Ellen Duncan raced across the yard. Her stomach knotted into a hard ball. Dad was going to send someone into town for supplies. And not just anyone but Drew. And where Drew went Dogooder would follow. The two of them bickered and called each other names, but they were brothers even if it was marriage not blood that bound them together.
Men and women streamed out of the barn. Slack jaws and dazed gazes told its own story. She’d missed the announcement.
“Ms. Duncan.” Henrietta Humphries staggered out of the barn with her arm linked with her husband Joel’s. Having spent their lives raising cattle on their own ranch, their skin had tanned to a fine leather and the Arizona sun had bleached their hair bone white. Grizzled and bent, the old couple moved agilely—a testament to a life spent in motion. Neither met her eyes.
They knew about the plan to send Drew and Dogooder into Payson for supplies, and felt guilty and relief they hadn’t been chosen.
Ellen didn’t blame them.
They’d survive the attack on the Bar Margarita by hiding in a sweltering attic with their grandson. As usual, Henrietta spoke for the pair. “Spaghetti done, Hon?”
Ellen’s stomach clenched. She’d had enough spaghetti for a lifetime. But they needed to stretch their reserves. Soon they’d be eating meat, meat, and occasionally meat, until the corn and squash harvest. “Meatball subs tonight.”
And the last of her flour went to make the bread.
“Nice change.” The elderly couple shuffled by, heading toward the backyard where the evening meal was being served. Five teens moved under the blinking Christmas lights, setting the picnic tables arranged under the sprawling pine tree.
“Yes.” Ellen didn’t want to think about the new menu if the farm didn’t get supplies soon. And she planned to be there with Drew and Dogooder when they entered Payson.
Stepping back, she watched the barn empty. Couples first, then the five bachelors, the two single mothers, and a couple of old timers. No Drew. No Dogooder. No Dad. Nodding to those she passed, she waited for the way to clear, then entered the barn.
Chickens and peacocks roosted on the posts and on the hay bales. A couple of milk goats trotted inside and hurried to their stall. Their flaccid utters proof they’d already been tended.
Drew and Dogooder squared off against Dad.
No one said a word, but tension thickened the air like cooling gelatin.
Ellen cleared her throat.
The men faced her.
Drew’s lips thinned. Dogooder’s fists hung at his side. Dad’s shoulders were squared, ready for the fight ahead.
She took a deep breath. “I see Dad finally saw reason and agreed to send you into town like I suggested.”
Drew stumbled back, hunched over as if she’d just punched him in the gut. “You suggested?”
Dogooder’s mouth dropped open.
With a shake of his head, Drew straightened. “If you wanted me gone, you coulda just said.”
Oh, good gravy. She knew he was dense, but how had his brain twisted her idea into a rejection? She glared at her father. Dad must have approached everything all wrong. Hadn’t he listened when she told him how sensitive Drew was? She swept her bangs out of her eyes and went on the offensive. Her lover understood attack and defend.
“Don’t even think to use this operation as an excuse to get away from me.” She advanced, finger raised in accusation. “You agreed to stick it out for the duration. Well, sugar beets, the apocalypse is just the beginning.”
Confusion furrowed Drew’s brow.
Dogooder side-eyed his brother, a speculative gleam in his ebony eyes. He stepped back as she advanced.
Smart man, but then it was by watching him that she’d learned to communicate with Drew. The man had serious issues. Good thing, she was more stubborn than he ever dreamed. “You’re mine, until we end our relationship by mutual agreement, so don’t think you can get lost in the big city and ditch me.”
She poked his shoulder.
He caught her finger, wrapping it in his fist. His hold was gentle. The calluses were new. The idiot was determined to prove himself by working at every job on the ranch in addition to his guard duties. “Sugar beets?”
He stroked the inside of her wrist before moving his hand until their fingers laced together.
Tingles raced up her arm. Eventually, she’d teach him what they had was real and lasting. “I can’t exactly call you whippersnapper now, can I? You are older than me.”
She’d never asked his age, didn’t have to. Her father had him investigated after her ex-husband had moved in with his mistress-of-the-week and asked Drew to keep an eye on Ellen.
“Thirty-four to your thirty-three.” His brown eyes glinted. Thick brown hair tumbled around his round head and stubble sprayed his chin even though he’d shaved at lunch. “So, yeah Betty. I’m older, wiser, and skipped the tee-shirt to get the scars to prove it.”
