* * * *
The two men stood on the sidewalk in front of the small white church on the narrow street in the town of Mormontown, population 2,190, in the northwest corner of Utah. A sign on the small ragged lawn that fronted the church stated JESUS MERCY in large black capital letters, and beneath it were detailed the times when the services were going to be conducted. One of the men was the minister of the church, the First Mormon. His name was Frederick Baker, mid-fifties, dressed in a dark, dusty, rumpled suit. He had a fringe of mussed gray hair, plain, pale, even features, light blue eyes, and a little paunch. He looked tired--and very sad, with an air of hopelessness about him. The man facing him--and looking down on him--was in stark physical contrast. He was only thirty, very tall and lean, dressed in a denim shirt and pants, short black hair, deeply tanned. He was, at first glance, movie-star handsome, but on second glance one would know that he was hardly the Hollywood type. He had a rough-hewn quality, a certain crinkling here and there, particularly when he smiled, that clearly showed that he had spent a lot more time in the great outdoors--climbing, hunting, fishing--than on a soundstage.
His most striking features, though, were his eyes. Indeed, when some people looked into them they became a little disconcerted, even afraid. The eyes were emerald-green and behind them was an almost feral intensity, the clear message: mess with me and you do so at your own risk. Not aggressive or bullying in any way, but what people saw in his eyes was really there. You didn't want to mess with him.
His name was Jim LaDoux.
Jim had just driven in from the middle of north central Nevada using a camouflage-painted HumVee, the squarish, odd-looking vehicle that was two feet wider and three feet longer than the military jeep, twenty times as useful. Years earlier the HumVee had supplanted the once-great jeep as the official vehicle used by the military. The HumVee--plus the weapons and supplies it contained--was a gift that came about as the result of a chance meeting with General Ben Raines, a legendary soldier who for years, following a devastating nuclear war, "the Great War," had led an army of soldiers called the Rebels against many groups--including the U.S. government--in the fight to create a government that was based on fairness that boiled down to following the simple but profound precepts formulated by a bunch of very smart and very heroic men who had lived in the 1770s in a country they created called the United States of America.
Jim had never driven a HumVee, but during the long trip he had found it a fine vehicle. It was very roomy and comfortable and had a sixteen-inch clearance from the ground as opposed to the seven to eight inches of a jeep. This allowed him to traverse rocky terrain that would have rolled over the jeep. Indeed, some of the land the HumVee went over would have given a mountain goat pause. In addition, Jim had learned that the vehicle could drive through deep creeks, rivers, whatever, as long as the water wasn't so high that it engulfed certain parts of the engine. He could also get better traction because he could partially deflate the tires with a control in the cab, then reinflate them when on dry land. And despite the vehicle's bulkiness and heaviness it was fast. Jim had traveled most of the way, because he was not in any hurry, at thirty-five to forty miles an hour. It had a V-8 engine and a couple of times he had roared along at over seventy miles an hour. Small wonder that the military used it for everything--a gun truck (machine and other guns could be mounted on top), an ambulance, a signal truck, a supply truck (you could load well over ten thousand pounds on it), and more.
Jim had started his trip from his mountain home in northwest Idaho, where he had been raised outside a small town called Jaynesville. He meant the trip to be cathartic, to help deal with the loneliness and sadness that had besieged him for the last six months, when his grandfather, the last of his immediate family, had died and he had been living alone in the mountain cabin that his great-grandfather had built over a hundred years earlier.
There had been no other human beings to talk to, no living thing that was close. Even the family dog, Brandy, had died, perhaps of a broken heart when his master, Jim's grandpa, died. As the months had gone by, Jim, isolated except for an intermittently working radio, had become more and more depressed, curtailing and then stopping the hunting, trapping, and fishing that were his livelihood. And he was sleeping a lot even when he wasn't really tired. He knew that there was only one thing to do. Get on the road, head somewhere. Start living--or finish dying.
He did not have any specific destination in mind, though at first he had an idea that he would head east. He had read about New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont and they sounded like places he would like to at least visit. They weren't the Rocky Mountains but they had mountains, wildlife, extremes of temperature--all the stuff he had grown up with. Plus, he had never seen an ocean and would like to, and he knew that parts of New Hampshire and Maine touched the Atlantic. Still, for some reason when he left Jaynesville and came to a junction in the road that would take him south or east, he headed south.
