"Where's your backpack?"
"By the front door." The delicate eight year old girl answered hesitantly.
"No, not your school backpack; the one you always take when we go to the park." Her twelve year old brother said in a rush as he hurried past her.
"It's in my closet." She said, even more slowly, concerned by his panicked movements.
"Get it!" He snapped as he reached under her bed.
"Are we going to the park?"
"Yeah. Something like that. Go get your backpack." He said as he pulled a suitcase from under the bed, then hurried to her dresser.
"What are you doing with my clothes? Are we going somewhere?" She asked fearfully, just beginning to understand that something was wrong.
"Yeah. Listen, Vina, you know how we weren't allowed to go to school today because it wasn't safe?" Her brother asked as he stopped to look her in the eyes.
"Some people Reuben knows are worried that if we stay here, it might not keep on being safe for us. Reuben's friends, they got us a way out. But we have to get our stuff packed and be ready to go. The buses ain't gonna wait on us." He said firmly, but his confidence somehow reassured her.
"What about momma?" She timidly asked.
"Reuben talked to her before the phones went down, and she knows that we're all safe. She's safe, too. Those rich people she works for aren't going to let anything happen to her. Now we need to stop talking and finish packing. The bus is going to be here any time." Her brother said before returning to packing.
"What about Reuben? Where is he?"
"He said he'll be here. But if he's not, we're supposed to go without him. He'll meet us when we get there." He said as he rushed to her closet.
"Get where? Where are we going?"
"To some place I've never heard of before. He said it's called Kettle Falls." the boy said as he stuffed hanging clothes into the suitcase.
"It sounds like it'll be noisy there." Vina said seriously.
"Why do you think that?"
"You know how noisy it is when a kettle falls."
"Grab your backpack and let's go."
* * * * *
"Name?" The young man asked firmly.
"Cristal. (kree-STAHL)" The woman said haughtily.
"Sure it is." The young man said flatly, then continued, "Listen, tell me your fuckin name or git yer ass outta here. I ain't got time ta be fuckin wit'cha.'
"Theresa Jones." The woman reluctantly admitted.
After a moment to look at the paper in his hand, he finally said, "Yeah. You're on the list. You got a gun?"
"No." She answered, obviously surprised by the question.
"Girl, what's wrong wit'chew? Ain't nobody should be out here witout a gun."
"I don't believe in them." She said in a somewhat belligerent tone.
"Git yer ass on the bus, you stupid bitch. I already had enough of you."
"You can't talk to me like that!"
"You ain't got a gun and I do. So I can talk to you however I want. Now git yer ass on the bus. Who's next?" The man asked as he looked past her.
"I'm Richard Vasquez and this is my sister Edovina." The hispanic boy said in a clear, firm voice.
"Yeah, you're on the list. I'm guessin' you ain't got a gun, neither." The man said as he looked up from his paper.
"I got my brother's 9mm." The boy said frankly.
"You know how to shoot it?" The man asked with a grin.
"Talk to my sister like you just talked to that woman and you'll find out." Richard said seriously as he looked the man in the eyes.
The man smiled with delight, then asked, "Vasquez? You related to Reuben?"
"I'm his brother." Richard said confidently.
"You sure are! " the man laughed, then said, "Git on tha bus, an' stick close to tha front. Some a these folks don't know how ta act right. Maybe you can help me show 'em what's expected before we gets to where we's goin'."
"Come on, Vina." Richard said to his sister, then hurried onto the bus.
The man watched the kids get on the bus, then turned to the next person in line and said,"Next!"
* * * * *
"Richard, listen up. When we stop, we's gonna be takin' on some folks tha boss wants ta go wit us. Don't know why he wants us bringin' some rich bitches from tha snooty part 'a town, but that's his call. Anyways, while we's stopped, I'm gonna be countin' on you ta watch my back. You got it?" The man asked as he took his seat.
"Are you expecting these guys to try something?" Richard asked with concern.
"Not tha guys tha boss sent us for. But if they's others... it could get ugly. This trap's already been sprung, but most'a these people's just startin' ta figure out that they's stuck in it."
"I got you covered... what's your name?" Richard thought to ask.
"Name's Ysidro, but my buds calls me EZ."
"You can count on me, EZ."
* * * * *
The large passenger bus slowly made it's way across town, sometimes zigzagging through side streets, sometimes driving down narrow alleys, almost too narrow to fit through. Everyone was quiet, listening to the driver talk on the radio, to try and get them across town safely.
"All-a yous look out tha window. Ya needs ta see this." EZ called back into the bus.
No one knew what they were supposed to be looking at, but as they entered an intersection, no one could look away.
There were dozens of fighters in the street, clouds of smoke or gas billowing from several different directions and a full scale battle going on in the brief instant that the bus crossed through the intersection.
"Them peoples out there, they's keepin them guv'mint and state police assholes busy, so's we can get through here. Remember that! You's here and safe on this bus 'cause them people thought you was worth it. They put thur lives on the line to give you a way out. If yous ever wants ta bitch and moan, think 'bout what you juss saw, first. You's here cause a them and what they gave up for yas."
Richard could tell that Vina didn't understand what was going on, but he knew. He fought back tears as he realized that people like his brother were sacrificing their own safety and well-being to give the people on the bus, people like him and Vina, a way out.
* * * * *
Finally, the bus came to a stop in a very nice part of town. EZ walked forward and looked around carefully before motioning for the driver to open the door.
"Name?" EZ asked the man who nervously approached the bus.
"Councilman Becker." The man said anxiously as he looked around.
"Right. You's the one we's here fer. You got's some kids or sumthin'?" EZ asked as he looked at his list again.
Councilman Becker motioned to the house behind him. A woman and two children rushed out of the house, slamming the door closed behind them, carrying luggage, all of it matching.
"Who's dis wit'cha?"
"My wife, Susan and our children, Johnny and Wendy."
The woman and children looked as though they might have stepped out of a 1950's TV show.
"Damn! In my whole life, I ain't never met no white people, white as y'all. Never mind that now. Git on tha bus. Boss says that we needs ta be waitin' fer a signal ta leave. We's gonna have plenty a time ta talk once we git on tha road."
