The U.S. of After Chapter 39

Ralph

When the engine on the boat choked itself silent I knew it was showtime.  I had been given a twenty gauge pump action Winchester loaded with slugs, and my left hand gripped the wooden pump slide so tight that I guess I would’ve had white knuckles if I could have seen them.  Even though my eyes had adjusted to the darkness a while ago, I still wasn’t able to make much out.

I could see the bend in the river because what little moonlight that made it through the meteor dust glinted off the black waters.  There wasn’t much sound, only the lapping of the water against the shore and against the side of the boat.  Everyone had been instructed to keep themselves quiet.  All of us men had guns pointed out at the shoreline and the trees.  Any movement and we were told to shoot first and ask questions later.  I wondered how you could ask questions of the dead?

Amy lay at my feet, and I glanced down at her every once in a while to see if she was ok.  That little girl had taken a shining to her.  I would too, if I had lost my Mom the way she did.  Little kid was an orphan now.

Forget that.  Back to the shoreline.

My eyes strained to see the clearing, and then it sort of popped into view all of a sudden, me not really paying attention, I guess.  I could see shapes mostly, partly because before all this happened I needed to go see the doctor about my eyes, but mostly because it was so dark and strangely calm.  The wind wasn’t blowing at all, and the summer heat had not left the air yet, even though it was probably around midnight.  No way to tell without a watch.

Like I said, all the men had guns pointed out at the shoreline, except of course for Clayton.  He just stood there on the front of his boat, that hickory stick in his hands, head bowed slightly toward the water, his mouth moving slowly and strangely.  He refused a gun when we tried to give it to him.  Said his “faith would shore him up,” whatever that meant.  I decided to keep my eyes peeled for not just militia men but also weird stuff.  Weird stuff kind of followed Clayton around lately.

I looked up to see the highway bridge overhead, but not a sign of the militia men.  No fires, no noise, no nothing.  Figured I’d put the butt of the 1300 shotgun on my shoulder and cinch it up tight, just in case there was an ambush which was pretty near likely.  Heck if I was gonna go out like old Custer in the history books, surrounded by Lakota and all manner of death, I was gonna go out blazing.  How is that for irony.  I couldn’t figure out for the life of me why the militia didn’t just ride us down like grass when we were running up the side of the river toward the boats.

Out of nowhere I heard a noise, the sound of a forest fire in the distance just before it’s raging all around your house.  I didn’t see an orange light of a fire over the top of the ridge, but it the sound started getting louder, and that is when something dropped by the corner of my vision into the water, and as it went by it was burning.  It hit the water with a loud splash and then I heard breaking glass on top of the fiberglass canopy covering the boat.  A red-orange glow lit up the waters and we could now see the shoreline littered with bodies, bodies of the men who stayed behind to cover our escape.  Burning liquid dripped over the side of the canopy and caused me to leap back and almost step on Amy.

She sucked in air and screamed.

That raging fire sound got louder as the bullets started hitting the water and the top of the canopy, some of them tearing through to strike at the women and children lying on the floorboards.  A lady next to Amy took one in the right arm, her hand springing up to try and stop the blood that shot out of the wound, and she bit her lip to stay quiet.

“Up there!” someone shouted.

We were being ambushed.  I saw men coming down the side of the ridge with guns raised, flashes of fire shooting out of the barrels, and then our men started ducking down behind the small flimsy outer edges of the boats as the fire that was burning a hole in the canopy started to leak through and drip on the deck boards and on the legs of a small boy.  He screamed in agony but there was nothing I could do.  A lady next to him tried to pat it out with her hands, but got the fuel on them and she burned, too.  I had to turn away, and seeing our enemy I let loose with three rounds, taking out a couple of grubby guys creeping down to the water’s edge.  I felt weird about it at first, but these guys were trying to kill us, trying to kill Amy.  This pump action was quick and clean.

I managed to look over at Clayton and he stood in the same spot, head bowed, face odd and contorted in the orange flickering light of the fire on top of our boat, and his mouth was moving, moving, moving.

“Pick up a gun, Clayton!” I shouted over the noise of the rifles going off.  I saw smoke and sparks flying out of gun barrels and men who only hunted once in a while fumbling with their rifles.  The militia men were more focused, stopping, taking aim, taking their time, shooting guys off the side of the boats like that target game at Bass Pro.

The sound of that fire over the ridge got closer, and I saw the shapes of four guys almost leap over the edge of the ridge and start skidding down the steep embankment, their rifles raised, their legs working hard to keep from losing control and rolling down hill.  Behind them came something that I could not really understand, a black cloud that clicked and crackled.  It got louder and louder, and reminded me of nightmares I had as a child.

It moved, rolled, buzzed, and hissed, bubbling out and sucking back in, moving quickly down the ridge after the men who had just barely escaped it.  The four men dived into water of the river which swallowed them hungrily.  The men on the shore didn’t really notice this at first because they were too busy trying to kill us, but soon the cloud, the black cloud that didn’t seem to have an end, fell all over the militia men and they started swatting at first and then diving into the water to get away.

We kept firing.  I squeezed off a round into a guy who had dropped his gun and was flapping his arms, batting away at the black things covering his face, and that is when the things started moving toward our boats.  I guessed that they were attracted to the fire raging on top of the canopy.  A few of the men had buckets and were dipping them in the water on the opposite side of the enemy and then throwing the water up on top of the fire, but this was somewhat useless.  One guy fell in and I didn’t see where he went.  I just kept shooting my gun, hoping that the militia on the shore would give up.

The bugs made a horrible sound, and I could see them in the air around us, but none of them got in the boat with us.  Black grasshoppers as big as my hand flew around our boats, an insane cloud, and the militia on the shore had all but stopped shooting when I felt something hit my right calf with the fierce pounding of a baseball bat.  It hurt so bad I fell down in the bottom of the boat next to Amy.  I looked down to see that my leg was bleeding pretty bad, and Amy sat up, tore some of the material from the blanket she was laying on and tied it around my knee really tight.  I hopped up and tried to grip my gun again, but it slid around in my hands.  I was breathing really hard and couldn’t focus, but those guys on the shore were all gone, some of them laying on the ground and some of them floating in the water.

Just then we heard shouts from the bridge above our head, so I plopped down next to Amy.  I saw a guy fly past and hit the water which splashed up on the boat, putting out some more of the fire.  Then came two more.  I figured the bugs were causing the militia on the bridge to chicken out and run away as best they could, and that meant diving over the side for some of them.

I peeked over the edge of the boat to see Clayton standing on the bow, not a scratch on him, head still facing down, mouth still moving.  The grasshoppers were flying around us, not getting in the boat at all, but swarming all over the shore.  The ground was moving and writhing.  I heard horses whinnying, a strange scream in the darkness overhead, and shouts and screams of men in distress.  The gunfire had stopped, and I lay quiet for a bit, held my leg which seemed to be only grazed by the bullet, and actually thanked God that my leg didn’t get blown off.

“Do you think it’s over?” asked Amy, taking my hand and squeezing tightly.

“I don’t know,” I told her.  “They aren’t shooting anymore at least.”

We both looked down at Anya, this little girl who had come into our lives by accident and because she didn’t have anyone.  She was fast asleep.

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