The U.S. of After Chapter 36

Clayton

That’s two prayers answered.

I stood on the bow of the boat and watched as several children gathered ‘round me.  Them militia guys hadn’t followed us down river and that was a miracle. The kids sat in perfect silence.  I think they was mostly scared out of their minds from the mess we just crawled out of and because even though we was tryin’ to be quiet and all, a bunch of them tent village folk were hollerin’ and gettin’ all riled up at one another.

“If we take these boats back down river those militia will be waiting!” said a lady with beautiful dark skin and silver hair.  She looked like she might have resembled Beyonce when she was young.  “Those monsters will kill all of us if they get a chance.”

“Now we don’t know that,” said a sort of long haired guy about my age wearin’ a suit made of fake leaves and carryin’ a rifle.  “I took out their leader, so they’ll be a little less brave.”

I raised my hand, but they ignored me and kept on jawin’.

“We got plenty of guns here on the boat stashed for just this kind of thing,” said a fella with a blonde Mississippi mud flap and a greasy red trucker hat.  “We can get the women and children to lie down on the deck and then us men can take positions along the side and shoot anything that moves.”

“Sure,” said old Beyonce.  “Just get us all killed in the process.  We can take these boats up river and find a new place, a place where we can grow some crops.  There’s plenty of places along the Oklahoma Texas border we can settle.”

I kept my hand up.  They still ignored me.

“But what about that messenger we heard from six months ago?” growled red hat guy.  “He showed us pictures of the plenty they got in New Orleans.  If we just get through this one spot and then down river, we can join up with that group down there and the livin’ will be much better, both for us and for our kids.”

This caused a bunch of the people to start to arguin’ and fussin’, so I just kept my hand up in hopes that somebody would listen.  I looked over and saw Amy and Ralph sittin’ close on the other boat which was parked twenty feet or so away.  Amy locked eyes with me for a bit, then cast them down.  Ralph was talkin’ to her and smilin’.  I couldn’t let it get me, though.  All we needed was for the enemy to find some way to worm his way into my mind and heart.  I decided to focus on the group of straggly people.

The guy with the leafy suit started in.

“I vote we take a few guys around to the east and flank the militia, scout them out at least and then meet up with the rest of you down by the camp where we can provide some support in case things get ugly.”

“Well, things is gonna get ugly,” I said finally, and then everyone kind of stopped chatterin’ and turned to look at me as if I’d said a nasty loud cuss word at some fancy banker party.

I heard some of them mutter words like “he’s got the staff” and “that’s the old man’s friend”.  I started gettin’ all uncomfortable as if I was standin’ in front of the class at school.  I said a little prayer, started focusin’ on God’s will and what He wanted from me and from these people, and then the words just came out of my mouth.

“I don’t want nothin’ but the safety of this group.  I got nothin’ invested ‘cept myself, I know, but we need our sneaky people like… uh…”

“Gideon,” offered the guy in the leafy suit.

“…Gideon here to flank our sides or whatnot in order to help us along.  Now I vote to go on down river and see what happens.  I’ve been given some reassurances that we’ll be fine.  Believe it or not, and I don’t really care if you do or not, but God has his hand on us.  This task we have to complete.  The goin’ back I mean, is a test of faith.  Sure we could go on up river and prolly find a nice plot of land to settle on and live out a few good days, but I’ve heard about New Orleans, too, ‘round campfires and in the scuttle butt and on the lips of wanderers.  There’s hope down south.”

“I’m sure your faith is strong and all,” said Mr. red cap, and the crowd murmured a bit.  “But we pretty much gave up on God when he let our country fall apart.  Them preachers, at least the one in my little country church my wife made me go to — God rest her soul — was always talkin’ about how we needed to get God back in our country or whatever.  Well, then came the war and then Volos took durn near my whole family and here we are runnin’ from militia.  I got kids to worry about, son.  I’da taken these here guns and lit out a long time ago, but there’s safety in numbers, and even though we don’t really have much of a country anymore, I’ll do what we always do around here.  That’s put it up to a vote.”

“Good idea,” said Gideon, wipin’ the grit from the scope on his rifle, then blowin’ on it.  “All of you who want to go up river, raise your hand.”

I looked ‘round and about three people, most of ‘em older folks, cautiously raised their hands.  I saw the dirty palm of an old man in the back of the boat, then both his hands were in his lap.  He looked around to see if anyone noticed, we locked eyes, and his lips pressed together tightly.  I saw his shoulders slump as he faced the floor and studied the wooden planks.  I felt really bad just then, as if I’d started somethin’ that the old fella was not willin’ to do, and that ate at me.  I didn’t want to force anyone to do this, but I was going because it is what I had been told to do by someone who could see all points of time: present, future and past all at once.

As I said before, I had some reassurances.

I looked across at the other boat and saw not a soul raisin’ their hand to vote for runnin’.  All of them except about three or four were younger, about my age and a little older.  Some of the men were pullin’ rifles and automatic weapons from a place out of view, somewhere down below on the deck.  Gideon didn’t ask for a vote about the other choice.

We was goin’ down river to New Orleans.

As the men cocked and loaded their guns, takin’ up positions around the outside edges of the boats, I looked over at Amy and saw Ralph help her and a little girl to lie down on the deck of their boat.  I turned and faced forward at the front of our boat, holding fast to the hickory walkin’ stick the old man gave me.

I would not be carryin’ firearms.

The orange sun was goin’ down, what sun there was to look at through that gloomy sky full of ash or rock or whatever that meteor kicked up.  The pilots started the diesel motors, and I caught a glimpse of Gideon and his crew stalkin’ off through the woods before I squeezed my eyes together and started prayin’ hard.

Prayer was all I’d need.

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