The bus already had over thirty people on it and was nearly full. The family hurried onto the bus, taking the row of seats just behind Vina and Richard.
* * * * *
"Hi! I'm Vina. What's your name?" She asked as she knelt on her seat, talking to the boy behind her.
"Johnny." The boy answered timidly.
"Ricardo, can Johnny sit up here with me, so we can play?" Vina asked her brother hopefully.
"Sure. As long as his folks don't mind." Richard said as he kept the majority of his attention focused outside the bus, watching for trouble.
"Can Johnny sit with me so we can play?" Vina asked hopefully to the people in the seat behind hers.
"I suppose. Just don't be too loud." Councilman Becker said cautiously as he looked over Vina and her brother appraisingly.
"Move over, Ricardo!" Vina commanded.
Richard immediately got up and moved across the aisle as Johnny timidly stepped forward and took his vacated seat.
"Do you mind if I sit here?" Richard asked the young man by the window.
"That's fine. Go ahead." The young man said distractedly.
The young man seemed nice enough, but appeared to have a lot on his mind, so Richard took his seat and left him to his thoughts.
* * * * *
Richard looked around and felt the anxiety rising up within him, keeping him alert and ready to react at a moment's notice.
Occasionally, he would glance at his sister to see that she and Johnny were playing quietly with the dolls that Vina carried in her backpack.
Suddenly, Ysidro called from the front, "Richard, come on up here."
Although he was startled to be called, Richard hurried to stand beside the driver with Ysidro.
"I just got a call. Your brother, Reuben, was checkin' ta see that yous made it and wanted y'all ta know that he's on another bus. He said he'll git wit'cha once we's outta tha city and we can stop." Ysidro said seriously.
"Thanks. I was worried about him." Richard said in a gust of relief.
"Three-five, Six-two. Run four. Go!" A voice called over the radio.
"That's us. Get in your seat, and have your gun ready." Ysidro said as he dropped back to the seat directly behind the driver.
Richard hurried back to his seat as the bus seemed to be pushing for maximum acceleration. He took the handgun out of the front pouch of his backpack and quickly inspected it to be sure that it was ready to use.
The sound of the bus's engine prevented Richard from hearing what was being said on the radio, but he could hear the commanding voice calling out some sort of instructions.
"Y'all, hang on!" Ysidro called in a panicked voice.
Richard looked ahead and could see several cars and some two or three hundred people rushing a barricade.
Without thinking, Richard tucked his gun back into the backpack and moved across the aisle. Without a word, he quickly draped himself across Vina and Johnny, much to their surprise.
"What's wrong?" Vina asked as she looked around.
"Just hang on. I don't want you to get knocked out of your seat." Richard said as he made sure that he had a firm hold on the seat back.
If Richard hadn't been prepared for it, the sudden jolt of them running over something (or someone) could have easily pitched Vina and Johnny out of their seats. But since he was holding on to them, they stayed mostly in place.
Suddenly, Richard felt a weight land on his back.
Without releasing his hold, he looked back to find that Wendy had been ejected from her seat and had landed on top of him.
"Are you alright?" Richard asked with some concern.
"I'm scared." Wendy said in a whisper. Richard couldn't tell if Wendy was speaking quietly because she was frightened or if she'd had the wind knocked out of her.
Without really thinking about it, Richard released one hand from the seat back and reached back to take hold of Wendy. With a little effort, he guided her to lay across Johnny and Vina's laps, beneath him.
"Just stay right there and hold on to me. We'll be fine." Richard assured her, then felt it as another sudden jolt shook the bus and made him feel almost weightless before dropping him heavily back on top of Wendy.
Richard felt Wendy's arms go around him and hold on firmly.
The sounds of gunshots were distant at first, but suddenly, one of the windows broke, and Richard was aware of another threat to their safety. Just as suddenly as the fear came upon him, so did the realization that there was nothing more that he could do. He was shielding three children with his own body.
He renewed his grip on the seat back and held on tight as the bus suddenly turned sideways.
The sound of people screaming and their possessions crashing further back in the bus made Richard worry for all of them, but he was relieved to know that the most important person was safe.
"We's almost out! Hang on!" Ysidro called from the front of the bus, where he was hanging onto the rail by the driver, with both hands.
Suddenly, a flurry of gunshots rang out and several windows on the other side of the bus shattered in succession..
"Stay down!" Ysidro screamed as he squatted by the driver, still holding onto the rail.
"You're okay. You're safe." Richard said soothingly to his sister.
Suddenly, he felt a stab of pain in his back.
He wanted to cry out, but was somehow able to hold himself back.
His primary concern was Vina. If she knew that he was hurt, she'd be scared and he didn't want that.
So he held on as best he could and tried to ignore the burning pain in his shoulder and mid-back.
"That's it! We's out!" Ysidro called triumphantly.
Although it was a declaration worthy of cheers, everyone was so shaken and disoriented, that silence was the only response.
"Everyone, look 'round and see if anyone's hurt." EZ said anxiously.
"Wendy! Johnny! Where are you?" Susan called in panic.
"They're here. They're safe." Richard said as he forced himself to release his hold on the seat back.
"Oh, my God!" Susan gasped.
Richard looked at her and realized that she was staring at his back.
"Is there a doctor on the bus?" Councilman Becker called out as he put his arm protectively around his wife.
"Why? What's wrong?" Ysidro asked as he scrambled back, away from the driver.
"This little boy's been shot." Councilman Becker said gravely.
"There's another one, over here." A young woman said in a shaky voice.
"See if he's breathin'." EZ said to the woman farther back, then turned to Richard and quietly said, "Stay still. Le'me see."
When Richard saw the frightened look in his sister's eyes, he quietly said, "It's not bad, Vina. I'm okay." As he tried to stand.
"I said 'stay still'!" Ysidro barked, then ripped open the back of Richard's shirt with one yank.
"Wendy, are you alright?" Councilman Becker asked his daughter as he watched Ysidro's examination.
"He saved my life, Daddy." Wendy said in a quaking voice. "When I fell, he pulled me under him so I'd be safe."
"He did a very brave thing." Councilman Becker said as he turned his attention back to Richard, then added, "Thank you, young man."
