The next morning dawned bright and sunny. As he stood on the porch, looking out at the bright new day, Billy was almost able to forget that the whole world had died. That he was alone, save for Rommel, at least for now.
True, there might be other folks somewhere. But everyone he knew of in and around Cedar Bend was gone. He shuddered at the memory of all the bodies, especially the ones in the cars between his home and town. For some reason those in the cars bothered him more than anything else. He didn’t know why, but they did.
He still couldn’t figure why he was still alive, and everyone else was dead. What had he done, or not done, that everyone else had or hadn’t? He had spent a lot of time figuring on that, but he just didn’t know. He just didn’t. And that bothered him too. If he had time to think over long on that, he knew it would bother him worse and worse until he couldn’t think of anything else.
But he had plenty to do, today. Picking up his rifle, he whistled loudly. After a few seconds, Rommel came racing up from where he’d been running around the yard, marking the trees. Billy started for the barn.
“C’mon, boy. Daylight’s a wastin’.” The big dog followed him faithfully, right at his side.
Once in the barn, Billy walked to the four wheel drive side-by-side his father had always used to check the farm over. Billy hit the key, and was pleased to hear the engine turn right over. He hadn’t used the Ranger in a long time, over a month he figured. Which reminded him of something else.
Whipping out his trusty note pad, Billy made a note that he needed to get parts, filters, oil and the like for the Ranger. Heck, he decided, he might even get a whole new one. Be nice if he could find one with a cab. And a heater.
Rommel had backed away from the nosie the small ‘truck’ made when it started. He now stood several feet away, evaluating this new development. Billy noted that, and called to him.
“C’mon, boy. She won’t bite,” he laughed. Rommel cocked his head to the side, but remained rooted where he was. Billy frowned at that.
“Rommel, come on,” he repeated. “We ain’t got all day, you know.” Rommel cocked his head in the other direction, but moved no closer. Billy began to feel frustrated.
What am I going to do if he won’t get in? he thought to himself. I want him to go along. And I can’t use the horses yet, with him along. They need time to get used to one another.
Repeated calls to the dog had no effect, and Billy’s frustration grew. He felt himself slipping away, and caught it.
“Gotta keep calm,” he told himself. “Gotta keep calm.” He thought for a minute, remembering how Rommel had ran alongside his truck the day before. Of course! If Rommel could follow the truck, he could follow the Ranger! Smiling at himself for solving an unexpected problem, Billy stopped trying to urge Rommel into the small utility vehicle, and instead put the Ranger in gear. Easing it into motion so as not to spook the dog any further, Billy moved the Ranger toward the barn door. Rommel started barking immediately, but Billy, for once, ignored him. He pulled the Ranger outside, and stopped long enough to secure the barn door. Rommel ran outside, still barking some, though not as much as before. He circled the Ranger warily, barking at it on occasion, as if testing the new beast.
When the Ranger didn’t react, Rommel promptly hiked his leg, and urinated on the rear passenger tire, then immediately jumped back. Still no reaction. Rommel snorted, confused. Why wouldn’t this thing react? Billy watched in amusement as the large dog continued to circle the utility truck, sniffing, growling, and lightly biting in sequence, trying to get a sense of the beast in front of him, or at least provoke a response. Nothing.
“Satisfied?” Billy finally asked, moving to take his seat again. Rommel looked at him in confusion, as if to say, ‘what is this thing?’. Billy laughed, and called him again, motioning to the passenger seat. Rommel circled to the passenger side, still cautious. He approached slowly, and Billy again patted the seat beside him.
Rommel recognized the motion, knowing that was what Billy did when he was ready to ride. Ride. Rommel finally connected the two things. Billy was going for a ride!
Tentatively, Rommel raised one foot, placing it on the seat. The shaking of the vehicle caused him to withdraw it at once, but then he did it again, and waited. No reaction. He slowly placed his other fore paw on the seat, and again waited. Still nothing.
As if suddenly satisfied, since Billy wasn’t afraid, Rommel leaped into the seat.
