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Chapter One

It was the middle of the morning when Mike Powell stopped his pickup truck and pulled to the side of the narrow Texas Road. He took his binoculars in hand and hopped out of the truck to peer into the distance.

            He found that his eyes had not been playing tricks on him in the bright sun. There actually was a convoy of vehicles nearing the intersection a quarter-mile ahead of him. He simply did not know whether that was good news.

            He got back in the truck, then reached beneath the seat and retrieved the lever action rifle. He began to drive slowly toward the intersection, all the time watching for any hints of hostile intent.

            He could see that the caravan of cars, trucks and vans stretched on longer than he had originally thought. He estimated that more than a hundred vehicles were in the procession.

            He slowed his truck as he neared the intersection of two rural West Texas roads. The caravan was coming to a stop, and he also came to a halt when he was fifty feet away from the Dodge pickup truck that was leading the group.

            Mike got out of the truck, making sure that the small handgun he had carried since the epidemic forced him to flee Arkansas was ready in his pocket. Still, he assumed that several rifles were trained on him as he walked toward the older man who walked slowly and cautiously to greet him. Although Mike was over six foot tall and quite muscular, he felt a deep sense of anxiety as he reached out his hand to the ruddy and unshaven stranger.

            “Mike Powell… I haven’t seen any other people for a few days.”

            “Albert Watson. And just where did you come from?”

            Mike could see out of the corner of his eyes that several people had left their vehicles and were walking slowly toward them. “I live near… I mean, I did live in a small town south of Little Rock. I think I was one of the last ones to get out after the epidemic hit there.”

            Watson looked at him suspiciously. “I don’t mean to be rude, young man. I just have to look out for all these other people. Would you be so kind as to tell me how you ended up standing here?”

            “I’m going to see if Dragos Falls is intact and inhabitable. My grandparents lived there, and I used to visit there when I was a kid.”

            The older man nodded. “Actually, that’s where we are heading. We’re trying to find an abandoned town to occupy… one without victims left behind, because we’re afraid that it could start up again if we’re around the bodies. I lived there for a long time before we went to Iowa so I could help my brother farm. Along the way, we got word that the town was abandoned. They got word the epidemic was coming their way, so they all left. They all headed south, and the epidemic branched off to the West about a hundred miles from here and killed them all. Sorry if you had any family involved in that.”

            Mike shook his head slowly. “No. My grandparents have been gone for a while. I suppose that when I knew I had to flee, Dragos Falls was the first place that came to mind.”

            All of a sudden, a wide smile came across Watson’s face. “Now my memory is kicking in. When you were visiting your grandparents, you used to come to my store and buy candy. I think that a few times I even hired you to sweep my floors.”

            Now it was Mike displaying a wide grin. “What are the chances? Now I remember you, too.” A woman who appeared to be in her early seventies walked up and listened quietly. Mike looked at her and smiled. “Mrs. Watson… I am Mike Powell. Do you remember me?”

            “Oh yes. We would get letters from your grandparents. They sure did brag on you for going to college and ending up a school principal. Do you have a wife or children somewhere?”

            Mike shook his head. “When the epidemic came through, it made me feel fortunate to be a bachelor. I don’t know about my parents and my siblings… I can only hope they’re okay… somewhere. I was on an overnight hunting trip near home when the epidemic swept through. I went to their house, but it looks like they had left. I can only hope and pray.”

 Mike gestured toward his truck. “The back of that thing is filled with gas cans. About two hundred miles back, I stumbled across an abandoned tool rental business. There was a full storage tank and lots of gas cans. We’re only about ten miles from the town. Are any of your people low on fuel?”

            Watson shook his head. “There were a lot of abandoned farms along the way.” Watson finally put his hand out to shake. “How about you leading us into the town?”

            Suddenly, Mike’s attention was drawn away by some loud voices and a banging sound. He glanced to the caravan to see a man and woman apparently speaking to someone in the back of a covered pickup truck. Watson shrugged and waved his hand. “We have a thief in our midst. Didn’t know what else to do with her.”