"Breathe for me, Richard. A deep breath." EZ said in concentration.
Even though it hurt, Richard did as he was told.
"The blood ain't frothy. That's good." EZ said in a relieved voice.
Richard didn't understand, but trusted that EZ knew what he was talking about.
"This guy doesn't look too good." A woman's voice said from nearby.
"Stay still. I'll be right back." EZ said gently to Richard, then stepped away.
Just a moment later, EZ returned and said, "Well, I got good news and bad, Ricky."
"Richard, or Ricardo... not Ricky. I hate that." Richard said as firmly as he was able in his current state.
"Whatevah you say, Richard. Le'me just tell you, that you been shot. I guess you prolly knew that already. Tha good news is that it ain't in too deep and it don't look like it hit nothin' that important. Tha bad news is that we'll need a doctor ta git the bullet out. I'll git on the radio and see if one a tha other buses gots a doctor." Ysidro explained calmly.
"Okay. It hurts, but it's not real bad. I can wait if I need to." Richard said as a wave of dizziness washed over him.
"Anyone here know first aid? This hero a'ours needs ta be bandaged. And I need ta git on tha radio ta see if I can find a doctor fer 'im."
"If we can find some bandages, I can do it." Susan said primly, from her husband's side.
"There's a first aid kit right behin' the driver." Ysidro said as he turned to walk forward.
"What about this guy?" A woman's tearful voice asked hesitantly.
"He's already dead. He jus' don't know it, yet." EZ said over his shoulder.
"It's cold in here." Theresa whined petulantly as she wrapped her arms around her scantily clad self.
"Then get up 'n' help cover some a these broke windahs. Stop bein useless." Ysidro snarled as he squatted down to retrieve the first aid kit.
"You can't talk to me like that! Do you know who my father is?!" Theresa asked indignantly.
"Bitch! I don't even know who MY father is. Now either find sumpin' ta cover the broken windahs, or sit ya ass back down and shut up! Piss me off one more time, and I'm throwin yer skank ass off the fuckin bus." Ysidro said as he handed the first aid kit to Susan.
Councilman Becker turned to face Theresa and said, "I'll help you cover the bullet holes in the windows, if you'd like."
Theresa was surprised by the offer and quietly said, "Yes. Thank you."
* * * * *
"You saved me." Wendy said as she looked into Richard's eyes.
"It's okay." Richard said as he fought to keep from wincing at the pain as Susan worked on his back. Then he quietly asked, "Are you alright? I mean, am I too heavy on top of you?"
"No. You're fine." Wendy said gently, then leaned in to kiss him on the cheek.
"Ewww!" Vina said at the sight, as Johnny giggled at his sister.
Richard looked up at Edovina and gave her an embarrassed smile.
"You can try to get up now, if you like." Susan said gently as she gripped Richard's shoulder to help him stand.
"Thanks." Richard said, then his breath hitched at a stab of pain.
"I wish that there was something I could give you for the pain." Susan said remorsefully.
"I'll be fine." Richard said bravely as he made his way to standing, then, with Susan's help, walked across the aisle to his seat.
When Richard looked over at Gino, he was surprised to see a small gunshot wound on his temple, still leaking blood.
"Gino, can you hear me?" Richard asked shakily, but the glassy, vacant look in Gino's eyes didn't change.
It took a moment for everything to sink in, but Richard finally remembered EZ's words and knew that it had been Gino that he had been talking about.
"You're not alone." Richard said as he took hold of Gino's hand and grasped it firmly.
A moment later, he heard Susan quietly ask, "Are you alright, baby?"
"I'm fine. Richard kept me safe." Wendy said with a loving smile in his direction.
"How about you two?" Susan asked Johnny and Vina.
"Wendy kissed Richard. It was gross!" Johnny giggled.
Susan was surprised, but quickly got over it and said, "I'm sure that she was just thanking him for saving her life. You two should be grateful, too."
"I'm NOT gonna kiss him!" Johnny said indignantly.
Vina broke into uncontrollable laughter at his reaction.
"How about you just thank him for protecting you." Susan said with a tender smile at her son.
"But I don't have to kiss him. Right?" Johnny asked to be sure.
"No. Just a 'thank you'." Susan chuckled.
Johnny looked across the aisle at Richard with the bandage on his back and suddenly realized what his mother meant. Somehow, in all the confusion, his mind hadn't put together what was really happening. All of a sudden, he understood what Richard had done.
"Thank you for protecting us, Richard. I'm sorry you got hurt. Let me know if there's anything I can do for you." Johnny said sincerely.
"Just be nice to Vina." Richard said as he looked Johnny in the eyes.
Johnny nodded his promise, then turned his attention back to Vina.
"Can I get you anything, dear?" Susan asked as she squatted by Richard's side.
As Richard continued to hold Gino's hand, he quietly answered, "Yeah. If you can find something to cover me up, my back is cold."
"They're working on covering the broken windows, now. How about you cover up with this until they're done?" Susan said as she took off her coat and draped it over Richard's back.
Although he wanted to protest her sacrifice, the immediate warmth on his chilled skin felt so nice that all he ended up saying was, "Thank you."
* * * * *
"Richard, wake up." Ysidro said quietly.
"What?" Richard asked blearily as he sat up. He glanced to his side and realized that, while he had been sleeping, Gino had silently passed away.
EZ noticed Richard's shocked and regretful look and quietly said, "There was nothin' you coulda done for 'im. But you was there, holdin' his hand as he crossed over. Maybe that'll give him some kind of peace."
"Yeah." Richard muttered as he slowly released Gino's hand.
"We're comin' to a road block and I thought you'd wanna be awake." Ysidro said seriously.
"Are they gonna shoot at us again?" Richard asked cautiously.
"I don't know. They might. I wanted you to be awake in case you needed tah react. I need to get back upfront. We's almost there." EZ said with one last regretful look at Gino.
"Thanks." Richard said, then looked across the aisle at Vina, to find that she was asleep, as was Johnny, beside her.
* * * * *
"It's just up ahead." Ysidro announced anxiously.
Richard sat up a little straighter and winced at a pulling sensation on his wound. It was aching almost constantly, but one wrong move made the pain flare.
