Nuthin’ Stays The Same

Part I

Val awoke to noticeably cold air in the room, quickly realizing he had not put an extra log in the woodstove at bedtime.

His dog, Shep, was wagging his tail wanting to be fed. Shep had turned out to be a good watchdog after wandering on the property a year ago or so. Just a mutt, Shep was easy enough to remember without the agony of finding an ‘appropriate’ name.

Val groaned as he threw aside his quilt to find his pants and flannel shirt. He found his flashlight next to his bedside, and remembered he had hung his jeans next to the stove last night.

Why the hell didn’t you stoke up the stove? he asked himself, donning his jeans then his shirt and boots.

I gotta rethink having a nightcap from now on. It’ll just take one time and I’ll be so crashed out that someone could walk right in, and kill me and take this whole place for their own.

He thought while he laced up his boots about the passing of his wife a few months earlier. After the SHTF, she only had so much of her thyroid medicine, and it didn’t last but ninety days. She dwindled down to nothing before she died.

He tried to shake it off as the tears tried to fill his eyes. He often thought about doing away with himself too, just to end the constant pain of memories.

He never knew what happened to his children, being over five hundred miles away, it would be suicide to go on a journey into a major metropolitan area by himself…on foot. His boys were mostly grown, the youngest being sixteen now.

Val often thought himself a failure as a father, leaving his boys for his new wife; now she’s gone.

He tied his boots tight, and went into the kitchen for the woodbox. Finding a couple of logs, he tossed them into the stove with some kindling and lit it.

Guess I’ll have to chop some more wood…

He looked out the window into the woods behind the house. The sun was just coming up and the frost in the forest looked a little too much like the back drop for a scary movie.

As the fire started, he warmed his hands over the flames, then put the lid on the stove. He got his coffee pot out and put it on the stove as well.

He went to the back door, grabbed his coat, hat, and .45 as he went outside to the chicken coop.

The frost-covered dead grass crunched beneath his boots as he walked across the barnyard to the coop. He looked around as he approached, searching for anything that might be out of place.

He remembered telling his wife and stepdaughter for years to ‘be aware of what is around you. Take a moment before you get into or out of your car to see what or who is also around you. People? Cars? Trucks? Motorcycles? Look at and assess everything…’

They didn’t get it and it cost the stepdaughter her life in a brutal carjacking in the parking lot where she worked.

He got to the coop and let the chickens into the chicken yard; a small fenced area outside the coop where the chickens wandered in the daytime. It had chicken wire for a roof too, to keep out the hawks.

He grabbed an egg carton and filled it amidst the protests of the hens.

Shep stood outside the fence; ears perked up looking at the forest.

Val looked at the woods too as he exited and locked the gate.

“What is it Shep?” Val asked, still looking.

Just for a second, Val thought he caught a whiff of campfire smoke…just a brief moment, then it was gone.

Still nothing. Shep’s ears perked down, and he started panting again, wagging his tail.

Back to the house they went, Val still checking over his shoulder…something or someone was out there. He didn’t have second sight, just a feeling and it paid off many times over the years.

They went inside and Val commenced to cooking the eggs for the both of them. He did some toast as well in another skillet.

Val sat at the little table looking at the forest. He ate quickly, thinking he should start getting ready for the hunt.

They were out of fresh meat, and he really didn’t want to kill a chicken.

Maybe it was a deer in the forest he thought as he sipped his coffee.

Shep had long finished his toast and eggs, and was ready to go out.

Val went to the broom closet and pulled out a couple of rifles; both of them Rossi, one a 30-30 and the other a 45-70. The smaller caliber rifle was all he needed to hunt deer, but always remembered the bear he encountered when they first moved there and how one shot from the 45-70 took that bear down quickly.

He decided to take the 30-30 for his morning patrol down the road and what he called ‘perimeter check’. It was busy work but kept him aware of what was going on around the property. His house was on the end of the road; a dead end. Anyone coming down the road would end up at his house…not by accident.

It was a good and bad thing. So many things were both good and bad about his life; being alone…only one person to defend this place was going to be impossible if he was severely outnumbered. One person was easily fed, however.

He grabbed his pack, gun, rifle and went back outside.

He stopped and took out his binoculars and looked at the forest, now fully exposed to the rising sun. Nothing.

He decided to make his run to the intersection on the four wheeler, and proceeded to the barn. It started right up, and he let it warm up a little. He really liked it as it was very quiet. It would seat four people.

He went up the driveway, unlocked the gate and started up the road toward the county road; hoping he would not see anyone.

Shep ran on a little ways ahead, sniffing whatever dogs sniff.

The air was getting a little warmer. Val thought it was late September, but wasn’t sure. He wasn’t himself after his wife died, and didn’t think he would ever be the same again.

He wasn’t sure if he had actually dealt with the loss of her, even though he was there when she died, and even buried her. Tears again.

He picked up his pace so his mind wouldn’t wander, as it seemed to do more and more frequently these days. His thoughts seemed to focus more negatively since her death.

He walked to the end of the fenceline, which bordered his property to the south. He stopped and looked down the line towards where it went into the woods.

There was another gate at the fenceline; a much heavier one made out of steel pipe. It would take a tractor to pull down this gate. He recalled the argument he had with his wife when they were building the property up and how this heavy gate would keep out bad guys. She thought it was a waste of money until they came out once for a weekend and they found tire tracks up to the gate and even some evidence someone had tried to force through it…end of argument.

No footprints, nothing disturbed that he could see…even Shep seemed unconcerned as he bounded back and forth across the dirt road.

Val took out his binoculars and looked down the road to the south…nothing and no surprise.

The gate was very secure: two large 6 inch poles filled with concrete made the basic frame. There was a second post buried in ground in the center of the gate that stuck up about 3 feet; and four feet buried. The gate swung outward.

The metal poles that completed the gate and entrance, went to the fence-lines on either side of the road.

He unlocked the two locks that locked the gate, and drove through it. It was about ten miles over the next few hills where the county road ran east/west.

Val had cut trees at the intersection and let them fall across his road where it met the county road, only to have someone burn the trees a week or so after. He decided to leave the intersection alone and not point any attention his direction.

He parked at the bottom of the last hill, and walked to the crest; keeping low. He crouched and approached the top with his binoculars drawn. He could see the intersection now, maybe a half mile away now. Nothing happening there.

He looked to right and left up the county road..still nothing.

Going straight south would take one into the little town of Blackthorn with a few farms scattered here and there on the way. If one turned right, it was ten or twelve miles to BJ’s ranch.

Good he thought as he backed away from the crest, and headed towards the four wheeler.

Arriving the big gate, he felt safer.

He was walking the last few steps to the front gate, when Shep started barking and took off across the yard towards the forest.

 

Chapter two

Val went through the front gate, and on into the barn, then the house, where his traded the 30-30 for the bigger bore rifle. He felt a chill up his back as he cocked around into the chamber, and went outside to follow where he last saw Shep.

He crossed the barnyard, passed the coop, and went into the forest where he saw Shep enter.

The contrast of the sunlight on the frosty ground to the darker forest made visibility difficult until he got into the woods a few yards.

It was cooler past where the sunlight had lit up the east side of the forest so well.

He trudged onward, looking for Shep’s trail. He was glad to get out of the sunlit area, as the contrast between the darkness of the woods, and the brutal bright light made depth perception difficult, and was hard to shift between bright and dark quickly.

He heard Shep barking now. Val picked up his pace towards the barking dog, which quickly became more aggressive and agitated. Val thought he heard a feminine voice try to calm the dog.

When Val arrived on the scene, Shep was circling a skinny woman, who had her hand held out towards Shep.

“Shep!” Val yelled “Stop! Down!”

Shep stopped and sat, still with a little growl.

“Stop!” Val yelled at the dog.

Shep quieted.

The woman was wearing jeans, lace up boots, a beat up wool coat, and a stocking cap. She was shaking. “Please mister, I didn’t mean any harm. We smelled some food cooking, and I was following the smell.”

“Who is we?” Val asked, still holding the gun on her.

“My son and I” she answered.  “He’s twelve.”

“It was your campfire smoke I smelled earlier” Val said calmly. “You’re on my land and you’re probably camped in that clearing” he motioned to the west.

She nodded, shivering.

“I need to search you for any weapons” Val said. “Take off your coat.”

She complied, and Val set down his rifle.

“I’m not armed” she said quietly, as she assumed the position.

She put her arms out at her sides, and he did the routine; waist, back, chest, arms, then crotch, legs inside and out.

“Jeez lady” Val said “you’re nothing but skin and bones. You can put your coat on.”

He dug in his pack for a power bar while she put on her coat. He gave her the power bar and she devoured it.

He handed her an extra bottle of water, and she took some good slugs from it as well.

When she had gained her composure, she said “thanks mister. I appreciate your generosity.”

“Let’s go get your boy” Val said “this way” and he turned towards the house.

“Y-You’ll help us?” she seemed taken aback, yet following.

Val stopped and faced her “as long as you’ve been up front with me, you can stay as long as you like. If you’ve lied to me, you’ll be the first do die. Sorry, those are my rules.”

“Fair enough” she said, hurt. “I haven’t lied and my son is as good as gold.”

“Then we don’t have a problem” Val said. “This way” and she followed him through the woods toward the barnyard. “Be wary of Shep. He’s a killer and all I have to do is remove my hat and he’ll attack.”

“OK” she said trying to keep up.

Against the sun, it was harder to see, and Val pulled his hat lower over his eyes.

During the trip back, the woman chatted and seemed somewhat relieved. Her name was Ginger, and her boy was called Kyle. They had done OK until her husband got an infection from an injury he sustained chopping wood. His hatchet had missed its mark and struck his hand. He never recovered from it, and it was an ugly death…her words. She and Kyle had been alone through the summer, and had run out of food. They tried to hunt and trap, but had been unsuccessful for some time.

They reached the barnyard, and Val went into the barn to the four-wheeler. “Get in” he said, and put his rifle in the back. Shep hopped into the back seat.

He started it and took off across the other side of the barnyard to the opposite corner where he had an opening in the fence just wide enough for the ATV. He had made a path through the woods to the clearing on the other side. It twisted and turned through the forest and had several pitfalls and booby traps. He dodged all of them and was soon through the forest, and headed to Ginger’s camp.

Sure enough, there was smoldering fire with a small tent and few camping items strewn around the site. A tripod over the fire with a small pot over it cooking something…it didn’t smell very good.

The boy struggled out of the tent. He was skinny as a rail too. He had a rifle…looked like a .22 but Ginger called saying “it’s Okay!”

Val pulled up, shut off the engine, and got out. He went over to Kyle and gave him a power bar as well, with some water.

“Gather your things” he told Ginger as he put out the fire, and buried it. Kyle ate, while Val and Ginger packed up the site, and put their stuff in the rear of the ATV.

When the ATV was loaded, Val went back over the site and tried to make it look as natural as possible. Some dead grass, branches and leaves strewn about, made it look pretty good…so as not to attract attention.

Val got back into the ATV with the rest. Ginger riding shotgun, Kyle in the back with Shep, who seemingly had made a new friend.

Val started the ATV “name’s Val” he said offering his hand to Ginger, then to Kyle. That is Shep. He won’t hurt you, but you’ll have to pet him and let him smell you before he will trust you.”

He took off back towards the house through the woods path. He pointed out the deadfalls on the way back and how to avoid the traps.

When they arrived at the house, he dropped their camping stuff in the barn, and led them into the house.

“OK, first order of business” Val started, dragging out a 5 gallon pot “is to clean you two up. Give me a half hour or so to get enough water heated then you two take a bath and change clothes. I think I have clean clothes to fit both of you.”

He pointed to the bathroom and their bedroom “you two can sleep here. After your bath, we’ll have a nice hot meal, and you two should sleep and get your strength back.”

Ginger was crying as she sat on the side of her bed, unable to speak.

Val added a couple more logs to the woodstove in the living room.

The bedrooms did not have woodstoves, but were well stocked with blankets and quilts.

Val found some clothes for both of them and laid them out in the bathroom with some clean towels.

He had two water pots which totalled eight gallons and his woodstove could accommodate both of them. He got both almost to boiling and poured them into the tub, with some cold water and laid the Ivory soap and shampoo. He had left some rinse water too.

Ginger went first, then Kyle.

Ginger called out “I can’t rinse my hair…it’s too heavy…can you help me?”

I didn’t think about that Val thought, deciding what to do.

“Please help me” she said again “I can’t do it. The bucket is too heavy.”

Val helped her up and wrapped a towel around her as she stepped out of the tub, her hair soapy.

“Kneel here” Val said “over the side and I’ll pour the rinse water over your hair.”

He poured the water over her hair… it was very long. He hadn’t noticed before as she had it in a bun.

She was very skinny, her elbow and knee joints were poking at her skin.

Val dried her off and escorted her out of the bath “your turn, Kyle” Val said.

“What’s wrong with my mom?” he asked.

“She’s very weak” Val replied “You go on and take your bath, and be sure to get behind your ears. I’m going to help her dress.”

He disappeared into the bathroom, and Val took Ginger to the extra bedroom, and helped dress her. She was shivering.

He saw no need for a bra as her breasts were almost non existent. He put on a t-shirt, a long sleeve shirt, and a flannel shirt; panties long johns and some jeans with two pairs of socks.

He dried her hair well and brushed and combed it the best he could. The main thing was getting it dry. He looked at her scalp for lice and found none.

He lay her down and covered her “are you warm enough?” he asked.

She nodded and said quietly “thank you for all you’ve done, Val. You’ve probably saved our lives.”

Val nodded back and said “I’m fixing some broth for you. If you’re up to it. we’ll have some bread or noodles with broth later. You rest, I’ll wake you when it’s ready.”

She nodded as she closed her eyes.

Kyle bounded out of the bathroom, with new life and fully dressed and dried.

“Did you wash good?” Val asked  him. “‘Cause I’ll now inspect you.”

“Did you inspect my mom too?” Kyle asked. “Is she OK?”

“Of course. The main thing is be sure  you don’t have any cooties. They get into your hair, and lay eggs, then you have to scratch and scratch then you break the skin and their germs get into your blood,  making you sick. So it’s best to wash your hair vigorously whenever you get a chance. Your mom is suffering from a mild case of malnutrition, as probably you are as well.”

“Is she gonna be OK?” Kyle pressed.

“Yes, she was clean with no cooties, and she has very long hair.”

“I know. She’s very proud of it. It looks real pretty when she used to fix it up.”

Val checked Kyle’s hair and did not find any cooties.

“Anything?” Kyle seemed concerned.

“No, you’re clean” Val said.

“Woo Hoo!” Kyle exclaimed.

“OK Mr. Rambunctious” Val began “now you clean the tub with the towels and we do the laundry.”

“Oh man!” Kyle said, obviously disappointed.

“Life on the farm is hard” Val started picking up clothes “but we have luxuries that you have not had for a while, and we have to work to maintain these luxuries.”

“Like what?” Kyle inquire, also picking up clothes from the bathroom.

“Like a roof over your head, a bathtub, a stove to cook, hot water, running water, lots of food, among others.”

“Oh” Kyle said.

“I’m gonna make some hot tea for your mother” Val said, putting some water in his teapot, then  putting it on the stove. “We’ll start this, and do some clothes washing.”

They collected the bathwater and put it in a big tub outside where they reheated it and washed their clothes with a washboard. Kyle caught on fast. Good thing, Val had him pegged to wash clothes.

Val finished wiping down the bathroom, and took the last of the towels to the washing station.

The tea was ready, and Val fixed a mug for Ginger with some honey and lemon juice. He shook her gently, and let her sip some tea. She said nothing, but drank about half of the mug. It seemed to lessen her shivering.

Val took a couple of rocks that his wife used to warm her feet in the bed. He set them on the stovetop for a little while, then wrapped them in a towel and placed them at the foot of the bed where Ginger lay.

“Thank you” she managed to whisper, as she turned over and went back to sleep.

Val went back outside to supervise the laundry. The clothesline had been handy as long it is above freezing, it will still dry clothes.

He had a rack set up next to the stovepipe in the heat of winter. It worked well for one person. A schedule would have to be implemented.

The day warmed into the lower forties with lots of sunshine. The humidity was low, and the clothes dried quickly.

