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steel wagon

by Joshua Matern

It was the forty-eighth abandoned car Ralph had passed that day, but the first one with bullet holes. He

felt his grip on the steering wheel tighten a little and glanced down. His revolver was still there, right

where he'd put it that morning. The possibility he would have to use it again seemed to increase

dramatically, filling his mind with the sound of gunshots and the flash of muzzle fire.


Diane reached over and rested her hand on his. He glanced at her, and she gave him a smile

though there were small wrinkles of worry still in her face. Tension eased out of Ralph and he rolled his

shoulders. Being always on edge would wear you out, make you vulnerable. He needed to be alert but

calm. That way, he would be at his most ready for any danger but also help his family feel at ease.


He heard a noise in the backseat. “Daddy, is time to eat?” He looked at Michelle in the rear

view mirror. She had an eager smile despite having tired bags under her eyes and dirty, unkempt hair.

She clutched her even dirtier stuffed bunny in her arm against her over-sized T-shirt.


“Not yet pumpkin. We will stop in about an hour. Why don't you rest more?”


“Hot.” Michelle made a frown.


Diane turned her body to rest her hand on Michelle's head. “I know baby, but the AC isn't

working. We will stop in the shade when it gets too hot.”


Their son, Warren, stopped looking out the window to look at his mom. “Can we get it fixed

today? I'm sweating all the time.”


Diane pursed her lips a little but then smiled again. “We will see, but we will still probably have

to wait a bit, okay?”


“Can I at least get more water? I already drank my morning bottle. I don't want to have to wait

until noon for another.”


Diane glanced at Ralph who met her eyes before focusing on the road. He ran a mental check of

their water supply and clenched his jaw a little. They were short on water as it was and needed to find a

source soon. He gave a small shake of his head.


His wife sighed very slightly. “Sorry Warren, but you'll have to wait.”


Michelle held her bottle of water up to Warren. “Share water. Here Warren.”


Warren smiled but shook his head. “No no sis. You need to drink that. Little four-year-old girls

need to finish their water.”


She gave a smile. “Ooookay!”


They drove the next hour in relative silence. The abandoned cars and other hazards made it slow

going. The sun was higher in the sky and the heat was becoming intolerable. Ralph nodded his head in

Diane's direction. “Can you check the map babe?”


Diane ran her finger over the unfolded paper. “There's a small town up ahead. Maybe 15

minutes.”


“Think it's still there?”


Diane grimaced a little. “Maybe.”


“At the very least, there should be a place to get shade.” He glanced in the rear view mirror at

the backseat. Both kids were exhausted from the heat and lolling in their seats. He focused on the road

again and lowered his voice. “And, uh, how much expected distance?”


Diane also surreptitiously glanced back then quietly said, “Between 150 and 200 miles.”


Ralph sighed between his teeth. Before, that may have been a few hours. Now, that would be a

few days. They needed water. More food would be nice too. He offered a quick prayer that the next

town would offer some sustenance.


*******


The first thing Ralph noticed was the town couldn't have been bigger than a 1000 people at any point.


The second was that there were many more bullet holes in cars here. As they got closer, he could see

many of the building were black from fire, some completely destroyed, none with no damage.

Diane gave a worried glance. “Should we go back?”


Ralph shook his head. “We need supplies and shade. We won't last otherwise.”


Warren stared wide eyed out the window. “Did this place have riots and fighting, too?”


“Don't know,” Ralph said. He highly doubted it. If anything, a small town being burned down

like this was even more sinister than the riots they'd fled on the West coast. He wanted to be gone as soon as the sun was low enough.


He slowly maneuvered the car through the town. Some roads were completely impassable,

others he could barely get through. He finally spotted a structure with a garage he didn't think would collapse any moment and parked the car inside.


Michelle started bouncing. “Eat lunch! I'm hungry. I want pizza!”


Diane smiled. “No pizza, but here's some bread and peanut butter.” She passed out food to

everyone.


Ralph grabbed his then started getting out of the car. “Need to start looking right away.”

Diane put her hand on his arm. “Can't it wait a moment?”


Ralph placed his hand on hers for a second but then moved her hand off himself. “We need to

leave as soon as we can.” He grabbed his gun and put it in his shoulder holster.