As he leaned out into the aisle slightly, he had a mostly unobstructed view of what was ahead.
The first thing he saw was the smoke.
The haze of smoke obscured his vision, so he had to strain to see that the source was several burned out cars smoldering along the side of the road.
As they got closer, the bus slowed slightly.
Richard's anxiety increased at the deceleration, but all thoughts regarding their speed left his mind when he saw the first body.
It was a uniformed police officer, although Richard wasn't familiar with the police enough to know what jurisdiction he came from.
As he tore his gaze away from the fallen man, he spotted another, then another.
There were easily dozens of uniformed men and women, scattered around the area, not all of them were wearing the same uniforms, but all of them were dead.
Richard felt the bus speeding up and realized that they were past the worst of the smoke.
Ahead of them, there was debris scattered along the side of the road. It looked as though several vehicles had been crushed and moved out of the way, opening the road for use.
"Let's get the fuck outta here." Ysidro said anxiously.
The bus sped up even more, but Richard couldn't seem to get himself to relax.
* * * * *
"Hey, Richard. I just talked to your brother and let him know that you was hurt." EZ said as he stopped at Richard's side.
"You shouldn't have done that. Now he'll just worry about me and probably blame himself for not being here." Richard said honestly.
"I don't think so. He didn't sound worried. He sounded nothin' but proud." EZ said with a smile.
Richard thought about that for a moment, then quietly said, "When our dad left, my oldest brother, Manny, stepped up and took care of Reuben and protected him and made sure that he was alright. Later, when Manny was killed, Reuben started taking care of me and protecting me like that. Nobody ever asked him or told him he had to do it, he just did it. Even though I knew about all that, I never saw me being anything like them. I was always a kid that needed to be protected. But today, since Reuben wasn't here, I had to step up and take care of Vina. So, if he's proud of me, I think it's because I showed that I'm like him and Manny."
"So you ain't his lil bro, he has to worry bout, no more. Now yous his bro he can count on." EZ said with a smile.
Richard considered for a moment then returned the smile as he said, "Yeah."
"That roadblock was the last big thing we was warned about. Now that we's past it, how about I gits back to findin' you a doctor." EZ said with admiration sparkling in his eyes.
* * * * *
"How are you feeling?"
Richard opened his eyes and was surprised to see his brother looking at him with concern.
"It hurts, but I'm okay." Richard said steadily.
"EZ said that you took good care of Vina." Reuben said seriously.
"Probably the same that you would have, if you'd been here." Richard said frankly.
"You did good." Reuben said gently, then turned as EZ walked down the aisle.
"Your brother was real brave." EZ said seriously, then quietly continued, "Richard, you need to get up so we can get this body outta here."
Richard's sleep fogged mind finally grasped the fact that the bus had stopped moving.
Slowly, he got up, with his brother's help, and turned away so he wouldn't have to see Gino's body being carried away.
"How are you doing, Vina?" Reuben asked gently as he guided Richard to walk with him.
"I'm scared." Edovina said in a small voice.
"We all are, Vina. But Ricardo and I are here to keep you safe. We'll all be fine." Reuben said softly.
"When it got real scary, Ricardo climbed on top of us and kept us safe." Edovina said seriously.
"I heard about that. He was really brave." Reuben said proudly.
Edovina nodded her agreement.
"You can sit down now, if you need to. We're about to get movin again." EZ said quietly.
"Who do you want to sit with you, Vina?" Reuben asked gently.
"Johnny's sitting here. He just went to talk to his mama while we were stopped." Edovina said seriously.
"You can sit with me." Richard said to his brother, then quietly added, "But you may need to clean up some blood first."
Reuben took a moment to clean up a small amount of blood, then took the seat by the crudely taped broken window.
* * * * *
"Breaker one-four. We's on tha road, headin' West, and lookin fer a doctor. We's part of a group and can't stop, but if they's a doctor who'd like a ride West, we'd be real happy to take yous wit us."
"Who is this? How can we know that this isn't a trap?"
"Ain't nothin I can say ta prove it. But we gots some people that's been hurt real bad. We needs ta get 'em some help. Our only doctor was one 'a them that was killed. I can't waste time talkin. If you's not a doctor, then I needs ta switch channels soes I can keep lookin'."
"I'm not a doctor, but we've got two doctors on our bus. The only problem is that we're almost out of gas and nothing's open."
"Where ya at? We'll see if we can meet up."
"We're about a half hour from Columbus, Nebraska, just past Schuyler, but I don't know if we'll be able to make it. We're running on fumes."
"Listen, it sounds like we're about twenty minutes from you. You runnin diesel or gas?"
"Good. Our whole fleet is running diesel and we brought a few spare cans in case of emergency."
"Thanks. I was really getting worried. I didn't know what we were going to do."
"You swear to god that you got a doctor, right?"
"Yeah. Two of 'em!"
"Then you got something that we need. And it sounds like we got something that you need. You stay there, and we'll see you in a little bit. How will we know you?"
"We're in a camouflage painted school bus."
* * * * *
"Wake up. You need to get up and go to the other bus, while we're stopped." Reuben said gently to his younger brother.
"Why?" Richard asked cautiously.
"Because it's a bus full of doctors, but they've got other patients that they can't leave, so they said that anyone who's hurt needs to get on their bus. Don't worry about Vina, she can go with me." Reuben said seriously.
"No. I mean, if you don't have something real important that you're doing on the other bus, could you maybe stay here with her. Playing with Johnny's keeping her from being afraid."
"Yeah. Good idea. You need to go and get taken care of." Reuben said as he let a little of his concern show through.
"Don't worry about me. I'll be fine." Richard said, then picked up his backpack and stood.
When he felt the coat shift on his back, he slid it off. He turned to Susan, who was loosely wrapped in a blanket in the seat behind Vina, and quietly said, "Thank you for letting me use your coat."
"Thank you for protecting my children." Susan said sincerely as she accepted the coat from him.
As Richard turned to leave, Wendy walked up to him and said, "You're really brave. Thank you."
He wasn't as surprised by the kiss as he had been before, and he realized that it was actually kind of nice.
"Wendy!" Her father said in a stern voice.
