/ Language: English / Genre:sf_postapocalyptic

Heckel Casey

James Hoch


James Hoch

Heckel Casey

There are some qualities-some incorporate things,

That have a double life, which thus is made?

A type of that twin entity which springs?

From matter and light, evinced in solid and shade.

There is a two-fold Silence-sea and shore-?

Body and soul. One dwells in lonely places,

Newly with grass o'ergrown; some solemn graces,

Some human memories and tearful lore,

Render him terrorless: his name's "No More."?

He is the corporate Silence: dread him not!

No power hath he of evil in himself;

But should some urgent fate (untimely lot!)?

Bring thee to meet his shadow (nameless elf,

That haunteth the lone regions where hath trod

No foot of man,) commend thyself to God!

— Edgar Allan Poe

Prologue

It wasn't a nuclear bomb.

It wasn't a pandemic.

It wasn't a plague.

It wasn't another world war.

It wasn't even global warming or a new Ice Age.

No, the end of civilization, our beloved society as we know it, came on gradually; and I remember when it started. Better yet, I know who was responsible.

In the year 2000, I was in the seventh grade at a small junior high school in Decorah, Iowa, when I first encountered unadulterated, pure evil, and it was in the ISS room. At that time in my life, I rarely got into trouble, unlike now. Trouble has a way of finding me now big time. Back then, however, I was pretty shy and introverted. I would usually panic when the teacher called on me; I'd stammer or mumble and look like a complete idiot. However, I guess I did pretty well on tests because I'd usually bring home straight 'A's. My parents were very proud and supportive.

So, what got me sent to ISS? Oh, wait. For those of you who were good kids in school, you probably don't remember what those three initials stand for. Let me refresh your memory. They stand for-In School Suspension. The ISS room, which served as the holding pen for troublemakers, deviants and the Future Criminals of America Club, had no windows and was in the basement of the school. The dreaded room was right next to the boiler room, so it was usually very hot, stuffy and dusty.

There was an old hag of a woman who was the supervisor. I'm sorry to portray her with such an unkind description, but she was really mean and made us sit with our hands folded all day, staring at the front wall. We actually did call her "The Hag." I remember seeing her each morning when she would have this horrendous scowl on her face and grumbled as she descended the stairs to the ISS room. One time I passed her and she smelled really bad. It was that old-people smell ramped up a few notches on the stink meter. Someone once told me she had been at that school since she graduated from it back in the Stone Age.

I sure won't forget the day and the event that landed me in a bucketful of trouble. It all centered on the class asshole and resident goof-off-Timmy Carlson. What Timmy lacked in brains, he made up for in class pranks, which usually involved something gross and most likely sexually oriented. One day Timmy brought in a condom. He filled it up with vanilla pudding and made it squirt out the front. He was showing some of the girls in the back of the room. Wendy…um…I can't remember her last name, screamed when he showed her.

As the teacher walked to the crime scene, Timmy panicked and shoved the condom onto my desk. I grabbed it to toss back to him and inadvertently squeezed it all over Miss Stewart. The class howled, and I turned beet red. She yanked the condom out of my hand and asked me to explain. Well, I stammered and mumbled as usual. No one in the class spoke up and Timmy Carlson had his head in a book, giggling. I think it was the first time I ever saw a teacher pull a student up by his ear and drag him to the principal's office-and it was me!

Needless to say, I raked in a week's worth of detention in ISS. My parents believed me that I had nothing to do with it, but I told them I was not a rat and wouldn't snitch on Timmy. So I figured I'd get in some reading or drawing while I sat in ISS. Little did I know that the supervisor from the Gestapo would browbeat me. The first two days of ISS were pure torture. Of course, I couldn't explain to my parents or friends how bad it was. No one would have believed me anyway.

On the third day, Evil entered the room, and I don't mean this metaphorically. Ms. Madeline Blackwell seemed to almost float into the room. All the students stared at her with mouths open. To say she was drop-dead gorgeous would be a huge understatement. Each boy immediately sprouted a large wooden bulge in the center of his pants. All the girls went gaga over her bright-red lips and her jet-black hair, pinned up. She wore a long red woolen skirt with a wide black belt. After pulling my eyes off her face and breasts, I slid my gaze down to the belt's shiny silver buckle. Something about that buckle caught my eye. I can still see it in my mind as clear as if it had just appeared yesterday. Etched ornate symbols surrounded a large honey-colored cat's eye gemstone. One time, I swear it blinked. I know that sounds outrageous.

When Ms. Blackwell relieved The Hag, we all breathed a collective sigh of relief. The Hag didn't go gracefully at first. She was argumentative and unwilling to go. Ms. Blackwell simply put her hand on The Hag's shoulder and bam, The Hag turned and walked out of the room. We never saw her again. There were rumors that The Hag had hung herself from the rafters in her basement. Apparently, they didn't discover the body for something like six months. Rats had devoured much of her flesh and the stench was so bad they had to burn the house down.

On my fourth day of ISS, I walked into the room and took my assigned seat. It was a few minutes before the bell rang. Everyone was quiet and in their seats. The door opened slowly as if by unknown forces and Ms. Blackwell stood in the frame. Immediately, it felt as if the temperature had gone up about twenty degrees. I felt faint, as did several other students. One small kid named Jimmy actually passed out. I wanted to look over at him, but I found myself riveted to her. She smiled this sardonic, sickly sweet grin that made my skin crawl. Everyone was fixated on her as she entered the room. Finally, as she turned toward her desk, I looked over at Jimmy, who had his head up and sported a wet chin from drool.

Then Evil spoke. I looked behind me and saw everyone's eyes roll back up into their heads. All my fellow detainees balled up their fists so tight I could see veins coming to the surface of their hands. Ms. Blackwell held their attention for the longest time. I was so scared and held my breath what seemed forever that I was on the verge of blacking out. Because I had turned my head to look at my classmates, I didn't see Ms. Blackwell appear at my desk.

"Young man, what is your name?" Ms. Blackwell asked with a voice that immediately elicited the fight-or-flight response. I felt trapped. My legs felt as if they had turned to silly putty.

"Heckel Casey," I mumbled with my head down.

"What an interesting name," she said.

Just as she was about to touch me, the principal came into the room.

"Ms. Blackwell, I need to have Heckel Casey come with me. His parents are here for him," Principal Edwards ordered.

Ms. Blackwell turned away from me and nodded her head. "Of course." She looked down at me with a sneer. For just a moment, I thought I had seen a slight tinge of blue wash over her eyes.

Before getting up, I looked over at everyone in the room and they all grinned like a Cheshire cat, including Ms. Blackwell.

Principal Edwards waited for me in the hall. I felt like I had just received a reprieve from the guillotine. I rubbed my throat for some reason. Was it because I held my breath for so long watching the control Ms. Blackwell had over all my classmates? Was Evil about to strangle me or totally stop my breathing? As I walked down the hall, I wondered what Ms. Blackwell had done to all the kids in ISS.

As I got older, I discovered what she had done and the evil seeds that she planted.

Chapter 1

As I approached a burned-out city, the sun advanced closer to the horizon. Shadows were lengthening and the temperature was dropping slightly. I figured I was still in Iowa. Maybe Des Moines. Humidity still hung in the air. I debated whether I should just walk around this deserted ghost of a city. The last time I went through a major city I didn't fair too well, and I have several nasty scars as reminders.

Off to the side of the road and caught in a roll of razor wire, a tattered American flag with singed edges fluttered in the wind. Lying in the rubble in front of the flag was an old Schwinn with fat tires, the back one twisted and flat. The paint on the bike was faded, and ragged blue streamers remained on one of the handle bars.

Sitting on the hood of a burned-up old Ford and trying to decide which way to go, I paused in the middle of stifling a yawn. Out of the corner of my eye, something caught my attention. I turned my head slowly, not sure what to expect. The swishing motion revealed a tail. Looking closer into the bush, I spotted the large gray tabby cat.

"You've been following me, haven't you?" I whispered. "Are you friend or foe?"

The cat stepped back.

"I won't hurt you. I'm not partial to eating domesticated animals." I snickered lightly as I held out my hand and tried to coax the cat over. It hissed and took another step backward. I reached into my pack and pulled out a small leather pouch. "How about a little snack?" I asked, retrieving a small bite of beef jerky. It was one of the few food sources that one could find every so often from some deserted convenience store.

The cat immediately perked up at the sight of the food. "I know it's not Tender Vittles or Fancy Feast, but it tastes pretty good. Personally, I am craving a big juicy cheeseburger. You know those burgers like you'd get at Burger King with lots of cheese, pickles, lettuce? It's been so long since I held one of those Big Whoppers. Yum." I held out the morsel and the cat, still cautious, slithered over to me hugging the ground. The cat stood on its hind legs in front of the car's grill and took the food. It kept one eye on me as it devoured the jerky.

"Guess you approve. Glad you like it. Care for another?" I said reaching into the pouch to pull out more jerky.

I tossed the cat another chunk and gnawed on a piece myself.

"Do you have a name?"

The cat leered at me as if to question my sanity.

"My name is Heckel. Heckel Casey. It's a pleasure to meet you. Yeah, I know I have a funny name. What should I call you? Hmm…seeing how much you like beef jerky, how does Jerky sound? I think it's got a good ring to it."

The cat stared at me deeper as if to question my sanity further and nonchalantly started to groom its behind.

"Okay then, Jerky it is. You want to come with me? I could use the company," I slid off the hood.

Jerky worked undistracted at cleaning her head and ears. She seemed to not even notice I was there. As soon as I started walking, she spun around and followed closely on my heels. I looked back every now and then to check on her progress. Occasionally, she would stalk a mouse or a bird for a short while, but would always come back to follow.

"It's getting dark. We need to hunker down for the night somewhere. You got any ideas?" I whispered to Jerky. With a quick sprint, my new friend took off into an abandoned building.

"Where you going?" I shouted as I ran after her.

Inside the building, the last rays of sunlight streamed in from a broken window. I looked around what appeared to have been some sort of specialty food store, maybe Mexican. Most of the shelves were bare and torn down. Broken boards, smashed glass and other debris littered the floor.

"Jerky? Jerky," I half whispered and half shouted, trying not to draw any attention. "Yeah, like the dumb cat is going to respond to her name after I just gave it to her half an hour ago. Sheesh, Heck, get a grip."

The cat came out from behind a counter with a mouse in its mouth.

"Well, looks like someone found dinner. Anything back there for me?" I asked as I went around the counter. Nope…nothing…nada. Most places had been picked over for food shortly after the final days of the collapse. However, sometimes if people looked hard enough, they could find some old can stuffed far back in the corner or under a cabinet. I pulled out a small LED flashlight that only had a dim light. It needed new batteries that were about as hard to find these days as…well, just about anything. I checked each cabinet to see if there was something salvageable.

With my head crammed in a cabinet, I felt Jerky crawl on my back and go into the cabinet above me. Without any notice, she let out the loudest meow I had ever heard. I slammed my head into the board above my head.

"Son of a bitch," I yelled pulling my head out of the cabinet. A large knot formed on the back of my head in response to contact with the shelf. I rubbed it, trying to keep the swelling down. Jerky sat at the front of the cabinet and almost appeared to be smiling. She leaned forward and licked the top of my head.

"What the hell was that blood curdling meow for? Man, you got one hell of a set of lungs for someone so small."

Jerky purred and walked back into the cabinet. I shoved the feeble flashlight into the dark, cobwebbed enclosure. I couldn't believe it. Way back in the far corner, the cat sat next to a dusty old can. She looked as if she had just found King Tut's tomb.

"Well, well…what do we have here?" I sniggered and reached to retrieve the can. "Hmm, a can of refried beans. Do you like refried beans?" I asked Jerky as she jumped up onto the facing counter.

"Too bad we don't have any cheese and some tortillas," I said stroking the cat on the head. Immediately, she ran off to a back room.

"You don't really think we are going to find the remaining ingredients," I said, following the cat. I stopped abruptly at the doorframe. The scene was an all-too-familiar one. The faint glow from my LED flashlight washed over the two people lying on the floor. Their clothes were covered with dried blood. Parts of their bodies had been gnawed at from various rodents who had been dining on their flesh for who knows how long. Jerky hissed and arched her back.

"It's okay. They've been dead for a very long time." I picked up Jerky and petted her, trying to soothe the cat. Jerky continued to hiss and alternate with a horrible mewling sound.

Like a shot, someone sprang from the dark corner. The figure was holding a long filet knife. It lashed out at me. I ducked; the blade missed me. Jerky lunged at the attacker's leg, sinking all her claws and teeth into flesh, causing the knife to go flying. A loud scream, followed by a litany of cursing, came from the assailant.

"Get this mangy, fucking beast off my leg!" an old man begged.

"Okay, Jerky…let him go!" I yelled at the cat.

With her hair still spiked on her back, the cat retreated, still getting in one last hiss.

"Good girl," I said. "And she isn't a mangy beast, you asshole. Why'd you attack me?"

"These days it's attack or be killed," the old man said rubbing his leg. "I figured you were about to kill me."

"Not everyone is out to kill you," I said. "There still are a few good people left."

"Really. What crap have you been smoking?" the old man replied as he shuffled out into the next room.

I picked up Jerky and petted her head. The old man found some old boxes and padded cushions in one corner, probably left over from some other wanderer. He sat down and continued to rub his leg.

"I certainly hope I don't get an infection from that little shit. That's the last thing I need."

I found a cushion opposite the old man and set Jerky down. I turned off my feeble flashlight just as I saw him lighting a small candle. The soft glow showed more of the room. It had the characteristic lively festive colors of a Mexican restaurant.

"I'm sorry I attacked you. I've been a little touchy lately. I think people are following me," the old man said with a nervous tone.

"No harm done. You just nearly made me piss my pants."

"The name is Leonard. At one time, it was Dr. Leonard Wilson."

"Heckel. Heckel Casey."

"Huh?"

"Yeah, yeah…I know. Weird name."

"Pleasure to meet you, Mr. Casey," the doctor said, extending his liver-spotted hand.

"Call me Heck. The time for formalities left a few years back. We are all in this mess together," I said, shaking Leonard's hand.

"You got that right. What a mess indeed," Leonard said as he groaned, and moved the candle to be more protected from a breeze streaming in from the front door. "How long you been traveling?"

I stared out the broken window, thinking about when I started walking. I noticed that the last hint of light was fading rapidly. "Hmm, let's see…um…I guess it's been about a year ago or so. I've really sort of lost track of time."

Leonard grunted an understanding. He rummaged around inside his pack and slowly moved it closer to the candle. "Me too. I can't seem to keep track of what month it is. I think it's been about a year since I started walking as well. I stayed down south during that first winter. Most of the time, I'm looking for food."

I brought out the can of refried beans. "Jerky just found this over in one of those cabinets. I'd be happy to share it with you. Unfortunately, I don't have any tortillas or other fixin's."

"Yeah, well I found this a few days ago," Leonard said, holding up a bag of saltine crackers. "I bet those beans might taste pretty good on them and I have a jar of artichokes to give us a side dish of vegetables. We need a good balanced diet," he said laughing.

I dipped into my backpack farther, bringing out a dented can of Vienna sausage. "These might complement our little feast. What do you think?"

"I love Vienna sausage. Wow, what a find," Leonard answered enthusiastically. "Can you believe it…we're getting excited over Vienna sausage as though it were an expensive filet or something?"

We both sat in silence for a long time munching on our combined food sources and staring at the candle. Occasionally, a burp or soft moan could be heard as we enjoyed the food.

Jerky finished off her dinner, following it with an extensive grooming session. When she was done, she curled up on my backpack and went to sleep.

After dinner was over, I stretched out on the floor. Leonard leaned back against the wall. He moved some of the boxes and other debris to create a cushion for himself.

"I can't remember the last time I actually slept in a bed," he said, still trying to arrange the cardboard.

"I know what you mean. My back wouldn't know what to do if it had a nice comfortable mattress to stretch out on. I'd probably sleep for days."

We each recounted the various horrible places that we had to sleep in or on. After about an hour, Leonard looked intently at the candle and muttered, "It's all that bitch's fault."

"Huh?" I asked, raising myself up on my elbows. Jerky lifted her head slightly to express her indignation for being disturbed.

"What?" Leonard replied.

"You said it was all that bitch's fault. Who is the bitch?"

It took Leonard a long time to respond. I waited patiently. His facial features formed a nasty look as if he just tasted rotten, maggot-filled meat.

He hesitated, almost reluctant to say the name. I wondered if he were afraid to say the name, thinking that if he said the name, the vile bitch would appear. For some reason, I thought of the old movie, Candyman. In that story, if a person stood in front of a mirror and said the name Candyman three times, he would appear and kill you. Finally, Leonard found the strength to spit out the bitch's name.

"Madeline Blackwell."

Chapter 2

Yup, I knew it and yes, it was the same bitch that unilaterally and unequivocally was responsible for the collapse of our society. She was the same unadulterated evil that I ran into several times, the first being in ISS way back in junior high. Madeline and her little sycophants over the years brought about the numerous destructive events that caused the collapse of everything.

"I know this Madeline Blackwell," I said with disgust dripping on each word. I found my usual upbeat smile turn into a nauseated curl of the lip.

Leonard looked at me with an increased seriousness. He reached into his pack to bring out another candle. He waited until the first candle was nearly extinguished before lighting the new one.

"How do you know her?" he asked with a slight tremble to his voice.

"I first met her…sort of…when I was in junior high. She messed with the minds of all the kids that were in ISS with me, but for some reason she wasn't able to get into my head and my parents got me out of school before she could find out why I was different. When did you run into the malevolent Miss Blackwell?"

Leonard settled back into the cardboard, trying to get comfortable. "I first met her way back when she was probably seven or eight years old. I was a new doctor, fresh out of med school. I think it was about 1975. Her mother brought her in for an examination one day. Madeline was a pretty, charming young girl."

I wrinkled my forehead, trying to do some math regarding her age. I was about to interrupt when Leonard shook his head as if he knew what I was thinking.

"I know what you're thinking. She doesn't age. She should look like a woman in her early fifties. Instead, she looks perpetually like she is in her late twenties."

That's exactly what I had observed before the collapse. Every time I would see her on the news or in the media somewhere, she looked exactly the same as when I first encountered her when I was thirteen.

"So, what was Madeline like as a six-year-old?" I asked, sitting up with my legs crossed.

Leonard explained that his first examination of her was very uneventful. "She seemed like a normal six-year-old. Her mother brought her in for a checkup. I looked her over and Madeline was the picture of good health. She seemed like a normal, happy six-year-old. However, later that year, something happened that made my blood turn to ice. I was in the local drugstore and spotted Madeline standing in front of the candy rack. Madeline turned around and glared at the woman behind the desk for the longest time. I watched as she picked up a handful of chocolate bars and started walking out. The cashier started to speak, but was immediately silenced by Madeline, who turned to stare at her as if she were sending a laser beam into the woman's brain. The woman's eyes rolled up into her head. I wanted to do something to stop…whatever she was doing to the woman, but I was in shock and couldn't move. After what seemed like an eternity, Madeline simply smiled at the cashier and walked out of the drugstore. From that moment on, I knew there was something evil about that little girl."

I hung onto every word Leonard spoke. I shivered after that first accounting and looked around to find anything I could cover up with. I saw an old curtain on the floor over by the window. Hurrying, I grabbed the cloth and sat back down next to Jerky who only lifted one eye to see what I was doing.

Leonard yawned, and commented on how it was getting chillier each evening. "Hope it's not an early winter. I was planning to get to the West Coast before the snow flies. Looks like I'll have to head south. Maybe get down to Arizona or something. Then head up north."

"Yeah, me too. So, tell me more about the early days of Madeline. The more I know about this…whatever she is…the more I can defeat her," I stated confidently.

"Defeat her?" Leonard asked incredulously, followed by a slight snigger. "Yeah, right. Highly doubtful."

I debated whether I should tell Leonard about my little secret. Something happened to me a few months back. Leonard's the first person I've encountered since my discovery.

He looked at me as if I had sprouted another head. "Are you insane? You can't stop the evil that enshrouds her. She is a master at deceit and deception. I've heard the stories as well as saw with my own eyes what she is capable of. She is not human."

"Can you tell me anything else about Madeline's early days?" I asked, hearing the first light drops of rain hitting the sidewalk outside. That rain-on-the-concrete smell drifted in and filled the room.

"Sure glad we found a place to hunker down for the night out of the rain. I miss having weather reports. Whew, I've gotten caught in some real downpours," Leonard said, shifting his weight. "Okay, another story it is. I've got a few more about Madeline before she left the little town I was practicing in."

I nodded my head to encourage him. Having this back-story on Madeline could be helpful, I thought. "Please continue."

"The next time I encountered Madeline was even more traumatic," Leonard said with a slight quaver to his voice. He looked around the room nervously before he continued.

"Madeline's mother came to me for one appointment without Madeline. Her mother's name was…um…oh, shit what was her name?" Leonard scratched his head. "Oh yeah. Her name was Claudia. Nice lady. How she spawned such evil will always remain a mystery."

"Maybe she didn't. Was there a father?" I queried.

"Not that I know of. Claudia never spoke of one and there was no name on any medical forms regarding Madeline. Anyway, Claudia came in to ask several questions. For example, she wondered if it was normal for a child of six to never get sick. I told her that she should feel lucky that she had an extra healthy child."

"What else did she ask?"

Leonard leaned forward and whispered softly, "She asked if Madeline could be possessed."

"Possessed?"

"Yup. Of course, being a man of science I never thought much about the supernatural. Heck, why would I. Oops, I just used your name. Sorry."

I laughed and told him that it happened all the time.

"Of course, I became very interested in why she was asking such a question. She told me of several unusual and creepy things that took place with Madeline. She recounted one time observing Madeline playing with her dolls and they all started to dance and sing. Claudia explained another occurrence that gave me chicken skin."

I laughed. "Chicken skin?"

"You know, chicken skin. I guess some folks call it goose bumps."

"Funny."

"Well, it sure wasn't funny at the time when she told me how Madeline got mad at her once and all the knives in the kitchen flew at Claudia stopping an inch from her face. After seeing what Madeline did in that drugstore, I never doubted anything Claudia confided in me."

Leonard continued recounting story after story about Madeline. Some of the stories were from Claudia or events that he had witnessed firsthand. As the candle dwindled and the shadows seem to encroach upon us, I almost thought the stories were becoming more farfetched; however, I believed every one that Leonard described. I knew Madeline and what she was capable of.

"Ya know, Heck, our world just let evil walk all over it and consume it. Madeline was the architect and contractor. She found our weakness and manipulated it toward our destruction. Humans have always been a violent species. She simply planted seeds that fostered, nurtured and spread a destructive path like…um…knapweed."

"Knapweed?"

"That purple weed that kills everything and is nearly impossible to eradicate. It was rampant in grassy fields or along roadsides. She planted seeds in us that acted like knapweed. You remember when the killing began."

I watched as the candle was nearly at the point of extinguishing and thought about those early tragic events. My eyelids were getting droopy. I pushed those horrifying details back.

As the last of the flame died out, Leonard said, "Madeline tried to kill me once."

"What happened?"

"She was in high school. I think maybe a junior, not sure. At any rate, she came to me concerned about a growth on her face. It was a harmless mole. I told her that some people considered them beauty marks. She got very upset and said that she couldn't have any blemishes on her face. I asked why and her anger mounted. Everything in the room started to vibrate and increased as she became more agitated. She insisted I take off the mole. I said fine and offered to take the mole off. After I completed the procedure, she became furious about the small incision and ranted about having a scar. I assured her that over time it would go away. That wasn't good enough. She got so angry that a scalpel flew off the table and positioned itself over my jugular vein. Slowly, I felt the knife slice into my skin. I was frozen either from fear or something she did. All my muscles felt stiff and rigid. Sweat beaded on my forehead and ran into my eyes. It was unbelievable."

"How'd you stop her from killing you?" I asked as I heard the rain coming down harder.

"I closed my eyes and simply said, 'Jesus help me.' Well, you'd think I'd turned on a blaring alarm or something. She screamed, covered her ears and ran out of the examination room. The scalpel immediately fell to the ground. It took me a few minutes to recover. My nurse came in and asked if everything was all right. I made up some stupid story about Madeline being afraid of blood. From that point on, I didn't see much of Madeline. She never came back. I heard more stories and gossip about things that had happened at the high school. People did go missing in that little town, probably one too many. I finally had enough after I heard how Claudia died a horrible death. They said it was suicide. She gouged out her eyes, cut her wrists and slit her own throat. I'm not so sure it was suicide after I had experienced Madeline's fury and her use of my scalpel."

I heard him yawn and shift his weight around, no doubt trying to find a comfortable position.

"I'm beat. Enough stories for one evening. We can continue more tomorrow. Sleep well, Heckel. It's a pleasure to have your company."

"Likewise. It's nice to have a friend these days. They are hard to come by. Your stories were very illuminating and helpful. Goodnight, Leonard."

Leonard was already snoring.

His last story was perhaps the worst and I worried I was going to get nightmares. That was assuming I would even be able to fall asleep.

"Goodnight, Jerky."

A soft purring came from the cat.

Before drifting off, I looked out the front door at the dark, rain-soaked night. I shivered at the darkness knowing that it sheathed an evil presence just waiting for the right moment to devour.

Chapter 3

Madeline Blackwell's meteoric march through the ranks of political appointments was nothing less than spectacular. The evil seeds that she planted decades before the gradual meltdown of civilization proved to be valuable. One by one political figures catapulted her to major positions of authority. Her early days in Washington started with a post that was perfect for monitoring evil's progress.

"Congratulations, Miss Madeline, on being appointed Director of Homeland Security. Our country will be a much safer place with you at the helm," a young intern said as he stood in front of the dark-walnut desk.

Madeline Blackwell could tell by the look on his face that he was working hard to suck up and impress. She was sure that he had been one of the kids she had visited years ago and had planted the evil seeds of despair and hatred. Maybe she'd be able to use him after events slipped into motion, she mused. "Thanks, William. I appreciate that. When is the move to Washington?"

"Next week. The movers come on Monday. I've made plane reservations for you to fly out in the afternoon."

"Will you be traveling with me?" Madeline asked with a slightly flirtatious tone, yet still with an air of quiet demure.

"I didn't know I could still work for you," William said nervously.

"Yes, you can, but not as an intern. How would you like to be my executive assistant?"

For a moment, Madeline thought William was going to wet his pants. He practically jumped up and down with excitement.

"I'll take your body's shaking as a yes," she quipped with a laugh.

"Absolutely, Miss Madeline. Thank you so much. I will be the best executive assistant you've ever had," William said, taking Madeline's hand and shaking it to the point that she felt it might be yanked out of its socket.

"Just be certain of that or…" Before Madeline could finish her statement an elderly gentleman stood at the office doorway. He had a black raincoat draped over his arm and held a cane with his left hand.

"Excuse me, is this the office of the future Director of Homeland Security?" he asked with a very slow southern drawl.

William spun around with an eagerness to initiate his new position as executive assistant. "Yes, it is. May I ask your name?"

With a condescending smile, the enigmatic, self-assured man replied, "Harold Barker."

As William was about to inquire further, Madeline stopped him and asked him to finish the travel arrangements to Washington. He nearly tripped over a chair in his eagerness to return to work.

"There's an admirable, hardworking young man. That's a rare thing these days," Harold said softly as he sat in one of the overstuffed chairs facing the desk. He set his raincoat on another chair next to him.

What does this pompous ass want? Madeline wondered. "What can I do for you, Mr. Barker?"

"Please, call me Harold."

She nodded her head slowly and said, "Okay, Harold. How can I help you?"

Harold got up from the chair and walked around the office, looking at the pictures covering the wall, many of them showing Madeline posing with important political figures as well as a few famous entertainers. He stopped in front of a photo of Madeline with her arm around Michael Jackson's waist.

"It is time," he whispered. The tone of those three words may have been spoken softly, but in Madeline's head she heard them as if he had said them with a bullhorn. Her insides twisted with a delight that she hadn't felt in a long time. She could feel a power inside brewing as though it were an indomitable tempest or fierce tornado ready to devastate.

"From this point on, evil will spread across the world and devour it," Harold said, picking up a prized sculpture. "And you will orchestrate its progress. The years of laying the foundation have come to the point where we are ready. The pendulum has begun to swing in our favor."

Madeline remained silent with a slight grin on her face. She didn't want to be too proud in her achievements so far; however, inside she was ready to flip the switch to unleash anarchy and destruction. It was part of her DNA.

"I have just the event to kick things off…the Super Bowl," she said, laughing at the intended and clever pun.

Harold didn't laugh. Apparently, she thought, he has no sense of humor.

She went on to explain the details of how the Super Bowl would be the first in many events that would lead to the destruction of mankind. She touted the plan as the ultimate push to set a catastrophic domino effect.

When she was done, Harold had returned to his chair, crossed his legs and said, "Splendid. I knew years ago that I made the right decision in picking you. The last time I saw you, you were a charming, beautiful little girl with ringlets of jet-black hair. You've grown to be such a commanding and alluring young woman. I look forward to seeing your considerable talents put to use. Your leadership will be well rewarded."

Harold stood up, put his raincoat on and said goodbye. Madeline watched him as he walked toward the door and slowly vanished in a swirl of smoke.

Seconds later, there was a soft knock at the door. "Come in," she said sternly.

William poked his head in, looked around the room and asked, "Where is Mr. Barker?"

"Come in, William, and close the door," Madeline said with a sinister undertone.

That was the last of the charming young intern. William became something…new.

Chapter 4

Having a large cat walk on you and knead its claws into your chest is definitely one way to get you to wake up.

"Good morning to you too, Jerky. Maybe the next time a simple lick on the nose would be better. Guess it's time to get up," I whispered looking over to see that Leonard had already gotten up.

"Good morning, Heckel. Did you sleep well?" Leonard asked as he came in from the back room. He held up two newly discovered cans and had a triumphant look on his face. How amazing that a simple can of tamales could bring such joy.

"Look what I found! We have breakfast! Hope you like tamales. Too bad we don't have any fresh eggs. I'm going to make a small fire and heat these babies up. I found a couple of old pans we can use. There's a large one that I can build a fire in."

"Is it smart to build a fire? You never know who's out there," I cautioned as I stood up.

"It's a chance I'm willing to take. I haven't had any hot food in months. Maybe you could stand guard and keep an eye out while I cook. I'll keep the fire small, just enough to get the food hot."

Leonard quickly gathered some cardboard, paper and broken boards. As I walked to the front door, I noticed that he had stacked all the wanna-be fire materials in an old baking pan. He stacked the firewood in the shape of a little teepee. It wasn't long before he had the boards burning and the beginnings of coals. He opened his pack and brought out a well-used Swiss army knife. It looked similar to mine. These days, it was the number one survival tool.

As soon as I stepped outside, I inhaled. There's nothing like the fresh air after a night's rain. However, this time something didn't smell right. Mixed with that rain there was the smell of death. From the corner of my eye, I saw something move. I quickly spun my head around and caught a quick glimpse of a young girl.

"Wait. Don't go!" I yelled. I started to run after her when Leonard grabbed my arm.

"Stop," he said. There was something in his voice that demanded my attention.

"Why?"

"That little girl is not some innocent child lost in the city," Leonard said. He wouldn't let go of my arm. His grasp tightened.

"What do you mean?"

As Leonard slowly released his grip, he whispered one word. "Madeline." His eyes darted from one end of the street to the next.

I looked at him incredulously. "What the hell are you talking about? That's not Madeline. It's some little girl."

"It's a little girl all right. It's what Madeline looked like when she was six years old. Somehow this manifestation or avatar of her is tracking me, which means we have to get out of here immediately."

"I don't understand."

"Look Heckel, all I know is that when this…this…little girl shows up, the real bitch isn't too far behind and she is determined to kill me. Why? I don't know. Maybe I'm some loose end or somehow a threat. I just don't know, but I've been running from this little shit for a long time. Come on. We have to go. I'll grab the tamales. Maybe we can eat them later." Leonard pulled me into the store and we loaded up our packs. Jerky was nowhere in sight.

"Jerky," I called. "Come on. We have to leave." I started walking to the front door.

"No. We have to go out the back window. It'll be safer." Leonard hurried toward the back of the restaurant.

I called once more for Jerky as I went into the back room. Leonard opened the window and stepped out. As I put one leg over the windowsill, Jerky jumped up into my arms and licked my face. "Nice to see you too." Once outside, I set the cat down. She immediately followed close on my heels. She periodically looked back and hissed.

Leonard moved quickly through the streets. At one point, he started to run. I didn't hesitate and kept pace with him.

After several hours, Leonard ducked into an old warehouse. We had made our way down into the industrial section of Des Moines. As customary, Jerky ran off, probably in search of mice. Watching the cat hunker down ready to pounce on an unsuspecting critter, I wondered how long before I was eating mice. Food was definitely at a shortage and the way clothes hung on me was a testament.

Thinking about eating mice turned my already-empty stomach into a knot. However, the smell of those tamales had lingered in my nose for the past several hours and I was still hungry.

"Any chance of having some of those tamales? I'm starving," I said, turning around looking for Leonard. From the back of the warehouse, I heard, "Holy shit. I don't believe it."

I went running to the sound of Leonard's voice. I stopped abruptly when I saw Leonard standing in front of an old rusty VW Beetle, or as we affectionately referred to it, The Bug. My first thought was gas. I bet there's no gas. That's why no one has driven off with it.

"Any chance there's fuel in it?" I asked with a hint of hope laced in my tone. "It's probably turned to shellac by now anyway."

Leonard shouted, "It says there's a quarter of a tank."

"Yeah, but I'm sure that gauge has to be broken, not to mention the battery is most likely dead."

"Nothing that a good strong back can't fix. Here, you push and I'll pop the clutch," he said excitedly as he got into the old faded red car. "Maybe we'll be lucky."

Just as I started pushing, Jerky came running across the warehouse floor with a mouse in her jaws. She hopped into the car through an open window.

I pushed, grumbling my doubts.

"Faster," Leonard yelled as he turned the key and shifted into first gear.

Suddenly, it felt like I was eighteen years old. All my muscles seemed to get a burst of power. My legs felt like well-oiled pistons. The old VW picked up speed. Leonard yelled for it to go faster.

"Wow, you've almost got us up to twenty-five miles an hour," he exclaimed. "That's incredible."

"Pop the clutch," I yelled as my legs gained more momentum.

"Just a bit more," Leonard screamed.

"Now!" I demanded.

He popped the clutch. The rusty, dented old classic lurched forward. Black smoke came out the tailpipe, hitting me in the face. The engine sputtered as Leonard gave it more gas. It coughed once more like an old man just waking up. The car took off. I could hear hollering from Leonard and he slapped the steering wheel excitedly. Jerky looked out the window with the mouse's tail dangling from her mouth.

A cold wind swept past me. I sensed something approaching and it made me very afraid. I stood out in the street, looking in all directions. "Leonard," I shouted. "Something's not right. I'm getting a bad vibe."

Leonard had turned around and pulled up next to me. "Get in. I felt it too. We've got to get the hell out of here pronto."

I jumped in the passenger seat and before I could even shut the door, Leonard sped away from the warehouse.

The most difficult part of driving was finding passable routes. The highways were littered with wrecks and debris. At times, he had to drive off the road to get around a huge car pileup.

"Remember all the road rage?" I said as he navigated around a large overturned 18-wheeler.

"Yes, I do. That's one event that is most memorable among many," Leonard recounted.

"I'm not sure, but it might be a close second to that first event. Do you remember that one?"

"Do you mean Bloody Super Bowl Sunday?" Leonard asked as he shifted gears.

I thought back to that January in 2015. It started out as your typical media-hyped event, but soon escalated into what seemed out of control. "I remember people appeared to get especially agitated and worked up about the game about a week before it took place. There were numerous Super Bowl parties all over the place. I must have gotten invited to about a dozen of them. At the time, I didn't think anything of it, but I'm sure glad I decided to stay home by myself."

"Yeah, I remember people I was working with just went nuts over their favorite team," Leonard added.

"That Super Bowl game seemed to act as a catalyst for violence erupting in people," I said. "It was a trigger that started the killings and the beginning of the end."

Leonard stared out at the road. After an awkward silence, he said softly, "Madeline planted those seeds of violence to sprout on that Super Bowl Sunday. I'm sure of it."

"It was about the third quarter when all hell broke loose if I remember correctly. People in the stadium just went berserk. They were punching, strangling each other. People were literally kicked to death," I said clutching the front dash.

"They used anything they could find to kill each other. News commentators even began punching each other. Eventually, the TV station went black. People in my neighborhood were shooting each other. I got in my car and got out of the city. It looked like a war zone," Leonard said as a tear formed in the corner of his eye.

"Yeah, I was just out of grad school. I had been teaching at a high school. I watched the game by myself and when that third quarter started, I was frozen in disbelief. When I heard numerous gunshots being fired, I ran out of my apartment complex, got in my car, and drove out of the city as well. I didn't go back for several days. I agree, it definitely looked and sounded like a war zone."

For what seemed like an eternity, we both sat in silence staring out at the dark, cloud-covered sky. Large drops of rain started to hit the cracked windshield. Sudden bolts of lightning followed by an earsplitting peel of thunder seem to bring us each back to reality.

"Looks like a pretty good thunderstorm brewing," I muttered under my breath.

"I think I'm going to pull under the next overpass and wait it out. I don't trust these tires to do very well in a downpour and it appears we have no functioning wiper blades," Leonard said as he fiddled with the knob on the dash.

"Good idea."

A mile passed before the next overpass appeared. Leonard eased the VW to the side and got us out of the rain.

"I suppose you should shut it off to conserve gas," I told him.

Leonard nodded his head and replied, "Sure hope we can get it started again."

"Hopefully, the battery should be charged up, assuming it can hold a charge."

"We can always get your super legs to push us again."

I rolled my eyes and petted Jerky, who had decided to take her nap on my lap as we waited out the storm. Leonard leaned back and closed his eyes. I, too, shifted my weight to get more in a sleeping position. Jerky lifted one lid in irritation. "Sorry," I whispered.

As I drifted off, more thoughts of that horrible first event invaded my dream. It was a very vivid dream. I was standing in front of my couch watching the TV in horror. The football field, as well as the stands, was streaming in bright crimson. People slipped on the blood, only to find themselves propelled into another attacker. As I watched in horror, I noticed blood leaking from my widescreen HD TV. A severed arm fell out of the corner.

I tried to run only to look down and discover that two other dismembered hands had clasped themselves like shackles around my ankles. More body parts fell from the now blood-encrusted TV. Tormented screams and painful moaning came out in surround sound with a bone-crushing decibel. More hands crawled toward my legs and attached like leeches. One bloody female hand with a large diamond ring made its way up my crotch and inched seductively up my torso.

I attempted to reach up to pull it off only to have my arms yanked backward by several dismembered arms. My balance was finally disrupted and I fell back toward the couch. The female hand continued to crawl up my chest. My head was yanked back, exposing my neck. For some strange reason, I felt it was Madeline's hand. I suddenly remembered seeing that oversized, garish, bilious diamond ring on Madeline's hand that memorable day in ISS. I wanted to puke. One of her fingers played with my lips in a provocative manner. I tried to bite at it and spit it out. Slowly it inched its way up to the top of my head, playing with my hair and ear. As her finger slowly bored its way into my ear, blood flowed down my neck.

Jerky bit my nose and woke me up.

"What the hell?" I yelled, looking cross-eyed at Jerky who was standing on my chest an inch away from my face.

"You must have been having a bad dream and Jerky sensed it. Amazing," Leonard commented softly as he stretched.

"Ya got that right. It was one of those nightmares where you can't move and there was…wait. Did you hear that?"

Leonard wiped the condensation from the side window and looked out at the deserted interstate. It was still very dark from the storm. Sheets of paper and dead leaves raced past us. He fiddled with the knob on the wiper blades, hoping that somehow they had miraculously healed themselves to start working.

"Don't see anything," he whispered.

"Maybe we should get going. The rain seems to have let up," I suggested. Jerky leaped over my shoulder into the backseat.

A large rock hit the side of the driver's window, making us both shout a string of obscenities. The glass shattered, but didn't break apart. Leonard turned the key. Nothing. The look on his face revealed sheer terror.

"Try it again," I hollered. Nothing.

"You up for a little running?" Leonard asked with a heavy dose of pleading.

Another rock slammed down on to the hood of the car, very close to the front windshield.

Jerky hissed, jumping into my lap. I reached over, placed my hand on Leonard's fingers and turned the key. The engine started up immediately.

"Okay…what the fu..?" Leonard asked incredulously. He looked at me as if I were a side dish that he hadn't ordered.

"Put it in gear and get the hell out of here." More rocks pelted the car and I could see several large men approaching.

Leonard punched it and the little Bug roared onto the freeway as one last rock found its mark, hitting the engine.

"Crap. That hit didn't sound good," I commented looking out the back window.

"At least we got away," he said as he looked over at me. "I'm beginning to think you have some special…um…powers.

I frowned, rolled my eyes and tried to dismiss the whole business. However, in the back of my mind, something gnawed at my down-to-earth way of thinking. Okay, now there were two things that seemed out of the ordinary. The sudden, new-found sense of strength while pushing the car and now this little incident of the laying of my hand on Leonard's fingers to help start the vehicle. Dumb luck? That must be it. I couldn't have any superhuman powers. That's just nonsense.

As we drove down the interstate away from our attackers, it wasn't long before the engine started to make noises as if it were fighting for its life.

"That last rock must have done some damage to the engine. It probably won't be long before we are walking again. Unless, of course, you can lay your hands on it and do a miracle," Leonard said, snickering.

"Surely, you jest," I replied.

"Don't call me, Shirley," Leonard remarked.

"Huh?"

"Naked Gun? Remember? Leslie Nielsen?" Leonard prompted.

"Before my time I guess."

For the next few minutes, I got the Cliff's notes version of the old movie from Leonard. Gradually, his recounting of the comedy was accompanied by the grinding of metal. The old VW Bug pitched forward violently a few times and like a dying patient with lung cancer, the rusty bucket of bolts ceased moving.

"Rest in peace," I said as I shrugged my shoulders. "Well, it was nice while it lasted. Back to walking."

As soon as I opened the door, Jerky dashed out into the wet grass. I looked over at Leonard. He was hunched over the steering wheel. "You all right?" I asked.

"I'm tired of all this shit. I'm too old," he mumbled.

"Yeah, I know what you mean. You should be enjoying your retirement at a nice golf course in Florida with plenty of warm sun, having a happy-hour cocktail about now."

He nodded his head in agreement and smiled. "I was a horrible golfer, but you're right about the happy hour. It sounds wonderful. A good vodka tonic would taste heavenly about now."

I got out of the car, reached into the back seat and grabbed my pack. Leonard opened his door and followed suit. He slammed his door and walked to the front. "Thanks for the ride, old girl."

"Ditto," I said, walking over to Leonard. "Ready?"

He just nodded. I put my arm on his shoulder and we both started walking down the interstate. The cold wind had softened to occasional swirls.

Jerky was a few paces behind us. After a few minutes, I turned to see the big cat stop, and turn toward the old car. She hunched her back, raised her hairs and hissed. Something or someone was still following us.

Chapter 5

A cold, misty rain returned, toying with us on and off as we walked down the interstate. We must have been following the storm. Gusts of wind increased, pushing at us as we walked. Slowly, our clothes got saturated, sending that wet sensation straight to our bones. I found myself shivering and knew that we needed to find a place to make a fire and dry out. Being in Iowa, the countryside only offered field after field after field. Years ago, they would have been covered with either corn or pigs.

Off in the distance, I could see what looked like a small town's water tower.

"Looks like there's something up ahead. It might provide us a place for the night," I said. "We need to get warm and dry these clothes out."

Leonard nodded, mumbled something and just kept walking. Jerky came out of a ditch ahead of us and waited. She jumped behind me as we passed and followed close on my heels. Her hair was matted and soaking wet. She was covered with twigs and dead leaves.

I could tell Leonard wasn't in a talking mood. So, my thoughts went through an inventory of memories. Most of them were very unpleasant accounts of Madeline and what her agenda was. By now, there was no doubt that she was the originator and orchestrator to the collapse of…well just about everything. Those seeds she planted in God knows how many kids years ago became the catalyst for the mass insanity worldwide.

I realized the insanity began to manifest itself before the first psychotic event in subtle and some not-so-subtle ways. As a society, people gradually forgot or disregarded simple common courtesies. Expressions like please and thank you became nonexistent. Everyone became distrustful. Paranoia grew. If you took one aspect of our society, put it under a microscope and examined it, you could see how it became affected by Madeline's evil.

Take for example everyone's favorite topic…politics. As I was growing up, the whole political process became highly corrupted, and I mean way more vile and nefarious than previous episodes in our American history. It seemed that every two years we'd go through incredible mudslinging, negative campaigning from candidates. All the television commercials were vicious attack ads. Most of the time the facts that a candidate was professing were flat-out lies. There was never any substance or information from candidates on how they would address issues and bring about positive new ideas. My TV remote mute button would get worn out during the campaign season. I'd have to go buy a new one. Once a new administration became elected, anything that was promised would soon be forgotten and scandal after scandal would be all that you'd hear about or see on the front page.

Very little governing was taking place and the world, which once looked to the great United States as a role model, lost faith in us and laughed at us. So, it was a natural decline, leading into anarchy. Once Madeline got her claws into our government, it was only a matter of time before chaos set in and that infection she spread made its way around the world.

As I walked down the deserted interstate, I was awed by how easy it was that we lost everything. What took centuries to build was destroyed in a less than a decade.

"You look deep in thought," Leonard said as he shifted his pack.

"Yeah, I was. I don't know if it was very deep. I just keep rehashing all the events and reasons why we are in this mess now."

"You might go insane if you think about it too much," Leonard muttered.

"If I haven't gone insane by now, I don't know what would cause me to lose my sanity."

I mentioned some of the things I had been mulling over and he offered his take on the whole political area. That line of thought and discussion made the time pass more quickly. At one point, I looked up and noticed that the sun was peeking through some clouds on the far horizon.

"Looks like maybe this storm front is finally passing by or switching direction. Tomorrow should be a good day," I remarked, kicking a stone.

"That would feel wonderful. Amazing how the sun can lift one's spirits, not to mention warm the old bones."

We changed the subject of the collapse and focused on the weather. Leonard pointed out again that we'd never make the coast before bad weather settled in. Crossing the Rockies during the winter would be just too risky. We discussed possible places to stay for the season and agreed that we should head on down to southern Texas.

As we got closer to the small town, I could see that it was officially a ghost town. There were no signs of life…human that is.

"I wonder if we could catch us a rabbit or something. Hell, I'd settle for a large rat. Cooked meat sounds so good," Leonard contemplated.

"Just as long as it isn't the feline type," I said picking up Jerky. The smell of wet fur was a tad overwhelming. "Whew, Jerky where have you been?"

Leonard ruffled Jerky's coat and said he'd never think of hurting our traveling companion. As I put Jerky down, the cat hunched its back and hissed. She was looking straight ahead at the town.

"What's got into her?" Leonard asked.

"I don't know, but maybe we should reconsider going into…"

Leonard looked both ways down the road. "I don't see much choice unless we go traipsing across a field, getting more wet than we are, and getting lost or something. We'll be fine. Jerky is probably just being a bit dramatic." He patted me on the back as if to reassure me that all was just peachy.

Jerky stayed close to my leg, almost tripping me a couple of times. I finally picked her up again. She climbed onto my shoulder. All I needed was an eye patch and a wooden leg and I could pass for some demented pirate that couldn't afford a parrot.

All the main streets in America pretty much looked like the one we were walking down. I figured that most of the streets in the world probably looked the same-deserted, litter strewn-maybe having a decomposing body of a human or dog. Speaking of dogs, many of them resorted back to their primal state and ran in packs. I hadn't seen a domesticated one in months. You just couldn't trust them. They were as hungry as we were. Jerky was the first pet that I'd seen in a very long time.

"I suppose it doesn't matter what building we go into," Leonard said quietly.

"I guess not."

"Don't suppose there's a Wal-Mart here. Sometimes you can find stuff in them. One time, I found some baby food that had rolled under the shelf. It's always good to look for stuff like that on the floor," Leonard commented.

"Good info. I'll have to remember that one. However, the size of this little berg probably didn't warrant a Wal-Mart."

We walked farther down the Norman Rockwell-looking street. I half expected to see a few freckle-faced kids coming out of the local candy store. All of a sudden, Jerky flew off my shoulder, landed squarely on her paws and hunched her back. She looked like she was posing for a Halloween commercial. Her hissing was loud and made me shiver.

"Hold on, Leonard," I whispered. "Something's not right." The late afternoon light had dwindled down, making it hard to see much past a block or so. A few steps farther and we both stopped dead. Jerky ran off down a side street. "Oh crap. Jerky, come back," I said in my best stage-whisper voice. The look on Leonard's face turned aggressive and determined as he stared straight ahead. Standing in the middle of the street was the little girl with the face of Madeline Blackwell.

"What do you want? Why are you following me?" Leonard yelled with his best adult authoritative voice. Madeline started walking slowly toward us.