Val killed a chicken for the late afternoon meal, with cornbread and some green beans. Part of the chicken was boiled of which he saved the broth and boiled it down. He picked the carcass clean and planned to make stock with it later.

He got Ginger up and she ate well. Kyle was ravenous and was not shy about getting seconds.

“This cornbread is great!” said Ginger as she took another slice “it’s sweet like…”

“Honey” Val said looking at her. They shared an awkward moment as Ginger smiled; embarrassed.

Val brought out cookies for all for dessert. “These are sooo good!” Ginger asked, chasing a crumb.

“They’re up in that square can over there” Val pointed “you two help yourselves. You might want to take it easy eating for a few days. You might shock your body and you could get the runs or cramps…so take it easy with eating. Get your rest, and take these with meals.”

He held up some multivitamins with some B complex and C, D. “You’ll need these to help your body utilize the food you just ate.” He passed them out.

“Now, I suggest you two get to bed, and get a good night’s sleep. You’ve had a long day. We’ll have another day tomorrow with work to do.”

Kyle got up first and said “thanks for helping us, Val” and went to his room.

Ginger had tears in her eyes “thank you for all you’ve done for us. We are indebted to you.”

“You two can stay as long as you like without any obligation” Val said.

She paused for a minute “perhaps you will tell me what became of the woman who used to wear these clothes, and about the child that wore the clothes that Kyle wears someday.”

Val nodded slowly “someday”.

Val put a couple pieces of cornbread in Shep’s bowl, and his tail thumped the floor.

“He’s not really a killer, is he?” Ginger asked.

“No, but I had you goin'” Val smiled.

“Yeah for about five minutes” she smiled back.

Ginger got up, patted Val’s hand, and went to her room.

Val put a couple of extra logs on the fire  in the fireplace and the stove as well.

He laid down and Shep was already ready for sleep.

For the first time in a long time, he felt he had purpose again.

He heard nothing until the next morning.

Chapter Three

The extra logs on the fires made a huge difference when the sun first peeked into the little house. Val’s room faced east, but the other room faced the south, and did not get the early rays of the sun.

Val threw his legs over the side of the bed and dressed, including lacing up his boots. He did put on clean socks, as a daily ritual. Something bugged him about wearing the same socks day after day.

Shep was already at the back door, needing to go outside and Val let him out.

Val stoked the woodstove with a couple of sticks to put on coffee. He watered the percolator and busied about getting some bacon ready for breakfast.

He made a quick trip out to the coop for some eggs, returned with Shep following closely.

Val sliced some bread and  put on the other skillet for some toast.

He heard stirring in the other bedroom and finally Kyle came out rubbing his eyes and yawning.

“Go pee and brush your teeth and wash your hands” Val suggested “there’s stuff in there for you.”

A few minutes later, Ginger came out as well, and headed straight for the bathroom.

By the time both of them sat down, they had bacon, toast and scrambled eggs. Shep was already done with his breakfast when the rest were just starting.

“Coffee?” Val asked the two of them, holding his percolator, ready to pour.

“Why not?” said Ginger, holding up her cup “everything is so delicious. Try a little, Kyle. It’ll help warm you up.”

Kyle took a little as well, but made faces when he drank it.

“This is good coffee” Ginger said, taking a sip. “What’s on for today?”

“Yeah, what’re we gonna do?” Kyle asked with a mouthful of toast.

Val sipped his coffee “well, Kyle, we always need firewood with winter coming on, and we’ll need to make our perimeter check first.” He explained why he did the checks on the boundary daily.

“What about me?” Ginger asked.

“I welcome both of you to work as long as you don’t get too tired. There is a lot of stuff to eat up here” he showed them a cupboard with crackers, bread, cookies, and some candies. “Help yourself if you need something between meals” he added. “Ginger, you can familiarize yourself with the kitchen and yard around the house and the coop.” He explained how they took eggs daily for breakfast.

“We have lots of meat stored in the basement, but we’ll get to that as necessary. Do either of you know how to shoot?”

Kyle volunteered “I can shoot the .22 pretty good.”

“I didn’t see any more arms” Val said “was that the only firearm you had?”

They looked at each other. “We had a pistol, but it was…” Kyle was interrupted by his mom.

“We were attacked by some bad people while my husband was still alive, and they took it, but it was unloaded and my husband chased them off with the rifle. We don’t have the gun, but we still have some mags and ammo in our stuff. Go get it Kyle.”

He returned with a small duffel and put it on the table. It had maybe six mags in it. “Glock” I said almost joyfully. “Just like my pistol. Good choice.”

The rest of the stuff was some .45 ammo and .22 LR ammo.

“That’s good” Val said “you will both get some shooting lessons starting tomorrow. We’ll start with the rifle then the .22 pistols.”

“Why not today?” Kyle persisted.

Val smiled “we’ve plenty to do for now. I don’t wanna push too much on you guys for now…you might pack up and go!” he said with a snicker.

Ginger did not hesitate “I’m afraid you’re stuck with us as long as you’ll have us” she smiled.

Val smiled back…”it’s been barely 24 hours. I can be a hard taskmaster, but I’m fair. Now, Kyle and I will work on some firewood, and I’ll show you around the yard and coop.”

They cleaned up dishes, and went outside. It was warming up fast, and the frost was gone. Val took them to the barn where he had the firewood station. The logs were stacked outside and he cut them with a chainsaw. He split those with wedges and they were further split to fit in the stove and fireplace.

Kyle was instructed to only split the wood for the house. Val would do the rest…for now.

While Kyle was splitting, Val and Ginger went to the chicken coop. He walked her through and showed her how to remove the eggs. He then showed her how to clean the coop manure and compost it on the gardens. He explained that in the summer, they would compost the manure in a pile with dirt and scraps from the kitchen. Chicken manure was too “hot” to put directly on a live garden.

He showed her the raised gardens “I have a map on what we’ll plant this spring and where we’ll plant it.”

“How was last year’s crop?” Ginger asked.

“Pretty well, considering. For one person, there is plenty; for three, it would be a little short, but we’ll be fine. It’s just a guideline I needed to see. We can plant more this spring. We have backup if we have crop failure.”

“Wow, you thought of everything” Ginger said in amazement.

“Let’s go back to the barn. I wanna show you something else” Val said, turning that direction.

“What” Ginger asked.

“The lookout tower.”

Kyle was still chopping at their arrival, and was informed to the plan.

“Up there”  Val pointed up the first ladder.

He led, and the others followed. “Now here” he climbed up with his new friends close behind. There was enough space on the platform for all of them.

Val held out his binoculars “look”.

They each looked through and took a 360 degree turn. “wow, cool, oh, ah were all common descriptions of what they all saw.

“Once a day someone needs to climb up here and make a report” Val said “you have seen that we can see a long ways off.” He showed them where he would expect any traffic. He showed them the property lines. “Later, we’ll go over sectors. I have a map inside. If someone is  up here, and they see something moving, that person will call in with a sector location…and yes, I have radios we can carry.”

As we climbed down, Kyle remarked “I wanna be lookout patrol.”

Val chuckled “the lookout tower is just a piece of all the things here that help keep us safer. In time, I’ll show you more, and how we integrate them to our Operational Security plan.”

“You have other lookout posts?” he quizzed.

“Yeah, some are hidden in the forest, some are underground, and some are in plain sight.”
“You have underground lookouts?” Kyle was excited.

“Yes and tunnels too.”

“Wow! Why tunnels?” Kyle asked.

“In case we get trapped in one building, we can go to another without being seen” Van replied patiently. He considered perhaps he was giving up too much info, but without actually showing them the locations, he felt he was OK giving info for now.

“Are you two up for a hike?” Val asked.

“Sure, I guess” said Ginger.

Val checked his armament, everything was on board. They headed to the barn where they boarded the four wheeler.

He took them to the front gate, unlocked it, and drove them down the road, explaining part of the perimeter check was necessary to keep up knowledge of any activity at the edge of the property…and beyond.

“Why do you always carry guns?” asked Kyle, trying to keep up.

Val sighed, and after a pause replied “we never know what we will see outside of the house. There is dangerous wildlife about, and soon you too will also carry a firearm whenever you walk out of the house. If you walk a certain distance from the house, you will also carry a rifle and a pack.”

He stopped at the hill, and got on his knees and faced Kyle and  Ginger “honestly, there are bad people out there who will try to take what does not belong to them. There is no law enforcement right now, and the last of us free citizens are on our own to protect ourselves, and what belongs to us, by whatever means necessary.”

He let them both look through the binocs at the intersection, and described what he was looking for as far as tracks in the fallen burned out trees. Nothing disturbed. He told them what to look for up and down the county road as concerning dust trails, indicating vehicles moving across them.

He spoke to them about when it rained or snowed, that they would likely not see any dust trails, and to instead look for steam from traveling vehicles.

As they headed back to the house, he mentioned that with winter approaching, the heat inside would keep the roof clear of snow, and the chimneys would put out smoke, giving away their position. “That’s just the way it is” Val said. “We gotta stay warm, so that’s just a sacrifice we make. We’re very well off the beaten path, so I think it will still be a while before the wandering forces will make it this far into the boonies.”

He paused for a moment at they reached the front gate “We’ll probably be OK through the winter, but next summer we may see some activity…but we’ll be ready.”

He locked the gate and they headed to the house.

“I’m hungry” said Kyle.

Ginger busied herself with gathering some things for lunch.

Chapter Four

Val stood on the back porch looking at the weather. It was a clear day, blue sky, and a few clouds to the north. That usually meant a system moving in. A slight breeze from the south, which was probably why it warmed up like it had. He considered removing his coat, but decided against it.

We’ll need more firewood today he thought, and headed to the barn to chop some more, checking out the woods as he crossed the barnyard.

He managed to split six logs before being called to lunch. He stacked his wood by the barn door with the rest. The pile now was the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. He took a stack with him for the woodbox inside the back door.

There were actually two woodboxes; just next to the back porch with a cover, and one inside the back door. He had always told himself “if you don’t have the sense to keep the inside box full in the winter, then you might as well burn furniture.”

Lunch was some leftover bread and green beans, that finished off that jar. He had some jerky that always was a quick protein burst.

“We’ll need to chop some more wood” Val started “I’ll chop some more. Looks like we’re getting a winter storm later today or tonight.”

He looked at Kyle “be sure that both woodboxes are stocked full before we turn in tonight…OK?”

Kyle nodded, wolfing down the last of his beans. “K” he replied.

He looked at Ginger “are you familiar at all with firearms?”

She nodded “the rifle we have, I can shoot it pretty well.”

“I’d like to look at it this afternoon, and go over some pointers if you’re comfortable with that” Val was serious.

“Sure” she said.

Val had not checked out the rifle, but thought he remembered it as a Ruger 10-22. It was. She had several Ruger mags, and a couple 30 round mags. It hadn’t been cleaned in a while. “Do you know how to clean it?” Val asked her.

“Sure do” she answered nonchalantly. “I”ll get right on it.”

Val and Kyle went back to the barn to finish the wood. Kyle was true to his word, and hauled several armfuls to the house woodboxes.

Val continued to chop and Kyle said “both woodboxes are full. What else can I do?”

“Go to the coop and gather whatever eggs are available” Val said “we  may be snowbound a couple days.”

Kyle nodded and took off across the yard towards the coop.

Val chopped for an hour, well after Kyle finished, and he too went inside as the clouds moved closer from the north.

“Check out the .22” said Ginger holding it out for Val.

He looked through  the bore, pulled the bolt and listened; it was cleaned well. “Nice job” he said, heading to the coat closet and removing an ammo box. “Now load up your mags and we’ll have some target practice…just to see where you stand…just humor me OK?”

She smiled “I get it Val” and she proceeded to load up all six mags; 3 ten round and 3 thirty round.

“Watch closely Kyle” Val said “because after today, we’re gonna need you to reload magazines.”

“Oh I can do that…I used to do it for my dad” his words faded away. It was the first time Kyle had mentioned his father.

When she had finished, they went to the back where Val had his targets set up at 15, 25, and 50 yards.

“Pick a target, and unload your magazine as fast as you can, comfortably and in control.

She started at the fifty and dumped 10 rounds into very fast.

Val stopped her and pulled his binocs. Nine out of ten inside the 2 inch circle at center.

He lowered the binocs and looked at her with a smile “outstanding!”

She smiled back, proudly.

“Choose a closer target and dump your larger cap mags into it” he suggested.

She inserted the thirty round mag, put a round in the chamber, and unloaded quickly and with noticeable control into the 25 yard target.

He didn’t count all thirty, but most of the holes were in the bullseye.

“Wow!” Val exclaimed “you’re a regular sharpshooter. Nicely done! I’m satisfied.”

“That gives you 120 rounds with that gun” Val said matter of factly. “I have over 20,000 rounds of 22 LR ammo and several guns to shoot with, including two rifles; a Winchester pump, and a Marlin semi automatic. Both are good guns. I also have a nice Beretta .22 semi auto with 8 mags at ten each. There is also a Kel-Tec PMR30 which shoots .22 magnums. It holds thirty rounds and there are three extra mags for that pistol. I only have about 6,000 rounds of magnum ammo however. Still, it’s a formidable pistol for its caliber.”

Val looked at Kyle “your mom doesn’t need any firearm training as far as shooting the rifle, but you will need some before we are comfortable allowing you to carry a firearm. It won’t take long with some basic rules, and we can start on that this evening.”

Ginger interrupted “Kyle can shoot this as well as I. Let him show you.”

Val nodded and gestured for Kyle to do same.

He loaded the ten round mag and emptied it into the closest target, and with ease, dropped the empty mag, put in another thirty and emptied it also into the close target. Val observed that pieces of target flew away with every shot.

Kyle looked at Val waiting for response…

“OK” said Val. “You guys are hired” he said with a smile. “That is some nice shooting from each of you. Let’s go in now.”

Val sat down at the table and invited the others to join him. “I am really glad you two  showed up here. I hope you’re happy, healthy and comfortable here. If you decide to stay, I’ll need you to be responsible for using a firearm to defend us, our property, our food, our lives.”

Ginger touched Val’s hand “we know what’s out there, Val. We’ve seen first hand the evil that mankind can do to his own” her voice started wavering. “My husband was an outdoorsman to the max. He was ex-military, stored food, saved gold and silver, and talked about buying a retreat location, but I wouldn’t let him do it…I laughed at him.”

Val nodded, as he had been in somewhat the same boat.

“He too, wanted to buy property up here, I didn’t see things his way and denied him the opportunity. We lived outside of Colorado Springs, and when the SHTF, we were caught by surprise…at least I was. My husband had bug out bags for all of us and after the banks fell and power went out, we headed west into the foothills.”

She paused and wiped tears “there were four of us to start out. Our daughter died of exposure within a couple weeks. She was always kind of sickly, and could not take the strenuous hiking and lack of nutrition.”

She sobbed for a moment, and Val patted her hand.

“The hard part was finding water, but we had food for a while. He avoided using the food we brought, so he hunted small game for a long time while we worked our way north. Before we left town, the streets were filled with crazies; setting fire to everything and looting and jumping people in the street. If anyone came at us, my husband shot them, and that kept any others away. We got out of town quickly so escaped the braver ones that ended up with guns.”

“From time to time, we would come across people on our journey. Most were starving, some were very bad people and we caught a group killing some innocents one evening. They were beating the starving people for any food they had, and they kept hitting them. My husband killed them all; there were four of them. The family was mostly dead; mother father, teenage boy, and girl. We buried them right there and my husband burned the bad guys.”

“We saw violence like that off and on for a year as we worked northward.”

“How did you survive the winter on the plains?” Val asked.

“My husband, in all his outdoor treks, found a cave between the Springs and Castle Rock in some insignificant hills, and were able to survive the brunt of the winter there. He shot a couple of elk, and we were able to live on that for a long while.”

“We left in April heading across the state to the east, where we knew the desert plains would be less inviting to those escaping the cities. The snow melt left ample water for a while, and we did OK.”
“One evening, my husband was cutting kindling for a fire and I don’t know what happened but he missed the log and hit the side of his hand between thumb and index finger, cutting it bad. We did the best we could, but a couple of weeks he had sepsis and our only option was to amputate his hand.”