            Mike raised his eyebrows. “Her?”

            The older man sighed and closed his eyes and shook his head. “You will understand in good time.”

            There were further sounds of commotion and voices, and after the gate of the truck bed was lowered, a middle-aged couple helped someone out of the back of the truck. A petite young woman with shoulder length dark red hair slid from the back of the truck to the ground.

            Even though she was more than sixty feet away, Mike could see that her hands were tied together with what appeared to be small rope. Also from a distance, he could see that she was a shapely and attractive young woman. A thief or not, Mike found it impossible not to gaze at her standing there in short cutoff jeans and a white pullover shirt that exposed her abdomen. Her escorts allowed her to walk around a little to shed the obvious discomfort of riding on a truck bed.

            Mike simply nodded to Watson, then turned and walked back to his truck. Most of his anxiety had dissipated, and he slowly drove through the intersection to the front of the caravan, but as he drove he kept the handgun on the seat next to him.

            It had been fifteen years since Mike had set his eyes upon Dragos Falls. He had been twenty – three years old when he arrived there for the funeral of his grandfather. His grandmother had passed on two years previously, and when he left Dragos Falls to return with his parents to Louisiana, he assumed he would never see the town again.

            He cruised into the town slowly and cautiously, his eyes darting from side to side to watch for any movement, but saw none. He was saddened and simultaneously amused at how nothing had seemed to change. Then he reminded himself that something had changed indeed: there were no people.

            There were only seventy houses in Dragos Falls. Seventy houses and a scenic waterfall that in most places would have been taken over and made into a park if the surrounding land had not been so forbidding and uninviting to tourists. But the town rested at the base of a small range of elevations that could hardly even rate being called foothills, complete with a stream that had appealed to some hardy and optimistic settlers generations ago. Several large cattle ranches had emerged around Dragos Falls, and the only employment there for those not working on the ranches was at a handful of small businesses, or on the railroad spur that took the cattle to market.

            Near the center of the village, Mike brought his truck to a stop and got out, his pistol at the ready. Behind him, vehicle doors opened and his fellow refugees began to step away from their vehicles and walk around, many like him, with weapons in their hands.

            Mike watched as the other travelers began to slowly walk into the yards of the homes that lined the street. He understood the caution they exercised as they approached houses to look through the windows. He had more than enough experiences of gazing into what appeared to be an empty dwelling or building, only to find the corpses of the epidemic’s victims.

            Mike began to marvel at the scene unfolding before them. The travelers were beginning to hug each other, fall to their knees in prayer and cry tears of relief. Albert Watson came to stand next to him. “I think we have found a new home.”

            Mike turned to look at him. “I never asked. Where did you and all your friends come from?”

            “From Iowa, most of us, but a few joined us along the way. We tried to be careful, but we found it almost impossible to tell somebody to go away. For example, our little red headed problem joined us in Oklahoma. She told us she had been visiting some friends, but the epidemic had neared her home. When she got back, there was a note from her mother that she was going to try and reach the home of her sister in Kansas, and she hoped that the daughter could find her way there when it was safe.

“ All in all, we have been fortunate. We have a few rascals in the crowd, and we’re going to have to make some decisions.”

Mike gazed out over the scene. “I guess I didn’t realize how many people were in your caravan.”

The older man laughed. “Some of the vehicles were crowded. We have about six hundred people altogether. I say that nine out of ten are fine and trustworthy. It’s the others I’m worried about. I suppose the first thing that will have to be done is to call a meeting to decide how we’re going to govern ourselves. This is not going to be easy for all these people to start a new life here.”

Watson placed his hands on his hips and looked around. He pointed to a slender blonde middle-aged woman who was surrounded by a small cluster of the travelers. “That’s Marlene Henderson. Marlene and I were selected back in Iowa to serve as overseers of this bunch.”

Mike managed to chuckle. “You and Marlene drew the long straws?”

