One Year After

No one expected it to happen like it did.  Oh, there were some doomsayers who prophesied it, but no one with any sense really believed any human could be so evil.  After all, scientists were intelligent men and women in search of the truth, and had a code of ethics that would prevent them from doing such a thing.  

What everyone wanted to believe to be mankind’s ultimate destruction was either nature rebelling against pollution of the land, air, and water, the eruption of one or more of the several supervolcanoes known to exist, or a deliberate or accidental release of radioactivity and smoke into the atmosphere.  

There were other possible causes popularized by various books and films.  An asteroid or comet impact seemed to be a favorite for a while after a couple geologists offered the theory the dinosaurs were rendered extinct by just such an impact.  Aliens landing in New York Central Park and other major population centers and then setting about either vaporizing the world population or simply using humans as food was another.  Even more far-fetched was the conversion of the population into zombies by some virus that appeared because of an error in some government lab.

Randy had dismissed all these as flights of fancy by people with too much time on their hands and a need to achieve their fifteen minutes of world fame.  Yes, pollution was a problem, but a problem that the earth could handle given enough time and a lowering of the amounts of pollution released by humans.  Supervolcanoes might indeed erupt, but the risk seemed minimal given the predicted time for the next eruption of the known supervolcanoes varied widely depending upon the predictor and the computer simulation program used.

A deliberate release of radioactivity via a bomb or bombs seemed nearly impossible. No government would be so insane as to actually begin a nuclear war since such an activity would surely cause that country, and probably the entire world, to suffer the same fate. An accidental release was possible, but the effects of the known accidents had been local for the most part and were caused by humans bypassing or ignoring the normal automated alarms and safeguards in nuclear power plants.

As for the others, asteroids had been monitored and their probable trajectories calculated for years. None seemed to pose an eminent danger to Earth. It was known that NASA and probably the counterparts in Russia and China were working on a way to either destroy or redirect any asteroid posing a danger.  As with most information about secret government doings, a leak of the existence of these programs probably meant there were already solutions, though most likely yet untested.

Aliens landing required a bit of extreme thinking.  There were no suitable planets in the solar system capable of supporting life.  While there were planets in other solar systems theoretically capable of doing so, any alien visitors would have to come from a great distance.  Any practical method of doing so would require traveling at speeds that were in contradiction to the known laws of physics.  

To Randy, zombies were a real laugh.  The movies were usually fun to watch and sometimes scary, but since Randy had studied biology extensively, it was difficult to rationalize how dead people could become animate and hungry for human brain tissue.  

When it did happen, there was no fire and brimstone, no mushroom clouds, and happened over a period of a week instead of being instantaneous.  Randy didn’t even know it had happened until he walked out of the mountains three weeks later, and that wasn’t until he found Marilyn in her small cabin secreted in a hidden valley.

Randy was in the mountains on an extended vacation, and he was alone because he wanted it that way.  He’d grown up Challis, Idaho and had been hunting, fishing and camping in the Salmon River Mountains with his father since he was old enough to carry a pack.  Those years had schooled him in the ways of wildlife and the forest.  Four years in the Army had schooled him in survival and navigating with a map and a compass, so he needed no guide.  

After the Army had come college and a degree in wildlife biology.  He’d spent the last three years working in the sporting goods store in Challis and waiting for someone in the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to retire.  In April, that happened, and Randy had finally gotten the job he’d dreamed about since high school.  He quit work at the sporting goods store a month before his start date and went back to the mountains to unwind and reacquaint himself with nature.

After spending two days with his parents and preparing his gear, Randy told his father he’d be back in about three weeks, and then walked into the mountains.  He walked because motor vehicles were prohibited in the wilderness as well as because he wanted to interrupt nature as little as possible.  The wilderness had been established as one of the last truly wild places on Earth and he wanted to respect that.

His pack was not light because he carried what he would need to be relatively comfortable during his stay.  A tent would provide shelter, a knife and an axe the means to gather firewood and to dress the fish he planned to catch with his collapsible rod and reel. MRE’s and other packaged food would feed him if he was unsuccessful at fishing and foraging.  A cooking pot, small frying pan and a few utensils would serve to carry and purify water and to prepare his food.

His sleeping bag would keep him warm on the still cool nights, and two changes of clothing would let him put on dry, clean clothes while his others were being washed and dried. A couple means of making a fire – waterproof matches and a ferrocerium rod and striker - would let him stay warm and cook.  A map and compass would tell him where he was and show him the way to where he wanted to go.

On his belt, Randy wore a loaded Smith & Wesson .44 magnum revolver.  He didn’t intend to hunt anything, but the area was home to black bears and possibly a few grizzly bears.  In the past, he’d avoided most contact with bears by taking care to hang his food supply high from a tree away from his camp and by making enough noise while he walked to avoid surprising any bear that might be nearby.  The few encounters he did have were a matter of shouting at the black bear and raising his arms to appear larger.  The bear had always lumbered away and left him unhurt.  Still, there was a danger and he needed to be prepared.  In the pack was a box of cartridges for the revolver.

The pack weighed almost eighty pounds.  He’d carried such a load several times in the past, and had carried more in the Army.  With that much weight on his back, he had to go slowly, but Randy wasn’t interested in getting anywhere in particular, much less in getting there fast.  He only wanted to relax and enjoy Nature.

 

Randy thought about these scenarios of Armageddon for the umpteenth time as he walked along the valley floor between two peaks of the mountains.  He stopped to look at his map for a while, looked up at the sun, then slipped the straps from his heavy pack.  Marilyn did the same and then stretched and smiled at him.  

“How far now?”

“Probably a couple of hours, but it’ll be dark by then.  I think we’ll stop here for the night and go into Challis tomorrow. I don’t expect anybody will be there, but I want it to be daylight in case there is.”

“Good.  My legs have taken about all the walking they want today.”
 
He’d found Marilyin in a small cabin back in a thick stand of ponderosa pines on his way back to Challis.  It was illegal to build any permanent structure in the wilderness, but no one would have found the cabin except by accident.  The small stream that ran beside the cabin was too small to attract fishermen, and the pines would hide the cabin from any view from a plane and disperse any smoke from the stone chimney.  The cabin looked a little run-down, but there was smoke coming from the chimney.  Randy walked to the front door to see if anyone was home.  If there was, he’d explain why they had to leave and then report them to the Federal authorities once he got back.  The wilderness was supposed to stay wild, and any permanent settlement would disrupt the natural flow of life there.

Randy had knocked on the door six times before it opened, and when it did, he found himself looking down the barrel of a 30-30 lever action rifle held by a pretty brunette about thirty or so.  She stared at him for a second, then spoke.  What she said wasn’t what he expected to hear.

“Turn around and leave or I’ll shoot you right now.”

Randy held out his hands.

“Ma’am, I don’t want anything.  I just wanted to see if anybody was living here.  It’s illegal to build a cabin here.”

“Where’d you come from?  Nobody ever comes up here.”

“Well, I wouldn’t have either if I hadn’t been going back to Challis.”

“You walked here from Challis?”

“No, not exactly.  I’ve been camping in the mountains for the last three weeks.  I was just on my way back home and decided to walk through this valley because I hadn’t been this way before.”

“It’s been three weeks since you’ve been in Challis?”

“Yes, three weeks…a couple days longer than that actually.”

The brunette lowered the rifle a little.

“Then you don’t know, do you?”

“Know what?”

“About the attacks.”

“Attacks?  What attacks?”

“The attacks on all the big cities.  It happened two weeks ago.  There aren’t many people left alive anywhere now, even in the smaller towns like Challis and Stanley.”

Randy’s mouth fell open.

“Attacks?  That’s not possible.”

The brunette smiled grimly.

“That’s what everybody thought, but I guess they were wrong.  I heard it on our radio the first week.  It’s been dead since then, so I don’t know what else has happened.”

“You said, “our radio”.  Does somebody else live here with you?”

The brunette frowned.

“My husband, Joe, went into Challis two weeks ago for supplies, and he hasn’t come back.  It only takes three days to get there and four days back if you’re carrying a full pack.  If he was alive, he’d be here by now, so I figure he’s dead too.”

Randy’s mind was reeling at hearing something he couldn’t believe.  Unconsciously, he sat down in front of the door to try to comprehend what the woman was saying.

“What happened?  Everybody is dead?  Are you sure?”

“According to the man on the radio, it was a disease – he said the scientific name, but then he said it was also called glanders – and it showed up in all the big cities first, but that was a week after the first people were infected.  They didn’t feel really sick for a few days, and kept travelling all over and spreading it.  After a week, everybody started to die.”

Randy had studied burkholderia mallei, the bacteria that causes glanders, in one of his micro-biology classes and what the woman said didn’t make sense.

“It couldn’t be glanders.  Glanders has been eradicated from the states and most of Europe for decades.  The last reported case in the US was in 1945 and that was a government lab technician who got careless.  The last actual case was in the late nineteen twenties in the UK.  It couldn’t be glanders.”

The woman frowned.

“All I know is what the man on the radio said, and he said it was glanders.  He said the FBI suspects it was a terrorist group who infected everybody.  Some of the first to die were from the Middle East, and on two of them, they found papers that said Allah was the one true god and some words about ridding the world of non-believers.  They’re not saying they’re sure, or weren’t anyway.  Like I said before, after I heard that, I kept listening, but there wasn’t anything else.”

“Well, even if it was glanders, antibiotics can cure it.”

The woman shook her head.

“The man on the radio said it was resistant to everything they tried, and the hospitals had run out of the ones they thought would kill it anyway.  Since everybody has it, there’s nobody left to make more.”

Randy stood, took off his pack and sat back down on the small porch of the cabin.  His mind flew through the probable scenario even though he found it hard to believe what he was thinking.

Biological warfare had been used throughout recorded history because it was relatively simple and an easy thing to do.  In today’s world, it was even simpler and easier.  Genetic engineering had advanced significantly since the 1940’s, and in fact had advanced to the point it was rapidly becoming possible to make a cell do about anything one wanted it to do.  Making antibiotic resistant bacteria would be relatively easy.  

The US and other countries had experimented with glanders in the late 1940’s as a biological agent, but ended the studies because the bacteria seemed to become less infectious when grown in a lab.  Two treaties since that time had, in theory, ended research and manufacture of bio-weapons, though a few countries were still suspected of doing both.  If those countries had figured out a way to retain the infectious qualities of the bacteria and improve it’s resistance to antibiotics, the world was in trouble.  There was no vaccine for the disease.  That’s why the lab tech had become infected and died.

The bacteria that caused glanders was transmitted by aerosols and other body fluids through inhalation or by skin contact.  Given the frequency and ease of travel, even one infected person could infect hundreds before showing symptoms recognizable as something other than flu or some other upper respiratory infection.  Those hundreds would each infect other hundreds who would in turn infect more hundreds.  After only three such cycles, the infection from one person could easily spread to over a million, and it would all happen in four days at most.

A source from the Middle East also made sense because glanders was still active there as well as in Africa and some parts of Asia.  It was suspected that more than one country in the Middle East had significant stores of bio-agents, but due to their reclusive and secretive nature, it was difficult to prove.  Adding glanders to that weaponry would be simple.  All that would be required was to obtain a sample, do some gene splicing to improve resistance to antibiotics and maintain virulence, and then deliver it.

Getting the bacteria into the US would not have posed much of a problem.  All that would be needed were several individuals who were infected a day before landing in the US.  Once there, they could infect others in airports, train stations, and other places where people gathered.  Within a week, those first individuals would die unless treated, but terrorists had been blowing themselves up in order to kill other people for years.  Succumbing to a disease would be no different to a confirmed terrorist.

