The moans of the horde were rather subdued for this late in the afternoon. It must have been the heat; it was nice to know that something affected them. They still pressed against the fence, their combined weight stressing the supports and making the thing sag inwards, but so far the collection of ghouls was simply groaning and moaning under the heat of the blazing sun. The stench of the decaying bodies mingled with the smell of fuel and thankfully the wind was carrying most of the noxious stench away from the compound, but what was worse than the undead at the moment were the birds. Jesse wiped the sweat from his brow and looked up at the birds.
The birds had arrived in great numbers to peck at the flesh of the undead, carrying away chunks of skin and petrified meat or simply sit on the heads and shoulders of the beasts and eat. They filled the sky with whirling clouds of cawing and singing feathers, lighting on nearly every space higher than a persons head within the compound. The worse part of the birds was the shit that they dropped everywhere. The shit and the small chunks of bodies that fell from the sky covered almost everything. If a person did not wear a hat, it was a guarantee that there would be more than one gooey, white droplet in their hair. Most of the vehicles were covered with some kind of a tarp, but it still didn’t stop the shit from falling on them in a thick smelly layer. There was now concern of other diseases in addition to the fear that the undead were going to breach the wall again. The good thing was that they had been able to supplement their food with the daily kill of various birds people swatted out of the sky and everyone was eating much better.
There was another group that had finally decided on the vehicle they were going to take. The group, what looked to be a small family which had managed to avoid being killed off or separated from the other members of their family unit and a couple of others, were all wearing rain gear or ponchos to keep the bird crap from falling on their clothing. Jesse imagined that like most of the survivors they had a limited amount of spares and with the water rationing there was none to spare for cleaning clothing. There was barely enough to wash off the shit that hit exposed skin.
While he watched them pick their vehicles, Jesse wondered if they really had an idea of what the hell they were doing. They were choosing the biggest, bulkiest, gas guzzling trucks in the limited inventory. While the things might hold a few people, they didn’t honestly hold any more passengers than say, the cargo van sitting at the back of the lot. The latest choice was one of the big dump trucks and the people who had chosen it were trying to decide how to close off the bucket of the thing and make it more “comfortable” for those riding in the back of it. Jesse had half a mind to go over and tell them that no matter what they did, whoever was going to be riding in it was going to be bounced around like a little rock, but he held his tongue and simply watched. Ron, the new leader, happily lent his support and help to whichever vehicle the group chose to take, pointing out ways to armor the already heavy automobiles up so that they’d make it. The survivors had drawn straws to see who was in which group, with Lorain, Rich and the two dissenters to the plan abstaining from the picks. When Lorain announced that she was going to be riding with Jesse and Mitch, it created a stir because of the limited history between them. Lorain simply refused to answer any questions and Jesse told people he could care less who she road with as long as she pulled her weight. The speculation finally died down to covert whispers. At the moment, Jesse was securing a share of the gasoline for the Toyota, patiently watching while the fuel was poured into the five gallon gas can he had been given.
A shadow arrived to block out his view of the level in the can. Jesse looked up to see Rich standing over him, a questioning expression on his face.
“Help you out?” asked Jesse.
“When you’re done, can we talk?”
“Sure,” agreed Jesse. “Almost there. Can I have a clue?”
“Nope,” grinned Rich looking with a strained glance at the man who was overseeing the distribution of the fuel.
Jesse watched him walk away to a secluded corner and wondered just what he could want to talk about, other than if Jesse were really going to be following Ron and his devotees. Jesse had no intention of telling Rich anything other than he was going to be leaving when his time came. He still had not told Lorain or Mitch was the plan was; he did not want to have it messed up before the idea could be implemented. The man overseeing the fuel suddenly cut off the flow to the gas can and Jesse capped the container, then with the heavy jug in hand, walked over to where Rich stood in the shade of the wall of the building. Setting the can down, Jesse leaned against the wall as well, taking advantage of the overhang to protect himself from the occasional drop of crap.
“What can I do for you?” asked Jesse.
“I’ll get right to the point,” said Rich. “You’re not seriously thinking of following these idiots and Ron’s plan to get out of here, are you?”