He didn't attribute anything particularly significant to that direction. But he knew his grandpa would. "There's no such thing as coincidence," Grandpa used to say. "Everything happens for a reason, large and small."
What it could mean to him, Jim had no idea. He was just a mountain man trying to get his heart working again. Certainly, he thought, no large destiny awaited him.
He knew the trip south was going to be rough in one way. The tubercular-sounding intermittent transmission from the radio had filled him in on something horrific happening in America as well as the rest of the world, something not designed to make you happy, unless you were a hyena or a vulture.
But the radio reports hardly painted pictures as vivid as the reality of what the plague had wrought. It seemed to have struck in pockets, and he started seeing the result of it when he crossed over the southern border of Idaho into Nevada. What he had understood in the abstract he now grasped in a visceral, in-your-face way. In fact his first experience with plague had made him vomit so hard that he saw blood mixed with the excretions. He had actually smelled a town in Nevada before he saw it. As a hunter and outdoorsman he was very attuned to the wind and what was riding on it, in this case a thick, pervasive stench that was a cross between methane gas and fetid Limburger cheese.
As he drove into the town, which was called Nevada City, the sight was horrific, the streets lined and littered with stinking corpses, bloated bodies, covered with raised, black masses of flesh that commentators had named bubas.
He had been able to make it halfway through the town before he was outside the HumVee, bent at the waist, vomiting violently.
He found, as he rolled slowly along that the plague played no favorites. Men, women, and children, babies, teenagers had all been felled by it. And from what Jim had heard on the radio, all had died quickly. The average life span of persons contracting the disease was three to five days.
Jim was a hard man who came out of a hard life. Hardly a day went by when he didn't see death. But nothing had prepared him for this.
Nevada City and the other towns also deepened Jim's depression. He was traveling to get away from it all but heading right into it.
The radio had been right about survivors. One broadcast had said that the plague usually killed nine of ten people that were in contact with it, and Jim found this to be true. But sometimes the body count was nil. Entire towns had survived. He would pull into a town expecting to see bodies strewn all over or piled up like cordwood, if the town had the manpower to do it, but everyone was alive. People would be walking the streets, working, playing, doing whatever people do. Living. This had occurred in three different towns, and when he saw it it gave him a jolt of joy.
Something else made his spirits soar as well. The plague was having zero effect on the animal kingdom. The survival rate was 100 percent. Why? He had no idea. But he knew that anyone who would hope to come up with a treatment could start by learning what made the animals resistant.
We were all animals, Jim reasoned, and if grizzlies survived, so could people.
Still, as he experienced all this he found a certain anger building. An anger toward God. No one knew for sure where the plague had come from. Some said from an alien universe, others from a mistake in a government lab, others from nature itself. But that was all speculation. All anyone knew for sure was that it was an aggressive and new form of bubonic plague, the so-called "Black Death" that had wiped out twenty-five million of the sixty million people on earth in the fourteenth century. But the bottom line, Jim thought, was that the entity who was ultimately responsible for it was God. And try as he might, he could not begin to explain why God allowed it to be. And that pissed him off.
Now, standing opposite Reverend Blake, Jim had the chance to utter a question that had been generated by the anger, and had popped into his head when he stopped to ask Blake if he was still heading east. Blake had confirmed that and then Jim asked the question.
"Was this God's doing?" he asked, and he didn't have to identify what he was asking about. Mormon-town had not been one of the towns that had escaped the plague, as indicated by the neat stacks of coffins--at least three hundred--that lined the streets. In Mormontown people didn't put out their papers for collection. They put out their corpses.
Reverend Blake was silent. Surely, he had heard the edge in Jim's voice and seen the intensity in his eyes. But Jim was not going away. He waited for a reply.
"No," Blake finally said. "It was not."
"How can you be sure of that?"
"Because in my heart I know it was not."
That's not much of an answer."
"It's the best one I can give." Blake turned to walk away.
"Wait," Jim said softly.
The minister paused, turned, and looked at Jim.
"Where are you going?" Jim asked.
"I'm going inside God's house to pray. God be with you, young man."