It was also possible that the bacteria was brought through customs disguised as something else.  Only a few bacteria would be required to start a new culture. Every kid in every high school biology class had grown bacteria because it was so easy, and a tiny amount could be grown to large quantities in any basement or backyard garage with minimal equipment.

Randy wondered if that wasn’t a better explanation for the widespread infection.  Once a sufficient amount of the bacteria had been grown, samples could be dispersed throughout the States for subsequent growth into more.  All that would then be required is volunteers to be infected, a method of contaminating the food or water supplies, or enough small aircraft to spread the bacteria via air.  Growing enough might take a year or more, but it was still very possible.

The outcome would be about what the woman had described.  A large supply of antibiotics did exist in the hospital system and manufacturer’s inventories, but not enough to cope with such a huge infection rate.  If the bacteria was indeed engineered to be resistant to antibiotics, the problem would be compounded.  Doctors would have little choice but to make patients as comfortable as possible while they watched them die.  

It was also likely most of the doctors would also die, because the early symptoms wouldn’t be recognized for what they truly were.  Doctors would not think to test for the bacteria that causes glanders because the disease was theoretically extinct in most of the civilized world.  Hospital personnel would contract the disease before realizing what they were dealing with.


While the man sat there with a dazed look on his face, Marilyn studied him.  Joe had always said any person, even a friend, would be a possible threat in a major  emergency, but this man didn’t seem to be.  If anything, he was the opposite.  Instead of trying to talk or force his way into her cabin, he’d stayed outside and listened to her.  He didn’t seem to believe what she was telling him, but he did listen.  Joe had never listened to her.

He also wasn’t from any government agency, or at least he didn’t appear to be.  He didn’t wear a uniform and he carried a pack like he was camping like he said.  Marilyn was nervous about the revolver in the holster at his waist, but he hadn’t made any attempt to use it.  If he was going to try something, he’d have had the revolver out and ready, and probably shot her when she opened the door.

Should she trust him?  Marilyn didn’t really know, but she decided to do so.  Joe had been gone for two weeks and if the radio was right, he wouldn’t be coming back.  She didn’t miss him so much as she missed having someone with her.  After what she’d heard on the radio, Marilyn was scared. Marilyn eased the hammer on the rifle to safe, tucked it in the crook of her arm, and cleared her throat.


Randy heard the woman’s voice then, and it brought him out of his contemplation of what lay in the future.

“Mr., you’re awful quiet.”

Randy looked up and saw the woman had the rifle cradled in her arm instead of pointed at him.

“Yeah, I was just thinking.  If what you say is right, this is pretty bad.”

“Bad like everybody is probably dead?”

“Almost all the people who were exposed will probably die, but there will be people like you and I who haven’t been exposed.  As long as they aren’t, they’ll be fine.  You’d have to touch another sick person or animal or at least be very close to one in order to get infected, so as long as they don’t, they won’t.”

“But it’ll die out soon, won’t it, like the flu always does?”

“Yes and no.  Once there aren’t any people to infect, the bacteria will die because they can’t survive very long outside of a living body.  The problem will be the people who somehow survive the disease and there will be some.  There always are some people who do during any major disease epidemic, only with glanders, they’ll carry the disease and can infect other people as long as they live.”

The woman caught her breath.

“So, anybody who’s still alive could infect us?”

“That’s about the size of it, well, unless they were never infected in the first place.”
 
“So how do we figure out who is which?”

Randy wasn’t still pretty shaken, but he didn’t miss her use of “we”.

“You said ‘we’.  What did you mean by ‘we’?”

The woman looked at the floor.

“Mr., my husband is probably dead and that means I’ll have to stay here by myself for God knows how long, probably forever if what you say is true.  I wouldn’t trust anybody except you right now, so going into Challis or Stanley to find somebody else is out of the question.  If I stay with you, I’ll feel safer.”

Marilyn paused. It would be against everything she’d been taught and believed, but she was a woman and he was a man, and men needed women.  If she offered herself to him, this man might stay with her or let her come with him and she’d feel safe again.

She looked up at him and forced herself to smile.

“I can do things for you if you’ll let me stay with you.  I can cook and make and wash clothes, and…well, there are other things men want.”

Randy knew what those “other things” probably were, and knew he could never take her along just for sex.  Given the circumstances that now existed, it would be good to have her with him, though.  He’d have someone in case he was injured somehow or needed help in some other way.  Two people had a better chance of surviving any calamity than one.

Besides, he couldn’t just leave her there on her own.  As he had told her, there were probably others who were never infected or who had survived the disease.  Every disaster, no matter what the cause, seemed to bring out the worst in humans.  If she was found here alone, it was likely she’d suffer a fate he wouldn’t wish on his worst enemy.

He looked at the woman and grinned.

“If we’re going to be together, you should call me Randy.  I’m Randy Needham.”

The woman grinned back.

“I’m Marilyn Jackson.  Can I fix dinner for you?”

Over a dinner of the last of her venison along with potatoes and carrots from her garden, Randy learned how Marilyn ended up in an illegal cabin in the wilderness.

“Joe didn’t trust many people, and he didn’t trust banks or government at all.  I think that started after he came back from Iraq.  He was OK before that, but once he came back, he kept talking about how the politicians and bankers were dragging out the war there in order to make more money.  

“He drove away all our friends because he kept turning their conversations to banks and politicians.  They’d go along with him the first time, but after that they’d always be too busy to come over or their wife was sick, or something like that.  The year before we moved up here, we never saw anybody except family, and usually that was a little tense.  His dad agreed with him because he said the same thing happened in Vietnam.  My dad didn’t and wasn’t backward about arguing with Joe.

“When the government changed parties and the economy started to fall apart, Joe said the US wouldn’t survive and that we had to become self-sufficient.  He tried to buy some property in Montana, but we didn’t have enough money.  That’s when he figured out that the wilderness areas don’t have many people walking through them and it would be easy to build a cabin and live there.  Even if it was illegal, it would be free and we probably wouldn’t get caught.

“He spent six months getting everything ready – tools, food, clothes, all the stuff he said we’d need – and then we rented a truck and drove to Challis.  It took us a week to get everything up here because it was so heavy.  Joe’s pack weighed about a hundred pounds and mine about seventy, so we had to rest a lot.  

“We found this little valley at the start of that week, and Joe said it was just what he was looking for.  We lived in a tent for a month while we built the cabin.  By then, it was starting to get cold at night, so Joe started hunting.  We lived that first winter on rabbit and deer meat and dried fruit and vegetables.

“That was six years ago.  You probably think he was crazy, but after what’s happened, I guess he was right in some ways.”

“No, not crazy.  Maybe a little paranoid, but not crazy.  Why did you agree to do it with him?”

Marilyn shrugged.

“He was my husband.  I thought he knew best.”

“Did you like it here?”

Marilyn took a deep breath.

“The first winter, I about went crazy.  I couldn’t talk to anybody about anything except Joe, and he didn’t understand much about women.  We had our radio – it’s one you have to crank to charge the batteries – so we heard what was going on, but that didn’t help much.  Hearing about what the government was doing just made Joe even more sure of what we’d done.

“Christmas was the worst time.  I kept thinking about my mom and dad and that I wouldn’t be there for Christmas dinner.  I did make a Christmas dinner for me and Joe, and that helped some.  He cut down a tiny little tree for me and we decorated it with popcorn.  That helped too.

“The second year, I had a garden to take care of and that was pretty good for me.  I grew up in the city, so I’d never done anything like that before.  It was interesting and fun to watch the plants come up and then to put up the vegtables so we’d have some food for the winter, and it gave me something to do.

“After that summer, life was just what life was.  I cooked and cleaned and raised my garden while Joe fished and hunted and built things.  Once we’d spent a winter here, Joe calmed down a lot.  It was nice being just the two of us without a bunch of other people and the noise of the city.  I guess I do like it here now.  It would be nice to have a few more people to talk with, but I’ve learned how to like living like this.”

Randy stayed in Marilyn’s cabin for a week while they listened to the radio for any news and planned what they were going to do.  The radio was only a small AM-FM set, and there were no stations broadcasting on either band of frequencies, so Randy figured at least eastern Idaho was shut down.  

He favored staying put over the winter.  In a month or so, the people who were going to die would probably already have done so and moving around would be safer, but staying over the winter would just be good insurance against another outbreak.  Most survivors who could pose any danger of infection would probably die of hunger or exposure.  It seemed cold and cruel to stay in the cabin and safe while others were dying, but it was the only logical course of action.  Only by staying isolated could they hope to survive.

The main issue with that plan was Marilyn’s husband had walked down to Challis for a reason.  There were only a dozen rounds left for the 30-30 Marilyn had pointed at him that first day.  Ammunition for the pump shotgun was almost as bad.  There was a box of about fifteen slug rounds Marilyn said Joe kept for bears, but only half a dozen with shot that would be usable for grouse and other fowl.  There were still a hundred or so rounds for the .22 pump rifle, but that wouldn’t last long if they went hunting for rabbits and squirrels.  Rabbits and squirrels would be their main meat supply until fall when the deer and elk had fattened up for the winter.

Without more ammunition, they wouldn’t have a chance of surviving the winter, but there were more things they’d need as well.  Marilyn could plant her garden as soon as the nights stayed warm, but Randy didn’t relish the idea of living over the winter on just meat if her crops failed.  Some dried food would be a good backup, and especially so since it would be increasingly difficult to find more as time went on.  MRE’s would  be ideal, but any dried food like beans and rice would keep longer than the expiration date on the package if kept cool and dry.   They also needed salt and other spices to keep the same fare appetizing instead of monotonous.

Fire was another problem.  Marilyn had few matches left and had resorted to keeping her fire burning night and day.  That not only used a lot of wood, but if the fire did go out for some reason, it would be safer and faster to have matches than to rely on his ferrocerium rod and striker to rekindle a fire

Randy’s flashlight had lasted on the batteries he’d carried with him, but those would never last through the winter.  Light was important for both morale and safety, and Marilyn had only a few candles left and no oil for the three oil lamps on the mantle above the cabin fireplace.

The only solution Randy could come up with was to walk down to Challis and get what they needed.  If he couldn’t find it in Challis, he could go to Stanley.  It might take several trips, but the important thing right now was to get enough ammunition and other supplies to make it through the winter.

The other reason Randy decided he should walk down to Challis was his parents.  Like Marilyn was certain her husband was dead, Randy was certain his parents were too, but he needed to confirm that.  He didn’t want to see them, but he had to know.  

He broached the subject with Marilyn.

“I think I should make the walk down to Challis and maybe Stanley if I can’t find what we need in Challis.  It’s the only way I can think of to make sure we make it through the winter?”

“Won’t you risk meeting other people?”

“I might, but I’ll handle that if i do.  We have to get the things your husband went after or we won’t make it through the winter.  Once we have them, we’ll spend the winter here.  Things should be calmed down by spring, and if something like a government still exists, they’ll be looking for survivors.  We’ll see then, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to stay anywhere else.  Anybody who survived will be looking for shelter and food, and they’ll gravitate to the towns.  We’ll be safer here once we have what we need.”

Marilyn frowned as she thought about Randy’s plan.  It would mean he’d leave her alone.  It was possible he wouldn’t come back and she’d be left to fend for herself again.  Almost anything would be better than that.

“I don’t like it, but if you say that’s what has to be done, we’ll do it together.”