She’d counted his scars. Had each of them memorized. But he rarely talked about the cigarette burns, the stab wounds, or the stitches. He would, eventually, he just had to get over this odd notion of protecting her from the ugliness in his past. “I told you, if you must call me by a cook’s name. I prefer Julia as in Julia Child.”
Drew tugged on her hand.
She stumbled against him, placed her palm flat on his chest.
He buried his face in her neck then licked her earlobe. “No one ever pictured Julia in nothing but a frilly apron. But Betty, she wasn’t just a cook but a pin-up girl. Lots of men pictured her in nothing at all. I get to see the real thing.”
Dad cleared his throat. “Here now. This is supposed to be a meeting.”
Dogooder gagged. “If I had food in my stomach, it would be on my shoes by now.”
Slipping his arm around her waist, Drew pulled her against his side and glared at his brother. “You’re just jealous, poop head.”
“They’re dreadlocks, D-bag. Dread. Locks.” Dogooder pointed to the knots of hair on his scalp. “The ladies love ’em.”
“Dung beetles love ’em.” Drew corrected.
Dad rocked back on his heels and stared at the barn rafters.
Right. Time to bring the guys back on track. She had her own reasons for suggesting Drew and his brother set out for Payson. “I’m sure Sergeant KickAss will have an opinion on them when she sees them.”
Drew’s teeth clicked together. “Sergeant KickAss? You mean the little woman he saved from the ambush at the school? But she—”
Red washed over Dogooder’s ebony cheeks.
Ah, ha. Ellen knew she hadn’t imagined the vibe.
Smiling, Drew poked his brother’s shoulder. “Ho, ho.”
Dogooder latched onto Drew’s finger and bent it back, just a bit. “Don’t.”
Ellen squeezed Drew’s waist. He had loved his sister, surely he didn’t want his brother-in-law to mourn her forever.
Drew sobered. “You should have invited her to come with us.”
Dogooder shrugged. “Her duty was to her unit. She had to stay.”
“Duty. Booty.” Drew rolled his eyes. “I coulda kidnapped her, questioned her. Made sure she could handle your fat ass before you started mooning over her. After all, to be in this family, there are certain expectations.”
Ellen kissed Drew’s cheek. He’d handled that better than expected.
“I should break off your finger and feed it to you.” Dogooder’s lips quirked as he released his brother.
“Well, hell, Dogooder. No wonder your chica decided to stay with the other soldiers if you started advocating cannibalism. It’s not to everyone’s taste.” Drew flexed his finger.
Dogooder squinted at his brother.
“Gentlemen, please.” Ellen patted Dogooder’s massive arm and dug her nails into Drew’s side. “We have a mission to plan.”
“We?” Drew stared down at her.
“Yes, we. It was my idea remember. There was no way Dad would let me go to town without having suitable bodyguards.” She beamed at both of them. Soon, they’d see how clever she was. How she’d thought of nearly everything. “And you two are the best.”
Drew pinned her father with a glare. “You’re letting Ellen go into town?”
Dad’s blue eyes twinkled. “I’m not letting any such thing. This is your mission. You pick who goes and who stays.”
“What!” That wasn’t the plan she presented to her father. He wouldn’t dare…. Her chest tightened. The son of a biscuit would use Drew’s love for her to keep her here! “No. You can’t.”
“You’re staying on the farm, Betty.” Drew set her away from him and stalked out of the barn. “Ain’t no way in hell you’re coming with us. No way. Just no.”
Like that was anyway to have an argument. The coward knew she would wear him down. She had the plan, knowledge of the area, and the determination. She stomped after him. “I will follow you.”
Drew paused in a mud puddle. “I will tie you to our bed. I’m very good with knots.”
He was good at a lot of things, which was exactly why she had to keep him alive. “I have a plan of which places to hit first, to keep us away from the city center. And I have Rosa’s number so we can get updated on the location of the crazies.”
Her middle sister, Rosa, worked on a cure for the crazy at a secret government base, but she’d promised to check the satellites when they were over Payson and give Ellen a description of the crazies’ location. Only Ellen. The satellites would be over the town three times, and they would need each bit of information.