You should be out here, Jim thought, praying for the people whom God had seen fit to turn into breakfast for vultures. Jim blinked. He felt guilty to think that way. He should not think like that. God had been there many times for him and his family. Why rip at Him when things went wrong? And who was Jim to question what happened? Who was Jim to try to decipher why God did what He did?
He looked down the street again and then had a flashing image, like a slide show at high speed, of towns where death and destruction had descended, and all he could do was sigh. "Whole world's screwed up," Jim muttered, shaking his head, as he walked back to the HumVee. He climbed in behind the wheel and looked at "Reb"--a stray dog who, at least, proved something was still a little right with the world. He had encountered Reb just as he crossed into Nevada. In fact he had almost turned him into roadkill, and Jim took to him immediately. Jim had always been partial to mutts, and Reb--whom he named after Ben Raines--had a Heinz-57 lineage. He was a big dog who looked more like a police dog than any other kind, but Jim, who was somewhat of an expert on dog behavior because he had owned them all his life, knew that no matter the kind or kinds, it was it was a good dog, a well-trained one who had belonged to someone. Jim had tried various commands, everything from "Sit" to "Fetch," even "Quiet," and Reb had passed the tests with flying colors. Jim would not have been surprised if Reb had been owned by a dog trainer.
At first, Jim had debated with himself whether to take Reb with him or not. Jim knew that on the way east he would be camping out in bear country, and bears and dogs didn't mix too well. Dogs would run after a bear, and if they caught up it could lead to the dog's demise, or the bear's if the dog's owner was on the scene with a rifle. Recognizing this natural hostility, park service rangers banned traveling with dogs through national parks.
Of course it occurred to Jim that national parks were not going to be overrun with park rangers, but that really didn't matter. He liked to think he set his own rules for ethics and morality. It was sometimes the hardest way to do things this way, he had discovered, but ultimately it made you the happiest.
On the other hand, this was a special circumstance, and in a pragmatic sense Jim had done it before. He had taken his golden retriever-shepherd "King" with him and there had been no problem at all, because the dog remained quiet and suppressed his exploratory nature.
Immediately after Jim had decided to take Reb with him he started to feel, in general, a little better. Reb had acknowledged Jim as the alpha or leader of the pack, as all dogs will to the most dominant member of their packs, and they were getting along very well. Moreover, Jim enjoyed just occasionally looking at Reb, lying on a blanket on the floor on the passenger side. And every time--every time--he did it, Reb would look up and get his tail going. And the times they stopped in the park had proved no problem at all. Jim said, "Stay," and Reb stayed.
Now, Jim climbed into the HumVee, which was parked on the street heading east, and Reb took his customary spot.
"Ready, Reb?" Jim said. "Let's roll."
Jim fired up the HumVee and they pulled out. As he went, he thought that he hoped it would be the last time he would see the plague in action. Maybe he would get lucky. And maybe he would be lucky enough to avoid marauders, which was what he had encountered shortly after meeting General Ben Raines. Some marauders had attacked him and a badly weakened General Raines, and Jim and the general had killed them quickly.
Marauders were the reason Jim had tried to stick to the back roads: the possibility of more of them showing up. Finding back roads was made very much easier with military maps he found in the glove compartment, though he had gotten lost once. The maps were highly detailed. He had read somewhere a quote of General Raines that he couldn't help but recall when he had discovered the maps: Wars are won with men and material, Raines had said, but maybe the greatest asset is information.
These maps, Jim thought, did nothing to deny that statement.
The only bad thing about back roads was a lack of service stations. Jim had found around twenty so far. All had been abandoned. The problem with the HumVee was that it was an oat burner. Jim figured he was averaging only about six miles a gallon, and the tank held twenty-five gallons. To ensure that he didn't get stuck on some back road, he filled up the five-gallon containers that Raines had set up side by side in the bed of the vehicle.
Occasionally, he would have to travel a main road or highway until he found one. These were all abandoned as well, but they had gas. The plague had drastically cut down on the number of customers.
When he did stop, he brought the weapons he had out from under the front seat and laid them on the passenger seat, fully loaded. Ready to go.
Jim was great with a rifle and a pistol. He had been shooting since he was ten years old and he had never missed hitting his target, whether it be stationary or moving. But he had never used automatic weapons, nor had the experience--until he was with General Raines--of firing them with someone firing back. Jim was thankful now for what his older brother, Ray, had taught him about guns. Thanks to Ray he had a good idea what automatic weapons were all about. Ray was surely a good teacher with a lot of experience. He had fought in two wars.