Randy was a little surprised by her wanting to go with him, and also a little worried.  If things were as bad as he thought, it might be dangerous.

“Marilyn, I think you should stay here.  I don’t know what I’m going to find there.  I don’t want to be responsible for getting you hurt…or worse.”

Marilyn smiled and put her hand on his.

“I’ll be afraid, but not as afraid as if I stayed here hoping you were going to come back.  Besides, you can’t carry what you’ll need for the trip and then carry more back.  I can carry a pack so you won’t have to carry it all.  As for the danger, Joe taught me how to shoot.  I can hit what I aim at with a rifle.  I’m going with you.”

That touch had made Randy tingle.  He’d been too busy for women through college, and there weren’t any single women he liked that way in Challis.  He hadn’t felt a woman’s touch except for his mother’s in years and he’d forgotten how even a slight touch could make him feel.  

He thought of her naked and beside him as he teased them both to the point of needing to feel each join with the other.  He wanted to hear and feel her arch into his strokes when her orgasm swept her away.  He wanted to feel the blinding ecstasy of his own orgasm melding with hers.

That couldn’t be, he thought.  She probably hasn’t gotten over losing her husband, and she doesn’t know me at all.  She’d think I was forcing her or making it a condition for me staying with her, and I could never do that.  He slowly pulled his hand back, then cleared his throat.

“Is there anything I can do to make you change your mind?”

“No.  I’m going even if I have to follow you.”

Randy spent the night in his sleeping bag on the floor of the cabin while Marilyn slept in the bed against the back wall and opposite the fire.  He had difficulty falling asleep.  The thoughts of what had apparently happened kept running through his head.  He tried to figure out how fast the disease would progress.

If one infected person could result in a million subsequent infections, that million would result in over a hundred million infected people inside of a week.  If that happened in New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Dallas, San Francisco and the other largest cities like Marilyn had said and those people traveled, it was very possible the entire continent had been infected.  People did travel, over a hundred thousand through each major airport each and every day.  Truck drivers and train crews traveled thousands of miles in only a week and made frequent stops along the way.  Almost the entire population of the US would have been exposed within a week unless they were a long way from civilization.  How many could that be and where were they?  

Had the infection spread to other countries as well?  That was likely even if they hadn’t been attacked.  Air travel made going from anywhere in the world to anywhere else a matter of two days at most and usually only several hours.  An infected person wouldn’t start to feel really sick for a couple of days, but would be infecting others the entire time.

How many survived the disease and where were they?  As he thought about this last question, Randy realized this was the zombie apocalypse from the movies, except the zombies weren’t dead and they didn’t eat people.  They were just as lethal as the movie zombies though, and maybe more so because they would appear to be just normal people.  

He finally fell asleep trying to remember if glanders left any marks that would identify a person as having been infected.  He thought he remembered an infected person would develop skin abscesses that would probably leave scars.

The next morning, Marilyn pulled a large pack from the cabin wall and partly filled it with potatoes and carrots from her storage bin under the cabin.  After going to the storage bin again, she came back with two aluminum canisters with lids.  “Bear grease”, she said as she put them in her pack.  She picked up the 30-30 rifle, made sure the magazine was full and stuffed the remaining cartridges in the front pocket of the pack.  She did the same with the .22 and the remaining .22 rounds, then turned to Randy and said, “I’ll carry the rifles, if that’s OK.  The shotgun kicks pretty hard for me.”

Randy said that was fine with him and picked up the shotgun.  After loading it with five of the slug rounds, jacking one into the chamber and loading another in the magazine, he put the rest along with the shot rounds in a small sack that had held some of his dried food and tied it to his pack.  Marilyn pulled the blankets from her bed, tied them into a roll, and tied the roll to the top of her pack.  After looking around for anything she’d missed, Marilyn latched the cabin door and they started walking down the valley toward Challis.


Randy let Marilyn set the pace and was surprised at how fast she was.  While she was slender and didn’t look very strong, she apparently was stronger than he thought.  He’d guessed at the weight of her pack as she filled it and his guess was about forty pounds.  When he combined that with the weight of the two rifles she carried by the slings over her shoulders, she was hauling around about sixty pounds give or take, and she didn’t seem to be struggling all that much with the weight.  He’d known men in the Army who would have been having trouble with less.

As they walked, Randy was thankful he’d come to the wilderness.  There was nothing here to indicate anything had changed in the world, and that fact alone made him feel a little more comfortable.  He was staring at an eagle soaring above them when Marilyn chuckled.

“You’re gonna break your neck if you keep looking up like that.  Haven’t you ever seen an eagle before?”

She was grinning when he looked at her.

“Yeah, lots of them, but I still look.  They’re what the wilderness is all about, well, part of it anyway.  Here, they’re free to do whatever they want without any people bothering them with cars or trains or factory whistles or anything else.  They just live in their spot in nature like they’ve done for thousands of years.”

Marilyn chuckled again.

“You sound like those nature programs I used to watch on TV.”

Randy smiled.

“I should.  I’m a wildlife biologist, and that’s how we think.”

“So, you think the world should go back to what it was before people?”

“No, that’s not really possible, but there need to be places where people are the visitors instead of wildlife.  That’s what the wilderness areas are for – to give animals a place where they can live the life they evolved to live.”

Randy paused and Marilyn saw a wry smile on his face when he spoke again.

“I guess it might end up that way now, though.  Maybe that’s for the best.”

Marilyn frowned.

“Joe didn’t think that way.  To him, some animals were just food.  He shot deer, elk, rabbits, squirrels and grouse whenever he saw them.  Bears were dangerous scavengers.  He killed one every fall, but he wouldn’t eat the meat.  He said any animal that ate rotten meat would taste the same way.  He just had me render the fat so we’d have some oil for cooking.  The rest of the animals were just there.  He couldn’t see what you see.”

“A lot of people can’t until they spend some time here.  Most people don’t know how to live in a wilderness, so they don’t stay long enough to really see it.”

“Joe knew how to live here, but he didn’t try to understand.  He just shot the animals he wanted to and didn’t care about the rest.  I did start to understand though.  I liked watching the eagles and seeing the fawns with their mothers every spring.  Sometimes when I didn’t have anything to do, I’d walk out into the trees and just sit and watch.  After I’d been there for a while and not moving, the animals would come out and I’d watch them.  It was fascinating just to watch a squirrel in a tree or a fish in the stream.  

“When I told Joe about the fawns or the eagles, he said I was being crazy and sentimental and should concentrate on picking and drying berries for the winter.  At first, I used to worry that maybe he was right, but after a couple of years, I started worrying that maybe Joe was the crazy one.  I stopped that a year later.  Joe was just Joe, and worrying about him didn’t do any good.”

“You’re worried about him now, aren’t you?”

Marilyn frowned again.

“I thought about that after he’d been gone over a week.  I did miss him, but then I realized it wasn’t really him that I missed.  I missed someone to talk with, and I missed knowing he’d keep me safe.  You probably think I’m a terrible person now, don’t you?”

“No.  You must have loved him or you wouldn’t have married him.“

Marilyn sighed.

“I thought I loved him before we were married.  After he started in with his speeches about banks and the government, that started to change.  Once we got up here, it changed a lot.  It isn’t that I didn’t like Joe, because I did.  I just don’t think I loved him like before we were married.  

“I don’t think he really loved me either.  He was always good to me and looked out for me, but I don’t think he really loved me.  What we became was more like friends than a married couple.  I’m sad that he’s dead, but it’s not the same as if I loved him.  Does that make any sense?”

“Yes, I can understand that.  I lost a friend because of a car accident once.  It shook me up and I missed him, but it wasn’t the end of my world.”

Marilyn grinned.

“So I’m not a terrible person?”

“Nope.  You’re just a woman who changed her mind.  Uh…we need to keep moving if you’re ready.”

The sun was starting to drop into the trees when they stopped beside a rock overhang near the stream they’d been following.  Randy slipped off his pack and leaned the shotgun against the rock, then turned to Marilyn.

“This look like a good camping spot to you?”

“Yes, but I can walk farther if you want.”

Randy shook his head.

“I want to take this slow because I don’t know what we’re going to find in Challis or along the way.  It’ll be better if we don’t wear ourselves out.  If you don’t mind, we’ll camp here tonight.  It’s still cool at night, and the rock face will reflect some heat from a fire.  I think you could use a rest even if you don’t.”

Marilyn smiled.

“I’m tired, but I could keep going.”

Randy grinned.

“Well, we’ll just say I’m the one that’s tired then.  Why don’t you put our stuff under the overhang.  I’ll see if there are any fish in the stream.”

An hour later, Randy walked back to the overhang with four small rainbow trout and found Marilyn adding sticks to the fire she’d built.

She’d done everything right.  The fire was small and contained inside a circle of broken rocks from the base of the overhang.  The pile of grass and dirt beside the circle told him she’d scraped anything that would burn from inside the circle.  Beside the fire was an assortment of wood from small twigs to birch logs about three inches in diameter.  There were enough logs to last the night, and to provide coals to light another for breakfast the next morning.  His axe was stuck upright in the largest log, and that log showed the signs of being used to support other logs when they were split.

“Marilyn, how did you learn to do this?”

She shrugged.

“I watched Joe.  This is how he always did it.  Your axe is a little smaller than I’m used to, but I found a dead birch tree a little ways away and used your axe to cut the trunk into logs and then to split some.  Joe always built what he called a fire ring with rocks, so I did that too.  Is it OK?”

“I couldn’t have done any better myself.  I’ll go back to the stream and get some water so we’ll have coffee.  Your fire should be ready to cook on by then.”

Marilyn smiled when he walked away with his cooking pot.  Randy had told her she’d done something right and it made her feel good about herself.  Joe had seldom done that.  He just expected her to do her share of the work and only said anything about that when she didn’t get something done.  

Joe never got mad about something she hadn’t done; he’d just point out that she’d not filled the water bucket or that she hadn’t banked the fire for the night. It was like he thought she wasn’t capable of doing better and sort of forgave her for that, like most adults would do to a child. Once she realized that, his words about her work began to hurt worse than if he had gotten mad at her.

Randy was so much different.  Instead of telling her what they were going to do, he’d tell her what he was thinking and ask her for her opinion.  Joe would have expected her to build a fire while he fished.  Randy seemed surprised that she’d cut wood and built the fire, and he’d told her she’d done it as well as he could.

She’d show him, Marilyn thought.  She’d show Randy that she could do a lot more than he thought.  She smiled again and then opened Randy’s pack and pulled out his frying pan.  After getting the knife from her own pack, Marilyn put a small amount of her bear grease in the frying pan, set in on the coals, and started peeling potatoes.

When Randy brought the pot of water back, Marilyn had peeled and sliced two potatoes and had them in his frying pan.  She looked up and smiled.

“I thought you might like some potatoes with your trout, and the fire was ready, so I started them.  They’ll be about done in a few minutes and then I’ll put in the trout.  Trout don’t take very long to cook.”

Randy lay in his sleeping bag that night watching the glowing coals of the fire and thinking.  Marilyn was a little confusing.  When she’d opened her door and pointed the rifle in his face, he’d thought she was probably a normal woman made a little crazy by living alone in the wilderness.  When she’d basically offered her body if he’d take her with him, he’d changed his mind and she’d become a woman who would do anything to stay alive.  Given the circumstances, he couldn’t really blame her for that, but still…

Then, she’d said she didn’t really love her husband and wasn’t very sad that he was probably dead.  That made her a hard woman until she’d talked about starting to understand the wilderness while her husband hadn’t.  That gave Marilyn a softer side that he liked.