"Sorry, Daddy." She said with a timid smile as she pulled away.
"I'm sorry to interrupt, but you need to get on the other bus, right now." Reuben said as he fought down a smile.
"I'll talk to you later, Wendy. I've got to go." Richard said regretfully.
"It's a little too cold for you to go out like that." Reuben said as he took off his jacket and draped it around Richard's shoulders.
* * * * *
"I can get that for you." Reuben said as he held out a hand for Richard's backpack.
"No. I've got it." Richard said quietly as he clutched it to his chest.
"I'm sorry you were hurt. I meant to be home before it was time to leave." Reuben gently explained.
"Listen. If it wasn't for you running with the Kings, we wouldn't be going to someplace safe. You were busy doing something important for them, so you told me what I needed to do, and I did it. Me getting hurt wasn't anybody's fault."
"Yeah. I guess that's right." Reuben reluctantly agreed.
"If something happens to me, will you tell Mama something for me?"
"You're going to be alright."
"Yeah. But just in case, would you tell Mama that I understand about her needing to work all the time and that I don't blame her for not being there? I know it bothers her, but we've all got to do what needs done to keep us all going." Richard said as they passed some men with multiple gas cans, beside the school bus.
"I'll tell her. I promise."
"Is this where I'm going?" Richard asked as he looked at the camouflage painted bus.
"Yeah. This is where the doctors are." Reuben said quietly.
"I'll be fine now. Take care of Vina and let her know that I'll be okay." Richard said as he looked up into his brother's eyes.
"I'm proud of you, Ricardo. If you need anything, just have your bus driver call me." Reuben said seriously.
"Don't worry about me. I can handle this. Go." Richard said firmly.
* * * * *
As Richard climbed onto the bus, he heard a man call out, "We're going to need more bandages."
"If they don't have to be sterile, I can start ripping up some of the spare clothes." Another man called back.
"It'll have to be good enough. I'm using what little sterile gauze that I have left directly on the wounds. We can use the non-sterile bandages for wrapping."
As Richard cautiously walked further into the bus, he realized just how weak he felt. Each step was an increasing effort for him.
"Can I help you?" A man in a police uniform asked when he noticed Richard walking onto the bus.
Richard noticed the familiar smell of marijuana as he looked around the decades old school bus.
"I was told to come here. I think you're supposed to help me or something." Richard said uncertainly.
"If you were sent here you must have been injured. How are you hurt?" An older man asked as he stepped forward.
Although the man was wearing an orange jumpsuit, Richard was immediately put at ease when he saw the man's kind eyes. Just then, the driver started the bus's engine.
"Yeah. I was shot in the back." Richard said as he carefully shrugged Reuben's coat off his shoulders to expose his bandaged wound.
"Oh my God! Why are you up, walking around? Come over here and lay down." The man said as he rushed to Richard's side. Since the bus had started moving, Richard didn't mind help walking down the aisle.
"It doesn't hurt that bad, only when I move certain ways." Richard explained as he followed the man and finally came to rest on one of the bench seats.
"I'm sorry that we don't have a real bed for you, this is the best we can do."
"That's okay. Just do what you need to do, so I can get back to my family." Richard said as he lay down, as he was directed, chest down on the green vinyl school bus seat.
"My name is Clifton Grant, and, despite appearances, I really am a doctor. You can call me Doctor Cliff, if that's more comfortable for you."
"Doctor Grant, I'm twelve years old. You don't need to treat me like a little kid. Just tell me what I need to do and I'll do it." Richard said seriously.
"Let me get this gauze pad off your back, then I'll see what we're working with."
"That hurts." Richard grunted past clenched teeth as he felt the gauze pad being pulled away from his wound.
"I'm sorry. I'll try to be as gentle as I can with you." Dr. Grant said as he carefully looked at the wound, then muttered, "It looks like the bullet is lodged under his shoulderblade."
"What are our options?" Another man asked anxiously.
"We have to get the bullet out. We really don't have a choice." Dr. Grant said frankly.
"How? We don't have anything to work with."
"I'm going to be counting on either Wil or Todd to get our patient sufficiently anesthetized. After that, I'll do my best to get this bullet out with a minimum of pain. Doctor Parish, I could really use your help." Dr. Grant said as he looked to another man, who also appeared to be wearing a prison jumpsuit.
"Give me two minutes to immobilize this arm, then I'll be right with you." The 'prisoner' said with single-mindedness.
"Listen up! Has everyone been seen by a doctor? If a doctor hasn't talked to you yet, you need to speak up now." Dr. Grant called out as he gently cleaned the wound on Richard's back.
"I think we've got everyone." A young woman responded from farther back on the bus.
"Thanks, Kara. Will you keep an eye on everyone and come and get one of us if anyone is having problems? Jerry and I are going to have our hands full for a few minutes." Dr. Grant asked hopefully.
"I've got this. I'll yell if anyone needs help." Kara said confidently.
"Where do you need me, Cliff?" A young man asked from beside Richard and he turned to see that he was also wearing a uniform.
"Go ahead and start getting him relaxed while we prep for surgery." Doctor Grant said anxiously.
* * * * *
"Take a deep inhale." Wil said as he held a small pipe to Richard's lips.
"You're gonna get me stoned?" Richard asked cautiously.
"That's right. It's all we've got to give you for the pain. Now, inhale." Wil said gently.
As Richard drew on the pipe, Wil held a lit lighter to the bowl.
"Fight the urge to cough and take it in." Doctor Parish said soothingly from beside them.
Richard did his best to hold the smoke, although the urge to cough was strong.
"Let it out. Nice and slow." Wil said in a relaxed tone.
Richard slowly released his breath and could already feel a 'swimmy' sensation coursing through him.
"One more, I think." Doctor Parish said as he watched.
Wil put the pipe to Richard's lips again.
Richard's mind was spinning as he drew in more of the smoke.
"Good. You're doing fine." Doctor Parish said with approval.
Wil nodded his agreement as he took the pipe away.
Richard slowly released the smoke, then began to giggle. After a moment, Richard slurred, "I got a boner."
"Yeah. I think he's ready." Doctor Parish said with a grin.
"Hold him still." Doctor Grant said seriously.