Included in Jim's inventory were a variety of handguns and two AK-47s, which Ray told him had been produced in larger numbers than any other rifle. Ray said that though precise figures weren't available, it was estimated that over twelve million were made, and more were being made. The AK-47, popularly known as the Kalashnikov, actually had come out of research first developed by the Germans, finding that most combat situations involved fights at four hundred meters or less, so a new cartridge, a Soviet 7.62-by-39mm cartridge had been developed. A so-called assault rifle, it could fire its relatively low-powered ammunition--low-powered compared to conventional rifle ammunition--either on single shot or fully automatic to a maximum effective combat range of around four hundred meters. "It's a great weapon in an assault situation," Ray had said, "because you can use it single shot or automatic. It uses thirty-bullet clips, and it's the kind of gun that's easy to field-strip and can take a lot of kicking and keep on ticking."
Apparently so. It was the weapon of choice of guerilla armies all over the world.
Yes, Jim, thought, but he never wanted to have to use it except to protect himself. Jim hated war. Ray had carried automatic weapons, and had gone to those wars, and now his thirty-five-year-old body lay in a plot in David Rook Rural Cemetery near Jaynesville. Jim's father had been in another war, and he knew about guns too. And he had also lost his life in combat. He had died of shrapnel wounds at the ripe old age of thirty-three, and Jim's mother shortly thereafter of cancer, so Jim had been raised by his grandfather and Ray, until he died too.
There had to be a better way, Jim thought, to work things out with other people than to try to kill each other. He had read about war, and many times the reasons for the war were unclear. You needed a real clear reason to die. He was not about to die for some fuzzy political principle, or to grab some land that didn't amount to a hill of crap. He remembered he had read once about McNamara, who had been secretary of defense during the Vietnam War, crying years after the fact because he later knew he was wrong for sending all those innocent boys to their deaths.
That was a bunch of woodpecker crap. No way would he fight for that.
Ben Rainses sounded like he had the right idea, but Jim would not have been willing to fight any wars for him either. You lost your father and your brother in war and it tended to turn you off on it. Way off. Talk it out. Talk it through. People had done that. There had been many wars, true. But many wars had been avoided because people gave in to each other.
In addition to the AK-47, Jim also had an old-fashioned Thompson submachine, or tommy gun, which Ray had explained was the "weapon of choice of gangsters," but eventually it became great and popular when modified for use in World War II, a formidable weapon that was not that easy to handle but could fire six hundred rounds a minute. Jim knew this was a favorite of General Raines and Jim had used it to dispatch two of four marauders he met while he was with Raines.
Above all, Jim liked the Glock handgun, which was light, 9mm, and held sixteen shots. He had heard the story of why the New York City Police Department carried these pistols--because of a death. One NYPD officer had been in a Shootout with a perp and the cop was using a six-shot .38 while the bad guy was using a 9mm. When the bad guy knew that the cop had used up all his ammunition--he'd counted six shots--he just walked up and put two bullets in the twenty-three-year-old cop's head--and had five left in the clip.
Jim withdrew a cigarette paper from his jacket pocket, folded it like a little trough with his fingers, then used the other hand to sprinkle on and tamp down some Prince Albert tobacco. He rolled the cigarette closed, licked it, popped it in his mouth, and lit it with a Zippo lighter.
He took a deep drag and focused inward. He smiled. For a moment he got an image that was straight out of a movie. A wonderful movie. He could see himself, knee deep in rapidly running water that was so clear that he could see the pebble-covered creek bed almost as clearly as if the water wasn't there, and then flicking his wrist to make a fly sail out on the end of his fishing line, there to make a little splash and wait for one of the fat trout that, hopefully, would get a hankering for the fly bobbing above him on the silvery water.
He knew he could he could live indefinitely in the wild, and in harmony with everything from bears to marmots. His grandfather had once said, "Jimmy boy, you know the wild so well I sometimes think you were born part wolf."