"I want you to die," she said softly. Her voice sounded like it was angelic and it should be singing solo in a children's choir. A slight giggle drifted down the street. "And we intend to destroy Mr. Casey as well…before he gets too powerful."

Now my insides churned. My empty belly felt like the acid inside was slowly eating holes into the lining of my stomach. "Great. How can a little girl do us any harm? I don't see anyone else," I said to Leonard, as I got closer.

Leonard didn't respond. He stood there with feet firmly planted. His hands balled up into fists. I could see how tight he held them as his veins were next to exploding.

Slowly, I heard the sound of growling. Emerging in the shadows behind Madeline, one by one, a pack of dogs inched their way to follow closely on her heels. The dogs were of various breeds-mostly dogs with attack or guard reputations like German shepherds, Doberman pinschers and Chows. I spotted that kind of dog that was in that movie Omen-a Rottweiler. Of course, there were no Dachshunds or Chihuahuas that I could see.

"All right, now we have a big problem," I said nervously. "We need to run…and fast."

"No," Leonard said. "I make my stand here. I'm tired of running from her."

"You're not John Wayne. You don't need to do this. Come on. We can run down that side street where Jerky went. All we need to do is…"

Leonard slowly slid his pack off his back. "I don't know what she meant exactly about you getting any more powerful, but I have a good idea. I've seen that you have some sort of powers or…whatever. Maybe you are meant to stop her or something, turn things around. Beats the shit out of me. All I know is that there's something in you powerful and she's afraid of it. Maybe it was pre-ordained that I save you. Maybe that's why we found each other."

"Leonard, this is nuts. Come on. Let's go now."

As I tried to pull his arm, my eyes became fixated on Madeline's arm. She slowly raised it and pointed. The dogs surged forward like they had heard a starter's pistol go off at a dog race.

Leonard pushed me and yelled, "Run. Follow Jerky. That cat is a guardian. I know it. Don't lose her." With all his strength, he ran toward Madeline.

Regaining my balance, I took off in the direction of Jerky, down a dark alley. A loud meow immediately gained my attention and I sprinted toward it. Jerky pounced out of the dark and raced in front of me. Behind me, the sound was horrifying and made my blood chill. Mixed with the snarling and barking, I heard Leonard's screams. I choked up and momentarily stopped to look toward the shrieks. A little voice in my head, you know the one that proudly declares itself the emotional one, hollered for me to go back and help him. However, the rational voice that carries the banner of survival disagreed. It felt like I had a little red-cloaked devil with a pitchfork on my one shoulder and a harp-playing angel on the other. As I looked at my shoulder with the devil, I imagined it morphing into Madeline. That scared the shit out of me. Jerky was at my leg and sunk her claws into my calf. The small prick was enough to snap me out of it and I started running farther down the dark alley with her leading the way.

The cat miraculously led me out of the city, out into a small grove of trees. I stopped to rest and catch my breath. Jerky nuzzled up to my leg and purred, but on each turn she would look back to the town. After about twenty minutes, she started walking and I followed. By now it was dark. A large orange orb was inching its way up the horizon to peek over the trees. "I love those harvest moons," I muttered to Jerky. A little while longer and the moon gave us some traveling light.

"Don't get too far ahead of me," I said, feeling comfort from the cat.

A half hour passed and we came to a clearing. Slightly off to one side, I could see a small farmhouse. I stopped and froze. My feet wanted to slide backward away from the eerie sight. A lawn in front of the whitewashed house was studded with crosses of various heights. Some looked like spears with pointy ends ready to impale intruders. "Maybe we should go around this place," I said softly to Jerky. The cat ignored me and kept moving. "Jerky, no." She picked her way through the crosses.

A noise behind broke my fear. It heightened and directed a whole new set of panic. Snarling close by could mean only one thing. The dogs found me. I couldn't see anything, but I could hear them. As I looked into the nearby trees, three sets of eyes reflected the harvest moon's illumination. I started to run into the front yard, hoping to find refuge in the farmhouse. One of the dogs nipped at my heel. I could feel its warm breath on my leg. An earsplitting gunshot resonated, echoing across the yard. I heard a thump as the dog hit the ground behind me. I looked around to see another dog lunge toward me. Quickly, I grabbed one of the pointy, cross-like spears and thrust it at the oncoming dog. Its jaws snapped at me as I skewered it. Blood spurted out and covered my face.

"In here," I heard someone yell as another gunshot rang out, followed by a yelp from the attacking dog.

I stumbled over one of the crosses, and scrambled to regain my footing. Another gunshot hit its mark as I made it to the front porch. Standing at the door was a tall, slender woman taking aim with a 30-0-6 rifle, complete with infrared scope. "Duck," she hollered, squeezing off one last shot. I dropped to the floor and covered my ears.

Chapter 6

After several minutes of silence, she said, "I think we got them all. Come inside, quickly," she ordered, holding open the front door.

As I practically leapt through the entrance, the first thing I noticed was Jerky sitting on top of a couch, grooming herself. The room was bathed in soft candlelight. "Well, well, well…hmm…looks like someone is making herself at home."

"Is this your cat?" the woman asked as she slid a large metal bar across the door.

"Yes, her name is Jerky and she has a way with people," I said with an apologetic tone. I walked over to the cat, petted her and put out my finger for her to scratch her nose. She purred contentedly.

The woman continued to close metal shutters on each of the windows on the front of the house.

"Thanks for…um…saving my butt out there," I said softly. "Is there anything I can do to help?"

"Nope," the woman replied. She set the 30-0-6 next to the front door. I noticed that she had two Glocks tucked under her belt as well as a large hunting knife strapped to her thigh. As I watched her busy herself securing the little farmhouse, a memory flashed across my mind of how following the Bloody Super Bowl, people gradually started to arm themselves. During that summer of mass insanity there were gunfights and murders left and right. It felt like we were back in the days of the old West where everyone packed a six-shooter. Anarchy marched its way across the continents with guns blazing.

"My name is Heckel. Heckel Casey."

The woman remained silent.

So, now I got nervous. Had I walked into a crazy woman's house or was she someone who was just extra cautious? Jerky seemed relaxed, not troubled and she was like a warning beacon. Still, the hairs on the back of my neck bristled and my defenses went up.

Finally, after the long awkward silence, the woman came up to me, looked me up and down and smiled. "Sorry about that…I stay pretty focused when I'm securing the house. I've stayed alive this long by being sharp and watching my back." The woman offered her hand. "My name is Sela Strand. I am happy to meet you. I didn't mean to appear rude."

"That's okay. These days one can't be too cautious. I don't blame you," I said, shaking her hand. "Say, you're a damn good shot with that rifle."

"And I can thank my father for that. I grew up on this farm and he taught me how to handle a rifle. I had lots of practice hunting."

"Well, he was a good teacher," I said as I looked at my mud-soaked hands.

"Come over into the kitchen. Your face is covered in blood."

I winked at Jerky who ignored me and followed Sela into the kitchen. I immediately noticed that the back door was fortified much like the front. She lit a candle and placed it close to a sink. A large old metal pump protruded from the top of the sink.

"Just pump your water with this," she said motioning to the wooden handle. She then went over to a small pantry and pulled out several cans of food. "Are you hungry?"

"I've been hungry for over a year."

"Yeah, I know what you mean. Ever since this shit started, it's been one long hunt for food to stay alive."

The water was cold, but it felt refreshing. I rinsed off the blood from my face and hands as well as a few days of dirt and grime. She handed me a large, soft towel. As I finished drying off, I watched her open the cans. Sela was a very attractive woman, standing well over six feet, I figured. She had dark-red hair set in a braid that hung to the middle of her back. It was the combination of her smile and the way it made her green eyes light up that really grabbed my attention. I tried not to stare.

"Are you all right?" she asked.

"Oh, yes…eh…just fine," I stammered. "I was just thinking about how lucky I was to…um…run into you. If you and your rifle hadn't helped me out, I'd be dog food by now."

"Hmm, I think you better also thank your cat. What was its name again?"

"Jerky."

"Well, Jerky practically loaded the rifle for me after I let her in the front door. She was extremely persistent. I've never seen a cat act like that."

As if on cue, Jerky pranced into the kitchen, acting as though she were taking a bow. I reached down to pet her, but she just strolled over to Sela, walked around her leg and purred.

"Looks like someone knows she did good. Let's see if I can find a reward," Sela said, looking into the pantry. "Ah, her we go…a nice can of tuna. How does that sound?"

Jerky purred louder and swished her large, fluffy tail.

"Is there anything I can do to help?" I asked, folding the towel and setting it on the counter.

"Actually, if you could make a fire, I'd really appreciate it. I'll bring dinner in and we can eat in front of the fireplace."

"Is it safe to have a fire? I haven't had one in months."

"Yes, no problem. No one has passed through here in a long time. And besides, I'm pretty well fortified. All those crosses and spears pretty much scare people away. They get the idea that a lunatic lives here or something," she said faking a demented grin.

"Ya, I know what you mean. When I first spotted your front yard, I was ready to go around your place."

"There's kindling and old papers next to the wood bin," she said opening another can.

"Great. One fire coming up."

"There are some matches in a tin on the mantle," she offered, as I walked out of the kitchen.

Within minutes, I had a modest-sized fire going. The warmth emanating from the logs felt so good. My bones shouted in joy.

"I could warm this up if you'd like," Sela said, setting two plates down on a coffee table.

I turned around and told her it wasn't necessary. "I'm so hungry I could eat dog food right about now."

"I've had that," Sela commented.

"Well, so have I. In a pinch, it's not bad, especially if it's warmed up. Tastes like stew. Is this dog food?"

Laughing, Sela said, "No, it's Dinty Moore stew. I was lucky about four months ago and found several cases of it at an old warehouse up in Des Moines. I bring it out on special occasions."

As I sat down on the couch, I picked up a whiff of Sela's perfume or body wash or whatever. Actually, maybe it was just her natural fragrance. At any rate, it smelled wonderful to the point I almost forgot the plate of food. My pulse quickened slightly. Get a grip man, I thought. This woman just saved your life. Be a gentleman and keep the salami between your legs at bay. Okay, it had been a long time since I had the company of a woman, and I mean that in more ways than just sitting on a couch next to one. I thought back to my last girlfriend and how good the relationship was. Why it didn't last is beyond me. Oh, yeah, now I remember; she dumped me for someone else. All that breakup stuff had happened months before the collapse. Once our civilization began to spiral down into chaos, it was impossible to find a girlfriend and start a relationship. You just couldn't trust anyone and no one trusted you. So, I began a life of forced celibacy. Yuck.

As I shoved a large chunk of stew meat into my mouth and savored the taste, Sela asked me how long I'd been on the road. With a mouthful, I mumbled out that I had been walking for over a year.

"How about you? How long have you been holed up in this farmhouse?"

Sela explained that she had been a lawyer back east and after the summer of insanity, she started her trek out to the family homestead. "The car gave out somewhere I think in Ohio. I tried to find fuel, but a lot of the gas stations had been blown up or depleted of any fuel, not to mention that with no electricity one couldn't get the fuel pumped. So, I abandoned the car and started walking. It took me several months to get out here. My Dad was alive then."

"What happen to your Dad?" I asked tentatively as I scooped up another spoonful of stew.

Sela paused with her spoon in midair and got choked up. She pursed her lips, fighting back her emotions. Jerky jumped up next to her and slipped onto her lap.

"Jerky, get down," I ordered, knowing full well that the cat would ignore me.

"She's fine," Sela said stroking her back as Jerky curled up into a ball. "She's very comforting."

"Yeah, she has that effect on people."

"To answer your question…um…my Dad happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time."

"How so?"

"He made the mistake of going into our little town a few miles down the road without any protection. He forgot his rifle that day. He also didn't tell me he was going. By the time I figured he had left, things had already gone very bad."

"I'm sorry," I said, getting up to put a few more logs on the fire.

Sela went on to explain that she pedaled her old bicycle as fast as she could to go find him. As soon as she got into town, it didn't take long for her to find him.

"A group of men, I guess about four or five, had my Dad tied to a telephone post. They were taking turns throwing a knife at him. He was covered in blood. I screamed at the men to stop. One of them started to run toward me. Instantly, I shot him as well as the other three. I ran to my Dad. He was already dead. I untied him and set him down. His hand was balled up into a fist. I spotted a chain dangling from one end. I opened his hand. A small gold cross on a chain was pressed into his palm," Sela said touching the pendant on her neck. "He must have been getting it for my birthday or something. I sat there and cried for hours before dragging his body to a field. It took me the rest of the afternoon to bury him."

Jerky got up, crawled up her chest, and licked the tears streaming down. It made her laugh.

"I'm so sorry. That must have been…very…traumatic," I said putting my hand on her shoulder.

"I remember being so angry and out for revenge, but also very afraid. I was ready to kill anyone who crossed my path or simply walked into my front yard. That's when I became obsessed about my defensive perimeter. I put up the crosses and spears then. I just didn't know what to do."

Jerky continued to nuzzle up into the crook of her neck.

"If she's bugging you, just push her off," I said.

"No, she's fine. I love having a cat around. We used to have a bunch of them on the farm here."

"How long ago did your Dad…um?" I stammered awkwardly.

"Oh, I guess close to a year now."

Sela wiped her face and took my bowl. "Would you care for any more?"

"No, that's fine. It's best to ration good food like that," I said.

She left the room and a few minutes later came back with a box of Fig Newton cookies. My eyes got huge. She laughed at my response.

"Cookie?" she asked, sitting back down on the couch.

"Oh, my. Manna from heaven? Where in the world did you find these?" I asked, reaching into the box. I inhaled the cookie's aroma as though I were a wine taster sampling a fine Cabernet.

Sela explained that she found a case of them at that same warehouse.

After an hour or so chatting about each other's past, a large stretch of silence occurred and we both just stared into the dying embers.

Sela broke the moment. "Heckel is a very unusual name. Is that a nickname or what?"

Clearing my throat and stifling a yawn, I answered, "Nope, that's my real legal name and yes, it is very unusual. I can thank my mother for it. Heckel is the name of a really expensive and top-of-the-line professional bassoon."

She looked over at me with a smirk and one eyebrow raised as if to beg for more.

"My mother was finishing up college. She was a music major and a damn fine bassoonist. She was hoping to land a gig in a good orchestra. After she graduated, she did the auditioning circuit, met my dad and had me. She had been saving money to buy that expensive instrument that cost more than a car, but when I came along, they needed the money and her dreams of owning that fine bassoon ended. I think it was my dad's idea to name me Heckel. My mom thought it was poetic justice or something, I guess. Later on, I asked her about why my name was so weird. She would just smile and say, 'you are the song of my life.' As a young snot-nosed kid, I'd crinkle up my nose, shake my head and run off. My dad explained the whole thing to me when my mom was dying of cancer. After that, I really loved my name. It is indeed unusual, but also very special."

Sela smiled warmly and patted my shoulder. "What a great story and you are right. Heckel is a very special name. What a wonderful way to remember your mom as well."

Her smile and pat on my shoulder made my insides warm. "Most people call me Heck. You know like…what the heck are you doing? Where in the heck have you been? I get that a lot."

She laughed. We continued talking until well after midnight. I could see at one point that Sela's eyes where getting heavy.

"Hmm," I said, trying to stifle a yawn. "It's late."

"Let me get you a few blankets and a pillow. Is the couch here all right?"

"It definitely beats the ground. My back will think it has died and gone to heaven."

Sela put her hands on her hips, frowned and chastised me. "There will be no dying on my watch."

I put up both my hands in capitulation and told her that she was absolutely right. There would be no dying in Iowa. She shook her head defiantly and walked into her bedroom. A few minutes later she came back with a sheet, two blankets and a large fluffy pillow.

"I really appreciate this," I said, taking the bundle from her. She leaned over and kissed me lightly on the cheek.

"Sleep well. I really enjoyed talking with you this evening," she said blushing. It's been a very long time since I could trust someone and…um…let them into my life. Oh, and I couldn't forget Jerky." The cat had positioned herself on top of the couch so that Sela could pet her.

I looked at the both of them and felt a warm sensation spread over me. "Looks as though I have two protectors now."

Sela said good night again and started walking to her bedroom. Jerky jumped off the couch and followed her. I started to protest and Sela said that it was fine. Jerky turned, bushed out her tail and I swear it looked as if she had a grin on her face.

I made up the couch, took off my dirty clothes and lay down. The soft light from the dying embers functioned as a night-light and it was very comforting. My last thoughts for the day turned to Leonard and his sacrifice. Tears welled up in my eyes. "I'm so sorry, Leonard. You were a good friend. You're at peace now and I'm sure united with your wife. Thank you for everything you…" Sleep finally took over.

Chapter 7

In the middle of the night, I woke up and started recalling events in which Madeline's power seeped into Washington. It did not take long for her to infiltrate into the ranks of the powerful. She had her hands in everything. As Director of Homeland Security, she had a line to one of the most powerful men on the planet and had become fast friends with the president. And he was a popular president. The American public adored him, which helped in Madeline's gaining trust with people across the country. So, when the first of many tragic events started taking place, she had his support and cooperation as well as that of the American people. Madeline usually just had to come in after the destruction and mop things up. Of course, she always looked good, both figuratively and literally.

That first incident, the Super Bowl, was a work of genius. Watching close to seventy-five thousand people kill each other over a silly game was…well, difficult to put into words. Of course there were all the people around the world watching the Super Bowl who had their own personal little meltdowns.

Needless to say, Madeline's office was heavily impacted by the tragedy. From that moment, the sequence of events was set in motion and the office of Homeland Security became inundated with one problem after the next. Of course, Madeline remained calm, cool and in control. It looked like things were being well taken care of, but in reality chaos was inching its way into every fabric of society and the world's population.

When summer came, it was one tragedy after another. The news reporters couldn't keep up. It was as if a dam of ruination and horror had burst, leaving misery and despair to follow.

"Ah, the road rage," Madeline said, looking out the window and fondly remembering the first reports out of Los Angeles. "There was another stroke of brilliance and erudition. If I could reach my back, I'd pat it."

William came in with a restrained look as if he were a mouse who just got away from a prowling cat.

"What is it?" Madeline asked.

"The president just reported on the news that the vice-president committed suicide."

"Really," she said, picking off lint from her sweater.

"The good news is that he is preparing to announce a replacement and the buzz on Capital Hill is that you are on the short list."

"Interesting." Madeline stifled a yawn, but inside she knew it was the next step in the plan. She felt the power within build, and it felt like a generator in the first steps to an overload. Glancing down at her fingers, she noticed a red spark ignite between two of them.

William furrowed his brow and with a look of trepidation asked, "Are you all right?"

The power continued to seethe within her.

"Miss Madeline, your face is changing. You look…"

The energy wants to be let loose. No, it wants to kill, Madeline thought.

"William, I suggest you leave immediately, or I won't be responsible for my actions."

"Miss Madeline, your eyes are turning red," William reported as he slowly backed up to the door.

"I'll be fine. Leave now," Madeline shouted. "Go!" William shrank back with fear. He spun around and grasped the doorknob. His sweaty hand slipped repeatedly off the handle. He gasped in relief as the door opened, and he bolted from the room.

As soon as he left, Madeline felt the first twisted bolt of shearing red heat flash from her eyes. In shock, she turned her head at the last minute, deflecting the energy blast to a nearby sofa. The old Victorian settee was immediately reduced to a pile of smoldering ashes.

Madeline giggled and then laughed heartily. She stood up from her desk, walked over to a full-length mirror and examined her image.

"You awesome bitch. You rock. No one dare mess with you!"

Chapter 8

It felt like I had slept for days. At first, I totally had forgotten where I was. As I opened my eyes, I could see rays of sunlight streaming into the room, making patterns on the rug in front of the couch. Swirls of dust danced on the rays. I shut my eyes and was ready to go back to sleep when I heard a sound in the kitchen. It was a familiar sound, one I had not heard since…well, I can't remember. I sat up, stretched and yawned.

After I got dressed, I shuffled into the kitchen. Instantly, I smelled bacon and eggs. I nearly fell over.

"Good morning. Did you sleep well?" Sela said as she turned a strip of bacon.

With my mouth open, I must have looked like the village idiot. I stood there in complete awe.

She didn't say a word, just busied herself preparing breakfast.

"I hope you like scrambled eggs."

"You have eggs? You have chickens?" I babbled in disbelief.

She just smiled and continued cooking.

"Okay, this is unbelievable. My mouth hasn't salivated like this…oh, heck, I don't…"

"Just relax and enjoy," she said, handing me a plate with scrambled eggs, bacon and several hard crackers.

"Sorry, there's no toast. I haven't found any yeast for a while to make bread."

"No need to apologize. This is a feast," I said excitedly as I sat down at an old round oak table. I waited for Sela to join me. Jerky was purring loudly over by the counter. She was squatting in front of a large bowl of food. It wasn't just ordinary cat food. It was a mix of scrambled eggs, a few bits of bacon and some other scraps I didn't recognize. The cat, judging from the volume level of her purring, was clearly in the same food nirvana as I was.

Sela sat down and asked me to say grace. Now that took me by surprise. I stumbled, cleared my thoughts and was about to say that I forgot how, when I remembered what my mom always said for the blessing. I cleared my throat and said the prayer of thanks. "Bless us, O Lord, for these Thy Gifts which we are about to receive from Thy Bounty through Christ, Our Lord. Amen."

"Amen," she said softly and picked up her fork. "Dig in."

A large lump welled up in my throat and a tear gently inched its way out of the corner of my eye. I sighed heavily and picked up my fork.

"You all right?" Sela asked, putting her hand on my arm.

"Just a little emotional, I guess."

"Nothing that a bit of warm tasty eggs can't fix," Sela said smiling.

That first taste of eggs sent wave after wave of pleasure. I closed my eyes and leaned my head slightly backward as if I were in some sort of hypnotic trance. I let the forkful of eggs sit on my tongue so that every taste bud could dance over the mound of eggs. Who would have ever thought that the incredible, edible egg would taste so remarkably fantastic? It was as if I were tasting lobster or filet mignon for the first time. I finally swallowed. Each subsequent bite was savored to the fullest.

"Did you sleep well?" Sela asked as she mashed a few crackers into her eggs.

"Like a rock. My back was particularly happy. How about you? I hope Jerky didn't hog the bed too much."

"She kept my feet warm," she said, looking over at the cat. "Um, do you have any plans?"

I shook my head, waiting to swallow a huge mouthful of food. "Not really. I just want to make it down to where it is warm for the winter. My goal is to eventually reach the coast of Oregon."

"Why there?"

Staring out the window at the blue sky, I shrugged my shoulders and confessed that I had no real reason. However, I explained that I just felt drawn to the area. "For about a year, there's been something inside me that keeps nudging me along. No, it's been more like a push."

"Interesting. Any chance you'd…"

A large rock came crashing into the window, breaking our conversation. Sela was up in a flash. Grabbing a rifle, she went to the front door. Looking around the room, she spotted a pair of binoculars. "Hand me those," she commanded.

Passing her large Brunton binoculars, I whispered, "You said you haven't had any visitors in a while."

"Correct. Hopefully, I can scare them off," she said, looking intently out the window.

"See anything?"

She didn't respond at first and then very slowly and softly announced, "I see three large assholes." She raised the rifle, looked through the scope and fired. A scream rang out across the front yard. She fired again. I grabbed the binoculars and saw two men running down the road.

"They're gone," I said confidently.

"They're never gone," Sela replied with a worried tone. "If they smelled food, they'll be back. Shit. This isn't good."

I tried to assure her that everything would be fine and that she definitely scared them off. My efforts at calming her down didn't work. She stood in front of that window for hours. I cleaned up the kitchen and peeked into the front room every so often.

Sela remained vigilant. Finally, toward noon, Sela stood up, opened the front door and went outside, still carrying the rifle. She walked around the whole house. I was amazed at how focused she was.

For some odd reason, Jerky didn't seem too upset about the commotion earlier. She discovered a well-used porch swing and was settled in for a nap. It was a warm, sunny day. The temperature was undoubtedly in the low 80s, but a cool breeze swept lightly across the porch. At first, I was nervous about being outside, but after being assured by Sela that all was well, I sat next to the cat and dozed off. When I woke up, Sela was sitting next to me with a rifle lying at her side and Jerky curled up in her lap.

"You okay?" I asked.

"Yup. I am now. Good nap?"

"Yeah, I slept like a log. I never get a chance to have a good nap."

We sat in silence for a while just staring out at the front yard. An occasional large black bird would perch on one of the crosses. That pleasant breeze slowed down and it was getting hot.

"Do you always get this…um…scared?"

"Not scared, just cautious."

I nodded my head slowly and smiled at her. We sat there in silence for the longest time as the afternoon sun started to ease its way onto the porch. It seemed as though she were deep in thought. I tried to initiate several conversations and each time she just grunted, that is, until I asked, "Do you believe…um…in evil?"

Sela looked at me as if I had sprouted a third eye in the middle of my forehead. "Come again?"

"Evil. Do you believe in an evil force or existence?"

"Absolutely. We've been up to our asses in evil for a very long time. Why do you ask?"

"I believe that evil is at the root of this shit we are in, and it has a name." I went on to explain about Madeline, and how I discovered what she has been doing.

She nodded her head deliberately and with much assurance she said, "I know that person. As a kid, I remember her being at my school for a while."

"Go on," I urged.

Sela recounted a story of Madeline working at her school for only about a few weeks. She explained that she was visiting all the schools in the area under some pretense. "I think she was giving demonstrations or something. I have no memory about what it was except that she was left alone with us and-"

"All the kids in your class were…um….hypnotized or something," I said interrupting her.

"Exactly. I remember looking at my classmates and they all had their eyes rolled up into their heads. Madeline was speaking softly. I couldn't understand what she was saying and didn't know if she was speaking English. I think my basic survival instinct kicked in and I ran out of the room to the nurse's office. When I got there, I threw up, which bought me a ticket home. I never said anything to anyone. I've kept that memory firmly locked away."

I put my arm around her neck to comfort her. For the next two hours, I narrated all the information I had on Madeline Blackwell, all the way up to the death of Leonard.

Quietly, Sela said, "We need to go tonight."

"Why?"

"Those men. What if she sent them?"

I stared out across the front yard, noticing how ominous those spears and crosses looked. Suddenly, Jerky sat up, looked out toward the road, sniffed and hissed.

"We need to pack and go," Sela demanded.

"So, now I've got two warning systems, you and Jerky."

Sela grabbed my arm and led me into the front room. She rushed into her bedroom, appearing a few minutes later with a large pack as well as the two Glock pistols and large hunting knife.

"Here," she said, handing me another handgun. Quickly, she opened a front closet door and pulled out two rifles and three shotguns. "Take your pick."

"Did your Dad do a lot of hunting?"

"Yes, he did, but he was also very protective of his family," Sela said proudly as she went into the kitchen.

By now, the sun was beginning to shut itself off for another day. Shadows lengthened and the temperature was falling. Great, I thought, tonight we'll have our first freeze and we'll be running in the dark.

Jerky stood by the front door and gave a blood-curdling meow. I looked out, gasped and terror slid up my spine as if it were running a marathon.

"What's wrong?" Sela asked as she came out of the kitchen.

"Madeline," I said catching my breath. A bead of sweat formed on my brow.

Standing in front of the crosses were three small girls dressed in dirty white nightgowns. Their feet were clearly a good foot off the ground. A pack of wolves or maybe dogs milled around behind them. A sardonic grin slowly stole across each creepy little girl. They shouted something that made my flesh instantly transform into chicken skin.

"Heckel, come out and play with us," the three demons beckoned simultaneously.

"All three of them are Madeline?" Sela asked. "I don't understand."

"It's the same Madeline that I saw with Leonard. Only now, there are three of them."

An earsplitting shot rang out. A bullet hole appeared dead center in the forehead of the middle Madeline. All three laughed. Two more shots echoed across the yard.

Jerky sank her claws into my worn jean pant leg and yanked on them repeatedly.

"I have a little defensive trick left that should slow them down." Sela went to the side of the front porch. She pulled open a small wood door on the ground and pushed a button on a black box. From the sound, I could tell it was a piezo lighter. About a foot away after a whoosh of sound, a flame burst forward and raced down a small ditch that extended out past the spears and crosses. It made its way to the front, where Madeline and the dogs patrolled.

"Let's go now," Sela said, pulling my arm. "Out the back door."

We ran through the front room, out the kitchen and toward a barn. "In here," Sela yelled.

Once in the barn, I heard the sound of two horses. "Have you ridden before?" Sela asked as she threw one of the saddles on the back of a large black stallion.

"Once, when I was in college," I muttered. "It was fun."

Sela grunted, finished saddling the first horse and quickly prepared a beautiful pinto. "Here, you take Hope. She's really gentle, but very fast. She can keep up with her mate, Tempest." Sela finished securing our packs and rifles to the horses, making sure the straps were tight. The sounds of barking and loud calls from the demons intensified. We looked at each other and practically jumped onto the horses.

Sela led the way out the back of the barn. Thank God, there was a large harvest moon stealing its way over the treetops. The barking grew even louder. I was sure the dogs had discovered that we went out the back of the house.

A horrific roar broke the tranquil autumn night.

Sela rode faster and I followed. We didn't let up the pace for a good hour. I looked back and saw the orange glow of the fire fading in the distance.

"Let's ease it back for a bit to give the horses a chance to catch their breath," Sela said quietly. We had crossed several farm fields. She told me that she knew the area well and that by the next afternoon we'd be crossing into the eastern corner of Nebraska. "We should be coming up to one of the main roads. From there, I'll get my bearings."

The night sounds returned to just your normal crickets singing, frogs croaking and occasional owl hooting. Sela picked up the pace slightly. At least, we weren't sprinting. However, my insides still felt like they had been shaken, not stirred, and violently rearranged.

At one point, we crossed a stream and Sela stopped so the horses could get a drink. "I can't believe you had horses. I'm surprised that they didn't end up on someone's table for dinner."

"Oh, I could never do that. They have been family for a while. Besides, for the longest time, I've had this strange feeling that I'd be taking this trip."

Leaning down to pet Hope, I said, "I am certainly grateful you had them."

"Care for something to drink?" Sela said handing me a bottle of water.

"Thanks."

"You're welcome."

"Huh, that just reminded me of something," I said, passing the bottle back to her.

"What?"

"Do you remember the Today show? I think it was on NBC."

"Yeah, I used to watch it every morning when I was getting ready for work. Why?" Sela answered.

"I remember a segment that they did for several mornings on the loss of civility. All these experts were brought on to comment about the various problems that our society was manifesting."

"Oh, sure. I do remember that one. It really made an impression on me. If you look back to that decade, there were definite signs, events, ideals, and people trying to wake us up to our downfall. It was just awful the way people treated each other. Rudeness and callousness escalated to the point where you trusted no one."

"Madeline's little handiwork, I'm sure. She planted those seeds of mistrust, rudeness and anger. We both know that now."

Sela gently kicked Tempest and started to walk. "The big question is how do we stop her evil harvest?"

I whispered, "We destroy her crops and plant new seeds. Ones that show the good in our world."

Chapter 9

The first rays of the morning sun slid across the pavement and turned it orange. Jerky had been riding on my saddle in front of me for the last couple of hours. It was pretty funny the way she got up there. Sela gave Hope a command and the horse knelt down, allowing Jerky to have a short jump up into my arms. I caught her and she settled down immediately, nestled between the horn and me. There was no fear on either animal's part. I was amazed. Sela grinned. Tempest snorted.

"Are you hungry?" Sela asked.

I started to give her my usual reply. "I've been-"

"I know, you've been hungry for a year," she said interrupting me. After a few minutes, she stopped, dismounted and tied the horse to a tree. It looked like we were on the outskirts of a small town. "At this point, I think it's best to stay out of small towns. You never know what's lurking around."

"Agreed. For that matter, it's probably best to stay away from cities, towns, villages and…"

Sela started to cry.

"What's wrong?" I said, dismounting from Hope and walking over to Sela.

"What you just said. It's horrible that we can't trust anyone. I just hate it. How did we get like this?"

"I know," I said putting my arm around her. "When we lose trust, civility, common courtesies and…basic love for each other, I guess we've lost everything."

Sela leaned her head on my shoulder and hugged me. My pulse quickened as I hugged her back. Slowly, she lifted her head, met my eyes and kissed me. It was a gentle kiss, a warm kiss that made me feel comforted. The kiss lasted for what felt like a week. When Sela broke the embrace, she continued to hug me and placed her head next to mine. She whispered, "I trust you and I'm so glad you came into my life."

My heart pounded in my chest. With a cracking voice that seemed to skip up an octave making me feel like I was in junior high, I replied, "Me too."

She giggled and hugged me harder. "I have some jerky. Would you like some?"

"Yes, please."

Sela pulled out a large bag of hard jerky. "It's made out of chickens. I had a couple of old birds that gave their lives for this jerky."

"May they rest in peace, or should I say pieces."

Sela's laugh resounded off the trees. "I didn't know you did stand-up comedy."

We found an old log to sit on. Conversation drifted from the weather to favorite fall foods and old movies we enjoyed. When we stopped talking, Jerky jumped down from Hope and took off. However, it wasn't too long before she came sauntering back, begging.

"She's going to bug you until she gets a piece of that Jerky," I said, biting off a chunk of the meat.

"Well, she deserves it. It's obvious that she is a fine connoisseur of prepared meats," Sela said, giving Jerky a piece. The cat hunkered down, chomped on the dried morsel and purred.

"Ya know what makes all this difficult?" Sela asked.

"What?"

"Not knowing what's happening in the rest of the world. I mean…I just wonder what's going on. Is everyone dead? How many people are in hiding? Can we fix this mess?"

I sat in silence as she asked question after question. It seemed suffocating. Finally, I assured her that something or someone would turn things around, bring humanity back.

"Like a savior?" she asked.

"I suppose so. I mean…um…we know, at least you and me figured it out, that evil by the name of Madeline instigated this collapse, so there must be someone who can destroy her. There's got to be a leader out there who can bring her down and send her back to hell."

Sela nodded her head and replied, "Well, I for one want to find that person and join up."

"You make it sound like we have a coming battle."

"Yup. It's got to get to that."

Her last comment got me to thinking about Madeline with an army of evil soldiers, ready to eradicate the rest of humanity. If that were so, how in the world did we stand a chance? Just look at the state of our present condition. "How do we fight a demon army?" I asked timidly.

"With all our might. I mean maybe that's why you are drawn to the West Coast. Maybe that's why we found each other. Maybe there are more people migrating to some preordained spot."

"And maybe that's why you and I weren't poisoned by Madeline years ago when she was planting those diabolical seeds in kids. We must have been immune."

"Maybe so."

We each finished our jerky, mounted our horses and rode off. Jerky decided to run ahead of us. I thought for the longest time about what Sela had said. Maybe there was someone who could bring us out of these dark times. Is that why I felt compelled to make it to the West Coast? All I knew was that Sela made me feel safe.

Later that afternoon, the skies got preternaturally dark. A slight tinge of green edged its way into the color of the nearly jet-black clouds. We decided that we needed to find shelter. The weather was looking more and more like it was posed to throw down some serious tornadoes. We rode faster. The weird thing was that there was no wind or rain. Usually, when weather looked like this, there was at least some wind starting to stir things up.

"Something's not right," I said shouting over to Sela.

"I know what you mean. The sky is so threatening, but there's no pre-storm wind or any signs of an approaching-" Before she could finish, a bolt of lightning hit the ground in front of Tempest, causing the horse to rear backward. Sela remained on the horse and quieted him down. There was no thunder, another sign that something didn't add up.

We rode faster. Unfortunately, the direction we raced was smack dab in the middle of the dark. The pitch-black, menacing sky felt like it was swallowing us.

Fear was pushed aside in favor of survival. The horses knew something wasn't right and galloped for all their might.

"There," I shouted, pointing to a large cinder-block-looking rest stop. My horse didn't even wait for me to move her in that direction. She just knew where to go. Tempest followed. Lightning hit on both sides of the horses. They didn't flinch. As soon as we got to the building, we dismounted. Jerky came running up alongside me. I found a door to the women's room hanging by one hinge.

"In here," Sela shouted, leading Tempest into the men's room. Just as we entered the building, the wind slammed into the front with a force that was overwhelming. The assault nearly made Hope fall on top of me. Sela took the reins from me and got the horse inside. I pushed the door closed and turned the dead bolt. Now the rain started, lightning flashed and the storm attacked us mercilessly and violently. At least that's what it felt like-as if it were waiting for us. We comforted the horses. Jerky perched herself on one of the sinks. Her hair was all bushy as though charged from all the lightning. The enveloping darkness from the storm made it feel like night. I could barely see Sela and Tempest in front of me. I talked softly to Hope. By now, I figured fear would have made a return engagement, but for some odd reason, I wasn't afraid. Sela, the horses and Jerky gave me strength.

A warm hand slowly grabbed mine and squeezed gently. Sela stood next to me. "We'll make it," she whispered.

An earsplitting crash interrupted the fierce wind as a hailstone the size of a large softball smashed through one of the windows over the sink area. It missed Jerky by an inch. The cat jumped into my arms. I set her on top of Hope and she immediately calmed down. I put my arm around Sela. More hailstones found their way into the windows, shattering the glass. The sound reverberated around the small room. We moved the horses farther away from the windows. I looked up to see large dents appearing on the metal roof.

"I hope this roof holds up," Sela yelled over the roar of the storm and the pelting ice balls.

I nodded my head and held her hand tighter. The storm intensified. Large dents, one after the other, formed in the metal roof. I could see a portion of the roof begin to pull away from the concrete walls. Bolts holding down the metal roof vibrated as though they were doing a maniacal dance; they started to pull out.

My temper rose to the point that it pushed aside the fear. An inner force compelled me to walk to the door. As if in a trance, I calmly handed Sela Hope's reins.

"Heckel, what are you doing?" Sela screamed.

I put my head down and kicked the door open. Stepping outside, I was immediately pelted with hailstones and small branches. The rest-stop area was littered with tree limbs, debris and puddles of water. The wind attacked me further, trying to push me over.

My insides seethed with a power that went beyond anger or fear. It was an emotion or something I had never encountered before. Sela, standing at the doorway, continued to yell for me to return. I reached my arms up to the pitch-black sinister tempest and yelled, "Cease and desist. In the name of all that is holy and good, stop this violence!"

A hailstone the size of a basketball landed at my feet. Two more landed on both sides of me. They formed three large holes in the ground. Just as suddenly as the storm started, it stopped. The clouds thinned and the darkness lifted. An eerie silence spread across the rest stop. Sela led both horses out of the restroom. Jerky ran toward me and curled around my leg.

"Heckel?" Sela asked, timidly. "Are you…?" Before she could finish, I turned my head and crumpled to the ground.

Waves. Wave after wave crested on a shore. I found myself standing on some large boulders looking out at the ocean. A slight tinge of pink slowly filtered into one of the waves.

I let out a soft groan but couldn't open my eyes.

"Heckel?" Sela's voice tried to bring me out of my dream, but it faded away quickly.

I was back at the ocean, staring at the pink waves. Gradually, the waves turned red and then a deep blood red. Far out on the horizon, I could see Madeline standing on the water. She floated slowly toward me with a warm inviting smile and her hands outstretched. The crimson waves crested higher and crashed more violently onto the boulders that I was standing on. I jumped off the large rock onto the pebbles lining the beach. Madeline inched closer. Behind her an army of hideous creatures emerged from the depths of the ocean. Each one that rose out of the water was more frightening than the previous one. Large mouths flashed yellow crooked teeth. Tentacles flailed in the air. Long dirty claws slashed the air as if they were practicing fiendish karate moves from hell's dojo. Fear crept up my spine, waiting to paralyze me. I felt a hand on my shoulder, but when I looked around, no one was there.

My dream shifted, as they often do. The ocean morphed into an expansive, blistering desert. Vultures circled above my head. The heat was intense, nearly pulling my breath out of my lungs. I moved slowly. Looking down, I could see chains on my ankles-leg irons. The skin around them was raw and bloody. Far off toward the east, a dust devil played with the sand. I envied its freedom. More dust devils appeared. They spun their way toward me. Dust spewed up into the sky. I covered my eyes. Up ahead, I could see Sela waving her arms. At first I thought she was welcoming me, then it was clear-she was warning me to look up. A giant vulture with its maw open dive-bombed straight toward me.

"Heckel? You're having a nightmare," Sela said softly as she shook my arm.

My eyes felt like they were superglued shut. My arm reached above me, swatting the air. Sela took my hand. The warmth of her touch affirmed my safety and helped bring me out of the nightmare.

"It's only a dream. You're safe."

The soft glow of a campfire and its warmth helped to wake me up further. "Whew, what happened? How long have I been sleeping? Where are we?"

"Whoa, slow done. Your brain's going to go into overdrive."

I started to sit up, and a wave of dazzling little bright dots started racing across my eyes. I felt like I just entered a laser light show with all the beams directed at my eyes. Sela could see that I wasn't ready for prime-time sitting up. She eased me back down.

"Maybe you need to stay down a little while longer to get things back to normal. You experienced…um…well, I don't know what the heck you'd call it, Heck. Ha ha…get it?"

"Oh yeah, that's funny. Like I've never heard that one before," I replied with a tinge of sarcasm.

"Would you like something to eat? And, yes, I know you've been hungry for a year. I shot a rabbit."

My mouth was salivating before I could even respond. I sat up and this time I did not get a burlesque demonstration of dancing lights. Sela handed me a chunk of meat. I devoured it and looked over at her with begging eyes.

"More?" she asked teasingly.

"This is fantastic. Thank you," I said, taking another slice of meat.

"So, what took place out there this afternoon?" Sela asked as she sat back against a tree. Looking around, I could see we were camped in a small grove of trees. The rest stop was off to one side of the road. The horses were tied to trees near us. Jerky was nestled on my backpack.

"I don't remember much."

She looked at me, anticipating more explanation. "Well, what's the last thing you do remember? Maybe we can start from there and it will jog your memory."

Staring at the rest stop, I could see the door to the restrooms. They were bathed in moonlight, giving them an eerie appearance. "The storm. We were in the restroom and baseball-sized hailstones were clobbering the roof. The sound was hurting my ears, and I could feel…" At that point, I trailed off mumbling incoherently.

"Good. That's right. We were all hunkered down in there and-"

"I felt my insides tighten," I said.

"Yes, that's right. Then you stared into Hope's eyes for the longest time." Sela said.

"Yeah, my mind focused sharply and I knew exactly what to do. I remember handing you the horse's reins and walking out the door. From that point, it's really fuzzy."

"You went outside into the storm. Hailstones were smashing the ground all around you and they were getting bigger by the second. They became the size of basketballs. I'd never seen anything so awful."

"Yes, I remember that now. Then a strength-no, more like a determination-flooded my muscles and…um…a…a force raced through my veins."

"You raised your-"

"My arms. I raised them and shouted something. I don't exactly remember the words. It felt good though and that force inside me seemed to fly out of my fingertips."

"Three huge hailstones nearly flattened you like a pancake. They made craters several inches deep in the dirt. And the storm ceased immediately. You made the storm stop."

I looked at her incredulously. "I don't understand."

"Heckel, you made the storm stop. I saw you. You lifted your arms up to the black skies and shouted something to make it immediately cease."

"That's not possible."

"What if you did? Think about it. Suppose Madeline's evil was behind that storm."

"She sent that storm?" I asked as I stood up to walk around. Jerky lifted her head to stare at me.

"Considering all that she's done, I don't think it's too much of a stretch to see that she is capable of conjuring that horrible tempest. Remember when we first saw it, how bizarre and unusual it looked."

I nodded my head in agreement. "So, why did she send it at us?"

"I'm beginning to think it was at you after seeing how you fought back and how the storm dissipated from your command."

The light from the moon diminished as clouds streamed across it. Cricket songs sounded particularly happy, perhaps enjoying the pleasant warm autumn night. I paced around the fire. Could I somehow really have commanded that storm to go away? Hmm. And what about the show of strength pushing the VW Bug? And for the love of God, why do I have this drive to make it to Oregon? I walked farther away from the fire into the dark night.

"Heckel? Are you all right?" Sela asked, getting up and walking toward me. The moon intensified as she approached. The soft glow filled her face, casting a luminescence that was alluring and comforting. She put her arm around my waist.

"I'm fine. Perhaps, a little confused."

Sela turned me to face her, and kissed my forehead. "Yes, you are and things will work out. After what I witnessed today, I'm convinced that we can bring Madeline down."

I hugged her tighter. The warmth from her body washed over me. I leaned in and kissed her soft lips. She kissed back with an inviting response as her tongue gently explored and traced my lip. Her hand stroked my back. Breaking the kiss, she brought her mouth to my ear and whispered, "Make love to me."

A gentle breeze brushed across our faces and the musty, earthy fallen leaves filled the air. I took her hand and led her back to the fire. She lay down on top of her sleeping bag as I put several logs on the fire. Immediately, the warmth of the burning logs filled the camp sight. Sela reached up, took my hand and with a loving smile, pulled me down to her.

The cricket songs diminished as the night wore on. Our lovemaking lasted into the early hours of the morning well past the moon setting over the treetops.

"Just incredible. I haven't felt this alive for a very long time," I said, stroking Sela's hair."

"Me, too. There's such a loving warmth cascading through every inch of my body."

We held each other as we went to sleep. Before I drifted off, I looked one more time out at the rest stop, noticing the twisted metal roof and shattered windows. Slowly, I shook my head in disbelief.

Chapter 10

"Ouch," I yelled, sitting up. Jerky stood in front of me with what I swear was a grin. "Why'd you do that?" I rubbed my ear where the cat had bitten. "I sure hope you didn't draw any blood."

"Guess she wanted you to get up." Sela put her arm around my waist and pulled me back down next to her.

"Well, she needs to learn a better way. A nice gentle kiss would do."

Sela kissed my ear and the warmth of her breath sent shivers down my spine. I turned my head and kissed her passionately. We hugged each other and felt warm. There was a slight nip in the autumn air, probably a warning that winter would be arriving soon.

"So, back on the road today?" I asked.

"Yup. We need to get farther south as soon as possible. This nice weather isn't going to last around this area much longer."

Sela took her clothes from the bottom of her sleeping bag and got dressed. I couldn't help but stare and admire her. She smiled at me. "See anything you like?"

I growled and wrapped my arms around her neck. "You are the most gorgeous woman I've ever met."

Sela giggled as I nuzzled her neck. "Flattery will get you-"

Jerky hissed, arching her back. She was looking down the road from where we had come.

"Okay, time to go. Our early warning system has just been initiated," I said, immediately pulling on my clothes.

We wasted no time packing up. Within a few minutes, Sela had both horses saddled and packed. As soon as I was on Hope, the horse knelt down to let Jerky jump onto her back. I didn't even have to give her the command. The horse could sense the expediency of the situation. Before Sela got on Tempest, she kicked dirt on the remaining fire embers. Jerky was still looking down the road and hissing.

Before I could say anything, Sela jumped on Tempest and they took off. We kept a brisk run for a long while. At one point, I could see that Jerky had calmed down and was sleeping. She liked to rest on my shoulder. I was relieved she wasn't too heavy of a cat. Her breathing and warmth felt good on the back of my neck.

After several miles, Sela slowed down, reached into one of her saddlebags and pulled out a large chunk of jerky. She handed a piece to me and gave Jerky a smaller one.

The morning sun had melted the slight tinge of frost on the grass. It was looking like another perfect warm Indian summer day was shaping up. As we came to a crossroads, Sela pulled a map out of her saddlebag. "I think we're in Kansas."

"That's funny. It reminds me of The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy says 'We're not in Kansas anymore.'"

Sela crinkled her forehead and said slowly, "And how is that funny?"

"I know. I'm weird. I don't know why when anyone ever says 'Kansas,' I always think of that line."

"You're not weird, and if Kansas makes you laugh…that's just fine. We need laughter," Sela said with a grin on her face. "At any rate, I think this is highway 59 and it will lead us down to I-70 and Topeka. We can then jump onto I-335."

As she was so nonchalantly giving us directions, it reminded me of one of the significant horrific events that took place shortly after that bloody Super Bowl.

"Road rage," I said softly.

"I don't think we'll encounter any of that. No one's been doing much driving lately," Sela replied, looking intently at the map.

"No, I was just remembering all the road rage that happened during that spring."

"Oh yeah. The mass insanity had a field day or I should say weeks with all that hellish business."

"You were back east then, right?"

"Yes. I witnessed those bloody, terrifying days first hand. One asshole, I mean one disgruntled driver, lifted a shotgun from the passenger seat and shot at me because I was observing the speed limit, I guess. At any rate, when I saw him lift a shotgun, I sped up. He started chasing me. We topped speeds close to a hundred miles an hour."

I stopped Hope and stared at Sela. She looked at me with terror on her face as she retold the story.

"He kept on my tail. Ramming his big SUV into the back end of my little Subaru. He put his shotgun out the window and fired, causing the back of my window to shatter. I went faster. I thought for sure I was dead."

Reaching over, I put my hand on Sela's thigh to console her.