“Good boy!” Billy praised him, rubbing and scratching his great head. Rommel preened under the attention, and Billy put the Ranger in gear. He was careful to start out slow, so as not to spook the dog. Rommel was a little nervous as the vehicle started moving, but soon got the rhythm of the bouncing utility, and began to relax.
His first hurdle of the day completed, Billy started on his rounds.
Billy found the cows going about their business as usual. They were long accustomed to the Ranger, and paid it no mind at all. Rommel, however, was another matter.
Billy’s father was a farmer, not a rancher. He kept a few cows as a hedge against lean years, and to put beef in his own freezer. Sometimes he bartered the beef for services he needed rather than having to pay with cash. As a result, Mister Todd had never used a stock dog. The cows were not used to seeing a dog in such close proximity. Two small donkey’s, adopted through the Wild Burro Adoption program, kept dogs, coyotes, and the like away from the cows.
Rommel started barking as soon as he saw the first cow. Billy laughed at him at first, thinking it funny to watch the city raised dog reacting to farm animals. He didn’t notice at first the commotion Rommel’s presence or actions were causing among the small herd.
Cows bellowed, both in fear and annoyance. The burros, hearing the dog, looked up from their normal laconic existence, ears pricked. Rommel noticed that, and tensed.
That was when Billy finally began to wake up to what was happening, and it was almost too late.
He just managed to grab Rommel’s collar as the big dog went to bolt from the Ranger and run after the fleeing cows. The dog struggled briefly, trying to go after his fleeing prey.
“Rommel, NO!” Billy commanded, trying to make his voice as authoritative as possible.
The dog didn’t quite ignore him, but he didn’t stop struggling, either.
“No!” Billy commanded again, this time with a soft rap to the head. That seemed to get Rommel’s attention, finally, and he turned to look at Billy.
“No,” Billy repeated, this time more quietly, but just as firm. Rommel finally calmed down, shifting in the seat. He was still eager to run after the cows, but understood, now, that he wasn’t allowed to.
The cows, though, weren’t aware of Rommel’s new found knowledge, and were still heading away. Billy watched as they gathered speed, suddenly very concerned. Where were they going?
Maybe I shouldn’t have brought him along, after all, Billy thought. Now what have I done?
Panic began to set in, despite all he could do. His ‘keep calm’ mantra wasn’t working, at least not yet. He breathed deeper, still keeping an eye on the cows. Just as he was sure they would run themselves to death, of impale themselves on the barbed wire fence, the small herd turned, and dove instead into a small pool of water about one hundred yards from where Billy sat. Immersing themselves in the cool water seemed to calm the cows, and Billy watched from where he sat as the animals got control of their ragged breathing, and began to act more normally.
The burros, having seen that the dog presented no threat to them, had simply gone back to eating, though they did wander slowly over to the water hole themselves. Their presence provided the final bit of calming that the cows needed. After ten minutes or so of watching, Billy saw the first cow emerge from the water, and begin cropping the grass around the hole. Others followed suit, and soon the small herd was back to normal, as if nothing had happened.
Billy breathed a sigh of relief, calming down himself. He looked at the dog.
“I think we’ll ride the fences from the outside, Rommel.”
With the Ranger on the outside, there were no more disruptions. Billy rode the entire fence, stopping at the other two gates to make sure their locks were undisturbed. They were, of course. There was no one left to bother them that Billy knew of.
Rommel had settled down at last, and seemed to actually be enjoying the ride. Billy figured that the next time he went to use the Ranger, Rommel would hop aboard with no problems.
It still nagged at him that Rommel had almost started a stampede. The dog wasn’t used to cattle, and the cattle certainly weren’t used to an aggressive dog like Rommel. Billy was bothered by the fact that he had recognized that using horses around the dog wasn’t a good idea until they were used to one another, yet he had completely overlooked the possible problems of taking Rommel into the pastures.
I gotta start thinking about things more carefully, he chastised himself. That could have been a lot worse.
He sighed, realizing that despite his P L A N, things just weren’t that cut and dried. This was a whole new world, and he would have to be more careful in the future. He didn’t want to leave the dog behind, but until he figured a way to make sure there wasn’t a repeat of today’s experience, he realized he just might have to leave Rommel at the house when working the cattle.
Just until they get used to him, that’s all, he promised himself. That decision led to another problem.