“And what will you tell your kids?” Drew stopped short and planted his fists on his hips. “Little Erin and Rafe have already lost their father to the crazy. Do you think they could stomach losing you, too? They still crawl into our bed after a nightmare.”
Guilt churned low in her stomach. She wrapped her arms around her waist, holding in the pain. “That’s a low blow, Drew.”
“I fight dirty, Betty. Always have, always will. You think the crazies play by the rules?”
“I know they don’t. And I’m counting on you staying one step ahead of them.” She closed the distance between them. Raising her hand, she froze. To touch him or not to touch him. The worse he could do was shake her off. She cupped her hand around his shoulder blade. “We both know this ranch is a soap bubble some crazy is just waiting to poke and pop.”
He jerked his chin once and didn’t move away.
“We have to find out what’s out there. What we’re up against, if we have to bug out fast.” With her free hand, she brushed the map in her pocket. “Will you at least listen to my plan?”
“If I do and it doesn’t change my mind, then you still have to sleep with me tonight. All night, and not wash your hair or do your nails to avoid me.”
Seriously? She rolled her eyes. Did he expect her to be so shallow? She wasn’t going to deprive herself of pleasure because he was being a hard headed numbskull. “You better not make plans to sleep somewhere else.”
Dogooder chuffed and shook his head.
Crooking his elbow, Drew offered it to her. “Over dinner then. I’m hungry.”
“Over dinner.” She slipped her hand through his and leaned against him. He didn’t know it yet, but she’d already won the battle.
She squeezed onto the picnic bench beside him, tugged out the map, and spread it across the table.
Drew leaned back, allowing Ellen’s cousin to set down his plate of food. Three meatballs on a hoagie bun, a shaving of Parmesan cheese on top, and a side of homemade potato salad. Ice tea sloshed in his cup before her cousin moved on.
The personal service was a nice touch, but not everyone realized it was about rationing food. Until now. Until Dad’s meeting in the barn. Now all the adults looked at the food as if it might be their last meal.
It wasn’t. Yet. And with luck and her plan, it wouldn’t ever come to the all meat show.
Sitting across from them, Dogooder propped his elbows on the table and bit into his sandwich. A chunk of tomato plopped onto his plate. He moaned softly. “The meatballs are a nice change from spaghetti.”
“Tell me about it.” But noodles were easy to make and went a long way. Well, they did if there was flour to make them. The flour canisters were empty.
“I like spaghetti.” Drew scooped up the dripping sauce with a chip. “Ellen makes it a little different every time.”
Pleasure spiraled through her. It was nice to have her skills appreciated. “You just like knowing you have a next meal waiting.”
“And I have the hots for the cook.” Drew swiped the cheese off his chin. “Who I planned to keep safe. No matter how stubborn she is.”
Instead of responding, she focused on the map. She got it. He wanted to keep her safe. Unfortunately, keeping her on the ranch was an illusion of safety. Everyone here had talents. Talents the group would need if they were to survive this. And her talent was planning. She tapped the map in the middle of the blank space. “The ranch is here.”
Drew paused to wipe his mouth with a cloth napkin. “Aren’t you eating?”
“I’m the cook.” She blew her bangs out of her eyes. “I eat as I make it. Quality assurance purposes.”
Dogooder snorted. “If you ever need a taster for the desserts, I’m available.”
“Get in line, poo head.” Drew jabbed a chip at his brother before stuffing it into his mouth.
“Man.” Dogooder sighed heavily. “Keep talking like that and folks’ll think you lost your mind. Dreadlocks. Dreadlocks. You should try them over that flopsy do you’re sporting.”
“Neither of you are up for taster. There are children about.” Ellen thumped the map. “And speaking of food.” She added, reminding them of the real issue here. “I propose we take the stock truck to about a mile within the trailhead then use the quads the rest of the way.”
“Why the quads?” Dogooder frowned at his empty plate. “Why not take the stock truck all the way into town?”
“It’s not easily maneuverable and it’s noticeable. The crazies could track us by the sound alone.” Drew sopped up the rest of his sauce with the butt of his bun. “And the quads are electric. They run silent. Better torque and pick-up. We could make several trips at different locations, in and out before the crazies catch wind of us.”
“And the range?” Dogooder grunted. “I don’t want to be in a firefight with a dead battery.”
“The big guys have about 50 miles. The smaller one can go twenty to twenty-five miles. Enough for one trip.” Not the best vehicle, but the silence was an advantage. And cut down the chances of anyone tracking them back to the ranch’s entrance.