She smiled and continued. "At one point, I saw an exit approaching. I started to go up the ramp and at the last minute swerved to go back onto the freeway. The road-rage-fueled maniac didn't react quickly enough and slammed into a barrier. He departed his vehicle through the front windshield and went flying through the air. He flew into some wires, which surgically sliced off his head and the arm holding the shotgun. His big SUV went sailing off the road and smashed into a large tree. The car actually exploded on impact."

Sela paused for a moment, sighing deeply. "I was shaking so badly as I eased my car down to normal speeds. I pulled off to the side of the road and cried for the longest time. People who saw me battling with the creep never even bothered to stop to see if I was all right. They either just drove by like nothing happened or honked their horn along with giving me the finger."

"That road rage took place all over the world. Again, it was as if something triggered it. Obviously, it was an evil that Madeline had set up years earlier. No one ever figured out why. It seemed like a good quarter of the world's population died from those tragic and horrific killings."

"Do you remember what happened in Los Angeles?" Sela asked.

"How could I forget? It was all over the news."

"Yeah, it wasn't much longer when the media had its last days and that was the end of knowing what was going on in the world."

I nodded my head in agreement. We swapped stories of what we remembered from the big L.A. road rage. "Blood flowed heavily over the highways for weeks. Cars piled up in huge heaps. It took road crews days to clear some of the roads."

"And then another road rage event would take place, day after day," Sela noted.

"After a while, the road crews started to just leave the wreckage," I said. "Which just fueled more road rage."

"It got pretty gruesome with all the coyotes coming down from the hills in L.A." Sela lightly kicked Tempest to start moving.

"Not to mention the diseases that followed. It was pretty much the end of L. A. and most of the other major cities."

"Months later, you began to see fewer and fewer cars on the roads."

Sela recounted how she decided at that point to make her way back to the family homestead in Iowa. She said that after abandoning her car, it took her months to get home.

"Remember how gas stations started shutting down and people started killing each other for gas. When I took that trip home, I carried a Glock with me at all times."

"The price of gas had gone through the roof. Many of those gas stations were burned to the ground because people were so upset at the cost."

"Not to mention all the oil refineries. I'm sure Madeline somehow had her finger in that one as well. She manipulated the disasters and destruction which pretty much put an end to air travel, trains, and anything that ran on gas," I recounted.

Jerky shifted her weight on my shoulder. We walked the horses a little farther in silence. "Well, who would have figured we'd be back to using horses for transportation," I said, petting Hope.

"Unfortunately, too many horses have ended up as food," Sela said with a quiver to her voice.

"Well, that certainly won't happen to these beauties," I said defiantly.

Sela picked up the pace and we ran the horses for several miles. As noon approached, we saw a farmhouse off in the distance. Sela slowed Tempest to a walk.

"Hmm, what do you think?"

I looked at Jerky and detected no concern. "Jerky's alarms are not going off. I suppose we can stop in and see if we can find anything. Just stay alert."

Sela pulled out one of the rifles from the scabbard on the side of Tempest. She put the gun on her back and took off the safety. I nodded my head and did the same.

As we approached the farmhouse, we could see that it had been vandalized and picked over. The windows were all busted, the front door was hanging by one hinge and a skeleton with part of its clothes hanging on its frame was lying on the side porch. Jerky jumped off my shoulder and dashed around to the back of the house.

"What do ya think?" I asked, nervously holding my rifle in front of me.

"I think we're okay," Sela said dismounting from Tempest. She found a place to tie up the horse. Sela took Hope's reins and tied her up as well.

As I got off Hope, I whispered, "I'm sure there's nothing to scavenge around here. Looks like it's been pretty well picked over."

"Maybe."

I followed her into the farmhouse. The inside looked as trashed as the outside. I stood in the front room visualizing how it must have looked when a loving, caring family occupied it. Lace doilies were strewn around the floor where an overstuffed sofa was lying on its side. Beautiful oak end tables were busted up into rubble. A large lump filled my throat as I saw a child's doll in the corner with its head ripped off. As I walked into the kitchen, I could see a large blood stain on the linoleum. It trailed off to the back door. Sela followed it out to the back porch. Standing on the top step, she pointed to the barn. "Looks like the trail goes to the barn."

"Where are you going?" I said grabbing her by the arm. "Maybe we should just go."

"The blood stain is very old. I'm sure whoever did this is long gone. Come on. Maybe there's some grain or something in the barn for the horses."

Jerky came running toward us proudly carrying a dead mouse. "Well, at least one of us is having lunch. Bon appetit," I mumbled, following Sela into the barn.

The sliding door to the barn was partially open. I stepped in front of Sela and slid the large wooden door to the side. It buckled slightly on the track as I wrestled with it and stopped. Sela stepped into the barn and gasped. I pushed the door hard and it slid wide open the rest of the way. She stumbled backward, bumped into me and raised her rifle. I slowly encouraged her to lower the weapon.

The bright autumn sun illuminated a gruesome sight. Dust from the barn danced along the rays. Five skeletons hung from the uppermost rafters, arranged in size. Sela turned away, crying. I put my arm around her and edged her toward a large oak stump. A rusty axe sat on the ground.

After a few minutes, Sela gathered her strength and said, "I'm fine now. We should see if we can find anything in the barn for the horses. Go around front and bring them back here."

"You sure?" I asked

"Fine. Go."

When I returned with both horses, Sela was coming out of the barn with a large burlap sack.

"Okay, my beauties, how about a treat?" she said, setting the bag down.

"What is it?"

"Oats," she said taking out a large hunting knife and slicing a long slit on the bag. Both horses immediately helped themselves, slowly devouring the grain.

"I think I may have found a root cellar as well. I'm going to see if there's anything in it. I'll be right back."

I sat on the stump, watching the two horses eat. Jerky came by with another mouse dangling from her mouth. "Don't overeat. You might get indigestion," I said to the cat.

A few minutes later, Sela came out from the barn with a huge smile. She was carrying two large jars.

"I don't believe it. Are those peaches?" I asked.

"Yup. I found some dried meat and other items we can stock up on. These just looked so good," she said handing me a jar.

"How'd you find the root cellar?" I asked, taking out a big peach from the jar.

"Remember…farm girl?" she asked, pointing to her chest. "I just knew where to look. I'm sure scavengers had no idea where farmers like to put their root cellars. We just struck a gold mine."

We all sat eating contentedly. I flashed Sela a large grin with my cheeks full of sweet peaches.

Before we left the farmhouse, we filled our packs with as much food from the root cellar as we could. "What do you think happened here?" I asked timidly.

"Hard to say, but it looks like maybe Dad killed his family, strung them up in a sadistic tableau and then did himself in. Very sad."

"How could anyone do that?" I asked in disgust.

"There were a lot of those scenes across the planet-people killing each other. A virus of insanity spread viciously and there was no cure for it. Come on, let's get out of here. I don't want to talk about it anymore." Sela mounted Tempest and raced out of the barnyard.

Hope bent down, Jerky jumped up into my lap and we followed.

The rest of the afternoon rolled by uneventfully and it was a welcome relief. We passed field after field of what once probably, at this time of year, would have been busy with farmers' combines harvesting…well, whatever Kansas used to be known for. Occasionally, we would spot the skeletons of cattle lying in the fields. Most likely they had been gutted and sliced up by marauders or perhaps attacked by wild dogs and maybe wolves. I started wondering about those demonic dogs that had been summoned by Madeline to attack Leonard. Were they still following us? As for wolves, I couldn't remember if there were wolves this far south. I knew that Minnesota had a large wolf population, but as for wolves in Kansas, I had no idea. However, given the fact that they were hungry, and looking for food, I wouldn't be surprised if they made their way this far south.

We made excellent time, traveling probably a good forty miles or more. As the afternoon sun lengthened the shadows, Sela directed Tempest to a small grove of trees off to the side of the road. It was a perfect campsite for the night that included fresh running water from the stream and lots of firewood. I was still nervous about making fires; Sela assured me we would be all right and reminded me we had our very own security system-Jerky.

After the hard ride, I figured rolling around and bathing in that cold stream would be just the thing. We took all the gear and saddles off the two horses, and walked them over to the stream. They drank for a long time. I couldn't wait to get my clothes off and dive in.

"We can let the horses roam in this grassy area. They won't go anywhere," she said, patting Tempest. "Right boy?"

"You found a good spot," I said, petting Hope.

"Sorry it doesn't have room service."

"If it did, I'd send for a bottle of champagne and a nice smoked cheese plate."

"Um…that sounds absolutely fantastic," Sela said dreamily.

"As for dinner, I guess its peaches and jerky."

After making a small fire, Sela laid out the one sleeping bag we had and an additional wool blanket. I made a mental note that those covers wouldn't help much longer as the nights got colder. We were still very lucky that it was an unseasonably warm fall.

"Did you see where Jerky took off to?" I asked, looking around the campsite.

"As soon as we got here, she took off into that field," Sela said pointing down the tree line.

As I turned back to the fire, my eyes widened. Jerky waltzed into the campsite. There in her mouth was a huge rabbit. The cat walked right up to me and placed the future dinner item at my feet.

"Oh my," Sela said, putting her hand to her mouth. I could see a grin form at the corners. "Look who's been out hunting for us. She looks so proud." Her laugh was infectious.

Now mind you, I've had a few cats in my lifetime. Some were quite big and resembled small lions. Jerky, on the other hand, would be more like a cat who had won the kitty lottery. You know, the cats that get gourmet food like Fancy Feast every night in a crystal bowl, have rhinestone-studded collars and sleep at the foot of someone's bed. Jerky was petite, well groomed and looked like she was ready for the front cover of Cat Fancy magazine. Yet there she stood with what seemed like a smile. When I reached down to pet her, she immediately sat and started grooming her behind. Sela came over and picked up the rabbit.

"Thanks, Jerky. We'll be sure to save you some."

After gutting the animal, Sela found a small combination salt-and-pepper shaker in one of her packs. I made a small spit for the animal. "At least she didn't bring us a scrawny mouse. Those are hard to grill and the burnt hair will send your taste buds packing," I said.

So dinner consisted of charbroiled rabbit and some canned potatoes. For dessert we opened a jar of applesauce Sela found in that farmhouse root cellar. Conversation, for a change, did not include bad memories. Instead, we talked about favorite books we each had read.

"Did you read much Stephen King?" I asked as I tossed the remains of the rabbit into the fire.

"Just about everything he ever wrote. The man could sure tell a story. My favorite was probably The Shining."

"Mine too."

Just as we were sharing favorite scenes from the book, a large gray wolf lunged from the darkness and snatched Jerky by the neck. I hollered and jumped up. Instantly, two other wolves simultaneously attacked Sela. She drew her Glock, shot one of the animals and started wrestling with the other. I found my Glock and shot the wolf that had Jerky in its jaws. The animal flew backward into a bush, still clutching Jerky. I could see that she was lying still. As I went to help Sela, three other wolves viciously lunged at Hope while Tempest was fending off another with his hoofs.

"Quick, shoot them," Sela screamed.

"I don't want to hit Hope."

Before I could get a bead on the wolves, Sela ran to the horse. Hope had one wolf on her back, savagely biting into her neck. Blood spewed from the wound. After a few seconds, Hope fell to her knees. One other wolf was chewing on the horse's calf muscle. A third wolf was poised to rip into Hope's belly. Sela shot that one first and immediately took care of the one on the horse's leg. I lunged at the one on the neck, grabbed the wolf by the neck and ripped her off Hope. I pulled out a hunting knife strapped to my belt and rammed it into the animal's chest.

Tempest had trampled his one attacker. As I lay breathing hard with the dead wolf on top of me, the black stallion came over to sniff Hope. Sela was shaking as she pushed the dead wolf off me.

"Shit, shit, shit," Sela said over and over. Tears streamed down her face. "Are you all right?"

"Yes, how about you?"

"Just a few scratches. I'm fine. Where's Jerky?"

Without answering her, I stumbled over to the dead wolf in the bushes. The motionless bloody body of Jerky was still in the wolf's mouth. I knelt, pried open the jaws and slowly picked up Jerky.

"Is she still breathing?" Sela asked, kneeling next to Hope. She used her shirt to press on the bloody wounds around Hope's neck. Tempest was licking Hope's calf wound.

"Yes, but barely," I replied as I brought the cat over to the fire. I pushed my pack closer to the fire and laid the cat on top. I pulled several shirts out of my pack, ran to the stream and got them wet. When I returned, Sela was examining the horse's wounds.

"I think this is pointless. Her wounds are much too severe. We are going to have to put her down, probably Jerky as well."

With the dripping shirts, I stared at her and said firmly, "No. We can save them."

"Heckel, look at them. There's no way they can recover. Hope's calf muscles are shredded, not to mention the amount of blood loss," Sela said wiping her tear-streamed cheeks. "And poor Jerky's neck looks broken."

I bent down and cleaned the blood from Jerky's neck. The cat's breathing was labored.

"We have to try," I said softly. "We have to…"

Sela picked up the rifle, getting ready to put Hope out of her misery. I ran and stood in front of the horse.

"Get out of the way, Heckel," Sela said with a tremble in her voice.

"We have to try," I said pushing the barrel of the gun away from the horse. "Please, put the gun away."

Sela sat down, put her head in her hands and cried hard. I put my bloody hand around her neck and massaged it slowly.

After a few minutes, I went to Hope and finished cleaning her wounds. I wrapped her leg with some of the damp shirts. Sela went over and examined Tempest. She hugged the horse and continued crying.

Hope's breathing was also very strained. I took our wool blanket over toward the horse, slid my pack with Jerky resting on top near the horse's belly and lay down. I continued to pet both animals and whisper soft words of encouragement. Please, dear God, don't let our friends die. We need them. I fell asleep with a hand on each animal.

The morning sun hit my face and felt warm, comforting. At first, I had totally forgotten about the attacking wolves. I inhaled deeply and could smell the fresh scent of the morning dew. When I opened my eyes, the first thing I saw was Sela kneeling with her hands in prayer, looking at me.

"Are you all right?" I asked sitting up slowly and rubbing my eyes. "Are you praying?"

Sela just stared at me with an expression of awe and reverence. Her eyes were like saucers.

"You're scaring me," I said.

She extended her arm, pointed and with a controlled, soft voice said, "Look."

Hope was standing next to Tempest and eating grass.

Sela jumped up, came to me and helped me stand. "You did this," she said, putting her arms around my neck and hugging me.

The grip on me almost made me choke. "I don't understand."

"You saved them."

As if on cue, Jerky came from around one of the bushes with a dead mouse in her mouth. I ran up to the cat and picked her up. For a change, she didn't protest. I examined the cat and there were no signs of any wounds. Her neck was normal and strong.

"You did this," Sela said once again, coming up to me. She petted Jerky who responded with purring and nuzzling into Sela's hand. I looked back and forth from horse to cat as if I were a spectator at a tennis match.

Now I was absolutely freaked out. I handed Jerky to Sela and went to Hope. The horse lifted her head and immediately licked my face. Tempest looked up, came over to us and also licked my face.

"See, they know you did this," Sela said with tears streaming down her face.

I examined Hope's wounds. They were completely healed with not even a hint of a scar or new pink flesh. It was as if nothing ever happened.

Sela announced again that somehow I had cured them, restoring them to the picture of perfect health. Being dazed and practically in shock, I quietly turned away from the horses and walked to the stream. Sela kept her litany of praises going as she set Jerky down to put more wood on the fire.

At the stream, I knelt down and splashed water on my face. "What in God's name is going on?" I whispered. "There has to be some sort of explanation. Hell, I haven't been to church in years. For that matter, neither had a lot of other people. No, there had to be some weird supernatural explanation. I didn't do anything."

I sat by the stream for a long time, staring into the clear water.

"You okay?" Sela asked, coming up behind me and putting her hands on my shoulders. Her voice was calmer.

Shaking my head from side to side, I muttered, "Yeah, I just can't figure it out and…um…I'm a little scared."

Sela sat down next to me. I picked up a handful of stones and started tossing them into the stream.

"There's a power in you, Heckel. I know it now without a doubt. I saw what you did to end that horrible storm and now this. Not to mention what you told me about how you had that extra strength in your legs to push that old rusty VW Bug that you and Leonard used to get away from Madeline."

"Well, I didn't ask for this…whatever it is," I said, throwing a stone harder.

Sela sat quietly for a while staring into the water, watching as I threw the stones.

"What am I suppose to do with this power? That is, if I really have a-"

"Stop Madeline," Sela said with a hint of excitement.

"Oh, riiiight," I said with a full load of sarcasm. "Me, a short, half-scared, shy, wimpy-"

"You are not wimpy!" she said defiantly. "And stop putting yourself down. You have a power in you that is destined to save humanity."

Laughing nervously, I just threw more stones in the water and shook my head in disbelief. "Oh, come on."

"I know this must be hard to accept, but I'm sure I'm right after what happened last night."

Trying to change the subject, I asked, "Do you think those wolves were sent from Madeline?"

"I don't think so. They didn't have that weird, demonic aura to them or glowing eyes. No, I think these were just a pack of hungry wolves."

We continued to reenact the whole violent scene, praising each other's actions.

"Look, can we not discuss this for a while. I mean, I…um… I am really confused."

Sela stood up, offered her hand and pulled me up. She put her arms around my waist, leaned into me and kissed me deeply. The kiss was reassuring and comforting. It made my head swim and my insides melt.

After the kiss, Sela continued to hug me. Softly she said into my ear, "I love you and will always be there for you."

"I love you too."

Jerky had walked up behind us and with her back arched and purring loudly, she curled around our legs.

"Guess someone wants some breakfast," Sela said looking down at the cat.

"Sounds good to me too."

The three of us walked back to the camp. As Sela bought out the food, I walked over to Hope and petted her. "Whoever named you Hope surely had it right," I said softly. "We definitely need all the Hope we can get."

Chapter 11

The next week passed smoothly and without any trouble, either natural or supernatural. As I rode Hope, I kept thinking of the attack from the wolves and what had happened afterwards. My mind reeled from all the unexplained occurrences and question after question put up billboards in my brain.

As we progressed south, warmer weather thankfully tagged along. A few of the days were unseasonably hot and the nights offered cool, pleasant sleeping temps. There was an occasional shower, but no severe storms.

Along the way, we cautiously stopped at small towns to scavenge for anything useful, but we mostly looked for food. The pickings were slim. Jerky found us a rabbit again and we triumphed in her hunting skills. And of course, I started looking at my traveling companion in a new light. Was she indeed more than just a cat?

Sela and I avoided talking about the wolf attack. The last time she brought it up, I got a bit testy. Why? I don't exactly have an answer for that. I think the flood of emotions associated with the real answer or answers most likely caused my snippy retort.

Sela always rode ahead of me and kept the pace fairly steady and fast. Jerky traded off riding with both of us. Today, she was on Sela's shoulder. Sela slowed down and pointed to a creek off in the distance.

"Looks good to me. I could use a break too," I shouted. As we got closer to the water, Jerky jumped off Tempest and ran ahead. "Guess she needs a break as well."

After we dismounted and led the horses to the water, I said softly in my most apologetic tone, "I'm sorry."

"For what?" Sela asked looking down at me.

"For…um…snapping at you. That was rude of me."

"No need. I understand how you must feel," she said caressing my cheek.

"It's just that…well, I've never been a very religious person or thought much about the whole supernatural stuff." I could tell Sela chose her words carefully so as not to rile me up. I resisted the urge to get defensive.

"You have to be open to the possibility that for some reason…you've been…"

"What…the 'Chosen One'? That sounds like a cliche from a movie." I sniggered. "Something Kung Fu or Buddha."

Sela looked hurt. Damn, I did it again. Quickly, I said, "Oops…there I go again. Just punch me," I said offering my arm.

"Just put down your defenses and sarcasm, so we can talk calmly as well as intelligently."

"Okay," I replied, taking her hand and walking toward the stream. Jerky and the horses drank from the clean, fresh water. We stood under a tree that sported the fall look with colorful orange leaves with an occasional one cascading to the ground.

The slightly salty scent of Sela smelled wonderful. I wanted to pull her down into the tall grass and make love to her so I could avoid talking about the whole topic of my being some superhero destined to save humanity and the world from the forces of evil. Softly under my breath using my best Darth Vader voice, I muttered, "Luke, it is your destiny."

"I heard that," Sela said, laughing as she spun around and hugged me. "Yes, maybe it is your destiny."

Suddenly, a cold breeze slammed into me and made me shiver. Either it was destiny validating what Sela just said, or there was a cold front coming.

"Fine. Let's, for a moment, just say that I am some sort of superhero or religious icon poised to confront Madeline and her army of evil. What's the game plan? I mean look around…there's you, me, our two horses and my incredible knows-when-evil-approaches super sidekick, Jerky! It's not exactly an awesome menacing militia."

Sela nodded her head slowly to confirm my sarcasm-tinged statement. "Yes, but we have to put our trust in-"

"God?"

She looked me straight in the eyes, nodded her head a few times and I knew she was dead serious.

"That brings up an interesting question. Why did God let things get so out of hand in the first place? I mean, for Chrissake, so many people died and died horribly. For what?"

"Don't know, but I do know there has always been a battle between good and evil. Guess evil got an upper hand over the last decade or two."

"Do ya think?" I said with my best Steve Martin voice. The minute I said it, I realized my sarcasm went a little over the edge.

Sela socked me in the arm. Both horses looked up for a second and then went back to drinking.

"Ouch," I said. "Okay, I deserved that one."

The horses walked away from the stream and started to munch on the nearby grass.

"We can continue to discuss this more tonight at dinner. We should get in a few more miles before calling it quits for the night."

"You da boss," I said jokingly.

"And you just remember that," she said poking me in the arm and snickering.

Jerky decided this time she wanted to ride with me. The warm cat perched on my shoulder acted like a soft fleece scarf. The wind occasionally contained hints of something colder in the forecast. Our luck with warm weather was most likely going to change.

"I don't suppose you have a tent in that magic bag of yours?" I asked as we slowed the pace for a while.

"No, I've been looking for something like that every time we find a town."

"I think we are going to need one pretty soon. There's a change in the weather coming around the bend."

"Yeah, it's inevitable. There are a couple of towns that we are going to go through tomorrow. Hopefully, we can find a small backpacking tent or at least a tarp."

That night around the campfire, we talked about the events that had happened leading to what we called the collapse.

"Where were you the day that the president and his whole cabinet were murdered?" Sela asked as she threw another log on the fire.

"I nearly forgot about that tragedy. By then it was beginning to get hard to hear any reliable news broadcasting. Most of the television and radio stations weren't even broadcasting."

"That made things so difficult. The just not knowing what was happening. So, where were you?"

I poked a stick in the fire, trying to remember where I was. After a few minutes of stammering and umming, I said, "I think I was in Virginia, still trying to teach. As time went by during the fall after the horrible events in that spring and summer, fewer and fewer kids were showing up at school. Word of the president's death and all his cabinet got to the school. Several parents came and got their kids. People felt it was the final straw. That was the last day I went to teach."

"Seems to me that was when Madeline seized power."

"Yeah, she had been head of Homeland Security and declared martial law with her calling all the shots. No one objected and if they did, well, that was the last we heard of them."

Sela put several large logs on the fire, which cast a warm orange glow. Jerky was curled up in a tight ball on my backpack. "Speaking of shots, isn't that when the National Guard flipped out?"

Nodding my head vigorously, I recounted how the army was given orders to shoot during any rioting or looting. More of the American population dwindled. "That's when I hit the road and got out of the city and walked way around any towns that I passed."

We continued to describe how anarchy prevailed, and from that late fall when the collapse began, day-to-day living became a matter of survival.

Sela put her head on my lap and we changed the subject. We talked about loved ones…some that we lost and others that we wondered where they were.

As the night wore on, the fire began to burn down to coals. Sela was drifting in and out of sleep. "Are you ready to call it a night?" I asked softly.

"Yeah, I'm bushed. Put a couple of big logs on the fire and it will keep us warm for a while," she managed to say between yawns.

As I got up to reach for a log, I noticed a blue swirling light off in the distance in the middle of the road we had been following. The light was on the horizon and I could tell it was creeping slowly toward us.

"Sela, quick…get the horses packed."

"Why?" she asked, sitting up.

"We have a problem. Quickly, we've got to get going…now," I said nervously, pointing in the direction of the blue light. "That doesn't look like the northern lights."

She stood up, stared at the approaching preternatural light show and gasped. "Oh, shit."

We both scrambled to pack up our meager belongings. Sela readied the horses. I kicked dirt on the fire. Now the ominous lights picked up speed and were nearly upon us.

"Are you ready?" Sela yelled.

"Just about."

But it was too late. The encroaching blue lights began to circle us and I could see that the swirling luminescence was, in fact, flames. They reminded me of the flame one would see on a gas burner. We began to feel the heat. The horses skittered nervously. I held onto Hope's reins. Sela was already mounted on Tempest.

"Come on. We can make a run for it," she cried.

"No. Madeline and I are going to have it out right here and now," I yelled. The searing circle tightened. A thought suddenly edged its way into my thinking. What if this is all an illusion? She's just trying to scare me. She's using fear to try to break me. I bet Madeline isn't even here. As I stared into the bright-blue dancing flames, my courage strengthened. I could feel my insides seething, turning, and twisting.

Sela shouted again that we should make a run through the flames. As she spun around, trying to keep Tempest from bolting, both she and the horse stared at me.

Softly, she said, "Heckel, what's wrong?"

I went up to Tempest, took hold of his bridal, and whispered to Sela, "Don't worry." She looked down at me with eyes laden with concern, but with a confident loving smile. With my head held high and a huge assertive grin, I marched us straight toward the Madeline-infused inferno.

The flames heightened and swirled faster as if someone were turning up the knob on a gas oven. The heat we felt originally wasn't there. We didn't feel anything. The hairs on my neck bristled. I could feel that power inside me build to an even greater fevered pitch. At one point, I looked around me and could see what appeared to be a dome. A force field? Was that coming from me? I stifled a small grin and kept up my defiant appearance.

As we passed through the light and made it out into a clearing, I turned to see the menacing circle of fire morph into a ring of the childlike Madeline avatars. A hundred identical little girls in dirty white nightgowns stood staring at us with a mocking grin.

"Now that's pretty creepy," Sela said tentatively.

"She's not really here. It's all a ploy or…or…chimera. She's trying to scare us."

"Well, she's doing a pretty good job for me. What the hell is a chimera?" she queried.

"Basically, it's something that is just an illusion," I replied staring at the disturbing, evil-looking tableau.

Still holding onto Tempest's reins, I took a few steps forward to confront the illusion.

"Madeline, if you want to talk to me or…whatever, you do it face to face with me. I'm not afraid of you. Stop sending your annoying storms, demon dogs, and silly blue light shows. And, for the love of God, we are really getting tired of these eerie, freaky little girls, who look like they belong in a John Carpenter film or something. They're a nuisance," I yelled and waved my hand at the circle of demon images.

With a flash of bright light, the Madeline apparitions dissipated as if someone extinguished a fire with a bucket of water.

Sela gasped and then clapped her hands in appreciation. "You did it…again!"

With a grin that was part humility and part pride, I muttered, "Hmm…I guess I did."

"Now do you believe what I've been saying?" Sela said, dismounting Tempest.

Apprehensively, like a little kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar, I nodded my head slowly and replied, "Yes."

She kissed me and hugged me.

Softly in her ear, I asked, "Now what?"

Sela remained silent for a long time, holding me tighter and tighter. "I don't know, but for now, we just keep going."

We decided that we would stay in the campsite that we were already in. I had a gut feeling that Madeline's threats were over for the night. As Sela got out our blankets, I started the fire again. It didn't take us long to fall asleep. The last image I had before drifting off was of one little girl, Madeline, in a dirty white nightgown. The evil demon child winked at me.

The next morning was chilly when we woke up. A few patches of frost dotted the field in low-lying areas.

"Brrr. I'm freezing," I said snuggling closer to Sela.

"Me too. We've got to find better sleeping bags, a tent, or lodging in deserted places," Sela said, pressing her body closer to mine. The closeness made my insides do flip-flops, and I felt like I was going to start hyperventilating.

After my breath returned to normal, I whispered, "Sela, you make me feel so…I…um…my feelings for you are…well…"

She smiled at me with the warmest expression I'd even seen and said, "Me, too." She leaned forward and kissed me for the longest time.

Our lovemaking kept us warm until the sun finally lifted over the tree line. As we rested, enjoying the afterglow and snuggling, Sela asked, "Since old man winter is rapidly approaching, do you think we should spend the season down in Texas? Perhaps near the coast?"

Standing up and reaching for Sela's hand, I answered, "That sounds good to me. I don't think we could make it to Arizona before we are knee-deep in snow somewhere in…um…New Mexico. Texas will be good. How long do you think it will take?"

"We are almost to the Oklahoma border. We should get there today. After that, maybe a week or so."

Breakfast was a hodgepodge of food we had found over the last several days. The biggest score was a box of unopened strawberry Pop-Tarts. We each had one along with a few Slim Jims that we found in a burned-out convenience store.

"Our food supply is getting too low. Hopefully, we'll find something today along the way," Sela said, staring into the fire.

"I gotta good feeling we will."

"Or maybe Jerky, the world's best hunter, will find us another rabbit," Sela said, petting the cat.

After washing up in the cold stream and watering the horses, we loaded everything up and rode off. The morning was slightly overcast but still unseasonably warm. I wondered if Madeline was affecting the weather in any way. No, she'd probably make it really cold and miserable. Maybe we were catching a break in the weather from the good side of the battle. Maybe it was my guardian angel? Hmm, if Madeline has demons backing her, do we good guys have…angels? Interesting.

We were following I-35 for most of the morning. Around noon, we stopped and looked south at a sign that at one time thanked people for visiting Kansas.

"See that roadblock up ahead?" Sela asked as she handed me her binoculars.

Focusing the expensive Brunton binos, I could see a large cinder-block building next to the interstate road. A heavy gate was partially blocking the lanes.

"What's that?" I asked squinting into the lens.

"Don't you remember? Madeline tried to close all the borders to each state. It was a disaster and didn't last long. Just another ploy purposely set up to cause more anarchy and deaths. People were furious and killed most of the poor guards stationed at the roadblocks."

"Oh yeah," I answered. "That was soon after she declared martial law and took over."

"Do you see anyone?" Sela asked.

"Nah. No one."

We rode in slowly and passed the guard station. A welcome sign on the Oklahoma side was shot to pieces. All that remained was homa…elco. "I could never understand why people had to shoot at road signs."

Sela shrugged and laughed as she picked up the pace and rode down I-35. A roadside mileage sign listing the upcoming towns had all the miles shot out. Braman was the first town, followed by Blackwell. When I saw that town's name, I shivered. "We are not stopping in Blackwell," I yelled over at Sela.

"Agreed. We'll stop in Braman and see if we can find anything. However, it's probably pretty small."

We rode into town and small was an understatement. Off to the right was the official sign that was not shot up; it indicated the town's population was a whopping 476 residents.

"It's looking a bit bleak here. I doubt we'll find anything," I said.

"Not necessarily. I've had good luck finding stuff in these little burgs. People usually passed them up, thinking the same thing you did. Come on. There's a gas station and a couple of shops over here," Sela said as she crossed the street. We tied the horses up. I remained as lookout. Jerky followed Sela into the convenience store. About fifteen minutes later, Sela came out with an armful of food.

"Found these in a metal cupboard in the back so the mice didn't get to them," Sela stuffed the food in her pack.

"Anything good? My stomach is growling something fierce," I asked.

"Macaroni and cheese. We'll have a feast tonight."

She finished packing the food up and said that she wanted to check a few of the houses close by.

"Don't be too long…and be careful," I shouted, shifting the rifle in my hand.

She raised her Glock, shook it lightly, and went into the first house.

I led both horses over to a small patch of grass. Jerky came running out from behind the gas station. No mouse this time. She curled around my leg and looked up at me.

"Hungry?" I asked, bending to pet the cat on the head. Looking up, I saw Sela walking toward me with two bundles in her arms.

"Wahoo! Big score. I found a small backpacking tent in that house over there and a down sleeping bag in that one over there. Hopefully, we can connect it to the one we already have."

"Great luck," I said, helping her to tie the sleeping bag to Hope's saddle.

We rode for a few more hours. High wispy clouds filled the sky and a light breeze was at our backs. Sela yelled that she was looking for a place to camp that had a water source. Another hour passed before we spotted a large stream going under the interstate. We rode the horses a short distance past the bridge, upstream. There was a small clearing perfect to camp at. After getting off the saddles and bags, Sela led both horses to the water. I went searching for wood.

As Sela went about preparing dinner, I struggled with setting up the tent. "Seems we're missing a few poles," I declared holding up one end of the tent.

"Improvise," Sela said, stirring the boiling macaroni.

I dropped the end of the tent and went looking for a branch to act as a pole. There were several scrawny bushes near the stream and a few old cottonwoods. As I approached the tree, I saw the remains of a skeleton propped up next to the trunk. Regardless of the many dead people I've seen, I have never gotten used to the sight. Giving the remains a wide berth, I walked around to the other side of the tree in search of something to use. I looked up and saw a branch that would work nicely. Taking out the big bowie knife I had, I sliced off the branch. As I turned to walk back to camp, I heard a voice mumble something. A cold shiver raced up my spine. Taking a few steps around the tree, I glanced down at the skeleton.

"Death awaits you," it mouthed, the slack jaw moving up and down slowly. Remnants of clothes hung loosely on its frame. A swirl of wind made the rags flutter.

Suddenly my feet felt as if the roots of the old cottonwood had grabbed them.

"Looks like it already got you," I shouted at the bones.

"Madeline will take you. She always does," the skeleton said with a grating voice.

Sela came running up. "What's wrong? Who are you talking to?"

I pointed at the rotting skeleton. Slowly, the head turned. Far back in the deep eye sockets a red light gradually radiated. It reminded me of those cheesy Halloween decorations one would find in the aisles of Walgreens.

"Madeline will feast on your entrails, Sela, and the child within you," the creature intoned.

Sela ran up to the skeleton and kicked the bones, scattering them around the tree. The head landed in front of me. Its jaw now moved up and down rapidly and a horrifying, high-pitched cackle came out. With all my strength, I raised my knee and smashed my boot into the head, silencing the demonic messenger.

Standing there with probably the dumbest look on my face, I stared at Sela. "Well?"

"Well, what?" she said nervously.

"Are you pregnant?" I asked, walking toward her.

"Not that I know of."

"Why would that…thing…say that?"

"Heckel, think about it. Would you believe anything a skeleton propped up next to a tree said to you?"

"Putting it that way, I guess you have a point," I said with a slight laugh.

We both stood there for a while staring at the bones strewn around the tree. "Creepy," I muttered.

Sela gasped. "The macaroni." She ran, grabbed a shirt and pulled the black pot off the fire. The last of the water was nearly boiled out. She quickly stirred the noodles.

"Whew, that was a close call," she said, opening the cheese packet to stir in.

As I sat down next to her, I couldn't help but reflect on what the skeleton had said. Was it lying or was Sela really pregnant? Maybe she's not telling me because she knows I wouldn't put her in the middle of some epic battle to save humanity if she was with child.

"Hungry?" Sela asked, handing me a big bowl of gooey mac and cheese.

Her smile had a way of bringing me back to reality. "Yes, thank you," I replied, taking the food. "Manna from heaven. It looks great." My stomach did flip-flops. Either it was from being hungry or wondering if I was going to be a father.

"Hmm, maybe it is a gift," she said, taking a big forkful of macaroni.

That night, I didn't sleep. Every sound put me on edge and my imagination reeled with fear. Madeline was getting to me. Was I going to be a father? Gulp.

Chapter 12

Several weeks passed as we traveled through Oklahoma. Our days settled into somewhat of a routine. We rode hard, scavenged for anything useful and enjoyed being with each other. By the time we made the exit sign, thanking us for our stay in Oklahoma, we figured it must be close to December. The warm weather continued to follow us down south. Still, we were glad we had a tent and cozy sleeping bags.

"Welcome to Texas," Sela announced as we rode around the border guardhouse. There were a few burned-out, rusty old cars and trucks in a pile.

"I hope this isn't a bad omen," I said, pointing to the wreckage.

Sela shook her head, made a scrunched up face and raced off down the side of the interstate. At around lunchtime, we found an old farmhouse. Sela tried the well faucet out by the barn and it worked. We watered the horses. There wasn't anything in the barn that was either edible for us or the horses. Jerky found her usual mouse.

Today's lunch consisted of a couple of Slim Jims, a shared bottle of Gatorade and a few jars of baby food, which we can thank Leonard for and his suggestion to look under shelves. As we were packing up the horses, Jerky started hissing. I looked down at the cat curled around my legs. She had her back arched and was spitting. Slowly turning my head to see what she was looking at, I heard Sela gasp.

"Oh shit. Here we go again. It's been so nice not to have a visit from the supernatural world," I muttered. There on top of the barn were about a hundred silky, dead-of-night, ink-black ravens. All with a fixed stare at us. I knew instantly they were not your normal annoying birds. These little demons stood frozen. I shouted at them and threw a stone. They didn't flinch.

"Maybe we should just get going," Sela said softly. "Don't provoke them."

I threw another stone and hit one. Still, they all remained motionless.

"Fine. Go tell Madeline. I'm not afraid of y'all or the demon bitch," I yelled. Still, they just kept glaring at us. Not one of them ruffled a feather. They looked like something you could buy for Halloween. Maybe some farmer put them up there to scare away…whatever.

As we rode off, they just kept vigilant watch. At one point, they simultaneously turned their heads to watch as if choreographed by the wicked witch from the Wizard of Oz. A few seconds later, I turned around to see if they were following and stiffened when I saw there was no sign of them. It was as if they just vanished.

"Well, what do you make of that?" Sela asked as we approached the interstate.

"Madeline's eyes," I mumbled.

"Huh?"

"Madeline's keeping tabs on where we are. Those were her scouts or something like that, I guess."

A few miles down the road, I noticed a highway sign. It listed Denton and McKinney. "Hey," I shouted to Sela.

She slowed down. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing. I just noticed that we aren't too far from McKinney, Texas."

"And?"

"Well, I had a brother-in-law who used to live there. He always said that the winters were pretty mild. He would boast about being in shirtsleeves in January and mowing his lawn. Maybe we can stay there for the next few months or so."

"Sure. I imagine it's as good as any place to hole up. It will be nice to let our butts have a vacation for a while. Let's head for it. We should be there tomorrow."

We rode hard for the rest of the afternoon, perhaps to shake the disturbing feeling from the glowering ravens. That evening we reminisced about more events that brought about the collapse.

"Do you think that Madeline had her hand in some of the natural disasters we experienced that year?" Sela inquired as she laid two big logs on the fire. Jerky lifted her head and yawned.

"Hard to say. I mean…we're pretty sure that she conjured the storm back in Iowa. So, I suppose she helped brew the three major hurricanes that hit the South in September when the collapse was occurring."

"Then there were the earthquakes around the world," Sela said.

"So many people lost," I muttered. "I wonder how much of the world's population was gone by the end of that year?"

We sat in silent reverence for a long while. I put my arm around Sela and she rested her head on my shoulder. After a while, I asked, "How are you feeling?"

"Fine. Why?"

I looked at her with questioning eyes and a slight grin.

"I'm not pregnant, Heckel. I think I would know," Sela said with a hint of annoyance. "And if I were, trust me, you'd be the first to know."

I hugged her.

After a few moments, she asked softly, " Do you wish I were…um…pregnant?"

Gulp. I was stunned. I had no idea how to answer that. Words formed in my head, but they were all mixed up like on that Jumble game. Stammering and spluttering, I finally said, "Well, good question. Hmm…um…yes and no."

She turned and looked me straight in the eyes, as though waiting for my explanation. Her face clearly expressed hurt.

"Sela, I would love to have a family with you, but this isn't exactly the best time. Bringing a baby into the midst of some supernatural, epic battle of good versus evil is not my idea of-"

"I know. It's just that…well, I love you and if I were pregnant, it would be the most beautiful child ever."

My insides did that flip-flop thing again and I hugged Sela harder. "I agree. With your supermodel looks and kick-ass demeanor, our child would be…awesome."

She leaned her head up and kissed me.

"Maybe once this is over, we can have that family," I whispered softly into her ear.

The Welcome to McKinney sign had a good half-dozen bullet holes peppered through it. Please, don't let that be a bad omen. A raven slowly landed on top of the sign. It didn't look like one of Madeline's creepy scouts.

As we rode into McKinney, I noticed several large towers circling the town. I looked to see if anyone was perched in them and couldn't see anything. Sela slowed Tempest to a walk and dropped alongside of me.

"What do you think?"

I shrugged.

A slow rumble made us turn around to look down the road we just traveled. The roar got louder. "It can't be. That sounds like motorcycles," I said. Jerky was draped over my shoulder. She jumped off, hit the ground, turned and hissed.

"It does. But that's impossible. There hasn't been any gas around for a long time," Sela offered as the sound increased in volume.

The sound intensified further and the first sign of a group of motorcycles appeared on the horizon.

"I've got a bad feeling about this. I don't think that it's a bunch of old guys coming back from the Sturgis bike rally," I said as Hope knelt for Jerky to jump up to me.

"No…more like Hells Angels, and I don't mean the California club. I'm thinking real Hells Angels. Let's get going," Sela said as she kicked Tempest to gallop.

The sound was deafening as the motorcycles raced toward us. As we got closer to the edge of town, people popped up in the towers. I could see they were holding an assortment of weapons, including rifles, bow and arrows, shotguns and spears. There were even some older kids with slingshots. One individual had his hand up in the air as if ready to give a signal. We pushed the horses faster past the first tower.

I turned around once to see a few of the lead motorcycles only about fifty yards behind us. Suddenly, I heard a shout and the tower attackers let loose a deadly barrage. The bikers closest to us were thrown from their bikes. Some got up, kicked their bike back into life and continued to chase us.

"Yup, more of Madeline's forces. No doubt about it," I yelled to Sela.

As we entered the main street of town, a group of men came out in front of us.

"Quick, down this alley," one of them said to us, motioning.

The bikers kept getting knocked down, only to get back up. They had that same dull-red glare in their eyes. Right after the last barrage from the towers, I heard a roar from a crowd. Before I took Hope down the alley, I looked out at the edge of town and a small force armed with baseball bats, guns, pitchforks, big shovels-you name it-converged upon the bikers. I almost giggled because it reminded me of that scene in Frankenstein when the villagers assembled to go after the monster.

As we neared the end of the alley, two men took the horse's bridles and led us into a large warehouse. It was dark inside. My heart pounded in my chest. Jerky was on my neck. She licked my ear. Her scratchy tongue for some reason seemed to comfort me and made me feel at ease. Maybe she sensed my fear. I reached up and petted her head.

"Are you all right?" I asked Sela.

"Fine," she said panting. "Just a little shaken up."

"Don't blame you folks. I'd be too." A tall, elderly gentleman emerged from the shadows. "Welcome to McKinney."

"Thanks for the welcoming committee," I said, extending my hand. "And I really mean that."

"We like to be prepared for anything. We saw you coming down the road and we waited to see if you were friend or foe. It was obvious that you were being chased and those bikers didn't look like they were exactly in your escort."

"That's for sure," Sela commented as she dismounted from Tempest. She extended her hand and introduced the two of us.

"And this is Jerky," I said getting down from Hope. The cat purred as the man petted her head.

"Please to meet you folks. My name is Jack, Jack Hawkins. At one time, I was the mayor of the fine town of McKinney. Now it's more like governor, I guess. People wanted me to stay in charge."

"I've been traveling for over a year now. This is the first town I've come to that actually has people in it that aren't…um…either dead or psychotic," I said.

The sounds of Madeline's possessed growling bikers mixed with shouts from the McKinney protectors intensified. Jack had us move farther into the warehouse. He explained that after the initial months of the collapse took a firm root in the country, a small group of people bound together to support each other and learned to survive. "For some reason, we didn't seem to have the maniacal urge to kill each other like what was going on across the rest of the planet. We built up our defenses, a little of which you saw coming into town."

"Impressive," I said, turning my head to hear the roar of a motorcycle approaching. I looked at the door and saw it beginning to slide open. That weird sensation in my stomach began to seethe and twist. I could feel the sense of power building in my arms. Sela glanced over at me and flashed me a look of concern. Jack kept talking and started to walk toward the door. I was about to lift my arm to unleash that unexplainable power inside me when suddenly the commotion outside the warehouse ceased. Seconds later, the loud, unearthly roar of Madeline's badass bikers faded away.

A bloody-faced teenager carrying a large axe slid open the cumbersome wooden warehouse door and yelled, "We got 'em runnin'."

"Good one, Tommy," Jack yelled. "Will you excuse me? I need to go survey the damage and help clean up."

"What can we do to help? You did save our lives," Sela asked.

"Nothing. You just get yourselves settled. There's some water over at the faucet and a bucket. I'm sure your horses would love a drink. I'll be back later."

As he left the warehouse, Sela thanked him again. Turning to me, she asked, "What do you think?"

"I'd like to think that for once we've run into some good luck. However, on the other hand, I don't know. There's a little voice in my head that says don't trust anyone. Then again…maybe that's Madeline's fear creeping out of the crevices of my mind."

"Yeah, I know what you mean. Fear has a way of messing with us, but these people just fought Madeline's evil assholes for us."

"I know that says a lot about them right there. How can you not trust people who put their lives on the line for you?" I said grinning as I took the saddle off Hope. Sela already had a bucket of water filled for Tempest. We had all our gear in a pile. Jerky was prowling the warehouse in full hunting mode.

A young woman, perhaps in her mid-twenties, came walking toward us from the other end of the warehouse. "Welcome. My name is Missy. Are you folks hungry?" Sela glanced at me with a slight grin. Before I could give my standard reply, she put her hand over my mouth and said, "We don't want to impose."

"Not at all. We'd love to have some company and hear some news from outside our little town. Follow me."

I looked around, concerned about our belongings as well as the horses. Missy saw my concern and assured me that everything would be safe. She also mentioned that a friend was bringing some oats and hay for the horses.

"Such hospitality. What a rare thing indeed," I muttered as we followed Missy. Sela put her arm around my waist. I glanced around to see Jerky follow us.

As we left the warehouse and walked out of the alley, I looked out toward the edge of town where the biker battle took place. A large fire, spewing black smoke, filled the sky. I stopped to stare at the scene.

"How many people did you lose?" I asked softly.

"None," Missy said proudly. "We have the best protectors ever. They stopped the evil."

The way Missy said that made me shudder. Sela hugged me tighter.

"For now, maybe, but…"

Before I could finish, my stomach grumbled, giving Sela a chance to change the subject.

"Dinner should be shortly. I'm sure I can find you a snack or something to tide you over. Come on. My house is just over there," Missy said pointing.

Questions filled my head to the point of popping it. I kept glancing back at the burning pyre. What was burning? I hoped it wasn't any of the townsfolk. Must be Madeline's losses. And how did those motorcycles have any fuel? She must have fuel stockpiled somewhere.

"Earth to Heckel," Sela whispered under her breath. "Come back."

"Just deep in thought," I said into her ear.

"Here we are," Missy said pointing to her house. As we approached the front door, Jack came walking up from behind us.

"Everything all right?" I asked.

"Yuppers. Right as rain. Did you get your horses settled?"

"Yes, they were pretty thirsty," Sela said. "And hungry. Thanks for the oats. I'm sure they're happy."

"Great. I'm glad." Jack said holding the front door.

"Your generosity is…um…" I said, stuttering.

"Simply a common courtesy. We are happy to help out," Jack said proudly.

Sela and I, with wide eyes and a big grin, slowly nodded our heads.

"We have pot roast for tonight. How does that sound?" Jack offered as we walked past him.

"Like I've died and gone to heaven," I said.

Sela poked me in the ribs and whispered, "Bad choice of words, dear."

"Well, it's not heaven, but I can honestly say that my wife makes the best darn tasting pot roast this side of Dallas."

A short woman with slightly graying hair set in a long braid came out of the kitchen. A clean, flowery apron was wrapped around her waist. She looked like she could have been on an old 1950s sitcom like Leave It To Beaver. Yeah, June Cleaver! The smell of cooked food followed her out of the kitchen. My salivary glands suddenly burst as if they had been dammed up and the smell of the pot roast broke the levee. My mouth was watering so much that I could hardly talk.

"Hello, you must be Sela and Heckel," the woman said, extending her hand. "I'm Vonnie."

Shaking her hand energetically, I said, "It's a pleasure to meet you, Vonnie."

"You have a very nice home," Sela said, shaking our host's hand.

"Thank you. Are you folks hungry?"

This time it was Sela who eagerly expressed our combined hunger. "Vonnie, the smell of that pot roast is divine. We haven't had a real cooked meal except for an occasional rabbit in a long time."

"Don't forget the mac and cheese we had the other night," I said.

Sela frowned as she remembered the nearly burned dinner because of the talking skeleton. "Like I said, we haven't had a real cooked meal while sitting at a table in a very long time."

"Well, it's almost done. Take a seat in the living room and I'll call when dinner's ready," Vonnie said as she walked back toward the kitchen. "Oh Missy, would you please set the table?"