And how do I get them used to him being there? Not to mention, how do I train him not to take out after the cattle like that again.
Billy grunted in exasperation. It seemed every time he solved a problem, another one, or two, cropped up in it’s place. At that rate, he’d have more problems that he’d started with, and soon. Shaking his head, as if that would rid him of the problems, or at least the thought of them, Billy started the Ranger moving back toward the house. He still had a lot to do today.
He needed to go back into town, as bad as the thought bothered him. Every time he turned around, there was something that he needed, and didn’t have. Or at least, didn’t have enough of. Using the Ranger today had reminded him that he would need more gas than the farm tank was likely to have in it. The tank held five hundred gallons when full, but Billy knew it wasn’t full. What he didn’t know was exactly how much gas was in the tank.
And he knew he should know. That was something his father had taught him. Knowing what you have also let’s you know what you don’t have, his father had always said. Billy stopped the Ranger and took out his notebook. He carefully wrote that saying on the inside cover. He figured that way he’d see it almost every day. As a reminder.
I need to know what I have. I gotta do better. I got to make a P L A N, and I gotta stick to it. Returning the notebook to his pocket, he started on toward the house.
Something else was still nagging him. There was just no way, none that he could figure anyway, that he could be the only person left alive in the world. His own world extended very little beyond Cedar Bend. He hadn’t seen anyone else alive in Cedar Bend. He was smart enough to know that this didn’t necessarily mean there was no one else. Just that he hadn’t seen anyone.
And what about folk who lived outside of town, like he did? Were some of them still alive? There were a lot of people that Billy knew, people that knew him, that lived on farms just like his. Or even bigger. His farm wasn’t that big compared to someone like, say, Mister Silvers. Jeremiah Silvers was the next farm down from his. He hadn’t seen Mister Silvers in some time. Could be he was still alive, him and his family. He could go over and check on them.
That idea warmed him a little, until he thought of something else. What if they’re all dead? What if I go over there and Mister Silvers and his family are dead, just like all those people in town? Like all those people on the road? That thought took the warmth he was starting to feel away again.
Another thing was, what if Mister Silvers didn’t recognize him? Would the old man shoot him? Would his family? Billy just didn’t know. He’d known Mister Silvers his whole life. Had worked on his truck. On his wife’s car, and on his daughter’s truck, too. The son wasn’t old enough to have a car. Or, maybe he was, Billy thought, and it just never needed any work done on it. Yeah, that might be it.
There was also Widow George, who lived a few miles across a country lane from Billy. You could almost see her house without binoculars when the leaves were off. Was she alive? Was she okay? Maybe he should go check on her, and see if she needed anything. She was gettin’ on in years, he remembered. Might need a hand or two. He liked Widow George. She kept her car clean, and always had him change the oil right on time. He liked that. People who took care of their cars, and their animals, were usually good people. Smart people.
Of course, Billy knew he wasn’t smart, but he always took good care of his truck. Okay, so maybe people who took good care of their cars weren’t always good people. But Widow George was good people. He knew that for a fact. Maybe her keeping her car took care of was just a coincidence.
But, Mister Silvers always took good car of all of his cars. And Billy was pretty sure that Mister Silvers was okay. He stopped the Ranger again, this time in sight of the house, and slapped his leg. How was he supposed to figure out who he could trust? If it wasn’t people who took good care of their cars, then who? It came to him all at once.
The List! Daddy’s List of People Who You Can Trust! How had he forgotten the List? It was one of the things Daddy had said was most important. People to check with if anything ever happened. Of course, he didn’t think Daddy had ever counted on something like this. In fact, Billy knew he hadn’t, because there wasn’t a notebook for When You Might Be The Last Person Alive. Daddy had been plenty smart, but there was no way he could have seen this coming.
He started toward the house once more, feeling better now that he had remembered the List. The List would tell him who to go check on. Who to trust. Who to help, and who to ask for help, if he needed it. He didn’t think he would need it, but you never knew.
He’d get The List out as soon as he got home. He stopped again, and took out his notebook. In block letters he wrote If they ain’t on the list, don’t trust them.
There. He’d remember that, now.