“We could block the road with downed trees.” Drew pushed his plate away. “Maybe a few booby-traps to discourage visitors.”
“Do that and you trap us as well. Those blockades and booby-traps could come back and bite us if we have to haul ass outta here.” Dogooder crossed his arms over his chest and shook his head. “Not a good idea. You forget we got millions in Phoenix at our backs and only fifteen thousand in front of us. I know which I’d rather face. Especially with ten thousand rounds of ammo.”
Which would still leave them short and easily overwhelmed. “I propose we don’t get sighted, at least until we can restock and have a few alternate routes out.”
“Makes sense.” Dogooder handed his empty plate to Raine then accepted the dish of peach cobbler with homemade whipped cream.
No one said a word until the teenager withdrew.
Drew cut off a bite of oatmeal crust. “So we access the situation, look for alternative escape routes, and restock, all without painting a big old target on ourselves. Your plan cover all that, Betty?”
“If we have to leave the ranch, the best escape route is up the Arizona Trail toward Pine then cutting across to the Tonto Natural Bridge. If that’s blocked, then we’ll go up the Mazatal Wilderness toward Camp Verde. We’ll have to leave most of the livestock behind.” Her hands stilled on the map. “And we’ll lose people. The trails aren’t that easy.”
“If the crazies attack, we’re going to lose folks anyway.” Drew covered her hand with his. “They’re not the kind to ask for a cup of tea and sit down for a chat.”
There was that. She cleared her throat. “Rosa is going to call with an update tomorrow at four in the morning. But from what she said this morning, the Bar Margarita and the Rockin’ M ranches are deserted.” She followed a pencil line from their current location to the two ranches directly between them and Payson. “We’ll clean them out first.”
Drew cocked an eyebrow. Just one. “You don’t think the crazies celebrated their kills with a big meal?”
“Both families had large farms. They put stuff up, dried seeds for next year, and stored them in the basement. Farmers and ranchers invented prepper mentality. Plus, they’ll have weapons, ammo, and black powder, maybe even some dynamite.”
Stuff the crazies didn’t use. So far.
Dogooder grinned. “Gotta love dynamite.”
Drew nodded. “And if we don’t get enough supplies there?”
Her nail scratched the paper as she circled the two ranches. “From there, we’ll take Baby Doll Ranch Road toward the city. The senior center and country club might be untouched.”
Drew glanced at the children, eating at the little people’s table in the center of the adults. “Golfers were bat poop crazy before things went sideways, now you want to invade their turf and steal their hot dogs?”
“I want all the bullets I can carry.” Dogooder chased a piece of crust around his plate.
She nodded. There was no way, they could count on what was left of the military to rescue them this time. “The country club hosts parties, weddings, and events. They have stockpiled giant cans of food in their basement.”
“And if they’ve already been raided?” Drew traced State Route 87 into the center of town.
“We avoid the center of town. That’s where most of the crazies have congregated.” She shifted her finger closer to the Beeline Highway, staying well below where it branched into the 260. “There are a couple of hotels on the outskirts we could try, and there’s a hardware store on the way. It should have seeds, plastic sheeting, and PVC piping. Probably black powder.”
Dogooder pinched his bottom lip. “You thinking you can build a greenhouse and extend the growing season?”
She smiled. “Yes. We can build hoop houses, too. Plus, if we have to leave, we can use the pipes to build a travois and the plastic for temporary shelters.”
“Gotta add duct tape to your list, Betty. And cleaning supplies.” Drew wrapped his arm around her shoulder and hugged her close. “Black powder isn’t the only thing that goes boom.”
She stilled. “Does that mean you’re letting me come with you?”
Dogooder’s head snapped up.
Drew shrugged. “Nope.”
She bounced on her seat. “What!”
This wasn’t the way her plan was supposed to go.
“Dogooder and I are going alone.” He squeezed her tight. “Less risk, that way. Besides, if there are any crazies in the area, you may need to bug out.”
Dogooder nodded. “We’re pretty sure you’re the only one who can convince your parents to leave.”
Ellen sagged Drew’s arms. The jerk. “Fine, but if there isn’t anyone close, then you owe me.”
After all, for four months no one had gotten close to the ranch. She saw no reason why that would change now.