She laughed when he suggested they rest.  He would have dismissed that as just talk if she hadn’t walked so fast while carrying so much weight.  She was a strong woman for her size.  

She also seemed to enjoy helping him.  He’d planned on building the fire and cooking the meal because that was how he usually did things.  Marilyn had done both without him asking for her help and she seemed proud of doing it.  He fell asleep wondering how this Joe guy could live with her for so long and not see what he had.

Randy was awake at first light, and was moving what remained of the coals from the fire into the center when Marilyn walked up beside him.  The morning was chilly and she was hugging herself.

“I got up to restart the fire, but I guess you beat me to it.  My blankets kept me warm until this morning, but now I’m about to freeze and I need to get warmed up a little.”

Randy chuckled.

“It’s not as cold here as it is in the mountains.  I always fill my water pot before I go to sleep, and up there, it would be frozen over by morning.”

Randy added some sticks he’d shaved into curls to the coals and after blowing on the coals for a minute, the kindling burst into flame.  Marilyn stooped down beside him and held her hands over the small fire.

“Aaah.  That’s better.  It’s my hands that always get cold first.”

Randy added larger sticks and a few of the splits Marilyn had cut the day before.  The larger sticks caught fire and the heat increased.  Marilyn backed away from the fire a little, but still kept her hands over it.

Randy was feeling some heat of his own.  Marilyn was so close to him he could feel her arm brush his as she rubbed her hands together.  She didn’t seem to notice, but having her that close was more than a little exciting.  The thought of her bare arm over his bare chest as they recovered from sex flashed through his mind.  He stood up and reached for two of the larger logs to move away from her a little, then placed them on either side of the growing blaze.

“Give me a minute and I’ll have you all warmed up.  Once I have some coals, I’ll boil some water for coffee.  I hope you like instant, because that’s what I have.  I have a little oatmeal left if you’d like breakfast.”


Their walk that day was the same as the day before.  Sometimes they talked, but most of the time they just walked.  Each was lost in their own thoughts.

Randy made plan after plan for his course of action should they meet another person.  In the first plan, he would stop and talk with the person to find out if  they’d been ill anytime during the past three weeks.  If they had, he’d explain to the person that even though they’d recovered from the disease, they were still contagious.  Then he’d ask them to move away so he and Marilyn could pass without making contact.

In that earliest plan, it always worked because people would understand.  The person would walk away.  He and Marilyn would pass them by and go on about the business of replenishing their supplies.

After he reviewed that plan to find any errors in it, Randy knew that probably wouldn’t be the case.  Either out of hunger or a need for companionship or a desire to take something they had, any person who they met would want to stay close and would have to be considered a threat to their survival.  It was how to deal with that threat that caused the other plans.

In the end, it came down to few options.  If the person could prove they hadn’t been infected, he would allow them to approach.  If not, the person had two options from which to choose.  They could walk away as Randy instructed or he would end their life.  After he thought about the last two options, he reduced them to one.  Any person might walk away, but nothing would prevent that person from following them until they stopped.  Once it was dark, or if for some reason they were unarmed, they’d be easy prey for an attacker.  There was, in reality, only one option instead of two.

Randy struggled with that last course of action for most of the day.  He’d spent a year in Iraq and had both been shot at and shot back.  There, in a combat situation, it was simple.  The man shooting at him had one goal – to kill him.  Randy had the same goal – to kill the man trying to kill him.  Usually he wasn’t close enough to the shooter to look him in the face.  He just fired at a shape at some distance.

Here, it would be different.  He’d be looking the man or woman or even child in the face knowing if they didn’t obey his command he’d have to shoot to kill.  There really was no option.  Any attempt to disable or restrain the person would mean contact with saliva, blood, or other body fluid, and that contact would mean either he or Marilyn would be infected and die.

The Army had instilled in him a disdain for the life of the enemy.  It was relatively easy to do that.  The enemy looked and dressed differently.  That disdain removed most of his reservations about killing another human.  The first bullets flying past his head and seeing people in his platoon injured or killed removed those that remained.  

The people he and Marilyn would possibly meet wouldn’t look any different than they did, wouldn’t act or talk any differently, and would probably seem like average people.  Randy wasn’t sure how he’d react if he had to shoot.  Would he hesitate or just pull the trigger?  

He found himself wishing they would be zombies like in the movies.  Zombies weren’t human anymore and it would be a simple matter to shoot them.  It wouldn’t be easy to shoot a person who seemed healthy, but in the end, that was the only sane course of action.  He couldn’t let a walking infection stay walking and infecting the few people who were still healthy.


Marilyn thought about several things, and couldn’t resolve any of the questions those thoughts caused.  What would Randy do if they did meet someone?  What would she do?  What should she do, stay back and let Randy handle the situation or join him?

What if they met someone who hadn’t been infected?  Would they ask that person to come with them or tell them to go away?  It seemed cruel to tell a healthy person they had to live in an unhealthy place, but their survival was at stake.

The last thought caused her more questions than the other two.  Randy said they should stay in the cabin over the winter, and that if the government survived, they would be looking for survivors.  If that happened, would Randy want to stay with her?  

What if the disease had essentially ended government?  Nobody would come looking for them if that happened.  Would Randy be content to stay in the cabin with her forever?

She needed someone to be with in order to feel safe, and Randy was the only person she trusted.  If he left…Then she realized there was another reason she wanted him to stay.  Joe hadn’t touched her in four years.  She’d forgotten what it felt like to be close to a man, but over the last week, she started to feel a thrill if she touched Randy or he touched her.  It wasn’t really arousal.  It was a feeling of wanting and needing to be aroused, to feel the weight of a man nestled between her thighs, to feel the surge of sensations that would leave her breathless and reeling from the experience.

Marilyn silently cursed herself for being selfish.  She couldn’t expect Randy to stay with her.  He was just going to help her through the winter.  He’d probably leave her then and she’d just have to deal with that when the time came.

Their camp that night was quiet.  Neither one wanted to start the conversation they knew they had to have before going into Challis the next day.  Randy caught two more trout.  Marilyn built a fire and cooked them with more potatoes.  They went to bed anticipating the next day.

The sun was just peeking over the trees when Randy woke up.  Marilyn was squatting in front of the flickering flames of the fire she was reviving.  He crawled out of his sleeping bag and went to join her.

“You’re up early, Marilyn.  Get cold again?”

“No.  I couldn’t sleep anymore.  We need to talk.”

Randy put his hand on Marilyn’s shoulder and squeezed gently.

“I know.  I’m worried too.  I thought about it all day yesterday and didn’t like the answer I came up with.”

Marilyn put her hand over Randy’s.

“Let’s make coffee and then you can tell me.”

As the fire burned down to coals, Randy told Marilyn his final plan.

“If the person is obviously well and can prove they haven’t been exposed, we won’t bother them.  I haven’t decided about letting them join us or not because I can’t do that by myself.  You and I will both have to agree to let them do that.  I can’t ask you to accept a third person if you have any, and I mean any, reservations about doing it.  You might see something in the person I don’t, and safe is better than sorry.

If they’re sick or have recovered from the disease, we don’t have any other option.  Both of us have to be prepared to shoot them.  That means chest or head, but the chest is a bigger target so you should aim for that.

Randy shook his head.

“See why I don’t like the plan?”

“Yes, but like you say, we really don’t have any options, do we?  I mean, even touching them would probably infect at least one of us and we’d die.”

“Can you do it”, asked Randy.  “Shoot somebody?”

“I don’t know.  It would depend, I guess.”

For the first time since they’d met, Marilyn heard Randy’s voice grow stern.

“Marilyn, there can’t be any ‘depend’, not if you want both of us to stay alive.”

“I know that.  All I can say is I’ll try.”

Randy saw tears in Marilyn’s eyes, and was ashamed of himself.  He reached over and patted her on the back.

“Marilyn, I’m sorry.  I got…it’s just that this situation isn’t about being the person you were before.  It’s about being the person you have to be to stay alive.  I know you’ll try, and I’ll be right there beside you.”

Two hours later, they walked onto the pavement of Idaho 70 and could see the buildings of Challis in the distance.  The sun was directly overhead when they walked into the edge of the town.

It was eerie and fascinating at the same time.  Challis was never a busy town, but there were always a few people driving or walking around.  Now, the streets were deserted.  As they walked down Gardner Creek Road, they saw nobody, not even kids playing.  Here and there the door to a house stood wide open, as if the people had left in such a hurry they’d forgotten to close it.  

The stench hit them as they approached the US Forest Service building, and it was then Randy saw the first coyote.  He whispered to Marilyn.

“Give me the 30-30 and the rest of the cartridges.  You chamber the .22.  If you see a coyote, dog, cat, or any other animal, kill it.”
.
As Marilyn handed him the rifle she whispered “Why”.

“Because if that coyote was doing what I think it was doing, it could be infected.  Don’t you smell that smell?”

“Yes, I smell it.  It smells like something’s dead.  Oh God…you mean…Oh God no, not that.”

Randy nodded.

“The first thing Doctor Mayes would have done is get all the sick people in one place so he could treat them faster.  The Forest Service building is in the middle of town and would hold a lot of people. My guess is there was nobody to bury the dead, and the coyotes are scavenging the bodies somewhere.  My guess is it’s the Forest Service building.  Marilyn, you can’t hesitate.  Just aim and pull the trigger.  We can’t take any chances.”

“I thought you said the bacteria couldn’t live unless it was in a live body.”

“I did, but we don’t know how long the people have been dead.  It might have only been since this morning.”

They were a block from the Forest Service building when a black bear shuffled out of a side street going toward the building.  It saw Randy and Marilyn, turned to face them and began walking in their direction.

Randy handed the rifle to Marilyn and thumbed the shotgun safety to “fire”.  He yelled at the bear and waved his arms, but the bear kept coming.  Randy let it approach to about fifty feet before firing the shotgun.  

The slug caught the bear in the chest.  It roared and clawed at the wound, then kept coming.  Randy’s second slug entered the bear’s head just behind the eye.  The bear stopped cold and then fell over.  Randy steered Marilyn around the twitching carcass while keeping the shotgun trained on the bear, but it stopped moving just as they passed.  When they were past, Randy whispered to Marilyn.

“We need to watch for bears too.  It looks like this one got used to an easy food source and thought we’d make a nice lunch.  There are probably others.  Just let me take care of them with the shotgun.  The 30-30 wouldn’t stop a bear before he could get to us.”

They saw two more coyotes before they reached the sporting goods store where Randy had worked.  Marilyn killed both with .22.  They saw several more in the distance, but at the first shot, those turned and ran.

In the sporting goods store, Randy went to the gun counter.  In the shelving behind the counter and under the rack of rifles were boxes of ammunition.  He quickly pulled out all twenty eight boxes of 30-30 cartridges and put them on the counter.  There were boxes of 500 .22 long rifle rounds on the shelf, and Randy put all twenty of them on the counter as well.  Twenty five boxes of .44 magnum rounds for his revolver quickly joined those on the counter.  On a rack against the south wall were the shotgun shells.  Randy picked up all thirty boxes of slug rounds, and all fifty of the boxes of shot shells.  

“There’s more here than I thought there’d be and more than we can carry, but we need to take it all somehow.  We need a different type of rifle as well…and there they are.”

Randy lifted the new AR-15 from the rack, then looked in the display case, found a sling that fit, and atttached it to the rifle.  He looked at Marilyn.

