families’ possessions back here safely.” Julia hesitated a moment, but couldn’t change her personality if she wanted to. She asked, “You’re planning to help them next year, aren’t you? The Smithlowes.”

Dominic nodded.

“Well… You can count me in. No matter what the others decide. I’m sure some will go back to Pacific, but others… I think they’ll jump on the idea of living on a working farm, with all the security that brings.”

“Okay. That’s great!” Dominic said. Then, rather softly, added, “Would you mind if I stopped in here, from time to time this winter, to see how you’re doing?”

“Of course I don’t mind,” Julia said with a small smile. “I’d rather intended to do the same for you.” She stood on her tiptoes and let Dominic kiss her.

Dominic turned a bit red when Julia’s family let go with approving statements. Julia, with just a small smile on her face, unconcerned with her family’s rowdiness, watched Dominic take off in the pickup. “He’ll get used to it,” she said and turned to help her current family, wondering what her future family life with Dominic would be like.

End ********

Copyright 2008

Jerry D Young