Billy stopped his work for a few minutes and looked up at the sky.
“Be snowin’ ‘fore long, I guess,” he said to the air around him.
It had been two months since Billy’s last trip into town. His final trip. Nightmares about the rats in Cedar Bend still haunted him to that very day, though not as bad as the first week. Dreams of giant rats invading the farm, attacking him, Rommel, the horses, the cows, eating everything they could find.
Billy’s fear had driven him during that first week or so. He’d fixed several rat traps along the edge of the farm, small covered boxes with rat poison and bits of cheese. He’d used cheese puffs, too. Meat scraps. Anything he’d thought might entice the rats into eating the poison. He’d also made sure that all of his storage areas were sealed against rats. He’d barely stopped to sleep and eat until he was certain that his home, his storage, and his feed rooms were as rat proof as he could make them.
Now, two months later, he hadn’t seen sign of that first rat. He wondered, sometimes, if he’d gone a little overboard. But the material left for him by his parents had covered rats. Detailing the dangers, and telling him what he could do to keep them at a distance.
Once, during that first week, Billy had been almost overwhelmed by the desire to drive back to the edge of town and start shooting every rat he could find. Common sense had finally stopped that idea, since he didn’t have nearly enough .22 ammo for that sort of thing.
Oh, he had plenty, for anything else. But there were so many rats. Thousands of them. Maybe tens of thousands. And there’d be more in other places. He couldn’t shoot them all.
So, he stayed on the farm, and he worked. He read. He prepared. It would be winter soon, and he’d cut wood for almost two weeks now. The outdoor furnace that heated his water also heated the house in winter. He could fill it once or twice a week, with everything from tree stumps to railroad ties, and it would burn it all.
Today was the last day he’d planned to cut. There had been a good supply of wood already, probably enough for this winter and the next, but Billy wasn’t taking chances. Some of his reading, both from his parents books and those from the library, had provided some detail of what could be expected in situations like these. With a mass die off of the world’s population, there would be less heat being generated on the earth. That meant cooler temperatures. Weather patterns would slowly move back toward the days before cars and factories covered the world. Without all that heat, the planet would cool some, and be more like in the ‘old days’ of the 1800’s an before.
That was fine with Billy, since the 1800’s seemed like a better time when he read about them. Simpler. Not easier, by any means. Billy knew he’d have to work ever harder. He already was working as hard as he ever had. But he’d read about how eventually modern conveniences would wear out, or resources would be gone, or parts would become impossible to get, or . . . .
Or, or, or. It never stops. Might be slow, but it’s always moving.
Billy thought about these things for a minute, wiping his brow. He knew he had it easier than someone like Mister Silvers. He had a family to care for, provide for. Billy didn’t. All he had to worry about was himself.
Billy knew that he would eventually die. That didn’t scare him. Everyone died. His momma and daddy had died. So would he. It was as natural as being born in the first place. So Billy didn’t worry about it.
That didn’t mean he wanted to die, of course. So he worked. He planned. He prepared.
There was certainly plenty to keep him busy. He’d already cut the hay field, and stored the hay in the pole barn. The cattle and the horses would need it come winter. Billy had paid to have the hay cut before, when he was still working in his shop, but those days were gone. There was hay a plenty for now, since he had just bought some before the Plague hit. But he would need more.
And that meant cutting it himself.
He’d been very careful, operating the tractor. He’d never been good at it, despite all his father’s attempts to teach him. But he could use it. Without it, cutting and storing the hay would be more of a chore than just one man might could manage. He’d worry about that when the time came.
He’d cut wood, of course. He’d tended to the cattle, and the horses. He had thought about planting a garden, but knew it was too late for it to make much. Better to save the seeds, and plant a good garden next year, he decided. He wished he had a green house. He knew how to build one, thanks to his books, but he didn’t have the materials. Maybe if the rats ever went away, he could ease back into town and find what he needed.
But he wasn’t going to fight the rats for it. Thinking about them left Billy right back where he’d started this long thought process.
Scared of rats. Of a rat invasion.
He sunk his axe into the cutting block and picked up his rifle.
He needed to check the traps. Again.
Billy had made his rounds and was back to the house when he heard the horn. He was startled at first, it had been so long since he’d heard such a sound. As the horn sounded again, he realized it was coming from his gate. Frowning, he picked up his rifle and motioned for Rommel to follow him. Over the past two months, Billy had worked with Rommel a good bit, and the two had developed a good relationship. Rommel would follow hand gestures, and he would signal Billy with his actions, rather than barks and growls.
It wasn’t the same as having another person with him, but maybe it was even better, Billy had decided. Rommel was loyal to a fault. People weren’t always loyal. The two of them started for the gate, taking the trail through the woods that allowed them to reach the gate unseen.
The horn blew three more times before they could make it down. Whoever it was wasn’t being patient, that was for sure. Billy didn’t feel any danger signals, and Rommel didn’t appear to either, but he decided they’d be careful anyway.
When he reached the little spot where he could see the gate, Billy was surprised to see the Silvers’ daughter there. As he watched she honked the horn again, her face worried looking rather than angry.
Now what would she be doing here?
Deciding that the only way to find out was to go see, Billy stepped out of the woods.
“There you are!” she spotted him at once. She started to walk toward him, but stopped cold at a warning growl from Rommel, who stepped between them.
Good dog, Billy couldn’t help thinking. You don’t like her either, do ya boy?
“What can we do for you?” Billy asked, his voice low, but carrying.
“My papa sent me to give you some news!” Michelle told him excitedly. “He was able to talk to someone on the radio a little while ago! Over toward Franklin, he said!”
“No kiddin’!” Billy was enthused. “Any idea who it was? Did they have any news?” She nodded.
“They built a little settlement over there. Got nearly a hundred people so far, the guy on the radio said. Lively trading, and even a doctor!”
“Well, that is good news,” Billy said. “Body needs a doc, now and again.”
“Ain’t it great!” the girl enthused. “We ain’t all alone!”
“Sounds like great news,” Billy nodded again. “You pa didn’t tell’em where we are, I’m guessin’?” he asked. She looked at him.
“He’s a little smarter than. . .than that,” she managed to catch herself. Billy snorted.
“I know that,” he surprised. “You note that I said he didn’t, I was guessing. Your pa’s a bit too smart to give away where he is.”
Michelle didn’t know how to respond to that, so she just nodded. Maybe the ‘doofus’ wasn’t as dumb as she’d thought. And he had been nice to them, even when they hadn’t been so nice to him.
“Well, I need to get back,” she said suddenly. “But pa wanted you to know. He tried callin’ you on the radio.”
“Never use it,” Billy shrugged. “Guess I’ll need to start, now,” he added.
“Well, see you later,” the girl waved, getting back into her truck. “Momma says she’s still expecting you for supper some night,” she added. He nodded.
“We’ll see,” he was non-committal, but thought it would be nice.
“Okay, then. Bye.”
Billy watched her go, then looked down at Rommel. He was still watching the truck as it disappeared.
“Well, what about that?” Billy asked. Then the two started on their way back to the house.
Billy realized as he walked back to the house that he had ignored the radio. He shoudn’t ought to have done that. He didn’t need to talk on the radio to just listen and get news. As he walked up on the porch he decided he’d turn it on and see what was being said.
His father had been an avid ‘ham’, and had set up what he called his radio ‘shack’ in an unused downstairs bedroom. Billy sat down in front of the radio and went through the power-up check list carefully, not having used the radio much at all. He knew how, his daddy had seen to that. He’d just never felt the need to use one like his father had. The news from Mister Silvers’ was making Billy second guess that choice.
As he spun the dials, he heard bits and pieces of signals playing in and out. He tried to tune in to several of them, but distance, weather, or some other form of interference prevented him from locking onto the sporadic signals. Billy was patient, however, and kept turning the dials.
“. . .storm hit way too early for this time o’ year. . .”
“. . .get some rain, we’ll be hurtin’ for water. . .”
“. . .there must be twenty or thirty of them! They just came in shootin’ and grabbin’ what they wanted. Killed ol’ Clem and his boy, right there in the street! We tried to. . .”
Billy frowned as the last signal faded, and worked to try and get it back, but it was gone. It sounded like someone had attacked someone else. Ain’t there enough trouble, Billy thought, without we turn on one another? I wonder where they are?
Leaving the radio on, Billy went to his father’s study, looking for a book he’d seen, but never really imagined he’d need. He peered through the titles until he found what he was looking for.
Defensive Preparations for Farm and Surrounding Area
Billy took the loose leaf binder down, and opened it up. There was, as usual, a note from his dad.
Billy, I hope you never need this. But it’s better to be safe than sorry. I’ve tried to think of every possible need, but remember to use your imagination. If you can think of it, someone else can too.
Going back to the radio, Billy sat down and started reading. Even as he read, his hand absently moved the tuner on the radio slowly back and forth, listening for anything else. He heard more about the weather in other places, talk of several ‘trade days’, requests and offers for certain hard to find items, people searching for news of friends and family.
Billy listened to all this with only one ear, as he continued to read, and study not just the notes and instructions, but the maps that showed where certain things should be done if the farm, and the surrounding area, found itself in a hostile environment. Billy’s father had been a meticulous man, and far smarter than he had felt the need to let on to his friends or neighbors.
As he continued to read, Billy got a notebook, and started making notes of his own.