"My pleasure," Missy said, following her mother into the kitchen.

"Come over here and have a seat. Tell me where you've come from?" Jack asked.

From the kitchen, Vonnie shouted that she didn't want to miss any of our conversation.

"Okay. We'll talk about stuff you already know," Jack yelled back to his wife. He rolled his eyes at us. "As you can tell, we are a little starved for news."

"I'm afraid we don't have much of that to report," Sela said, sending me a glance that was cautious. Changing the subject, Sela asked Jack how many people were in the town.

"I guess there's a couple of hundred. We get new people joining us all the time. The last time we checked, it seems to me we were close to that number."

"Where do they come from?" I asked.

"All over. Some as far away as Canada," Jack said looking over at Missy setting the table.

"What do you do for food? How did you get the meat for this pot roast? Do you grow your own vegetables?" The questions flooded out of my mouth in record pace.

"Whoa, slow down. One at a time," Jack said, holding up his hand and smiling.

"Sorry, it's just that…"

Sela interrupted me and said calmly, "Jack, we are just a little excited to see real people again, good people. We were beginning to think that maybe we were the only sane people left…besides the ev-"

Before Sela could mention our encounters with Madeline, I interrupted her and said, "It's just that we are so happy to see a normal, loving family."

"I know what you mean," Jack said. "I watched many of my friends and family members die."

The awkwardness of the conversation was broken when Vonnie came hurrying into the dining room, carrying a large platter of beef and vegetables.

"Oh my God," I exclaimed jumping up off the couch. "That is…"

"Exquisite," Sela said standing next to me as we stared into the dining room.

"Well, hurry on over here and grab a seat," Vonnie said proudly.

After Jack said the blessing, we all filled our plates and ate in silence for the longest time. I got the feeling that our hosts didn't always eat so well. For Sela and me, it was like a Thanksgiving Day dinner, and I'm not even sure that holiday existed anymore. Before the collapse, the months of November and December were pretty much consumed by Christmas. My grandfather used to tell me that on Thanksgiving when he was growing up, no stores were open at all. It was a real family day. Then Black Friday started to spread. First, the shopping day took over Thursday, Thanksgiving. Soon it was Wednesday, Tuesday and finally it became known as Black week.

"You look deep in thought," Jack said.

"Oh, sorry. I'm just enjoying this meal so much and to actually sit around a table is…" I choked up and couldn't finish. Tears welled up in my eyes.

"Heckel's right. We can't thank you enough," Sela said, patting me on the back.

"You're most welcome," Vonnie said, handing a bowl of mashed potatoes to Jack.

Silence took over once more, helping to suspend the awkwardness. After a few minutes, Missy asked, "How long have you been traveling by horse?"

"Those are Sela's horses. I hooked up with her and those beautiful animals…hmm…I think it was sometime in…um…" I said looking to Sela for help.

"It was in the early fall, I think. I've lost track of the months," Sela said.

"They are beautiful," Missy offered.

"What are you folks planning to do?" Jack asked.

My insides squirmed and I flashed a concerned look at Sela. She smiled at me.

"Not sure. We were just trying to get somewhere for the winter. Heckel said he had a brother-in-law who used to live in McKinney who bragged that it had a mild winter."

"That's true. You are welcome to stay here. There are several empty houses around, and we'll put you to work," Jack said taking another slice of beef.

"Great," Sela and I answered together.

Leaning back in my chair, I rubbed my belly and thanked Vonnie for an outstanding meal.

"Did you save room for pie?" she asked.

My eyes widened and I felt my mouth watering once again. "You're kidding. Pie? You have a pie?"

"Apple. We still have some trees around here and I get a couple of good crops off them."

"Fantastic. Yes, I'd love some," I said eagerly. "Soon, I'll be in a food coma."

Missy and Jack both laughed.

Vonnie asked Missy to clear the table and suggested we all migrate into the living room.

Following us into the room, Jack asked, "So, tell me what you know of Madeline."

My heart felt like it had dropped five stories. The palms on my hands felt sweaty like I was going into an interview for a job.

"Madeline Blackwell," I uttered the repulsive name nervously.

"Yes, that's her name," Jack said as he sat down in a large overstuffed chair.

Sela and I sat close to each other on the sofa. She put her hand on my knee as if to assure me that I could tell them what we knew.

"Well, what do you want to know? I've been aware of her evil and malevolent intentions since I was in junior high."

"Yes, I know what you mean," Vonnie said, walking into the room with three plates of pie. Missy followed her with the other two.

For the next three hours, Sela and I shared our experiences for the past year. Jack and his family also contributed their stories of Madeline's influence.

However, I nudged Sela with my knee when she was about to divulge my supposedly supernatural powers. She got the hint. I was still struggling with the whole prospect of me being somehow a superhero or force or whatever you want to call it to confront Madeline and I didn't think anyone would believe me anyway. The last thing I wanted to be was locked up in a straitjacket somewhere in McKinney, Texas.

Jack looked at his watch and said it was almost midnight. Missy had fallen asleep leaning next to her mother. Sela was fast asleep on my shoulder as well.

Just as Jack stood up, a wolf bayed. Its bloodcurdling sound was especially loud.

"Oh, don't worry. We hear that every night. We have people patrolling the area and they keep our livestock from any harm. The wolves have increased in number along with coyotes. They're all hungry."

"It's not the natural wolves I'm worried about. It's Madeline's demons with glowing red eyes that concern me," I said.

Jack assured us that we'd be fine. I suddenly realized that Jerky had been outside for the longest time and I went to the front door. The cat was curled up in a tight ball on the front porch swing.

"Can she come in?" Sela asked Jack.

"Absolutely," he answered.

I gently reached down and picked Jerky up. The cat purred loudly. "She's our best advanced warning system."

Jack smiled, closed the door and bolted it. "I'll show you to the guest room."

After he left, Sela went into the bathroom and showered. I put Jerky on the bed and waited for my turn. As I walked around the room, a weird creepy feeling welled up inside me. I went to the window. There was a half-moon so there weren't many shadows, but from the edge of a tree line where the shadows morphed into complete darkness, I could see a faint set of red eyes staring at the house.

Chapter 13

Starting with Bloody Super Bowl Sunday, Madeline's power grew exponentially after each tragic event. It wasn't long before chaos and anarchy spread across the globe. The year martial law went into effect in the United States, Madeline Blackwell had assumed power and from that point on there was no stopping the machinations of evil.

Madeline sat on a park bench next to the reflecting pool at the National Mall. Four of her bodyguards remained close behind, all the while scanning the area. A huge grin spread across her face as she thought of the famous quote from John F. Kennedy-"One person can make a difference and every person should try." And Madeline Blackwell did make that difference and without having to try very hard. All she did was give humanity a simple push down a path to destruction.

It wasn't a nuclear bomb.

It wasn't a pandemic.

It wasn't a plague.

It wasn't another world war.

It wasn't even global warming or a new ice age.

It was Madeline…one person who made a difference.

"I bet Mr. Kennedy didn't think that it'd be little ol' me who'd make such a dark difference."

Turning to one of her bodyguards, she said with a lecturing tone, "You know, throughout history, there have been events that have…hmm…shall we say culled the population. I'd say humanity is doing a splendid job of helping out the planet by reducing some of the riffraff. It warms my heart to know that the survivors are eager to try something new. And I will give it to them."

She looked over at the bodyguard whom she was having a one-sided conversation with and saw that all four men were gone. She jumped up scanning the field behind her. No one was in sight.

"Yes, you will give them something new," someone behind her said.

Madeline sighed heavily, recognizing the voice. She turned around and extended her hand. "Hello, Mr. Barker. Nice to see you."

Barker ignored the salutation and sat down on the park bench. "You've done a remarkable job bringing our plan to this point. The events that you have orchestrated have demonstrated some astounding numbers. I am very impressed."

"Thank you, Mr. Barker. It is going very well."

After several minutes of silence, Barker leaned closer to Madeline, making her more uncomfortable. "I take it you discovered a bit of a problem emerging."

Madeline wrinkled her brow, trying to portray a questioning facade. "Not sure what you mean."

Barker stood up slowly from the park bench and began to pace in front of Madeline. "Casey…Heckel Casey. I know you are aware of him and you've been tracking him. That's good. It has come to our attention that he could be the…" Barker stopped and tapped his mouth as if he were hoping the right expression could be coaxed out.

"The proverbial fly in the ointment," Madeline said proudly.

"Yes, that's very good, Ms. Blackwell. I like that. At any rate, your attempts to eliminate him need to be ramped up, and that is precisely why I am here." He continued his pacing in silence. With each pass in front of Madeline, she became more visibly irritated.

"The dogs I sent were almost successful. They took out that stupid friend of his. Then that little thunderstorm I brewed almost did in his new little sweetie," she said with a cocky tone.

Barker clapped his hands in anger producing an earsplitting crack of thunder. "Almost! Almost is never good enough. It cannot be a part of your vocabulary. It means failure. Do I make myself clear?" he said standing directly in front of Madeline.

Taken aback by his sudden, vicious change, she didn't respond.

Barker grabbed the side of her head and squeezed. A dim blue luminescence glowed from around his hands. Madeline went completely limp. Her eyes rolled up into their sockets.

When she awoke, it was dark. Her four bodyguards were behind her.

"Son of a bitch," she mumbled, rubbing her temples. "I feel like shit."

"Can we get you anything, Ms. Blackwell?" one of the bodyguards asked.

Madeline didn't respond. She got up and walked to the black stretch limo parked on the street.

The next morning as Madeline lay in bed visualizing her encounter with Barker, she wondered what he meant by ramping up her efforts. And what the hell did he do to my head! Suddenly, her thoughts focused, sharpened as if they were displayed on a gigantic HD flat-screen TV in her head. "More power," she muttered slowly. She knew what Barker had given her. Special tools! Tools to kill. A sneer of disgust and hatred inched its way across her face. "Heckel," she intoned slowly.

The covers flew off the bed. She got up and walked to the window, all the while feeling her new talents coalesce. Dark clouds flashed across the sky. She placed her head against the window, fixating on the storm brewing.

Humming a singsong, childlike melody, Madeline played with the curtain, slowly twisting it as if she were wringing out a wet towel. "Heckel, Heckel…come out and play with me. I've got some new toys to show you."

The demonic little tune she hummed grew louder and louder.

Chapter 14

The day after arriving in McKinney, Jack took Sela and me to a house he thought we'd like. He kidded with us saying the owners were eager to sell and that the down payment was very affordable. I asked what the interest rates were like, and he thought we'd have no trouble getting a loan. Banks were practically giving houses away. It was a few blocks away from his. There was even a barn out back for the horses. It didn't take us long to say yes, especially when Sela heard the word barn. Missy and Sela got the horses secured in the barn. Jack turned the water on and made sure we had some hurricane lamps with a supply of oil.

At one point when Jack and I were alone in the house, standing in the kitchen, he stood in front of me and asked, "Heckel, do you believe in…um…the supernatural?"

Biting my lip nervously, I looked down and mumbled, "Excuse me?"

"Things we can't exactly explain by science. You know…the supernatural, like those bikers who were after you."

Funny how the subject of those possessed bikers never came up last night at dinner. I know Sela and I didn't want to bring it up.

"Ah, those bikers," I mumbled as I walked into the living room. "Yes, given everything that's happened, I do believe there is something going on that is more supernatural than natural. Why are you asking?"

Jack put his hand on my shoulder, turned me around and whispered, "Are you sent here to lead us?"

Whoa! I took a step back. His question hit me hard, reminding me of the time in geometry class when the teacher asked me to name all the theorems for something or other. My palms got sweaty and my heart beat faster.

"Um…not sure what you are talking about, Jack," I said haltingly.

"It's become pretty evident that something weird is going on. I mean besides the bikers, we've had other bizarre incidents, such as horrible violent storms, packs of wolves, and…a…" Jack's voice became faster and more agitated as he listed all of Madeline's attacks. He presented his case as if he were the most experienced lawyer Texas ever saw.

After a while, I found a chair to sit down in as Jack paced around the room presenting his theories.

At one point, he stopped in front of me and asked, "What the hell does she have against little old McKinney, Texas? I mean…for Chrissake there are numerous other little cities around, why is she attacking us? Why are we of any importance?"

The answer hit me like a test-car dummy hitting a wall. Attack the town, attack me. She knew I was coming here and that these people would help me.

When he was done, I said, "Listen, I know what you are talking about. We have experienced many of the same attacks from Madeline. She must be out to exterminate mankind or something. She's done a pretty good job of it so far, I'd say." Now there was a brilliant deduction! I felt like an idiot.

"That's why we have to stop her and maybe you were sent to lead the charge," Jack said putting his hand on my shoulder.

I was about to jump up and ask why he thought I was 'the Chosen One,' words that seemed so cliche and Hollywood, when Sela, standing in the doorway to the living room calmly said, "Heckel, he's right, you know. Tell him."

Caught. Sela was absolutely right. I paused and guardedly asked, "Tell him what?"

"Heckel, you know what I mean. Tell him what you have done. The power that you control," she said sternly walking up to me. "We can trust these people. I know it."

I paced the room in silence for the longest time. Finally, I stood in front of the large picture window and narrated all the ways I, more or less, attacked Madeline back. After each account, Sela would elaborate and give her take on what I did. It felt like I was again in a courtroom with my defense lawyer bolstering my deposition. I don't know why it felt like I was in a courtroom; I'd never had to hire a lawyer or anything. It must have been from watching too many law shows on TV.

When I was done spilling my guts, I asked, "Now what?" as I threw my hands up in the air, pleading for an answer.

No one said a word. I didn't realize it, but at some point Missy had joined our little group. She was the one who finally said, "You take one day at a time, and you'll figure it out. We'll help you."

I smiled at her, feeling as if the weight of the world were strapped to my shoulders. Right, easier said than done. Figure it out? Figure what out? I felt completely useless and afraid. Now other people were getting sucked into this…battle or war or whatever you want to call it.

Jack sensed I was upset and said, "Heckel, if it's any consolation, I'm behind you and I think this entire town will be at your side."

Great, more pressure. Sela flashed me a warm, comforting smile. I sat down next to her, and Jerky, my personal bodyguard, came strolling into the room, jumped in my lap and began purring.

Vonnie walked in and said, "How's it going?"

I burst out laughing, followed by the others. "Oh, just fine," I said.

"What'd I miss?" Vonnie asked.

"I'll fill you in later, honey," Jack said, standing up. "How about some lunch?"

With all in agreement, we went over to Jack's house. The conversation at lunch gravitated toward more mundane topics as well as funny stories. Thoughts of Madeline kept pushing into my head.

After lunch, Sela and I moved all our meager belongings over to the new house. She let the horses out into an adjacent field. I lay down and fell asleep.

Over the last year or so, all my dreams seemed to center around Oregon. In the past, I would have dreams where I was on the coast, enjoying the ocean views, while other times I was in the mountains. None of those dreams ever had any bad things going on. In those dreams, I was always alone and not feeling threatened in any way. However, the dreams I had during this nap were much more focused. I stood on a large field, surrounded by trees. At first, I was alone. One by one, people materialized behind me, carrying a myriad of weapons-pitchforks, swords, clubs, guns and spears. The power, which I had felt seethe inside me during that storm or when the Madeline avatars appeared, burst forth like a floodgate opening. A bright blue ball flew from my chest; two other ones shot out of my hands.

I yelled and sat up. My arms flew up into the air, flailing like one of those wacky tall inflatable arm-waving tube men at car dealerships.

"It's okay," Sela said, putting her arm around me. "You just had a bad dream."

I was panting so hard from yelling.

She hugged me tighter. "What was it about?"

"Oregon. We have to go to Oregon."

Over the next several weeks, Sela and I both found ways to help out working around the town. The town leaders had done a remarkable job with the whole business of food, such as storing, preserving and allocating. I was really impressed how everyone contributed in some way or another. I had always been pretty good working with wood, so I joined a group of carpenters who currently had a project building wagons. Sela enjoyed working with the assortment of animals, including goats, chickens and cattle. She assisted a couple of the town's veterinarians as well.

One afternoon walking home, Sela asked, "When do you think we can start heading out to Oregon?"

"Hmm…I'd say maybe in a few months-as soon as spring starts to show itself."

"Do you think they'll come?" she asked.

"Who? Jack and his family?"

"No, I mean the whole town."

I stopped, looked at her and laughed. "What? You're kidding right? Why would they do that?"

"No," she said punching my arm. "I'm serious. I think the whole town will follow you."

"Sela, that's nuts. Why would they?"

"Because they believe in you," she said, turning and walking.

I froze. My stomach got those pesky butterflies again. They kept finding their way inside. Obviously, by now there must have been numerous road signs or Google maps to my belly. I'm still not ready for this, I thought.

As if she could read my mind, Sela said, "You will be."

Great. Now I have a mind reader on my team. Hell, I didn't even know I had a team.

We walked up the front porch stairs and Jerky met us at the top step.

"Hello, Jerky. How's my trusted alarm system?"

The cat rubbed its head on my leg and purred.

"Looks like all is secure and no bad guys coming." The minute I said those words, I got a chilling sensation and a terrible taste in my mouth. I looked to the east, down the road we came in on, and stared intently.

"Everything all right?" Sela asked.

I didn't say anything.

The next three months progressed without any incidents. We continued to make great friends. Besides all the hard work, the town knew how to have a good social gathering. We'd have barn dances, bingo and potlucks. It was during a warm early spring evening that the evil returned.

It was a little before six o'clock. Sela and I were helping out at the barbecue, passing out potato salad. Everyone was in great spirits, most likely because of the return of warmer weather. A bluegrass band was playing a rollicking tune when one of the scouts came running into the field. Gunshots immediately erupted.

"Everyone get inside quickly," someone shouted.

Sela and I ran up to the teenager who came running into the field.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

"Snakes. Thousands of rattlesnakes are coming up from holes out at the edge of town. They're coming this way!" After reporting his gruesome news, he ran off. More shots disrupted the festivities.

I stood looking out at the direction of the evil approaching. I had that funny taste in my mouth. Sela stood next to me and gently took my hand. She didn't say anything.

That funny feeling within me began to grow. It wasn't the butterflies; it was the power. I let go of Sela's hand and said, "Go back to the house."

"Not a chance," she said. "I'm staying with you."

"You need to take care of Jerky. We can't lose her."

Sela didn't move and flashed me a determined look.

"Please. I don't want to lose either of you. I'll be fine. I can take care of this," I said holding her hand.

She kissed me tenderly and said, "Okay. I know you can."

I hugged her tightly.

As she ran off toward the house, she turned one last time, flashed a big smile and hollered, "Send them all back to hell!"

That smile seemed to fuel the power inside me and I marched defiantly toward Madeline's latest assault.

When I got to the field, I was stunned by the magnitude of snakes. The scout who announced the attack didn't quite have the numbers correct. It was more like millions of snakes and there weren't just rattlesnakes. There were cobras, black mambas, vipers, coral snakes and some I didn't even recognize. Where in the hell were they coming from? There aren't any cobras in Texas. Then I saw something that really made the hairs on the back of my neck stand erect. I even shook my head, thinking I wasn't focusing right, that maybe my eyes had something in them. Nope, they were fine.

"What the fu-" There, off in the distance, as if they were in a Special Forces squad, were snakes with two heads. Now you don't see that every day!

"Here, you might need this," a man said, running up to me and handing me a large broad axe.

I must have looked like I was in shock or something. He practically pushed the axe into my chest. "We have no time to waste," he said. "The snakes are getting closer. We've gotten some of them, but our ammunition is almost gone. It's hand-to-snake combat now. Come on let's go."

I ran alongside of him. I looked to my left and then right. There must have been a good hundred men lined up in a row, each one carrying a weapon. As I ran, I thought of all the movies I had seen where the two opposing armies had lined up on a side of a field and then on a command charged at each other. Sometimes the armies had swords or spears and would clash, hacking away. It was always the same. As time progressed, the armies evolved from swords to guns that fired one shot, like in our Civil War. Over the years, the weapons progressed, but in the end it was a clash of armies on the field…still hacking away at each other.

As I ran faster and felt my adrenaline rising, there was also that power expanding throughout my body. My hands felt warm and tingly. I looked down at them and could see a tinge of blue.

The sound of the snakes was deafening. The hissing made my skin crawl. Oh, great…now what? Suddenly, I remembered how much I hate snakes. Usually, they petrify me. I mean literally petrify me. I've been known to freeze up when I've encountered snakes in the past when hiking or visiting the zoo. Funny, I'm not afraid now, I thought.

The first men in front of me attacked the snakes viciously, hacking with all their might. Then the screaming started. Our men were getting slaughtered. A few of the men in the front ranks became entangled with snakes covering their bodies. Besides just biting the men, the snakes, with their long incisors, were actually taking out large chunks of flesh from the men. This was not your normal snake behavior. I don't care what species of snake we're talking about. Without thinking or doing anything for that matter, the blue flame welled up into a ball in my hands. I stared in fascination at the swirling conflagration on my palms. A snake slithered up to my feet. A man standing next to me slammed his huge machete knife onto the snake's head, spewing blood up my pant leg.

"Throw it," he yelled.

"Oh, yeah," I said, flinging the searing balls at the snakes. "Duh." No one said I was the brightest bulb on the planet. Then again, one doesn't have blue flames sprouting at their hands ready to command.

The first wave of snakes in front of me erupted into flames. The men around stopped and stared at me. All the snakes turned and slithered directly toward me. The ground appeared black with the squirming snakes. Large balls of blue fire kept appearing on my palms. I flung them at the attacking serpents. None of the snakes attacked the men around me. They had a singular purpose-to get to me. The men inched closer and stood in a protective stance on both sides of me, attacking any snakes that got close.

A large black plume of smoke was curling skyward as more and more of the snakes burned. The power from deep inside me never felt like it was showing signs of quitting. I, on the other hand, was getting exhausted.

"Are you all right?" someone near me asked.

"Fine…just enjoying the barbecue here," I replied, throwing two large orbs of fire at a group of snakes. Immediately, two balls flared up again in my hands.

The men around me cheered as the fireballs smashed into the snakes.

After what seemed a good hour, the snakes stopped coming up from the three large holes in the ground. The men around me cheered and then knelt down facing me.

"No, no, no…no kneeling. Please, stand up," I said, embarrassed.

The men said nothing. They just stared at me.

"Really, please stand up. You guys were awesome," I said.

"You saved us, Heckel," said one older man holding a baseball bat.

In unison, the men cheered again and waved whatever weapon they had in their hands high in the air. I walked over toward the three dark, ominous holes. The power inside me grew as if it knew what needed to be done. Two large blue balls appeared once again on my palms. I pitched them both at the center hole. The ground exploded. After the dust settled, the hole was totally sealed up as if a wound had been cauterized. The other two holes received the same treatment.

"Take that, Madeline," I yelled, wondering if she heard me.

Several men were already picking up our fallen soldiers. "How many did we lose?" I asked.

"Looks like around twenty-five or so."

"We need to have a funeral service immediately," I said.

"Absolutely. We'll have the graves dug within the next few hours."

Just as we were finishing up talking about the funeral arrangements and other unpleasant matters, like who would be the bearer of bad news to relatives, I looked around and saw the rest of the entire town walking out to our battlefield. I couldn't find Sela and my insides got that nervous butterfly feeling.

I ran toward our house. As I approached, I saw Sela sitting on the front porch in tears. She jumped up and ran to me.

"Heckel, I'm so sorry," she said hugging my neck to the point where I almost choked.

"What's wrong?"

"I can't find Jerky. When I got here, there were already snakes around the house. I yelled for Jerky, but nothing. I managed to find a path around the snakes, get in the house and find my guns. I killed most of the snakes around the house and luckily no others came. But I still haven't found Jerky."

Before I could even open my mouth to yell for the cat, I spotted her up on the porch roof. She meowed loudly, jumped and ran toward me. A few feet away from me, she lunged into the air as if her tail had been a spring. I grabbed her as she landed on my chest. Her sandpaper-like tongue licked my cheek feverishly until I thought she had ground a hole in it.

Sela started crying harder as she petted Jerky. "Where the hell were you? You scared the shit out of me."

Jerky turned her head and started to lick Sela's nose, making her laugh.

"Thanks for saving her life," I said, caressing Sela's cheek.

"I was beside myself."

"Regardless, you saved her."

Sela hugged me and asked how the battle went.

"Can we go in and sit down? I feel exhausted and a bit queasy." I felt wobbly and Sela put her arm around my waist, helping me inside. The minute I sat down on the couch I fell asleep.

A few hours later, there was a soft knock on the front door. I heard Sela telling whomever it was that I was asleep. I got up and walked to the door. "I'm awake. Anything wrong?" I asked.

Jack was at the door and said that the funeral for the men was starting in about fifteen minutes.

"We'll be there," I said.

"Would you mind saying a few words?" Jack asked.

"Umm…I'm not very good with words," I said haltingly.

Before I could say another thing, Sela said that I most definitely would. I gave her a wide-eyed look, complete with pursed lips.

After Jack left, we hurried cleaning ourselves up, changing into fresh shirts and pants that weren't covered in snake blood. "I don't know what to say to these people who lost their loved ones. I'll stumble all over myself," I said, fidgeting with buttoning my shirt.

"Look Heckel, these men sacrificed themselves for you," Sela said.

"Me? I don't think so," I said defensively, flashing her a sarcastic look.

"Think what you want, but these men paid a great price. I know you will do great. You just need more confidence in yourself."

She hit a nerve, actually several nerves, and I stopped bellyaching and began thinking of what I would say. The graveyard was packed and people were elbow to elbow next to the deep holes waiting for their new residents. Jack motioned for Sela and me to join him near a few of the open graves. Fortunately, the bodies were already wrapped and placed in the graves.

An elderly woman started singing a hymn. I didn't recognize it, but there were a lot of people who joined in. After a few minutes, I was at least able to join in on the chorus.

Jack led the service. He read from different scriptures, said a prayer and then asked people to come forward to speak. After about a half hour, he motioned for me to come forward. "Heckel will now say a few words."

My mouth suddenly felt like Death Valley. Okay, not the best choice of words to float into my head. As I walked over to the edge of a grave, I could feel that unexplainable power well up inside of me. Nervously, I looked around expecting to see some evil manifestation on the edge of the gathering. Nothing. No blue flames erupted from the center of my hands. Instead, I felt an inner strength and confidence.

The speech I gave came from the heart. It was laced with humor and hope. When I was done, the smile from Sela's face looked like it was going to split her head wide open. Discreetly, she flashed a thumbs-up. As I went back to stand beside her, she put her arm around me and hugged tightly.

As soon as Jack finished the service, someone yelled, "Heckel, what next?"

Some two hundred plus pairs of eyes stared at me. The silence was overwhelming. Mother Nature even quieted the birds, crickets and the wind as if waiting to hear what I had to say. Now I was really nervous and started to almost hyperventilate. Sela even gave me a questioning look, but it quickly transformed into something more encouraging.

"Well, um…I…ah…um…I'm not sure what…"

"We're going to Oregon," Sela yelled. Now all two hundred pairs of eyes flashed at her.

"What's in Oregon?" someone yelled.

Before I could open my mouth and utter something ridiculous, someone yelled, "We're going with you." The crowd began murmuring. I grinned because it reminded me of watching movies and hearing the murmur from a crowd. I often wondered what they were actually murmuring. A college theater friend told me once what she was told to murmur and I think it had to do with rutabagas and some other vegetable.

Jack took a few steps in front of me. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, "Heckel, it's obvious you have the power, the…ah…ability to end Madeline's reign of anarchy and destruction."

I cocked my head and gave him a disbelieving look.

"Hellooo," Sela said sarcastically. "Do you see any other people with balls of searing blue heat erupting from their hands and barbecuing snakes for dinner?"

"No," I said, drawing out the word. Several people around us sniggered.

"What's in Oregon?" someone yelled again.

Before Sela could interject, I yelled, "I'm not sure, but I think it's where we engage Madeline."

"And take the fucking bitch down!" someone way in the back yelled. Now that fueled the crowd.

After Jack got the crowd to quiet down and silenced returned, I took a moment to collect my thoughts before speaking. And bam, everything that had happened to me-Leonard, Jerky, Sela and now the town of McKinney-flashed before my mind's eye. It was like watching a movie in 3D and everything came into clear focus. Whether it was the power inside me or Sela's optimism or the spirit of the people standing in front of me, I knew I could lead us to conquer the evil that spread across our planet.

Chapter 15

After much discussion at the graveyard and given the recent assault from Madeline, it was determined that we would pack up and leave as soon as possible. The crowd broke up and almost everyone wanted to come pat me on the back and offer words of encouragement. My cheeks hurt from smiling.

I stood there watching everyone leave. People were engaged in animated conversations. I thought everyone would be depressed and sad with their heads hanging down. Instead, they were pumped and ready for a fight.

Sela slid her arm around my waist and said, "You were fantastic. You took charge so easily. I'm so proud of you!" She leaned down, tilted my chin back and kissed me.

After the long, deep kiss, I came up for air and said, "Wow, thanks. I'll have to engage in public speaking more often."

We walked back to the house, arm in arm, discussing the day's events. As we approached the quaint farmhouse that more and more felt like our own home, I spotted Jerky, curled up on the front porch swing.

She lifted her head and yawned wide.

"I agree," I said, stretching my arms.

"How about a nice hot bath?" Sela asked, walking through the front door.

"Only if you join me," I said with a devilish glint in my eye.

Sela winked at me and said, "You light the candles. I'll bring the hot water."

McKinney, Texas, was a virtual beehive of activity. Everywhere you looked, people were either putting the last-minute repairs to wagons or packing them with their belongings.

"Now I see why we were making wagons months ago. I didn't even think anything of it at the time," I said to Sela as she packed a small wagon that we found in the barn.

"You see…there has been some divine intervention helping us. Did you see the wagon Jack made?" she asked.

"No. What's it look like?"

"Very cool. He took the back of an old Ford pickup and rigged it to hitch up to his horses."

"Hey, good old American ingenuity," I said. "Do you know we are traveling down the old Route 66?"

"What's that?" Sela asked as she finished tying down our cart with an old tarp she found in the barn.

"A piece of Americana. Route 66 is the old highway that people used to go from Chicago to Los Angeles. There also was an old TV show with two guys in a Corvette that were traveling it, meeting interesting people who usually had some sort of conflict. A friend of mine had some of the episodes on the old Blu-ray DVD format. It was one of my grandfather's favorite shows when he was a kid. Anyway, it's a good route to get to California."

"Wonder if we'll meet any more people?" Sela asked.

"Fine with me. Just so long as they don't have horns sprouting out of their heads or flaming-red eyes."

"Well, we lucked out with the McKinney folks. I'm sure there are more along the way that will join the ranks," she said confidently.

We left the barn with the wagon ready to roll. I asked Sela which horse would pull the wagon. She thought that Tempest would be best suited for the job.

As the afternoon wore on, everyone finished packing. Spirits continued to be high. Jack called a meeting for the evening at the local high school gym. He wanted to make sure everyone was ready and understood how to proceed as well as give a good pep talk, kind of like a spirit rally that one had in high school. First, I pictured him in a cheerleading outfit with pom-poms and then the visualization morphed to him as Ward Bond on the old TV show Wagon Train, talking to the pioneers setting up to go West. Maybe I was his Rowdy Yates?Wait a minute; Yates was on Rawhide, I think. Okay, that's all right. I'd rather think of myself as a young Clint Eastwood anyway. Besides it's my visualization and I can have it be what I want.

Sela and I got to the gym a little late. It was packed. When we walked in, the entire room got silent. I smiled and waved. The crowd resumed their conversations. "Nothing like a little stress," I muttered to Sela. She winked at me.

Jack had found an old bullhorn with some functioning batteries. He asked the crowd to settle down.

"I think it fitting that Reverend Marshall lead us in a short prayer. Reverend?"

The prayer was a good one, optimistic, not too preachy. It was heartfelt and just right.

"Well folks, tomorrow we head out to Oregon," Jack bellowed. A cheer erupted from everyone as if their home team just made a big score. I half expected the scoreboard to flash numbers.

For the next twenty minutes, Jack explained how people were to join the wagon train beginning at 7:00 a.m. He went on to talk about the procedure for rest stops whenever there was a water source, when they would make camp for the night and other important points. He asked people to hold any questions until he was finished.

The meeting lasted for almost two hours. Right after Jack answered his last question, he turned to me and asked, "Would you like to say a few words, Heckel?"

A large lump in my throat suddenly emerged and my tongue quickly felt like it had turned into…well, felt. You know the type of thick felt that one finds on the hammer of a piano.

Inspiration struck and I took the bullhorn. I beamed and said, "Recently, I've been thinking of a few old-time TV shows. One was Route 66."

The room buzzed with excitement as many of the older folks remembered the show and shared their memories. Some of those people remembered watching the show on the oldies TV program called TV Land.

"The other show that comes to mind is Wagon Train." More buzz and enthusiastic murmuring.

"So, with that in mind, I have one thing to say."

The room suddenly got silent. People were sitting on the edge of their seats for what I was to say next.

With my best Ward Bond imitation, I lifted the bullhorn and said, "Wagons ho!"

The crowd stood on their feet, cheered and laughed.

Sela leaned into me and said, "What a great way to end the night with humor." She patted me on the back.

When we woke the next morning at around five thirty, I sensed something didn't feel right. I opened the front door and immediately knew. Clouds were building in the east. I could smell rain coming. So much for a pleasant warm spring morning to start our journey.

"Damn, not the best way to start a trip," I mumbled as Sela came up behind me and wrapped her arms around my waist. She kissed my neck tenderly, making me shiver.

"Probably Madeline's doing…just her way of annoying us, I suppose," she said.

I nodded my head. "Well…a little rain won't dampen our spirits," I said confidently. "We are pumped and ready to go."

A little before seven, Jack stopped in front of our house to have us join the head of the line. Sela had just finished strapping our little wagon to Tempest and rode her to the front yard. Jerky was already perched on my shoulder, settled in to continue her morning sleep regimen.

As I turned to smile at Sela, the rain started. First, it was a gentle drizzle, but it wasn't long before it turned into a steady downpour. I looked up at the sky. Was this Madeline's doing or plain old Mother Nature's spring-cleaning?

"Okay God, here we go," I muttered. "Oh, and a little help with the sun coming out would be great, if it's not too much to ask."

Sela heard me. She had the most incredible hearing, I swear. "It will."

Jack turned to look at the long line of people out in the street. He smiled at me and shouted, "Wagons ho!"

Everyone within earshot laughed. It was a good start in spite of the cold rain. No one's spirits were dampened in the least.

Around ten thirty in the morning the rain stopped and the sun started to come out. A cheer erupted from everyone. Jack stopped us all at a nearby stream, taking the opportunity to water the horses.

Sela looked up and let the sun hit her face. "Looks like God listened," she whispered in my ear.

"Let's hope He continues to listen. We need all the help we can get," I said softly. "And then some."

Later that afternoon, the first person got sick. No one thought much of it at the time. The doctor who examined the young woman indicated that it was most likely the flu. She had all the usual symptoms.

By the time we made Abilene, a third of the group was sick and the weird thing about it was that only the women got sick. Jack decided that we would rest up for a while in Abilene and try to get people well again. The first task we undertook was to set up a makeshift hospital using several large tarps.

"Do you think it's Madeline's handiwork?" Jack asked me quietly as I visited some of the sick women.

"I'm beginning to think so. It's not normal for just the women to get sick. The way I see it, Madeline is trying to hit us where we are the most vulnerable, trying to hurt us emotionally. Have the doctors figured anything out yet?" I asked.

"No. They still think it's a strain of flu," Jack offered.

"Well, at least no one has died from it." That statement didn't hold up for very long. The first young woman who got sick passed away later that afternoon. Now people were getting panicky. As the sun was setting, I took a long walk away from the camp to think things over. Okay, yes, I thought a little praying was in order. I still didn't do very well in that department, but thought I'd better try harder.

There were no burning bushes or other spiritual connections. I did have a couple of roadrunners visit me. When I got back to camp, Jack met me. He had a grim look on his face. "What's wrong?" I asked.

"It's Sela," he mumbled.

I knew immediately what was wrong. Jack took me to the hospital where Sela was lying on the ground. Her face was covered in sweat and she was shaking. I glanced around the hospital and saw other women in various stages of the disease. One woman had large red oozing sores on her face. Another woman was losing chunks of her hair. Some women had gushing nosebleeds. The minute Sela saw me, she tried to sit up.

"No you don't," I commanded. "You stay right where you are." I knelt down next to her and redid her covers. "How are you feeling?"

"I've been better," she said with a scratchy voice. "How was your walk?"

"The conversation was one sided and now I'm a bit pissed," I said, my voice tinged with anger.

Sela coughed violently and spit up a large glob of green phlegm. I went over to a basin and wet a towel to put on her forehead.

"It'll get better," Sela said softly. "Remember, it's all about faith and hope."

"At the moment, all I want is for you to get better. I'll deal with the other stuff later."

"No," she said sternly. "You can't turn those things on and off."

"I know, but-"

"There is no…but…Heckel. You have to…" she said getting more agitated. Her coughing resumed with a vengeance and chills racked her body.

Jack whispered in my ear, "She should get some rest."

I felt horrible that I had upset her. I wiped her forehead and put my hand on her chest. Her coughing stopped immediately.

"See," she said. "The power is in you. Rely on your faith to help us."

I nodded my head slowly and smiled at her. I bent down, kissed her on the cheek and said, "I will."

Sela fell into a fitful asleep. I stayed at the hospital and kept vigil over her. When I woke, I looked over at Sela. She was sitting up and the color had returned to her face. She was eating a bowl of oatmeal.

"Good morning," she said cheerily.

I jumped off the ground and stood in front of her with my mouth open.

"Close your mouth or a fly will find its way in. You should have some oatmeal. It's really good."

I closed my mouth and stood frozen in front of her.

"Other women are improving as well. Looks like your one-sided talk paid off."

I still couldn't say anything.

"Maybe a word of thanks would be in order," she suggested, taking another large spoonful of the warm oatmeal.

I nodded my head up and down quickly and then bent down and kissed Sela on the head.

I took that same walk away from camp. More roadrunners ran across my path. When I got to a small hill, I hiked up it and turned to look down at the camp. Smiling and feeling a bit humbled, I softly said, "Thank You."

A few days later, the wagon train mounted up and resumed the trek down I-40. Most of the women were back to feeling normal. It was very depressing that we lost one of our soldiers to Madeline's evil. The funeral for her was touching. Again, I thought people would despair, but instead it only confirmed our resolve to stop Madeline.

The next couple of weeks went well. There were no further attacks from Madeline. When we made the border of Texas and New Mexico, we had a small celebration and settled in for a week of rest, repairs and recreation.

Sela and I always camped near Jack and his family. That night after dinner, Jack made a large campfire. The warmth from the fire took the chill out of the air. It was a clear evening and the stars filled the sky. After a while, Missy, Vonnie and Sela fell asleep. Jack reached into his jacket and pulled out a small flask.

"Care for a little nip?" he asked, holding out the flask. "It's Pendleton. I only have a few bottles left. It's nice to have a little adult beverage once and a while…and with all the 'whiles' we've gone through lately, I'd say we deserve it."

Beaming from ear to ear, I took the flask, took a sip and smacked my lips. "Excellent. Thank you."

We discussed the finer points of various adult beverages for a while until our conversation turned back to Madeline. It seemed that Madeline always had a way of creeping into one's thoughts and discussions.

"Do you remember when we had that horrible small pox epidemic?"

"Yes. Yes, I do. I think it was close to ten years ago or so. I was in college, I think. I'm sure it was Madeline's handiwork again. There were a lot of people who died during that time," I said, sticking another log on the fire.

"I lost some relatives to that horrible epidemic. I was always under the impression that small pox had been eradicated," Jack said, taking a sip from his flask.

"Well, it was supposed to have been eradicated. The World Health Organization officially declared the disease…dead and buried…so to speak in…um…I think it was 1979. Hey, I'm sure it was a simple task for Madeline to bring it back to life. Bad puns intended," I said, taking another hit from Jack's Pendleton.

"Thank God things got turned around and the disease got put down again," Jack said.

"Yup, that nasty thing could have been the end right there."

After recounting stories of the epidemic for a while longer, Jack asked, "So, if all our women got sick from Madeline, how come more didn't die? I mean, she could have given them the Ebola virus or something even more devastating."

"Madeline likes playing the game. She's messing with us. Maybe she's hoping we'll all just give up. That would make it easier for her, I guess."

Suddenly, a burst of flame erupted high into the air. A fiery apparition of Madeline stood in the center of our fire pit hovering over the burning logs.

We all jumped up and away from the fire ring. Sela stood next to my side and gripped my hand.

"Yes, that's exactly what I'm hoping for," the burning apparition bellowed.

"Hello, Madeline. The flaming red is a nice touch to your color. However, I don't really see you as a redhead."

The fiery figure laughed heartily, the sound mixing with the crackling of the fire. The heat increased, causing us all to take a few steps backward. Several people came running up behind us. Madeline rose higher in the air, hoping to cause more fear, I'm sure. Flames danced in a playful fashion, weaving in and out of her long, windswept hair. She lifted one hand and played with a ball of fire.

"Hope we weren't too hard on your little squirmy serpent friends," I said with my best sarcastic tone. "They made for a good barbecue."

"Snakes. I tell you…you just can't depend on them. Well, at least it kept you entertained for a while," the apparition commented, playing with her hair.

"What do you want?" I asked defiantly.

Laughing again, all she did for the longest time was glower at me.

"Well?" I said.

"Disband and I might spare your lives. Stop this futile, silly journey." The heat from the fire intensified further.

"Are you getting nervous perhaps?" I asked in a taunting tone.

Madeline tossed the small ball of fire at my feet. I stood my ground, knowing that she couldn't harm me. At least, I was counting on that power inside of me to put up a barrier or something.

"Now that's no way to have a civilized conversation, but then again who ever said you were civilized."

More laughter bellowed from Madeline that slowly modulated into a low, guttural sound. "I destroyed civilization and I will destroy you. You puny man…you can't stop me."

The power inside me began to make its appearance. A calm spread throughout my body. "I can and I will," I said, taking a step forward. Sela let go of my hand and stood to one side. My fists clenched tightly.

Madeline emitted a piercing screech and flung a large sphere of flame at Sela.

I immediately stood in front of her. The fire went out inches from my chest.

Madeline's blazing specter flew up into the night sky. Our campfire instantly went out as if a wet blanket had been thrown on top of it. The dark enveloped us. Everyone stood in silence for the longest time. Finally, I turned to whisper to Sela, "Could you see my knees shaking?"

"A rock. You looked like a rock."

Jack inched his way over to me, nudged my arm and held out his flask. "Here, you might need this."

After taking a long swallow, I returned the flask. "Thanks. How many bottles did you say you had left?"

That night, I wondered if anyone slept very well.

For some reason, I felt a sense of relief when we left Texas. However, on the other hand, what the hell did New Mexico have in store for us? I could only imagine.

It took us about a week or so to travel through the eastern part of New Mexico. Thankfully, it was uneventful and everyone was in good spirits.

"We should be in Albuquerque the day after next," Jack said as we sat around the campfire.

"Great," I said. It took us a few nights to feel at ease sitting around a campfire again after our little visit from the Madeline wraith.

"Maybe there are some people in Albuquerque who will join us," Sela said.

"That'd be-" Jack started to say until I interrupted him.

I jumped up and started pacing around the fire. Sela shot me a worried look.

"What's wrong?" Jack asked.

"I don't know. Maybe it's a panic attack."

Jack and Sela just stared at me as I continued to pace around the fire. Jerky stood up and started pacing with me as if she were concerned about the same thing I was.

"Ya know, I have this bad feeling about Albuquerque," I said, picking up Jerky.

No one said anything. Jerky's hair bristled.

Vonnie and Missy came back from visiting friends. "Everything all right?" Vonnie asked. Missy sat down next to Sela.

"No, I…um…"

"Sit down," Sela said patting the ground next to her. "Let's think this through. You too Jerky."

I picked up the cat and plopped us both down next to her. Jerky walked in circles around my lap and finally, finding just the right spot, curled up and settled in.

"Maybe you and I should ride up ahead and take a look. There's a spot off I-40 on the eastern edge of Albuquerque where we can see out across the whole city. I've got some good binos. If there's a problem, maybe we can plot a course around it," Jack offered.

"Yeah, I think you have a good idea. Only, I think I should go alone. Jack, you need to look after the troops."

"I don't think so," Sela said determinedly, grabbing my hand. "I'll go with you."

The look she gave me clearly indicated that there was no chance of arguing with her.

"We'll be back in two days. If we aren't, turn around and go back to McKinney," I said to Jack as he held onto Hope's reins.

"That won't be necessary. I'm sure everything will be fine. You be careful," Jack said guardedly.

It felt good to ride fast for a change. Both horses seemed to really enjoy the pace. We got to Tijeras by lunchtime. Sela spotted a small creek near the road.

"Let's have some lunch and let the horses rest," Sela said as we neared the stream.

"Sounds good to me." Jerky jumped off my shoulders and ran toward the bushes. I knew the cat would find her own lunch.

"Do you have any idea where we are?" Sela asked.

"Yes. We just passed Tijeras which means we should be able to see down into Albuquerque soon. I think we'll get off the highway as we get closer just to be safe. I want to get up high enough to have a good vantage point," I said, taking a bite of some beef jerky. "Hmm…did you make this?"

"No, Vonnie did. It's pretty good, huh?" Sela said, ripping off a big chunk and handing me another piece. "Any thoughts on your premonition about Albuquerque?"

"Oh…nothing I can put my finger on," I said. "I just have a bad feeling."

"And here I always thought that women had the market on intuition," she said, wrapping her arms around my waist.

In a flash, she pushed me aside, drew her pistol and yelled, "Freeze or I'll shoot."

I spun around to see a man crouched behind a large boulder. I slowly slid my gun out of my waist.

"Don't shoot. I mean you no harm," he yelled as he slowly stood up with his hands held high in the air. He walked gingerly toward us.

"That's far enough," Sela commanded sternly. "Where are you from?"

"Albuquerque. I'm a lookout."

"A lookout for who?" I asked.

"Our group," the man answered nervously.

I put my gun down and eased Sela's arm down as well. "It's all right. I think he's one of the good guys," I whispered into Sela's ear. "Besides, Jerky doesn't seem the least bit concerned and she's been pretty good about warning us. Look at her. She's just munching away on…whatever."

Sela relaxed and asked the man a barrage of questions. Before he could answer, I interrupted and asked, "What's your name?"

"Justin. Justin Blake."

"Well, Justin, I'm Heckel and this is Sela." He approached us with an outstretched hand. I could tell Sela was nervous about the introductions.

After a few pleasantries, she asked, "So, who are you a lookout for?"

Justin explained that there was a group of about 250 good people camping in an old KOA campground on the eastern edge of Albuquerque. He recounted how they had been living together for about a year and turned the old campground into, for all practical purposes, a fort.

"We started calling it Fort Albuquerque," Justin said proudly.

"Have you had any encounters?" I asked.

"Oh yeah…most of them with Madeline."

Sela and I looked at each other with big eyes.

"You know about Madeline?" Sela asked, looking around the area as if we'd have a visit from one of her avatars.

"Sure do. We've had all sorts of attacks from the little bitch. Excuse the language."

"No problem. We're in full agreement on that account," Sela said.

We spent the next hour swapping stories about Madeline. Sela recounted the attacks in McKinney and just as she was about to reveal my special talents, I interrupted her.

"I still want to know why you are a lookout? Was something about to happen?" I asked.

"Yes. We'd been getting reports from other scouts of a large band of Madeline's Marauders approaching from the North. I was sent in this direction to scout for any potential problems from the east. Where are you folks going?"

Hmm…Madeline's Marauders. I like that…catchy.

"Albuquerque," Sela answered.

"You might want to go south of the city to avoid any conflict," Justin suggested. Jerky came up from behind him and curled around his leg. He bent down to pet the cat.

At that point, I explained to Justin that we were leading a group of about two hundred people to Oregon. Sela interjected that we were planning to confront Madeline.

"That's nuts," Justin said.

Sela explained everything about me. I held my head down, kicked the dirt and felt very embarrassed.

Justin didn't laugh or make any judgments. He simply looked at me, sizing me up and down.

"Huh, I'll be. There was an old woman who kept saying that there'd be someone to come and save us."

"I am not anyone's savior," I said with a deliberate tone, feeling very self-conscious.

Sela gave me that look which sent me into withdrawal mode. "Heckel, we don't need to get into that discussion again. Savior or not, we have a job to do and let's get on with it."

"Fine with me. Let's go up to that vantage point and have a look."

Justin decided to go with us. When it came time to mount the horses, Sela told Justin to ride on Tempest with her. As he mounted the horse, I suddenly got concerned. We really didn't know this guy. Sela saw me staring at her.

"It'll be fine, Heckel," she said softly.

I realized it wasn't concern, but more like jealousy. Justin had his arms wrapped around her waist.

"We have to trust people," she said, as Justin looked sheepish and embarrassed.

