Thunder rumbled and heavy rain drops began to fall as Gunny Hood stepped back up under the cover of his porch. As the drops of precipitation began their drumbeat on the roof of his home, Hood turned to the hulk of a man walking back down the hill.
“Tanner,” Hood raised his voice to be heard above the sound of the rain, “let’s send those twenty people off in a different direction.”
Tanner, the man-mountain, turned around and walked back up the hill onto Hood’s porch.
“If they’re smart,” he began, “they saw the storm coming and already made camp for the night.”
“If they’re not,” Hood chimed in, “they’re still on the move. I hate to turn someone away on a night like this, but it’s not likely that this is the first storm they’ve had to ride out.”
“Roger that,” Tanner nodded his head and turned on his heel oblivious to the rain.
Hood sighed and took a final puff on his pipe.
“This ain’t the way the world is supposed to be,” Hood griped to no one in particular.
Hood was not an especially religious man, but he said a prayer for the group of twenty people headed in his direction as well as the men who would soon be headed out to turn them back. Unfortunately, there was a limit to the generosity that Hood could offer. There was a point beyond which the FMC could not pass. As Hood considered it, he entertained the thought that the point of no return was already in the rear-view mirror. Each day, they lost a little ground on the cattle and swine herds. Each day, the milk ration was a little smaller. The balance had tipped and Hood had missed it. Now, it was only a matter of time.
Hood was a realist. There was no need for panic. There was an opportunity to reverse the scales. But, it would take hard work and sacrifice. Most of the residents of the FMC would step up to the plate, Hood knew. There would be some, though, who would not. Some would be unwilling to work more, to forage, to go looking for more cattle or hogs or … do whatever it took to survive. Some simply did not have the will or the stomach or the constitution to do what needed to be done.
Hood put out his pipe and walked slowly to the end of his porch to allow the rain to beat down on his face for a few moments.
Several hundred feet down the hill, Brett Tanner and three of his best men were loading up and climbing into an already idling HMMWV. The big run-flat tires crunched across the gravel of the parking area as the powerful diesel engine grumbled as if complaining about working in the rain. Black smoke poured from the exhaust at Tanner and his deputies roared off in the direction of the in-bound wanderers.
Roughly a mile away, a group of eighteen people huddled in tattered tents. They tried in vain to stay dry as the first hesitant drops of rain turned into a downpour. The group had become experts at pitching their tents in a hurry. The tents were easy to set up, but they were never intended for the hard, extended use that they had seen over the last few months. Seams had given way. Several tents had been patched with whatever the group could find. Poles once held together with elastic cord were now held with bits of duct tape or parachute cord.
Rain leaked through the seams and dripped onto the floors of the tents. Families donned worn rain gear for an added layer of protection from the soggy conditions.
The group had been together for nearly four months. Comprised of five families, all but one had been members of the same church in a suburb of Omaha. Their ages ranged from a youngster of five to an elderly couple, married for more than 50 years. She was 74 and he was 76.
In late December four of the families found themselves struggling to survive in their homes. As active members of their church, each of the families had made their way to the church building in search of support and assistance. They found nothing at the church but each other. So far, that had been enough … barely.
The four families had eventually been run out of the church by a band of marauders who wanted the building for their own. As the families made their escape, they came across the fifth family – a young couple who had also recently left their home to find a safer place to live. As the rag-tag group huddled inside of a collapsing barn on the outskirts of town that first night, their shared fear cemented the bond between them.
Fear … living hand to mouth … barely surviving … pain … thirst … hunger … it had all become a way of life for this small group. Their only constant source of comfort was their shared bond and their shared faith in God.
Now, as they struggled to stay dry, they heard the rattle of a diesel engine approaching their camp. The men scrambled for their guns while the women covered the children with their bodies inside the tents.
Brett Tanner stepped out of the HMMWV as it rolled to a stop. He was greeted by five men with a variety of firearms.
Tanner held up his hands to show that he was not carrying a weapon.
“We’re not here to harm you,” Tanner shouted over the noise of the storm.
Lightning flashed and thunder clapped almost simultaneously. The heart of the storm was directly overhead.
“What do you want then?” One of the men stepped forward his AR-15 at the ready.
“We’re here to warn you,” Tanner replied blinking the heavy rain from his eyes.
“Warn us?” The man with the AR-15 looked confused.
“Yes,” Tanner responded. “Do not proceed any farther to the southeast. Take another direction.”
“Why?” An older man with a deer rifle stepped forward as if challenging Brett.
“Sir, we do not want to harm you,” Tanner repeated. “We simply want to warn you not to proceed to the southeast. If you fail to heed our warning, you will expose yourselves to grave danger.”
The five men looked at one another. The elderly man took another step forward and extended his hand to Tanner.
“I think we understand,” he said. “Thank you for the warning. Can you recommend a safer direction?”
“Better to head due east toward the river,” Tanner suggested. “You’ll find fresh water and plentiful game.”
The old man nodded. “Thanks.”
“Morrison,” Tanner shouted back in the direction of the HMMWV.
A man stepped out of the rear seat on the driver’s side of the vehicle. “Yeah, boss?”
“Give me that case of MRE’s,” Tanner ordered.
Morrison reached back inside of the HMMWV and pulled out a plain brown box labeled MEAL, READY-TO-EAT, INDIVIDUAL.
As soon as the five men saw the box, their mouths began to water.