“We need at least two of these and ammunition for them as well all the rest, but we’ll never be able to carry all this.  We need some pack horses.  There aren’t any in town that I know of, but I’ll bet I can find us a truck.  We’ll load everything in the truck and drive it as far as we can, then haul all this back to the cabin a few things at a time.  What do you think?”

“It sounds like a good plan, but why do we need two more rifles?  Don’t we already have enough guns to hunt with?”

“It’s something I thought about walking through town and seeing the coyotes and the bear.  If we just needed the rifles and shotgun for hunting, we do have enough, but we may not be the only ones hunting now.  Just like the bear was, there may be other people hunting us.  

“The 30-30 holds five rounds plus one in the chamber.  The shotgun is the same.  The .22 holds fourteen with plus one in the chamber but it wouldn’t stop a determined person very fast.  What if we meet up with say, ten or more people who want to take what we have?  It’s not likely we could fire fast enough and hit with every round we fired, so we need more firepower.  These AR-15’s hold 30 rounds in the magazine and they’ll fire as fast as you can pull the trigger.  We need them for our own safety.”

“Oh…I guess I didn’t think about that.  I kind of wish you hadn’t told me.  You think people will really be that bad?”

“How bad would you be if you didn’t have food or a warm place in the winter?”

Randy found the Ford moving truck sitting in front of the auto repair place that also rented moving equipment and trucks.  The office door was locked, but it took him only a few minutes to kick in the door and find the keys on the key rack.  It started and seemed to run OK and the fuel tank was three quarters full, so he drove it up to the sporting goods store.  When he went back inside, he grinned at Marilyn.

“Now we can do some real shopping.”

Four of the AR-15 rifles went into the truck along with all the ammunition in the store for those and the firearms they already had.  Randy also picked out a twenty gauge pump shotgun for Marilyn and loaded it and all the ammunition for it in the truck.  He picked up all the axes, hatchets, and knives as well because as he told Marilyn, if they broke one, there would be no way to quickly repair it.

The store was well stocked with outdoor clothing, so they loaded everything large enough fit them into the truck, including boots, both insulated and not.  They loaded every pair of gloves and mittens they could find regardless of the size.

Randy loaded all the rope he could find into the truck as well as several spools of small diameter fishing line.  The fine line was strong and would make good rabbit snares.  Marilyn smiled when she found box upon box of waterproof matches, and carried them all to the truck, then went back inside to look for candles and lamp oil.  

Their next stop was the hardware store where they loaded nails, screws, more rope, and hand tools like hammers, saws, and drills.

When they had gotten everything they wanted from the hardware store, he asked Marilyn if they’d forgotten anything.  She grinned.

“I don’t think there’s any more here we need, but you said we needed dried food, and I would absolutely love to have some toilet paper again.”

Ah hour later, Randy pulled down the roll-up door on the truck and latched it, and then he and Marilyn drove to his parent’s house.  They weren’t there, but he’d long since given up hope they would be.  He just wanted what would probably be his last look at “home” for a long time.

While he went into his old bedroom, Marilyn went to the kitchen to see if there was anything there she could use.  She came back out with an envelope, found Randy, and handed it to him.

“This was on the table. It’s for you, Randy.”

Randy recognized his mother’s handwriting, and his hands shook as he tore open the envelope.  Inside was a single sheet of paper.  He sat down to read it.

When he finished, he handed the paper to Marilyn.  She saw tears in his eyes.

The letter began, “Dearest Randy”, and Marilyn felt a lump growing in her chest as she read.

I hope you get this letter, because I’m afraid these words will be the last you hear from me.  Daddy passed away yesterday, just ten days after you left, and today I have to go to the Forest Service building because I have the same thing.  Doctor Hayes said everybody who is sick should go there so he can treat us better.  Doctor Hayes doesn’t know what killed Daddy, so there’s not much he can do for any of us.  I’m not ready to die yet, but it looks like that is what will happen unless there is a miracle of some sort.

The news on TV said it was terrorists who spread some sort of bug around in all the big cities and infected the people.  Those people spread the disease more by traveling.  I think that’s true because nobody in Challis got sick until the truck that fills up the gas pumps at the station came to town.  The driver was coughing a lot.  Two days after that, Jane Maxwell, the girl who was the cashier that day, started coughing and she died four days later.  Both her husband and her little boy died a day after she did.  People have been getting sick and dying since then.

I don’t know if it was really terrorists or just something that happened, but I don’t think things will ever be the same again.  The last news on TV before they stopped broadcasting was that almost all the people in the big cities are dead or sick and dying and it’s moving outward from there.  According to the police chief, Challis has already lost about eight hundred and the rest are sick.

Daddy said you could take care of yourself if you didn’t get exposed to the disease, and I think believing that helped him when he went.  It will help me to believe that too.   Randy, if you’re not sick, go back up into the mountains where you won’t be around people.  You’ll be safer there.  I’ll believe you will and that you’ll be safe there because I can’t let myself think anything else.  

Well, the school bus is here to take me to the Forest Service building so I have to stop writing.  It doesn’t seem like I’ve written enough for my last words, but I don’t know what else to say except Daddy and I love you.  Please take care of yourself and remember us.

Mom

Marilyn put down the letter and touched Randy on the shoulder.

“Randy, I’m so sorry.”

Randy put his hand over Marilyn’s and looked up with a smile.

“Don’t be.  You didn’t have anything to do with it.  I knew they were both probably gone.  I just had to know for sure.  Now that I do we need to be on our way.  I just need to find Dad’s radio.”

“There won’t be anything on it, will there?  There’s been nothing on mine.”

“Dad’s is about like yours except it receives short wave and ham radio bands too.  We used to take it camping with us and listen to it at night.  There has to be somebody out there who’s still alive and broadcasting, even if it’s in another country.”

Half an hour later, Randy and Marilyn were driving up Idaho 70.  When they reached the start of the valley they’d walked down, Randy turned the truck into the grass and drove until he reached a spot narrow enough the truck wouldn’t pass through.  He pulled it in between two big pine trees and shut off the engine.

“This will be our cache until we can haul everything up to the cabin.  We’re only about a day’s walk from the cabin, and we’re far enough up the valley nobody can see the truck from the road.  Most people would stay on the road so our stuff should be safe.  Let’s get started with the food because it’s lighter and we can make better time.”

It took fifteen trips over five weeks to carry everything to the cabin.  When they reached the cabin at the end of the last trip, Marilyn sat down on the small porch and shrugged off her pack, then laid on her back and stretched.

“I don’t think my back will ever be the same after this.  I’m glad it’s over.”

Randy dropped his pack and sat down beside her.

“Well, at least we won’t have to worry about the winter.  We’ll have plenty to eat and I’ll cut enough firewood that we’ll stay warm.  It’s not too late to plant your garden, so we’ll have some vegetables too.  I saw you picking up seeds at the hardware store.  Think they’ll all grow?”

“I hope so.  It would be nice to have more than just potatoes and carrots to eat.  Do you like beets?  I got some seeds for them.  Onions and cabbage too.  With the salt and vinegar we got, I can make the cabbage into sauerkraut that will last all winter long.  If the cucumbers will grow, I can make pickles too.  The package of squash seeds say they’ll keep over the winter, so I hope they’ll grow as well.  Do you like squash?”

Randy didn’t answer because he was busy looking at Marilyn.  The day had been warm, and carrying the packs had caused both of them to be too hot in their coats.  They’d taken them off on the way to the cabin, and all Marilyn wore was a snug T-shirt.   When she stretched, her breasts rose with her arms and pulled the T-shirt up enough to expose her flat belly.  Below that pale skin, her jeans fit tightly around her round hips.  

Randy had tried not to think about much of anything over the past several weeks except how to cope with the situation.  The sight of Marilyn’s body, even though she was covered, stirred some other thoughts in his mind, thoughts he knew were normal but thoughts he wished he didn’t have.  Marilyn was a very sensuous and desirable woman.  He found himself wishing she was fat, sloppy and ugly, because if she was, he wouldn’t be attracted to her.

Because he was so quiet, Marilyn raised her head to look at him.

“You’re being quiet again.  You never do that unless you’re worried about something.”

“It’s nothing.  I’m just tired, that’s all.  I’ll go get a bucket of water from the stream.  I could use a cup of coffee about now.  How about you?”

As Randy walked away from the cabin, Marilyn smiled.  She knew what was bothering Randy.  She’d known when she saw him staring at her breasts and then felt the cooler air on her exposed tummy.  It made her feel good to know she’d stirred something inside him.  Maybe over time, he’d start to want her enough to tell her.  If he didn’t and she thought she was ready, she’d find a way to tell him.

It was probably better that he hadn’t tried anything yet.  One of her fears about being without Joe was that another man would find her.  She and Joe had stopped having sex after the second year on he mountain.  Joe had understood the change in their relationship and had accepted it.  He didn’t try to force himself on her.  Another man might not be the same.

Randy could have easily taken her anytime he wanted, but he hadn’t.  At first she’d thought maybe it was her, but the times when she’d gotten close to him, he always found a reason to move away.  Several of those times, especially if she touched him somehow, she’d seen a slight bulge in the front of his jeans when he stood up.  He found her exciting, that she knew.  He was just too much of a gentleman to do anything to her.

That night, Randy cranked his father’s radio until static poured from the speaker and then began slowly tuning across the short wave frequencies.  He found nothing.  Marilyn asked if that meant everything was gone.  Randy’s response made her feel a little better.

“Not necessarily. Most short wave stations don’t broadcast all day long.  It’s better to listen for European broadcasts later at night.  We’ll try to pick up something from Asia tomorrow morning.  It might be hard to find anything even then. We’ll just have to keep trying.”

As Randy lay in his sleeping bag that night, he wasn’t as confident as he’d been with Marilyn.  The strongest signals on the short wave bands were from stations run by religious groups, and they were on the air most of the day.  The fact he hadn’t been able to tune in even one probably meant there was nobody to run them.  The stations were located in several different states, and if none of them were broadcasting, that probably meant most of what had been wasn’t anymore.


When the weather warmed up enough, Randy helped Marilyn plant her garden and then set about fixing the cabin in preparation for winter.  He filled all the gaps between the logs with mud from the stream bank mixed with dried grass.  That would keep out the drafts.  Once that was done, he replaced a few shakes in the roof with fresh ones split from cedar logs.  The nails they’d brought from the hardware store in town made short work of securing them.

Next on his list was a bear-proof meat cache.  Joe had not built one, probably because he hunted all year long and just hung the meat from a tree a hundred yards from the cabin.  Randy intended to start hunting deer and elk in the fall when they were fattened up for the winter, and keep hunting until he had enough meat to last until spring.  At that time of year, the days would be cold enough the meat wouldn’t spoil and they wouldn’t have to risk not getting back to the cabin during the coldest months of the winter.

His meat cache was like a small cabin in some respects, except it was built on top of four cedar posts and stood twelve feet off the ground.  The floor of cedar logs sat on top of four logs notched into and nailed to these posts.  The walls were of cedar logs about six inches in diameter, and were about ten feet on a side.  Six feet from the floor Randy built a peaked roof with smaller logs for purlins and covered by split cedar shakes like the cabin.  A canvass door flap tied at the sides served to keep out any birds that might fly up there.  A ladder made of smaller pine tree trunks allowed them to reach the cache and could be taken down when not in use.