Watson laughed. “No… we drew the short straws. But, some of us are going to have to take the bull by the horns and set up some village rules to live by. Mike… I think it would be beneficial if you would take part, since you have some familiarity with this place.”

Mike folded his arms and nodded. “It’s the least I can do. I certainly appreciate the fact that I wasn’t turned away.”

In spite of his age, Watson walked over to his truck and leapt into the truck bed as if he were a teenager. He cupped his hands around his mouth and began to shout: “Everybody… please come over here.”

Watson waited patiently as the crowd assembled around his truck. Before he began speaking, he reached down and assisted Marlene Henderson into the truck bed to stand next to him. “We need to hold a meeting to decide how we’re going to run things here. Any of you who want to take part and have a say, please join us. I want to draw your attention to this handsome young man standing in front of the truck. This is Mike Powell from Arkansas. I can vouch for him, because I knew him when he was a little boy, and his grandparents were good friends. Mike used to come to Dragos Falls to visit family, so I’m going to call on him to help us get squared away.”

Watson looked around, then pointed to an old school building a hundred yards up the street. “Let’s make that school building our headquarters. So, if you want to be part of the decision-making, come to the school in about fifteen minutes.”

Nearly everyone simply left their vehicles on the roadway as they continued to stroll around. For nearly all of them, it was their first opportunity in weeks to walk casually in an environment in which they felt relatively secure.

Mike walked with Watson and Marlene as they made their way to the school building. Marlene was carrying a small briefcase, and Mike also noticed the outline of a small pistol in her jeans pocket.

Marlene finally broke the silence: “So Mike… how did you know when it was time to leave your home?”

Mike looked up as he walked. “Like everybody else… I listened to the news… until the news stopped. Then, one by one, I couldn’t reach family or friends by cell phone. I noticed a pattern, how it seemed to be getting closer and closer. When I tried to call a couple of friends in the town about twenty miles away from where I lived, and didn’t get an answer, I took off and headed west.

“So far the satellites still work, at least some of the time. My cousin who works in France filled me in on how widespread the epidemic was.”

Marlene shook her head. “How bad is it overseas?”

“Not as bad as you may think. The virus… the bug… whatever it is… seemed to die off as quickly as it spread through America and Canada. I don’t know about Mexico. My cousin says that most airports around the world were quarantined, and any flights coming out of North America were isolated. He said that there were not any outbreaks around the world. Just in North America.”

Mike showed his hands deep into his pockets and shook his head. “The news media in Europe is reporting that no one will be allowed to travel to North America for years. The big fear is contact with the bodies. Simply, no one knows how dangerous it is. But cell phone calls coming out of North America indicate that it quit spreading… it’s probably dying out.”

They approached the school and began walking up the sidewalk. Marlene spoke again. Mike… what did you do for a living?”

“I was a school principal, junior and senior high school. I’m just trying not to think about the kids and what may have happened to them.”

“But you seem rather young.”

Mike sighed as they approached the door. “I’m thirty – eight. I had just finished my second year as a principal… when this happened.”

Watson took hold of the door handle, and as he expected, the door was locked. As if on cue, Marlene opened her briefcase and produced a small bundle of tools and handed them to Watson.

In less than a minute, the door was opened. Marlene took the small gun from her pocket, turned to the others and crossed her fingers: “Let’s hope there are some preserved and canned foods.” She took off down the hallway to find the cafeteria kitchen, while Mike and Watson began to walk down the other hallway. Mike already had his gun at the ready, and Watson reached down to his ankle, pulled up his pants leg and pulled a small pistol from a holster.

            The men had explored for a couple of minutes, and had quickly come to the conclusion that the building contained no threats. A minute later they heard Marlene jogging back to join them.

            It may have been the first time in several days that Marlene had managed a smile: “Cans and cans of vegetables and fruits. It will, at least, get us started.” She turned to look at Mike. “Along the way, we went into stores… abandoned houses. We gathered up all the canned foods we could. More important, we grabbed every package of fruit and vegetable seeds we saw.”