I flashed him a concerned look as he smiled nervously. "Yes, you are right as usual," I said, putting my foot in Hope's stirrup and pulling myself onto the horse's back.

"Of course I am," Sela said with a huge smile. "Let's go."

Justin proved to be very helpful by showing us a good route to a perfect spot to look down on Albuquerque. When we got there, we crouched down behind some large boulders. Taking the binoculars from my pack, I quickly spanned from south to north and abruptly stopped at one point. "Oh shit. We have a problem." Looking down at the old KOA campground, I could see a fight taking place at the entrance. "I guess Madeline's bikers have paid your group a visit."

"What?" Justin asked, holding his hand out for the binoculars.

"Here," I said, handing over the glasses.

Justin observed for a minute and then handed the binoculars to Sela. "Oh, they've been here before. We usually can handle them. Not too bright, more of an annoyance."

Sela slowly moved the binoculars northward. "Well, fellas, there's a much bigger problem up north. Here, look," she said. "That looks much more disturbing."

Looking north of Albuquerque, I could see a large troop of what apparently were Madeline's Marauders. "We need to alert your people. Let's go."

We rode fast down I-40. When we got to the Tramway exit, we got off the interstate and made our way down Central Avenue, the old Route 66. Jerky, perched on my shoulder, hissed loudly in my ear. "It's okay. We'll be fine."

As we approached the fight near the entrance to the KOA, we dismounted. I could feel the power inside me gathering. I looked down at my hands and a tinge of blue slowly emerged. Sela took out one of the rifles and tossed one of her Glocks to Justin. "Sela, I don't think you'll need those. Save the ammo. I'll end this real fast. Stay here with the horses."

Sela shook her head and said, "Not going to happen. Justin, stay here with Jerky and the horses." Jerky curled around Justin's legs.

I grunted something unintelligible and knew I couldn't argue with her. "Stay behind me."

As we walked up to the entrance, several of the bikers spotted us and revved their engines. They punched their gears and sped toward us. The balls of fire in my hands now spun violently in my palms waiting to be released.

"Hello, boys…remember me?" I said as I pitched the flaming orbs at the two closest bikers. My aim was dead on and both assaulting demons exploded, sending bits of motorcycle and chunks of flesh and leather flying into the air. The remaining bikers stopped fighting with the Albuquerque men and headed straight at us. I pitched the flaming orbs at them as if I were a young rookie pitcher trying to impress his coach. The crowd at the entrance of the old KOA cheered as the last of Madeline's Marauders were eliminated.

"Nice pitching," Sela said proudly as she came up behind me.

I just smiled. "I'm still not anyone's savior."

Sela remained quiet but got the last word in silently with a wink.

Justin walked up with the horses as a small group from the KOA came up to us. For a few moments, no one said anything. I finally broke the silence. "This is Sela and I'm Heckel."

The group stared at me as if I had a third eye in the center of my forehead and I was wearing woman's clothes. I actually looked down to see if Madeline had transformed me or something.

Finally, a woman from the back came forward. "It's a pleasure to meet you. How long have you had this ability?" she asked, pointing to my hands.

Feeling self-conscious, I put my hands in my pockets and mumbled something. Sela jumped in and explained that we were leading a group to Oregon.

After several more questions, Justin finally suggested that we get the horses watered and resume the discussion in a more comfortable setting.

Chapter 16

When we entered the old KOA, memories of the campground flooded my thoughts. "Ya know, when I was a kid," I said, leaning over to Sela, "my parents took me on a road trip to California, and we stopped at this campground. I remember it because I thought it was so clean and there were really nice people who worked at it. Years later, I stopped here again as an adult. It's always been a great place."

The campground was packed. There were people in old RVs, newer models, cabins, lodges, tents and even some of the really old Cruise America rentals. Justin took us to his camper and introduced us to his family. He picked up a bucket, put it to the faucet and filled it up.

"You have a working water system?" Sela asked with a look of amazement.

"Yes, it's about the only thing that works. We've got a few really good engineer-type guys who rigged it up," Justin answered as he watered our horses.

A group of five men came into Justin's campsite. "Ah, here are esteemed leaders now," Justin said. "This is our current president, Luke Johnson."

"It's a pleasure to meet you both." Luke extended his hand. He introduced the others and we all sat down.

"Tell us more about your group and why you are going to Oregon," Luke said.

Before I could open my mouth, Sela gave him the Cliff's Notes version of our recent exploits. She explained that we were going to Oregon to confront Madeline and do battle with her. All five men exchanged dubious looks as well as expressions of fear. A couple of them snickered under their breath. Then Justin added the information on my special talents that appear whenever I engage Madeline's attacks.

"So, you are the savior?" one of the elders asked.

Before I could object and get all defensive, Sela put her hand over my mouth, "Sort of. Let's just say that Heckel has been blessed with some abilities and Madeline doesn't like it. We think she feels threatened by him."

She took her hand down and calmly I said, "I just want to put an end to her evil. She caused the collapse of our world and we, together, need to rebuild it."

"Well, I'll go with you," Justin said enthusiastically. "I'll fight with you."

Others in the circle agreed. A few minutes later as the leaders were indicating that they would hold a meeting to see how many of their group would like to travel to Oregon, a man came running into our campsite. He was out of breath and soaked in sweat.

"What is it, Andy?" Luke asked.

"The force that's gathered north of Santa Fe looks like it's making plans to move on us."

Luke asked the other four elders to assemble everyone at the entrance to the KOA in fifteen minutes.

After everyone gathered, Luke explained the imminent danger. Several men yelled that they were ready to defend their homes.

"I understand, but their force is too big. We will be wiped out," Luke explained. He went on to introduce Sela and me. The crowd got silent. Slowly, questions started popping up like popcorn in a microwave.

Summoning up my best oratorical voice, I said, "We can defeat Madeline." The crowd returned to a silence that was piercing. When I was done speaking, everyone cheered.

"If you want to follow us, be ready tomorrow morning at first light," I shouted. Sela gave me a thumbs-up.

"If you folks start heading west on I-40, we'll catch up. Let's plan to meet in Flagstaff," I suggested.

"What about the people who don't want to leave?" one of the elders asked.

"I have a feeling everyone will go," Luke said confidently.

Sela and I decided to start heading back to our group immediately, riding all night.

"You should drop south of Albuquerque to avoid any problems with the approaching evil," Justin said. "There are a couple of routes that you could follow," he added, showing us a tattered old map. "Oh, and by the way. We've set up quite the welcoming for Madeline's Marauders. The whole KOA is booby-trapped. They don't stand a chance."

"Thanks. Good idea," Sela said.

We hugged our new friends, said our goodbyes and took off fast heading east on I-40.

There was a full moon that night, lighting our way. After several hours, we stopped to let the horses rest and for us to eat something.

"Our army is getting bigger," Sela said softly.

"Yes, I just hope-"

"Hope!" she said excitedly. "See…you're getting it."

I rolled my eyes and was about to say something sarcastic when the first of the coyotes showed up.

"Oh crap," I said.

"Not to panic," Sela said calmly. "Where's Jerky?"

My insides turned to jelly. "Jerky," I said in my best stage whisper. The cat came walking out from behind a bush. Two coyotes lunged at the cat. Sela immediately pulled out one of her pistols and shot one of the coyotes. The other one landed on Jerky. The cat rolled out from under the coyote and jumped on its back. She sank her small, vicious teeth into the neck of the coyote. Blood spewed out like water from a bursting pipe. Jerky dug deeper into the animal's neck until its life stopped.

Sela and I both stared in disbelief.

"Remind me not to ever piss off my cat," I muttered.

"Indeed," Sela responded.

Jerky walked off the dead animal proudly, came up to me and purred. I reached down and picked her up.

"Awesome, dude," I said, wiping the cat's blood-soaked face. "I'm glad you're on our side." After cleaning Jerky up, she settled back on my neck and we continued our journey back to the group. Ah, the smell of wet fur! Such an endearing fragrance.

It was late morning when we arrived. It seemed like everyone approached us as we entered the camp. Someone took the horses to the stream and we were handed some food. Between mouthfuls, we both recounted our discoveries in Albuquerque.

"Okay, we leave in an hour," Jack said, turning to a young man. "Go tell everyone to mount up."

It took two hours to break camp, and we were back on the road heading west. We made the eastern side of the Sandia Mountains by late afternoon, stopping in the town of Tijeras. The next day we dropped south on Highway 542 until we made it to Highway 60. From there, we stayed on it all the way to the Arizona border. We had no trouble whatsoever. Everyone's spirits were holding strong. I was especially relieved when we made it past I-25 and the whole Albuquerque area. I kept wondering what happened at the old KOA when Madeline's troops arrived. Justin mentioned something about a lot of surprises waiting for them, big surprises.

At Show Low, Arizona, we headed north on Highway 77. Jack sent two riders ahead of us to communicate with the Albuquerque group. A few days later, they came riding back and told us that all was well in Flagstaff and the ABQ folks were excited to know that we'd soon be there.

Days passed and we were all getting tired. We desperately needed some R and R, so we stayed an extra day in Winslow, Arizona. That night, Sela and I walked around, chatting with almost everyone at their campfires. I was inundated with questions and did my best to answer them.

After Sela and I got back to our campfire, it didn't take us long to fall asleep.

Chapter 17

"Heckel!" Sela yelled over and over.

"What's wrong?" Jack asked, running up to her campsite.

"I can't find Heckel," she said nervously. "He's always here when I get up and Jerky's been pacing back and forth growling. That's usually not a good sign."

Jack and Sela went searching the camp as well as the surrounding area. A couple of men came running up to them and said there were tracks leading off toward the northeast and it looked like someone had been dragged.

"They got him," Sela said nervously with a quiver in her voice. "We have to go find him. They can't be too far ahead," she said as she picked up the saddle for Tempest.

"I'll go with you," Jack said.

"No, you need to stay with the group."

"I'll ask for volunteers," Jack offered quickly. Within minutes, five men rode up on horseback. They were well armed.

"Okay, let's go and fast," Sela said. "Jack, take care of Jerky."

Before Jack could pick up the cat, Jerky jumped high in the air to land squarely on her shoulders. Her claws dug into Sela's canvas jacket.

"Not gonna happen, I guess," she yelled as she turned Tempest quickly to follow the five men already racing toward I-40. The morning sun was starting to warm up the air and it felt invigorating. Sela's heart pounded as she raced down the old interstate. Every so often, Jerky meowed as if to give her encouragement.

We just have to find him, she thought anxiously as beads of sweat formed on her brow. I can't lose him. We can't lose him.

Smoke billowed from a smoldering campfire. "Where the hell am I?" I mumbled to myself as I woke up. I was bound and gagged heavily. Thoughts of Sela immediately flooded my head. Was she safe? What if they took her too? My arms were strapped behind my back and my hands felt as though they were coated with some sort of resin. My head felt like it had connected with a brick wall at some point. I had one heck of a headache. Drugs maybe? Of course, that's got to be why I felt like I had the worst hangover ever. I decided to fake being out for a while until I had an idea of what I was up against. Sela was probably beside herself. I hoped she was all right…and Jerky too.

"Give him another shot," I heard someone say angrily. "We don't want him getting loose. Miss Madeline would be really pissed if we lost this Heckel asshole."

I felt a prick on the side of my neck and within seconds fell into a deep sleep.

The dream I had was so vivid; it was even in color and surround sound with a sci-fi setting. I found myself standing in the middle of what apparently was a battlefield. The once-lush green grass had turned into a streaming river of blood with bodies littered in every direction. I took two steps forward and nearly slipped in the crimson-stained ground. Bodies were strewn and twisted across the landscape. Smoke filled the air, making it seem like an Impressionistic painting. Painful moans of dying soldiers were filtered in among the buzz of insects. I turned completely around looking for anyone still standing on either side. There was no movement. I took a few steps forward and tripped, nearly falling. Looking down, my heart nearly stopped; Sela and Jerky lay dead at my feet. Their bodies had numerous deep-red gouges. As I started to scream, I glanced off toward the horizon. At the edge of her crumpled soldiers, Madeline stood, her lip curled into a sardonic sneer.

I felt myself lift off the ground and glide toward the evil awaiting me. Armed with just the power inside me, I felt it seethe and boil to the point where every pore was poised to unleash the energy. Madeline spun feverishly in a circle as if she were a generator building power. As I approached, she flung her arms forward and a flash of silver energy bolts streamed from her eyes and hands. I held up my hand to deflect the attack, but the force knocked me down. Madeline instantly appeared above me and put her foot on my chest.

I awoke with a start and wiggled my arms, trying to break free from the bindings. It was just a dream, not a premonition, I thought. It's not the future.

"Ah, our guest is awake," a guard said. "Quick, give him another shot. We don't want him-"

But an arrow had pierced the guard's neck, abruptly interrupting his order. Blood dribbled out of his mouth as he tried to shout. Seconds later, while trying to pull the lethal shaft out of his neck, he slumped forward. The other four guards jumped up to attack and were quickly met by Sela and her cohorts. Jerky came running up to me, snarling with her hair bristled.

The fight was over in a matter of minutes.

"Apparently, Madeline just can't find good help," Sela said as she came running over to me. She bent down and removed my bonds. "Are you all right?" she asked nervously.

"Yeah, but my head feels like it was used to ring a church bell."

"We should get out of here quickly. Who knows what's hanging around out there?"

"No argument from me," I said standing up.

Sela walked toward the darkness. In a nearby wooded area, Tempest and the other horses were tied up. We quickly mounted Tempest together and rode off.

Hugging Sela, I whispered in her ear, "Thanks for the…um…rescue. You're my hero."

"I can't lose you. We can't lose you. You're our hero," she said softly.

"What do you mean by 'we'?" I asked, thinking she meant all of humanity.

Sela remained silent for a long while, then turned her head toward me as much as she could, kissed my cheek and said, "I'm pregnant."

Word of the failed capture came to Madeline as she sat on a balcony overlooking the Washington cityscape. As she stood up, her temper flared. "What do you mean you lost him? I thought you said you handpicked his captors."

The tall, slender, confident-looking man with greasy, black hair stood defiantly in front of Madeline. "I did pick them, Miss Madeline. I thought they were the best, but apparently I misjudged them. It won't happen again. I promise you," he said with a hint of trepidation in his voice.

Madeline, not saying a word, circled the man. He shifted uneasily on his feet. She touched him lightly on the shoulder and let her long polished green nails scrape across the back of his neck, sending shivers up his spine.

"Yes, you are right about that. It won't happen again," she said as the man was quickly picked up by an invisible force, pushed off the balcony and hung suspended in air. His feet wiggled high above the street below as he pleaded to be spared.

With a simple gesture of her hand, the invisible force let go of the supplicating man. Madeline nonchalantly walked to the edge of the balcony and watched the man hit the street below. The thump of his body hitting the pavement resounded off the surrounding buildings. She tilted her head back and laughed heartily. Madeline listened with the curiosity of a ten-year-old child as her iniquitous, maniacal laugh echoed across the skyscrapers.

"Not to worry, little Heckel. Just a minor setback. You make your courageous journey to Oregon. You'll have a greeting party so enormous that you will go running with your tail tucked behind your scrawny legs." High piercing laughter spread out across all of Washington.

Sela pushed Tempest hard to make it back to the camp. "Please stop, Sela. We need to talk for a minute," I said with a jiggle to my voice as Tempest raced down I-40.

"We're almost there. We can talk after we get back to camp," she said.

"Okay," I said as I kissed her neck and nibbled her earlobe. She shivered and giggled.

Almost the entire group came out to greet us as we rode into camp. A loud cheer erupted as Sela and I got off Tempest. Lots of folks patted us on the back and were eager to thank Sela and the four men for saving me. Jack took the opportunity to announce the next morning's departure time to travel to Flagstaff.

By the time we had gotten back, it was late in the day. After we got Tempest watered and fed, Sela came up to me, took my hand and we walked away from the group.

"How are you feeling?" she asked.

"Apparently, I should be asking you that question more."

"I'm fine. I feel great."

My mouth went dry. Actually, it felt like my vocal cords had disappeared or maybe were somehow glued together. I had no idea what to say, and if I could, I didn't know how to get the words formed. Words like scared, petrified, afraid, frozen, incompetent, and nincompoop started to filter across my mind, and the longer it took for me to open my mouth to say something, the dumber I felt. My brain turned to guacamole.

Sela looked at me with loving, eager eyes, which only exacerbated my dimwitted, paralyzed condition. She stood in front of me and put her hand on my cheek. Her touch felt like a spark, a spark that I needed to jumpstart the battery in my brain.

"Sela, I…um…I…ah…wow…um," I said thinking that I must sound like a complete numbskull, and I mean that my skull was really, really numb.

Sela just laughed and put her arms around my waist. Her hair fell across the side of my face as she leaned in toward me. At this point, I was literally shaking and the feel of her cheek pressed against mine caused me to tremble even more.

The only words I could put together to actually make sense hit their mark dead on. "I love you, Sela."

Immediately, Sela started crying and hugged me tighter. "I love you, Heckel Casey…with all my heart and soul."

I started to cry. We held each other for what felt like hours. During that time, a parade of questions marched across my mind. I felt like a spectator at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and each of the giant tethered balloons had highly decorated questions flashing across them. What now? How do I protect her? How do I bring up a baby with evil all around? What about Madeline? How do I kill her?

"Sela, there are so many questions filling my head. The biggest one asking how we can subject our child to a world filled with Madeline's evil."

"Heckel, we are going to defeat Madeline before our child is even born. Our baby will come into a new world, a world of good people who trust each other and believe in each other. The way it is supposed to be."

A sudden blast of cold wind swirled around us. I put my arm around Sela and felt a strength I never knew I had. Any doubts of defeating Madeline or what my part was in this big game plan were suddenly put to rest.

"Yes, we will," I said firmly. The air returned to a gentle warm breeze.

Chapter 18

"Pardon me, Miss Madeline. You sent for me."

Why is it that I always have sniveling, weasely, scrawny, weak-minded men surrounding me? Madeline thought as she slipped on a new pair of black calfskin leather boots and finished dressing.

"Yes, sit over there and wait," she barked. Sitting in front of her makeup mirror, she stared into it, feeling almost like the wicked witch in "Sleeping Beauty".Why does this little shit, Heckel, continue to stand in my way? I should be able to squash him like a bug.Yet the power in him continues to manifest itself.

"Where are they now?" she said at the groveling stump of a man sitting on the couch. She applied eyeliner and noticed that one of her eyebrows had a few gray hairs. With fierceness, she glowered at them. Slowly, the gray changed to dark brown. Her power was growing as well. She could…change things, manipulate things…and best of all, destroy things. Looking into an assortment of eye shadow, she picked a smoky dark gray to brush on above her eyes.

"They are in Flagstaff, Arizona," the man, or semblance of a man, said as he bowed lowly. "Our intelligence indicates that-"

"Intelligence is a poor choice of words for the incompetent boobs that surround me," Madeline said as she slowly painted her lips a deep maroon.

The servant remained hunched over and silent.

"You tell our…intelligence men that if they…oh, never mind. Get out of my sight before I do something I can't control and won't regret."

The man stood, quickly mumbled some appreciative remark and back stepped with a speed that looked like a fast Michael Jackson moonwalk.

After Madeline finished curling her hair, applying perfume and touching up her nails, she continued to admire herself in the mirror. A soft knock on the door interrupted the one-person admiration society.

"Come in," she said seductively, knowing full well who it was.

"You called for me, miss?" a handsome young man said. Long, dark-brown hair stretched down his back. He wore a black turtleneck shirt that emphasized the physique of a body builder. Madeline inched her way to him and licked her lips.

"Yes, I did. What is your name?" She said, walking around the man as if she were examining a fine new Porsche or a choice filet mignon. Madeline stroked his soft long mane while inhaling deeply his earthy scent.

"Jackson. Jackson Steele."

She took his hand and led him to the sofa.

Later that day, Madeline met with several of her generals. They feebly tried to explain the loss at the Albuquerque Central KOA.

A large, burly man in a black leather jacket said, "We don't know what the hell happened. The minute we entered that campground, it was a shit storm. I mean there were all these booby traps all over the place, and-"

Slamming her fist into the long, conference table brought the piss and moan session to an abrupt stop. The silence in the room sucked the life out of everyone. Tension hung like a raptor ready to strike. Madeline so much enjoyed the use of fear. It was such a controlling force.

"Were there any remaining men left in your…so-called army?" she asked calmly, standing up and walking around the table. The eyes of seven men followed her every step. She could see the sweat forming on the forehead of each man.

"With all due respect, Miss Madeline, those men died for…"

Before he could finish, Madeline seized the back of his hair, jerked his head violently back, and screamed into his face, "I don't care what you think. I demand respect. I do not tolerate interruptions. Do I make myself clear?" Spittle sprayed from her mouth, hitting his face.

The man's neck was bent so far back that he could hardly breathe. With eyes wide with fear, he grunted a nonsensical syllable and tried to nod his head. When Madeline let his head go, he muttered a string of apologies.

The silence in the room went to a new level. No one looked at the man. The other six men sat frozen with their heads down.

"Now, where was I?" No one dared offer an answer. "Oh, yes. If there were any men left from the attack at the KOA, I want you to…" Madeline stopped and saw the fear on each man's face. Hmm…thumbs up or down? If I have them all killed, I might lose some loyalty.

"Excuse me, Miss Madeline," someone behind her said in a mousy, skittish voice. Madeline spun around ready to inflict pain on the person. Standing in front of her was a small boy of about ten years old. He flinched when he saw Madeline start to lunge at him. Abruptly, Madeline froze. His innocent, boyish face caused her to quickly recede. "What is it?"

"There's an elderly gentleman who wishes to speak to you, ma'am. He's waiting out in the-"

Madeline brushed the hair out of the little boy's eyes, knelt down to face him and said, "You are such a polite and handsome young man. You tell the nice man waiting that I will be done here in a few minutes. And later, you come back to see me and we'll have some ice cream. How does that sound?"

The boy smiled, thanked her and left the room in a hurry.

"Now, where was I…oh, yes…the men left over from the debacle at the KOA. I want you to reward each soldier with a week's furlough." The men around the table breathed a collective sigh of relief and mumbled to each other. She had their loyalty.

After discussing her next idea to eliminate Heckel Casey and exterminate the resistance he led, she dismissed her so-called 'cabinet.' Minutes later, Harold Barker opened the door to her suite and walked in.

"Mr. Barker, it's a pleasure to see you again. It's been a while," Madeline said, walking up to him and offering her hand. His grip was firm and his skin was icy cold. There was a scent about him that was nauseating. It had that old-man smell mixed with a rotting-meat odor.

"Miss Madeline, you look stunning," he said as he leaned forward and kissed her cheek. She wanted to shiver from his touch, but resisted. Her stomach did somersaults and she could feel a gag reflex turning on and off. "Please, have a seat," she said leading him to the sofa. Madeline sat across from him and immediately noticed him leering at her, so she slowly crossed her legs, highlighting her expensive black knee-high leather boots. She smiled, thinking that all men, for some strange reason turn to jelly when a woman wears high-heeled, sexy boots. And the fact that the stiletto heels could double as a mean weapon amused her.

Harold cleared his throat, cocked his one eyebrow, and with a pompous tone said, "Miss Madeline, there is the matter of this Heckel person that is beginning to…shall we say…cause us concern." Harold got up from the sofa and started pacing around the room.

Madeline frowned. Who does this wrinkled old prune think he is?

Harold spun around, shook his cane at her and yelled, "I'll tell you who this wrinkled old prune is. I'm the person who's responsible for all your power and without me, you'd be the one wrinkling or more like turning to dust by now."

Suddenly, Madeline felt very strange. Something was making her insides feel as if they were put into a blender and set on puree. She looked down at her hands; the skin looked wrinkled and was mottled with numerous brown age spots. She jumped off the chair and ran to the nearest mirror. The horrific image stared at her-a skull with sunken orbs, skin barely hanging from her jaw and hair that was white and straggly. Madeline screamed so loud that her throat was raw. She rubbed her hands to try to smooth out the wrinkles and looked in the mirror again. Several maggots fell out of her ear. "Make it stop," she yelled. "Please, I'm so sorry I…"

Harold came up behind her, put his hand on her shoulder and whispered, "Get rid of Heckel, once and for all. He's dangerous and not to be underestimated." As he blew softly into her ear, she could see her reflection in the mirror slowly transform back to her normal image. He gently kissed her cheek and backed away. Madeline was struck at how she now looked in the mirror. "What did you do? I look even better," she said as she examined all her features. Her hair looked more luxurious and shinier than ever. It appeared as though the best make-up artists from Hollywood spent hours pampering her. She also particularly enjoyed the purple streak down one side of her black hair. "Wow, you have…" Madeline spun around to address Mr. Barker. The room was empty.

Her thoughts immediately turned to Heckel. She paced around the room, deep in thought. Infiltration! That's it…I need to get someone inside to befriend him and kill him.

"I think I know just the men to do it," she muttered as she went back to the mirror to admire the new look.

A soft knock interrupted her gazing. "Come in," she announced, stroking the purple strands of hair.

"You asked me to come back to share some ice cream with you," a small voice said behind her. Madeline turned around to see the small boy smiling. He looked like he was straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. He had curly red hair that complemented his numerous freckles. His smile was angelic and contributed to the sparkle in his green eyes.

"So I did. What is your name?" Madeline said, leaning down to stare into the innocent boy's eyes.

"Bobby Stewart," he said confidently.

"Well, Bobby, since we have to wait a bit to get our ice cream here, how about you and I get more acquainted. Let's sit over here on the sofa." She ushered Bobby to the sofa and moved several pillows. "I'm just going to make a quick call to get our ice cream brought up here," she said as she picked up the walkie-talkie off the coffee table. Bobby swung his feet back and forth playfully as he looked around the room.

"Now, tell me all about yourself," Madeline asked as she sat next to Bobby.

Jackson Steele arrived later that evening. His black leather jacket was slung over his shoulder as he walked into Madeline's bedroom. Tossing it over a high-backed Victorian chair, he asked, "How can I serve you Miss Madeline?"

Ah, my loyal, obedient servant…well trained just like a puppy. She had one thing in mind, but knew they'd get to that later.

"Please have a seat, Jackson," Madeline said motioning to the love seat near the fireplace. She admired his tight, firm buns that were showcased in a pair of soft black leather pants. Yum!Can't wait to remove them.

Walking around the room, Madeline outlined a task for Mr. Steele. He listened politely and intently, every so often nodding his head in complete understanding.

"Do you have any questions?" she asked coming up behind Jackson and massaging his strong, broad shoulders.

"No, ma'am. I will do what you ask quickly and completely," Jackson said with darkness in his eye. "I live to serve you."

Hmm, that's what I like to hear. "Excellent," she whispered into his ear. "You leave tomorrow. But first, let's have a little workout, shall we?" she asked aloud as she began to unbutton his shirt and nip his ear.

Chapter 19

As we approached the town of Flagstaff, we were greeted by a small group of riders. Justin and Luke were in the lead. They waved excitedly. Jack and Heckel rode out to greet them. I knew by everyone's smiles and handshakes that all was well.

The few miles into where the ABQ group was camped went by quickly. The field they chose was spacious, certainly enough to accommodate the McKinney clan. As we rode into the field, people greeted us and were eager to help us get set up. The most surprising part was when Luke announced that they had prepared dinner for all of us. I, personally, was ecstatic; I so didn't want to have to cook. Heckel found us a spot near Jack and Vonnie. He set up our little tent and made us a fire. After I took care of Tempest and Hope, I sat down next to the fire and fell asleep with Jerky curled up in my lap. In my dream, Heckel was working on our home; it was a pleasant cottage high atop a hill overlooking the ocean. I saw myself, very pregnant, sitting on the front porch. It was such an idyllic dream. I'm sure if anyone saw me sleeping, they noticed a huge smile on my face. Heckel said something funny, making me laugh. I suddenly felt the child inside give me a stiff kick, maybe as a warning. I stopped laughing as I looked past Heckel out to the ocean to see Madeline suspended over the water. Dark skies were boiling at her back. She leered at me and opened her mouth revealing long, spiky teeth. I screamed.

"Sela, are you all right?" Heckel asked, lightly shaking me awake.

I started to cry. He put his arm around me and held me close to him. The rocking sensation was very comforting. After a short while, I told him all about the bad dream. He wiped the light dampness from my forehead.

"You are safe," he said quietly. "I will always be there for you." He kissed me gently on the top of my head. The image of Madeline gradually faded from my mind's eye.

We walked down to a large stream to wash up. The water flow was strong from the winter runoff. Even though it was still icy cold, it felt refreshing and invigorating. I looked over to see Jerky take a drink of water and then groom herself as well.

The feast that the ABQ group set out was nothing short of miraculous, not to mention generous. Of course, the McKinney group contributed food and drink as well. Everyone enjoyed meeting each other, sharing stories and getting acquainted. Every so often I'd hear Heckel's name dropped, and I would try to overhear what someone was saying. For the most part, the snippets of conversation were very hopeful and optimistic. One woman said the word savior. I knew that word made Heckel feel very uncomfortable. I smiled proudly as we walked around the large gathering.

It was beginning to get late and people slowly started to drift off to their campsites. Heckel yawned in the middle of telling someone a story. I whispered in his ear, "We should get going." He agreed with no hesitation. We said our good nights and walked back to our camp. Heckel crawled into our tent and immediately fell asleep. I lay next to him for a while, listening to him snore softly. Memories of that dream I had started to filter back into my head. After tossing and turning for a while, I decided to get up and sit by the fire until I got sleepy.

Of course, Jerky followed me out of the tent to watch over me as usual. The fire hadn't gone out completely and a few choice logs brought it back to life. The warmth it gave off helped to take the chill out of the late-spring night.

"Can't sleep?" someone behind me asked in a soft voice. I spun around to see Vonnie standing in the shadows. "Yeah, I had a bad dream earlier and it's still haunting me."

"Want some company?"

"Absolutely. Sit yourself down."

"Would you like some tea? I have a pleasant Sleepytime blend that might put you at ease," she suggested.

"I'd much prefer a good belt of scotch," I answered.

"I don't think your baby would appreciate it," Vonnie whispered with a motherly smile on her face.

"How'd you know?"

"A mother can tell. Besides, I've noticed your morning sickness. How are you feeling?"

"Much better. I think I'm over that part."

"Tea? It doesn't have any caffeine in it."

"Yes, please. That sounds perfect."

While she was gone, I arranged a few more logs on the fire and blew on the coals. Staring into the glowing embers, that damn dream kept floating around in my head. I could see the demonic leer on Madeline's face.

"Here you go," Vonnie said, handing me an insulated mug. "This will help settle your nerves and get you sleepy. I filled us a thermos in case you'd like some more."

"Thanks."

We sat in silence for a while sipping our tea. Jerky decided to try out Vonnie's lap, approved and curled up tightly.

"How's Heckel doing?" Vonnie asked, breaking the silence.

"I worry about him. He seems to be…I don't know…getting older right before my eyes. I think his hair is turning gray quickly and there are circles under his eyes that weren't there when we first met. He's carrying around a huge bundle of grief and worry."

Vonnie nodded her head in agreement. "I'm sure he is, but we all believe in him and we will hold him up."

"I know. It's nice to have people you can believe in, trust and…um…love again."

"That sure is the truth. I just wish my sister were here. I miss her so much," Vonnie said quietly.

"Where is she?" I asked, blowing on the cup.

"Gone. She died during the drug wars. Remember all that mess?"

"Yeah, that shit had been going on for years before Bloody Super Bowl Sunday and the beginning of the collapse," I said, setting a few smaller logs on the fire. "It was another one of those incidents that killed a lot of people over the years. It was most likely something that Madeline had orchestrated as well."

"So many people got involved in drugs over a span of about ten years. I mean sure there was a problem with drugs in our country for a long time. Remember reading about the sixties? It seems that since the hippie years or even longer people did so-called recreational drugs, but progressively more and more people got hooked and I am sure those drugs were tainted, more powerful and more addictive. Unfortunately, my sister was one of those people. I tried to help her, but she wouldn't let me," Vonnie said with a tremble to her voice.

She paused for a moment before continuing. "The drug cartels coming in from Mexico became bolder and more violent, gaining strong footholds in the southwest. It was a war zone all along the southern borders and the cartels inched farther and farther into the northern states. Madeline was Director of Homeland Security at the time, I think. It was one of her first assignments. She sent in the National Guard and it became a mess all along the southern borders. Lots of innocent people were gunned down. Later, I heard a rumor that she actually was helping the cartels by supplying them weapons. Can you believe that?"

"Actually, yes, without a doubt," I said pouring myself another cup of tea.

"I'll never forget the day my sister died. She was an artist, living down in Sedona, Arizona. She did sculptures, mostly marble, and did quite well financially. Too bad, she pissed all her money away on drugs. Anyway, she was killed during a bust that had gone very bad. As she was purchasing…um…whatever she used, a bunch of undercover agents stormed some deserted warehouse. She was caught between the drug assholes and the agents. Her body was shredded beyond recognition. They said that she looked as if she had gone through a meat grinder. I had to fly there and identify the body. I still have nightmares about how awful she looked. I couldn't even recognize her face." Vonnie stopped talking abruptly and tears streamed down her cheeks.

I got up, sat down next to her and put my arm around her shoulder. "I'm so sorry."

We sat there for a long time just staring into the fire.

"Do you have any other brothers or sisters?" I asked, breaking the silence.

"Yes, I have a brother, but I don't know where he is. I lost contact with him over a year ago. The last time I heard from him he was somewhere out in Montana. How about you?"

"Nope. I was an only child. I think my dad would have liked to have had a son to go fishing and hunting with, not to mention having help on the farm. However, the bond that formed between us was tight, and I got to benefit from all those manly things, like being well taught on how to handle a rifle and hunt. That has come in handy many times over the last year or so."

Jerky stood up on Vonnie's lap, arched her back high into the air and yawned. She gingerly stepped over Vonnie's lap and strolled into the tent. A few minutes later, Heckel poked his head out of the tent. "Everything all right?" he asked, trying to stifle a yawn.

"Just fine," I whispered. "You go back to sleep. I'll be in shortly."

He yawned, and nodded his head slowly as he ducked back into the tent.

"I should be going. I'm sure it's late," Vonnie said, standing up.

"Thanks for the visit. It was great to spend some time with you and get to know more about you," I said, standing up as well.

"Likewise. It's been a while since I had a BFF," Vonnie said giggling.

"BFF? What's that?" I asked.

"Best Friends Forever. Remember the whole texting business?"

"Oh, sure, that's right. I never did that texting thing much. Didn't have a BFF that I remember."

"Well, you do now," Vonnie said, giving me a strong hug. "Sleep well."

"Thanks. You too."

I watched Vonnie slip away into the shadows. It felt good to have a BFF. I moved a few of the big logs around to help the fire go out and looked up into the night sky. The stars were especially bright. "Ah, the Milky Way," I muttered as I admired the heavens. After I crawled into the tent, I pulled off my pants and slid into the sleeping bag. Heckel was warm; it felt wonderful to spoon him. I kissed his neck and immediately fell asleep.

The sun warmed the insides of the tent quickly. I pushed the sleeping bag off me and felt for Heckel; he was gone. A momentary panic set in until I heard him whispering to Jerky outside the tent. I stretched, yawned and rolled onto my back to sleep some more. That idea fizzled when I felt Jerky walk on my legs. The heavy cat inched its way up my belly and sat on my chest. She looked at me and I swear, she smiled. "Well, good morning to you too," I mumbled. "You're a tad heavy." A nip on my nose, followed by the sandpaper-like tongue on it, pretty much ended my idea of getting any more sleep. "What's for breakfast?" I asked the cat. The mere thought or mention of the word food could send Jerky into a tailspin. The cat bolted from my chest and darted out of the tent.

I shielded my eyes as I emerged from the tent. "Wow, it's so bright." A gentle breeze danced on my cheek, playing with my hair. The air smelled like it had just been born.

"Good morning, sleepyhead. How do you feel?" Heckel asked as he stirred a pot of oatmeal.

Yawning and stretching, I said, "Like I could eat a horse."

Heckel flashed a look of concern.

"Oops…poor choice of words. Oatmeal sounds fabulous."

"Did you have a nice visit with Vonnie last night?" he asked as he hugged me.

"BFF," I muttered.

"Huh?"

"Yes, we did. It's been a long time since I had a girlfriend to talk with."

"Yeah, I really like Jack too. It feels good to have people you can trust again."

"So, what's on today's agenda?" I asked as I spooned some brown sugar on my oatmeal.

"Well, I think we're going to meet with the leaders of the ABQ group and plan our next move." Heckel said mumbling with a large mouthful of oatmeal.

"Vonnie and I are planning to do some laundry today down by the creek and maybe do a little hunting later."

"Great. So Vonnie's a hunter as well."

"No, she's never been before, but wants to learn."

"Well, she's got a good teacher," Heckel said planting a kiss on my cheek. I giggled; he always made me giggle like a little kid. I loved it!

It was midmorning after I cleaned up the breakfast dishes, washed up, fed the horses and aired out our sleeping bags. Jerky had gone off hunting. Heckel was at the meeting.

"Sleep well?" Vonnie asked as she walked into our camp carrying a large laundry bag.

"Like a log. How about you?" I asked as I finished putting my hair into a ponytail.

"It took a while. I guess I was a bit excited thinking about my first hunting expedition. Am I dressed properly?"

Vonnie had on a pair of old camouflage pants, a dark green sweatshirt and hiking boots.

"Where did you get camouflage pants?" I asked with a grin. "That's so cool."

"They're actually Jack's pants. A little big," Vonnie said as she rolled up one of the pant legs higher up on her ankle.

"You look perfect. Give me a second to grab our laundry and soap."

We chatted about the weather and other innocent topics as we made our way to the stream. Other women greeted us as we approached the water. The winter's runoff was abundant. The water was cold and flowing strong.

"How's this spot?" Vonnie asked, dropping her laundry bag.

"Good as any." As I pulled out our clothes, I said laughing, "Not much need to sort whites and coloreds, huh?"

Vonnie laughed. "I'm just glad we can get them clean for a change."

We hurried with getting things washed and wrung out. Back at camp, Heckel had set up a line for me to hang the clothes. As soon as I draped the last of our clothes over the line, Vonnie came hurrying over.

"I'm ready for my first lesson," she said practically jumping up and down.

"Let me get the rifles and we'll head out."

Since Vonnie had never fired a rifle before, I gave her a crash course in hunter safety as well as instructions on how to fire a rifle. "As soon as we are a good ways away from the area, I'll show you how to fire this baby," I said handing my rifle to Vonnie. I carried the one I had given Heckel. We took off into the woods, past the stream where a number of people were either washing clothes or themselves. We were stopped a number of times to chat with some of the folks we had met. They all wished us luck.

About a half hour later, we came to a ridge and looked out across a wide field. "Let's stay on this ridge for a while and then make our way down to the edge of that field," I said pointing. "But first, let's get you comfortable with shooting." I walked over to Vonnie and demonstrated how to hold the rifle, take aim and fire. "Try not to tense up. Just stay relaxed and squeeze the trigger. Aim at the tree over there. Take a shot and see how it feels. You're going to feel it on your shoulder. Go ahead."

The shot reverberated across the field below. The slug slammed into the tree.

"Ouch," Vonnie said. "Holy crap, that smarts."

"Yeah, but you get used to it. Try a couple more."

Vonnie got more excited with each shot and surprisingly she was a natural.

"Outstanding. You hit the tree each time. Good shooting. Ready to see what we can get for dinner?"

"Absolutely," Vonnie replied with that same little giggle I heard last night.

We continued walking along the ridge, gradually making our way down to the edge of the field. Crouching down, I pointed and whispered, "There's a deer over there by that small brook. You go for it."

Vonnie gave me a slightly panicked look.

I nodded encouragement. "Try to aim toward the front of her," I whispered.

"I'm shaking. I'm so nervous."

"Stay focused. Breathe. Relax. Remember, just gently squeeze the trigger when you feel you have her in your sights."

The deer jerked its head up, spotting us, just as Vonnie shot. The deer bolted off into the bushes.

"Damn. I missed," she said.

"That's okay. You did well for your first try. Let's walk a little farther."

An hour passed before we saw another deer. I had Vonnie lie down on her belly and prop her elbows up to hold the rifle. "Okay, Vonnie. Now remember what I said about staying relaxed. Breathe slowly, aim and squeeze. Try setting your sights a little higher this time," I said whispering.

I could hear Vonnie muttering to herself, trying to relax. A few minutes later, she gently squeezed the trigger. The deer went down.

"Nice shot. You did it," I shouted.

Vonnie jumped up and down. "Wow, what a rush!"

"Not to mention dinner," I said proudly. "That was a perfect shot. Let's gut it and…"

"How do we get it home?" Vonnie asked.

"If it's not too heavy, we can carry it. The deer will be lighter after we gut it."

"Oh, joy," she said. Then a sad look spread over her face. "I killed it. Why all of sudden do I feel bummed?"

"It's not so bad. Don't think of it as Bambi's mother or anything. Remember survival of the fittest and these days hunting is more than a sport. It's a necessity. Just think of it as food that's going to taste so good grilled tonight."

After I showed her the finer points of gutting a deer, we decided that it was too heavy to carry or drag.

"Let's go back to camp and get the horses. Hopefully, there are no bears around that will steal your kill."

Vonnie bubbled with excitement as we walked back to camp. She couldn't wait to tell Jack and Missy about her first hunting experience.

Heckel met us as we approached the camp. "How'd it go?" he asked taking the rifle from me.

"Vonnie's a natural. She bagged a pretty good-sized deer. We have to go back with the horses to get it."

"Congratulations," Heckel said slapping Vonnie on the back.

"Of course, you'll join us for dinner," she stated proudly.

"Yum, venison steaks," Heckel said. "Do you need any help?"

I shook my head and told him that we could handle it. As soon as Tempest and Hope were saddled, Vonnie and I rode off to claim her prize. It didn't take us very long to get to the spot where we covered up the dead deer.

"Now what?" Vonnie asked.

"I think the two of us can get it up on Tempest. We'll drape it over his back. It should be fine. We'll ride slowly on the way back."

The first attempt to lift it up onto Tempest's back failed miserably, but we had a good laugh. It was the third attempt that we actually got it up high enough so that we could push it the rest of the way.

"Ta-da," I said triumphantly. "We did it. Let's get back to camp."

Suddenly, we heard a gunshot and some shouting nearby. I quickly pulled my Glock out of my waistband. "Shh," I whispered and motioned for Vonnie to get down. After more shouting, I said, "You stay here and hold onto the horses. I'm going to see what's happening."

"Let's just go. I got a bad feeling about this," Vonnie whispered.

"I'll be fine. Be ready to go."

"Be careful."

I crouched down low and made my way around a crop of rocks. Looking out into a grassy field, I saw a small boy and a man running across it. Three men were chasing them and shooting. I gasped as the boy stumbled and fell. The man stopped to help him up and was quickly overcome by the three men.

My instincts said walk away, but my conscience said otherwise. One of the bad guys had the boy by the arms while the other two were beating up the boy's guardian. I crept through the trees to position myself in back of the three men. As soon as I got into position, I shot a warning.

"Let them go," I yelled. One of the men spun around and fired at me, hitting a nearby tree. I shot back and the slug hit him between the eyes.

The other two men were unarmed. They panicked and took off running into the trees.

I waited a few minutes before doing anything to see if there were any reinforcements from the bad guys.

"You all right?" I shouted.

"Yes. I think so. The boy might have a slight sprain," the man yelled back.

Cautiously, I walked toward them.

"Thank you so much," the man said as I approached. "I don't think we would have-"

"Who were those men?" I asked guardedly as I kept looking around the area.

"I'm not sure. I think they were part of Madeline's army," the man said, holding up the young boy.

"What do you know about Madeline?" I asked.

"Well, I know for one thing, she's got a huge army forming up north of us somewhere in Washington or Oregon, I think."

The hairs on the back of my neck bristled as I clenched the weapon in my hand tightly. "What's your name?"

"Jackson. Jackson Steele."

"My name is Bobby Stewart," the young boy said cracking a smile.

I walked up closer to the boy and examined his ankle. "How does it feel?" I asked. Two huge dimples appeared on Bobby's dirt covered cheeks, "Oh, it's okay. Just a little sore."

"How'd you like a ride on my horse, back to our camp?"

"A horse. You have a horse?" Bobby asked excitedly. "Wow, I'd love to. Where is he?"

Jackson carried Bobby over to where Vonnie and our horses were. I yelled to Vonnie that everything was all right.

"Vonnie, this is Jackson and Bobby."

Vonnie flashed me a nervous look, and I assured her they were fine. I explained how they were being chased by some of Madeline's men. After taking Bobby from Jackson's arms, I placed him on top of Tempest in front of the saddle horn.

"Yeah, I knew what they were planning to do," Jackson offered quietly.

"What?" Vonnie asked. I walked closer to listen in.

Jackson leaned into whisper in her ear. "They were planning on killing me and…um…eating the boy."

Both of our faces lit up with shock and disgust. Neither one of us said a word. We just turned to Bobby and smiled as if to assure him that the bad guys were gone.

"Well, you are welcome to come with us. We have a good three hundred people or more camped over there about a mile or two," I said as I took Tempest's reins from Vonnie. "You ride with Vonnie." She rolled her eyes and sighed heavily.

As we rode into camp, Heckel came out to meet us along with Jack. The looks on their faces were guarded.

"Everything all right?" Heckel asked as he took the reins of Tempest.

"I shot my first deer," Vonnie announced proudly as Jack came up to pull the deer off the back of Tempest.

"These wonderful women saved us," Jackson said quickly as he dismounted, walked up to Heckel and Jack and offered his hand. "My name is Jackson Steele. This is Bobby Stewart."

"Hello," Heckel said a bit haltingly. "My name is Heckel."

"Heckel, that's a funny name," Bobby said as Jack helped him off the horse.

"It is indeed. Remind me to tell you how I got it sometime," Heckel said ruffling the boy's hair.

"Are you THE Heckel Casey everyone's been talking about?" Jackson asked.

Heckel didn't respond. I could tell he was getting embarrassed again. Luckily, Jack jumped in and asked, "Where have you heard about Heckel?"

"Well, for one, we heard it when we got to Albuquerque."

"When were you there? What part of the city?" Jack asked continuing his inquisition.

Jackson explained that he and the boy had stayed in the Heights area of Albuquerque, not too far from the KOA. He went on to recount how booby traps had decimated Madeline's army when they entered the old KOA. "Bobby and I watched from a hill looking down. It was sure something to see. When it was all over, there weren't many men left standing."

"What happened to them?" I asked.

"They took off running with their tails between their legs," Jackson said with a smirk.

"They didn't really have tails," Bobby offered, helping to break the tension.

"Well, you are welcome to stay with us if you'd like," Heckel said patting Jackson on the shoulder.

"I'd be glad to help cook that venison. In another life, I was a pretty good chef," Jackson said helping Jack carry the deer.

Vonnie took Bobby over to show him where he could wash up. Heckel took care of the two horses. I was about to help him when I looked over at camp. Jerky stood in front of our tent, glaring at our little gathering. Her hair was bristled along her back and I could see that she was hissing. The sight of her all riled up made my insides turn icy.

"Sela, you all right?" Heckel asked.

I was about to point to Jerky and say something when I saw the cat bolt off into the bushes. It's probably nothing, I thought. On the other hand maybe there's something to be concerned about. She is a good little warning system. "What's wrong with Jerky?"

"I don't know. Where is she?"

"She was over by the tent, but is gone now."

"Well, there's a mouse that's been bugging her for a while. I think she's determined to get it."

I stared at the bushes for the longest time.

"Sela, you okay?"

"Absolutely, perfect," I said grabbing Heckel's arm. "And tonight we have fresh meat!"

Chapter 20

The violent thunderstorm waltzed into the District of Columbia, pelting the historic buildings with dime-sized hail and sheets of cold rain. Lightning streaked across the Washington monument. Madeline could see the newly leafed-out trees being twisted and tortured as if a huge invisible hand were trying to pull them out of the ground.

"I just love a good, gale-force wind," she muttered, watching Mother Nature have her way. I wonder if I should send some testy weather out to Flagstaff and try that again? It would at least annoy the hell out of Heckel and his little band of merry men.

"Miss Madeline…um…your dinner party is assembled," a young man announced in a squeaky voice.

"Thank you. I'll be right there," she said, staring out the window to catch the next lightning flash. Ah, such power. What a sight! Suddenly, she could feel that same sense of force swirling inside her. An impish grin inched its way across her face, spreading from ear to ear. Madeline savored the power inside as if she were tasting an expensive glass of Cabernet. Each time the power made itself known, she felt as though it gained strength and her ability to control it improved. Madeline turned her palms upward to observe a blue swirling ball of energy ignite in each hand. The two orbs flared outward with small lightning flashes. It reminded her of the old dusty scientific equipment in a mad scientist's lab in some ancient black-and-white movie starring Boris Karloff.

