I can't wait to get home. This trip has been one challenge after another, and longer than any of us could have imagined when we set out. When we left home, we had specific goals, and we have met them, but our secondary aims have mostly failed. I wanted to get as many folks out of here as wanted to go, but I only got what's left.
Tree and several dozen folks were still camped out at the Gaia House. I couldn't tell you how many of them were people that had been there for a while, and how many came based on Courtney's comment to the survivors around Carbondale. Here's how it went down.
We got the bus pretty close, but parked it on a side street about three blocks away, pointed back the way we came. We had to leave it so far, because it was the closest street that was deserted and had enough trees to provide cover. My inclination was to ask Steve to stay behind as the driver, given how close I brought him to getting shot. I didn't want to put him into direct danger if it could be helped. He was having none of it, of course. He was the most familiar with the area, really the only person except for me that knew it at all, and I only know the general layout. He had to go, as simple as that.
So we drew straws--Dave stayed behind. I called his phone and left the call open in my breast pocket just in case. Steve led the way, and while the resulting events will probably visit me every night while I try to sleep, I have to imagine how funny we looked as we were sneaking around. Clad in a mismatch of military armored vests, thick Judo gi with kendo face masks, chainmail gorgets, and combat boots, all of us toting firearms of varying types and some of us with swords at our hips. What a sight.
We made it to the Gaia House without any trouble. Without even seeing anyone else. What should have struck us was that we didn't see any zombies either. Not one. Granted, we were moving through as many closed-in spaces as possible to remain concealed, but given the reports, we should have seen something.
Steve called Treesong when we got close, so he was waiting outside for us. We saw a crowd of folks inside, and the thought occurred that we would have to bring the bus, because there was no way we were going to be able to walk all of them back safely. Hell, I was sure that we couldn't pack all of them into the bus.
We were discussing our options when someone opened fire on us. Tree called them marauders, that works for me. Three groups of them hit us all at once. Two sets of men on foot, coming from opposite directions down the road, and one set in a military humvee, thankfully without a large caliber machine gun. Treesong hit the ground at the sound of guns firing, as did most everyone else. I saw my wife crumple like a god had punched her in the gut, and everything fell into slow motion.
Steve moved like water, diving and rolling, coming up with a pistol. Jess was moving, one hand clutching her stomach while the other reached out toward her fallen rifle, fingers clawing the dirt. Pain exploded over my right kidney as what was surely a bullet slammed into my vest. The agony of it was numbing, and any thought of anything but that pain drove me to the ground.
I saw the Gaia house over my head as I rolled over in the dirt. Plywood sprouted a vast array of splinters as the marauders peppered us with gunfire. Our saving grace was distance: they were still far enough away from us that aiming was a chore, and that they were moving didn't make it easier. I heard yelling all over, and saw people pouring out of the building, red blooms appearing across their bodies as they ran.
It took a more effort than any movement of my life, getting on my hands and knees. Jess lay on her stomach, rifle butted against her shoulder, making them pay for every step. Steve was firing, moving, firing, moving, taking quick but careful aim. Divots of earth puckered around us as I found my gun and returned fire. I doubt that I hit a thing, too much of my concentration was on my battered side.
Patrick was trying to direct people toward the street where the bus was. Or rather, where the bus had been. In the chaos and deafening ruckus, the incoming foot soldiers didn't hear the bus coming up behind them.
David crushed three quarters of them before he stopped, but he also made a big target. The remaining men were quickly cut down as they fired round after round at the bus, but the last and most frightening threat was that damn humvee. There were so many people trying to get on the bus that when it smashed into the side of it, it had to have killed more than a dozen of them. It's not a sound I will ever be able to forget. The humvee careened off and tried to spin around for another pass. Some of the survivors had managed to get on, but the majority of them ran as they saw the dented machine turn toward them. The hatch on top of it popped open, a rifleman taking aim at my brother as it came toward him. David must have ducked, as none of the few shots the man got off hit him. Few shots, because my wife pegged him with her last bullet. The rifleman vanished as he fell into the Humvee, and he must have fallen into the driver, sending the vehicle slamming into the side of the bus.
Patrick ran up to the Humvee and tossed something into the hatch. Dave slammed the bus into reverse, and all of us screamed in pain as the sound of the pipebomb going off tore at our ears.
We were safe, if you could call it that. The hummer's glass and small metals showed us, gave us all a large complement of cuts and burns. It was on fire, and all of us seemed to have the same thought in unison, because everyone that was left ran for the bus at the same time.
Final count: Treesong and eight others rescued from the Gaia House. Twenty three others dead or ran away. Jess has a bruise that covers most of her belly, Patrick has a few more cuts to add to the scar on his face, Steve took only minor injuries, Dave took none, and I feel like my kidney is going to fall out. Only the fact that we wore the armor saved Jess and me, a fact I will always remember when trying something so ludicrously dangerous.
We are on the way out of town, hoping that no one sees the carnage and follows us, because I don't think we can get so lucky again. We were downhill from them, firing up, not an advantage we can count on twice. Jackie and company should be okay. We'll see them soon, and then head home. If we are lucky, we will be in Frankfort in half a day.
I don't think we can risk another trip like this. It has been made clear to me how very fortunate we have been. While we prepared as well as we could, and benefited from both practice and armor, the simple fact is that too many risky ventures will cost me someone I love, or even my own life. Thinking about Jess taking that bullet makes me sick, and that's with having been saved by her vest. Steve displayed the bravery I had always known him capable of, with a remarkable dexterity I admit I suspected he lacked. That kind of even headed ability only makes my respect for him grow. And one wrong move, all his potential would have been lost. It shakes me, it really does.
The idea that I might have to one day go home without one of them, to their wives or children, and try to explain and comfort, is something I just don't think I can cope with.
Thank god it's over. We're going home.