            Mike let out a sigh of relief. “And with any luck, we should be able to get meat. At least, along the way, it appeared that animals were not killed by the epidemic. So we may want to go out to where the ranches are, and bring some cattle into the village. We will have to protect them from the coyotes and all of the abandoned dogs.”

            They strolled back to the front door of the school building, and were greeted by a group of twenty of their companions waiting outside. Mike looked at Marlene and Watson. “Why would so few come to the meeting?”

            Watson shook his head as he reached to the door to open it. “They’re weary. Most of them just what to live and survive… most of all, rest. I don’t think they realize how little rest there’s going to be, but I think that, for today, they just want a break from fear and responsibility. So those of us who are here may as well go ahead and conduct business.”

            The group sat gathered in the cafeteria. Watson and Marlene sat at the head table, and Mike rested at a table a few feet away. When about forty of the weary travelers had settled in, Watson stood and looked over the assembly.

“I want to thank those of you who were willing to come here. I know that you all appreciate that we have very pressing matters to take care of. First of all, I would like for Mike to tell us what he knows about the town.”

Mike stood up and faced the group. “First of all, we may be in luck when it comes to water and sanitation. Each house has its own septic system, so that should be okay. As for water, some of the houses will have their own well, and if we are lucky, that water tower is full enough to provide us with pressure if we need more sources of water. Of course we don’t have electricity, even though we are likely to find a few more generators that would run on gasoline so that we could pump water up into that tank. Only the houses that have propane or fuel oil supplies will have working water heaters, of course only for as long as those supplies last.

“But my grandparents liked to talk about how the early settlers used the waterfall for bathing. The water in the stream is tolerable year-round, so if you find that the shower doesn’t work in your house, you can enjoy the waterfall. The story is that women bathed in the falls in the morning, and men in the evening. Sometimes they would build a big bonfire along the bank for people to warm up when they got out of the water. By the way, they always had a couple of chaperones making sure that no young people of the opposite sex spied on the proceedings.” Sporadic laughter was heard throughout the room. “The town grew up here because it’s simply not as arid here as with the surrounding countryside. As Mr. Watson here can tell you, there was usually enough rain to support gardens and keep the grass green for livestock. This village is probably as good as it’s going to get.”

Watson nodded to Mike, who then sat down. The older man resumed: “Now we need to speak of the agreement we made when we left Iowa. Before the day is out, we will have that housing lottery we talked about. Along the way, Marlene made up little slips of paper with numbers on them. Now we just have to draw numbers for houses to be claimed. Once all the houses are claimed, the rest of the numbers will determine choices of who to move in with.”

A young woman shouted out: “How do we determine who has to take Aubrey in?” The question was met by a mixture of laughter and grunts of agreement.

Watson glanced over at Mike. “Remember I told you about our little thief? A week ago she stole a watch. Yesterday she was caught going through a purse she found unattended in one of our cars. That’s Aubrey.” There was more laughter and groans.

Marlene stood up. “You leave Aubrey to me. I’m going to keep a close eye on her, but as for right now, I think somebody needs to paddle her backside.” The comment was met by laughter and applause. Marlene laughed and pointed toward Mike: “Perhaps we should find somebody not already incensed by her behavior. Maybe our handsome new member could do that for us. He’s a school principal. He probably knows how to warm a deserving backside.” The refugees, universally in need of laughter, began to cheer and howl.

A young, attractive woman at the table behind Mike spoke up: “Let me know how that works out. I just may have to steal something myself.” Once again, people who had known nothing but hardship and fear for weeks, found themselves laughing and whistling until tears ran down their cheeks. All the while, Mike sat with a crimson face as his new friends found some needed levity at his expense.

Watson shook his head and managed to smile as well before he spoke. “In all seriousness, we do have to address the matter of keeping order.” He pointed out into the crowd. “Jim Hastings… I assume you are still willing to serve as our law enforcement officer?”

The retired small-town policeman nodded.