A bright flash outside cracked a large branch off a nearby tree, causing her to regain her composure. She watched the blue orbs slowly retreat into her upturned hands. Her entire body felt like it had just been reborn; she hugged herself relishing the warm, invigorated feeling.

For dinner, Madeline was joined by several of her generals. They all stood up as she entered the long dining room.

"Good evening, gentlemen," she said as her assistant pulled her seat out, afterwards excusing himself to check on the status of dinner.

The men responded cordially and sat back down. Conversations were lively and centered mostly on the buildup of Madeline's army. A young man halfway down the table asked, "Miss Madeline, when will the battle take place?"

She admired the individual's boldness and stared at him with a contemplative expression. How much should I confide in these…peons?

The room went silent.

"What is your name?"

Sweat beaded on the young man's forehead. His hand shook as he grabbed for a glass of water. After swallowing a mouthful of water, he nearly spilled the glass. "Alan," he replied, his voice quivering.

"Well, Alan, that's an excellent question. One I'm sure that is on everyone's mind," she said, glowering at everyone seated at the table. "However, the answer is rather difficult to come up with. We are dealing with a very cunning individual. Our Mr. Casey possesses a-" Something suddenly took her speech away; she couldn't move. Madeline wondered what was happening to her.

Then she heard a voice in her head. You fool. Say nothing further. Do not show any weakness.

After a few minutes of absolute silence, Madeline regained her voice. The first words she uttered were, "The battle will end the reign of Heckel and his followers. We will crush them."

The room erupted with applause and excitement. Men pounded the table. Madeline continued her cheerleading manner, spouting sound bytes that were guaranteed to incite the simple-minded generals. She was getting so energized that the power inside her began to emerge, much like it did when she was watching the storm earlier. Madeline stood up and the blue energy orbs slowly emerged from each of her hands. The room went silent again; this time the men looked at Madeline with awe and almost worship. She spotted Alan, his hand shaking as he attempted to take another drink of water. His hand stopped in midair.

Oh, the power. It is addictive. Just look at them suspended in fear, awe and reverence, she thought, looking at each man around the table. Unexpectedly, the door to the kitchen opened and her assistant came out. Without thinking, Madeline threw one of the blue orbs at the wall next to his head. Sparks, smoke and shattered wood flew outwards. Her assistant fell to the ground, covered his head and curled up into the fetal position.

"Oops," she said sheepishly. "My bad."

Everyone in the room started laughing. Her assistant stood up and announced "Dinner is being served." Waiters began streaming into the room.

The rest of the dinner went without incident.

Later that evening, a messenger reported that Jackson and Bobby had been welcomed into the Heckel camp.

"Once the annoying little bug Heckel is squashed, my army will decimate his faithful puny followers and evil will cover the earth. Our day to rule will soon be upon us," Madeline muttered looking out at the continuing storm. A deafening crack of thunder made her smile.

The next morning Madeline sent for the messenger who had brought the news of her little moles out in Arizona. She was sitting outside finishing up breakfast when he arrived.

"You sent for me, Miss Madeline?"

"Yes, have a seat."

As the young man sat across from her, Madeline noticed one of the waiters enter. "May I clear the table, Miss Madeline?" he asked.

"Yes, thank you," she answered, brushing the crumbs off her napkin. He walked behind her and with blinding speed, grabbed her neck and twisted violently. Nothing happened. He tried again, nothing. Now he attempted to strangle Madeline as his grip tightened. The young man sitting across from her was stunned and did nothing to intervene. Slowly, Madeline stood up. She could feel the power…no, HER power inside seethe and come to life. The waiter let go of her neck and backed up in disbelief.

"You pathetic little worm," Madeline said, turning to confront the would-be assassin. Her long silky black hair billowed as if being teased by the wind. "I'll give you an A for effort, but I guess you'll have to go tell your precious Heckel that his attempt to assassinate me was futile."

"I was sent by no one. I acted alone. Someone needs to stop you," he said defiantly as he backed away.

"Well, my dear friend, it certainly won't be you," she said as the blue orb in one hand spun faster.

The hopeful assassin twisted around and jumped off the porch. He raced across the back lawn.

"I've been wanting a little target practice," Madeline muttered. "Watch this," she said to the young man still cowering at the table.

Like a pitcher in a bull pen warming up for the big game, she hurled one of the blue orbs at the running scared assassin. The orb hit the ground slightly behind the man, knocking him to his knees. Quickly, he got up and started running toward the fence. Another ball of energy appeared in her hand. She took careful aim and pitched the orb. It slammed directly into the attacker's back as he approached the fence. The blue orb bore through the man leaving a hole the size of a small watermelon, disintegrating his internal organs and cauterizing his flesh around the gaping hole. Slowly, he turned around. His body hadn't yet realized it was missing a few organs.

"Fall over. You're dead," Madeline yelled. She looked over at the man at the table. A small puddle of urine appeared under his chair. "So, what do you think? Am I ready for the big leagues?"

He smiled nervously, nodding his head up and down vigorously. "Yes, Miss Madeline, most definitely."

Looking back out at her assassin wannabe, she saw that he had finally fallen over. "Now's the time to generate two balls of…death. Catchy…I like that." She threw them at the body on the ground.

Instantly, the remains burst into flames. The incineration left a pile of gray ashes.

Lifting her hand, she brushed the air in front of her. Seconds later, a small dust devil appeared above his ashes, dispersing them into the air. "All cleaned up," she said proudly, sitting back down at the table. "Now, where were we?"

The messenger sat in silence, staring at Madeline. She grinned devilishly at him. She so loved inflicting abject fear into men-a great way to start the day.

"Umm…you…a…sent for me?" the young man mumbled haltingly.

"Ah, yes. What was your name again?" she asked, putting her hand on his to ease the tension.

His hand was trembling and felt as if it had just been taken out of the freezer. "Roger, ma'am."

"Well, Roger, I want you to be my eyes and ears out in Arizona. What you see and what you hear out there will transmit directly to me. Can you do that for me?" she asked, rubbing his hand.

"Umm…I…well…"

Madeline stood up and walked behind Roger. Rubbing his shoulders, she leaned down and whispered in his ear, "Those who are loyal to me will know untold riches."

"Yes, ma'am. I would be honored," he said sheepishly.

"Excellent," she said, taking her fingers and pushing them forcefully into his eye sockets. A burst of blue lightning transmitted into his eyes. He screamed. Seconds later, she placed her hands over his ears and the same burst of energy flowed into the side of his head.

When the process was complete, Madeline set Roger's head gingerly down onto the table. "You'll feel better in a while, I promise," she whispered into his ear.

Slamming her fist down on the table and breaking a large chunk of the oak wood off the edge immediately caught everyone's attention.

"I want to know one thing. Did he act alone or are there others?" Madeline looked at each man for an answer. Finally, one elderly man stood up and with his head tilted down answered, "No, Miss Madeline, there was no plot from within. This assassin was a force of one. There was no connection that we have discovered to lead us to believe otherwise. There has been a thorough investigation. Just one lone crackpot."

"Thank you. You may be seated," she said calmly and completely placated.

"How many men do we have with us now?" Madeline asked.

"After the loss in Albuquerque, the last count we have is around four to five thousand," one of the generals said holding a leather-bound notebook.

"I want more!"

"Miss Madeline, from our Intel we speculate that Heckel has maybe three hundred."

"I don't care what he has. I want my army to be victorious. More men will assure this. Make it happen. I don't care how you get men in my army. Just do it. Promise them they can have anything they desire."

"Miss Madeline?" a voice from the far end of the table asked timidly. "Will you be leading us?"

Simultaneously, all the men turned their heads to stare at the individual.

Like the Cheshire cat, Madeline beamed from ear to ear. "Oh, you can absolutely bet on it. I wouldn't miss watching this for anything. This will be the crowning achievement on my journey for a new world order. I will lead you all to a triumphant and victorious outcome. Our enemies will be vanquished."

The entire room stood up and applauded. Inside her head, she heard someone with an old man's voice say one word.

Excellent.

Chapter 21

Several days had passed since Jackson and Bobby joined Heckel's group. Everyone seemed to enjoy their company and they fit in well, helping with the daily chores, hunting and cooking. Bobby especially charmed Vonnie, who practically adopted him. Oh, there was one who was not so accepting, Jerky. She bristled every time Jackson was around.

"She's doing it again," Sela whispered as she came out of the tent.

"I see her," I said as I blew on the remaining embers from the previous night's campfire.

"Any thoughts?" Sela said, standing up in front of the tent.

"Hmm, not sure," I replied as I calmly placed more kindling on the embers. The smoke increased and curled around my head. Flame slowly emerged.

"I make fire," I declared using my best caveman voice.

"Seriously, Heckel. Her behavior is…"

"I know what you're saying. She's been a trustworthy warning system and guard cat. I'm not sure how to react to it either. Maybe she just doesn't like him or something."

Sela crossed her arms, rolled her eyes, and sighed heavily. "Hmm, if that were only the case, but in reality Jerky loves everyone."

"Except Mr. Steele. Look, I'm thinking we just be a little extra cautious and keep our guard up. Look out there," I said, waving my arm out across the huge field of tents and tarps. "There are close to three hundred people camped in that field that we have to trust. It all gets down to trust. Something that over the last couple of decades or so was lost among people. Virtues like loyalty, trust-"

"And faith," Sela chimed in.

"Yes, faith. Faith and a belief in-"

"Good morning," Jack said, walking up behind us. "How are you both this fine morning?"

"Faith in our fellow man," Sela whispered as she turned around. "We're great," she said with a huge smile. "We were just having a discussion and…um…thinking about stuff."

"Well, speaking of thinking, everyone's wondering when we are leaving."

"Sounds like the group is rested and ready to head out. I guess tomorrow would be good," I said.

"Do you want to meet with everyone? The ABQ folks haven't heard you speak yet," Jack suggested.

"They haven't missed anything," I mumbled.

"That's not true. They need to hear confidence and assurance from their leader," Sela said. "And don't wince at that word leader."

I smiled with a slightly reddened face and nodded my head slowly. "You're right as usual," I muttered. Jack flashed me a grin.

"Let's get together tonight about seven. You still have that bullhorn?" I asked Jack.

"Yup. I'll have it with me."

"There it is," I said.

Jack excused himself to start telling everyone about the evening's meeting. He waved and yelled, "Have a good day."

"So is the plan to split once we hit California a good idea? I mean…" Sela asked as she gathered up the breakfast dishes to take to the stream for washing.

"Yes, the council and I thrashed this plan over and over. The ABQ group has some really good thinkers in it as well as a few old-school military types. I feel confident that the plan we've come up with is solid."

Sela set her dishes down, wrapped her arms around my neck and looked me in the eyes. "That's the assurance I'm talking about." The kiss that followed made my head swim.

"Can I order a kiss like that before my speech?" I asked sheepishly.

"I think that can be arranged-that is, if you help me with the dishes."

"Deal."

After we finished cleaning up, Sela went to take care of Tempest and Hope. I went into the tent to start packing up some of our clothes.

"Hello, anyone in there?" I heard Jackson ask.

"Yeah, I'll be right out." After inching my way out of the tent, I quickly looked around to see if Jerky was nearby. But she wasn't in sight and I figured she had gone with Sela.

"Good morning, Jackson. How ya doin'?"

"Never better. I came by to thank you again for letting me join up."

"No problem. Glad to have you. You've fit in very well."

I sat down across from him and put a few small branches on the fire to stop it from smoldering so much. "How's Bobby doing?"

Jackson moved to another log to get away from the smoke. "I swear smoke has a way of following me."

I laughed and blew on the logs. The smoke abated and gave way to flames.

"Bobby's ankle seems to be fine now. He's been really enjoying Vonnie and all the affection she gives him. It's nice to see him laugh."

"Yes, we all need to laugh more."

After a few minutes of awkward silence, I asked, "So, Jackson Steele, tell me about yourself." He laughed and poked the fire.

"Well, there's not much to say," he answered nonchalantly.

"I like short stories," I said, trying to lighten the mood and get him to open up. I could tell he was a bit uneasy and reticent to say anything, so I was about to change the subject when he started his story.

"I was just in high school when everything was going south as they say."

"I was teaching high school at about that same time," I said, encouraging him.

"Yeah, it was difficult to go to school each day. I mean, there were fights, drugs, killings, not the most conducive environment for learning. Teachers and students slowly stopped going to class. Hell, they were killing each other over a pencil. Right before my senior year, my father and mother were killed in one of those church war shit storms. Remember that crap?"

"Sadly, yes, I do."

"I think it was about a year after Bloody Super Bowl Sunday that various churches collided in a bloody war," Jackson recounted. "The idea of religious tolerance became a thing of the past.

"Unfortunately, our history is peppered with clashes between religions," I added, putting a larger log on the fire. "There were the Catholics and the Protestants fighting each other, the Muslims and the Catholics and on and on. Remember all those terrorist attacks linked to the Muslim extremists?"

"Of course, the intolerance started with small verbal attacks from one church to another in our own country. The Mormon war was probably the bloodiest."

"Yeah, there was a news commentator who coined the expression, 'My God can beat up Your God,'" I added, recalling another of the tragic episodes leading to more of our collapse.

"The day my parents died I was at our church when they were slaughtered. I had gone out to the car to get my mother's purse, where she had her offering envelope. While I was getting it, I saw a large group of attackers barricade all the doors. Men and women threw gasoline on all the sides of the church. They were laughing and praying as they did it. A single match was thrown at the church. I can still hear the explosive sound when the gasoline ignited, and see the door being pounded from people desperate to get out. The screams from the inside were deafening. The stained-glass windows were broken and people started to crawl out. The attackers threw bottles filled with more gas onto the would-be escapees and into the broken windows, causing the fire to erupt more inside. Within minutes, there were no further screams. I cowered in fear as I watched."

A steady stream of tears flowed down Jackson's cheek and a lump filled the back of my throat.

After a few minutes, he continued. "The violence among religions got so out of hand. Every Sunday morning, you'd hear about some congregation being attacked. Lots of innocent people lost their lives in the name of religion."

"It was so contrary to what religion tries to preach," I said. "We were supposed to love thy neighbor."

"Yah, only if they were in the same 'club,'" Jackson said as he made invisible quotation marks.

"If my memory serves me correctly, didn't the National Guard start patrolling the streets on Sunday mornings?"

"Yes, they did. I believe Madeline ordered a token effort to try to stop the bloodshed. It was pretty ineffective. In the end, though, people just stopped going to services. They lost their faith with all the violence."

Remembering all about the church wars made me ill. We lost so many virtues along the road to the collapse, respect and tolerance probably being at the top of the list. Respect for authority. Respect for other religions. Respect for each other, to name a few. Our penchant toward violence emerged from each one of us to the point of epidemic proportions and our potential destruction. And Madeline started it all!

"I'm so sorry for your loss," I said quietly to Jackson.

He remained silent, staring into the burning embers. At one point, he picked up a branch and stoked the coals.

"What did you do after you lost your parents?"

"I stuffed my backpack and just started walking, trying to stay out of trouble and away from people."

"I know what you mean. At a certain point, it was better to withdraw."

"But now is the time to try to come together…for better or worse," he said with a slightly derisive sneer. His facial appearance was a little faded and distorted from a sudden plume of smoke covering him. It frightened me. From behind, I heard a familiar hiss and saw Jerky near a bush. She looked like a Halloween cat with the classic arched back.

"I need to get going," Jackson said abruptly as he spotted the cat.

Before I could even move, Jackson stood up and bolted away from the campfire. "See you later," I yelled.

He gave a weak, dismissive wave. What made him so nervous? Maybe his emotions got the best of him…or was it Jerky?

Chapter 22

"Would you like some more oatmeal, Bobby?" Vonnie asked as she took the bowl.

"Yes, ma'am. That's the best oats I've ever had. I really like the brown sugar and you put some dried apples on it. You are the best cook ever."

"Well, Bobby, thank you. You're a good boy," Vonnie said spooning more cereal into his bowl.

Suddenly, Bobby's insides twisted and knotted up. What was wrong? Then he remembered what Madeline had given him, the twisty-looking knife, and what she wanted him to do with it. She said he'd be a hero and get lots of presents. Bobby stared ahead into empty space, wondering if he really wanted to be a hero.

"Is something wrong, Bobby?"

"No, just thinking."

"Are they happy thoughts?" she asked as she set a pot of water on the fire to heat up to wash dishes.

"Yeah," Bobby mumbled.

After breakfast, he thanked Vonnie and ran off to play with some of the other kids. He really enjoyed the friends he had made since joining up with Heckel and the rest. As he raced out to meet up with a small group of boys, Bobby spotted Jackson out near the edge of the field. A sharp staccato whistle and a quick arm wave from Jackson clearly sent a signal to Bobby that he was needed. Bobby put his head down and walked slowly over, all the while thinking-Oh great, I wonder what he wants? I don't think I like him. Madeline sure does.

"Hey, Bobby, how ya doin'?" Jackson said putting his arm around the boy's shoulder.

"Good," Bobby answered. He hoped he didn't get into trouble for lying so much.

"Did you have a good breakfast?" Jackson asked as he led Bobby behind a tall, wide bush.

"Yup."

"Do you remember what we have to do?"

Bobby looked down and remained silent; he hated thinking of the twisty knife.

Suddenly, Jackson grabbed Bobby by the back of the shirt and pulled him close. He shook Bobby hard and slapped him behind the head.

"You dumbass kid. I asked you a question."

"What?" the young boy asked timidly.

"You heard me," Jackson said, now twisting Bobby's arm.

"Ouch, let go of me."

Jackson glowered, waiting for Bobby to respond to his question. He then twisted Bobby's arm harder.

"Okaaaay, I know what to do."

"Is the knife safe?" Jackson asked with a calmer voice. His piercing eyes stared like they would bore a hole into Bobby.

"Yes, it's in my backpack. Um…what if I changed my mind?" Bobby asked sheepishly.

Jackson laughed a weird high-pitched laugh that reminded Bobby of a girl he knew when he was in school. It was a bit weird that his laugh lasted a long time. The more that stupid laugh went on, the more afraid Bobby got.

Bending down to look Bobby in the eyes, Jackson finally said matter-of-factly, "That's not gonna happen, my little friend. You made a promise to Madeline and you're going to honor it."

"Why don't you do it?"

Another girly laugh. Boy, was that irritating, Bobby thought.

"Because, apparently, that's not how it works. For some bizarre reason, it has to be you. Madeline said something about the innocents or some crap like that."

Jackson stood up, twisted Bobby's arm more and shook him. "Look, you little shit, when we get to the border of Arizona and California, we will be crossing the Colorado River. That night when we are camped, you will sneak into Heckel's tent and…"

"I know. I know. You don't have to say it."

Jackson's face was all red and sweaty. His eyes looked heavily bloodshot and huge like fake Halloween monster eyes had replaced his normal squinty ones.

"Fine. You understand?"

"Yes," Bobby said softly. "Please, let go of my arm."

"What? I didn't hear you," Jackson said, twisting the small arm harder and farther up the boy's back.

"Ouch! Yes, I understand everything."

"All is settled. You be ready when I come to get you that night. Do you hear me?"

"Yes."

Jackson twisted Bobby's arm one last time, ruffled his hair and then shoved him away.

"Have fun playing," he yelled as Bobby took off running. At one point, Bobby turned to look for him and tripped on a rock. He wanted to start crying, but anger took over instead. He didn't like the man.

Bobby didn't find his friends. Playing was the last thing on his mind. Instead, he walked along the stream until he found a wide pool, a perfect place for throwing stones. There was a sizable pile of boulders jutting out into the water. After grabbing a large handful of stones, he climbed up onto one of the larger boulders and sat down.

Bobby stared at the water for the longest time, doing nothing. His mind was a million miles away in a place where he thought he was safe, but it was yanked back when the image of that twisty black knife crept into his mind. He threw a stone at the water really hard, making a good-sized splash. Anger flared inside him every time that knife appeared in his mind's eye and he tried to appease it by pitching another rock into the water.

Slowly, the face of Vonnie replaced the image of the repulsive, evil-looking knife. She made him feel good inside again. Maybe if I told her what Madeline wants me to do, she could tell me if I have to do it or not, he thought. Jackson would be really mad at me, though, and he'd probably tell Madeline. She'd be very upset with me. I just don't want to do it. Even though Madeline said she'd be helping guide my hand. Thinking about Madeline made him scared. He hurled another stone at the water as hard as he could.

"Nice arm."

Bobby spun around. Heckel was standing there. A lump formed in his throat and it was difficult to speak. Bobby dropped his head and stared at his feet, hoping they would sprout wings.

"Can I join you?" Heckel asked softly.

Bobby nodded his head slowly and lobbed a stone into the water. Finally after what felt like an hour, he got his mouth to work. First he muttered, "Thanks." As Heckel moved closer, he said louder with more confidence, "Sure, you can join me."

"This is a good spot. I bet it'd be a fun place to swim or take a bath," Heckel remarked as he sat down on the large boulder.

"I think it's probably really cold," Bobby mumbled, watching out of the corner of his eye as Heckel tossed a stone into the pool. I really don't know this man, but he seems like a friendly guy. Why would anyone want to hurt him?

"It looks like it's going to be a nice day to travel," Heckel tossed another stone in the water. "Are you all packed and ready to go?"

"Yup. Vonnie helped me pack my bag."

"She really likes you."

"I like her a lot too. She makes great food."

Heckel continued to pitch stones into the pool. Thinking of Vonnie made Bobby remember his mother. "I miss my mom," he said with a quiver to his voice.

"I'm sure she misses you too. When did you lose her?"

Bobby's arm stopped in midair. Tears quickly formed in the corner of both his eyes as if they were wild bulls waiting to be released at a bull-riding contest.

"I don't like to talk about that," he said, hoping Heckel didn't push him. He didn't like the tears that came when he thought of his mom.

"That's okay. You don't have to. Someday if you want to talk, you come find me and we'll share stories. Okay?" Heckel asked.

Bobby nodded his head. Heckel slid over next to him and put his arm around his shoulders. His touch made Bobby feel comfortable and relaxed. It made his insides feel safe, unlike Jackson's.

Heckel looked down at Bobby, smiled and said, "We probably should get back to camp. I think we are leaving pretty soon."

"Okay," Bobby said tossing the rest of the stones into the pool. "Thanks for talking to me," he said quietly. Heckel extended his hand and Bobby shook it.

"You're perfectly welcome. It was nice hanging with you as well. Are you riding with Vonnie today?" he asked as they started walking back to camp.

"Yeah, she said I could. It sure beats walking. My feet still have blisters from all the walking I did with Jackson. He's kind of a…" Bobby caught himself before he said anything bad.

Heckel looked down at the young boy and just nodded slightly as though he knew what he was going to say.

Walking back to camp, they chatted about fun things like baseball, school, drawing and reading. It was all cool stuff Bobby hadn't thought about in a long time. He cracked some fun jokes too. Bobby had never heard 'Knock, Knock jokes,' or 'Why did the chicken cross the road?' Heckel reported that they were classics. Bobby felt really good to laugh, and laugh hard, even though some of the jokes made him groan. After Heckel left him at Vonnie's campsite, Bobby sat down on a log. His thoughts were going ninety miles an hour. One thought braked in front of his mind-I…can…not…hurt my new friend. I don't care if I'm not a hero and Madeline can keep all her crummy gifts.

Chapter 23

The day we left Flagstaff, summer decided to come out by midmorning, and preview what it had to offer for its upcoming season. Temperatures climbed their way to around eighty. Sela said she thought it was about mid-May. Someone else we talked with thought it was closer to the beginning of June. At any rate, it got hot and that meant we'd soon have a shortage of water. Everyone did begin rationing and mostly made sure the horses had enough water.

Fortunately, we made good time that first day out and managed to make it to Williams, Arizona. There we found water at Gonzalez Lake, not too far off Interstate 40. It had a lot of water from the winter snowmelt. We decided to stay an extra day to enjoy the lake.

Before we left, everyone worked hard to fill every conceivable container with water. People were really good about rationing and we made it to Kingman, Arizona, just in time to find an old watering spot called Camp Beale Springs. As soon as we made camp, we were met by a small group of about fifty people who had managed to survive. Initially, we were suspicious and guarded. We just didn't trust anyone and our first reaction was to suspect Madeline. After we talked and decided they were not tainted by any evil, we invited them to join us. They were eager to become a member of our merry band of would-be warriors. I sat down that evening with the new people and gave them the Cliff's Notes version of what had transpired. They were filled with questions, most of which Sela was happy to answer. She always knew when I was getting a little overwhelmed or even just whelmed.

We hadn't seen much of Jack and Vonnie over the past few days. Of course, we heard that Vonnie and Missy were taking really good care of Bobby. I hadn't seen Jackson since that morning when we talked.

We stayed three days in Kingman. Our next stop would be the Colorado River crossing into California. Now for some odd reason, I kept getting nervous every time I thought about entering California. What's waiting for us in California? What's Madeline got up her sleeve now? More snakes? Another bad storm? Demonic roadrunners?

"Just keep your guard up," I mumbled to myself. I looked down and Jerky was curling her body around my legs. "Yeah, I know. You feel it, too. Don't cha?" The cat looked up at me and meowed. I picked the big bundle of fur up and petted her. "Whew, you're getting heavy. With all those mice you've been eating, I bet your cholesterol numbers are high."

"Well, are you two having a little bonding session?" Sela asked.

"Yup, Jerky's my second-best girl and you're my first," I said, putting my free arm around Sela. Jerky leaned over and licked Sela's cheek.

"You guys ready for dinner?" Sela asked, petting the top of Jerky's head.

"Absolutely," I replied, setting Jerky down. The cat ran off most likely to find her own dinner. "Try a salad for a change," I yelled, prompting Sela to give me a quirky frown.

I stuck my head out of the tent early the next morning and Jerky slithered under my chin to get outside. "Okay, let's not be a pushy broad," I mumbled. Sela rolled over and grunted something unintelligible.

"Hmm, looks like a cloudy start to the day," I muttered.

Sela stretched and with a groggy voice asked I how slept.

"I had a couple of bad dreams," I answered. "But I was able to get back to sleep."

"Yeah, me too. I kept waking up and reliving some of them. Do you think its Madeline messing with us?"

"Maybe. Hadn't thought of that," I said patting her behind. "We better get going. We should make the crossing into California hopefully tomorrow or the next day."

Right after I said California, Sela sat up, grabbed me around the neck and squeezed hard. "Can we go another way?"

"What's wrong?" I asked, lifting her head to kiss her on the cheek.

"I just have a bad feeling. One of my dreams was…um…I should say a nightmare and something bad happened at the bridge."

Okay, now I was freaked out. Sela must have had the same dream I had. "We'll be fine. If there's trouble waiting there for us, we just have to keep our guard up and meet it without fear." She hugged me tighter. I made a mental note to have a small impromptu meeting with Jack and the rest of the leaders so that we were prepared. I also had an idea to implement as a precaution. "I'll go out and get the fire going. It seems a tad nippy out there."

Sela slid lower into the sleeping bag. "Give me ten more minutes."

"Absolutely," I said kissing her tenderly. "I'll let you know when the fire's going good."

Later that morning, as we were heading toward the Colorado River, I discovered that almost everyone's dreams were nightmares. People were on edge and, frankly, scared. As a precaution, we sent a few riders up ahead as scouts. They returned shortly after lunch and said the way was clear.

Sela put her rifle on her back. Looking around, I noticed most folks had a weapon of some kind poised and ready.

We stopped for the evening around five o'clock. People were still very cautious and on guard. You could cut the tension with a knife. After Sela and I set up our camp, I went looking for Jack.

"Hey, Heckel, what's up?" Jack asked with a big smile as he finished making a fire.

"You picked a good place to camp. Plenty of firewood around."

"Yeah, I thought it looked good too."

"Have you noticed how everyone is-?"

"Spooked?" he queried, throwing another bundle of wood on the fire.

As I watched him make his campfire, a brilliant thought formed in my mind and I got very excited.

"Jack, I have a great idea to help ease the tension and calm everyone."

"What?"

"You'll have to wait and see. Just be ready around seven after everyone's had a chance to eat dinner. Oh, this is going to be great," I said as I turned to run back to my campsite.

"Okay, I'll be ready," Jack yelled.

All through dinner, I had a big grin on my face. Sela kept asking me what I was thinking and planning, but I said she'd just have to wait for the big surprise. At one point, she jumped on top of me and pinned my arms to the ground, threatening to tickle me until I told her. We rolled around in the dirt, laughing and tickling each other.

Finally, I conceded and gave her one clue. "Do you remember MASH?" I asked brushing the dirt off Sela's back.

"Of course, everyone remembers MASH. It was practically an institution unto itself. And most likely the best television program in history. The reruns were still going before the collapse. Why?"

"That's all I'm going to say."

After we cleaned up from dinner, we went over to check on the horses grazing nearby. I looked out over the field of campers and saw THE perfect spot. Looking around on the ground, I found some dead wood. I picked up a large bundle and started walking to the spot I picked out.

"Where are you going?" Sela asked.

"Follow me…and pick up some wood." Sela shrugged her shoulders and did as I asked.

On the way to the spot, I swung by Jack's camp and told him to pick up some wood and follow me.

I had an enormous grin on my face as I placed the bundle of wood on the ground. Laughing, I turned around and went to get more wood. After a few steps, I looked back to see both Jack and Sela giving me an odd look. As if a light bulb went on, they smiled and dropped the wood onto the pile. We kept getting wood, making the pile bigger and bigger. Slowly, I noticed other people watching us and one by one, they started to get wood for the pile.

Half an hour later, the pile was huge. Sela came up to me laughing. "I remember that episode of MASH where they had a huge bonfire in the camp and it made everyone feel really good." Sela kissed me on the cheek. "You are brilliant!"

"Every so often I have my moments."

By the time it was almost dark, the whole camp surrounded the huge pile of wood, eagerly waiting for it to be ignited.

Slowly the crowd began to chant, "Fire! Fire! Fire!"

I put up my hand. The crowd went silent. "What do you think? Are we ready?" I yelled out to everyone.

And the thunderous chant began again in earnest. "Fire! Fire! Fire!"

"Okay, here we go," I yelled back, throwing a makeshift burning torch into the towering pile of wood. Little by little, the wood began to burn and within minutes it was blazing.

The crowd cheered, clapped and laughed.

"Isn't this a bit risky? I'm sure this fire can be seen for miles," Jack commented, looking a bit nervous.

"Yeah, but we need it. Just look at the people. It's the first time in a while that we're hearing laughter. It's worth it," I said

Sela grabbed my hand and motioned for me to grab Jack's hand. He in turn grabbed Vonnie's hand and motioned for her to take Missy's hand. Within minutes everyone held hands. Sela started the first wave and everyone laughed as that went around a few times. Someone in another row started a wave in the opposite direction. Row after row pulsated around the enormous bonfire.

"If someone were looking down at these waves, they'd have a pretty good show," I yelled over to Sela.

"Someone is watching down on us and I'm sure having a good laugh," Sela said, winking at me.

I nodded and winked back. All that tension from everyone was getting released. Gradually, people sat down around the fire and visited with each other. The mood of the group had changed significantly. At one point, I looked around to see if I could see Jackson and Bobby. I didn't see either of them the whole evening. As the evening wore on, some folks left the group while others curled up and fell asleep. Both Sela and Jerky fell asleep next to me.

"Hey, sleepyhead, let's go to bed," I said softly into Sela's ear.

"Okay." She didn't move.

I lifted her head off my thigh and Sela managed to get up. I held on to her waist as we started walking for our camp. Jerky stretched and followed. As we were making our way across the moonlit field, I spotted Jackson on the other side of the field near the tree line. He was holding on to Bobby. Maybe he was taking Bobby out to pee or something, I thought. The moon ducked behind a cloud. When it returned, they were no longer there.

It didn't take long for the morning sun to warm things up. The large encampment was a beehive of activity. Everyone was packing quickly to get an early start. Sela was up before me that morning and she had already visited Tempest and Hope, making sure they had gotten water. When I stuck my head out of the tent, I was greeted by a big wet kiss from Jerky as well as a nip on the ear.

"Ouch," I hollered.

"That's just her way of saying she loves you," Sela said as she stirred a large pot of oatmeal.

"I know, but it does smart a little," I said and crawled the rest of the way out of the tent.

Sela came up to me, wrapped her arms around my neck and kissed me for the longest time.

"Whew, now that's a primo example of what a morning kiss should be every day. That was a model for every woman to emulate. Wow!" I exclaimed, trying to catch my breath.

"Good morning, Heckel. I love you so much. What you did last night was pure genius. Everyone feels so good. Just look around. There's a smile on everyone's face," Sela said.

"I love you, too…bunches and I'm so glad everyone is feeling better. Every so often I get a good idea. Hopefully, today we'll cross over the Colorado River without any problems. Maybe that bonfire sent a big message to Madeline. She cannot crush our spirits."

"I'm sure it did."

Chapter 24

Madeline's new eyes and ears, otherwise known as Roger, lay on the ground, perched on a high hill overlooking the camp below. His elbows were on the ground, supporting a powerful set of binoculars. He spanned the campground, watching as people gathered wood for a large bonfire. Everything he saw and heard was immediately sent to Madeline.

"What in the world are you doing, Mr. Casey?" Madeline said through Roger. She imagined if anyone had heard him, they would have thought he had an awfully feminine voice. Madeline giggled as though she were a junior high girl trying on a bra for the first time.

More and more people joined Heckel, tossing wood onto a large pile.

"Clever man," she mumbled when she saw the whole field watching in eager anticipation as the bonfire was lit. "Sure, I get everyone scared and riled up with my dreams," she said slamming his hand on the ground. "Then you come along with your big happy fire, have everyone hold hands and get warm fuzzies. Shit, I'm surprised you don't start singing 'Kumbaya.'"

Madeline watched the ridiculous spectacle unfolding. With all the stupid crowd waves, she thought she was at a frickin' football game or something. The more she witnessed the obnoxious gathering, the more she got pissed off.

Where were Jackson and Bobby? she wondered. "Maybe I should find a big fat cloud and have it dump on their festive congregation," she muttered looking up at the sky. "Crap, not a cloud in the vicinity. That's the southwest for ya. Damn."

Madeline paced all along that hill watching and hearing their laughter all evening. As people started leaving, Madeline got antsy to talk with Jackson and Bobby. "Okay, Roger, let's go have us a little talk with our friends."

She made her way down the hill and through some trees. Finally, she caught sight of Jackson and Bobby. They were at the edge of the field. Jackson had Bobby by the arm. It appears they didn't get all cozy with everyone else. Madeline hurried along a dry creek bed and came up behind them.

"Psst, Jackson. Over here."

Jackson didn't move.

He might be a great lay in bed, she thought, but he wasn't the brightest bulb left on the planet. "Jackson," she whispered a bit louder.

He turned and faced Madeline. "Get over here, now," she said sternly, trying to sound as much like Madeline as she could.

"Who are you?" he asked.

"Madeline."

"Really? Excuse me pal, but Madeline is much better looking than you," Jackson said with much sarcasm.

"Jackson, come over here now. I am Madeline. I'm just using Roger here to be my eyes and ears, but for all intents and purposes, it is me," she now said sternly, making Roger's eyes glow red.

The minute he saw Roger's bright red orbs, he knew.

"Get up. You don't need to kneel to me."

Jackson pulled Bobby along into a thick cluster of bushes. Madeline ruffled Bobby's hair. "How's my big guy?"

Bobby glowered at Madeline and backed away.

"Bobby, this is a nice friend. His name is Roger. He's a close friend of our favorite person, Madeline," Jackson said, pushing Bobby closer to Roger. He sheepishly stuck out his hand to shake.

"So nice to meet you, Bobby," Madeline said, trying to sound more like Roger.

"Bobby, how about you wait here a few minutes. I have something important to discuss with our friend, Roger." Jackson took Bobby and set him down on a large rock nearby. Within a few minutes, he fell asleep.

"I think our little guy here wants to back out of his…um…duty," Jackson said quietly.

Madeline looked over at Bobby, who had curled up on the ground. "Really? What makes you think that?"

"I think it's that woman, Vonnie, who has poisoned him with all her goodies and niceties. I had a little talk with him, but I'm not so sure it's doing any good."

Madeline put Roger's arm around Jackson's shoulder. She could tell it made him feel uncomfortable. "Perhaps, you are worrying too much."

"With all due respect, Miss Madeline, but I really think we have a problem. Everyone is confident we will make the river tomorrow and…um…what if he doesn't do it?"

Madeline kissed Jackson's cheek. He backed away nervously. She giggled, "Sorry, I couldn't resist that. Look, I will have a quick visit right now with our precious little warrior. He will complete his task. Now wait over there until I'm done."

Madeline walked over to Bobby and sat down next to him. He was sound asleep. She rested a hand softly on the top of his head and entered his dream.

"Hello, Bobby. It's Madeline." They were both seated on a thick branch high up in a tree overlooking the Colorado River.

"Hello," Bobby said as he stared ahead at the people crossing over a bridge.

"How are you doin'?" Madeline asked as she slowly rubbed his back.

"Not so good. I don't want to use that stupid, awful-looking knife," he said defiantly.

"It's just a game," Madeline replied.

Bobby remained silent, staring ahead.

"As I said, it's just like those old video games. Remember, I gave you a bunch to play with before you left?"

"Yeah, they were fun."

"Well, what you have to do is just like one of those games. And when it's all done, you will get tons of ice cream, more fun games, candy, new toys and lots more."

Madeline could tell the wheels were turning and continued to slowly massage Bobby's back. She wanted to just push her energy into his back and make him like Roger, but no, it wouldn't work that way. The death of Heckel must be by an innocent and of his own free will, even if that free will was slightly manipulated.

Bobby moaned softly, enjoying the backrub. "There will be lots of backrubs when you come back to me. Would you like that?"

"Yes, ma'am," he whispered.

"So, you'll finish the game?"

"Um…okay. I guess so."

"You remember how it all plays out, right?"

"Yes, I do."

"Well, I have to go now. You stay up here until I leave. I will see you again soon," Madeline said, kissing Bobby on the forehead. She jumped down from the tree and the dream slowly dissolved in Bobby's head.

"Well, hopefully my little chat with Bobby will keep things on track. You just remember what you have to do," Madeline said to Jackson.

"I'm ready to get this done with and return to you," Jackson said in a whiny voice.

"Great," Madeline said. "By the way, Roger thinks you are very handsome."

With a nervous grin, Jackson shivered.

Madeline threw a chair, smashing it against the far wall. All the men in the room lowered their heads. She paced nervously around the room, thinking and calculating. No one said a word. She was now worried that something was going to go wrong out there at the Colorado River and in the end she would actually have to battle this little shit, Heckel. Her head hurt from all the tension. "What is the status of my force?" she bellowed.

Everyone started talking excitedly. Madeline held up her hand and the room instantly returned to silence. She pointed her finger at one individual, sneered and said, "You."

A portly, middle-aged man stood up and with beads of sweat streaming down his cheeks, said haltingly, "We have about two thousand men camped in the southern part of Washington, near Olympia."

"Go on," she bellowed as she picked up a large leg from the smashed chair and played with it.

"There are another three thousand or so camped in the Blue Mountains," he stammered.

"Where the fuck are the Blue Mountains?" Madeline said, slamming the chair leg on the table next to the man speaking. "I don't have a frickin' atlas in my head."

He defensively put his arms around his head and said, "They are in the eastern part of Oregon."

"Thank you," she replied.

"You're welcome. We are trying to add to those numbers with recent recruits we've gathered, but…um…there's a small problem that's…um…starting to pop up, and…um…" the man said.

Madeline inched her way over to him and stood beside him. "Pray tell, what might that small problem be?" she asked very calmly.

"Well, it seems that one of the camps, I think the one in the Blue Mountains, is experiencing an outbreak of…um…"

"Cholera and dysentery," someone across the table spoke up.

Madeline started laughing. "So, they got the squats. Big deal. Get them some…what do you all it, Ipecac or Pepto Dismal or whatever."

Several men started to snicker.

"Miss Madeline, I received news yesterday that the men that had the problems are improving. We were able to get a few doctors out to that camp," the same individual announced proudly.

"Fine. Enough of this shit…pun intended," she said smacking the broken leg on the table and laughing. "It is still probably a couple of months away until the enemy reaches the designated area, and I want…"

A man waved his hand in the air as if he were a kid in kindergarten needing to go to the restroom. "Excuse me, Miss Madeline, but why not attack them somewhere in California? Surprise them when they don't expect it."

"Put your hand down. You look silly. What's your name?" Madeline asked walking over to the window.

"It's Derek."

"Derek, you seem like a bright individual," she said, still looking out the window and watching a young man with his shirt off cut the lawn. Hmm, she thought. Must remember to find out who that is. Yummy.

"Thank you, ma'am."

"I believe I've said before that I do not like to be interrupted."

The room went mausoleum silent. Derek stood up instantly, pushed his chair over and ran for the door. Madeline waved her hand and the door locked. Anger inside her boiled over. The orbs of energy formed in her hands. She wanted to fling them at each of the miserable men at the table. While pacing the room, she watched the orbs build energy. Her insides seethed like molten lava. "Ah, it feels so good," she muttered. It felt more intense than any orgasm she had ever had. The power made her whole and alive. Madeline could feel her eyes roll up into her head as she bathed in the power.

Finally, the energy subsided to where she was able to speak. "Derek, Derek, Derek," she muttered, walking up to him. The poor man had slumped to the floor and was crying. Madeline bent down, pulled him up and said, "It's okay now." She put her arm around him. "Derek, I'm going to tell you why your idea sucks." The minute she said that last word, the tension mounted in the room. "You see, Derek. This whole 'collapse,' as I've heard it called, has been orchestrated by forces way beyond anything your little pea brain could even possibly comprehend. The battle with Heckel and his wimps will take place outside of Bend, Oregon. That's where it has been preordained and that's where it will take place. Not Arizona, not Nevada and certainly not in any fucking California. Besides, I don't like California."

Madeline looked up to see several men snickering. With blinding speed and using one long, highly polished fingernail, she slit Derek's jugular vein. Blood spewed out, splattering several men at the table. Derek staggered backward slightly, holding his neck, the very essence of life cascading down his fingers. He tried to speak, but his mouth was full of blood. He keeled over and landed on top of the large oak table. The crimson fluid trailed across the highly polished wood.

The room was deathly silent again.

Madeline walked back to the head of the table and said calmly, "Don't anyone piss me off. Got that?"

The shock of what just happened lingered in the room as everyone watched Derek's blood stream down the center of the table, eventually spilling over the edge. Madeline smiled and said, "Anyone hungry? Lunch is on me."

Chapter 25

"That was some awesome bonfire last night, Heckel," Vonnie said as she, Missy and Bobby walked into our camp.

"Yeah, it was a lot of fun," I said. "How'd you like it, Bobby?"

He looked down, kicked the dirt and didn't say anything.

Sela looked at Vonnie and Missy. They both shrugged and exchanged puzzled looks.

"It sure was big, wasn't it?" I asked.

"I gotta go get ready," Bobby mumbled as he ran off.

"That's odd," Vonnie said. "He's usually a very happy kid. Wonder what's bothering him?" Whispering, she added, "I don't think he got to see much of it. Jackson came by our camp right before the fire and led him off to talk to him about something."

I had my suspicions.

"Everyone's excited to be getting to the Colorado River today," Missy said, changing the mood.

"I think we're all looking forward to bathing and doing laundry. Will we be staying a while?" Sela asked.

"I suppose so," I replied. "It would be good to recharge the batteries and I agree that getting some of the road dirt off will definitely feel good."

Jack once again led the way. One of our scouts came riding back shortly after lunch to report that all was well at the bridge. He said there was a good-sized field a ways up from the bridge that would make a good place to camp.

There were a few afternoon clouds that helped keep the temperatures down a bit along with a slight breeze. However, I noticed that Hope and Tempest were sweating excessively and I worried about dehydration. "A little while longer until we get to the water," I said petting Hope. "Hang in there."

"How are you feeling?" I asked Sela.

"Fine. I felt a little queasy a while back, but it passed. Um…when we get there, would you mind going hunting or fishing? Anything you get would be great. I'm getting tired of some of the dried stuff we have."

"Sure no problem. Maybe I can bag another snake. The last one you cooked was pretty good. Tasted like chicken."

Sela smiled and said, "I'm sure you can find one. I think there are probably a lot around here. Just be careful. After your last encounter with snakes, I'm surprised you'd even want to be near one."

The remaining hours seemed to drag on. The breeze went away and it got hotter. When we approached the river, people cheered and raced to the water's edge.

Sela led us farther down the bank. She dismounted and led Tempest to the water. "Here ya go, Hope. Enjoy!" I said. The two horses drank for a long time. Afterwards, we found a spot to set up our camp.

"Sit down and relax before you go trekking off," Sela said as she finished unpacking our tent. "I'll pitch the tent and get things done while you're gone."

"Ah, that does feel good," I said, stretching out on the ground. "As long as we've been riding, you'd think my butt would have gotten used to it and formed stiff calluses by now." I rolled over on my belly. Sela sat down next to me and rubbed my lower back. "Oh, that feels absolutely spectacular. Please, don't stop," I moaned in ecstasy.

"Are you still…nervous about going into California?"

I grunted and said, "It'll be fine."

After about five minutes, I felt energized and ready to be the great white hunter or more like the great sunburned hunter. With rifle in hand and my trusty cat, Jerky, we set out to find dinner. We walked up the river for about a mile and didn't see any signs of life. "Let's go up this draw a bit to see if we can find a snake," I muttered to Jerky. The cat raced ahead of me, but looked back every so often to make sure I was following.

Ten minutes later, Jerky stopped, hissed and turned to me.

"What?" I whispered, crouching down. I inched my way closer to her and hid behind a small clump of cacti. "Oh crap," I mumbled looking out across a boulder field. "There must be about fifty of Madeline's boys. Come on, Jerky. We better go tell the others."

On the way back to camp, I luckily spotted a good-sized fat rattler. One shot and we had dinner. I looked over my shoulder, hoping that none of Madeline's Marauders had heard the shot.

I jogged back to camp with a big snake wrapped around my neck. Jerky kept up with me. As soon as I made it to our camp, I tossed the snake to Sela and told her I'd be right back.

"Jack," I said, out of breath. "We have a small problem."

He motioned for me to sit down. "What's wrong?"

"Madeline's got a group camped not very far from here. Maybe two miles."

"Do you think they plan to attack us?" he asked handing me a bottle of water.

"I couldn't tell. I mean, I couldn't even decide if they were in fact actually Madeline's men. I just figured as such. They sort of had that…um…I don't know what to call it. A look."

"We don't want to panic everyone. I'll take a small group up and we'll keep an eye on them all night. If they attack, we'll be able to come up from behind them."

"Sounds good. You be careful," I said.

He nodded and walked off.

The evening wore on without incident. Campfires dotted the large field. People were singing, laughing and relaxing. Many folks had retired early. I told Sela what I had discovered and she immediately loaded both rifles as well as carried a Glock with her. After a while, she fell asleep in front of the fire. "Come on, Sela. Time you hit the hay." She stretched and stood up. "Are you coming?" she asked, crawling into the tent.

"I'll be there in a few minutes."

She left the flap open on the tent. Jerky slipped inside. Great-now I have to fight her to get my spot.

As the fire died down to glowing embers, I watched the area around our campsite overcome with darkness. My eyes kept opening and closing. Just as I was about to give it up and call it a night, I felt a sharp point digging into my back.

"You don't want to do this," I said, calmly.

I could feel the tip of the knife inch into my back a little farther. I knew it wasn't piercing the skin, but it wouldn't take much to finish the job.

"Yes, I do. It's part of the game and Miss Madeline said I'd win all the…um…stuff," I heard Bobby say nervously. I could tell he was on the verge of crying.

"She's wrong," I said.

"Miss Madeline is never wrong. I know. She told me she was a noble queen."

From the edge of the darkness, I heard a whispered command. "Do it!"

I could feel the knife wiggle.

"Bobby, can I see the knife?"

"I can't show it to you. You're not supposed to see it."

Another urgently whispered directive came from the shadows; it was closer. "Now, you little shit. Do it!"

"Listen, Bobby. If you kill me, terrible things will happen and everyone loses the game…even you."

I felt the knife withdraw and Bobby came around front of me. "I really don't like this game," he said, handing me the twisted, evil-looking dagger. I gingerly took it. There was a strange sensation emanating from the handle and a slight tinge of glowing red to the blade.

"Sit down, Bobby. Thanks for not hurting me. You did the right thing," I said, patting the ground next to me.

"I didn't really want to do this," he said, crying.

Suddenly, Jackson burst from the black veil of night. He had a machete in his hand. I put my arm around Bobby to protect him.

A loud gunshot roared across the campsite, disturbing the soft guitar playing from the camp next to us. Jackson dropped the machete a foot away from Bobby and me. He fell facedown into the glowing embers. I jumped up and removed his smoldering face from the fire. Vonnie came rushing over and held Bobby.

Another individual whom I didn't recognize emerged from the shadows. He sprang toward me with long, deadly fingernails that tried to claw at my face.

I grabbed his wrists and heard a high-pitched girly voice.