"I met this girl. Her name is Wendy. I think she really likes me." Richard said to no one in particular.
A few seconds later, Richard exclaimed, "Hey! Stop it! That hurts!"
"I know. But that's the worst of it. Now I just have to get the bullet out."
Richard winced with pain a few times, but didn't cry out again,
"I'm glad it wasn't any deeper. I just barely got it." Doctor Grant said when he finally stopped.
"How bad is it?" Doctor Parish asked as he leaned in to see.
"I've seen worse." Cliff said noncommittally, then said under his breath, "What I wouldn't give for a needle and thread right now. But I suppose these butterfly bandages will have to do."
"Is he going to be alright?" Wil asked as he looked over Cliff's shoulder.
"Yes. I think so. Our young friend, here, was incredibly lucky. If that bullet had gone a fraction of an inch in any direction, it would have done serious damage and might well have killed him. Our next concern is going to have to be to watch for infection." Cliff said seriously.
"My boner won't stop." Richard whined as he pushed a hand into his pants.
"Hold him still while I do my best to close this up." Cliff said as he tried to restrain a smile.
Cliff worked to carefully apply the butterfly bandages, using them in a way that they were never intended.
As he was finishing, he noticed Richard's butt slowly moving up and down.
"You know, when he comes down, he's probably going to regret this." Wil said as he watched with a barely restrained grin.
"I think I'm done for now. Let's leave him to finish." Cliff said as he draped Reuben's coat over the freshly bandaged wound on Richard's back.
* * * * *
"We're stopping." The driver called from the front of the bus as he slowed down.
The statement caught Richard's attention and he managed to pull himself to a sitting position.
He was still groggy and feeling like he was floating on a cloud.
"Is something wrong?" One of the men asked.
"I think we're stopping for gas. But this station looks abandoned."
Just as he said that, six men poured out of the gas station and each of them were carrying machine guns.
Richard froze in fear at the sight. It took a few seconds for him to realize that the men were working purposefully to get the buses ahead of them fueled.
"I don't know who we've gotten tangled up with, but it looks like they've got some serious firepower on their side." Wil said as he stared.
"I just hope that when we get where we're going that they'll let us go without a problem." Cliff said anxiously.
"Look! There's Mona!" Todd called out.
Richard looked around and saw one of the men talking to a woman on a motorcycle.
"It looks like they're not going to give her any gas." Wil said cautiously.
"Let me use the radio." Cliff said as he hurried to the front of the bus.
"This is Doctor Grant on the medical bus. That woman on the motorcycle is with us. She was scouting ahead for gas for us. Can you please help her?"
Richard watched carefully as someone from one of the other buses ran up to the motorcycle.
After a moment, the woman got off the motorcycle and walked toward their bus.
* * * * *
"Thank God! I thought we'd lost you!" Wil said as he ran to Mona and hugged her furiously.
Mona chuckled as she returned the hug, then said, "I don't know how you boys did it, but it looks like you made some friends who might be able to get us through."
"It didn't have much to do with us. I guess their doctor was killed, and they had some injured people who needed help, so they were willing to let us tag along with them."
Richard felt self conscious as Mona's attention turned to him. Only then did he realize that he had his hand down his pants. He slowly pulled his hand free, doing his best to make the action look casual.
"What's your name, young man?" Mona asked him gently.
"From the looks of you, you've had quite a day. How are you feeling? Are the doctors taking good care of you?" Mona asked in a warm, grandmotherly voice.
"Yes, Ma'am. It hurt for a little bit, but it's okay now." Richard said as he fought the swimmy feeling.
"How did you get hurt, honey?"
"Some guys were shooting at our bus, so I got on top of some younger kids to protect them, and I got shot in the back."
"That was a very brave thing for you to do." Cliff said admiringly.
Richard gave a one shouldered shrug and winced, then asked, "Can I go back to my family now?"
"Not yet. Considering the situation we're in, we need to be extra careful to watch for signs of infection." Doctor Grant said seriously.
"Yeah. Even if we were in a hospital, we'd have to be careful of that. But in a situation like this..." Doctor Parish trailed off with a shake of his head.
"But you said that I'm going to be okay." Richard asked to confirm.
"You'll probably have a pretty good scar on your back when this is all done. But if we can keep your incision from getting infected, you should be just fine." Doctor Grant finished with a smile.
"So, what's the plan? Where are these guys going? And are we still going to be able to get to Alan's?" Mona asked seriously.
"I don't know. But considering the warzone that we've already been through, I think this is going to be our best shot at getting to someplace safe. Once we're there, we can worry about the next step." Cliff said seriously.
"The buses are going to Kettle Falls, Washington." Richard said carefully.
Everyone stopped to look at him with surprise.
"What?" Richard asked self consciously, then looked down at his crotch to see if anything was out of place.
"Kettle Falls is where my son lives. That's where we were going. Why are your buses going there?" Mona asked cautiously.
"There's supposed to be someone already there making a safe place for all of us. If you want to know more than that, you'll need to ask my brother. That's all he told me." Richard said honestly.
"No. I don't want to go looking for trouble. Let's just take what's being offered and be grateful." Cliff said seriously.
The bus started to pull forward, then the sound of people outside could be heard.
Richard looked around and saw that the men from the station were working to gas up the bus.
"Is it my turn to drive?" A sleepy looking man asked groggily.
"What do you say, Marlon? Are you ready for a break?" Cliff called to the driver.
"Sure thing. A bathroom break would be pretty good, too." Marlon said as he stiffly stood from the driver's seat.
"Good idea. Kara, would you mind waking up the kids and see that they all get a potty break?" Cliff asked hopefully.
"Sure thing." Kara said as she walked to the back of the bus.
Richard watched her for a moment, then was surprised to see one kid, then another, sit up as they were awakened.
"What about you, Richard? Do you need to go to the bathroom?" Cliff asked gently.
"Yeah. And I really need something to drink. I don't know when I've ever been this thirsty." Richard said honestly.
"We should also look around for supplies. We need to get any pain relievers and antiseptics that we can lay our hands on." Cliff said thoughtfully.
"We'd better hurry before the rest of the fleet is ready to hit the road again." Cliff said decisively.