“Do you think you'll need that?” Diane said.


“Hope not. You all stay quiet okay? I'll be back as soon as I can. Let's say a prayer.”

Warren and Michelle nodded. They prayed then Ralph patted them on the head and gave Diane

a peck on the mouth before stepping out.


It was hot, even in the shade. The moment he stepped into the sun felt like putting his body into

an oven. He looked around for a somewhat intact building and headed over. Unfortunately, the place

had been picked pretty clean. There was junk everywhere, burned and busted furniture, but no supplies.


He figured his best luck would be a grocery or convenience store so headed out to find one.


He passed the remnants of one, burned to the ground. Hoping that wasn't the only one, Ralph

pressed on in the blazing heat. Sweat coated his whole body as he made his way around. After turning a

corner, his heart jumped. A still standing grocery store. It's windows were all busted and the walls were black but it hadn't collapsed.


Ralph had to struggle to push the broken door out of the way. When he finally slipped in, his

heart sank a little. Lots of empty glass bottles and other trash, but no immediate supplies. He noticed

lots of footprints on the ground. This place must have been ransacked already. He scoured the shelves

and aisles but didn't find anything edible. When he was about to despair a little, he offered a quick

prayer and went to check the employee area.


Some busted electronics, scattered papers. He went to the back storage area. Burned to the

ground. Nothing left. Just when he was about to despair he thought to look in the boss's office.

Surprisingly, the door was locked. Ralph scratched his head. Who could have locked it? Why hadn't it been broken into? It was only a wooden door and could have easily been destroyed.


He made a brief search of the area but realized it would be near impossible to find a small door

key. He couldn't leave it unchecked though. Getting into position, he kicked hard against the door near the handle. The door shuddered and made a cracking noise. Putting in even more power, Ralph kicked again and the door flung open.


He was stunned. Piles of sealed food and water covered the room. One wall was stacked with

bottles of liquor. A few guns and ammunition were on a bookshelf as well. There were enough

supplies to last his family more than a year.


The sight might have excited someone else, but it scared Ralph to death. This was a supply

depot. He couldn't be sure for who, but given the state of the town, he was sure it was for someone who would not care for Ralph or his family's well-being. They needed to leave now.


He couldn't come back empty handed though. They wouldn't last long without more water.

Ralph quickly combed the supplies and found cases of forty-eight water bottles a piece. Perfect. He

picked one up and debated if he should take two, but decided not to. The going would be too slow.


Getting out of here fast was more important.


Ralph carried the case out of the store. The sun was baking hot so he stuck to the shade. He

didn't want to think how hot it was going to be while driving.


When he arrived, both kids were asleep. Diane spotted him the moment he dragged himself in.

She quickly got out and opened the trunk. Ralph put the water in among their other supplies and

stretched his sore arms.


Diane smiled. “Thank goodness you-”


“We need to go. Now.”


She opened her eyes in shock a little. “Now? But it's-”


“I know, but it's too dangerous here. I'll explain after we go.”


Diane noticed the expression on Ralph's face and nodded. “I trust you.”


They got into the car and Ralph started it up. Both the kids woke up.


“We going?” Warren mumbled.


“Yeah, need to get moving,” Ralph said as he pulled out of the store.


The heat was immediate once they left the shade.


“Dad, it's so hot right now.”


“I know, Warren. I know, but we-”


Ralph's heart froze. The roaring sound of car engines could faintly be heard. It sounded like

dozens of them, too many for just a small group of travelers. Everyone in the car looked at each other

with grim expressions.


“Raiders?” Diana said quietly.


Ralph clenched his jaw. “I don't know, but I don't want to risk it.”

“Should we just hide?”


Ralph shook his head. “They'll find us eventually. We need to go.”


He knew as soon as the approaching cars saw them, they would try and cut them off, maybe

even shoot them to pieces. He needed to keep as much distance as possible. “Everyone, strap in, say a

prayer, and hold on.” He said a prayer, pushed on the gas, and sped as fast as he could down the road.