“I couldn’t do it, and we watched him die a horrible death.” She started to cry, and Kyle came over to cry with her.

Val did not interfere with them. They needed to let their grief out.

“So, you picked yourselves up and moved northward, and here you are” Val said.

They calmed down some and nodded, wiping tears.

“I thought we were going to die until you showed up with food” Ginger said “you were like an answer to our prayers. I was so weak, I was barely able to walk through the woods to your house.”

Val held out both his hand to them, and they each took his hand “you two are welcome to live here as part of this homestead as long as you want. I welcome you, and my rules are few, but they are absolute.”

“What are they?” asked Kyle.
“Well” Val began “first we gotta make a sharpshooter outa you like your mom!”

He paused for a moment and said “I am very sorry about your losses; your husband and daughter.”

“Thank you” Ginger whispered. She cleared her throat “and what about you? Whose clothes are we wearing?”

Tears started in Val’s eyes, as he started to talk. He had never spoken these words out loud, and found he could barely speak them.

He shook it off and started again “my wife and I bought this place with all of her retirement money. We made some money from our house in south Texas, auctioned everything we owned, sold our vehicles…” his voice broke off.

“My wife’s daughter was leaving work on her last night, got carjacked in the parking lot, and was beaten to death right there in front of witnesses. No one helped her. We had just sold the house and were moving the next day. She was leaving work for the last time, and we were all moving up here.”

“We had just enough time to cremate her, and get out of Dodge. We weren’t here a month before the banks fell. I never even met hardly any neighbors. My wife had a thyroid problem that required her to take medicine almost daily to regulate her thryoxin. She ran out, after a few months and she passed away early this summer.”

“My boys live in Denver, and I am more ashamed now than ever from what you all did. I had thought about going after them, but felt it was suicide going into Denver to rescue them. I lived in Denver for many years, and I am familiar with some of the scum that lives there. Before I moved, I sent them both emails and directions on how to get here. Maybe they made it, and are on their way. I bought them each a satphone too but have not heard from them yet.”

Kyle spoke up “that’s why you check the road every day, isn’t it?”

“That’s right” Val answered.

The wind began to howl outside.

Kyle got up and found a couple of chunks of wood “one for the stove and one in the fireplace…right Val?”

Val nodded “correct. It’s early yet so maybe we’ll play cards or something for a while.”

Shep began to whine, and Val got up to let him out. “He knows it’s his last chance for a while.”

“What about the coop?” Kyle asked. “It’s still open.”

“I’ll go shut it down” Val said, donning his coat and hat and pistol. “Be right back.”

He was out the door before there were any protests. The wind was brisk and cold, but not much snow…sleet was the word. It stung his cheeks sharply as he went to the coop.

Shep bounded along as Val went into the chicken yard.

The chickens were already inside, and Val closed the hatches; above and below and front, before he locked the gate and went back into the house.

Val’s glasses fogged up immediately when he entered.

Ginger and Kyle stood up and watched him remove his outerwear. It was covered in ice. “Cold?” Kyle asked seriously.

“Not as cold as it’s gonna get” Val said with a smile. He bolted the door shut. “On second thought, I better connect the floodlight in the coop. It’ll help keep them warm.”

He put his coat back on and Kyle said “I wanna go too.”

He was already half dressed when he announced his intentions, and Val did not protest.

They went to the barn first “we’re just going to connect a battery to the inverter at the coop” he began “it’s a 1500 watt floodlight that will put out enough heat to keep the chickens warmer overnight.”

Val grabbed one of several batteries he had connected to an array of wires and cables. “These are connected to some solar panel on the roof” Val continued “they are constantly  being charged an maintained.”

“Wow!” was all Kyle could say as they walked to the coop.

Val set the battery on a ledge outside the coop that had wires already there. He just connected the wires to the terminals and Kyle could see the light through the cracks in the coop.

“All done here” Val said and the two of them headed back to the house, where they removed their coats and hats.

“Let’s check all the windows” Val suggested and showed them how they worked. They were all double pane window, with shutters that had to be closed manually. He explained that the shutters were mostly for protection in a battle as they were solid oak with slots cut. The windows were removable from inside. The front door was never used, and Val had it special fortified with a steel framed and 3 inch solid door. Nothing short of a Ford F350 would get through that.

There wasn’t really a second floor, but an insulated crawl space with a sniper post at the north, east, and the south ends. The roof was sheet metal too, which would keep fire arrows from setting it on fire.

He had not showed the basement to Ginger or Kyle as of yet. There was another bed room there with lots and lots of stored goods; food, ammunition, some water, and secret doors leading to the barn, and another leading to a thicket in the woods behind the coop. He was real proud of the tunnels. He had a contractor dig them before they moved in. They were both six feet deep and 3 feet wide, after the railroad tie supports he used for the side. The floor was brick. The property sloped slightly from east to west and the water would run out the west end through a series of pvc pipes…similar to a septic system.

Also made a right handy root cellar for carrots and potatoes. He had a side room built at each tunnel entrance about six by six feet. Just right. One went right under the back porch, the other went out the front of the house, and around to the barn. The top had been two by sixes with concrete sheetrock with six inches of dirt on that.

Even the door to the basement was in the kitchen floor under a rug. There were no windows in the basement, as the basement was actually built as a root cellar.

In emergency, inhabitants could evacuate and exit safely. At each of the exits, there was a cache of food, rifles, ammo, and water. There were other survival supplies; bug out bags with many cold weather items and first aid.

Chapter Five

The wind continued to blow. From time to time, Kyle would drop another log on each the fireplace and into the stove.

The three of them played spades for a long while. Val made some popcorn on the stovetop with one of the cast iron skillets and a little oil.

There was no clear winner in the spade contest, although there was some contention between Ginger and Kyle about the timing of placement of some cards.

Val wisely stayed out of the argument, which was settled quickly.

They switched to hearts after that which required a clean slate for scoring. Val poured himself some bourbon, which drew some strange looks from the others. “Helps me sleep” Val volunteered “I seriously doubt if we’ll have any problems with insurgents tonight…or tomorrow for that matter” as he took a long draw from his glass.

The wind seemed to blow harder as the day turned into night. One could hear the snow pelt the house. It literally howled, there was no other way to describe it.

Val peeked out the window with Ginger and Kyle to see a full blown blizzard.

“Will the chickens be OK?” Kyle asked, staring towards the coop, which was whited out.

“They should be…we may not have eggs tomorrow though” Val replied.

Kyle stretched and yawned “I’m tired. I think I’ll go to bed after I put some more wood on.”

Even with the two fires going, it was noticeably colder.

“Leave your door open” Val suggested “you’ll be warmer.”

Kyle went in the other room, and disappeared. “I should go too” said Ginger “g’nite Val” she said as she went into the other room.

“G’nite” Val replied.

He had finished his drink, and took some long drinks of water, then went to his own room. He left his door open too. The main room glowed from the fireplace. He undressed, and climbed into bed. He snuggled down, and was soon asleep.

He didn’t know how much time had passed, but was awakened by someone climbing into bed with him.

“Sorry to wake you, Val” Ginger whispered. “I can’t get warm. I need to snuggle next to you. It didn’t seem right spooning with my son.”

“Not a problem” Val groggily agreed.

Ginger climbed in and covered herself, then snuggled her naked body against the back of Val’s. He felt her hard nipples against his back. She pulled herself tight against him. Her body felt cold. She snuggled down under the quilts.

“You are so warm” she whispered with a shiver.

“You better not get sick” Val said.

She wriggled closer against him “just let me do this and I’ll be fine in a couple minutes.”

She put her arm around him and her leg over his. Her other arm, she wiggled it under his neck and hugged him tighter.

Val felt his rod go rigid. He put it out of his mind telling himself that she was too weak…she was twenty years his junior…and he was all of a sudden not sleepy.

He awoke a couple times that he remembered, to turn over, and Ginger had turned as well, but was still close. He spooned her next, and she moaned with pleasure as she pressed herself back to him. He pressed his rod against her backside, and held her. She had warmed up.

The night was a blur, and he did not recall having sex with her, although it was about as close as could be without actually doing it.

He had missed sleeping next to a woman. It wasn’t the sex he missed, it was the closeness of another human being.

Ginger was all woman, no mistake about that.

Chapter Six

Val woke up and it was cold in the room. Ginger was all over him. He didn’t know why, but he kissed her on the forehead and her eyes fluttered open.

“I’ve gotta put some wood on the fire” he whispered, and he climbed out of bed.

The wind had died down, and the sun was just coming up enough to paint the room in a fain gray light. Val put on his jeans…they were cold as well, and his flannel shirt.

Shep was up wagging his tail, and Val opened the door; it wouldn’t. Snowbound. He fought it a few seconds and was able to force it open enough to let Shep out. Shep did not wait for convenience and he climbed up and over the snowdrift, which was about three feet high.

Val closed the door, shivering and wandered back to the fireplace and tossed a few logs with some kindling. He stirred it some, then went to the stove and pulled the ash tray. It had a few coals in it, and he dumped it into his ash can. Then he started a new fire in the stove with some newspaper and kindling. When it started, he put in some bigger wood to get it going.

By now Shep was barking, wanting back inside. Val went to let him in.

Val went back to the bedroom and redressed himself, knowing he had to shovel the back porch to gain access outside while the fires started.

Ginger stirred “I’m cold as hell” only her nose stuck out from the covers.

“Me too” Val said putting on his boots. “It’s going to take a while for the place to heat up so you can get up and get dressed and sit by the fire to warm up, or wait here but it will take an hour or so. It got colder than I thought.” He patted what he thought was her leg, and left the room to put on his coat and go outside.

He put on his big coat and furry hat that strapped down over his ears, strapped on the .45, grabbed the shovel, and squeezed out the back door.

The barnyard was indeed a blanket of deep snow. He stood on the porch and shovelled the snow off to the side, then worked on a partial path toward the coop. He took his time, knowing that shovelling snow was deceptively hard work.

The sun was working its way up in the east, showing the snowfall in its glory.

It’s really beautiful, if you can get around that fact that it’s got to be around zero out here.

Val finished the area he wanted to clean, then went back inside. It had warmed up considerably since he went out. His glasses fogged up quickly.

Kyle was up standing by the stove warming his hands. “Pretty cold” he said with a shiver.

“Yeah, it’s around zero outside” Val replied. “Good thing we got extra eggs yesterday…the hens will be mad this morning and there won’t be any.”

“Will they be OK?” Kyle queried.

“Yeah,  I’ll go check on them later. They’ll need fresh water as theirs will probably be frozen.”

“I’ll go do it” Kyle said, heading for the door.

“It’s really cold” Val reminded “put on the boots, hat and gloves too. Just fill the bucket from here and use that. The chicken feed is…”

“I know where it is” he said, looking at Val “I was paying attention” and he went outside. Shep went with him. He seemed to like his new friend.

Val heard a noise behind him. He turned and there was Ginger wearing a robe. She walked over to him and hugged him “you treat him like he was your own…you have from day 1” she said softly.

He put his arms around her, but not as tight as she. He patted her not knowing what to say.

“You better get dressed so you won’t get sick” Val said quietly. He took her head in his hands and kissed her forehead “go on now” he said with a smile.

She smiled back and disappeared into his room, where she got dressed.

Meanwhile, Val was working on breakfast. He put on the bacon, about a pound and a half with one iron skillet, and toast in the other with eggs on the way.

Kyle worked quickly and was back inside in a few minutes “it’s really cold out there” he exclaimed, walking to the fireplace.

“All is well?” Val asked referring to the chickens.

Kyle nodded, removing his hat “all alive and feisty” he smirked “you were right…they’re kind of pissed off.”

“Kyle!” said Ginger, scolding him with a slight smirk on her face.

“Mom, it’s true” he argued.

“You can express yourself using more delicate language” she said firmly as she stirred the eggs.

“K” Kyle replied…round one, Mom.

They ate bacon, eggs, and sourdough toast with jam.

“Could we make some more bread today?” Kyle asked. “This was the last loaf” as he took another bit.

“Yeah” Val said “it’ll help keep the house warmer too, using the oven. Good idea, I’ll show you how and then you can be our bread smith.”

Kyle pondered the term for a moment “bread smith? Like a bread expert?”

Val looked at Ginger “bright boy.” Val turned to Kyle “you’re exactly right.”

 

 

Chapter Seven

Over the next few weeks, it got cold and warmed up, only to get cold again with several rounds of snow; typical fall weather for northern Wyoming. They used to call them Indian summers.

With his new boarders, Val was getting more into seasonal traditions recently. He found his Sky Scan clock, that kept time from a satellite. It still worked and batteries lasted years. He needed it because he wanted to be sure of the date.

“OK guys” he said one afternoon “Halloween is a couple days away” he said nothing more and waited for a response as they worked on breakfast.

“What does that mean for us?” asked Ginger, almost totally not interested.

Val answered carefully “that means it’s time for my homemade caramels.”

Kyle’s eyes grew wide as he looked at Val, then Ginger “you can make caramel?”

“Sure can” Val answered cockily.

“Can I help?” Kyle asked.

“Sure you can” Val replied “we’ll work on it later today.”

He snuck a peek at Ginger and she snuck a peek back with a little appreciative smile.

Val and Kyle went for a brief perimeter check while Ginger finished the dishes.

When they returned, they made caramels that were a great hit with Kyle and Ginger.

They stood around eating them, and Val found himself staring at Ginger’s body. She had filled out nicely in the last few weeks as she chewed her caramel, she caught him looking at her and smiled in a way he had not seen.

She leaned against the counter and crossed her legs.

Kyle was chatting about how he could make pralines with the next batch of caramels. Val found  himself answering him with one word answers.

“These are better than Brach’s caramels, Val” Ginger said, still chewing. “What is your inspiration for all your kitchen talents?”

Without hesitation, Val replied “I learned very young that if I wanted to eat something I liked, I had to make it myself…and I did. This was something I learned how to do much later in life.”

Ginger paused and shifted her weight to her other leg and recrossed them while taking another piece of candy “you are an excellent cook. You’ve really outdone yourself now. You keep raising the bar. How can we compete with this?” She held up a piece of candy.

“It’s not a contest” Val answered “we’re all on the same team.”

There was silence except for the noise of chewing caramels.

“So what are your plans for the upcoming holidays and fall festivities?” asked Ginger. She was serious.

Val held up a candy “this was a start. Obviously, we can’t go trick or treating, but maybe we could make some costumes and/or dress up just for fun…if the weather cooperates.”

Kyle spoke up “yeah! Could we mom?”

“Sure” she said, finishing her caramel. “Enough candy for now. It’ll spoil our supper.”

They finished the day making and eating dinner early.

Val went outside to look at the sky. Clouds to the north…moving this way. Looks like another front.

He reported his observations to Kyle and Ginger and they made preps for another cold couple of days. By dark, they had chopped and stockpiled much more wood in the boxes and more ready in the barn.

The next day was the 30th. Kyle and Ginger were very secretive and spent time in their room with the door closed. Val figured they were working on their costumes and he did same.

It got very cold again with snow, and they spent time playing cards and letting Shep in and out.

On Halloween, it was cold again and they worked on their little Halloween party. Val dug out his dartboard and found some balloons.

Later in the day, out came the costumes. Kyle had found an old pair of overalls and dressed up like the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz. It was a good likeness as he had scrounged some straw and tucked it in various places in his outfit. His  mom painted his nose nice and red with some blush or something.

Ginger dressed up like Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. She had made a beautiful black dress, with a plunging neckline and slits cut in the right places. She was absolutely gorgeous and Val told her so.

Val put on his big clunker boots and fashioned a Frankenstein like face with gray ash and some gadgets for his electrodes. Pants that were too short were a help.

They complimented each other and played darts, ate candy apples, cards and sipped Val’s homemade cider.

As they cleaned up after their festivities, Kyle said “man, that was the most fun I’ve had in years.”

Val replied “you turned out to be a pretty good dart player too.”

Val smiled then yawned.

“Better get off to bed. We’re up early tomorrow” Ginger said.

“How about one scary story?” Val asked.

Ginger nor Kyle spoke, but looked at each other with wide eyes.

Val told a couple of unsolved supernatural stories…not too scary compared to some of the stuff he had heard.