Richard slowly started to stand and felt a hand take his arm, helping him.
"How about I stick with you until you're feeling a little stronger?" Doctor Parish asked gently.
As much as Richard wanted to be independent, he still felt swimmy headed and weak. So he let Doctor Parish guide him up the aisle and off the bus.
* * * * *
"I'm Antony, and this is Tyner." One of two boys said as they hurried to catch up.
"What happened to you? You look like you got hurt." Antony said seriously.
"Yeah. I was shot. What about you? You look like you got beat up pretty bad." Richard asked in return.
"Yeah. We got kidnapped. Those guys beat us up and threw us in a van. But then the van wrecked and we got banged up some more because of that." Antony said frankly.
"Are you alright?" Richard asked cautiously.
"Yeah. Doctor Cliff says that we're probably going to be tired and stuff for a few days while we're healing up. But it don't hurt a lot. Well, except for Brody. He's got a lot of broken bones. And besides that, he's really sad, too." Antony said frankly.
As they walked around the corner of the gas station, they saw quite a few people standing in line.
"It looks like we're going to have to wait a few minutes. There's two busloads of people ahead of us." Doctor Parish said as he motioned for the boys to follow.
"Brody! We're over here." Antony called back toward the bus.
Before Richard knew what had happened, Antony rushed away, leaving him standing at the back of the line with Doctor Parish and Tyner.
"Are you okay?" Richard asked Tyner quietly.
The boy nodded, but wouldn't meet his eyes.
Richard didn't see any point in trying to talk with the silent boy, so he turned his attention forward and waited.
* * * * *
"Were the doctors able to help you?" Reuben asked as he approached his brother.
"Back of the line!" Someone behind them growled.
"I'm just here to talk to my brother. We're on different buses." Reuben said sternly, then watched the man's reaction to see if they were going to have a problem.
"The doctor got the bullet out, but he said that I need to stay on the bus with them so that they can watch for infection." Richard explained carefully.
"That's right. A school bus seat isn't the most sterile environment to be performing surgery. But we do the best we can with what we've got." Doctor Parish said simply.
"Is he going to be alright?" Reuben asked Doctor Parish cautiously.
"Yes. Doctor Grant seemed to think that Richard shouldn't have anything worse than a scar on his back when this is all done." The doctor said assuringly.
"Reuben, could you do something for me?" Richard asked hesitantly.
"What's that?" Reuben asked his brother with concern.
"I really, seriously, need a drink. I don't care if it's just water. But I'm dying of thirst." Richard said in a pleading voice.
"I'll be right back." Reuben said with a smile before dashing away.
"Is your back hurting very badly?" Doctor Parish asked gently.
"It's starting to hurt worse. But I'll be okay." Richard said quietly.
* * * * *
"Here you go. How are you doing?" Reuben asked as he handed his brother a can of soda.
Richard couldn't answer as he desperately drank the soda.
"Is that better?" Reuben asked with a smile.
"Yeah. Thanks!" Richard gasped.
Both turned to find Edovina waving at them from the line for the ladies room. Richard noticed that she was standing with Wendy and her mother.
"See that girl with Vina? That's Wendy. I think she likes me." Richard said with a silly grin.
Reuben looked curiously at his brother, then to Doctor Parish and said, "He isn't acting like himself. Did you give him something?"
"Yes. For the pain. Unfortunately, we didn't have anything to give him except, um, marijuana."
Reuben looked at his brother critically for a moment, then said, "I'll get you another drink and some munchies. I think you're going to need them."
"I'll keep an eye on Vina while you're gone." Richard said simply.
"That woman said she'd watch after her while we're stopped. You just concentrate on feeling better."
"Okay." Richard said with a silly grin.
* * * * *
After a much needed visit to the bathroom, Richard saw Reuben and Ysidro talking by one of the buses.
Doctor Parish and Tyner followed as Richard walked over to them.
"We got word from the boss. He still thinks we can get through, but if it gets too bad, we're supposed to head for Canada." Reuben said seriously.
"Wha da fuck? Whadn't that all figured out already?" EZ asked anxiously.
"I don't know about that. I just know that we're supposed to keep moving, no matter what. There's gonna be a safe place set up just for us."
"I hope so. Cause dis looks like it could get real ugly."
"It already is."
"What's going on?" Richard asked curiously.
"Nothing new. You'd better get on your bus. We're about to go." Reuben said seriously, then remembered the shopping bags he was carrying and handed them to Doctor Parish.
Ysidro looked to Doctor Parish and said, "You be real sure to listen to tha radio and do exactly what you're told."
"I'll tell Galen. He'll be driving the next leg."
* * * * *
"I got us some medical supplies. It's not much, but it's better than nothing." Todd said as he climbed onto the bus with his arms loaded with plastic shopping bags.
"What about pain relievers?" Dr. Grant asked immediately.
"Strictly OTC. Sorry. I was doing good to get this much. Everyone was raiding the shelves, grabbing anything they could." Todd said frankly.
"I wish we'd thought to do that. We didn't have enough food to start with, and now we've got all the injured people with us that we're responsible for." Wil said anxiously.
"Here we go!" The driver, Galen, called out as he started the bus.
Everyone on the bus was silent as the convoy of buses raced down empty streets.
Mona, on her motorcycle, kept pace with the medical bus, never moving out of view.
The men from the gas station had joined them, using what looked to be a military vehicle.
* * * * *
When Richard had gotten back on the bus, he had walked to the back, where the other kids were.
"Are you okay?" Antony asked quietly.
Richard snapped himself out of his thoughts enough to look at the boy who was staring at him with concern.
"Yeah. I'll be fine." Richard said distractedly.
"Are you hurting?" Antony asked gently.
Richard smiled at the boy's concern and said, "A little, but it's not too bad."
"Brody, are you doing okay?" Antony asked the boy who was mostly propped in the corner of the back seat.
"Yeah. I found a comfortable spot. I'm good." Brody said in a tightly controlled voice.
Richard was willing to bet that the boy was in serious pain, but he could respect that the boy wanted to deal with it in his own way and not have other people fussing over him.
"Ow! Fuck!" A man's voice growled from nearby.