The relatively narrow road was flanked by evergreens, and Jim knew that this was an ideal situation. The trees provided great cover though he knew that many parts of Wyoming, which he had traveled through extensively while still living in Idaho, were not forested. Besides its spectacular mountain ranges, much of it was desert, and most of it was covered with various kinds of sagebrush, which provided zero cover when you were traveling by vehicle, particularly a camouflage-painted HumVee.
His route was typical backcountry road, mile after mile of forest; occasionally he could see a house through the veil of trees. So far, he thought, so good. His mood, he sensed, had gotten just a little better. It wasn't a square dance on Saturday night in Jaynesville but it was better than it had been.
Most of the road was straight, but of course some was curved, and as he came around one curve he got a surprise that put him on full alert.
The road was blocked by a barricade. It looked like a steel I-beam had been placed across the road, the ends of the beams housed in some sort of sawhorse arrangement about four feet above the ground. But that wasn't the only thing barring passing. There were six men all wearing khaki uniforms, all wearing the same short beards, albeit different colors, and red berets. And armed to the teeth. Four of the men looked like they had shotguns, and two Kalashnikovs. They also had holstered handguns and belts of grenades.
Jim slowed the HumVee and then stopped but kept the engine idling. Just like he had done when he was hunting game, he started to calculate what he would do if they would, in effect, charge--started to fire on him. There wasn't much he could do. The firepower they were toting would make Swiss cheese of the HumVee, and him, in short order and maybe turn it into a fireball, this thanks to the gas cans he had stored in back.
And if he wanted to make his butt scarce, he couldn't do that either. There was no room to turn. If he wanted to move out, all he could do was throw it in reverse and put the pedal to the metal.
Then two of the men, both muscular, maybe in their thirties, one tall, the other short, starting walking toward him, each carrying his gun at port arms. They did not seem threatening, but one never knew. Jim pulled the Glock, which was on the passenger seat in a holster, flicked the holster out of sight near Reb, and pushed the gun under his right thigh. Then a plan hit him. He was very conscious that he had a loaded, thirty-cartridge AK-47 under his seat. If the men were hostile and drew down on him he would shoot first one and then the other in the head, and bolt out of the Hummer, using it for cover, hopefully before the other four men made mincemeat of him with their weapons.
Then something glittering on their chests caught Jim's eye. He saw something he hadn't noticed because of the grenades. Each had silver medallions held by silver chains hanging from their necks. The medallions were maybe three inches in diameter, and inside the circular edge was a cross, the ages-old symbol of Jesus Christ, a modern depiction of the crucifixion.
The tall man looked at Jim with narrow blue eyes.
"What do you want here?" the man demanded.
"Just passing through," Jim replied. "Heading east."
The man's eyes narrowed to the point where they were just about slits. Jim tried to read what was in them, but couldn't. The other man's hazel eyes were blank.
"Everything east of here," Slit Eyes said, "is known as the Zone, stranger. It's no-man's land."
"Why is this so special?"
The shorter man stepped forward.
"Are you a Christian?"
That was, Jim thought, none of their business. But if he didn't answer he didn't know if it would lead to violence. He decided to answer, but he also wondered if he should tell the man that he was born Catholic though, in truth, he hadn't been to Mass or confession in more years than he could recall. Churches were few and far between in Idaho's wilderness. Still, he felt that he and his family had lived a Christian life. But something inside would not let him go into all this. His attitude was accommodating--to a point.
"I believe in God, yes. Why do you ask?"
"Them folks in the Zone--that's what we call it--don't," the man replied.
Jim stared at the man for a moment, then shrugged, and said quietly, "Well, so what?"
The man nodded slowly, his eyebrows arched a little.
"You'll find out, fella," he said. "You go in there and you'll sure find out. We're suggesting you don't."
"I'll be okay," Jim said.
The man backed away, apparently a signal that Jim would be allowed to pass.
"Go on," the man said. "Just don't say we didn't warn you."
The man waved and the two of the other four men went over and swung the big I-beam out of the way.
Jim put the HumVee in gear and drove forward slowly, very conscious of the Glock under his haunch. As he passed the other men, he noticed their expressions. They were looking at him as if he were a steer going into a slaughterhouse. And then, twenty or so yards beyond them, he glanced in the rearview mirror still wary that this might be some sort of trick, that they were going to open up on him. But he saw only one action: one of the men was making the sign of the cross.