When he finished, Ginger sent Kyle to bed with no protest from him.

Ginger stood next to Val and held her hand out to him “come with me Mr. Monster.”

She led Val to his room and closed the door. “You need to wash your face” she said handing him some wipes.

As he cleaned up, she loosened her dress.

Val began to undress down to his boxers.

Ginger walked to him and they embraced in a long passionate kiss.

Val fumbled with her dress, but was unable to find any fastener.

Ginger reached up and pulled the dress over her shoulders and it fell to the floor.

She had no underthings and Val stepped back and looked at her beautiful body.

Her breasts were much larger than the first day her saw her. She held them and caressed her erect nipples “OK?” she asked with a smile.

Val said “you are absolutely beautiful” he whispered.

She blushed.

She had trimmed her bush too. It matched the color of her hair. Her hips and thighs had filled out nicely, and Val thought his manhood would burst from its skin.

He dropped his shorts and she stared at him. He moved to her and she took his cock into her hand, and  guided him to the bed where she sat on the edge and started to suck him.

She let out little moans as she went to work, obviously enjoying her work as did Val.

He took as long as he could and then held her head and took over. She let him move her head up and down his cock…faster and faster.

He stopped and lay her down and went for her womanhood, knowing full well of the pleasure he was about to give her.

He found her clitoris and sucked it gently for several minutes, her pelvis arching high, until she pushed him away “I want you inside me” she whispered.

Val climbed onto her an pushed his cock into her vagina. It slid all the way in and she exhaled as he did so.

He pumped her for several minutes until he came. He shot his load and she moaned as he thrusted his squirts into her.

He lay on her until his erection went down and they climbed under the covers, both breathing heavily.

She climbed into his waiting arms, and they slept exchanging ‘I love you’.

Val recalled making love to her a second time during the course of the night.

Chapter Eight

As the sun was just coming through the window in Val’s window, Shep barked. Val sat bolt upright and began throwing on his clothes.

Ginger was awake too. “What is it?” she asked, obviously frightened.

“Dunno” Val answered “could be nothing…” he paused “could be danger. Get dressed…Kyle too. Get your firearms and await instructions…go now…please.” He leaned over and kissed her as she scurried off into the other room.

Val had just put his boots on when Shep barked again. Val went to the back door; checked the peephole; nothing.

Shep growled.

Val opened the smaller peep door…footprints in the back going across the yard to the coop…one set only…going in.

Shep growled and Val opened the door. Shep tore ass across the yard towards the coop.

Val set his rifle at his shoulder and aimed at the door to the coop.

Ginger showed up at his side with the big Rossi “what do you see?” she whispered.

“Someone is in the coop” he whispered back, leaning slightly towards her.

Shep barked and someone yelled “call off the dog! Please!” said a man’s voice.

“Hold up your hands and come out” Val yelled firming his grip.

Ginger went back inside to the kitchen window and cracked it slightly, resting her rifle on the sill. She pulled back the hammer.

The man came out of the coop, his hands raised. He walked briskly to the gate with Shep barking and nipping at his heels.

As he exited the coop yard, Val yelled “stop and close the gate!”

Shep started more aggressively barking and threatening the intruder.

“Please call off your dog!” he repeated.

“Shep! Down! Stop” Val yelled. Shep complied, but did not retreat and continued to growl.

“Turn around and grab the fence up high” Val commanded “take off your coat first!”

“Wh What’re you gonna do?” he intruder asked, obviously frightened.

“Search you” Val said, poking the rifle at him.

The intruder did not move.

“Warning shot!” Val yelled.

The 45-70 boomed from the kitchen window and crashed into the corner post on the  chicken coop yard.

The intruder dropped his coat, turned around, and reached as high as he could to grab the fence.

“Gloves…Off!” Val yelled.

“My hands will freeze to the fence!” complained the intruder as he removed his gloves.

“That will be the absolute least of your problems this morning, after trying to steal from me” said Val as he patted the man down…taking his time. Shep was still baring teeth and growling.

Val retrieved a .357 from the man’s back. Val cocked the hammer and stuck it in the man’s back…hard. “Now, no time for lies here and now.” Val shoved the gun harder into the man’s back. “Who the hell else is with you?”

“Jjust my ddaughter” he stammered. “ShShe’s really sick and I was trying to get her some food.”

“So, you were going to steal a chicken or eggs and feed her with that?” Val queried. “How were you going to cook it?”

“I ddon’t know” he replied. I had to do somethin'”

Val pulled the gun out of the man’s back “OK, put  your coat on, and take us to your daughter. We can help.” He handed the man’s gun back.

The man was wide-eyed as he took his gun back “ththanks  mister.” He put the gun back into his belt.

“Follow me” Val said, heading to the back porch “Let’s take a ride before breakfast” Val said to Ginger as she emerged from the house onto the porch. She nodded, and went back inside, returning with some food and water.

Kyle poked his head out “can I go?”

Val returned his question with “boil some bath water and make coffee. We’ll be back in a little while with a sick girl.”

Val motioned the man to follow to the barn, and Ginger followed too.

Val started the four wheeler, with the stranger in the front and Ginger in the back.

“I’m Anson” the man said, holding out his hand to Val as they pulled out of the barn.

Val took it “I’m Val, and that is Ginger.”

Anson said “I don’t have the words to thank you.”

Ginger said firmly “If you’re on the level, we’re happy to help. If you’re lying, you’ll be the first one killed.”

Anson seemed briefly startled, but then smiled “you’ll soon see we’re no threat to you. The gun was not loaded.”

They went out the front gate and down the main road “how the hell did you get across the gate?” Val asked.

“Just climbed it” Anson replied “Juliette could not have done it.” He pointed ahead “Just under that big tree.”

They pulled up under the tree to a small tent. “Honey!” Anson called “I brought help” as they all got out of the four wheeler.

Juliette crawled out. She was no girl…a young woman was a better description. She coughed as she stood up…it was a phlemmy cough.

They packed up what little they had into the four wheeler and Val bee lined back home.

Chapter Nine

Kyle had the water poured into the tub and Ginger assisted in bathing her. Val fixed up a steam tent over the extra bed.

Of her few belongings, Val noticed an antique cameo necklace among Juliette’s things. “That’s a beautiful necklace” Val said kinda to no one.

Juliette coughed and replied from the bathroom “thanks. It was my mom’s, and her mother’s before her.”

They got Juliette dressed and put to bed with broth, tea, and some water with vitamins, and a bed of rocks to keep her warm. Anson stayed with her and rubbed Vapo Rub on her chest.

She had fever as well, and they kept her pumped with meds for a couple days before she started getting better.

Kyle ran the ranch as Val, being always suspicious, tried to stay close to the house…just in case.

Anson and his family had drifted up from Nebraska. They were farmers before the collapse, and had been raided by bad people who took all their harvest and livestock.

There was an uncle and Anson’s wife to start, and when they ran out of gas, they hit the trail towards what they thought was a relative’s ranch outside of Laramie. The uncle had passed from drinking creek water (it looked clear was what they said).

Anson’s wife was killed by a bear attack, leaving Anson and Juliette on their own. Their supplies ran out and were forced to live on what they could scrounge. They dared not approach strangers. When they got to Laramie, the mystery ranch did not exist, nor did their relatives.

They pressed onward as they were not welcome; being strangers and they ended up on the road to Val’s.

“Best wrong turn I ever made” Anson said over and over.

Juliette got stronger and soon was able to get around the house. When Anson felt comfortable enough, he left the house to help Kyle with chores.

The women seemed to get along fine…seemed. Juliette was seventeen and when she got to be herself, she fell for Val. She let her feelings known, and it caused considerable trouble between Ginger and Juliette.

Anson was wise to spend more time outside…cold as it was.

Juliette made advances toward Val on several occasions, and Ginger finally made her demand: “Get rid of them, or we’ll leave.”

She did this at the dinner table one evening in mid-November with everyone present.

Val knew it was coming and replied “Anson, you and Juliette are healthy and strong now. Time to hit the road. We’ll front you food and supplies, but you’ve worn out your welcome here. Weather permitting, tomorrow is the day.”

Anson seemed to expect it and did not argue. Juliette, however was surprised and decided to argue.

“Well” she started with a loud whisper “after all we’ve done here…”

Val interrupted her and stood up to his towering six feet and leaned in her direction “we owe you nothing…nothing. We opened up our door and let you in. We nursed you from near death and we never got as much as a ‘thank  you’ from you. Your father has thanked us profusely for days and days…but nothing from you.”

Now he got agitated “you have done nothing nothing here except take from us.” He pointed at the door “now you go now while I’m asking  nice, because if I gotta ask again, it’s gonna be by the scruff of your neck.”

He stood pointing until they got up and grabbed their stuff. Ginger packed some bread, bacon and jerky; about enough for a week or so.

Anson turned and shook Val’s hand “thanks again for everything, Val. I’m sorry it had to end like this.”

They left at dark. Val watched them after letting them through the main gate as long as he could see them.

He went back to the house where Ginger and Kyle were waiting for him. Ginger, with her arms folded across her chest “well, is she gone?”

“For now” Val replied, removing his coat.

“What does that mean?” Ginger said surprised.

“That means that we haven’t seen the last of her” Val said “she’ll be back, sooner or later and she’ll want to finish what she started.”

“And that is…” Ginger persisted.

“To take over this place and rule the kingdom” Val replied without hesitation. “She likes it here. She likes being taken care of. The next step is to be queen, but she couldn’t take over by herself. She’ll find someone someday to do  her bidding. Shoulda shot her.”

“Easy now big fella” she responded, patting his shoulder. “We can’t start executing people.”

Val shook his head “sure we can. I’ll bet a week’s worth of chopping wood that we will see her again, and we will have to kill her…to stop her.”

He looked at both of them “we’re going to have to be sharper from now on.” He held up his index finger “no one goes anywhere without a sidearm from  now on…even to the coop…ever. Are we clear?”

Kyle gulped and nodded.

Ginger replied with a nod “yeah, we get it and I hear what you say about her. We’ll have to do other things too…change some stuff that she’s familiar with.”

Val looked at Ginger with new appreciation “that’s exactly what we need to do. Let’s talk about it tomorrow and see what we come up with…I got an idea too.”

Chapter Ten

After a night of more restful sleep with the guests gone, Ginger and Val arose to resume normal activities. Kyle was up too and began his chores.

At breakfast, they discussed some new defensive strategies.

Val started “I need to work on the big gate…some kind of dead fall system or electrify it with a generator.”

“You have a generator?” asked Kyle through a piece of bacon.

“Yes, three of them” Val replied.

“Why don’t you use them?” Kyle insisted.

“They make noise when running and they use fuel. No doubt they are handy though.”

“How much gas do we  have?” asked Kyle again.

“About fifteen hundred gallons” Val replied.

“Wow!” Kyle explained “where is it?”

“Underground outside the barn. You’ve seen that pipe in the corner that runs to the roof?”

Kyle nodded.

“That’s the vent.”

Ginger spoke up “I like the idea of something at the gate. Do you have any barb wire? That can deter excited people from climbing.”

Val nodded in agreement “three heads are better than one. Keep the think tank going guys. I’d like to rig some kind of trip wire system along our fenceline. Maybe a dead fall there too. No doubt, Shep has proven very valuable and they will try to kill him too…probably first, depending on their strategist.”

They sat for a few minutes in thought.

Kyle asked “how’re you gonna do deadfalls and cover them up if there’s snow?”
“That’s a very good question, Kyle” said Val. “Snow and ice can be a good cover for deception also. We can use that to our advantage.”

Val looked up at the ceiling “we also have a very good sniper post upstairs that has full view of the front yard, gate and the big gate as well as the fenceline” he looked at Ginger. “I’ll need to show  you the upstairs. You will be appointed sniper.”

“What’ll I shoot?” she asked.

Val got up and went to the broom closet, removed a panel in the back, and pulled out a scoped rifle. “I got this from my brother to ‘hold’ for him. It’s a 7mm Remington Magnum.” He handed it to her “the CIA used to use this type of rifle for assassinations.”

She put it to her shoulder “the stock’s a bit long” she said matter of factly. It was obvious.

“I’ve got another” Val said “for my brother’s son who was a little small. My brother had the stock custom built for his son and it should be perfect for you.” He walked to the closet and removed a leather wrapped object; it was the other stock.

“What about me?” Kyle asked excitedly.

“I’d like you to be our rover” Val said after a moment of thought.

“Rover?” Kyle inquired

“Yeah, kinda like a guerilla fighter. Remember the observations posts and bunker I showed you? The ones we did not show to Anson and Juliette?”

Kyle nodded, smiling.

“Those will be your responsibility to occupy and flee when necessary. Plus, the barn, the coop, and the garage as well as the old shed I dragged to the woods.”

“Check each one and make sure you have clear vision for 270 degrees. Get inside and stay there practicing aiming, crouching. Bring or install a pee bucket although you shouldn’t have to wait long inside of one unless we are expecting trouble.”

“Remember, if we have snow on the ground, they can tell if we’ve been walking around and can see our tracks to. You tracks will lead them right to your ob post. Learn to back track. It may fool them once and save your life. You never go to a post without backup so you can get away. It would not be good for you to get pinned down in a post. Always a good idea to take plenty of ammo for whatever guns you are carrying.”

He stopped a moment and looked at both of them “if you go to a post, take your semi auto pistol, and a semi auto rifle with no less than 600 rounds for each weapon, and as many mags you can carry.”

“We begin practicing today with the .45s and nine mm. I want both of you to practice shooting from prone position, kneeling, and standing towards the fenceline. Also, get into the posts and practice from there as well.”

The rest of the day was firearm practice. Kyle was able to handle the nine mm a little easier than the .45, and Val was a little relieved. He liked the nine mils because they could hold many more rounds in a mag compared to the .45. This would give Kyle an opportunity to carry more rounds with him. The Hi-Point 995 would be ideal rifle for him as well. He planned to have Ginger use the Hi-point 4595 with her Glock 21 for bunker fire or around the yard.

Later in the day, they went upstairs. Val showed them the two favored sniper positions; facing the north, and the east. Each had a window with a heavy blackout cover from the inside. The window was square with four panes, and would open inward. One would have to move the black cover out of the way first before opening the window.

He went out and set up some targets along the main gate and fenceline for Ginger to practice. She did near perfect as she hit every can on the first shot.

Val went back to reset the targets for Kyle to practice as well. The 7mm kicks like a pissed off mule. It took Kyle several shot to get at ease with the powerful rifle. When he settled down, Val told him “if you have to be up here, use the 30-30. You have more available rounds, and that caliber is no slouch. Matter of fact, that is probably what you should shoot anyway if folks are at the gate. That big one should be for long shots.”

Kyle nodded, rubbing his shoulder. “That hurts…I’d hate to have to shoot that for very many rounds.”

Val tussled Kyle’s hair “you did great! My shoulder would hurt too.”

Kyle looked up at him with a smile “I’m hungry.”

“Me too” said Val and they scooted across the floor to the stairs, and went down where Ginger had some sandwiches ready.

They discussed a great deal of their target practice, and were pleased.

Val showed them the rest of the gun and ammo stashes; some in the basement, some in the tunnel under the barn, some in the shed that had been relocated to the woods, and a couple other places.

At bed time, Val announced “tomorrow we’ll work on our perimeter strategies.”

The went to bed. Kyle went to his room, as Ginger now slept with Val regularly.

Chapter Eleven

Morning came as usual with the sun turning the early morning from gray to bright to blue as they got up and started breakfast.

Almost at the same time, Shep’s ears perked up and they all heard a horn honk from the direction of the big gate.

Val went to the cupboard, pulled out some radios and gave them each one, and one for himself. “Do what I say exactly” he said and went out the back door with Shep.

He took the 30-30 and his Glock 21. He went around the corner of the house and stopped.

The car at the gate was the Sheriff’s car. A man got out and waved.

Val waved back and headed toward the gate, carrying his rifle in a non threatening way.

When he reached the gate, he was greeted with a big smile and an eager hand sticking through the gate “good morning! I’m Sheriff Blevins. I hope I’m not disturbing you.”

Val smiled shook his hand, and said “I know who you are. I voted for you.” Val unlocked the gate “come on in for some breakfast.”

Val keyed the mic on his radio “we’re gonna have a guest for breakfast. Please set another place.”

The Sheriff pulled in and Val got in the car. They drove around the side of the house and parked by the back door.

They went inside and were greeted by Ginger and Kyle who directed him where to sit. Bacon, eggs, toast and coffee were served.

The Sheriff started the unpleasantries. “Have you all seen anyone wandering through in the past few months?”

Val started “besides these two, there was a man and his daughter here…we threw them out a couple days ago after we nursed the girl back to  health.”

The sheriff was writing this down in a notebook “older man and late teens girl? Blonde hair?”

Val and Ginger looked at each other.

“I’ll take that as a yes” as he continued to write “I have spoken to others in the county that have mentioned them…” He thumbed through his pages and was counting out loud…”yep, two other citizens have mentioned two people fitting this description…” he stopped and looked at Val.

Val stared back at him “advance scouts?”

The sheriff nodded “I was thinking that too.”

Val looked in disbelief “we have to catch them.”

He stood up and said “Shit, and I let them go.”

The sheriff spoke calmly “we’ll get ’em…we’ll get ’em.”

“How can we help?” asked Val.

“Gotta satphone?” asked the sheriff.

Val nodded, heading to the bedroom where he kept it on the window sill.

They exchanged numbers, and sat back down.

The sheriff pulled out his notebook again and asked “might there be anyone heading this direction from either of your families?” he looked at Val and Ginger.

Ginger shook her head and said a soft “no.”

Val replied “before we left Texas, I left detailed maps with my two brothers and two sons, and told them if they could get here, they could live in utopia.”

“Names?” the sheriff poised his pen.

“Joe and Shawn are my two brothers and my sons are Charles and Tommy. My brothers may have their families with them…that would be two wives and three kids with them.”

Ginger pulled a skillet off the stove “more toast?” she pulled a couple pieces out and placed them on a plate.

Val reached for one “sure would be better if I had some fresh butter.”

The deputy stopped writing and looked at Val “I could probably help you out with that.” He gestured in a general direction behind him “we found an elderly citizen had passed away in her home…a couple weeks ago. She had a couple cows with a calf. They were taken to the Bronson ranch. Do you know old man Bronson?” he looked at Val.

“Yeah” Val replied “I met him when we first moved here looking for our own ranch” he chuckled “looks different when there’s snow on the ground. Seemed like a down to earth fellow. I doubt if he’d remember me though.”

“He’s got the biggest spread in these parts to the north of you. His ranch runs into Montana. I usually stop in at his place nearly every day. He’s got lots of folks working for him and they usually have strangers stopping by. I’ll let him know you’re still around and doing well. OK if I give him your sat #?”

Val nodded “sure. I might just swing over to see him myself. Can’t ever have too many friends these days.”

“Good idea” agreed the sheriff.

He stood up and offered his hand to Val, Ginger and Kyle “glad to have met you folks and that  you’re doing well. I’ll be in touch and check on you from time to time.”

He grabbed his coat and hat, tipped his hat, and left. Val went as far as the big gate to lock up behind.

He went back to the house and closed the driveway gate. The sun was out full and Val studied the pasture across the road. Something caught his attention in the bright morning sun. He walked back across the road towards the pasture and verified his suspicion; footprints in the snow…two sets walking from the big gate fence to the south into the southern woods.

Val returned to the house quickly.

“What is it?” Ginger asked when he came through the back door. “Your face is pale.” She walked to him and caressed his face.

“Footprints in the snow across the road…in the pasture going to the woods” he pointed. “We’re going to have to go find them…whoever they are. We can’t have people watching us.”

Ginger grabbed his arm “Val, what does all this mean? Scouts and footprints and hunting…I’m scared.”

Val turned and gave her a hug and motioned for both of them to sit.

“Anson and Juliette we think are advance scouts or spies for a larger group that may be lying nearby waiting for whatever information those two have gathered. What they do is they get inside folks housed and asses their defensive capabilities, food supplies, weapons and ammo store, and potential long term survival shelter.”

He continued “the sheriff said that they had been in two other homes that he knew of…who knows how many more that did not report? That information could be very valuable to an invading force, and  now we’re on the list too.”

“We don’t know who crossed our land…or when, but someone did since our perimeter check yesterday. They might be harmless” he shook his head “but I doubt it. If they mean us harm, then we must do harm to them first, or at least show them we will do so if necessary.” He paused and looked at them “if either of you has a problem with killing a person then you must speak now, because I am depending on both of you to kill if necessary. If you don’t, then we won’t stand a chance, and will likely die horrible deaths; if they decide to kill us. They would probably kill me, but they might sexually enslave you, or torture both of you to find out where all our gun and food stashes are.”

Both nodded solemnly.

“All right then.” He looked at Kyle “let’s you and I go on a little exploration quest. We’ll go behind our house and around to the south to the other woods.” He paused and looked at Ginger “I’ll need  you in the lookout with your sniper rifle. Keep your binoculars close and watch all directions, staying out of sight. We’ll carry radios and they might be as well. Remember our codes? North is South, East is West. One is two, and anything more than three is doubled. Lookout is big gate and vice versa. If you see someone, let us know.”

“OK?”

Val retrieved the sat phone and called the sheriff “this is Val. We found footprints of two heading from our north fence across the pasture into the woods. We’re going to investigate.”

“Keep me posted on anything you find” the sheriff replied “if you need help, I can ask Bronson to send some guys. We’ll need a friendly password.”

“Hooty Hoot! Hooty Hoot!” replied Val.

He heard the sheriff chuckle “that’ll work, Val” he said good-bye…still chuckling.

Chapter Twelve

Val had put on his makeshift ghillie poncho, and one for Kyle. They were white with streaks of black and gray through them. Good camo for snow covered forest ground terrain.

Val went out the back door with his Hi-point .45, the 30-30, and Glock. Kyle kept his 9mm guns. Ginger followed to the barn and went to the lookout tower. After a few minutes she said “nothing moving that I can see…that doesn’t mean their not around.”

As Val and Kyle headed to the back barn door, Ginger whispered to Val loudly “don’t  you let anything happen to him Val!”

Val looked up and she blew him a kiss.

The rear of the barn was only a few yards from the woods, and Val and Kyle covered that ground quickly, staying low.

The woods did not accumulate snow like the open ground did, but still had a couple inches to deal with.

“You watch behind us frequently” Val said “If you see me drop to the ground, then you do same. Try to walk in my footsteps if you can. Watch for wildlife too.”

Kyle nodded and Val led on through the forest.

It was slow going…slow for them too…Val thought. They crossed the clearing on which they took the four wheeler to get Kyle…no prints there. They entered the woods on the other side of the trail.

Almost to the corner of the property, where they would have turned was where they stopped. Val squatted down, as did Kyle.

They were silent. Val thought he saw something across the corner of the barnyard in the woods across the diagonal. He stopped and looked for several minutes, and then it moved again.

At first, he saw one person in olive drab fatigues moving next to the treeline, carrying a lever action rifle of some type.

He pointed for Kyle’s sake and Kyle whispered “I see ’em.”

Val keyed his mic “we are corner of north barnyard and see movement in trees on north side…you see?”

Ginger responded with one key on her mic…one for yes, two for no.

They waited another few seconds and a second figure moved towards the corner.

If they get much closer to the corner, Ginger won’t be able to see them.

Val keyed his mic “see the second one?”

One click back.

“If I have to shoot, I’ll take the first one. Don’t shoot unless I do.”

One click back.

Val turned to Kyle “go over there to our left about fifteen feet and get on the ground.”

Kyle moved quicker than Val would have.

Val yelled out “You’re on private property and you are trespassing!”

The other figures froze.

“Walk out into the clearing with your firearms in the air!”

Val keyed his mic “warning shot.”

He had not even unkeyed when a boom went off and the bullet must have hit on the ground between the two as they scampered into the field with their rifles in the air.

“Don’t shoot!” one of them said.

“Don’t move!” called out Val.

He motioned for Kyle to move into his position “stay here and cover me while I go talk to them.”

Val got up and headed towards them through the woods until he got close then walked into the clearing towards the two.

Val had shouldered his 30-30 and had his Glock drawn as he approached. He went to his right to leave room for Kyle to bring one down if necessary.

They still were holding their guns in the air when Val got to them.

They were two young men, and from Val could tell, well fed telling him that they were from close by.

“OK guys. What are you doing on my land?” Val quizzed.

“W We were just hunting” said the first man.

The other one followed with “we didn’t know you was here mister. We mean you no harm.”

“Put your guns down” said Val. He looked at the second guy “you’re one of the Bronsons ain’t ya?”

He nodded and held out his hand “I’m BJ” he said with a smile.

The other man said “I’m Skip Stephens. My aunt lives up the road from you..or used to. She passed away a few months ago.”

They shook hands and Val hit his mic “all clear here. You guys can stand down. Kyle, come on out.”

“Let’s go back to the house” Val said and the trudged along the fenceline back towards the barn.

He cut across the barnyard early in front of the garage.

Ginger was waiting for them at the house with coffee. Val didn’t invite them inside and they chatted while they drank.

BJ started “we saw the sheriff’s car here when we went across the pasture. He stops by our house almost every day and we figured he was just checking your place out to see if you was home.”

“How did you guys get over the big fence?” Val asked.

They looked at each other and laughed “that was the hardest fence we ever climbed” said Skip “those pole were so slippery with ice that we could barely get a grip, then our feet kept slipping off.”

BJ continued “we had to go up one at a time and pass the guns through. No way could we carry them up and down again.”

Val stroked his beard “that’s good to know. I never climbed it.”

They all sipped some coffee and Val said “you guys are welcome to hunt here anytime you want, but next time let us know you’re here so you won’t shoot us and we won’t shoot you.”

“Sounds fair mister” said BJ.

“Call me Val.”

“But how do we get in?” asked Skip.

“Good question” said Val “I’ll tell you what. I’ll put up a bell and you just crack it with the little hammer that’s with it. I’ll get that up today.”

They finished their coffee and BJ said “thanks for the coffee Val, and thanks for not shooting us. We should be getting back now.”

“You guys want a lift?”

“Sure, that’d be great. It was a lot further walk than we thought” chimed in Skip.

“Kyle, let’s get them four wheelers out” Val said.

Kyle was immediately excited “both of them? Can I drive one?”

“Sure can” Val said.

The second one Val kept covered. It was a bigger one, and Val drove that one while Kyle took the two boys in his.

They took off and Val opened the big gate, then locked it behind them. They took off down the road trying to keep up with Kyle, who was having entirely too much fun.

Chapter Thirteen

It was indeed many miles to the Bronson ranch, and Val stopped when he approached what he thought was the last hill before the ranch.

They stopped and turned off the engines and they heard gunfire down below. Everyone scrambled to the top of the hill, keeping low they crawled to the crest and looked below to the bottom of the valley.

More bikers in the road and driving through the yard was the problem.

Val pulled out his sat phone and punched in Bronson’s number. An excited “hello” was what he heard.

Val, in his best Irish accent said “Well Mr. Bronson. Might ye be needing some extra guns this morning. I’ve two lads and three extra guns at your service.”

“You got BJ? He’s OK?”

“Yes and Yes. We’re at the top of the hill to the east.”

“Tell BJ to come down the old cattle trail. He knows which one. You guys can hit them from there. That’ll get rid of ’em.”

“We’re on our way.”

Val looked at BJ “did you get that?”

“Yep” BJ said “this way.”

They crept along the top of the hill, then down to the south side of the road where the cattle trail followed the fenceline. They worked it quickly to get in range and took cover behind the trees adjacent to the fenceline.

“Fire at will!” said BJ and he and Skip started shooting.

Kyle sat down behind a tree and didn’t do anything.

Val said “don’t hit the Harley Davidsons, man! They don’t make them anymore.!”

BJ and Skip broke out into laughter, and Val commenced to shooting with his Glock 21. He emptied two mags at random, and when BJ and Skip got their composure back, they began shooting too.

The gang soon headed out back down to the road to the west.

When they were out of site, the five crossed the road towards the house.
Val saw one downed motorcycle and two biker bodies; one was still alive trying to reach a gun.

Val went to him and stood on the gun he was after.

BJ and Skip were greeted by family from inside the house.

“Are you completely stupid!” said Val to the downed biker. “You got some kinda death wish? What the hell are you doing attacking a house on a bike, you dumbass!”

He pointed to the house and buildings “these guys were just having fun today. Next time it’s going to be some serious target practice, and your pals will be the ducks!”

Val looked around at the gathering crowd “Am I right?” he yelled.

“Damn straight!” said one guy.

“Fuckin’ A! said a few more with chuckles.

“Fuck you” said the biker.

“Well that’s a hell of an attitude, considering you’re about to die!” Val kept on.

“Y YOu can’t do that!” he retorted.

“Oh, I beg to differ. You see, I was talking to the sheriff just this morning and I agreed to call him whenever we killed someone. Your pal there is one, and…well…what the heck! Might as well make it two bodies.”

A chuckle from the crowd.

“No wait” Val with feigned concern looking at the crowd “y’all got any hogs here?”

“Yep sure do” was the murmur.

Val clapped his hands one time “there you have it. We’ll just feed you and  your sorry ass buddy to the pigs! No evidence! Problem solved!”

The crowd gave up some light applause and more laughter.

A voice from behind Val said “C’mon up Val!” still laughing.

Val got up and had a hand stuck at him “BJ Bronson. I am really glad to meet you.”

“Likewise” Val smiled back. He stopped and turned to Kyle and Skip. “Would you guys mind bringing up the four wheelers?”

They tore ass out of the yard and up the hill while the rest watched.

“Kids” Val said shaking his head “wish I had that much energy.”

“C’mon in you two!” said BJ.

They were led inside the very nice and large log cabin style home that was really huge.

Val asked “did you all have any casualties?”

“Nobody hurt. Sit down please and be our guests” BJ said “bring out some more breakfast for us” he called to no one in particular.

He reached under the cabinet and pulled out a bottle of Maker’s Mark bourbon and some glasses.

As he poured he said “now you never did introduce me to  your lovely wife” he said with a smile.

“This is Ginger” Val said “and she shoots better than I do.”

He poured bourbon for as long as the glasses lasted. Ginger even took one and slammed down a shot.

“I sure do appreciate your not shooting my boy” he kept on.

“Oh, we wouldn’t have shot anyone unless they shot first.” Val continued “Ginger took that warning shot between them and they scampered right out into the field. I knew right then that they were good lads. A bad person would have just fired willy nilly at nothing.”

“Well, you and Ginger are good people and you are always welcome in our home.”

A woman came out then. She had been crying. “This is my wife Eunice” BJ said.

Eunice kindly walked over to Val, who stood up to shake her hand, then she shook hands with Ginger. “Very pleased to meet you both” she said faintly.

The conversation went around to various things; what the sheriff had been up to, the biker gang shootings, cattle rustling, smoking bacon, gardening.

The kids were out in the road riding the four wheelers up and down.

Well Mr. Bronson. We better head back to the ranch. Ain’t no one there watching the place. I get kinda antsy when I’m away too long.

BJ stood up and said “I understand. He called back to no one in particular “bring up a tub of that butter and some beef for these folks.”

A thunder of footsteps up the stair produced a couple of men with gifts of food.

“You don’t know how much I appreciate this” Val said “I was getting played out on chicken.”

BJ checked the beef bundle “good! He put in a few pounds of bacon too. The sheriff said you might be interested in pasturing some cattle this summer.”

“Count on it” Val said.

“OK, I will” said BJ and he held out his huge hand “until next time my new friend.”

“Indeed” answered Val as they left the house.

They were able to round up the four wheelers, and Kyle took one, while Ginger and Val took the other back home.

Chapter Fourteen

Val was excited about the food he had received from BJ. Ginger promised to have to roast later.

“So what else is on your mind?” Ginger asked “you seem like your thinking…like conspiracy or something.”

“You know me so well…and in such a short time” Val responded with a smile. “I was just thinking about how the Bronsons got surprised so easily by a bunch of bikers.”

“Surprised how?” Ginger was intrigued.

“Well, the Bronson have what…forty or fifty guys on that ranch? And the bikers happened to show up when most of them were out on a round up?”

They both thought for a minute in silence.