“To a point,” admitted Jesse, letting a little truth seep into his response.
“What point?” Rich wanted to know.
“You’re not expressin’ a very kind attitude to those that were once a part of your town.”
“Fuck them,” breathed Rich. “Truth be told, I never was a real townie anyway, I just lived there when my company moved me to another plant. It was small and I liked the thought of a small town. My house was for sale when this shit hit. If they want to kill themselves, let them. I just can’t see that you’d fllow this lame brained plan, you seemed smarter.”
Jesse sighed and debated on what to tell the man. “Thanks for that, I like to think I’m smarter as well.” Jesse looked out to where the family was going over the dump truck. “Fact is, we were going to die in here.”
“No one else was stepping up with anything better,” argued Rich.
“You think this is better?”
“But it’s not better.”
“We can argue this all day long, but the truth is, people needed somethin’ to focus on, other than dyin. It is what it is. Me, I’m playin’ my part as I see it.”
“What exactly is your part?” asked Rich getting back to the meat of his original question. “Are you really following this crazy scheme?”
“To an extent,” was all Jesse would give the man.
“I hope you know what you’re doing.”
Giving him a short laugh in agreement, Jesse turned the questioning around. “What are your plans?”
Rich shrugged. “Me and Dale and Justin and Greg—“who Jesse knew was the bald man”—are going to be holing up in the offices until they get the hell out of here. We’re hoping that they’ll draw enough of them away that we can close the gates and get a better plan than running through the horde.”
A big smile broke on Jesse’s face as he listened to what Rich was telling him. “Sounds like a plan, what are you gonna do if you can’t get to the gate?”
“We haven’t gotten that far,” admitted Rich. “But at the same time, I don’t want to be left hanging on when one of those fucking trucks runs out of gas or breaks down with that horde chasing.”
“Well, Ron hopes to leave by tomorrow or the next day,” said Jesse. “Maybe we can talk again before.”
“You going to try and convince us to go along?”
“Let’s see what the day brings,” Jesse told the man. “In the mean time, why don’t you guys get that cargo van and get your share of the gas? It seems to me that if you don’t Ron is gonna leave all of you high and dry if you stay. He’s not takin’ you into the mix of dividing up the stores.”
“I know, we’ve already been around about that one,” groused Rich. He pushed himself off the wall. “Catch you around.”
“Sure,” returned Jesse. He bent and picked up the gas can and started toward the Toyota, which they had parked under a tarp stretched on poles. Mitch and Lorain were busily cleaning out the vehicles interior, saving the brass and compiling together the MRE pieces which had not been eaten with the packaged meal. There were a lot of jellies and cookies and such that had ended up in the plastic bags in the floor. Just as he was about to duck under the tarp, Jesse was stopped by Ron.
“Hey, man, can I talk to you?” asked Ron.
Jesse sighed to himself and then motioned under the tarp. “Can we get out from under the birds?”
“Sure.” They stepped into the limited space offered by the tarp and leaned against the fender of the Toyota. Jesse made sure that he left Ron only enough space to stand at the front of the vehicle, wedging himself between the fender and the partially open door where Mitch had been leaning into the interior of the Toyota to clean out the floor boards. As Jesse reclined, Mitch came and took the gas can from Jesse, hauling it to the back of the SUV so that it could be dumped into the tank.
Ron looked over to where Rich was walking across the yard to look at the cargo van. “I know it’s not my business, but what did you and Rich talk about?”
Jesse paused for a moment, considering just how much of a smart-aleck he wanted to be. Again, he went for partial truth. “He wanted to know if I was really goin’ with you.”
“Yeah--,” confirmed Jesse, wishing that he had never been caught up in the little infighting between the two men. He casually took off his hat and lay it on the hood. “Why, what’s the big deal?”
“Oh nothing really,” lied Ron. Jesse saw that the man was trying to get a look into the interior of the Toyota and at the bags and boxes Mitch and Lorain had been filling. Jesse absently leaned into the other mans line of sight to block his view of the TLC. Ron gritted his jaw momentarily and looked back at Jesse. “What did he say he was going to do?”
“Stay here,” said Jesse.
Ron nodded slowly. “Okay, but your still behind this, right?”