            Watson stood silent for a moment. “I would hope that everyone in the village would be respectful of each other’s property and well-being, and be moderate in the consumption of alcohol that was picked up along the way. In reality, that will not always be the case. So we face a dilemma. We don’t have a jail. Even if we did, we would not be able to have any healthy adults sitting around being unproductive.

            “We have gardens to plant and tend. We are going to have to obtain and process meat. Even if we do find generators, we’re going to have to be sparing in our use of gasoline, and that means that refrigeration will be very limited. Life is still going to be difficult.

            “The bottom line is, we are going to need every able-bodied adult to be working, not sitting around under guard.”

            Marlene spoke up once more. “We have to be very honest with ourselves. The type of justice system we have been used to is not going to work for us, at least not for a long time. I know that we all had a laugh a minute ago, but I think that we need to be willing to accept that any penalties to be paid for bad behavior need to be immediate, and adequately severe, but of a nature that will allow an offender to quickly return to work. This may sound primitive, but under the circumstances, I think we need to consider using physical punishment when a crime is committed.”

            A murmur overtook the room. Without some in the room even noticing, Marlene gestured to a middle-aged woman at a front table to come forward. The woman leaned down as Marlene whispered something to her. A moment later, the woman stood up and left the room with a wry smile on her face.

            An older man stood up in the middle of the crowd. “Marlene… I think I have to agree with you. We are all facing hardship. If someone would violate our expectations of good behavior, I don’t want that person rewarded by being relieved of labor for a few days. I want to know what you specifically have in mind.”

            Marlene took a deep breath and looked down. “I am proposing that we resort to flogging. For men… that is.”

            An older woman stood. “And what about females?”

            Marlene managed to smile. “What I said earlier… I was kind of being serious.” Once again, a combination of laughter and murmuring filled the room. Suddenly, the door opened, and the woman who had received the whispered message from Marlene reentered the room. However, on her way to her seat, she placed in front of Marlene the paddle she had found in the school office.

            Marlene held up the paddle as the laughter and murmuring returned. She held the implement up and waved it around. “This… would be for the females.” More laughter and subdued comments greeted her.

            Marlene held up her hands to quiet the room. She glanced over at Mike: “Mr. Powell… I understand that before leaving Arkansas, you really were a school principal.” Now the room was full of laughter as Mike theatrically sank down in his chair.

            Marlene picked up the paddle and began turning it over and back. “And I assume that in your duties you did indeed from time to time have to use one of these, am I correct?”

            Mike did not look up. Instead, he concealed his reddening face in his hands.

            Marlene finally found herself blushing. “Would anyone in this room object to having our own Mr. Watson determine the level of punishment for men, and be in charge of its administration? I would determine the level of punishment for females, but would oversee its application by our new friend, Mike Powell.

“My reasoning is this: a flogging with a whip of some type on a bare back would be more physically severe than getting a bare-butt spanking with a paddle. But for the female offender, there would be the added element of great embarrassment in having a man administer the punishment. Of course, to counter any accusations of impropriety, I would be present whenever the paddle is used. Last of all, should a man or woman refuse to submit to punishment, it would mean banishment from the village.”

Once again there was murmuring throughout the room, but no obvious utterances of disagreement. Marlene spoke once again. “In time, we can establish a judicial committee to refine our rules. We can even set up a jury system. But for the moment, we have to deal with the immediate circumstances as they are. I know that to some of you this may sound harsh and dictatorial, so if anyone objects to this course of action, please state your disagreement now. Otherwise, I will take silence as consent.”

Mike stood up, his face deep red. “Please understand my reluctance. I mean, I want to do my part for our new community…” There was a smattering of laughter around the room. The young woman behind him who had joked earlier about stealing muttered, “I bet you do.”

Marlene looked at Mike with sympathy. “I do understand and respect your reluctance. I respect you for being concerned about taking on such a responsibility. But as we said earlier, our life now is not like our life used to be. We are in a crisis, and we have to do what needs to be done.”

Mike shook his head and let go with a theatrical sigh. He finally nodded and sat down to the sounds of applause and some laughter, interspersed with a couple of catcalls.


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