“I hear what you’re saying” Ginger said “but I got nothing except a chill down my spine thinking about a possible informer.”

“Me too” replied Val as they pulled up to the big gate where Kyle was waiting for them. They passed through and Kyle locked up behind them.

Continuing the conversation in the barn, Val went on “BJ himself his last employee was hired over two years ago. That was the crash. No one could have predicted when to plant a spy. Maybe I’m just a little too paranoid.”

Kyle drove in and they service the vehicles, and topped off the gas tanks, covering up the larger one.

The subject was dropped and was not spoken of again until several weeks later.

Chapter Fifteen

Thanksgiving came and went. They had no turkey, but had roast chicken..not anything new, but the Bronsons traded some veggies from their root cellar; potatoes, carrots, onions, and a pumpkin for some loaves of Kyle’s now famous sourdough bread. Val made pumpkin pie which was the highlight of Thanksgiving dinner. Some fresh cream and they had whipped cream as well.

The weather continued its pattern; cold and snowy storms which lasted longer and longer with few warm days into December.

The temps were starting to get into the single digits by mid-December, which limited any long term outside activity.

About the twentieth of December, Val got a call on the satphone. It was BJ.

“Howdy Val!” BJ sounded excited.

“Season’s greetings from our family to yours” Val replied.

“I gotta couple of early presents for you” BJ was hardly able to contain himself.

“In what manner are these gifts?” Val queried. “Shall I come up and get them now?”

“You damn well better. They’re eating me out of house and home” BJ was laughing now. “Two scrawny lads and a  scrawny girl.”

Val stiffened and his eyes grew wide “my boys?”

“They have a message for you” and BJ held his phone to the hungry trio.

In unison they said “hooty hoot! Hooty hoot!”

Val’s eyes filled with tears and managed to speak “I am on my way, BJ. Thank you.”

Val was crying as he got on his winter gear when Ginger said “you’re not taking the four wheeler. It’s too damn cold and the wind chill would be well below zero. You don’t need to expose those kids to that kind of cold. Get your pickup…I’ll help you.”

They went to the garage and pulled a battery off the shelf and put it in the truck. It started right up.
The truck was a Ford F250 with dual tanks that held around forty gallons of gas total. Val kept the battery on a solar battery tender. He never left the battery in the truck.

It was mid afternoon and he let the big truck warm up ten minutes before he pulled it out of the garage.

Ginger and Kyle stood together as Val jumped out of the truck. He went to them and hugged them both “why the sad looks you two?”

Kyle had tears “I’m glad your boys made it…what’s going to happen to us?”

Without hesitation Val replied “absolutely nothing. You two will always be part of my family…always. No one will take that away.”

He looked at Kyle “your room is your room  until you no longer want it.”

He looked at Ginger and took her face hands “I love you and only you. I consider you to be my wife, and that’s till death do us part.” He kissed her.

She whispered “I know. We both know what you say is true. I think we just needed to hear it.” She hugged him back tightly, and backed away. “Now go get your boys. We’ll set up the other rooms for them.”

Val jumped back into the truck, and headed towards the gate. Kyle was there, and went to open the big gate.

“Thanks Kyle” Val said as he passed through. “See you in about an hour.”

“OK dad. I’ll be waiting inside.”

Val drove on. More tears.

Val continued his drive to BJ’s, finding that the closer he got, the heavier his foot got.

He was remembering the last time he spoke to his boys, which caused him more tears. He slowed down a little, as it was beginning to snow as well.

He turned onto the main road, and headed towards the Bronsons.

He got to the top of the last hill, crested it and drove into the Bronsons drive where his boys came bounding out of the door towards Val.

“Dad!” his boys said almost simultaneously.

They had a group hug that lasted for minutes, and Val cried to the point that he could not speak.

BJ’s voice boomed from the front door “ya’ll get on inside before you catch your deaths!”

The three went inside, and were inseparable, causing Val to stumble and trip the way to the door.

Randie, Christopher’s girlfriend was inside with tears in her eyes as well. Val hugged her too and kissed her forehead.

Finally gaining his composure, Val wiped his tears and said “I sure am glad to see you kids.”

They were all smiling big “we finally made it Dad” said Charlie, the younger.

Val patted his head “this is the best Christmas present I ever had.”

BJ closed the door, and Val walked over and shook his hand hard “thank you, thank you. You’re a good friend.”

“Aw, you’d a done the same for me…matter of fact, you already have. By the way, I got you some more goodies to feed this mob.” He said with a smile “take the packages and get them kids fattened up some. I reckon you got lots of work for them.”

Val nodded “you bet I do. Let’s go guys. We’re getting you fixed up with beds right now.”

Val and BJ shook hands again, and they said their good-byes.

The four of them trekked out to the truck, loaded up and headed back to the ranch.

They all had nothing but questions for the trip back, but they were not expecting the answers they got.

“Where’s Betty?” asked Charlie. (Betty was Val’s late wife.)

Val paused and the rest waited for an answer quietly.

“She didn’t make it” Val replied calmly.

“Who’s living with you now?”

Val told them the story of how Ginger and Kyle came to live with him. They seemed very receptive to having a new brother.

He pointed out some landmarks on the way and when they reached the big gate, Kyle was just heading down to it to unlock it.

He waved to the truck and was returned with four sets of hands waving back. Val saw him smile as the truck passed through, and he waited so Kyle could ride back.

“Scooch over Charlie and let Kyle ride back to the house” Val asked.

Charlie complied and Kyle climbed in smiling “hi guys! I’m Kyle” he stuck out his hand and they all shook it and introduced themselves.

Kyle continued “I sure am glad you made it. I am getting tired of these two always telling me what to do.”

The others laughed, and so did Val.

They pulled up to the back door, and Val let them all out and drove the truck to the garage. He decided to leave the battery in the truck, as he was optimistic about things that could happen.

He went into the house to find a giant group hug with Ginger in the middle.

Val walked around and patted them all “welcome to the ranch boys and girls. We  hope you enjoy your stay. This way for the tour.”

A few chuckled as he showed them around the house; Val and Ginger’s room, the bathroom, Kyle’s room, and now Christopher and Randie’s room.

He stopped the tour and singled those two out “you two are married now. If you’re going to sleep together in our home, you must be married. If you don’t want to be married, then you will not be allowed to sleep together…understood?”

“Yeah Dad” Christopher said as Randie held up her left hand with her ring “we got married right before the crash. We tried to get a hold of you, but couldn’t reach you.”
Val walked over to Randie and kissed her cheek “welcome to our nutty family.”

Val sighed “OK, I’m glad we got that out of the way.”
“Are you and Ginger married?” Christopher pressed.

Val and Ginger exchanged glances and smiles as Val walked to her and put his arm around her “yes. Not because we share a room, but because we love each other.”

They all nodded “now, downstairs where Charlie will sleep.”

They went down the winding staircase to the basement…none of the others had ever been there. Val pointed out the different cabinets with various foods. He showed them the doors to the tunnels and root cellar, explaining where each tunnel went.

The downstairs bedroom had a full sized bed and its own bath. A small window at ground level (which was actually about six feet off the basement floor).

“The basement is actually very temperature stable year round” Val stated “and there is no stove down here.”

He pointed out the closet which had many of Charlie’s clothes.

He addressed Christopher “your closet has many of your clothes as well.”

He turned his attention to Ginger “Ginger will help you find some clothes as well. Now it’s bath time for you wilderness walkers.”

They heated up water and prepped the tub for them. Christopher and Randie bathed together and giggled like school children the entire time.

Charlie too bathed, and they piled up their clothes “we’ll get them washed tomorrow” Val said after Charlie finished.

They sat down for some late dinner of Kyle’s sourdough and gravy from lunch.

“Whether or not you realize it” Val began “Christmas Eve is day after tomorrow.”

The kids all looked at each other with a wee bit of sparkle and wonder in their eyes.

Val looked at Kyle “we’ll have to find and cut down a tree…right guys? and gals?”

“Wow! How cool!” Kyle was the most excited “first thing tomorrow Dad?”

Val nodded “right after breakfast and anyone who wants to vote on the tree will have to accompany the cutting crew.”

Ginger spoke up “well you count me in. No telling what kind of tree you guys will bring home. Don’t you leave without me.”

Christopher, Randie, and Charlie all retired to their respective rooms and crashed. Val remembered thinking how surprised he would be if those three got up early.

He took a look at them before he went to bed and watched them sleep for a few minutes.

He went to bed where Ginger was waiting for  him.

She drew him in and kissed him hard before saying “you are the sweetest most wonderful man in the world. Your kids are unbelievably friendly to Kyle and me.”

She sat up and put her hand on her bare chest “I haven’t felt like a part of a family for a long time, and I feel more so like part of one tonight…did you see the kid’s looks when you mentioned Christmas?”

Val nodded as Ginger drew close to him and gave him another long kiss…and other things.

 Chapter Sixteen

The sun rose as always, and it started out a clear day.

Ginger and Val got up and started breakfast with pancakes. When they had a dozen or so, Val started waking up the troops. It didn’t take long before four sleepy eyed teenagers pulled up to the table and started eating pancakes with maple syrup or honey. Bacon was served too; courtesy of the Bronsons.

After the crew had gone about half way through breakfast, Kyle spoke up “are we really gonna cut down a Christmas tree today Dad”?

Val sipped his coffee “yep.”

“When?” he persisted

“As soon as we finish breakfast” he replied calmly, sipping more coffee.

Kyle added another pancake to his stack and continued to eat.

The other three wolfed down their pancakes and bacon. Ginger barely kept up with the ravenous appetites of the kids. They slowed down and Ginger put the last of the pancakes from the griddle.

Shep waited patiently for his share, and when the kids leaned back with a series of “I’m full..it was delicious…thanks” Ginger put the last three pancakes and the bacon in Shep’s bowl.

He wagged his tail and gulped down what there was in just a few seconds.

“I need a volunteer to help with dishes” Ginger said as she pulled plates off the table.

Val finished his coffee “I’ll help you. You kids get dressed for an outside learning adventure and hike…if you’re up to it.”

They took off to their respective rooms, except for Kyle, who was dressed already.

Ginger and Val had the dishes done in a few minutes, having plenty of practice doing so, then they got ready for the trip.

When all were ready, they ventured outside with Shep bounding ahead of them.

First stop was the chicken coop and Val spoke up “Christopher, given your expertise with chicken raising, I hereby turn over the chicken coop over to you.”

He turned to Kyle “Christopher has raised chickens for years and knows how to raise chicks too. We’ll need more chickens as soon as possible” he turned to Christopher “Kyle will show you how we keep them warm and you are in charge. Ask Kyle what you need to raise the little ones, and he will show you where stuff is.”

Kyle took the others inside the coop area with Ginger and Val watching as Kyle pointed out the doors, poop gathering methods, where the lights attached to the batteries, and how he worked the solar charging for said batteries.

Charlie was not interested and joined Val and Ginger, soon followed by the others as they walked the barnyard and around the house.

Kyle pointed and chatted about the bunkers and posts; where they were, how to use them, and other points that Val had not considered.

They circled the house locating distances and areas across the road and down towards the big gate.

They were showed the barn and garage, introduced to the bunkhouse.

“You guys can move in here if you like” Val said as he pushed open the door.

It was clean and neat with six bunks, a woodstove, and a toilet with washstand.

“I sealed it up really well to keep out the rats and other rodentia” Val said proudly. “There shouldn’t be as much as a spider inside.”

No one had been inside since Betty’s death, and it showed her decorative talents. Quilts neatly folded away in the linen closet. Many sets of sheets and hand towels. The wash basin was upside down on the stand. There were unopened bars of soap in the linen closet also. There was a wardrobe too, that was for the clothes of whomever ended up staying there.

“How does the toilet work?” asked Charlie.

Val walked to the washstand and pumped some water into the sink. Fill the 3 gallon bucket, do your business and pour the water into the tank. Flush and refill the bucket for the next person. Same as the main house. It all goes to a septic tank down by the fenceline.”

He looked up and slid a lever “this is a vent if necessary.”

All heads nodded with approval. Christopher spoke up “I think we’d rather stay in the main house, if it’s all the same to you.”

“Of course” Val agreed, leading them out and locking the door.

When they finished their barnyard tour, they headed toward the trail between the forests and Kyle further showed them where the booby traps were.

“How are we supposed to remember where all they are” Charlie asked.

“Never go anywhere alone” Val answered “if you must go exploring, ask Kyle to go with  you…or myself.”

Val pulled out his binoculars and looked down the trail, then back to the east.

“Looks clear” he said to no one in particular “let’s go.”

They moved across the trail and into the woods “now let’s see if we can find our tree” val said smiling at the rest of them.

They trekked into the woods and Kyle pointed out tracks of various animals “there’s an elk” he showed them. “They’re fresh because it snowed last night” he was excited.

“Look!” he pointed ahead a few feet and ran to another set of tracks. He studied them for a moment and looked at Val “I don’t know what these are.”

“Bear” said Val, looking around “heading away from us…for now. Good job Kyle and sharp eyes. Let’s move.”

They crashed through the brush following the bear tracks when Randie stopped and pointed to her left “there! There’s a tree!”

They turned and headed to the fir tree. It was about six feet tall, and was very full.

“What do you guys think?” Val asked. “Is it a go?”

They all walked around the tree; touched it, shook the snow off, smelled it.

“I’d vote for it” said  Charlie with a smile.

“Me too” said Randie.

All were agreed.

“OK then let’s chop ‘er down” Val said.

Kyle produced an axe and they chopped it down. It was harder than he thought to cut down a green tree. Each young man took a turn chopping and they got it down.

Val, on the ever present lookout, watched ahead for the bear.

They took turns dragging it out to the open clearing and proceeded back to the house along the treeline.

When they reached the house, Val said “Charlie, go into the basement to the second closet on the left. In there is a stand that should be big enough for this tree.”

Charlie went inside and returned a few minutes later with the stand.

“Is this it Dad?” he asked.

“That’s the one” Val replied.

They shook the snow off the tree the best they could and Val said “we need to find a place now in the house. What to you think Ginger?”

“There’s only one place for it” she said, still studying the tree. “In the corner next to the closet.”

“I agree” Val said “let’s go clear a spot. Kyle, you set up some target practice schedule today. Now would be fine.”

Val pointed to all of them “let’s see where you stand.” He looked at Randie “do you know how to shoot?”

“I have shot some” she said, “but just at an indoor range.”

Val nodded “a little is certainly better than none at all.”

He turned to Kyle “start her on the .22 revolver and work up from there. Keep me apprised.”

They all went in the house and Kyle dug out target practice firearms for all while Val and Ginger made room for the tree.

Ginger gestured toward the close “what’s in there? I don’t think I’ve ever looked.”

“Go ahead and open it up” Val said.

She complied and pulled the accordion doors open and she gasped “a piano…how beautiful!” she exclaimed. The turned to Val “do you play?”

Val nodded nonchalantly “yeah…some.”

She hit  him playfully on the arm “you’re playing with me. You’re really good aren’t you? Please play something.”

Val pulled the bench out and sat down. He patted the spot next to him and Ginger sat on the bench too.

First he played some chords and warm ups to loosen his fingers.

The kids gathered around and Charlie spoke up “hey Dad. Is that the same piano you had when you were in Texas?”

Val looked at him and nodded. He then started to play.

He played his own rendition of “O Holy Night”.

To his surprise, Ginger was humming then broke into song when the high notes were played. She had a wonderful voice.

Val and she hugged after their performance; both had tears in their eyes.

The others clapped and Christopher said “will you play tomorrow for Christmas Eve Dad?”

“Sure will, and tomorrow, all the rest of you will sing…it’s called a program and all participate. Now off to your target practicing you kids. Ginger and I will bring the tree inside and we’ll all decorate it later.”

They all ran outside chatting with excitement.

“Those kids are so excited” Ginger said, taking Val’s arm. “They are already acting like Kyle is one of them.”

They stood for a couple minutes at the back window, watching the kids in the yard. It was a sunny cold day. The kids played, while mom and dad watched.

Chapter Seventeen

Val and Ginger shook off their reverie and went out to retrieve the tree.

They managed to get it inside without too much struggle.

With just a little trimming here and there, it was a very nice, full tree. It’s aroma filled the house quickly.