"Die, Heckel. Just die, once and for all."

I recognized Madeline's voice immediately.

"Roger, stop it," Bobby yelled.

Sela came out of the tent, pointing the Glock at the assailant.

"Who's Roger?" I asked, trying to fend off my attacker. I finally grappled my attacker to the ground and pinned the wrists.

"Roger's my eyes and ears," Madeline said.

"Well, I say we put them out," Sela said leaning over him with the Glock pointed at the center of his head.

"Wait," I said.

Before I could ask another question, multiple gunshots rang out at the northern sector of the field. Men ran toward the commotion. Sela spun around and quickly crawled into our tent.

"Ah, that would be my little welcoming party," Madeline said.

I bent down screaming into Roger's face. "Madeline, we will end your reign and triumph over the evil you spread."

"Blah, blah, blah. Since my boy Bobby wasn't man enough to end things, I guess I will just have to do it myself. You can't find good help these days," Madeline said, followed with a high, piercing laugh.

Screams and yelling from the fight continued. "Come on, Heckel. We need to go help," Sela said, emerging from the tent with two rifles. "Put this poor soul out of his misery. Having Madeline in your head has to be worse than death."

I let go of Roger's wrists and put my hands on the side of his head. Immediately, he tried to claw at me, but then went still. He started shaking violently; his body thrashed from side to side nearly bucking me off. I could feel Madeline's power inside fighting to maintain control.

"Madeline, I command you to leave this man," I shouted. Sela stood behind me, pointing her Glock at him. Roger began foaming at the mouth. "Roger, stay with us," I screamed. Suddenly, his eyes burned bright, my hands flew backward and a second later, his head exploded. Blood and shards of his brain matter splattered in my face and hit Sela as well. A faint giggling trailed off into the dark. Madeline had no further use for Roger and saw to it that he wouldn't be helping us.

"Come on," Sela said, wiping her face. "It's over here. We need to go help with the fight."

I looked down at the sad remains of Roger and said a small prayer. A poor, innocent victim in this horrible war.Rest in peace. As I stood up, I looked down and said, "We will defeat your captor."

"Let's go, Heckel," Sela said pulling my arm while she offered me a rifle.

I turned to her with a calm expression on my face and said, "Sela, I think it's best if you stay here."

She looked at me as if I had sprouted a large clump of broccoli on top of my head. She gave me a sarcastic look and was about to say something when I took the rifle from her and said, "You need to stay here with Vonnie and Bobby. Your days of fighting are over for a while. I can't lose you or our baby." She was about to resist when Vonnie came over and said, "He's right. It wouldn't be fair to your child."

Sela put her hand to her abdomen and smiled. "Oh my."

"What is it?" I asked.

"The baby just kicked for the first time," Sela said with a huge smile on her face.

"See. He doesn't want you to go either," I said resting my hand on her belly. The baby kicked again. It was a wonderful sensation. Sela smiled at me. The baby kicked again.

"Guess he thinks I should go help," I said, kissing Sela. "I'll be right back. You go lie down in the tent. I'll take care of Roger when I get back."

Vonnie and Bobby started to walk away when Bobby turned, ran to me, threw his arms around my waist and thanked me. Tears streamed down his face.

"Tomorrow morning, we'll get together and go fishing. Would you like that?" I asked.

Bobby nodded his head and hugged me tighter. He then ran back to Vonnie.

"You be careful," Sela said.

I kissed her and ran off into the darkness.

Just as I got to the edge of the fighting, I saw Jack and his group of men ride over a ridge and attack Madeline's men from behind. It didn't take long to end the attack. About a dozen of her men surrendered.

As we went to confront the small group, each of Madeline's men burst into flames. They ran and rolled on the ground, screaming, writhing in pain. Several of our men went to help, but the white-hot flames incinerated Madeline's followers.

Silently, I said another prayer.

Jack came up to me and put his arm around my shoulder. We stood frozen, staring at the remains of our men who died.

"Heroes and brave men," Jack said softly.

I nodded my head slowly, thinking of the widows that were just made. My determination and confidence to end Madeline were fueled by the loss of our friends. No longer did doubt find its way into my thinking. No longer did I feel weak or hesitant.

"You and I need to talk tomorrow," I said, turning to walk back to camp. "For now, we need to bury our friends."

The next morning, we held a funeral service. This one was the most difficult. We lost twenty from our group. We had become such a family over the past several months. It was nearly impossible for anyone to come up with words. Most people just stood there, filled with grief.

As we were about to leave, Bobby came up to me and took my hand. "I'm sorry. This is all my fault."

I bent down, picked Bobby up, and said, "Don't say that. You did not cause this pain and sadness. You did the right thing. You were brave."

Tears streamed down Bobby's cheeks. His lower lip pouted and trembled.

Sela rubbed his back. "Bobby, you saved Heckel. Your rewards are much greater than anything Madeline could have promised."

Bobby looked incredulously at Sela. "You'll know one day," Sela whispered in his ear.

"For now, Bobby, what do you think about trying our hand at a little fishing?"

Bobby cracked a small smile and said, "With you?"

"Of course. I spotted a good-sized fishing hole about a mile down the river. Do you think you can make that?"

Bobby kissed me on the cheek and said, "You betcha. I haven't been fishing since my dad left us."

Chapter 26

The 500 hp Cummins diesel engine roared to life as Madeline walked up the steps to the opulent RV. The driver stood up immediately and welcomed her aboard. "Good morning, Miss Madeline."

"Seriously? A motor home? This is how I travel? What about a personal jet or stretch limo?" Madeline asked standing at the doorway.

"Your assistant said you wanted to see what your country was looking like. So he ordered this-"

"Tenement on wheels," Madeline said interrupting. She looked down the side of the motor home in disgust as though she had just drank sour milk.

"I think you'll find the ride very comfortable. Prevost is the premier motor coach. Always has been. You have all the comforts of home and then some."

"We'll see about that," Madeline said, wrinkling up her nose and then pursing her lips. "Oh, where are my babies?" she queried turning around to see two black dachshunds with diamond-studded collars clambering up the stairs behind her. They made their way to the soft leather sofa and looked out the window, barking at a large German shepherd off in the distance.

"There's mamma's little sweet peas," she said, gushing over the dogs. Madeline threw her briefcase down and petted the dogs.

"Would you care to see the rest of your home on wheels?" the driver asked.

"I suppose so," she said with a slight whine. Madeline followed him down the aisle. The nickel tour didn't last long. "Very nice. Say…how long will it take for us to get out there?" she asked impatiently.

"Well, ma'am, we are not exactly sure. There's a great deal of debris along the interstate that will need to be cleared."

"My advisors said that was being taken care of," she replied.

"Yes, I believe it is, but there still may be some delays."

"What about fuel?"

"There is a large diesel fuel truck following us. It's like having your own gas station in tow," he said with a slight, nervous laugh.

"Fine. Let's just get this going," she said, not picking up on his feeble attempt at humor.

The driver excused himself while Madeline looked in the refrigerator. It was fully stocked with all her favorite snacks and foods.

"My chef is coming, right?" she yelled to the driver.

"Yes, ma'am. He is in another vehicle."

"Good."

The RV began backing up and she was startled. "Sheesh," she mumbled, grabbing hold of the counter as she made her way to the sofa. Once the motor home was on the road, Madeline stretched out on the sofa.

After about half an hour, the driver asked if she cared to have some music. "Yes, that would be very nice. Preferably classical."

Strains of Bach filled the motor home. The two dogs were fast asleep on the sofa at her feet. It was a partly cloudy day, or was it partly sunny? She guessed it was how you wanted to look at it. She preferred a nice dark, cloudy day. The sun made everything too cheery. The landscape was dotted with burned-out vehicles, the charred remains of bodies and empty homes. She smiled. Soon all this would be hers. The world would be rebuilt with a foundation of evil and fear, mostly fear of her. It's humanity's destiny. It always has been. Mankind has now turned to the dark, that is, once this Heckel virus is purged.

"I just have to eliminate the one light in the way, Heckel," she muttered, looking down to see sparks jump from her fingertips.

The RV pulled into a deserted campground somewhere in Pennsylvania. It was just getting dark. The large fuel truck that was following the RV pulled up alongside and began fueling the rig.

The driver came back in, pushed a button and the sofa where Madeline was sitting began to slide outward. "Don't worry ma'am. I'm just giving you some more room. It's like magic," he said as though he were a little kid showing off a new toy. Madeline stood up and peered down the aisle toward the back bedroom, watching the other slides extend outward.

"There you are," the driver said.

"Impressive," she muttered. "Say, since we will be together for a while, what is your name?"

"Quincy, ma'am."

"Now there's an unusual name, especially for someone as young as you."

"My mom liked the old TV show called Quincy. It was about a medical examiner and starred Jack Klugman." After no response from Madeline, he smiled at her, bowed his head once and excused himself. Madeline watched his behind as he exited the RV. "Nice tush!" she said under her breath and wondered if Quincy was as good in bed as he was a driver. Maybe she'd just have to find out, needing something to make the unpleasant trip more bearable.

After dinner, Madeline went outside to walk her dogs for a while. When she came back to the RV, there was an elderly man sitting in a chair next to a large campfire. She knew who it was immediately. Mr. Barker.

"Good evening, Mr. Barker. What a pleasant surprise," Madeline said walking up to him with her hand extended. He did not move or even look up from his fixed stare on the fire. It was as if the flames mesmerized him. Madeline turned, walked over to a chair across from him and sat down. Now she was nervous. She tried to remain strong and confident.

"Your little plan with Bobby and Jackson fell through, I see," he said calmly with a hint of disdain. "Such a disappointment for you, I'm sure."

"Yes, it was."

"As it was for me. I had so hoped this matter with our friend, Mr. Heckel, would be over by now. He is a real fly in your ointment as you once mentioned."

Madeline nodded slowly and stared into the fire.

Mr. Barker got up and began pacing around the fire. Here he goes again. Madeline fidgeted in the camp chair. As the long period of silence wore on, she rubbed her hands over and over in her lap. The campfire flames steadily rose in the air, causing her face to get very warm.

"It appears that you are planning to take matters into your own hands and confront this Heckel character directly," Barker said calmly as he rubbed his hands.

"I always thought that if you want something done right, do it yourself," Madeline said with confidence and a slice of know-it-all.

"I suppose. However, Miss Madeline, there is much at stake here and if you fail…well, let's just say that cannot be an option."

"Correct, it is not. I will not fail. My power is strong."

Barker walked up behind Madeline and massaged her shoulders. His touch made her insides squirm as if hundreds of worms had suddenly slithered and wrapped themselves around all her major organs. Looking down at her arms, she could see her skin take on the appearance of massive goose bumps or as one person told her once-chicken skin.

He bent down and whispered in her ear, "Yes, it is strong, but you need more to defeat this man. Much more."

Madeline assured him that her army vastly outnumbered Heckel's puny band of followers and that her forces were much better armed.

"Still, we are concerned," Barker said. He let go of her shoulders and continued his pacing. I just want him to leave, she thought. Please. Please. Please.

Hoping to put his mind at ease, Madeline babbled on about how after her army destroyed his followers that she would meet him face-to-face and destroy him once and for all.

Barker smiled and, with a half-hearted laugh that turned into a wicked, thundering shout, yelled "No, he will destroy everything that you have done, you fucking imbecile!"

The fire shot up fifty feet into the air. Sparks flew in all directions, followed by loud crackling and pops. Madeline fell backward out of her chair, scrambled on her knees away from the fire and flopped onto her back. Barker stood over her shrieking, "You must kill him now before you ever confront him on any battlefield. Seek him out under the dark veil of night. Kill his bitch and child. Then you will reduce him to a weak, defeated man and finish the task." A green putrid spittle flew out of his mouth as he went on with his rant. Madeline winced as it hit her face, flinching as if acid burned her skin.

After Barker regained his composure and the fire settled down, he went over to the dark edge of night surrounding the campfire. He pointed a finger at Madeline and calmly said, "We still believe in you, Miss Madeline. Don't fuck this up or you will regret your very existence for all eternity."

Standing erect with fists clenched and a defiant posture, Madeline replied, "Mr. Barker, know this. I will not stop until every part of Heckel's life is destroyed and his body is reduced to pieces. Then after that, every last member of humanity who does not bow to the evil that I spread will be slaughtered without hesitation."

Barker's eyes glowed brightly and he slowly nodded his head as he backed into the darkness.

Whew, that was intense, Madeline thought to herself as she brushed the dirt off her pants. She looked down and saw a dark spot on her designer jeans. "Shit, I pissed myself," she said. Then anger brewed inside her, mixed with a feeling she hadn't had before. Was it doubt? What if I can't defeat this Heckel? What if…

"Stop. There is no room for doubt. Push it aside. No, what-ifs! You must kill him and soon," she said loudly.

From the shadows of the RV, Quincy came forward and asked, "Is everything all right, Miss Madeline?"

Walking up to him, slowly taking his hand, Madeline replied, "It will be soon." She led Quincy into the RV and closed the door.

Chapter 27

That was just too damn close. Thank God, Bobby couldn't twist that knife, Sela thought as she looked down at Heckel sleeping. She couldn't bear the thought of losing him. Dear God, please, please, please, make all this…this…battle stop. I fear that we cannot defeat the evil that pursues us. We need more help. Anything, please. Tears welled up in her eyes and little by little spilled over onto her cheeks. I love him so much and our child needs his Daddy. Please hear my prayer and help us.

As Sela lay back down and snuggled closer to Heckel, her mind stopped reeling, and she was able to get back to sleep. The morning sun got to work early whipping up hotter temperatures. There wasn't much of a breeze. Heckel already had several small fish frying in a pan.

"Oh, my…that smells heavenly," Sela said sliding out of the tent. She stretched, letting the warm rays of the sun give her a healthy dose of vitamin D.

"You look well rested," Heckel said as he maneuvered one of the small rainbow trout onto a plate.

"I feel good." She sat down near the campfire. Jerky padded her way over and curled up in her lap. "I'm sure there's a little fish for you, my dear," she said, petting the attentive cat.

"How is it?" Heckel asked.

"Manna from heaven," she said, stuffing her mouth.

"Well, it just may be. I mean, there's a couple of fishing holes down that way that are feeding everyone pretty well."

"When are we planning to head out?" she asked.

"Well, I suppose tomorrow. Everyone seems to be itching to leave. They're hoping once we get closer to the coast it won't be so hot."

"Heckel, I was thinking," Sela said sheepishly. "Maybe…um…well…I don't know how to put this, but here goes. What would you think if we didn't go to Oregon and maybe just kept going south…by ourselves? We could hide away somewhere down in Mexico on the coast or something."

He looked at her as if she had sprouted a large turnip out of each ear and corn was spilling out of her nose. Calmly, he put his plate down, put his arm around her shoulder and said, "I understand what you're thinking. We all have doubts and lots of fears…me too, but we can't let those notions build walls in front of us and bring us down. We are strong and have to believe in ourselves. You were the one who said that to me not too long ago. Remember?"

"But the other night…I mean, if poor little Bobby can be seduced into evil, what chances do any of us have?"

Heckel took her hand and kissed it. "We rise above it and let faith in God and the people we trust prevail. Bobby did."

Sela nodded her head and felt better. "I love you so much and never want to lose you. I'm just so afraid of…" she said throwing her arm around his neck.

"You won't ever. I plan to grow old and gray with you and have lots and lots of children. Our love is stronger than any evil twisted knife that Madeline can turn. Once we end her reign our world, the world of love and kindness, will flourish once again. As it was meant to."

"Indeed. You're right," she muttered and kissed Heckel's hand.

After breakfast, Sela found Tempest and decided to go for a ride down to the river. It was warm, but there was a slight breeze that helped cool things down. After a couple of miles, she was getting pretty hot and decided to go swimming. She found a nice spot, stripped down and jumped in. "Oh, this feels so good," she said to Tempest as the horse drank from the water's edge. After swimming for a while and enjoying the cool, clean water, her mind seemed to sharpen and a sense of calm filled her. Suddenly, she stopped swimming, looked at the riverbank and saw a young girl standing near a large boulder. She smiled and waved. I wonder how she got this far away from camp or maybe there were other people camping nearby. Sela swam closer. The little girl held Sela's clothes in her hand and handed them to her as she got out of the water.

"Hello, what's your name?" Sela asked, taking her shorts from her and putting them on.

"Rose, but my friends call me Rosie."

"Well, Rose, it's a pleasure to meet you. Aren't you a little far from camp?"

"I'm not from your camp," she said.

"Oh…where are you from?" Sela asked while she finished putting her top on and ruffling her hair to dry.

"Around. That's not important. There is however something that is much more important that I want to tell you," Rosie said.

Sela bent down to face her better and asked, "What is it?"

Rosie turned away from Sela, picked up a handful of stones, and started skipping them across the river.

"Wow, you're pretty good. I always have a hard time getting them to skip," Sela said standing up.

The little girl continued to skip stone after stone with perfect form. As Sela watched her, she noticed that she had on a crisp, pretty green dress that looked as though it had just been ironed. Small daisy appliques formed a pattern down one side of the dress. Her hair was a soft amber color with long, pretty curls that were tied up with a bright matching green ribbon. Her shoes were white leather and shined with new polish. There wasn't a scuffmark on either shoe. It became evident that the little girl had not just walked several miles away from Sela's camp. Rosie looked as if she had just emerged from a mother's pampering and was ready for a Ladies' Home Journal photo shoot. There was no sweat or dirt on her at all.

"Rose, are your parents nearby?" Sela asked, still trying to get her stone to skip instead of plunking dead in the water.

"No, I'm all by myself."

Now Sela was feeling a bit freaked out. There she was in the desert with a little girl who looked like she had just been dropped there to do a commercial for a children's shampoo.

"Sela, you don't need to be afraid."

Now she was really freaked out. How'd she know her name? She never said it.

"Heckel is very strong now. He will defeat Madeline. We believe in him wholeheartedly."

Sela froze. Was this Madeline herself here trying to trick her?

The little girl took Sela's hand and smiled at her. Sela's insides at first felt like they had turned to ice and she couldn't move. Gradually, she felt relaxed with a pleasant warm sensation.

"Here, try this stone," Rose said. "It's really flat. You can do it. It's easy. Remember to snap your wrist."

Sela took the stone, still staring at the little girl in both awe and fear.

"Go ahead. Try it. It's fun."

Sela looked out across the water and sighed heavily. The little girl nodded encouragement. Sela reared her arm back, remembered to snap the wrist and let the stone whiz out to the water. It began skipping immediately.

"One, two, three, four, five, six…wow, seven times. That's great!" Rose said, clapping excitedly, jumping up and down. "Now you know how to do it. See, it's simple."

Sela laughed the whole time the stone was skipping. Rose handed her another stone and Sela skipped that one even better.

"See, I told you. You just have to believe in yourself."

As Sela skipped another stone, she asked Rose how she knew about Heckel and Madeline. Rose didn't respond, but instead asked, "How come you feel Heckel needs more help?"

"I just feel we are probably outnumbered in this upcoming battle or whatever it is. Madeline's army is-"

"Formidable? Yes, I am sure it is," Rose uttered as she skipped two stones at once, one from each hand.

"Yes, that's a good way to put it I suppose. It makes me tremble just thinking about it."

"Then don't," Rose offered innocently. "Here, try this one. It looks perfect."

They both continued skipping stones in silence for a while.

"Do you believe in guardian angels?" Rose asked bluntly, turning to watch Sela pick up more stones.

"Well, as a matter of fact, yes, I do. I have always felt I had an angel looking over me. There were times when I felt something bad was about to happen and at the last minute…um, I don't know…ah, I moved out of the way or caught myself. Other times I might have been-"

Before she could finish trying to explain her insight into guardian angels, Rose blurted out, "I'm your guardian angel. I've been there to protect you and help you ever since you were born." She smiled at Sela with an air of pride like a little girl showing her mother that she can tie her own shoes.

Sela wrinkled her brow deep in thought, at first questioning her own sanity. Then the what-ifs began to parade across her mind. She was totally speechless and definitely a bit skeptical. After several minutes of examining what Rosie offered, Sela thought, Hmm, it's not often that people get to talk directly to their own guardian angel. Questions flooded her mind. Before she could even ask a single query, she froze again. Wait a minute. Something is not quite right. This must be a trick or some evil deception from Madeline. The bitch is playing on my…

"Nope, Madeline is not messing with you," Rosie said. "I assure you. I am your guardian angel. I know we aren't suppose to…um…reveal ourselves to you, but these are troubled times, and as you say…help is needed. You asked and you got it."

Suddenly, Sela dropped down to kneel before the little girl. No one knew of my prayer for help, she thought. This must be the real deal. She was in awe of the little girl standing at the edge of the river. Sela felt that she was in the presence of a powerful goodness.

"Really, that's not necessary," Rose said putting her hand on Sela's shoulder.

"I have so much I want to…um…thank you for and talk to you about," Sela said softly, looking into her eyes.

"Perhaps another time. For now, you should be getting back. Heckel's beginning to worry about you."

Sela kept staring at Rose. All the questions she thought of would have to be put aside for now. However, one question surfaced that Sela felt compelled to ask, "What help will we…um…get?"

Rose skipped a big stone, which hit the water twelve times. She turned to Sela and said, "All Heckel's warriors will have their guardian angel at their side fighting to stop Madeline. In California, you will have many more good people join you. Trust in Heckel. Believe and have faith. No more doubts. Doubt is a nasty virus that infects and destroys the soul."

"Will you come with me?" Sela asked, extending her hand.

"I am always with you," Rose said as she gradually morphed into a large hawk. The elegant, graceful bird soared straight up into the air and circled high above Sela.

With eyes the size of dinner plates, Sela watched Rose for the longest time fly in and out of the clouds, gliding on the air currents. Tempest finally broke her trance and nudged her shoulder.

"Okay," Sela said calmly as she threw her leg over the back of the horse. "Did you see that? Holy buckets. That was amazing."

For the entire ride back to camp with a huge grin on her face, Sela recited prayer after prayer and made up new ones as well. She tried to remember all the times she had said that her guardian angel must have been looking out for her. Some of the memories were so vivid. Sela smiled, knowing that she really did have a guardian angel and her name was Rose. As Sela got closer to camp, she wondered if anyone would ever believe her and stopped Tempest. She couldn't just waltz into camp and at the top of her lungs announce that everyone's guardian angel would be joining them for the big battle. They'd think she'd gone bonkers or had been out in the sun way too long. She didn't need more people staring at her as if she'd just sprouted turnips out of her ears again, not to mention corn out of her nose.

"For now, we don't say anything. On the other hand, maybe I could test the waters and tell Heckel what just transpired," she mumbled, petting Tempest. Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted a hawk, or more accurately, Rose, sitting on a large boulder. The bird flapped her wings. Sela couldn't help but giggle. My guardian angel is with me. How cool is that!

After Sela returned to camp and wiped Tempest down, the horse joined Hope down by the river's edge. When she got to camp, Heckel was gutting and cleaning a large rabbit.

"Look what Jerky found for us," Heckel said proudly.

Wham, like a large two by four upside her head, Sela thought of Jerky. That's got to be Heckel's guardian angel! It has to be. No doubt about it. Sela picked up the large cat and hugged her. Jerky's large, sandpapery tongue licked her cheek and she purred loudly.

"Now there's a picture of love and affection," Heckel said as he put the rabbit on a homemade spit. After he was satisfied with the proper height of the spit and stoked the embers, he came over and hugged both of them.

Jerky squirmed out of Sela's arms and took off running. Heckel kissed Sela softly and stroked her hair.

"How was your ride? Come across anything interesting?" he asked.

Like a kid with a big secret, Sela grinned and said, "Hmm, yeah, I'll tell you later."

Rose drifted down silently and landed on an old gnarled tree nearby. Sela winked at the magnificent bird.

Chapter 28

The saying "If you want something done right, do it yourself" kept running through Madeline's head as the motor home turned onto I-80. All she needed to do was sneak into Heckel's camp, end his pathetic existence and get on with building her empire.

Overall, the RV made good time until it hit the outskirts of a large city. Then Madeline's cleanup crew had to remove debris and burned-out wrecks. Occasionally, the small entourage would encounter bands of desperate people who had no idea who they were attacking. Madeline would usually let her men deal with them; however, at times she would do a bit of target practice.

The caravan had just entered the edge of Cheyenne when Madeline's driver had to stop the Prevost motor home because of a large man-made roadblock. About twenty people came out from behind a large pile of debris. They were armed with clubs, pitchforks and other primitive weapons. They looked like rejects from a remake of Frankenstein or an old Mel Gibson Road Warrior movie. If one combined the two films, the result would be angry townspeople, dressed in ragged leather vests and black-studded collars and waving torches and farm implements into the air. Madeline stepped out of the rig, stretched and said, "You folks should probably move all this shit off the road and let us pass."

They all started laughing.

"I'll take that as a no." Both of her palms immediately produced two energy balls that crackled loudly. She pitched one at a group of men. The ball exploded with a ten-foot energy blast that instantly incinerated the attackers. "That's the last time you will ever laugh at Madeline Blackwell," she yelled. As the remaining people dispersed, she hurled the other ball of fury at the roadblock. Debris flew in all directions, clearing the road.

As Madeline walked up the steps of the RV, rubbing her hands together as if they had been soiled, she muttered, "That was fun. Let's get going. How long until we stop for the night? I'm getting hungry."

"An hour or so. If my memory serves me correctly, there is an old Good Sam campground in Laramie."

"Great. After that workout, I'm ready for dinner," she said, sitting down on the sofa.

"There's some cheese and sausage in the fridge," Quincy said, driving past the smoldering debris left on the road. "And a nice cold beer. That should hold you over."

Smiling seductively, Madeline came up behind her driver, nipped his ear and whispered, "I'd rather have you for a snack right about now." Suddenly, the motor home pitched to one side of the road.

The next few days were uneventful and Madeline was rapidly getting bored. It took almost two days to get to Salt Lake City because of the wreckage and debris on I-80. There were numerous turned-over semi-trailer trucks and car piles.

That night, Madeline felt frisky. She invited her driver, Quincy, to join her for dinner. She could tell he was a bit nervous and reticent. So with a bit of batting of her eyes, smiling seductively, and telling him that she was lonely, he was putty in her hands.

"Come back in an hour or so," she said. "I need to freshen up a bit. Go tell my chef to have dinner for two." Quincy nodded politely and left.

An hour later, almost to the minute, he knocked on the door, and Madeline yelled for him to enter. She was in the back bedroom putting on the finishing, glamorous touches. He stood at the front of the motor home with his jaw practically hanging to his knees. Of course, Madeline had that effect on men when she wanted to. She just adored their reactions.

Madeline, knowing that she was dressed to seduce, walked into the room with a strut that would rival any supermodel on a runway. For a top, she chose a sheer black blouse with an enticing black lace bra underneath. Madeline wore black satin Harem-style lounge pants and short black stiletto boots. Those alone were guaranteed to reduce Quincy into a blubbering mass of malleable flesh.

"Good evening, Quincy. Sorry to keep you waiting," Madeline said, striking a pose near the table. "Please have a seat. Would you care for an adult beverage?"

"Um…a…well, a…yes, anything's fine," Quincy said, trying to catch his breath. He spoke like a man who had just received a frontal lobotomy.

Ah, I got my mojo workin', Madeline thought. Men are so easy to manipulate. Clearly women are the dominant species.

Quincy kept staring at Madeline like a deer in headlights as she brought out a bottle of Pendleton. As she reached into the freezer for ice, she lifted one leg behind to reveal a little of the stiletto boots. She could have sworn she heard his heartbeat from across the room and quite possibly the sound of soft panting. She poured two glasses and walked over to the sofa.

"Here you go, Quincy. I hope you like Pendleton," she said leaning down so that he could get an eyeful of cleavage and a whiff of perfume.

"Terrific. It's been ages since I've had a good whiskey and Pendleton is the best. Thank you," he said.

Madeline noticed his hand shaking as he took the glass from her. She sneered, knowing he was beyond putty; he was now more like a warm, sleepy puppy. She giggled inside.

They chatted for a while about the trip, the weather and other mundane topics. Every so often, Madeline would switch crossing her knees to flash him a look of her alluring, sexy boots.

A soft knock on the door, followed by an announcement from the chef that dinner was ready, came just at the right time. She was getting bored, not to mention enormously horny. She asked Quincy to go unlock the door. The chef and his assistant came in with several covered plates. A young teenage girl kept sneaking glances at Madeline as she set the table. Madeline smiled at her as she moved her black stiletto boot up and down.

"Will there be anything else, Miss Madeline?" the chef asked.

"Mario that smells absolutely exquisite. No, I'm sure we'll be fine. Thank you."

After dismissing everyone, Quincy with his best gentlemanly manners, pulled the chair away from the table to seat Madeline.

"Thank you, Quincy. Such good manners," she said kissing him softly on the cheek as she sat down.

Quincy stumbled briefly as he sat down. He was either a bit tipsy from two glasses of Pendleton or her little kiss made him woozy.

Following dinner, it didn't take long to seduce Quincy. Madeline slowly undressed him. After taking off his shirt, she marveled and commented, "Impressive abs. You have a six-pack. I don't think I've ever had a lover with such a physique."

He blushed and thanked her. His lovemaking was very good, in fact, one of the best. Madeline was satisfied, very satisfied.

The next morning when she awoke, she felt the other side of the bed and discovered that Quincy had gotten up. Madeline frowned. Too bad, I would have enjoyed some morning sex. Oh well, no rest for the wicked. Now there's an appropriate saying for me. She laughed and stretched.

"Good morning, Miss Madeline. I have fresh coffee for you," Quincy said, putting a steaming cup on the nightstand.

She reached over and grabbed him by the shirt. Pulling him down, Madeline then kissed him passionately.

"I'm sorry to interrupt this, but there is someone here to see you," Quincy said.

"It better be good," she said impatiently.

Quincy backed away from the bed and excused himself. Madeline got up, peeked out the window and saw three large men shuffling around outside the front RV door. She put on a bathrobe and told Quincy to ask the men in. Picking up the coffee, she took a big sip.

When Madeline walked into the front of the coach, the men were crammed onto the sofa. Standing near the dinette table, Madeline asked, "Who are you and what do you want?"

All three men stood up clumsily and tipped their hats. Images of The Three Stooges flooded into her memory, and she almost giggled.

She told them to be seated as she topped off her mug with more hot coffee.

One of the men reported the status of the two massive armies waiting in Oregon. Another asked if she would be visiting the troops.

"Gentlemen, I appreciate your visit and I am very happy to know our soldiers are doing well. As for a visit, well, hmm…I don't know if that's going to be possible at this point. I have other more pressing matters to attend to. However, please send them my regards. Now, if there's nothing else for you to report, I'll bid you good day."

The third man cautiously put up his hand as if he were the shy kid in first grade.

Madeline grinned. "Yes, what is it?"

"What happens after the…um…battle?" he asked sheepishly.

"Excellent question," she said pacing around the kitchen area. "We begin a new world, one that is dominated and controlled by me. And I want you to know all my loyal soldiers will be rewarded with untold riches, property, and countries for that matter. We will rebuild the planet to serve…darkness. It is clear that humanity desires evil and has embraced it wholeheartedly over the years."

Chapter 29

The morning we crossed into California, the weather felt especially warm and pleasant. Not only was the temperature perfect, but also everyone's upbeat spirits generated an air of optimism. Jerky rode on my shoulder as usual and for a while purred heavily in my ear.

"Are you going to do that all the way up California? I'll lose my hearing."

The cat licked my ear and went to sleep.

I looked up to see a hawk circling high above. I've seen that bird before, I thought as I shielded my eyes. It seems to be following us.

"Heckel, I have something to tell you that might sound a bit strange," Sela said as she positioned Tempest next to Hope to ride alongside.

"Strange? Sela, in case you haven't noticed, we've been hip-deep in strange for the last several months. Nothing you can tell me will sound strange. Trust me. My mind is so wide open you could drive a John Deere tractor through it."

"See that hawk up there?" Sela asked.

"Yeah. I think it's been following us."

"It's my guardian angel," Sela said proudly.

I could tell she was dead serious. Hmm, now let's think about this for a minute. Strange? Yes, that would most certainly fall under the category of strange. Hard to believe? Maybe not, given our present circumstances.

"And how do you know that?" I asked calmly looking ahead.

For the next half hour or so, Sela described her encounter with Rose. When she was done, I looked over to see the hawk perched on her shoulder.

"This is Rose," Sela said happily as if she were introducing her best friend.

I stared at the bird for a few moments and finally said, "Pleased to meet you."

"Jerky is your guardian angel," Sela reported matter-of-factly.

"Really? Hmm, that would make a lot of sense." Jerky nipped my ear again as if confirming what I just said.

As the morning lingered on, Sela related more about what Rose had told her regarding the additional help in the form of guardian angels.

"All people going into the battle will have their very own guardian angel at their side. That will double our force," Sela said confidently. "That's the extra help I asked for. Isn't that exciting?"

"Yes, it is. However, I wonder if we should keep this quiet for a while. Information like this might be a bit…um…"

"What?"

"The term overwhelming comes to mind. Not to mention hard to believe, fantastic and earth shaking. Sela, I'm just thinking that this might be a bit much for some people to handle. Let's just wait a bit."

"I think it's awesome. I always knew I had a guardian angel."

"Yeah, but did you ever think it was a hawk or a little girl named Rose?"

"No, but how cool is that?" Sela asked as Rose took off from her shoulder and arched high into the air.

After a little over a week, we made it to I-5 somewhere around Los Angeles. A large group of survivors heard about our merry band of would-be warriors and asked to join. News of our quest had preceded us. Our numbers were increasing. We stayed three days in L.A. and rested up. We took one day to scavenge around the area for any food or other usable items. A couple of the L.A. survivors pointed out prospective areas to hunt. We came back empty handed in the food department. However, Sela found a few pieces of nice jewelry.

Our new L.A. members shared food with our group. They had an old grocery store that they stocked from their own scavenging efforts. There were even some fresh vegetables that they rationed off to everyone.

"I imagine this will be hard to leave," I said to one of the L.A. members as I waved my arm across the aisles of food.

"Yes, however, when the battle is over, we will come back. This is our home. We'll work hard together to make Los Angeles a great city again."

I had a twinge of sadness come over me, knowing that some of these folks might not ever return.

The day before we left, Sela and I took a ride out to the ocean. We sat on the beach and watched the waves slide across the sand.

"How are you feeling?" I asked Sela as she laid her head in my lap.

"Very relaxed and I believe our child is quite happy."

"What makes you think that?"

Sela looked up and smiled at me. "I can tell," she said running her hand over her belly. She took my hand and had me rub the area.

"Oh, a kick."

"I felt it too. Guess Bob or Betty wants to say hi," Sela said giggling.

"Bob or Betty?" I said skeptically.

"Well, it's better than saying 'the kid.' We haven't come up with any names yet."

I stared at the ocean and started to think of names. We started tossing out ideas. Some sounded possible while others made us laugh.

"Wow, I never realized this would be such a difficult task," I said.

"How about Heckel Junior?"

"No, no, no," I stated emphatically. "I wouldn't want to subject anyone to such a dreadful name."

"Oh, it is not dreadful at all. It is unique and has character and I think it's especially memorable because of the story behind it."

"Just think…I could have been a bassoon."

"Instead of the world's savior."

I tickled Sela and she said, "Careful, Bob or Betty will get mad at you."

After a few minutes more of discussing names, we got up and walked along the beach looking for shells and smooth glass. As the sun slid closer to the horizon, we decided to head back to our camp.

When we got there, Jack came running up to us.

"Missy is gone," he said anxiously, slapping the sides of his legs and practically running in circles. "We think someone abducted her."

Sela took Hope from me after I dismounted. Jack took my arm and led me to his camp. Vonnie was in their tent crying.

"Tell me everything," I said as I sat down at his fire.

When he was done explaining how Missy was taken, Jack put his head in his hands and started crying.

"Come on, Jack. We'll get her back right now. They can't be that far away," I said, slapping him on the back.

With his face filled with determination, Jack got up. "I'll saddle up a horse."

I ran over to get Hope.

"Take Tempest. He's faster and stronger," Sela said, coming up behind me.

"No, Hope knows me. She'll do great."

Jerky came running up and as soon as I was on top of Hope, she jumped up, landing on my shoulder.

"Maybe you should stay here," I said, turning to the cat.

Sela grinned and raised her eyebrows. "Remember what I told you."

"Fine. We'll be back as quickly as we can." I turned the horse in the direction where Jack was waiting.

"Be safe and hurry," Sela said. "I love you."

"I love you too. Have your guardian close by while I'm gone. Things are…are getting…bad."

I met up with Jack and we rode north hard for about an hour. The sun had set, leaving the full moon to act as our lighting source. An occasional passing cloud proved an annoyance.

"I think I see a light up ahead," Jack whispered as we stopped on top of a small rise.

"Maybe we should leave the horses here and sneak in," I suggested.

"Can't you go in with your powers and just demand her back?"

I shook my head and said, "I'd rather get her without a big display. Besides, we need to find out more about who we are dealing with. I don't want to jeopardize either of your lives. How about you stay here and I-"

"Hell no!" Jack declared. "That's my little girl."

"All right. Let's try the sneak-in-and-grab-her approach." I dismounted from Hope and tied the horse to a nearby small tree. "We'll be right back, girl," I whispered to the horse and petted her nose.

Jerky followed close on my heels. Jack was on my right. He had the look of a crazed lunatic. "You all right?" I whispered.

"I will be. I just hope she's still alive."

I didn't reply. My insides were slowly churning with fear. "Calm down. Everything's fine," I muttered to myself, trying to boost my confidence. As we got closer to the flickering light from an enormous bonfire, I heard hollering. Jack and I inched our way to a cottonwood tree that had a few large bushes surrounding it. We looked out at about fifty people standing around the fire.

"Do you see her?" Jack whispered.

My eyes swept the crowd of people. "No. Let's…wait a minute. Is that her way over on the other side of the-"

"Yes, I see her," Jack said as he started to walk out into the crowd.

I grabbed his arm and motioned for him to stop.

"Stay close to me. We'll hang in the shadows and make our way around to her."

As we got closer to Missy, I started listening to what the leader was blabbering as he pranced around the bonfire.

"Our sacrifice to our goddess will be looked upon favorably."

The crowd roared with favor and Jack quickened his pace.

"Our goddess will bring back prosperity to us and restore our world. There is only one way to bring back what we have lost and that is to embrace our goddess, Madeline. She has promised us a rebirth. She has promised us riches."

The name, Madeline, made me stop in my tracks and shiver, causing all the hairs on my neck to stand erect. So, now there are cults worshipping Madeline. Great! That's not going to be good.

We finally made our way close to where they had Missy bound and gagged. Before we approached her, I whispered to Jack, "We grab her, sneak away and then run like hell."

He gave me the thumbs-up.

We inched our way to come up behind Missy. I whispered in her ear to stay calm. I cut the rope and she spun around and started to sneak away with us.

"Stop!" a voice commanded.

"Oh shit," I said.

"Do something," Jack barked.

"We'll be leaving now," I shouted back.

Just as we took off running, three large mountain lions appeared in front of us.

"What the…" Jack shouted.

"I think they're with us," I yelled back. "At least, I hope so." We ran and the trio of large cats attacked the few men who were closest to us, allowing us some distance. Some of the other men chasing us turned around and fled at the sight of the mammoth cats.

We got to the horses. Jack threw Missy up on the back of his horse and sped off. As I mounted Hope, I looked back to see the large mountain lions fending off several men.

Suddenly a large crack from a rifle ruptured the shouting and quelled the yelling from the cult mob. I looked ahead to see Jack slump.

"Heckel, I think my dad has been hit!"

"Keep going," I yelled to her as I raced ahead. "The more distance between us and that mob, the better."

Slowly, the angry taunts as well as the random rifle shots diminished as we left the cult behind. After about a half hour, I told Missy to stop. I reached up to take Jack down from the horse.

"Is he all right?" Missy asked, jumping down.

"I don't know. He's lost a lot of blood."

I set Jack on the ground and felt for a pulse. It was weak.

Missy screamed when she saw the three bloodstained mountain lions walk into the clearing.

"It's okay. They won't hurt you," I said as I checked Jack over. There was a big hole in the middle of Jack's back, close to his spine. Hell, the damn bullet is dangerously close to his heart or his spine. What the hell do I do now?

"Take it out," I heard Missy say as she stood looking down at her father. "You have to try. You have to save him. We can't lose him. Please."

I felt like I was in shock. My insides were shaking.

"Please, hurry before it's too late."

Suddenly, I felt like someone slapped me in the face. I was sure it was Sela giving me her usual pep talk and my head was as clear as a cloudless sky. I dictated a list of things for Missy to do. The mountain lions studied us as if they knew what their job was. All three cats paced around a perimeter keeping guard.

After we made a good-sized fire, I set my old boy scout knife on a rock to sterilize it. I pulled off my T-shirt and handed it to Missy. "Rip this up into small bandages."

She eagerly complied.

"I wish we had some water," I said softly as I cleaned the area around the wound.

"Wait," Missy said grabbing a handful of wanna-be bandages and running off into the surrounding dark. One of the mountain lions followed her. She came back a few minutes later with wet bandages.

"I remembered there was a small brook over there when we rode into this clearing," she said out of breath.

"Excellent," I said as I picked up the glowing knife. I used one of the wet bandages to wipe the blade. "Okay, you try to soak up the blood as much as possible. We are going in fast and get that bullet. Ready?" Missy nodded her head and had a determined look on her face.

For some odd reason or feeling, I knew exactly what to do. It felt as if the world's finest surgeon was expertly guiding my hand.

"I feel the bullet. I…think…I can pry it out. No, wait a minute." The hole was big enough for me to reach in and grab the slug. "There! I got it," I said, holding up the offensive near-fatal projectile.

Missy had an enormous smile of relief on her face and released a huge breath of tension. She took one of the bandages and applied pressure on the wound. I wiped off the bullet and put it in my pocket, thinking that Jack might like it as a souvenir.

"Missy, you need to go back to camp and bring a cart to transport your Dad. We need to get him back so we can better clean that wound. Hurry. I don't know if those people are still looking for us or not. At any rate-"

"What happened?" Jack mumbled softly.

"Daddy!" Missy said loudly, leaning down to kiss his cheek.

"Don't move, Jack. You've been hit," I said.

"Holy shit, you got that right," Jack said, drifting in and out of consciousness.

"Go now, Missy, and hurry. Bring one of the doctors with you."

Missy got on Jack's horse and rode off. One of the mountain lions raced after her. The other two continued to circle the campfire.

"Thanks," I whispered as I flashed a smile at the two big cats.

Jack's pulse was improving and he continued to regain consciousness. While waiting for Missy and the others, I kept myself busy maintaining the fire and monitoring Jack's condition. At one point, one of the large mountain lions walked up to Jack and licked his face, making him grin. The big cat sat down next to him and purred loudly.

"I'm thirsty," Jack said.

"I'll be right back," I said running off to find the small brook. I tripped on a rock and landed a few feet from the water. "Clumsy," I muttered as I soaked the cloth.

"Open your mouth, Jack," I said turning his head slightly. I drizzled the water into his mouth and he drank eagerly.

"Thanks, Heckel. I could drink a gallon," he said weakly.

"I think the troops are here," I reported as several horses rode into the campfire's light.

One of the doctors quickly checked Jack over. I got up and out of the way. The big cat remained next to Jack.

Vonnie and Missy came running up to Jack and knelt down beside him.

"He's going to be fine," the doctor said. "Heckel, you did great. We'll get him bandaged up and loaded onto the cart."

Vonnie hugged me until I thought I was going to pop. "Thank you so much, Heckel, for saving my family."

As we rode into our camp, we were met by thunderous applause. Sela ran up to take Hope's reins.

"Well, done," Sela said as I slid off Hope. She quickly hugged and kissed me as if I had just won the Kentucky Derby.

"No problem. Well, actually…" Before I could explain what happened, I heard Jack call my name. I went over to the cart where he was lying.

"Save your strength," I said, peering down at Jack.

"About those mountain lions," he said softly.

"Yeah, I'll tell you tomorrow. You'll be…um…wowed, I'm sure. You get a good night's rest."

"Thanks, Heckel…for…saving my little girl," Jack said reaching up to shake my hand.

His hand was cold. I held it for a long time to warm it up. The doctor instructed three other men to lift Jack out of the cart carefully and put him in his tent. After we got Jack settled, I said good night to Vonnie. Both she and Missy kissed my cheeks at the same time. I blushed.

"Take good care of Jack. See you in the morning."

As I walked back to my camp, I saw the three mountain lions lying in the field twitching their big fluffy tails. Gradually, their size was reduced to that of a normal house cat. They played with each other for a few minutes and then two of them took off in the direction of Jack's campsite. Jerky came running toward me and leaped into my arms.

"Thanks, buddy. You were awesome tonight!"

Chapter 30

The Nevada landscape is boring. I just don't see the attraction. Why in the world would anyone want to live out here? Too many stupid rocks, Madeline thought as the RV sped down I-80, leaving Winnemucca.

A loud banging sound came from the back of the motor home and broke her concentration.

"Damn! Son of a bitch," she heard Quincy utter as the RV slowed to a crawl.

"What's wrong?" Madeline asked, coming up behind the driver.

"I think we have a problem," Quincy said as he turned off the engine. He took out a small laptop computer and attached a cable to a port at the bottom of the steering wheel. After several minutes, he knew what was wrong.

"Looks like it's the fuel lift pump. That's why we have no power. That bang must have been it falling off or something."

"Well, get a new one." Madeline ordered as if the local garage over the next hill would have one readily available.

Quincy smiled nervously and said he'd take one of the support vehicles back to Winnemucca to look for the part.

"Please hurry. It's hot out here and creepy," she whined.

Quincy reached over to one of the switches on the dash and a generator roared to life. "There's plenty of fuel to run that generator for hours. Turn on the AC. You'll be fine," Quincy said as he descended the stairs.

"Just hurry," Madeline said sternly.

As the hours passed by, she plotted her little visit to Heckel. "He won't know what hit him," she mumbled, stretched out on the sofa. "I hope he likes unexpected company." Gradually, her eyes got heavy and she fell asleep.

Her dreams drifted from motor homes to dark storms to dead bodies to snakes and finally to seeing Heckel dismembered. That last dream was especially enjoyable and illuminating. It started with how she planned to get close to him and ended with her slowly dismembering him in front of all his followers. She was sitting on a large boulder and Heckel was suspended in midair by invisible chains. She flicked her long, highly manicured finger and his arm was twisted out of its socket. Blood spewed out like a burst water pipe. His followers were on their knees praying for her to stop. She flicked another finger and his leg was ripped out of his hip. She lifted Heckel high into the air so that his blood sprayed across his followers. One by one she ripped, twisted and yanked body parts from Heckel. Giggling, she flew his blood-soaked body out across his followers as if she had a remote-controlled helicopter toy. Madeline turned his blood into a caustic acid that when it hit the faces of his followers, it instantly dissolved their skin.

She awoke suddenly to noise coming from the engine compartment. It was dark in the motor home and chilly. She turned on several lights and then turned off the air conditioner. Her two dogs were at the door waiting to go out.

"Okay, guys. Let's go see what's up," Madeline said as she opened the door. The two dogs went tearing outside, barking.

The crisp Nevada air washed over Madeline, causing her to shiver. She looked up and was struck by the array of stars.

"That's the Milky Way right above us," Quincy said as he wiped his hands.

"You found the part," she said, walking to the back of the motor home as if she could tell what he was doing.

"By sheer dumb luck. There was a Cummins shop there and the parts department was well stocked. I should have it installed in about another half hour."

"Great. I suppose we should just stay the night here."

"Sounds good to me. I'm pooped. Would it be all right then to finish installing the part in the morning when I have better light?"

Madeline shrugged, waved her hand dismissively and went back into the tenement on wheels.

The next morning, Quincy finished installing the part, started the engine and did a diagnostic with his laptop.

"We are good to go," he reported proudly.

An hour later, Madeline's caravan was back on the road. The group made the border to California by early afternoon. It became evident to everyone that Madeline was getting more anxious to be done with, as she put it, the road trip from hell.

"Looks like we have company," Quincy reported, pointing to an ATV making its way toward the motor home.

"I think it's one of my scouts. I asked to have a report when we got to the California border and he's right on time."

Quincy stopped the rig, got out and helped Madeline down the steps. Several of her other guards approached from behind the motor home.

The ATV was spewing black smoke and had a rattle sound coming from its engine.

"Hello, Ms. Madeline. You asked to have a report," the dirty, toothless man said as he knelt down in front of her. The individual clearly had not been in the vicinity of a bath in a very long time.

"Please get up and stand downwind from me," Madeline said loudly. The men behind her all snickered.

"What news do you have of Heckel?" she asked, putting a hand in front of her nose.

"He's getting close to Sacramento," he said, wringing his hat nervously in his hands.

"Can you be a bit more exact?"

"He's in Stockton. He should be at the intersection of I-5 and I-80 in a day or two."