It took Randy and Marilyn the month of July to finish the cache, and then they started on what he called their “refrigerator”.  It was a small cabin-like structure dug into a low hill beside the cabin and lined with cedar logs.  More cedar logs formed a flat roof which Randy covered with stones from the stream and then a thick layer of dirt.  A door made of cedar saplings closed the entrance tight enough to keep out small animals like foxes and skunks, but it was really not necessary.  Once the weather got cold enough, bears and most of the other animals would go into hibernation.  He and Marilyn would move some of their meat and other food to that place for easier access then.

Having Marilyn help him made the work easier for Randy, but it was also distracting.  July and August in the mountains can be warm, and Marilyn dressed accordingly.  Often during the day, she wore jeans cut off short enough most of her thighs were exposed, and her shirts were either tight T-shirts or tank tops that were cut low in both the front and back.  Randy had to concentrate on not looking at her in order to get any work done, but that was often impossible.

It was also impossible to not look at the positions she got herself into while helping him lift a log or digging in her garden.  Randy would look up to see what she was doing and find himself looking at a very feminine, very soft looking pair of hips, or staring down the front of the tank top that had fallen open enough he could see she wasn’t wearing a bra.  When the weather had been cool, the lack of a bra wasn’t so noticeable.  Now, when it was warm, those occasions required him to walk away for a while.

The nights had started getting cool when they picked up the first ham radio broadcast.  The speaker seemed excited because he talked very fast and kept repeating the same message, but gave them some information that was both valuable and disturbing.

“To anyone out there who might be listening, I’m on a mountain in Montana and I haven’t seen or heard from anybody in three months.  My last radio contact was from a guy in Atlanta at the CDC.  He said he’s alive because they sealed up the building as soon as it looked like an epidemic was happening and isolated anyone who’d been outside in the last few weeks.  Most of those died before they identified what it was.  There are some other doctors there who are still alive, but they aren’t coming out any time soon.

“He said the disease was called glanders and it was supposed to be extinct in most of the world so none of the hospitals tested for it.  According to him, the CIA and FBI think it was Middle East terrorists who spread it, but that probably doesn’t matter now.  From what he said, there aren’t many people left anywhere because by the time they figured out what it was, it was too late.  They tried all sorts of antibiotics until they ran out of them, but none of them did much.  If anybody survived the disease, they’re just as dangerous because they’re carriers, like Typhoid Mary was with typhoid fever.  

“There’s nobody left to track the carriers down and do something with them.  The Army is pretty much gone and the Airforce too.  There are a few Navy ships and subs out there where the people are probably OK, but they’ve been told to stay at sea until the government figures out what to do.

“Yes, there’s still a government of sorts.  We still have a president and some of congress is left, or at least that’s what the guy said.  Like I said, it’s been three months and I haven’t heard anything more from anybody, so I’m not sure.  I don’t think they could do much of anything anyway.

“So, folks, if you’re listening, stay safe and don’t let anybody get close.  Maybe I’m just hoping, but I think it’ll probably get better.  I think it’s  gonna take a while though.  If you can transmit, I’ll be on this frequency until it does.  I got my solar cells and battery bank working again yesterday and I have backups for both, so I can do that for at least a couple years if it lasts that long.”

Marilyn puffed out her cheeks as she exhaled.

“It’s as bad as you thought, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is.  We’re going to be on this mountain for a long, long time.”

“I think I need a hug after hearing all that.”

Randy looked at Marilyn.  She was smiling, but he could see her eyes were filled with tears.

“I didn’t mean to make you feel that way.”

“Well, I do.  Can I get a hug, please.”

Randy stood up and walked to where Marilyn sat on her bed.

“OK, here you go.”

Randy wasn’t prepared for Marilyn to put her arms around his neck and pull her body against his when he hugged her.  He pulled back gently and looked into her eyes.

“What was that for?”

Marilyn smiled.

“I told you I needed a hug.  I thought you could use one too.”

Randy chuckled.

“This is more than a feel-good hug.”

“I know.  I need more than a feel-good hug right now.  Do you understand what I’m saying?”

Marilyn didn’t wait for his answer.  She pulled her breasts tighter into Randy’s chest and kissed him.

Randy’s body responded even though he willed it not to.  He pushed Marilyn gently away.

“I don’t think this is a good idea.  I can’t have you pregnant with no doctors around.”

Marilyn smiled as she stroked his cheek.

“I can’t get pregnant now, not until after I have another period.”

“Are you really sure about this?”

Marilyn didn’t answer.  She kissed him again, a kiss that left him breathless and craving the touch of her body, then pulled the T-shirt over her head.  Randy’s cock lurched at the touch of Marilyn’s hands as she unbuttoned his shirt, and when she pressed her naked breasts into his bare chest, he lost any reservations that still lingered in his mind.

Randy pulled free of Marilyn’s embrace long enough to kick off his shoes and take off his pants and shirt.  Marilyn did the same.  He drank in the sight of her body in the flickering lamplight before pulling her into his embrace.  When he kissed her, Marilyn held him tight and searched for his tongue with hers.  Both felt the electric shocks shoot down their spines when that happened.

Marilyn eased gently away and hooked her thumbs in the waistband of her panties.  She pulled them down her slender thighs, then stepped out of them, rolled onto the bed and held out her arms.

“Randy, it’s been four years for me.  Go easy, OK?”

Her breasts were firm to his touch and yet yielded to his soft squeezes by moving away.  Her nipples were small, but grew taut and rigid at his touch.  A soft kiss to the right nipple caused Marilyn to moan quietly.  

She caught her breath when he slowly stroked down her firm, rounded belly, and caught it again when he cupped the mass of hair between her thighs.  As Randy separated that hair to open her lips, he felt Marion’s hand sliding down his side, then between them.  Her fingers found his rigid cock and stroked it lightly.  Marilyn giggled softly when Randy’s hips jerked.

Randy was being as gentle as he knew how to be gentle.  Once he’d separated the matted hairs, he lightly stroked the slit formed by Marilyn’s lips.  She sighed and opened her thighs wide.  He heard a tiny little gasp when one fingertip slipped between her lips, and the fingertips on his cock began stroking.

Before he knew it, Madeline was wet enough his fingertip slipped inside her easily.  She rocked her hips up a little, then again when he pulled the fingertip back out.  He moved that fingertip up until he felt the small bump of her hidden clit and then rubbed gently.  Marilyn moaned and she began pulling on his cock.

“Take me now”, she whispered.

She was tight, as tight as any of the girls in college had been.  Randy eased in his cock until he felt resistance, then pulled it back out.  After several of these short strokes, he pushed a little firmer.  He didn’t want to hurt Marilyn, but he needn’t have worried.  His cock was half way in when she moaned and rocked her hips up.  He slid in all the way and stopped only when her lips splayed out around the base of his cock.

After that, it was a matter of Randy trying to hold back against the moans and gasps Marilyn was making and the rocking of her hips.  He’d never known a woman who was so active during sex.  The young girls he’d dated usually just laid there while he pumped away.  They always said they were satisfied, but he’d doubted it at the time.  There was no question that Marilyn was becoming more aroused by the minute.  

The slow rocking of her hips into his thrusts became faster and with more lift until she was meeting each stroke half way.  Each stroke caused her to moan or to dig her nails into his back.  Randy bent his head and slipped her left nipple into his mouth, then pinched gently.  Marilyn lurched her body into his stroke and murmured, “Oh God Randy, please don’t stop.”

Three strokes later, Marilyn cried out and her body began writhing beneath Randy.  He pushed his cock deep just as the first spurt raced from his loins and splattered inside Marilyn’s pulsing passage.  She cried out again when he pulled back and then thrust deep.  Her hips were still moving up and down as he shot his last.

Marilyn pulled him down on top of her than and held him there with her arms around his back.  She breathed hard for a couple of minutes, then he felt her hands stroking her back.

“Mmmm…That was great.”

“It was great on this end too.”

“I think I could get used to this.”

“So could I.  You’re quite a woman.”

Marilyn hugged him tight.

“Thank you.  That’s the first time any man ever said that to me.”

 

Randy woke up with Marilyn snuggled against his chest and her soft thigh over his.  The cabin felt cool and the fire was out, so he eased away from her and went to start the fire again.  The flames were licking at the surface of the kindling when Marilyn sat up and stretched.

“It was a lot warmer with you in bed with me.  I think I’m going to like that.”

Randy chuckled.

“We’ll need a bigger bed this summer though, or we’ll both be too hot to sleep.”

“I’ll still want to be close to you.  You make me feel safe and happy.”

Randy put birch splits on top of the kindling and then walked back to the bed.

“It should warm up in here in a few minutes.  Then you can get up and get dressed.”

Marilyn grinned and held out her arms.

“I’m not in any hurry if you’re not.”

 

September was a time for cutting firewood and harvesting the garden.  Both Randy and Marilyn were tired at the end of each day, but not too tired to enjoy each other on the days she could.  On the other days, sometimes they would please each other manually, and sometimes they only shared a good night kiss before snuggling under the blankets.  

By the time of the first frost, Randy had cut and stacked enough firewood to last through the winter and Marilyn had filled the storage area under the cabin and  put six more buckets each of potatoes, carrots, onions, squash, and beets in the new “refrigerator” Randy had built.  Fifty of the mason jars she’d found at the hardware store were filled with shredded cabbage and cucumbers in brine were stored there as well.  Like with the storage area under the cabin, the heat that stayed in the ground and the insulating logs would let the cold of winter keep it all cool but not cold enough to freeze.

With the first snow came the time to hunt, and both Randy and Marilyn went out each day.  Randy carried the twelve gauge shotgun.  The bears in the area wouldn’t go into hibernation for a while and the shotgun was big enough to stop one.  It would also do for deer and elk if they got close enough.  Marilyn wanted a bear to replenish her stock of bear grease and Randy wanted one for the meat so they watched carefully for one on each hunting trip.

Marilyn carried the 30-30 and was a surprisingly good shot.  By the end of October, she’d killed a mule deer, one whitetail, and two elk.  Randy had added  two mule deer, an elk and a huge black bear.  Randy skinned and gutted the first deer they killed, but she helped with the second and third, and did the whitetail by herself.  The elk were so big it took both of them to gut and cut up the carcasses.

It also took both of them to carry the meat back to the cabin, so after the snow cover was deep enough, Randy made a sled from saplings lashed together with small diameter rope.  Without the sled, it would have taken them several trips to bring back the bear and the two elk.

By what Randy thought was probably the first of November, their meat cache was full as was their refrigerator, and the bears had disappeared for the winter.  There was not much to do since it was so cold outside and everything was covered by snow.  Randy did take a couple of days to teach Marilyn how to load and shoot the AR-15 rifles they'd brought from the sporting goods store.  She was as good a shot with the AR-15 as with the 30-30 and .22.  She said Joe had taught her in case they had to defend their cabin against intruders.

Other than a daily trip to get food from the refrigerator or cache, and making love on the nights Marilyn said she was safe, they stayed inside by the fire and listened for anyone on the short wave radio.  They found only two more people transmitting on the ham bands – one from the UK and another in Texas - and they didn’t have much new information.  The woman in the UK said all of the UK and Europe had been overrun by the disease and as far as she knew, she was the only person in her area who hadn’t been infected and died.  She lived by herself on a remote sheep farm in the North and was mostly self-sufficient so she didn’t go into a town and no one had come to see her.

The man from Texas said it was the same there as everywhere else.  There were lots of dead people in buildings that had been commandeered by the police or doctors to serve as emergency hospitals, and there was nobody left to bury them.  There had been no power, no radio or television, no phone service, and no internet since a week after the first people died.