“I am,” said Jesse, failing to add that he was in it for his own purposes, and not because he felt Ron was correct in his plans.
“Good, well, tomorrow, we probably leave tomorrow. We’ll be handing out the rations everyone will be getting tonight and that way we can all be loaded up and ready.” Ron gave Jesse a sideways look. “You don’t have anything to add to the kitty, right? I mean, we could use some of that ammo.”
Going to one of the open ammo boxes, Jesse pulled out a handful of empty brass. He held it out to Ron. “That’s what we’ve got.”
Ron held up both his hands as if to say that he had known it all along. “Yeah, we’re all in that boat, aren’t we? Okay. I’ll see you tonight.”
Jesse looked at Mitch and Lorain and then grabbed one of the bags they were using to toss the MRE parts into. “Here, take this, it’s not much, but at least it’s something.”
Taking the mix of food stuffs, Ron smiled. “Sure it is, anything that will get us through this, right?”
“You bet,” agreed Jesse. He watched the other man duck under the tarp and hurry away.
“That fucker’s up to something,” spat Lorain.
“You think?” said Mitch.
“Where’s our ammo and shit?” asked Jesse, turning away from the compound and leaning on the hood of the Toyota.
Mitch pointed to the roof box. “Some of it is up there, some of it is boxed up in the cargo area. Lorain and I made sure that we took all the MRE marked boxes and burned them, the packages themselves are in the lockbox under all of our camping gear and clothing. We tried to hide it as well as we could. There was only so much we could do to keep it out of sight.”
“Okay, one of us stays with the Toyota all the time. He wasn’t just tryin’ to get information on Rich, he wanted to know what we had too.”
“If I’m staying with the SUV, I want a gun or ammo for mine,” growled Lorain.
Grinning at her, Jesse shook his head. “Not yet. You’re gonna be taggin’ along with me to get our share tonight. In the mean time, see if you can get another can of gas out of one of these trucks they’re not using. I haven’t seen anyone siphon those tanks yet, and I want to be the first, they seem to be just using the in ground tanks. And don’t get caught.” Jesse handed her a gas can. “I’d start with that F350 witting on the flats.”
Lorain took the gas can, speaking with a growl. “You gonna trust me at all?”
She suddenly laughed. “I probably wouldn’t either.” Taking the length of hose with the vacuum ball in the middle of it, Lorain picked up her battle-pipe and absently wandered over to the indicated truck, acting as if she were looking for a place to go to the bathroom. She disappeared behind the bed and Jesse turned to Mitch.
“If you got to shoot someone, make sure you kill them,” said Jesse.
“Of course, dead men tell no tales.” Mitch and Jesse leaned into the Toyota to finish cleaning it out. “What do you think Ron is up to?”
“I think he’s gonna try and kill us and steal our shit. We’re not townies, and nobody’ll care. If Lorain gets caught in the crossfire; so much the better. He’s probably hopin’ that Rich will try to ride to the rescue so he can take him out as well. That’s what I’d do, anyway.”
“Glad I’m on your side.”
“Me too,” said Jesse. “All our mags loaded?”
“Not yet, I was doing that while Lorain wasn’t around. She doesn’t need to know how much we got either.”
“True.” Jesse dropped an accessory packet into the bag and a handful of empty brass into the ammo box. The live ammo went into another box. “I’ll be glad when this is over.”
“One way or another, it will be,” assured Mitch, depositing his own handfuls of junk in the proper places. “I was thinking that stay physically in the Toyota might be a bad idea—so I thought I’d set up a watch over there, up on that backhoe,” Mitch told Jesse pointing with his chin at the spot. “That way I can see when people come up on the Cruiser and I’ve got that wall to my back. I’m using the .308—I want the fuckers to stay down when I shoot them.”
“5.56 will keep ‘em down,” said Jesse.
“I mean down,” stressed Mitch. “Big fucking holes and lots of blood. I want these idiots to know somebody died.”
“Okay,” agreed Jesse. “Dead.”
They finished up the cleaning and Jesse grabbed the food bag with the least amount in it. “I’m gonna take this to where they’ve got the food to be distributed, see if I can hear anything. When Lorain gets back, send her along.”