"Excellent," Madeline said pacing in front of the man. "Go back and keep following him," she said, turning to walk up the stairs into the motor home. "And for crying out loud, go take a bath somewhere. The next time I see you, you better be presentable, or I'll clean you myself…with fire. Go!" The scrawny man jumped onto his ATV, started the engine and raced off.

"I know a nice campground up the road a ways where we could spend the night. It's on the top of Donner's pass," Quincy reported. "It'll be cooler there and in the trees. It's a pretty area."

"Fine. Whatever. Trees sound like a welcome relief from all this boring dirt and rocky landscape. I hate Nevada. Remind me not to come back here again. Let's go," she whined, walking up the motor home's steps.

The entourage stayed two nights at the campground. Everyone was glad to rest and enjoy the mountains, especially the cooler air.

At one point, Madeline met with all her support people and Quincy. She instructed them to leave her alone on the outskirts of Sacramento. She planned to walk to the intersection of I-5 and I-80, and get there before Heckel's party arrived. Quincy sat in silence with a disapproving glare. She further explained that after her drop-off, everyone had orders to head north and join her forces in Oregon just in case she was not successful with the little side trip.

When everyone dispersed, Quincy remained with a sullen face as if he just lost his favorite puppy.

"What's wrong?" Madeline asked standing in front of him.

"I don't like the idea of leaving you alone."

"How gentlemanly," she said, stroking his cheek. "I'll be fine. Remember, I have my little blue friends in the palms of my hands with me at all times." He looked at her hands and flinched.

He took her hand and said, "I'm serious. I just think it's a…"

Madeline interrupted him with a kiss on the lips. He stood, picked her up in his arms and walked to the motor home. After several hours of lovemaking, they both fell asleep.

The next morning Madeline assured him that her power would easily end Heckel's short-lived reign.

"Let me go with you?" Quincy asked timidly as he lay stretched out on the king-size bed.

Madeline had just come out of the shower. His perfect muscled body was like a magnet and she wanted to jump on top of him. No, I need to find Heckel and finish this annoying business, her inner voice dictated. There will be lots of time for jumping his bones.

"You take this motor home, head north up I-5 and wait for me. After I'm done with Mr. Heckel, I'll grab one of their miserable horses and find you."

Quincy remained silent and glowered at her. Madeline kissed him and told him to get the flophouse on wheels moving.

They left the campground by midmorning and made it to the edge of Sacramento by early afternoon. Madeline dressed in ragged clothes, put dirt on her face and carried an old tattered backpack.

After all the support vehicles left, she kissed her two dogs, told Quincy to take good care of them and that she would see him in a couple of days.

"Be careful," Quincy said, hugging Madeline. "I just don't see why you have to do this." She noticed a tear forming in the side of his eye.

"Because I'm Madeline and my power will end this insurrection. Darkness and my domination will rule. A new world will be born."

Now Quincy looked scared and she wasn't sure why. He kissed her gently on the cheek and went into the motor home. The engine roared to life and he slowly drove off.

Madeline covered her head with the hood from the long dirty raincoat and started walking west on I-80. She could feel the swirls of energy form in her palms, ready to strike. "Here I come, Heckel. Prepare to meet your worst nightmare."

Chapter 31

After a few days recuperating, Jack was able to be transported in his wagon, and we resumed our journey north. Several men wanted to go back and deal with the cult that had taken Missy, but I persuaded them to leave well enough alone.

We continued to pick up supporters along the route. A large group in Fresno and Stockton joined us. Our ranks had now gotten close to a thousand. I kept wondering if that was going to be enough. Sela assured me that, with all the guardian angels helping, we would be victorious. Would we? Yes! I answered myself each time I let doubt try to creep in.

After we left Stockton, I began to get fidgety and nervous. I felt like something dreadful was waiting ahead for me. Sela sensed that I was worrying.

"You all right?" she asked after we started heading north on the interstate.

"Sure, just fine."

"You seem preoccupied. Talk to me. What's on your mind?"

"Well, I just have this niggling feeling that something is…um…waiting up ahead."

"Well there is…in Oregon," she stated matter-of-factly.

"No, sooner than that."

"Maybe we need to have a small group of men ride ahead. Scout things out a bit," she offered.

I told her it was probably just me being overly sensitive and cautious. Nonetheless, she rode back and enlisted a few men to ride ahead. They took off and raced past me. As they crested a small hill, I saw three enormous wolves join them.

The day wore on. The sun blistered down on us. Luckily, there were several spots to get water. We stopped frequently to water the horses.

As we were getting close to Sacramento, one of the horses from the scout group came running back. It was covered in blood. Sela jumped off Tempest and caught the horse's reigns.

A barrage of questions, speculation, and emotions raced through the entire group.

Sela finally suggested, "Maybe we should go around Sacramento? Go over to the coast. Obviously, there's something bad there."

Quietly, I said, "It's Madeline."

Everyone turned and stared at me as I examined the horse. Along with all the blood splattered on the saddle, the horse had scorch marks on its back.

"Clearly, our scouts encountered her. I know it. I can feel it. She's waiting for us."

Someone took the horse away. Fear, confusion and grief hung in the air like unwelcome visitors.

"As I said, maybe we should go around Sacramento," Sela said determinedly.

I turned facing north. A sign said I-80 was only two miles away. "Okay, Madeline, if it's a one-on-one match you want, you got it," I muttered.

Sela heard me and was about to protest when I said, "Everyone stay put. Find a campsite for the night somewhere around here. I think there's a fairground nearby. I'm going up ahead by myself and will return when the way is clear. If I don't come back, turn around and find a place to hide." I mounted Hope and was about to ride off when Sela grabbed the reins.

"I won't leave your side. If you dare to battle Madeline alone, I will be there to-"

I cut her off and said sternly, "No, you won't. You have our child to protect. That's your number-one job. If Madeline wants to pay us a little surprise ambush, I will more than oblige her and hurt her badly. I will destroy her."

Sela stared up at me. Tears spilled over the edge of her eyes and streamed down her face. "Heckel Casey, you better come back to me. Your child needs his daddy and I need you. We all need you."

I bent down and kissed her. "Have dinner ready for me. I'll be hungry."

Leaning back up and ready to take off, I was suddenly hit with twenty pounds of cat. Picking Jerky up off my neck, I looked the cat in the face and said, "Not this time. I need you to stay here. Just this one time, please. I need to do this alone." I handed the cat to Sela and took off.

The small crowd that had assembled around us cheered when I took off. "Send the bitch back to hell, Heckel! You can do it!" The shouts of encouragement were just the thing I needed, considering my insides felt like ice water.

I kept Hope running at a good speed for a while and then backed her down when I saw the crossroads of I-5 and I-80. That odd feeling I was having increased. I sensed Madeline was close. As I passed the interchange to go west on I-80, I saw a woman sitting on the ground by the off-ramp.

"Hello, Madeline. At last, we finally get to have a chat in person instead of those ridiculous little girls you were sending," I yelled.

"Darn, I was so hoping to surprise you," she said as she stood up.

"You know, I expected someone a bit more glamorous…um…looking a little more like the witch from Sleeping Beauty. The homeless look really doesn't do it for you. Nice disguise though."

Madeline threw off the backpack and tattered, dirty raincoat. Suddenly, a flash sparked around her and her appearance changed. "How's this for glamorous?" Madeline's hair swirled around her head, forming long shiny curls as if they were being styled by an invisible hairdresser. Her clothes changed from rags to a long black cocktail dress with a provocative slit up one side. The clumsy hiking boots with holes transformed into jewel-studded black stiletto high heels.

"Now that's a bit more like what I expected…cheesy cliche."

"See anything you like?" she asked in her best, breathy seductive tone as her tongue lined her highly glossed upper lip. "How are you in bed, Heckel? I'm fantastic. I could take you to places you never imagined. Wanna find out? Come on over here." She raised her skirt higher on the slit side, revealing more of her leg.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah…whatever," I said as I got off Hope. "Don't go too far. I'll need you soon enough," I whispered, slapping the horse's behind. Hope ran back down I-5 and I saw her trot off into a field.

My insides began to seethe with the power that I had come to embrace. This should be interesting. I wonder just how powerful she is?

"Heckel, I'll make a bargain with you. You lie down and die and I let all your happy little followers live."

I laughed heartily and replied, "Madeline, you must take me for a fool. I know full well if you kill me, you will waste no time in eliminating everything that remains good on this planet."

Madeline walked closer to me. I saw blue fire swirling in the palms of her hands. At the same time, the energy inside of me gathered force.

"I'll take great delight cutting that baby out of your pretty…"

That pushed my button. Before she could even finish that sentence, I threw my arm at her as though I were a determined pitcher trying for a no-hitter. A wide bolt of lightning flashed from my hand. The bolt hit Madeline in the chest and threw her backward.

"Now that's not very fair," she said menacingly as she got up. Instantly, she pitched two balls of spiraling blue flame at me.

I jumped out of the way. The balls struck one of the pillars of a nearby overpass. Concrete flew in all directions. A small chunk hit the side of my head. Blood streamed down the side of my face.

As I was wiping my face, she lobbed two more balls.

I put both hands up to block the approaching attack and the shield took the blast. Madeline ran closer to me with two more blue balls rolling around in the palms of her hands. Before she could throw them, I sent two of my own blasts at her.

The force took her by surprise and sent her crashing into the wall of the overpass. I didn't hesitate and sent bolts of lightning at her repeatedly. Her screams were so loud that I had to block my ears.

She got up and ran to the open ground outside of the overpass at the edge of the off-ramp. I ran after her, determined to kill her.

As I approached, she hit me with one of the balls of energy. It threw me a good twenty yards to the other side of the road.

Getting up, I spotted a nearby construction site. There were piles of rebar. I used the force inside me to pick up a small pile of the rebar and flung it at her.

She threw more fire at the rebar, melting most of them. However, one of the spears made it through the fire and pierced her in the chest. More screams.

I didn't hesitate again and hurled more energy bolts at her.

She tried to pull the rebar out of her chest and one of the lightning spears I launched landed at the tip of the rebar. The electrical charge made Madeline sizzle and spasm uncontrollably. Her long, sexy curls unfurled and her hair began to burn. She continued to thrash and tried to pull the rebar out of her chest. The metal had cauterized her skin around the wound. She fell to the ground.

Just as I was about to go over and finish the unpleasant confrontation, a large motor home came tearing down the off-ramp and stopped directly in front of me. I ran to the rear of the dirty RV and as I turned the corner, I saw Madeline being carried into the rig.

I summoned a large bolt of lightning and tossed it at the door, making it fly off its hinges. As I was about to fling another bolt at the motor home, the vehicle took off north, heading down I-5. A large belch of black diesel smoke clouded my vision. I pitched two large bolts at the bus, but missed. The RV continued to race down the road and went over a small hill.

"Damn. I almost had her," I said, wiping sweat and blood from my face. I was exhausted. Every muscle in my body felt like it had been run through an old wringer washing machine. I slowly started to walk south toward my friends. A couple hundred yards down the interstate, I spotted Hope and whistled for her. The horse came trotting over. I mounted her and said, "Almost, Hope. Missed her by a cat's ass. Let's go see what we're having for dinner."

When I rode into the fairground, I was greeted by a burst of applause and wild cheering. Sela ran toward me and took Hope's reins.

"You look like hell. Are you all right?" Sela asked excitedly.

"Yes, just a bit sore."

A large group of people surrounded me. I dismounted Hope and immediately hugged Sela. Missy took Hope and led her off to cool her down.

"I'm sorry folks, but it was close. It was a good fight. I almost had her down for the count," I yelled. Everyone got silent as I recounted my fight.

"That's okay, Heckel. We'll finish the job up in Oregon," someone yelled from behind me. Everyone cheered and echoed the sentiment.

"We need to get you cleaned up. Come on," Sela said, putting her arm around my waist. More cheering erupted as the crowd dispersed.

Chapter 32

The mud-soaked RV charged northward on I-5, looking like a cumbersome dinosaur. Black smoke spewed out of the exhaust pipe. Quincy had laid Madeline down on the sofa. Blood had soaked and dried on the front of her dress. Her two dachshunds climbed all over her, licking her face. She brushed them aside when they hit the rebar still protruding from her chest. Madeline screamed when the motor home hit a bump.

"God damn it!" she yelled. "Stay out of the potholes."

"Sorry," Quincy called back.

Madeline tried to pull the rebar out, but it was cauterized to her skin and any attempt to pull it out resulted in tearing. The deadly spear had gone straight through her. Madeline screamed again in her attempt to pull on it. Blood started to ooze from around the steel bar.

"I'm going to need your help," she shouted to Quincy.

"There's a rest stop a few miles ahead. We'll be there in a matter of minutes," Quincy said as he pushed the diesel engine faster.

Madeline stared out the window, trying not to pass out, reflecting on what still needed to be done. Damn, if only I could have finished this. Now, we take it to…what…the ultimate showdown? My forces will crush him. We outnumber his puny band of merry men clearly five to one. Sheer numbers will prevail.

Quincy slowed the motor home as he approached the off-ramp. He stopped the rig and went back to Madeline.

"How can I help?" he asked.

"You need to pull this piece of shit out of my chest," she said with a trembling voice. "Get a bunch of towels. This thing will bleed like a son of a bitch."

Quincy pulled open drawer after drawer looking for towels. He came back to the sofa with several.

"What now?" he asked. "I'm a little squeamish around blood and stuff."

Madeline rolled her eyes and told him now was not the time to be a wimp. "I think you need to just yank it really hard."

"Okay, wait a minute," he said. "If I may?" He gently rolled Madeline over on her side. Excruciating pain quickly registered on Madeline's face and she let loose a litany of blue words.

"Well, that's not good," he said.

"What the fuck now?" she said, getting more testy and anxious.

"It appears that the rebar has melted into a large round flat disc on the back side. If I yank it from the front, it will probably rip out half your internal organs and the way the rebar is split into several protruding fingers in the front, it would do the same thing if I tried pulling it from the back."

"Shit, now what? I can't leave it in there."

Quincy rolled Madeline carefully on to her back. He propped a couple of large, soft pillows behind her head.

"I have an idea," he said tentatively.

"Well, what?" Madeline barked with less patience.

"If we have a hacksaw, I might be able to saw off the front part and then pull it through from the back. If we had an acetylene torch, I could slice through the rebar pretty quickly."

"Get the hacksaw and get it done," she demanded.

Quincy hurried out of the motor home. Madeline heard him riffling through one of the compartments below. A faint "found it" drifted into the open window near the sofa.

"Shit, hurry up, Quincy. It's hurting more and I feel like I might pass out."

"Maybe you should pass out," he said as he came up to the sofa. "Do you have anything to dull the pain?"

"Yes, get me that bottle of Pendleton," she ordered. "And for shit's sake, hurry."

Quincy opened the cabinet and pulled out the bottle of Pendleton. It was half full. He went to a cupboard looking for a glass.

"Screw the glass. Give me the fucking bottle. The pain is burning hot now."

Quincy unscrewed the cap and handed her the bottle. She immediately started chugging the liquid amber. After gulping down about a quarter of the bottle, she came up for air. "Wow, that packs a wallop. Whew!" The numbing effects of the alcohol began to take effect. She noticed that the room started to get a healthy spin and that the pain had subdued considerably.

Quincy stood over her with the hacksaw. "Don't you think you should sterilize that or something?" she queried with each word sounding more slurred.

"Oh, probably so. I bet there's no alcohol around," he said. "Wait. I have an idea." He went over to the stove, removed the top covering and turned on one of the burners. Madeline watched him out of the corner of her eye; turning her body made the rebar twist. The pain started to increase again, so she knocked back another mouthful of the Pendleton. The hit of booze made her head spin even faster. "Hurry up. Get this done with," she said, sounding like the old comedian Foster Brooks. Giggling, she asked, "Hey, do you remember that old comedian whose whole shtick was acting like a drunk?"

Before Quincy could respond, she slipped out of consciousness for a moment. When she came around, an incredible pain erupted from her chest. After a series of screams that echoed through the motor home, she bellowed, "What the fuck?"

Quincy had his knee on her stomach and was sawing through the rebar. He placed several towels around the protruding metal spear, trying to soak up the spewing blood. "I'm almost through," he said. "Relax."

Madeline screamed repeatedly. "Relax my ass. You…are…fucking…killing…me."

"Here, drink some more-"

Before he could finish his sentence, she swiped her arm up, hitting the bottle out of his hands. He continued his sawing. With each push, Madeline felt like her insides were being pulled apart. Her two dachshunds cowered over on the driver's seat.

"Done," he exclaimed. He threw the saw down, pushed her gently onto her side and yanked on the round melted protuberance on her back. She then felt the metal slide through her body.

"I got it," he said proudly. He quickly took one of the towels and put pressure on the open holes.

Immediately, Madeline felt a sense of relief. "Gimme the bottle," she ordered.

He picked up the Pendleton. There were only a couple of mouthfuls left. She took one big gulp and passed out.

When Madeline woke up, she looked around the room. Quincy had put her on her bed. She tried to get up, but the pain in her chest decided differently, not to mention that her head felt like it was being squeezed in a lemon press. The Pendleton was demonstrating its next-day-hangover effects. She lay back down and realized the motor home was moving. Slowly licking her lips, she realized she was incredibly thirsty. Just as she was about to shout for water, she yawned and fell back to sleep.

A few hours later, she awoke to see Quincy standing over her. "How we doin'?" he asked.

"I feel like shit. I don't know about you."

"I would too if someone had been sawing on my chest," he said with a big smile.

"Water. I'm so thirsty. My mouth feels like the desert and I hate the desert as you well know."

Quincy went out to the kitchen and came back with a large multicolored plastic tumbler full of ice water. He held it up to her lips. She drank like a madwoman falling off the wagon.

"Easy," Quincy said, wiping the hair away from Madeline's eyes.

"Where are we?" she asked.

"Near the Oregon border. I found a nice rest stop where we can stay for the night."

Madeline reached down and felt her chest. There was a big bandage around the wound.

Quincy lifted the covers and inspected the dressing. "I think I probably should change that. We also need to get you to one of your doctors pretty quickly. All I've been putting on that wound is a little Neosporin. I think you should have better antibiotics than that and maybe even some stitches. In the meantime, we just need to keep everything really clean." He gently peeled back the dressing and set it on the nightstand. He lifted the first aid kit from the floor and set it on the bed. He dug out several large square bandages as well as some gauze. After cleaning the wound, he wrapped it securely. Slowly turning her on her side, he dressed the wound on her back. When he was done, he took away the old bandages and cleaned up the nightstand.

Madeline looked up at him and smiled. "You probably saved me, you know."

He didn't say anything and continued to fix the covers on the bed.

"However, you did disobey me. I told you to go join my forces."

He froze, thinking Madeline was going to chew him out…or worse. She tried on her warmest smile and told him she was grateful that he rescued her.

"Well, I just had a feeling," he said quietly. "I just wanted to cover your back."

Madeline started to laugh, but stopped abruptly when the pain in her wound flared. "Right now, you got my back covered and my front just fine." After another failed attempt at giggling, Madeline lifted her finger and motioned for him to come closer.

"Lean down here," she said with a feeble seductive tone. "I want to thank you properly."

Quincy sat on the edge of the bed and leaned closer. She pulled his shirt to draw him near. Their lips were close. "Quincy, you are a good man and I am thankful for what you did for me. I will always…um…"

She froze.

Love him? Could I really love someone? That word has never been a part of my vocabulary since well…forever.

The following afternoon, Quincy drove the motor home up to Madeline's encampment in a large field north of Bend, Oregon. As the motor home approached the edge of the camp, several men came out to greet them. The motor home was equipped with several cameras around the rig. Madeline had a monitor near the nightstand that allowed her to see what was going on. She turned up the volume. Quincy, standing a few feet from the front door, reported that Madeline was sleeping and would welcome them later.

"Is it over?" one of the men asked. "Did she take care of Heckel?"

"Unfortunately, no. He nearly killed her." Quincy said.

Hearing the name Heckel infuriated her. She kicked the covers halfway off, trying to get up. A stabbing pain erupted from both open wounds and settled in. "Shit, shit, shit," she yelled, each word crescendoing. "Quincy, tell them to go away for now and I will hold a meeting in a few days."

One of the men muttered, "I take it things didn't go so well."

Madeline watched Quincy go back into the motor home and slam the door shut. He came back and saw her tangled in the bed sheets.

"Lay back down, or you are going to start the bleeding again," he said, helping her down. He brought the sheet and blanket up, tucking them under her chin.

"Those assholes. If I could stand, I'd-"

"Quiet. You need to remain-"

Before he could finish, someone entered the room.

Madeline peered around Quincy and saw Mr. Barker standing at the foot of the bed. She signed, making her wound throb, and thought, Oh fuck. This can't be good.

"Leave us," he said sternly. Quincy spun around ready to attack.

"Quincy, do as he says. I'll be fine. Maybe you should go check on…um…the generator. You said it was acting up."

Quincy glared at Barker as he left the bedroom.

Barker stood at the foot of the bed. Madeline pushed herself higher on the propped-up pillows, wincing in pain.

"You look like shit," he said.

"Nice to see you as well," she replied with a sarcastic tone.

He began his pacing routine. Oh, shit there he goes again, she thought. But in the small RV bedroom, his little shtick wasn't as intimidating.

"Maybe you just aren't up to the task after all, Ms. Blackwell," he said.

Madeline glowered at him, determination flooding her. "No," she replied calmly. "I am more resolved than ever to-"

"Yeah, blah, blah, blah," Barker said. "I've heard it before."

Madeline remained silent, fuming with hatred. One of her eyes suddenly developed an annoying tick.

"Good. I see you detest me. That's more like it," he said as he continued his little pacing drill, which was really adding to Madeline's pissed-off, defensive attitude.

"I'm afraid your feelings for this Quincy has clouded your…ability to lead. We need to remove that obstacle."

Something on the monitor next to the nightstand caught her attention. Four large men were dragging Quincy over to a large stump. They pushed his head down onto the log. Quickly, a man with a large axe brought it high into the air. From the small speaker next to the monitor, she could hear the whap of the axe as it went through Quincy's neck.

Madeline screamed and covered her mouth.

Mr. Barker just stared at her with a look that penetrated her very soul as if she had a new rebar impaled into her chest. She so wanted to cry, but knew that any sign of weakness would be her end as well.

After a moment, Madeline inhaled deeply, regained her composure and said with an icy, indifferent tone, "Thank you. That was on my to-do list for today anyway. He was such a bore and besides, he disobeyed my command. Now that he is out of the way, there won't be any further distractions. I give you my word."

"Yes, I know. The body can be weak. Too many…temptations," Barker said coming alongside the bed to sit down. He put his hand on her cheek. The coldness was not comforting. Her insides ached from seeing Quincy beheaded.

Suddenly, Barker placed his hand over her wound, and a searing wave of pain made her body go ridged. She could hardly breathe. Just as quickly as the pain shot through her body, it was replaced with a tingling, pleasant sensation.

"Now, I want you to go outside, dressed with your most intimidating look, and pump up your soldiers," he said standing up. "Give them your best cheerleading efforts. Get them ready to fight. No more thoughts of love. Lead them into battle like you were destined to do. Finish the fight and be ready to start a new world."

Madeline pulled back the covers, peeled off the dressing and looked at the wound. It was completely healed. When she looked up, Barker was gone. She slid her legs off to the side of the bed and cried for a moment for Quincy. Then she went to the closet and pulled out her favorite black leather pants. As she got dressed, the anger inside her seethed.

Chapter 33

At Weed, CA, we left I-5 and started our way on US 97, The Dalles-California Highway. A cold drizzle greeted us as we crossed the border into Oregon. It further indicated that summer was on its way out and fall was in the air. I kept thinking it must be getting close to October. Jack was doing much better and was able to ride again. His sense of humor had returned, along with his eagerness to go into battle. We often rode together, sharing memories of the events leading up to the collapse and Madeline's rise to power.

"Hey, Heck, do you remember all those…oh, what do you call them?" Jack said banging the side of his head with his fist as if to dislodge his forgotten memory.

"Hell if I know what you're talking about. Give me a little clue," I said.

"They rob people on the high seas," he said still knocking his head.

"Oh, you mean pirates?"

"Yeah, that's it. The pirates."

"Arrrgh…" I said while squinting an eye. I looked down at Jerky sleeping on my neck and thought that there probably weren't many pirates with a cat perched on their shoulders.

"I remember that whole business escalating somewhere in the early part of the century. There were whole luxury ships taken over with all the passengers raped, tortured and murdered. Do you think it was Madeline's handiwork?"

"No doubt. I'm sure just about every murderous situation was her architecture."

"Well, it got so bad that no one ventured out to sea much. Cruise lines went belly up."

"Yeah, and when Madeline came to power there were open battles at sea," I remembered.

"Those pirates were able to get on board some of our best warships and blow them up."

"More casualties on Madeline's list to annihilate mankind I'm sure."

After more stories, we just rode in silence for a long time. For some reason, recounting all the tragedies and losses from Madeline's waves of destruction gave us strength and determination.

The sun peeked out later in the afternoon and boosted everyone's spirits. After a few miles, we decided to stop early and camp for the night. Later that evening, we had a rousing game of soccer and it really lifted the mood.

Sela was in the last month or so of her pregnancy. Her guardian angel never left her sight. Vonnie was especially helpful, giving her advice and just being there for her. She already said that she would help with the delivery when the time came. I told her how much I valued her friendship. That night, she, Jack and Missy brought dinner over for us.

"Wow, thanks. You didn't have to do that," I said, greeting them as they walked into our camp.

"I hope you haven't eaten yet," Missy said.

"No, we haven't," Sela replied. "Heckel came back empty-handed from fishing. We were just going to eat some old Pop-Tarts that we found back in Weed."

"How about a little rabbit stew? Missy shot the critter; it's a nice big juicy one. Jack found some wild asparagus and I had some other dried veggies. I think it came out pretty good."

Vonnie spooned up bowls of the stew. My mouth started watering before I even took the bowl from her.

"Oh, my…normally I'm not a big stew fan, but this is absolutely heavenly. I can't believe how tender the meat is. What's your secret?" Sela asked, shoveling another large spoonful into her mouth.

"Old family secret that I can not reveal," Vonnie said.

"Riiiiight," Missy giggled. "You made it up with the spices we had. Don't let her kid you."

"I've been caught," Vonnie said, sitting down with her bowl. "Dumb luck. I had limited resources."

"Well, you have to give me the recipe as best you can. It is delicious," Sela said with a mouthful.

Everyone sat mostly in silence for the longest time. However, there was an occasional "mmm" or "wow" issued. By the time we were all done, the big stew pot was empty. Jerky was perched nearby, ready for the green light to lick it clean.

"Thank you so much. That's the best stew ever," I said, followed by a lengthy belch. "Oops…excuse me."

"I'll take that as a compliment," Vonnie said. Jack added a thunderous and resonant burp. She swatted his arm. "Stop…now you're grossing me out."

I got up, pulled a blanket out of our tent and covered Sela's shoulders. Jack put a few more logs on the fire. We sat around reminiscing about fun things. Any time someone started to talk about a bad event, we interrupted and insisted on a more pleasant topic.

"Is the word around about the whole guardian angel support group?" I queried with a very straightforward tone.

"Yup," Missy offered. "Seems like everyone is cool with it and pretty much in awe."

"Yes, most went along with it as if it were common knowledge. There were a few skeptics, that is, until their guardian angel made its presence known. Wow, then you should have seen the looks on their faces-priceless," Vonnie added.

"Well, good. I had no idea how that one would fly with people," I said.

"It got kind of funny for a while," Jack said.

"How?" Sela asked.

"Well, some who had a tiger or large intimidating animal for a guardian angel boasted about how strong and protective it was, while someone else might have only a little Chihuahua," Jack explained. "Yeah, then you should have seen what that little dog turned into-a gigantic wolf, who went on to play with the tiger. After that one pissing contest, everyone understood that when needed, the guardian angel could be anything it deemed necessary to protect."

"Interesting," I said.

"Yeah, these guardian angels are mean mother-"

Vonnie put a hand over Jack's mouth. We talked further about the whole guardian angel business, feeling very comforted by their presence. Sela recounted the story again of how she discovered her angel and found out the angels were going to help us.

Later, I looked down to see that Sela had fallen asleep in my lap. After a while, our company got up and said good night. I eased Sela awake just enough to help her into the tent. After she got nestled into our bed, I went back out to sit a while longer at the fire. Jerky crawled up into my lap.

As the embers were dying down, Tempest came walking slowly into our camp. He stood there as if waiting for something. Jerky dashed off my lap and jumped up onto his saddle.

"Okay, what's this all about?"

Tempest came up to me and nudged my shoulder. "Okay, I get the hint." As soon as I mounted him, Jerky settled onto my shoulder. "Great. Where we goin'?" The horse turned and sauntered away from the campsite. Once in the clearing, he took off running fast. I held on tight. This horse was strong and powerful and knew his destination.

After about two hours of a grueling pace, Tempest slowed down. We had topped a hill and there off in the distance were Madeline's warriors. Jerky jumped off my shoulders and I dismounted.

"Holy shit," I said, looking out at the massive army sprawled across the landscape. "How in the hell-" I started to say when I was interrupted by a strange female voice.

"Want some?"

I spun around and saw an attractive woman standing next to Tempest, holding a bottle of wine. Immediately, I braced myself, thinking that Madeline somehow had tricked me.

"Relax, I'm not Madeline. I'm your guardian angel."

"I thought Jerky was," I said, still braced for a confrontation.

"Meow," the woman said, licking the back of her hand and brushing her hair.

"You really are? Prove it," I said, still having my guard up.

The woman, carrying the bottle, walked away from Tempest. She elongated one of her fingernails, pierced the bottle top and pulled out a cork. She sniffed the bottle and said, "Nice bouquet. Do you like a good Zinfandel? I do. This one definitely has hints of oak. I found it a while back and had it hidden in one of the bags."

I stared at her, still not convinced she was the cat that had been following me for most of last year. She took a sip from the bottle and held it out to me. I remained silent and uncertain.

"All right. Let's see, you need more proof. How's this?" the woman said, suddenly morphing back into the form of Jerky.

"I bet Madeline could do that," I said sarcastically. The cat morphed back into the form of the woman.

"You are a tough doubting Thomas. Remember him? Let's see…what is something Madeline wouldn't know?" the woman asked, walking around and sipping from the bottle. I have to admit the smell of that wine was tweaking my taste buds.

The woman or Jerky, if she really is, stopped and said, "You have a birthmark in the shape of a bird on your…"

"Well, that's good enough for me. Hand me that bottle," I said, walking up to her. I took a small gulp. "Outstanding! It's been ages since I've tasted a good bottle of wine. Most of the liquor stores or wine shops were the first to get scavenged."

Jerky sat down on the ground and stared out at Madeline's forces. I sat down next to her and passed the bottle back to her. "Why is my guardian angel a woman?" I asked, staring at her.

"Would you rather I were a man?" she said, taking another hit from the bottle. "Yum. I've really been missing the taste of wine."

"Yeah, I bet a steady diet of mice and rats would dull one's palate," I said laughing.

"Still…they're good protein and I don't think about it much."

"It's nice to get to actually talk to you, Jerky. You have been awesome. I can't count the number of times you've saved or warned me."

"Careful, you'll make me blush," Jerky said. "Just doin' my job."

"Well, you're very good at it. Say, do you think we have a chance?" I asked hesitatingly, pointing the bottle toward the ominous-looking camps below. Jerky took the bottle and paused for a moment. "Depends," she said, taking another chug from the bottle. "Too bad we don't have some cheese. I haven't had any cheese in a very long time."

Jerky passed the bottle back to me. I squinted and tried to read the label. "I picked it up somewhere in Stockton. I think it's from the Ravenswood winery. It was way under a shelf in some dingy old liquor store."

"Depends on what?" I finally asked, interrupting Jerky's explanation of her quest for undiscovered bottles of wine.

"You see all those men and women out there prepared for fighting?"

"Yeah, there are an awful lot of them," I said with a hint of frustration.

Jerky took my hand and said, "Well, they are in for a bit of a surprise."

I explained to her that I was confident my people would do well and I was appreciative of her encouraging comment, but the reality of the matter was that they had us clearly outnumbered three to one.

"No, I mean something different. Those poor unknowing, misdirected individuals will all be changed."

"Can you be a bit less cryptic?" I said. "Get to the point."

"Madeline will turn them all into demons. Demons with more strength and single-mindedness."

I took a huge swallow of wine and then another mouthful to ponder Jerky's last comment. I passed the bottle over to Jerky. As I swallowed slowly, major doubts and fears flooded my whole body and overtook any warm buzz I had gotten from the wine.

Jerky sensed I was upset. "Heckel, our force is strong…maybe we don't have the magnitude of warriors, but we are smarter, more agile, and-"

"And what…we'll have our butts handed to us on a platter?"

Jerky punched me in the arm.

"Ouch! What did you do that for?"

"To get you thinking straight. You haven't had that much wine to make you goofy and stupid. Look, you are Heckel. You-"

Stopping her from going on a lengthy monologue, I initiated a barrage of questions. "Why has God let things get so messed up? Why is this happening? Why me? What happens if we lose? What-?

"Whew, stop," Jerky said, holding up her hand. "I don't have another bottle of wine to answer all these questions. However, I can't really explain everything, but I do know that you all screwed up down here."

"Excuse me," I said glowering at her.

"Well, not all of you. I mean in general mankind, or I should be more politically correct and say humans…though I will add, women probably did less to mess things up so much. You probably should have let them run things. They can do a better job."

I told her she was digressing.

"Sorry, anyway what I mean is God, the Supreme Being, the head honcho, the main dude…well, He let you all go to see how far you would let evil take over. Not intentionally, mind you. Remember, from day one He gave everyone free will. Humans have made some really crappy choices that have really mucked things up."

I was about to object and try to list all the wonderful things that have transpired, but she put up her hand and said, "You and everyone who has followed you are good people. Oh, and there are others overseas who will follow you once this battle is over."

"Can I get a word in edgewise?" I asked, peeling the label slowly off the bottle. "You mean all those people who died over the last couple of years were bad? I mean, come on…Madeline messed with them. She planted some crap in them and at a certain time, she pulled the switch to trigger a wave of destruction. I remember. I saw it."

"She just planted the suggestion. It was their choice to choose the dark path or not. Unfortunately, most did make a horrible decision. She had no effect on you and many others because you had strength inside you, or a barrier against the evil. You made the choice for good."

As we continued to discuss the whole situation, I got a lot of back-story so to speak. She answered many of my questions. Then she asked the big one. "Will we win?"

Jerky stretched and put her arm around my back, "Heckel, that-"

Before she could finish, a soft voice from behind us said, "Excuse me."

Jerky jumped up and spun around. As she turned, she had morphed into a seven-foot silverback grizzly. Her roar was deafening. Several critters in the bushes nearby scattered.

"I'm so sorry. I do apologize for startling you," the voice from the shadows said.

"Who are you?" I asked standing to one side of Jerky. I looked over at her and was impressed by her defensive seven-foot posturing.

"My name is Mr. Barker. I'm here with a proposition."

I knew it…another deception from Madeline. "Okay, Madeline, so now you're trying the old English gentleman approach. I'll give you credit for creativity. I whupped your ass once and the next time I'll finish it. Come on let's do it," I said with my fists clenched in my best fighter stance.

"Please, Mr. Casey, I assure you, I am not Madeline. I am her…hmm…counsel, I guess you could say."

Jerky jumped down on all fours and waited.

"Well, you should counsel her into surrendering and ending this nonsense. Tell her to go back to hell," I stated with determination.

He started pacing in front of us. Every few steps he would look up and smile at us.

"I'm afraid that's not going to happen. I can tell you that you will lose. You are clearly outnumbered and after tomorrow, her force will be bigger, stronger and will not show any mercy."

As if her buttons had been pushed, Jerky swiftly transformed back to human form. She stood in front of me, protective and defiant.

"Please stop doing that, young lady. It is alarming," Barker said with a repugnant smile.

"You should leave now," Jerky said. "You are not to be trusted."

Barker resumed his pacing and I could tell Jerky made him nervous. Tempest came up behind me. I turned and saw that the horse was also ready to protect me.

"So, Mr. Barker, you said you had a proposition. What is it?"

Jerky turned to me and whispered, "Don't listen to him. Anything he says will be a lie."

I assured her I just wanted to hear what he had to say.

"This battle will result in many lives lost. That is a given."

"And what do you care about that?" Jerky said.

"If she continues to interrupt me, I will have to just forget…"

"Just finish what you have to say and do it quickly," I demanded. I took Jerky's arm and tried to calm her down.

"Fine. If you all turn around and give this up, we will spare your lives. All of you. Men, women and children," he said with a sleazy, creepy grin.

Jerky fidgeted. I held onto her arm. She was so ready to tear this asshole apart.

"You know, Mr. Barker. I've seen a lot of movies and that routine never worked out. I don't think I'd trust Madeline or you for that matter. No, we will end this in battle."

"Too bad. That child of yours will never get to meet his daddy," Barker said with a sneer.

Now that one pushed me over the edge, and I started for him. Jerky was at my side, ready to strike.

Before we could engage him, he lifted off the ground and held up his hand. "You are a dead man, Heckel Casey. Give it up."

Suddenly, he was gone.

"Damn," Jerky said. "I knew I should have-"

"I don't think angels should be saying damn," I reprimanded her.

"Sorry. Sometimes the heat of the moment gets me all riled up."

"I know the feeling."

I picked up the bottle, took one last sip, passed it to Jerky and decided it was time to return.

"How do you feel?" Jerky asked, taking one last look out across Madeline's camp.

"Sober enough to drive."

"No, silly. I mean about-"

"More determined and confident that ever."

"Good. I have another bottle of Zinfandel stashed away in one of your bags back at the camp. We'll pop that open when this is all finished."

I smiled and nodded. Jerky hugged me.

As we rode back to camp, we shared stories and memories of Jerky's work as a guardian. She had a very good sense of humor and reminded me of some of the dumb things I almost did.

"Will you change back to a cat before we get to camp? Sela might be a little jealous."

"Absolutely. No problem. I doubt she'd be jealous. She doesn't strike me as the type. But yeah, I was planning on it. It's just been fun getting to talk and laugh with you."

"Yes, it has. So, before you change, I just want to thank you again for everything that you have done for me and Sela."

I felt soft fur on my neck and loud purring.

Chapter 34

Madeline woke up and each time she closed her eyes, she could still see poor Quincy's head rolling on the ground. She buried her face into her pillow, trying to block out the memory. Put it behind you. Forget it. You have bigger things to contend with. It's all that damn Heckel Casey's fault. Everything is his fault.

"Good morning, Madeline," a familiar voice said. Barker, shit. What in the hell did he want? Not the best voice to wake up to.

She pulled her head out from the pillow and sat up.

"Don't you ever knock?" she queried, pulling the sheet up to cover her chest.

"There's no time for formalities. I'm here to give you instructions."

Great, now what? Madeline just stared at him, showing him no emotion. He began his usual pacing. Oh for crying out loud. Here we go again.

"Madeline, you have garnered some impressive numbers to serve you."

She continued to just glare at him, waiting for him to finish and hopefully leave quickly. He really gives me the creeps, and besides, I really need to pee.

"Though you most likely have the sheer numbers to crush Heckel's ragtag army, we feel you need a bit more help."

"What?"

For the next fifteen minutes, he instructed her on how to boost her chances for success. She listened intently, asking questions when something wasn't clear.

When he was done, he flashed that quirky grin and said, "Have a good day, Madeline."

She was relieved to see him leave the bedroom.

After taking care of the morning necessities, she poured herself a glass of orange juice and spiked it with Pendleton. "Hmm, not bad, but vodka would have been better. I need to stock up on more vodka." She opened the side window, leaned her head out and barked a command for someone to get her breakfast. Her personal chef came running up and said he'd bring scrambled eggs and sausage immediately. "Wonderful. I'm starving."

As she waited for the meal, she reviewed the business that Barker just laid out. She had no more doubts. No weakness. With this transmogrification, victory was hers with no chance of defeat.

She practically inhaled the breakfast. With each mouthful she became more energized and excited about the ensuing battle and the edge that Barker promised.

After eating, she showered, powdered her body and went to the closet. All her clothes looked boring until she spotted a pair of bright-red knee-high leather boots with a menacing spiked heel made of silver. "Lovely. I'll build my ensemble around those. Black goes so well with red. Hmm…let's see."

She kept riffling through the closet. On the floor, she spotted a black shirttail leather skirt. "I have just the belt for it," she said, sliding a wide leopard belt with a shiny buckle off a hook inside the closet. "I haven't worn this in years. Perfect. Now for a top." After finding a black satin blouse, she got dressed.

Jewelry was easy. A stunning diamond necklace with matching earrings called out to her.

Now hair is a problem-up or down? Which one said I'm a badass the loudest? "Absolutely no ponytail or braids. That would look too high school," she muttered. She decided to wear it down, slightly curled, pulled back from her face and laced with dark-red hair extensions.

After taking care of her hair, she used bold smoky eye makeup and applied dark-red lip-gloss. Madeline stood in front of a full-length mirror. "Stunning. Go make an army from hell."

Stepping out of the motor home, she was immediately greeted by five men. They all fussed over her, throwing compliment after compliment, which she noted as absolutely invigorating. She flashed her best teasing smiles and told them to gather all the men together in one hour. They grovel so well and are so easy to control. That little dick between their legs is so susceptible to getting a woman what she wants. And who said women were the weaker sex? Ha!

"Excuse me, Ms. Madeline," a voice from behind her said. Madeline turned around to see one of her generals standing at attention.

"Yes."

"Can I ask what this is all about?" he quizzed calmly like a kid who knows all the answers.

"You'll see. In fact, for that matter, when I meet with the men, I want you by my side to watch. Make sure all is ready."

He stood there with a querying face. She put up her hand and a small tinge of blue light emerged. Immediately he bowed and backed away.

For the next hour, the instructions that Barker had left with her raced across her mind. A soft knock at the door signaled that her audience waited.

"Miss Madeline, the men are ready," a voice said.

A rush of adrenaline bolted throughout her body; she could feel her face flush and the hairs on her arm stand up. Energy was building in her veins, igniting every pore in her body. She jumped off the sofa and went to the door. She inhaled deeply and reveled in the power. My mojo is brewing!

As she passed the driver's seat to go down the steps of the motor home, a picture of Quincy sitting at the wheel flashed across her eyes. She touched the wheel tenderly.

Stop it! a voice in her head commanded.

Barker?

She turned quickly and immediately descended the steps out of the motor home.

A deafening roar greeted her as she walked to the edge of the crowd. Men raised an assortment of weapons in the air and shouted her name. What a frickin' rush! She took several minutes to soak it in as well as let the men marvel at her badass appearance.

Madeline walked to the steps of a small platform raised off the ground a few feet. Two men held out their hands to assist her climb. When she reached the top, Madeline struck a commanding pose. The crowd roared even louder. She put up her hand to silence them.

"Good morning," she shouted. Her voice sounded amplified even without a microphone. It surprised her at first and then she thought of Barker. Obviously, his doing.

"You men are the future of our world." A roar ensued with more fists in the air and weapons waving. "Tomorrow, we will take the world and it will be ours."

More shouts and cheers.

Madeline went on for about fifteen minutes more, giving them a speech that rivaled any would-be dictator. Hitler and Hussein came to mind as well as a host of other selfish assholes. All she needed was a funny hat like some of them wore. Gaddafi, in particular.

It was time.

Slowly, she elevated off the platform. Her body went up into the air a good ten feet and hovered. The sea of people in front of her went completely silent. Awesome.

"Do not be afraid for I am your goddess who will lead you to victory. Along with your fists and your will, the power I bestow on you will render our enemy defeated."

A roar erupted from below her as she glanced across the field. The cheers from five thousand men were more addictive than any drug. Madeline felt her insides seethe with power.

"With a wave of my hand and powerful words, I will make you stronger, bigger and meaner than the most vicious predators on the planet. You will be gods among men."

More cheers. She was sure they all thought she was speaking metaphorically. Slowly, she lifted her hands and raised them high above her head. Little by little, the palms turned bright red and small spikes of lightning flew outwards. The adrenaline-soaked, testosterone-filled mass in front of her stared in awe. Grinning, she closed her eyes and as the force in her hands built to a crescendo, she uttered the words that Barker taught her. They sounded like gibberish to the men below. Either the recitation was some ancient language or it was a language unknown to mankind or maybe it was all for show and simply just nonsensical rants. Madeline spoke them as if they were her mother tongue. With each phrase, she waved her hands from one side of the crowd to the other.

At first, Madeline heard soft groans, then gradually louder snarls. Slowly, she opened her eyes. What she saw almost made her stumble backward. All five thousand men had been transformed into grotesque demons. Each man had grown to a height of nearly seven feet. Their muscles had clearly been strengthened and enlarged as though they had been injected with an enhanced steroid cocktail. Their facial features were turned into a distorted, monstrous appearance that rivaled any Hollywood Rick Baker creation.

Initially, Madeline just stared in part shock and part awe until a thunderous roar erupted. It was menacing and intimidating; it sent icy waves throughout her body. "Now you are invincible!" she exclaimed, lowering her hands. "You are my warriors!"

This time the roar from below her caused her to throw her hands up in the air and discharge two massive blue energy balls high up in the sky, initiating her own fireworks.

More roaring!

Without hurrying and definitely milking the moment, Madeline lowered herself back down onto the platform. The general that had bothered her earlier with his questions was now a formidable demon himself.

His grunts, along with generous spittle, confirmed his enthusiasm. With some difficulty because of the large fangs, he said groveling, "I apologize for questioning you, my goddess. You have blessed us with your power. The men will fight to the death."

"Good. I would expect nothing less."

"When does the battle begin?" he asked.

"Tomorrow at dawn."

Chapter 35

Sela tossed and turned. She was sure the baby wasn't too happy as she shifted position for the umpteenth time. Sela looked over at Heckel lying next to her and was astonished to hear him snoring gently. It's the eve before an epic battle to save mankind and he's dead to the world. Oops, bad choice of words.

"Heckel, you awake?"

Nothing.

"Heckel?" she asked a little louder, touching him softly on the shoulder.

Still nothing. This man could sleep through the end of the world. Damn, stop with the doomsday references. Sheesh, she said admonishing herself.

"Heckel, you aw-"

"I am now," he said, stirring ever so slowly. "Are you all right?"

"Yes. I just need to talk to you."

He rolled over, facing her. Sela placed a kiss tenderly on his mouth. His scent washed over her and it lifted her spirits.

"That was pleasant. You can wake me anytime to do that," he said with a smile.

No words came to Sela. She inched her body closer to him and put her arm around his chest.

"Can't sleep?" he asked, followed by a huge yawn.

"No. I keep thinking-"

"Stop thinking, relax, and you'll fall back asleep."

"Not that simple. Aren't you the least bit troubled by what's going to happen tomorrow?"

Silence.

Sela waited for a response.

After another large stretch and yawn, he hugged her and assured her that all was well.

"Heckel Casey, I simply don't believe that you aren't the least bit…um…scared. Talk to me. This could be our last night together."

"Bullpucky! Not gonna happen."

She looked at him with a penetrating stare that begged him to open up.

"Sela, that's just not an option. This is not going to be our last night together. I refuse to let that thought even enter my head."

"You mean to say you have no doubts or fears."

"No, of course not. However, I am convinced that good will prevail and we will restore our planet to be focused on the right path. For the longest time, mankind has been stuck. We were supposed to become more and more enlightened. Instead, evil and corruption gained a foothold that eventually led to our downfall. The journey toward enlightenment peaked maybe somewhere, and then we started sliding. Sliding toward darkness, hatred and indifference. Jerky told me-"

Sela put up her hand to stop him. "What? Jerky told you? Since when does your cat talk?"

Heckel looked sheepish as if he had just swallowed a canary. "Well, I should have told you this earlier. Jerky and I shared a wonderful bottle of Zinfandel the other night."

"Huh?"

He told Sela about his ride with Tempest out to view Madeline's forces and how Jerky had transformed into a young woman.

"Why a woman?" she asked, trying to hide her jealousy.

"Yeah, I asked the same question. Jerky asked me if I'd prefer a young man. I-"

"Why didn't she just talk to you as a cat?" Sela interrupted, feeling a little pouty and ridiculous for being jealous of his guardian angel.

"I have no idea. Wait. Are you jealous?" Heckel asked as he stroked her cheek.

Sela didn't reply, but she did enjoy his touch.

"Jerky is my guardian angel. You don't get jealous over an angel," Heckel said, giving her a reassuring hug. She felt him laugh slightly.

"You're right as usual. Sorry. It was just a sudden burst of emotion from a woman who has way too many hormones racing through her body, not to mention that the father of her child is leading an epic battle against evil tomorrow."

Heckel laughed and hugged her tighter.

"So, what did she say?" Sela asked.

Heckel went on to describe the whole encounter. He became a bit more animated when he was recounting the appearance of Barker. When he was done, she hugged him tighter. She just didn't want the moment ever to stop. They lay there for the longest time just enjoying each other's warmth. He stroked her hair and she fell asleep.