Ginger and Val proudly looked at it with thought of decorations running through their minds.

“What next?” Ginger asked.

“Downstairs is a box of old ornaments I dad when the boys were little. We’ll get those out and decorate the tree later today.”

Val continued to think out loud “I’ve got a couple strings of lights that I could connect to the batteries, using one of the extra inverters.”

He turned to Ginger “that would really impress the youngsters. I’ll make that happen, and will put the lights on telling them that’s it’s just for looks” he nodded and squinted slyly, looking at Ginger.

He tapped his head “this old man still has them kids in awe.”

“You’re amazing, Val” said Ginger shaking her head “you are so full of surprises.”

She filled the treestand with water and asked “would you bring up the ornaments and your lights? please? I’ll start lunch for the kids.”

It seemed natural to use the term ‘kids’ for the younger ones. They had gotten used to it quickly.

Val’s mind was a jumble of mixed emotions and memories; both of his own childhood and those when his own boys were small. He missed his brothers…the only connection to his own childhood. Certainly, he had his own, but without confirmation of his memories, who knew any more that his own mind hadn’t made them up?

He went downstairs and brought up a couple boxes of ornament that his parent had bought back in the sixties, as well as newer ones that had been kept over the years.

Val watched the kids as they took turns shooting. Randie seemed comfortable with the Kel-Tec PMR 30; a nice 30 round .22 magnum semi auto pistol, and she was shooting proficiently. Val liked that gun also, and he owned two of them. The downside is that he did not have a lot ammo for them. Still, it was a good practice gun, and better than nothing for around the barnyard carry.

Charlie was shooting a rifle, and Christopher was playing with a revolver. Kyle was teaching Randie some patience.

Ginger came up and slid her arm around his waist, and watched with him for a couple minutes, then she knocked on the window and when she got their attention, she yelled “lunch”!

They packed up and all came storming inside, chatting of their bullseyes, and great shots.

After lunch, Val demonstrated the use of his Mossberg 12 gauge pump shotguns. He allowed all who wanted to try to shoot. He showed the combat loading technique as well. He showed them how to be offensive with the shotgun and showed how to aim and shoot while advancing towards the target.

“Both of these are fitted with an aftermarket stock with a pistol grip and recoil absorbing butt. The pistol grip will allow better control if you have to rapid fire and dump your magazine.”

Val explained that the shotgun was a last resort weapon around the house and maybe in the woods. The Remington 1100 had a much longer barrel, and was semi automatic. “This will have longer range. I suggest you shoot slugs in this one. Lots of stopping power. Three shots of one ounce slugs at someone will make them think twice about messing with you.”

“These are formidable at close range” he explained, holding up one of the Mossbergs “be sure you have plenty of ammo on hand if you decide to use them.”

Val brought out the 30-30s, and let them all shoot them as well. Randie didn’t much care for the Marlin after a couple rounds, and she gladly handed it back to Kyle.

The other two boys did well with the 30-30 so Kyle brought out the 45-70s. They did not shoot as much with those, but still were pretty accurate.

“You guys pack it up” Val said. “I don’t want you people to get sore shoulders from shooting too much. If your shoulder gets bruised, it can ruin your day.”

They chatted and yakked about shooting while they packed up the guns, ammo, and shooting tables. Randie picked up targets. Kyle pointed where everything went, and in a short while, all the target practice hardware was put away.

“In a couple of days” Val began “I’ll show you how to reload the rifle shells. We’ve got about 200 rounds of brass right now and it never hurts to have them ready.”
“What about the pistols?” asked Randie “can you reload the small ones?”

“I don’t have stuff to do that, although it is doable…it’s just easier to buy them” Val replied as he opened the back door “don’t you worry, we’ve got lots and lots of .22 rounds. We can reload the .45 and 9mm also, but that will be a different lesson…but it’s basically the same for all centerfire rounds.”

When they got in they noticed the tree had fallen out nicely. Ginger added some more water and the kids found the boxes of ornaments.

“Can we start decorating?” asked Kyle.

Val nodded “you four kids are hereby in charge of tree decorating.”

Smiles formed on all of them as they dug into the boxes and began placing bulbs on the tree.

Val couldn’t help a tear formed in his eye while watching the kids. The view reminded him when he and his brother were little, and they decorated their tree. It was serious business; don’t clump the bulbs together, space out the icicles evenly. At times, production checks were needed for minor adjustments.

When they finished, it was really beautiful. They all stood and looked at it for several minutes; admiring their handiwork.

It was starting to get dark, and Val reached under the tree and plugged the lights into the inverter.

Ohs and ahs echoed through the room, as they all stood a while longer looking at their tree.

A flood of memories from Val’s childhood went through his mind in an instant: the original Grinch movie, Charlie Brown, Rudolf…family Chistmases alive now only through memories. Those days were gone forever.

Ginger had started reheating some of the roast that BJ had given them.

Val was pondering what to fix for Christmas Eve dinner; and he decided on Mexican food.

Ginger finished up frying up potatoes with carrots along with roast beef on sourdough bread.

As usual the kids wolfed down their food, but seemed to fill up quicker.

Nevertheless, there was always sourdough bread for in between meal snacks.

“Can I show them around  the place in the dark?” Kyle asked excitedly.

“OK, but all of you carry at least a pistol” Val put down his sandwich and continued “don’t ever walk around with your pistol pulled unless you already suspect trouble.” He gestured at Kyle “follow him and do what he says. Take flashlights if you wish. The place looks different at night…get familiar with it.”

Shep was up wagging his tail. He knew something was up, and followed the rest of them out the door.

Ginger and Val cleaned up the dishes and Ginger asked “what are your plans, if any, for Christmas Eve dinner tomorrow?”

Without hesitating, Val answered “Mexican food. We’ll have beef for tacos, steak for guisada tacos, corn tortillas for enchiladas, flour for tortillas, some hot salsa, corn bread, and whatever else we can come up with along those lines.”

Ginger was drying a plate “sound like a lot of work.”

Val shrugged “we’ve got all day. Besides, Christopher and Charlie both know how to make most of the stuff I mentioned. You are right though; it will be a lot of work with only one stove. We could crank up the pit if necessary.”

“Too bad we don’t have a turkey…for Christmas dinner” Ginger said sadly.

“We’re gonna have tacos for days” Val said. “They’re very portable.”

She nodded in silence.

They heard the kids giggling outside and Shep barking.

Val shook his head.

“What?” Ginger asked walking up to him questioningly.

“If you’d a told me that my kids would be here at Christmas a month ago, I would have laughed right in your face” Val said factually.

Ginger touched the end of his nose “who knows who could show up tomorrow?” she turned and walked away and Val just watched her wiggle as she went into the other room.

“Yeah” he said to himself “who knows?” He nodded in agreement.

He chased after her for a few minutes of groping until the kids came inside a little while later.

They put up the guns in their places. The boys were taking theirs to their rooms, although the rifles stayed in the broom closet.

‘Good nights’ were said, and all were asleep soon.

Val and Ginger continued where they had left off earlier. Neither was disappointed…both times.

 

Chapter Eighteen

The sun rose and shone through the windows, waking up Val and Ginger first. They enjoyed each other’s close company twice during the night.

They got out of bed and dressed. Then started adding wood to the fires.

Val got out a couple pounds of pinto beans and prepared them for the evening’s meal by adding them to water. The Dutch oven would cut down on the cooking time and besides, he was going to make refried beans with them. They wouldn’t have to be pretty.

Charlie was up from downstairs as his room was directly below Val and Ginger’s room.

Kyle soon joined them “Come on” he said to Charlie “I want to show you something.”

“What about Christopher?” asked Charlie.

Kyle shrugged “snooze you lose…c’mon. It’s pretty cool.”

They strapped on each a pistol and grabbed a rifle and out they went with Shep following.

“What about breakfast?” Ginger asked “We’re outa eggs.”

“I’ll go get some” Val said “just make a stack of toast. We’ll have egg sandwiches.”

He too donned his cold weather gear and went out.

He appreciated the sunshine on Christmas Eve. Everyone gets tired of snow, snow, and more snow. He trudged across the yard towards the coop, and opened the gate.

The chickens were doing well, and he gathered ten eggs, as that’s all there were from his flock of twenty or so.

He heard a noise behind him; he turned and it was Kyle and Charlie.

“We’re gonna feed and water ’em” said Kyle as he put down his rifle, and grabbed the water bucket.

Val left the boys to their project, and went back inside where Ginger had started working on the toast.

Christopher and Randie came out of their room yawning and rubbing their eyes.

“What’s going on?” asked Christopher sleepily.

“Kyle and Charlie are outside in the coop doing some cleaning chores” Val answered, cracking an egg into a large bowl. “You might want to go help them, since you’re in charge of the chickens now” he added.

Christopher became alerted and quickly finished dressing, and put on his coat and went outside.

Randie sat down and said “what can I do?” she asked with another yawn.

“You can butter this bread before we start toasting it” Ginger replied, indicating a place for Randie to work. “Get some  jelly from the cupboard too” she added, pointing.

Randie complied, and Ginger continued slicing bread with Randie buttering the slices.

The cast iron pan was hot enough now, and Ginger began making holes in the center of the bread slices for her specialty ‘one eyed jacks’.

As she placed a couple pieces of toast into the pan, she put an egg into the hole, and just fried it.

By the time she had a few made, the boys came in, removed their coats, and sat down talking about Christopher’s charge. He made it clear how he wanted things done, and how he was going to start raising chicks in a few days.

Ginger served what was ready, and everyone dived in. Coffee and tea were available, and conversation did not lack.

“What’s the plan for today?” asked Charlie.

“We are going to prepare a grand Christmas Eve feast of Mexican food” Val answered sipping coffee. “We’ll all need to work on it as there is a lot to do, but we’ll have lots of tacos and enchiladas and other stuff left over for a couple days.”

“Wow!” said the boys “what can we do?”

Ginger answered “you guys will be making tortillas today; flour and corn. I will show you how to do it. It will take two to form the tortillas with the press, then cook them, then fry them in the oil. Some will be soft, and some will be crispy.” She paused a moment.

“Randie and I will work on the flour tortillas when you guys are done with the corn” she cut a piece of egg and toast.

Val added “I will work on the beef and chicken for the tacos and enchiladas. We’ll have some guisada tacos too…you guys remember those?”

Charlie and Christopher nodded simultaneously.

“I’ll also break out one of the large chunks of waxed cheese I have for all this food. I’ve been saving it. We’ll also make corn bread…the sweet kind with the honey.”

“Lots of salsa will be required for our dinner as well, and we have plenty. So let’s finish and clean up so we can get started.”

Val finished his coffee, and held his cup out for more. Ginger reached behind her, grabbed the pot, and poured the last into his cup. “Want some more?” she asked.

Val shook his head “this will be just right, thank you. We’ll need all the stove time today for the food. Anything that needs to be kept warm can sit on the hearth by the fireplace in the other room.”

The group finished eating and all joined in to do dishes.

When the dishes were done, all eyes were on Val.

“What’s our plan?” asked Christopher.

“We’ll  need to start with the corn tortillas. They require at least two people; a comal and a pan of hot oil. We should probably make a hundred or so. There are plenty of us, so plan to trade shifts. I’ll need to make my perimeter run and will require a volunteer; anyone will do.”

No one volunteered.

“Randie, how about you? C’mon get your gear and let’s make a run. I’ll let you drive.”

She smiled and got her coat, hat, and pistol.

Ginger was showing the rest how to mix the masa for the corn tortillas while the comal and oil were heating.

Val and Randie went to the barn and got the four wheeler out, with Shep taking his position in the back seat.

Randie got into the driver’s seat, and Val showed her how to start it.

“It’s been a while since I drove” she said embarrassed.

“It’s OK” Val replied “we ain’t in no hurry. Just stop at the driveway gate, I’ll open it, then on to the big gate, and I’ll open that. We’ll stop from time to time to stop, listen, watch, and smell, until we get to the hill where we’ll get out and crawl to the top. We also will be watching for tire tracks and footprints.”

He gestured and they left out the barn towards the yard gate.

They stopped and Val took out his binocs as he walked and opened the gate. As Randie drove through, Val took a quick scan of the pasture across the road, then down to the big gate. No tracks or prints.

He got in and they left to the big gate where he opened the big gate, and closed it after she passed through.

They drove down the road. The bright sun reflected off the snow. Sunglasses stayed in the four wheeler, and they both had  theirs on.

Val motioned for Randie to stop, and she complied. He pointed down the road where there were sets of tracks crossing.

They got out looking around as they approached the tracks.

“Bear” Randie said pointing “and deer”.

Val nodded.

She looked at him “the bear is stalking the deer.”

Val nodded and smiled at her “very good. The bear is hunting. Let’s go.”

They got back in and went towards the big hill where they stopped at the bottom.

Again, they looked around for anything that might cause them concern while they walked up the snow covered hill. The snow was about a foot deep and they trekked up. As they neared the top, Val got down and crawled. Randie followed suit.

Val crawled the last few feet on his stomach and peeked over the top. He motioned Randie to do same.

“Just raise up until you can see over and down the hill. Take your look noticing for footprints or tire tracks. Use the binocs to look down at the intersection for same.” He passed her the binocs and she looked carefully the little valley below.

“I got nothing” she said panning right to left, handing the binocs back. Val looked too, but saw nothing.

He backed down with her following. When they reached the four wheeler, he said “I made a  huge mistake this morning. I did not bring a radio. It is crucial to have one along on this patrol because even if you are seen and chased, you will eventually reach the range of the other radios when you’re high-tailing it home. Remember that. If it’s an emergency, someone will have the gate ready for you to pass through.”

She started the four wheeler, and they headed back home without incident.

When they reached the big gate, he showed her how the lock worked and how to open and close it. He made her do it. It was difficult in the snow, but she did it.

The same with the yard gate. Val still had her drive, but showed her how to open and close it.

They went to the garage, and topped off the gas tank.

“That was fun” Randie said smiling.

Val leaned against the barn door and began “I’m glad you think so. This is a serious and potentially dangerous patrol.” He shook his finger at her “you must have your eyes peeled when you’re on this patrol. Others may be watching us as we do our daily. We may have to change our time of day so as not to be predictable. You did fine. You have a good eye. This is not a vacation. Everything we do is for survival or survival training.”

She nodded and waited for more instructions.

“Let’s go in and bail out those boys” Val said with a smile.

Val and Randie entered the house to find the aroma of fried tortillas filling the air. There were four stacks of corn tortillas on the table.

“How do you want to store these?” asked Ginger as she pulled another tortilla from the hot oil. “These are all crispy, and the rest are soft” she said pointing.

“The crispy ones should be store in the giant ziploc bags” Val said “the rest can be wrapped in foil until needed.”

The corn group finished up and then started the flour tortilla group “OK” Val said rubbing his hands together “now we gonna make some flour tortillas.”

He gathered his ingredients from the cupboard; shortening, flour, and some salt. He showed them how to mix, form into balls, and roll the tortillas on the cutting board, then onto the comal (comal is a cast iron skillet with no sides) or the skillet. “Either one will work to cook them” he explained as he rolled a few tortillas from round balls of dough “it takes some practice but it will come to you.”

Once the dough is rolled, it is then put onto either the skillet or the comal and cooked for  30-40 seconds each side. He showed them and then ate one “mmmm good tortilla. Now you folks work on this and I’m gonna work on the guisada. Save a space on the stove top for the beef.”

The kids took turns rolling and cooking the tortillas (and sampling) while Val cut up a large roast that BJ had given them for the beef guisada. There was another one and Val had Ginger grind it up in the meat grinder.

It was a busy afternoon for all.

When Val got the beef cubed, he browned it in another cast iron skillet, then put it in a Dutch oven with some water and stewed it for a couple of hours.

While that was cooking, he packaged up the flour tortillas while making the enchiladas.

The enchiladas were basically cheese filling with a little onion, rolled inside a corn tortilla. He had several pans that would hold 3 layers deep of enchiladas piled on top of one another.

When the kids were done cooking the flour torts, Val made the enchilada sauce which was basically some canned tomatoes, cumin, chile pepper, a little paprika, more onion, salt, pepper, and garlic powder. Also he added some cooked ground beef to the sauce which he would pour on top of the enchilada trays, cover them with foil, and bake them until these cheese was melted.