Richard looked at the man who was propped up in the seat ahead of him. From the look on the man's face, he was in serious pain. There was no doubt from looking at the man that he had just woken up.
"Ben, do you need Doctor Cliff?" Antony asked in a quiet, gentle voice.
"Yeah. And tell him to bring Miss Mary Jane with him." Ben grunted.
After a moment, the man seemed to notice Richard and quietly said, "You're new, aren't you?"
"Yeah. I got on the bus not too long ago." Richard said quietly.
"What happened to you, Richard?" Ben asked as concern filled his expression.
"I got shot. What happened to you?" Richard asked in return.
"I was thrown in jail and beaten up by some guards." Ben said wearily.
Richard nodded, then absently said, "Yeah. I've heard that they'll do that."
"How are you doing, my sweet? Now that you've had a good, long sleep?" Doctor Grant asked gently.
"I think I slept soundly, but I'm hurting worse now than before we got on the bus." Ben said honestly.
"Everything's had a chance to relax and swell. I know it's uncomfortable, but it's all part of the healing process. Tell me, you don't have any 'new' aches or pains, do you?"
"No. It's really just my ribs that are hurting. I hardly notice anything else." Ben said with a weary smile.
"Let's go ahead and give you something for the pain. And, since we have all our patients in one place, I can get all of you done at one time." Doctor Grant said as he looked at Richard and Brody.
"Are you ready for me?" Wil asked as he walked to the back of the bus, carrying a blue butter cookie tin.
"Ben's awake, and I think Brody and Richard are both beginning to feel their pain." Doctor Grant said seriously.
"Marlon, we're about to spark it up. You in?" Wil called casually.
"Yeah!" Marlon said immediately, then gave Kara a kiss before hurrying down the aisle to join them.
"Of all the skills that I learned in high school, I can't believe that this is the one I can use to help people." Wil said with a smile as he packed the bowl of the little pipe.
Richard looked curiously at Marlon and finally asked, "Are you hurt, too?"
"He's not hurt, but it's his weed that we're smoking. It seems only right that he be invited when we're about to smoke a bowl." Wil said frankly.
Not much was said as the little pipe was passed from person to person.
Richard didn't know how anyone else was feeling, but his pain felt almost like it was just a memory. He could feel it, but it was so distant that he felt separated from it.
"Do you guys get boners from smoking this stuff?" Richard asked in a voice that sounded a little too slow to his own ears.
"Richard's had enough." Marlon giggled as he passed the pipe to Ben.
"I just wanted to know. I never smoked any pot before, so I don't know how it works. I just noticed that I keep getting boners and I don't know if it's just me or if it happens to you guys too or if it happens to everyone, everywhere or if it... wait... what was I talking about?"
Brody and Ben were both trying to fight down their laughter, because it aggravated their injuries.
"It depends on the weed and the person." Marlon said to Richard with a smile, then added, "Just relax and enjoy it."
"How can you relax when you got a boner?" Richard asked indignantly.
"Think about something else." Marlon said simply.
"Like what?" Richard asked as he put his hand down his pants to try and get his boner into a more comfortable position.
"Remember what your brother brought for you?" Dr. Parish asked as he approached with five plastic shopping bags.
"What's that?" Brody asked hesitantly.
"Munchies." Richard said with a smile as he accepted the bags from Doctor Parish and opened the first one.
"Does anyone want some Cool Ranch Doritos?" Richard asked as he held the bag up.
It was snatched out of his hand so fast that he couldn't tell who got it.
"Oh, man!" Richard gasped when he saw what was next in the bag.
"What've you got?" Ben asked as he sat up, trying to see into the seat behind him.
"Spray cheese and Ritz crackers!" Richard said as he fought to get the cap off the aerosol cheese can.
"I'll open the crackers." Brody offered as he took the box from Richard with his one good hand.
Once Richard had the cap off the cheese, he looked over to find that Brody had the box of crackers clamped between his legs, while he worked with his good hand to get the top open.
Marlon and Ben had their full attention (such as it was) devoted to the sight of Brody opening the box. As soon as the Ritz crackers were free from their confinement, Brody and Richard worked as a team to carefully spray the cheesey goo on top of a cracker.
When Richard saw the others watching, he passed the first cracker to Ben. The next went to Marlon. Brody was holding the crackers as Richard sprayed the cheese on them. When the next one was ready, Richard said, "You have it, Brody. I'll get the next one."
Brody smiled, then popped the cracker into his mouth.
"Try this with your cracker." Marlon said as he held forward the Cool Ranch Doritos for Brody to take one.
Richard watched as Brody added a few chips to his mouthful of cracker and saw his eyes light up.
"This is the best food ever." Ben said around his half a mouthful of food.
"I should've got something to drink when we stopped." Marlon said with a chuckle.
Richard set his spray cheese aside, then reached into another bag and came up with a 2 liter bottle of soda.
"Oh my God! Can I have some?" Brody asked around his mouthful of chips and cracker.
Richard opened the bottle of Pepsi as he said, "Hey, it's still cold."
Even though he knew that Brody desperately wanted the drink, Richard took a long drink first, to slake his own thirst before passing it on.
Unbeknownst to any of the four of them, that day, a bond was being formed. It was something different from family or friendship. It was a feeling of camaraderie amongst the four very different people. What they had was a special bond forged from spray cheese, Ritz crackers, Cool Ranch Doritos and Pepsi. Such bonds have been known to last a lifetime.
To Be Continued...
Well, it happened again, my eyes started leaking. I honestly don't know how MM does it, but it happens to me in almost every chapter.
If you have been paying attention to this story for a while, you might recognize several people we have met in this chapter.
Some of them have had face time in earlier chapters and at least one of them has been mentioned by name, before. I'll let you think about that.
I am really proud of Richard. He is taking the responsibility of taking care of Vina very seriously, and he is doing a very good job.
I feel sorry for Ben, and I hope he will heal up pretty soon.
The councilman and his family seem to be very nice people. and Wendy may have a crush on Richard. It looks as though Richard has a hard on for her, as well, at least when he is high.
Hopefully, they have gotten past most of the troublesome nasties and will have a somewhat smoother time during the rest of their trip.
I guess we will just have to wait to find out.
Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher