Hellbound Express; Chapter 3
Wickham and the rest of Gant’s salvage crew moved around the vehicles strapped into place on the bi-level autorack. The railcar stank of gas fumes, burned oil, chemicals, and blood. Gasoline for the motorcycles, ATVs, and 4×4 pickup trucks was kept in all of the storage railcars, spread out so that not all supplies were lost at once. Solar-powered lanterns bounced against the car’s walls and lit up the interior.
No one talked as they performed the pre-drive checkups. Gant had trained them to focus. Conversations got in the way of noticing things that needed to be noticed, and soldiers—in this case, scavengers—died as a result.
After climbing to the second tier, Gant stayed low to keep from banging his head on the autorack’s ceiling and checked the motorcycle he rode while on salvage runs. The Hayes Diversified Technologies M1030M1 built on a modified Kawasaki KLR650 frame for the United States Marine Corps. Gant had ridden them on missions in Afghanistan, and when he’d gotten back stateside after his tour with special operations teams assigned to take down Taliban strongholds, he’d bought one like it in the civilian market.
This one came from the Fort Bliss marine corps detachment in El Paso, Texas. In the early days of the Yeomra devastation, Gant had traveled to the camp hoping he would find some sort of order in the chaos opening up around him. By the time he’d reached El Paso, though, it was evident no law or military command remained. He’d taken the Hayes motorcycle because it could get almost a hundred miles to the gallon on diesel or any other trash fuel he could find or make.
When he was finished ensuring the motorcycle was road-ready, Gant tapped the red, white, and blue diamond shape that contained a chief in profile on a white star background.
“Semper Fi,” he said softly to himself, but it was for all those he’d lost in the sandbox and at home. It was his promise to always remember, and some days he thought it was the only thing that kept him from feeling completely hollow. He stood and looked around the railcar.
All of the men and women he’d picked for his team stood ready and waiting.
Gant pulled on his helmet, wired the comm to the radio in his vest, and switched on the unit. A high-pitched shriek vibrated in his skull till he adjusted the squelch.
“Radio check,” Gant announced. “Zebra Leader, check-check.”
The confirmations came in as the train noticeably slowed. Tension showed on the faces of some of the men and women in the autorack. Gant checked to make sure his M4A1 was snug in its scabbard beside the front tire.
Astride the motorcycle and facing down the ramp that extended to the ground, Gant released the brake and sped down the narrow steel support to the ground. Instead of engaging the electric starter, he released the clutch and let the gears engage to start the engine. By the time he rolled off onto the railroad track behind the train, the engine purred smoothly.
Gant stood on the pegs and throttled up to power the knobby off-road tires over the track railing onto the dry, baked landscape that fell gently away on either side of the train. He brought the motorcycle around and studied the rolling stock.
The big engine growled and panted like some half-starved beast in restraints. Thin wisps of smoke eased out of the boiler area and slid away on the light breeze. It and the cars were all painted deep blue that stood out against the landscape pretty much anywhere. If riders came back in hot, with hostile forces in tow, the train had to be easily seen. And there was no hiding the train. It was going to be seen—and heard—by anyone that came into the vicinity.
Pop-up hatches on all the railcars’ rooftops were open to allow the .50-caliber machine gunners a 360-degree field of fire. Walking sentries strode alongside the railcars and performed visual inspections while also being watchful.
Peress’s train salvage operation hadn’t been so thorough before Gant’s arrival. He took a little pride in his additions. Over the last few months rolling through the ruins of what used to be metro areas, that training and those precautions had saved lives and allowed them to return with more scavenged goods.
Gant and three other members of the team armed with handguns and assault rifles rode motorcycles and acted as scouts for the rest of the team. Four other members rode the ATVs, which were used for hauling loads through narrow alleys or out of buildings. The remaining six members of the scavenging team rode in the two lifted, 4×4 Ford king cab F-150s that were used to haul large cargos. The trucks were equipped with two 7.62mm machine guns mounted fore and aft in the spacious beds.
All of the vehicles were painted the same deep blue as the train for easy visual identification. The guards were trained to check for faces too, and no outrider returned without comm clearance.
“All right,” Gant said over the comm, “move out.” He dropped the motorcycle into first gear and released the clutch to take the lead. Beside him, Jenni Driscoll, the team’s newest recruit, matched his pace.
She was young, Latina, in her early twenties, and athletic. Before Yeomra, she had been an Olympic soccer player. They’d found her outside San Diego on the last run. She’d been living on her own and she hadn’t been quick to join up. Gant had understood and respected that. Now she wore road leathers and Kevlar like she’d been born in them. She’d hacked her black hair off, leaving it only a couple inches long so she couldn’t easily be grabbed.
He marshaled his thoughts and summoned up the details of the street maps he’d studied over the last couple days while preparing for the run today. The plan was to go in as quiet as possible, and gather whatever supplies they could find as quickly as they could.
Then they had to stay alive long enough to rendezvous with the train where it crossed East Second Street at the appropriate time.
Lumberjack crews from the train normally poured out on ATVs as well. They packed assault rifles and chainsaws. They’d take what timber they could, haul it back to the train with the ATVs, and split the wood there under the protection of the heavy machine gunners. But no trees grew in the barren landscape where the train sat waiting.
Gant lost himself to the feel of the motorcycle zipping across the rough country. Winslow lay five miles ahead, distant enough that the noise of the approaching engines and the train wouldn’t reach the ears of the living.
Or of the dead.
END CHAPTER 3.