After the sauce simmered an hour or so, he added cornstarch to thicken it.

Meanwhile, he cooked the ground beef with onion, garlic, chile powder, cumin, salt and pepper. When this was done, he put it in another foil container, and set it by the hearth.

When the stove top cooking was all done, he mixed dry ingredients for two batches of his sweet cornbread. When he was ready, he just added the cream, eggs, honey, and oil and baked it in one of the cast iron skillets.

“Holy crap!” Christopher said when he saw all the food “we’ve got enough food to feed an army here!”

Val chuckled “we already have an army here, and we still have the rice to prepare. Remember?” He went through with them how to do it and they started on a large batch of Spanish rice.

Val sat down and was glad to do so as staying in one place on his feet for a long time, bothered his lower back.

He sat down and Ginger brought him a glass of his favorite bourbon with ice.

“I thought you’d never sit down” she said as she sat on his lap. She put her arms around his neck while they watched the kids, and Val sipped his bourbon.

He stole a few more sips then poured the enchilada sauce into the pans and put them in the oven for thirty minutes. He removed them and sat them by the hearth..a little closer. He peeked in and they smelled delicious while watchful eyes looked at him “almost ready to eat. Anybody hungry?”

A slew of hands went up and Val sat down again for a couple more sips.

It was starting to get dusk when Val put down his bourbon and said “I think it’s time we put a round of corn bread in.”

He got up and mixed his ingredients, and put the first batch of corn bread in the oven. After twenty minutes, he took it out and all gathered round.

“Time to eat!” Val said.

“What’s that?” said Kyle holding his hand to his ear.

The room fell silent.

Outside, they heard a horn honking. It did not stop.

Chapter Nineteen

Val went right for his coat and hat and rifle. He strapped on his Glock too and took a radio.

“Kyle” he pointed at the lad “cover me from the barnyard corner of the house. Christopher, the opposite corner and stay down. Don’t fire unless you hear the radio or gunshots. Got it?”

They both nodded.

“Oh please be careful” Ginger said, her tone worried.

“Always am” Val replied and kissed her. “Keep your radio close.”

Val went outside, and the boys to their respective positions.

Val walked to the yard gate and turned on his flashlight to the gate. There was a truck there, and it flashed its lights.

A voice boomed out “are ya gonna make us wait out here in the cold forever? Val? It’s BJ. Merry Christmas!”

Val got on the radio “it’s BJ. Get ready for more dinner guests.”

He walked to the big gate and let them in. BJ shook his hand as they passed through the gate. He brought the big Chevy 4 door and there were more folks inside beside Eunice. Val waved them through and climbed into the back as they drove to the back side of the house.

Val practically squeezed BJ to death saying “I am so very glad to see you. Merry Christmas!”

BJ was a little overwhelmed and said “we got something for you.” He yelled at the truck “Skip! Bring in the stuff!”

Skip hopped out struggling with a large box. Bjr helped him as they brought it to the back door of the house.

“We thought you might could use this” BJ said “it’s a giant turkey we got before the crash. We got several of them and hoped you could cook it.”

“Damn right I can” Val said “you all come on in. We’ve been cooking all day and have a feast fit for a king. All of you please join us for Christmas Eve dinner! Come on! I won’t take no for an answer!”

Besides BJ, Eunice, Bjr, and Skip, there was Hunter and Trey.

“Oh we couldn’t” Eunice said as Val dragged her out of the truck, and escorted her into the house ahead of the others.

Ginger had already begun setting up an extra card table and chairs. The kitchen was bustling with plates, silverware, cups, glasses, coffee was put on, the other corn bread was put in the oven, and dinner was served.

The guests mingled well with their hosts, and Val brought out his bourbon and shared it freely with those who partook.

Eunice seemed glad for another woman’s company for a change. She and Ginger giggled and laughed by themselves, well caught up in their own conversation.

Skip, Bjr, and the boys hit it off well quickly, and the food was a hit as well.

The bourbon bottle was emptied and BJ yelled “Trey! Go out to the truck please and bring in that other bottle.”

“Yes sir BJ” Trey said and he was out and back in less than a minute, and the bourbon was pouring again.

“I gotta say Val” BJ began “that this is the best Mexican food I have ever had! You guys made all this here?”

Val nodded “yeah, we spent pretty much all day. I’m glad  you like it because you are taking a lot of this home. We wouldn’t have a lot of this without the meat you gave us, so enjoy it my friend.”

Val held up his glass “to new friends.”

“Here here” said the crowd.

Val pulled up to the piano, and they all stood behind him singing carols for the next half  hour or so. When they were done, a round of applause and more bourbon poured.

“This is the best damn cornbread I ever had in my life!” BJ stated, grabbing another square. “What is your secret? It’s sweet too!”

Val jumped up “I’ll show you” and he went downstairs and returned carrying something.

He handed it to BJ “Merry Christmas my friend. This is a gallon of Tupelo honey; the sweetest honey on the planet. It will not go bad or crystallize on you.”

BJ was taken aback as he took the jug from Val. Val had pulled out a pad and was jotting down something “here is the recipe. We could not have made it without your generous gift of your cream.” He tore it off and gave it to BJ.

Val turned again and went downstairs “I’ve got something else for you.”

He returned with another gallon jug “pure Vermont maple syrup” he said giving it to BJ “for all you’ve done for us.”

BJ was stupefied “this is a lot…” he stopped when Val interrupted him.

“I’ve got many more jugs of each” he said “please take it and ask for more when you run out.”

Val went to the table and began wrapping up some food “we’re gonna send some of this food home with you.”

“You guys are too much” BJ said.

“We expect you to drop by tomorrow afternoon for some turkey too” Val said “I’ll get started on that in the morning. It’s a big one so it’ll take a while, but feel free to come by an enjoy some roast turkey, stuffing, taters, and veggies.”

“What can I do for you?” BJ said, standing up.

“My friend, you have already been a huge surprise for us with all your gifts of food” Val replied, wrapping some tacos in foil.

“Do you need anything else?” BJ queried…emphasis on anything.

Val sighed and thought for a moment “I could use some .22 WMR ammo. We have a budding sharpshooter here and she likes that Kel-Tec semi auto.”

“Well you got it and I am glad to give it to you” BJ continued “I have a case…maybe two and they’re yours. Most of my people don’t care for the .22.” He paused and squinted with a  nod “I get it though. That pistol in the right hands with a few extra mags can be formidable.”

“Agreed” Val said putting more food into the box that BJ brought.

The rest of BJ’s crew had gotten up and were stirring around.

“We’ll be hitting the road then” BJ offered his hand to Val.

They shook hands as did many others as they filed outside.

“Great food” said Trey as he went out carrying the box.

“Thanks” Val said with Ginger nestling next to him as Eunice also had exited.

They started the truck and Val, along with Kyle went out to the big gate to close up.

They exchanged waves as they locked up and went back to the yard gate, close it and went inside.

The rest were working on cleanup, and there were still lots of leftovers.

“What’ll we do with all this?” Ginger asked as she put some more foil on the enchiladas.

“Just put them in the freezer in the barn” Val said taking a bite of guisada. “There’s no electricity but it won’t matter. It’ll be cold enough to preserve them” paused and gestured to the kids “not that it will last long” he chuckled.

The kids made a couple of runs to the barn and put away the food.

The kitchen and tables were cleaned, and paper plates were scheduled for the burn barrel in the morning. People learn to eat every bite they take. There was no food thrown away.

It was late, and there were yawns all around.

“Off to bed” Val said “everyone. We have another big eating day tomorrow.” He stifled a belch, and moved towards his room amongst an round of ‘good nights’.

Ginger was already in bed, and she gave Val her own Christmas presents…several times.

Chapter Twenty

Val awoke to the sound of Shep barking excitedly. Val got out of bed and got dressed quickly. The sun was shining brightly.

Ginger stirred, but snuggled down closer.

By the time Val got to the back door, Charlie was up and dressed.

“What do you think it is?” Charlie asked, reaching for his gunbelt.

Val opened the door, and Shep flew out and round the corner to the front “dunno. Let’s go. Bring the shotgun. I’ll take the rifle” he said checking the 45-70 chamber.

Out they went. Fresh snow had fallen overnight. A quick look around the back yard saw no tracks, except for those of Shep heading to the right.

Shep had stopped running and Val heard him barking not far away.

When Val and Charlie rounded the corner of the house, Shep was at the big gate, barking at the Sheriff’s car.

Sheriff Blevins got out and waved. “Merry Christmas!”

Val shushed Shep and returned “Merry Christmas Sheriff!” as he walked to the gate.

“Sorry, my horn all of a sudden gave out” said the sheriff as Val and Charlie approached “who’s this?” he asked of Charlie.

Val opened the ate and Charlie replied “I’m Charlie” he replied holding out his bare hand to the sheriff. “Val’s youngest son” he continued.

The sheriff looked amazed as he too, pulled off his glove and shook young Charlie’s hand “well, I’ve heard about you young man” he said with a smile, and looking at Val.

“Come on in and get some coffee and breakfast” Val said opening the gate.

“I was hoping so” the sheriff said with a smile and drove through. “I see you’re loaded for bear” he said, gesturing to the big rifle.

Val nodded “can’t be too careful”.

Val closed and locked the gate after he passed through.

Charlie was heading back following the sheriff’s car.

When they got inside, the rest were awake and there was coffee on the stove just starting to perk.

They all chatted while Val and Ginger made some pancakes while the coffee was perking.

The sheriff jotted stuff down in his notebook while the kids yakked at the sheriff about what was going on outside the farm.

The kids didn’t wait for coffee, and dug right in.

The sheriff pulled Val aside with Ginger and began “your two guests have been at it again”.

“At least we’re pretty sure. We have no witnesses, but a description was given by someone who saw them 10 days ago at the haunted farm.”

He said ‘haunted farm’ like they were supposed to know what it was. Their stupefied look was enough for the sheriff to elaborate.

“The haunted farm is an acreage” he indicated over his shoulder down the road “way past the intersection where we turn to BJ’s. It’s just what the locals call the place. Supposedly the farmer and his family were murdered there like fifty years ago, and the legend is that they still roam their property looking for the killer, who was never found. BJ Jr. and his pal Skip were the ones that reported seeing Juliette and Anson by the haunted farm.”

“BJ Jr. and Skip?” Val spoke out loud, but was thinking about his conspiracy theory which he had discussed with no one. “What were those two doing all the way over there?”

“BJ’s property butts against the haunted farm” the sheriff answered. “The boys said they were hunting…and I see that look in your eye again” he said inquisitively. “You want to talk about that?”

“I don’t think I even have enough yet to discuss” Val said slowly “other than it seems that Skip bothers me some…nothing I can put my finger on…and I like the kid OK, but there are too many coincidences with him around…just a funny gut feeling. It’s probably nothing.”

“You let me know when you have more pieces to this” the sheriff said seriously “and we’ll  talk more about it. For now, I don’t have any proof that these two are anywhere except what the boys said. Why they would make it up, I don’t know, but their descriptions were spot on.”

Val was still staring into space…the wheels were turning. “Let’s eat” he said with a smile, and they went to the table and joined the others for breakfast.

Val’s suspicions were growing, and it started to consume him. He had to change the subject at the table so as not to be preoccupied.

“What’s for dinner?” the sheriff chuckled.

“Turkey and all the trimmings” Val answered with his mouth full. “BJ said he was gonna be here too this afternoon. You’re welcome to stay” he added.

The sheriff smiled “thank you so much. I’d really like to, but I gotta make my rounds. I appreciate the invitation.”

“You stop by anytime and we’ll fix you food and coffee or whatever you need” Val said, looking directly at the sheriff.

“Thank you” was all he said as they finished up.

“Dad” Christopher started holding his belly “I don’t think I’ll be able to eat any more today.”

“Well, someone still has to make perimeter check” Val said without hesitation. “Might as well be  you.”

Christopher groaned.

The sheriff stood up and said “I’ll be leaving you now. I hope you  all have a good safe day.”

He offered his hand to all and left. Christopher accompanied him to the big gate and Kyle met him at the gate with the four wheeler for the sweep.

The rest cleaned up breakfast dishes while Val made his plans for turkey dinner.

He and Ginger worked on the bird and stuffing and Val’s mind wandered off again.

“Earth to Val” Ginger said jokingly. “You’ve got the stare again” she commented dryly.

“Val!” Ginger touched his arm, startling him “what is it?” she whispered.

Still in his world Val replied softly “there are too many coincidences concerning Anson and Juliette” he started “they should not be here alone. There is no way they could have gotten here without help. They have no hunting weapons, and little knowledge of outdoor life. They had no tools like hatchet, knives, firestarters, cold weather gear…nothing. Yet, here they are, and they are still wandering around. Why?”

“Why do you think?” Ginger asked seriously.

Val looked at her “they are a scouting party for a larger group. They get help from the larger group. How? I don’t know. Maybe the group sends a few people at a predesignated location to bury supplies or store them…the haunted farm would be a great place because the locals are afraid of that place. They are gathering intel on all of us. I’ll bet you ten dollars that they are making maps of every inch they travel. They show locations of all occupied dwellings and how many are in each one, and also find out what they can about food stores and ammunition. They turn in their findings every so often in exchange for supplies…something like that.”

She looked at him with total wide eyes…almost disbelief “whatever gave you that idea? Kyle and I are no different. We travelled alone living off the land…”

Val interrupted her “yes and you two were skinny as twigs. Anson and Juliette were healthy, yet they had no food. The only reason I took them in was because she was ill.”

He continued “you remember why I made them leave? She was trying to undermine our structure, cause conflict, and perhaps kill us all.” He shrugged “who would know?”

She shook her head in disbelief “why would they do that?”

Val looked at her directly in the eye “because the larger group, with the right information, could move in, attack and take over. They could establish a home base with the right amount of food and supplies, and make runs to spread out their web of power. Kill or enslave everyone that goes against them. That’s why the first takeover is so important. For all we know, they could have already done that further south, and are moving north. Maybe the only reason they haven’t moved on us already is that it’s too damn cold. It’s harder to support a large group when it’s zero outside, than if it’s sixty.”

“Is that it?” Ginger asked.

“No” Val replied quickly “that kid Skip bothers me too. He just doesn’t fit…he just doesn’t fit” his voice faded as he drifted off into his stare again.

Val’s attention shifted when he heard Charlie on the four wheeler returning from his patrol.

By then, Val had the turkey in the oven.

Charlie burst in out of breath “nothing going on” he started, as he removed his gloves and coat. “Only the sheriff’s tire tracks all the way to the intersection. He went straight across from here.”

He walked over to the fireplace, and warmed his hands “I saw what I think was a bear south of here walking next to the woods…” he paused.

“That’s probably the same one that made those tracks the day we got the tree” Val said calmly “which was was it going?”

“Dunno” Charlie said “he saw me, I stopped, he turned and went straight into the woods. That’s all.”

“OK” Val said “anything else? other tracks?”

Charlie shook his head.

Val shook his head slightly too “just the way I like it…quiet.”

Val went to work making cinnamon rolls. By the time those came out, the aromas from the turkey and rolls filled the air.

A horn honked outside, and the boys all bounded out the door towards the gate.

BJ and company had arrived with more bounty.

It was just BJ, Eunice, and a couple of hands this trip, but BJ brought a case of 5000 rounds of .22 WMR ammo.

“You’ll never know how much I needed that ammo” Val said as he poured some homemade cider for the guests.

They didn’t have to wait long as dinner was served quickly; turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, chuckwagon carrots, green beans, cinnamon rolls and pie.

After dinner, they sat down and out came the bourbon from BJ. He had brought a case for Val “since you’re such a fan” he said with a smile. “I plan to really enjoy the syrup and honey you gave us. I know this won’t go to waste.”

“Tell me about the haunted farm” Val said kind of all of a sudden.

BJ nearly choked on his sip of the sour mash “where the hell did you hear about that?”

“Sheriff was by earlier” Val answered.

BJ nodded slowly “Yeah, I noticed there was another set of tracks; coming and going. OK, I”ll tell you what I know.”

He poured another glass and topped off Val’s, then began.

 

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