He was right. A large group of trucks and cars was driving to town and judging by the large

weapons he could see, they were not refugees. They were coming from the highway so he had chosen

to leave town the opposite direction. The problem was that there were only dirt roads leading out that

way which made it impossible to go too fast. Ralph was only barely going over forty miles per hour

and even then, every bump lurched the car.


The sound of an approaching vehicle caused Ralph to glance in the side view mirror. It was an off-road jeep, easily able to drive on this tough terrain. It was far away but closing in fast and he could

make out some figures with guns. Ralph didn't think it was possible to shake them but he had to try. He stepped on the gas.


Almost immediately, the car's front wheel hit a hole and the car's front jolted into the air.

Everyone but Ralph screamed as the car careened off the dirt road and nearly flipped, just barely

keeping itself upright before sliding to a halt.


The jeep was on them immediately. Four rough men in bandannas with rifles and pistols trained

on them hopped off. Ralph could only think of protecting his family. He grabbed his revolver and

threw it out the window then stepped out the door with hands up and knelt on the ground.

The point man for the group came up to him. He had sunglasses and a scraggly beard. Even

outside, Ralph could smell alcohol on him. He kept his rifle trained on Ralph and looked over at the

revolver on the ground.


“Thanks for that,” he said to Ralph then smacked him in the face with the butt of his rifle. Ralph

heard his family scream as he collapsed onto the ground on his back. “Makes our job a whole lot easier

now.”


“Please,” Ralph said while raising himself a bit to look at the man. “I'll give you all our

supplies. Just let them go.”


The men all laughed at him. Ralph had to blink blood out of his eye to see them. They all

looked rough and dangerous. “Supplies?” the same man said. He laughed again. “We don't want your scraps. Got something way more valuable here already.” He gestured to Ralph's family. 


“They'll all get a good price.”


Horror welled up in Ralph and he tried to rise up but was kicked down. “Too bad for you,” the

man said, “but there's very little demand for middle-aged white guys.” He pointed the rifle right in

Ralph's face. “Just how life is bud.”


Ralph refused to close his eyes. He stared right into the man's sunglasses and waited.


A sound like rapid thunderclaps echoed out followed by screaming. The bandits near Ralph looked around with guns ready. Ralph followed the sound and saw what must have been at least fifty

vehicles up on a ridge, all painted the same yellow and gray styling. Two of the trucks had large guns

mounted on the back and were raining down a stream of deadly gunfire on the bandits. Others were

driving over to attack the main group.


One of the men started panicking. “Why they here man? This is far out of their territory!”


Another spoke up. “Don't panic guys, don't panic. Just get to the car and-” He didn't finish speaking before a bloom of blood flew out of his head and he collapsed to the ground.


They started firing at four vehicles approaching them. Two ran to their Jeep and were quickly

cut down but the sunglasses man ran to Ralph's car. Ralph immediately knew the man was going to hold Diane and the kids hostage. He wiped the blood off his face and dove for his revolver. On the

ground, he steadied his aim and fired into the bandit's back. The bandit yelled in pain and dropped on his knees. Ralph fired twice more and the man collapsed. Ralph unloaded all his bullets into the

bandit's prone form before dropping his revolver and collapsing on the ground face down.


He heard people running over to him. He was pushed over onto his back and looked up to see his family's worried faces. Diane hugged his head to her body. “Thank you Heavenly Father! Thank

you for saving us. In the name of Christ, amen!”


Yellow and gray vehicles pulled up near them and about a dozen men got out. Tough but

friendly looking men with rifles and pistols walked over to them. One of them with a cowboy hat

crouched down by Ralph.


“You okay brother?”


“Yeah,” Ralph said and sat himself up. The man extended his hand and helped pull Ralph to his

feet.


He patted Ralph on the back. “We will get you checked up brother and then help you and your

family get to safety.”


Diane started crying. “Thank you. Thank you so much.”


Ralph hugged her shoulder and then looked at the men. “I also want to thank you. Who are

you?”


The man smiled. “We are members of the Deseret Javelin. We keep the free nation of Deseret as

well as its surroundings safe and help anyone trying to make it there, such as yourselves. Praise be to

God we were able to help.”


Warren, Michelle, Diane and Ralph all hugged each other and gave prayers of thanks. “We

made it,” Ralph said. “We made it to Deseret.”