If it hadn’t been expected, that news would have been disheartening.  As it was, it only confirmed to Randy and Marilyn that they’d made the right decision.  They thought they were far enough into the mountains it wasn’t likely anybody would find them, and as long as they stayed there, they’d be safe.

That all changed about the first of December.

Randy was outside picking up a load of firewood when he saw the horse and rider approaching the cabin.  He dropped the firewood, ran back into the cabin, and grabbed one of the AR-15’s from the rack he’d built beside the door.  Marilyn didn’t know what was going on, but there was only one reason Randy would have taken the AR-15 with him.  She put on her coat, picked up one of the other AR-15’s, and ran out the door after him.

When the rider was about fifty feet away, Randy yelled, “Stop or I’ll shoot”.  The rider reined in the horse and started to dismount.  Randy yelled again.

“Stay on your horse.  What are you doing here?”

The woman’s voice surprised him.

“I’m trying to get to Challis.”

“You’re coming from the mountains.  Where have you been?”

“I’m the cook for an outfitter with a lodge up on Piney Ridge.  That’s where I live.”

“What are you doing here?”

“I ran out of food, so I decided to ride down to Challis so I wouldn’t starve to death.  What are you doing here?  This is a wilderness and there aren’t supposed to be cabins here.”

Randy looked at Marilyn.

“Should I let her get closer?”

Marilyn frowned.

“She seems OK, but is there a way we can tell if she’s had the disease?”

“Maybe.  It causes skin abscesses, so if she did it would leave some scars.”

Randy turned back to the woman on the horse.

“Get off the horse and take off your clothes.”

The woman sounded mad when she replied.

“Mister, are you crazy?  It can’t be more than two degrees out here.  If I take off my clothes, I’ll freeze to death in five minutes.  If you’re gonna rape me, at least do it in your cabin.”

“I’m not going to rape you.  I need to see if you’ve had it or not.”

“Had what?  That disease that’s killing everybody?”

“Yes, that disease.  If you had it and recovered, you’ll have scars.  If you didn’t, you still have to convince me you haven’t been exposed.”

“Mister, if I wasn’t so hungry and you didn’t have a gun on me, I’d tell you to go to hell.  You better make this quick.”

The woman got down off her horse and took off her coat and draped it over the saddle, then started taking off the heavy wool shirt she wore.  

Randy turned to Marilyn.

“I’m going to go look at her.  You keep your rifle ready in case she tries to get close to me.  If she does, don’t wait to see what else happens, OK?”

Marilyn smiled grimly.

“I won’t.  It’ll be hard, but I won’t.”

The woman had her shirt off and was taking off her pants and shaking violently from the cold when Randy closed the distance between them to about twenty feet.  He couldn’t see any scars on her chest, belly, or legs.

“You don’t need to take the pants off all the way.  Turn around slowly so I can see your back.”

The woman was shivering uncontrollably, but did as he asked.  Randy looked carefully, but didn’t see any scarring anywhere.

“Now turn back around and put your clothes back on.”

The woman was shaking so much she had trouble buttoning the shirt and finally gave up.  She put the coat on and was able to zip it up.  She turned to Randy.

“Satisfied now?”

“I’m satisfied you haven’t had the disease.  What I need to know now is if you’re infected and if not, how you managed to avoid that.”

“I haven’t got anything except probably pneumonia now since you made me take off my clothes.  I’ve been up at the lodge since the spring thaw helping get the lodge ready for hunting season.  Every week, all the guys went down to Challis on Friday night for a few beers.  They’d stay in town until Sunday night and then drive back to the lodge.  I don’t drink much, and I don’t like being mauled by some drunk so I never went along.

“The last time they went down, they didn’t come back.  I figured they’d just gotten more drunk than usual and stayed an extra night to sober up.  That had happened before.  I always listen to my church station on the short wave, and that Monday afternoon, I heard about people getting sick and dying.

“Well, I figured they weren’t coming back because they were sick too.  I didn’t want to get sick and die, so I stayed in the lodge.  I haven’t seen anybody since.  I’d still be up there if I hadn’t run out of something to eat.”

“OK, stay here while I go talk to Marilyn.”

Marilyn had the rifle to her shoulder when he walked up beside her.

“I think you can put the rifle down.  She hasn’t had any skin abscesses, and she says she’s been alone at an outfitter’s lodge since before the outbreak.”

“Do you believe her?”

“I think so, but I’m not absolutely sure.  She says she’s hungry, so I don’t feel like just leaving her alone, so tell me what you think about this.  

“I’ll set up our tent a ways from the cabin, give her a sleeping bag and some firewood and some food.  We’ll make her stay in the tent for a week.  If she hasn’t died or gotten sick, we’ll know for sure.”

Marilyn nodded.

“I really didn’t want to shoot her.  If she’s OK, we can’t just send her on her way.  Let’s do it if she’ll agree.”

Randy walked back to the woman and explained his plan to quarantine her for a week.  The woman was still shivering, but she nodded.

“Just as long as I can stay warm and get some food in me.”

The week went by as slowly as had all the weeks since the snow made walking around difficult.  Every morning, Randy took one of the AR-15’s with him and walked to within fifty feet of where he’d pitched the tent beside the stream.  It wasn’t the best place for a tent because if the wind blew, it would make the already cold temperature feel colder, but it was the only place far enough from the cabin and their food caches to not pose a danger of infection while still letting him see the tent from the cabin.

Every morning, he’d see the woman stirring the coals in the fire pit he’d constructed, and every morning, she’d wave at him.  A little later, he’d see her heating water from the stream over the fire.  He’d given her a box of oatmeal and a haunch of venison along with a cooking pot, and she seemed to be doing well.  When seven days had passed, he picked up one of the AR-15’s and walked out to the tent.  The woman smiled when he stopped twenty feet away.

“You don’t need that rifle and you can get closer than that.  I told you I wasn’t sick.”

“I know you did, but we had to be sure.  You don’t feel feverish or have a runny nose or anything out of the ordinary?”

“Nope.  I feel fine except for freezing my butt off every morning until I get the fire going again.”

Randy was satisfied the woman wasn’t sick.  She didn’t have any of the symptoms he’d read about in college.  There was still a risk, but it seemed minimal.

“Stay here.  I’ll be back.”

When he told Marilyn what he thought, she agreed.

“We should let her in the cabin.  She must be half frozen after living out there for a week.  I’ll start some coffee.”

The woman’s name was Emily Whiteeagle, and once she was inside the cabin and out of her heavy coat. Randy could understand her last name.  Emily had the long, straight, black hair and rounded face that told him at least part of her was Native American.  She smiled when he asked her if she was.

“My grandfather was Shoshone, but my grandmother was white.  She was an American nurse in a military hospital in England during World War II.  My grandfather ended up in that hospital and my grandmother took care of him. They fell in love and after the Army sent him back to Idaho they wrote letters to each other until the war ended.

“When my grandmother came back to the States, she came to the Fort Hall Reservation where my father lived.  It wasn’t something either the Shoshone or white people thought was right back then, but they got married and had my dad and my uncle.  My mother is also Shoshone, so I’m three fourths.”

To Randy, Emily was a pretty woman.  Her face wasn’t quite so rounded as most Native American women he’d met.  Her high cheekbones only accented her deep, dark eyes.  When he’d seen her naked, he’d been looking for scarring and hadn’t paid much attention to anything else.  In the cabin and dressed in just a shirt and jeans, he couldn’t see much, but what he saw looked pretty nice.  

Marilyn found herself feeling jealous.  Emily’s breasts seemed bigger than hers, and her hips were smaller.  She knew Randy saw that too, and worried about what might happen if Emily stayed with them.  She couldn’t say she loved Randy, but she’d grown to love being with him and feeling him making love to her.  She didn’t want to lose those feelings.

Emily was wary if anything.  She didn’t know either of these people, and though they’d given her food and then invited her into their cabin, they might not be what they seemed.  They were both white, and a lot of white people still looked down on Native Americans.

Emily was also more than a bit nervous about Marilyn.  She’d seen the look on Marilyn’s face, and that look told her Randy and Marilyn were more than just two people living together.  Emily was twenty three and figured Marilyn was a little older.  That could work either way, depending upon Randy.  Emily didn’t feel anything for him, but that might not make a difference to Marilyn.  She decided to just wait until she could talk with Marilyn alone to see how she felt.

That night, after a dinner of elk roast, potatoes, onions, and carrots, they gathered around the short-wave radio.  That had become a normal activity for Randy and Marilyn.  They hadn’t tuned in anything on the short wave or ham bands for weeks, but they still listened in hopes of hearing more.  That night they found another ham transmitting from Tennessee.

“Folks, if you’re out there listening, be careful.  I got myself and my wife to a bug out cabin I have on some land by Land Between The Lakes as soon as all this mess started, so we didn’t catch it.  Thought I was lucky until yesterday.  This bunch of people came walking up to my camp.  They saw me and asked if I had any food.  Well, I been fishing the lake and hunting since I got here so I was pretty well fixed.  I wasn’t gonna give them any though.  I mean, I got my family to look after, don’t I?

Well, this one guy, a big burly guy, he says there’s enough of ‘em they’ll just take what they want if I won’t give them anything.  It’s a good thing I had my rifle and shotgun handy.  I shot the big guy and then four others.  My wife got two more before they ran off.  Tomorrow, I’m moving my camp deeper into the woods.

Be aware that they’re probably out there everywhere.  I don’t know how they survived, but they did and they’re hungry.  I’m pretty sure I heard one of them say they were from Nashville.  If they walked almost a hundred miles trying to find something to eat, they’re capable of about anything.  Keep your head down and your shit wired tight.

Randy shut off the radio and turned to Emily.

“Emily, I’ve been meaning to ask you.  If you can drive to that lodge, why didn’t you come down the road instead of this valley?”

“The road snows shut after November, so you can’t drive it until the spring thaw.  A horse might make it down the road, but it would be pretty hard because the snow’s so deep in places.  This valley starts out on the same road, and it’s a good shortcut to Challis.”

Randy nodded to himself.  They were close to Challis, only a three day walk if you weren’t loaded down.  They hadn’t seen anybody alive in Challis, but that was probably because Challis was so small.  A bigger city, like Idaho Falls or Pocatello would probably have survivors.  Anybody in Idaho would know there was game in the parks and wilderness areas, and once the food in the cities ran out, they’d likely head out into the mountains and they would be armed.  He turned to Marilyn and Emily.

“We’re too close to Challis and we’re within a hundred miles of Idaho Falls and Pocatello.  There are probably people who survived there, just like the guy said did in Nashville.  They’ll be out foraging for food and looking for shelter, and we’re too close to the road.  We need to move deeper into the mountains.

“I think we need to move now.  As soon as spring comes, it will be easier for anybody to walk up here.  The problem is it’ll be really hard to build a cabin during the winter.  Emily, how far away is that lodge?”

Emily shrugged.

“I rode for a day and a half before I got here.”

“Are there more horses there?”

“Yeah, a bunch.  The owner used them for hunters to ride and to pack their stuff to camp and back.  They should still be there.  I put a whole bunch of hay in their barn before I left to feed them until I came back, and they know how to break the ice on the creek so they can get a drink.  I figured they might come in handy this spring.”

Randy frowned.

“I don’t like it, but here’s what I think we should do.  If either of you have any other ideas, now’s the time to tell me.”