Jesse put his hat back on and headed for the main building.
He sat with the mayor and a couple of the other council people, sharing a bottle of Canadian whiskey from his personal stash. He really didn’t care for Canadian whiskey, he always found it to be too sweet, but he had the bottle just for this purpose; to share and maybe get what he wanted. They were in one of the small corners of the Lodge—an out of the way lounge complete with a blank TV and comfy leather couches—sipping the drink straight up and talking in low, amicable tones, at least for the moment.
The conversation so far had been inane comments about general happenings at the Lodge, the weather and if they were going to have enough fuel to keep the farm tractors going through a planting and harvest. Everyone there knew there was an underlying reason for the sudden meeting, but no one was quite ready to ask why. Jesse watched the group and gauged their mood as the bottle was handed from person to person, sipped and passed, their faces taking on relaxed expressions as they let the alcohol do its thing. Finally Jesse decided that it was time for him to clear some air.
“So, I wanted to get you all together to clear some shit up,” said Jesse as the bottle was passed around again. The others looked at him with raised eyebrows and questioning expressions. “There seems to be a rumor that I’m leavin’.”
“Seems more than a rumor,” pointed out the mayor. “I know you’ve been stashing your belongings with Hannah and a couple other people.”
“Maybe I’m down-sizin’?”
“Maybe you and that fag are taking off for parts unknown,” said Wells, a man who Jesse didn’t necessarily like, but he trusted him because all of the man’s votes were always what he felt were best for the Lodge as a whole.
“By ‘fag’ you mean Mitch?”
“Sure,” responded Wells, unperturbed by Jesse’s correction.
“We’ve all seen shit that points to it, Jesse,” said someone else. The woman was older, well liked and spoke her mind no matter the subject. It sometime rubbed people the wrong way, but Jesse found himself agreeing with her more often than not and counted on her opinion. “It doesn’t mean that we think less of you, but, damn, boy, when it looks like someone of your reputation is bailing, the population around here gets antsy. We’ve been through a lot of shit in the last several months, hell almost a year, and change doesn’t sit well right now.”
Jesse sat back and nodded. “I’ll give you that, but this whole votin’ without me while I’m here, it doesn’t sit well with me, not one little bit.”
“So you are planning on leaving?” countered the mayor.
“I am. But that don’t mean that I’m not involved while I’m here.” Jesse shook his head, trying to clear his fury and the harsh words he wanted to utter. Instead he spoke in clipped tones to control the annoyance he felt. “I am a part of this place, and when you-all vote on major issues about things that you know affect not only the Lodge as a whole, but me personally, that’s a line that you shouldn’t cross in my book.”
The mayor leaned toward Jesse. “Look at it from our point of view; you are making plans to leave and you’ve not told a single other person on the council other than Hannah. We’re you just going to pack up in the middle of the night and go? You’re disappearance would leave a huge gap in the community here, whether you want to admit it or not. You’ve been here since the beginning and people look to you for strength. What exactly did you plan to do, Jesse?”
Taking the bottle Jesse removed a sip and handed it on. He partially saw the mayors point of view, but he still hadn’t hit at the vote they’d made without Jesse around. He attacked the question, thinking that they could come back to his own concerns.
“I have a plan, and I will be back.” He sat back and sighed, gathering his thoughts so that he could outline his ideas. “What my plan is, is that I will take a convoy back up to the base and clean it out. From those supplies, I’m gonna outfit myself and Mitch, and we’re gonna go on a walk-about as the Australians used to say. We need information on what is happenin’ out there in the world beyond us. The Highlanders and such, they have a good thing goin’ with connecting the survivors, and I think we need to be a part of that. I plan on bein’ gone for two months and establishin’ as many contacts as I can in that time.”
“What about the woman?”
He knew exactly who they were talking about, Rebecca, and his temper flared once more at the disapproving tone of the question. Swallowing his irritation yet again, Jesse acknowledged that he had other reasons for going out into the world. “I’m going to go lookin’ for her while I’m at it, yes.”
“So your plan is to be an emissary to the world?” half joked Wells.
“What’s left of it.”