There were several things he was going to have to do, and a list of materials he would need.
This was going to be a lot of work.
Billy looked down at his notes with a sigh. He’d been working far into the night, going over his father’s preparations for something like this. Raiders or outlaws who had survived whatever troubles had come this way, and were now prowling and preying on others instead of working for what they needed or wanted.
It was a long list. Billy wasn’t worried about an attack on the farm so much. The house was built to withstand anything short of a tank, thanks to the forethought of his parents. But there were problems he’d have to deal with. Things he should already have done, had he given any thought to such gangs having survived the plague.
He would have to go back into town, too.
Dammit, dammit, dammit all! Billy almost threw the clipboard he’d been making his notes on he was so angry at himself. And scared.
I did not want to go back into town! His thoughts were savage as he felt his anger swell. If not for these raiders, he could have set here on his farm and been safe and secure. Now, in order to be safe, and keep the others safe as well, he had to go back.
He shoved his chair back and stood, walking around the house, trying to work his anger off. Rommel looked at him, but read his person’s mood well, and simply lay his head back down. He knew Billy was upset, but could sense the anger as well. Rommel had no help for that, and he knew it was better to let Billy work it off.
And work it off he did. After about twenty minutes of pacing, Billy had decided what he had to do. He looked at the clock, seeing that it was just nine in the evening. He had thought it much later. Billy thought about his situation.
There was a lot he didn’t know. He didn’t know where the raiders were, or where the man talking about them were. The signal hadn’t been strong enough to tune it in tight, but Billy knew there were many reasons that could be so. His father had explained that ‘atmospherics’ could often carry a wave far further than it would normally carry, while at the same time preventing people who normally spoke to each other regularly from communicating at all.
Where there any of these ‘raiders’ in his own area? No way to know for now. If there were, had they attacked anyone yet? Again, no way to know. How much time did he have to take care of things before it was too late?
No way to know.
“Dammit!” he muttered. There was just no way to make a good plan, with so little information. He looked over at Rommel.
“Looks like we got a trip to make, boy.”
Twenty minutes later, Billy started his truck, trailer hooked up behind. There wasn’t much choice as far as he could see. This had to be done. Should already have been done.
Sighing in angry frustration again, Billy headed for town.
There were rats, of course. Billy had expected them. But at night, there were a lot more rats. And they looked huge in his head lights.
“It don’t matter,” Billy sighed. “This has to get done.”
His father’s instructions had been clear. Leave nothing that raiders could use against the people in the area. Nothing that would help them. Especially weapons and ammunition. Everything had to go, or be destroyed.
Billy’s first stop was one of the few places he’d never even considered going to. Lem Higgins’ gun shop. In his defense, Billy hadn’t thought about it because he had his own guns, and plenty of ammunition. He didn’t need anymore. Never once had he considered the need to take it before it could be used against him. Still shaking his head at his own stupidity, he pulled into the front of Higgins’ and shut off the truck. He placed a head lamp on his head, put another light in his coat pocket, then checked his pistol and rifle. And then his extra mags. He wasn’t making the same old mistakes, at least.
“No, just a whole buncha new ones,” he muttered to himself as he got out of the truck. There were no rats in the immediate area, so Billy motioned for Rommel to follow. The dog leapt out, looking around. He woofed lightly at a gaggle of rats across the street, but Billy stopped him with a motion. Rommel still wanted to go, but followed orders.
The steel cage that usually blocked the door when the shop was closed was quick work for a crow bar and a strong back. Billy had both and was soon standing in front of the more traditional glass door of a storefront. He gently rapped on the door with a hammer, and knocked enough glass loose to get his hand inside and open the door.
He reached inside, careful not to cut himself, and unlocked the door. He eased inside, Rommel following, and closed the door.
Casting the light around the shop, Billy saw that the place was largely undisturbed. It did look as if some things had been taken in a great hurry, but for the most part, the store was still like it normally was. There was a large rack on the floor, holding shotguns and rifles, while another large rack adorned the wall behind the counter with more expensive weaponry.
Glass cases that made the counter were filled with handguns and some accessory items. Shelves behind that counter held countless boxes of ammunition, while others, in cases, were stacked neatly about the floor. Billy expected to find more such cases in the storeroom behind the counter.
“Well, at least I remembered the two-wheeler,” Billy shook his head. The dolly would at least make loading the heavier pieces easier. “Let’s get started, boy. We got a lotta work to do before. . . .”
Rommel suddenly tensed, growling deep in his chest. Billy shut his head lamp off at once, having come to trust Rommel’s insticnts. He took two steps to the left just as he heard a pump shotgun rack a shell into it’s chamber.
“Whatever you got in mind, it had better be peaceable,” the female voice warned. “Else you ain’t long for this world. ‘Least what’s left of it.”