The trip to the lodge took them three days on foot.  Randy rigged their packs and other gear to the saddle on Emily’s horse so they didn’t have to carry anything but the rifles and shotguns, but it was still slow going.  The tent was cramped with three of them inside, but they managed to sleep fairly well.  On the third day, Emily said they should go north up the ridge line, and an hour later they saw the lodge.  Randy took the AR-15 from his shoulder, checked the chamber and flipped the safety to “FIRE”.  

“You two stay here.  I’m going to make sure nobody moved in while Emily was gone.”

He came back fifteen minutes later.

“It’s all clear.  Let’s spend the day getting the horses ready.  We’ll start back tomorrow.”

Then next morning they retraced their steps back down the mountain, but this time they rode and lead a string of fifteen packhorses with pack saddles and panniers.  They spent only one night in the open on the return trip, and were relieved to see the cabin was just as they’d left it.  Just as he’d done with Emily’s horse the week before, he hobbled all the horses and let them roam the valley.  They were mountain horses and accustomed to digging in the snow to get to the dried grass underneath.

The next two days were used to pack everything into the panniers for the pack horses to carry, and on the morning of the third day, they moved away from the cabin that had been home to Marilyn for almost seven years.

It was slower going because of the loads the pack horses carried, and they had to spend two nights in the open.  Marilyn laughed and said the bed she’d slept in at the lodge would more than make up for an extra night in a tent.  Emily wondered if Randy would be sleeping with Marilyn.  He hadn’t on the first trip, but the look in Marilyn’s eyes when they went to bed told her she would have been happier if he had.


There was already a meat cache at the lodge, so Randy spent a day hauling the deer, elk, and bear quarters up the ladder while the women carried everything else into the lodge.  

As she and Marilyn worked, Emily noticed that Marilyn wasn’t saying anything to her.  She had been the same during the trip to the lodge.  Emily was sure she knew the reason, and also knew that she had to come to an understanding with Marilyn if they were going to live together.  Randy wasn’t there, so they could talk freely, or at least Emily hoped Marilyn would do so.  She sat down the box of candles she’d carried into the house.

“Marilyn, I think I know how you feel, and you shouldn’t feel that way.”

Marilyn put down the pannier full of clothes she’d carried and smiled.

“What do you mean?  I don’t feel anything except happy to be in an actual house again.”

“Marilyn, we’re both women, so you can’t hide how you feel from me.  You’re worried about me and Randy, aren’t you?”

Marilyn pulled a chair from the kitchen table and sat down.

“What makes you think I am?”

“I saw how you looked at me that first night in the cabin.  You looked a little afraid and like you might be worried.  Coming up to the lodge, you didn’t say a word to me.  You don’t need to be jealous.  I don’t have any interest in Randy.”

Marilyn frowned.

“Yes, we’re both women, so you think like just like I do.  You might not be interested in him now, but you will be, one of these days, just like I was.  It’s normal for a woman to want a man.”

“Marilyn, I wouldn’t ever try to take Randy away from you, even if I was interested in him.  The way he looks at you, I don’t think I could anyway.”

“That’s what Joe told me when we got married, but I still lost him.”

“I know.  He died.  Randy told me.”

Emily saw tears forming in Marilyn’s eyes.

“I lost Joe long before this happened.  He started going on and on about how the banks were going to go under and how the government was going to collapse.  After a while, he couldn’t think about me, that way anyway, and think about the banks and government too, so he chose them.  I didn’t lose him to another woman, but I still lost him.  I can’t go through that again.”

Emily walked to Marilyn’s chair, pulled out another, and sat down beside her.

“Marilyn, I didn’t know about that.  I understand now.  Please don’t be worried because you don’t have to be.   I’m a two-spirit.”

Marilyn wiped her eyes and then looked at Emily.

“What’s a two-spirit?”

“A two-spirit is a man or a woman with two spirits, one male and one female.  It’s not exactly the same thing, but you would call me a lesbian.”

“You like women?”

“Yes.  Ever since I can remember.”

“You’ve never been with a man…ever?”

Emily smiled.

“No, never.  I did have a girlfriend in Challis a while back, but she decided she wanted a family and got married to a guy.  I suppose she’d dead now too.”

Marilyn’s face turned suspicious.

“You wouldn’t ever…you know, try anything with me, would you?”

Emily chuckled.

“No.  Not unless you wanted me to.  I’m pretty self-sufficient that way.”

Emily winked at Marilyn.

“Of course, you’re a pretty sexy woman, so if you did want to…”

“Well, thank you, I guess, but I think I’ll just stay the way I am.”

Emily put her hand on Marilyn’s.

“Feel better now?”

“Yes.”

“Well then let me give you a hug, just a hug like we were sisters, nothing else.  I could use one too.”

At the end of the day, they gathered around the big fireplace in the main lounge.  For a while, they stared at the crackling flames that slowly gnawed away at the big birch logs on the andirons.  

Randy felt like he’d made the right decision.  The lodge sat on about thirty acres of a minor mountain peak flattened by time, water, and temperature changes.  To the north was a large valley that would have enough grass to make hay to last the horses through the winter.  There was enough room on the flattened area for the lodge, barn, a small house for the guides and a large pasture for the horses. Through that pasture and on down into the valley ran a small mountain stream that furnished water for the horses.  It also furnished water for the lodge through a pipe that ran from a spot in the stream down to a steel tank that sat on a concrete platform.  There wasn’t much water pressure, but at least they wouldn’t have to carry water from the stream to the lodge.

There was enough open space behind the lodge for a large garden.  At three edges of the flattened top, the mountain sloped down at a steep angle, steep enough it would have been tough climbing for a man without climbing equipment, and impossible for a horse.  Only on the fourth side, where the road ran that was now snowed shut, was the way wide enough and not sloped too much for a vehicle or horse to make it to the lodge.

It was still possible for someone to come to the lodge, but the road was the only way to do that so they’d at least have some warning.  He made a mental note to barricade the road somehow as soon as he could cut trees again.

He was also thinking about their sleeping arrangements.  He’d slept in his sleeping bag since Emily had come into the cabin.  He needed Marilyn beside him and he knew she felt the same way, but he wasn’t sure what Emily would think.

Emily solved his problem.

“I’m tired and I’m going to bed.  You two do whatever it is you did before me, and I’ll see you in the morning.”

Marilyn stood up and held out her arms, and when Emily opened hers, they gave each other a hug.  Then Emily walked out of the main lounge and back to her bedroom.

Randy couldn’t believe what he’d just seen.  Since Emily had joined them, Marilyn had been tense to the point of seeming to be upset.  He’d figured the reason was Emily, but they’d just hugged each other.  He looked at Marilyn.

“What happened between you two this afternoon?”

Marilyn smiled.

“We just had a talk, that’s all.”

“You went from being jealous to hugging her with just one talk?”

“Well, I wasn’t really jealous, just worried a little.  Emily fixed all that.  She likes girls, not boys, so I don’t have to worry about her taking you away from me.”

“So now I have to worry about the same thing in reverse?”

Marilyn stood up and held out her arms.

“Well, It depends.”

“On what?”

“On how often and how well you make love to me, starting tonight.”


The winter passed a little faster than they expected.  None of them really knew the date anymore, but a week after they settled into the lodge, Randy cut a small pine tree and carried it into the lodge.  Marilyn and Emily were all smiles and happy chatter as they decorated it with popcorn strung on thread Marilyn had brought from Challis.  There weren’t any presents under the tree, but that didn’t really matter.  The real gift they’d received that Christmas was a chance to live.

Before they knew it, they saw the icicles on the eaves of the lodge dripping.  The snow started melting and in a month, it was only patches of dirty white in the shade of the pines.  Those disappeared two weeks later and were quickly replaced with a carpet of wild flowers and fresh grass in the pasture and in the valley below.  The wilderness came to life with the cheeping of birds seeking mates and eagles soaring high together and then falling , locked together, as they mated in mid air.  They saw fawns beside their mothers in the pasture in the early morning and late evening, and ducks began nesting on the banks of the stream.

As soon as the road to the lodge melted enough to be passable, Randy cut some of the pines at the edge of the valley and by using the horses, pulled them up the road to the lodge and stacked the trunks four feet high.  He left a gap wide enough for a loaded pack horse in the middle.  They could get out to hunt and bring in firewood from the birch trees on the side of the mountain but the narrow gap would prevent more than a couple people from coming through at once.


It’s now summer, and they haven’t seen anybody come up the road.  If the infrequent ham broadcasts they’ve heard are right, there are few survivors of the disease left.  Most died of starvation or exposure during the winter, or were killed when they tried to invade the camps of the people who escaped infection.  One of the hams in California said he’d seen a Navy helicopter flying over his camp two weeks before, but hadn’t seen any since.

It doesn’t matter to Randy, Marilyn, and Emily whether they see any helicopters or other people for a while.  They feel safe up on that mountain, and they also feel comfortable with each other.  Marilyn and Emily have become as close as sisters.  Randy is amazed at how much they talk to each other, because it seems like they never stop.

Randy and Marilyn have settled into a relationship that, a year before, would have been called being married.  Now, it’s just two people who can’t imagine living with out each other.  Neither can imagine living without Emily either.  She’s become the only other person they can trust, and has lived up to that trust by trusting them in return.  She’s the bright spot in their lives if they’re feeling down, and is always ready to give either a hug, sometimes even if they don’t need one.  

Randy sometimes suspects the hug between Marilyn and Emily is becoming more than just a hug.  He was building the road barricade when Marilyn said she could get pregnant, and she and Emily had spent hours together while he worked out side one day.  They both looked a little sheepish when he asked how their day had been.  Randy doesn’t care.  He could never deny Emily the pleasure he found with Marilyn.  

He is a little worried about a conversation they had once spring arrived.  Marilyn said she wondered if there were enough people left to keep the human race going.  Emily said there probably were if there were enough women of child bearing age left and they were willing to get pregnant.  They’d both looked at Randy then and asked what he thought.

He’d answered that he thought that was the case, and the conversation changed, but Randy knew what they were really asking him.  He’s still trying to figure out how they would manage without a doctor, and how Marilyn would feel about him fathering children with both her and with Emily.

As for Emily, she’s never told either Randy or Marilyn the real reason she rode down their valley that day.  She’d filled the barn with hay like she’d said, but it was just because she couldn’t bear the thought the horses would die of starvation after she left.  She wasn’t riding to Challis for food and then coming back to the lodge.  After losing Sharon and then hearing about the disease, she’d decided it wasn’t worth the pain of living anymore.  She’d intended to ride to Fort Hall and die in her parent’s house.  Then she’d stumbled onto Randy and Marilyn.

Randy had seemed to be a nice man, and Marilyn a nice woman, and when they gave her food and a tent to live in, and later welcomed her into their cabin, she changed her mind.  They made her live when she wanted to die, and became the family she’d lost.  She knows there is no way to ever thank them enough for that, so she’s kept that secret to herself.

Now that it’s warm enough in the evenings, they’ll sit on the porch of the lodge and watch the sun slowly sink into the trees.  Their life isn’t easy, but it’s life.  Someday, they might venture back down to Challis or maybe Clayton or Stanley, but for now, they’re content living with nature.  It’s what Randy dreamed of doing as a boy, and what Marilyn has come to understand is the right way.  Emily didn’t need to learn.  That understanding was passed on to Emily from her parents and grandparents.

As the shadows begin to disappear into the black of night, they’ll go inside and crank up the radio to see if anyone has any news.  Then, they’ll wish each other good night, blow out the candles and lamps and go to bed.  Their nights are comfortable.  Every morning a year after is a blessing.

0