Speaking across the top of the bottle, the mayor frowned. “What is it you want us to do? Hold your position for you while you’re gone? Put our government on standby so you can chase a skirt?”
“No,” swore Jesse. “All I want from the Lodge is a blessin’ to leave, the Toyota I came here in and help on the Base run.”
Wells nodded as Jesse spoke. “We could use this opportunity to take a look around Mansfield and the area and see what the lay of the land might be. We can find out if the Rolling Twenties survived the winter and how many there are left. Hell, maybe if they are willing we can make a treaty with them--.”
“You’d be better off killin’ them all,” retorted Jesse.
“They are humans,” said Wells. “There are very few of us left. We need to make peace where we can--.”
“As long as you are making that peace from behind the barrel of a rifle and you keep that rifle between you and them, it might work,” shrugged Jesse, not believing for a second that it would.
“A bridge to cross when we get to it.”
“Don’t wait too long to cross it,” warned Jesse.
Waving them both down, the mayor stepped into the conversation. “What are you thinking as far as the run to the Base?”
“We’ve got a couple panel vans, box trucks and the tractor trailer--.”
“You’re not taking all or them,” stressed the mayor.
“No, but I figured that we’d take a panel van, a box truck and the tractor trailer, and a couple of chase cars—the Humvees—and fill them all to the brim.” Jesse glanced at the people around him and tried to gauge their acceptance of the plan. “We know that Emma’s friend got the doors closed after the last time, so the area hasn’t been exposed to the weather or the undead, it should be a pretty clear path to the storage areas and the armory.”
“How many people?”
Ten, fifteen,” said Jesse, quickly adding, “I know it sounds like a lot of people, but we’ll need loaders and people to stand guard and watch while vehicles are loaded.”
“What about the tanker?” asked Wells.
“What about it?”
“There’s two gas stations right there, we should hit them as well.”
“That close to the highway there may not be anything left--.”
“Maybe, but the base has fuel and so does the private airfield next to it.”
“Than there should be tankers there that we can use,” reminded Jesse.
“So mechanics are going to have to be a part of the mix, as well as some of our charged spare batteries, this is going to take a lot of planning, when did you want to do this?”
“The weather is breakin’,” pointed out Jesse. “We should do this as fast as possible before others get it in their own head that they need to start lookin’ around too. Two days at the inside, three at the outside.”
“You going to resign your post?” asked the mayor.
“I’d planned on it,” admitted Jesse. “Which brings me to another subject; the rumor mill also says that you all wanna put a crony in my seat—I want an election.”
“We were making contingencies,” admitted the mayor. He cast a look at the others with them and shrugged. “But the charter, if you’ll remember, states that we have to hold an election; unless we want to break our own rules, we have to get someone elected in there.” He grinned at Jesse. “We will, however, be encouraging someone to run--.”
“Can’t escape the politics, can we?”
“Not as long as we have humans.”
“So, when do we announce this?”
“Tomorrow morning at breakfast.”
Jesse nodded. He stood and looked down at the others. “Thanks for makin’ this easy, it could’ve been a bitch.”
“It may still,” said the mayor. “We need to get together with the security counsel and set up some guidelines as to what information you can give out and how folks can contact us. I don’t want a shit load of refugees on our doorstep saying that ‘Jesse said it was okay’, we ran into that already with your buddy Cole.”
Jesse clamped his mouth shut on a retort since he wanted to keep them on his side before he left. He could tell that it was late without looking at his watch, the Lodge was nearly silent—the opening and shutting of doors had die down to irregular thumps and the electricity which was run for two hours a night was off. Stretching, Jesse nodded to the others. “Well, I’ll be seein’ you –all in the mornin’. Keep the bottle.”
He walked away from the group and in doing so, realized that they had never come back to his concern about the vote of the security counsel. Knowing that it was too late to do anything now, he hoped that their dealings with his successor would be a little more up front and honest. Once he was beyond the range of earshot, he found Mitch waiting in the hall.
“How’d it go?” asked the other man.
“We head out in a couple of days, maybe three at the outside,” Jesse told him. “Short enough time that they can’t change their minds or screw with us too badly.”
“Good deal, I’m already packed.”
That made Jesse grin. “Me too.”