Ranya awoke before it was fully light, stiff from sleeping on the hard and uneven ground. She unwrapped herself from the blanket, stood and stretched while surveying the desolate landscape. She breakfasted on bottled water and saltine crackers from the pack, and then quickly brushed her newly cut hair and rolled up the blanket. She had slept fully clothed and was ready in a few minutes.
She walked back to the cracked asphalt road and picked a hidden location, sitting Indian-style behind the desiccated carcass of a road-killed steer, where she could observe any cars coming in the distance from either direction. The grim mound was disgusting, but there was not enough other natural cover near the road to screen her from view in broad daylight. The dried animal was literally skin over bones, and long past being a source of interest to either insects or vultures. The steer's skull had become detached from the rest of the remains, and was picked clean and bleached white. Only when she was certain that an approaching vehicle was not a cop, would she stand and step out to hitch a westbound ride. If the police had been alerted to her escape, she knew that a young female hitchhiking on a rural Texas two lane road would draw their immediate attention.
It was eighteen hours since Starr Linssen had drawn her final breath of water and foam. Ranya was guessing that by now the police in all of the states around Oklahoma would be searching for her, even if their hunt was not publicly announced on the radio.
It was over twenty miles to the safe haven the truck driver had suggested. If she had not heard any news accounts of escaped prisoners on her mini radio, then the odds were that neither had any other ordinary civilians who were out driving today, and presumably, it would be safe for her to catch a ride. Otherwise, it would be an all day hike across sage land and cattle country. She unzipped her tan pants legs, took off her black sweatshirt, and stowed them in her pack.
A dark sedan appeared from the east, a possible police cruiser, so Ranya lowered her head, her huddled form blending in with the steer carcass. A black Mercedes flew past at better than 90 miles per hour, the driver unseen behind tinted windows. Other cars passed but she was afraid they might be police, so she stayed hidden. Almost two hours later a camper came into view, a boxy RV with an extension over the cab. Ranya weighed her chances, and stepped to the edge of the blacktop, waving her arms enthusiastically. The camper drove past with a small push of air, and then came to a stop several hundred yards beyond her. The taillights blinked indecision as Ranya slung on her pack and ran after it.
The big camper had a faded green and white body like a bloated cocoon. A sleeping area extended out over what appeared to be the vestigial front of a full-sized van. The camper was made even taller by the addition of antennas and cargo on top. Metal and plastic Jerry cans and a pair of bicycles were strapped in racks along the back.
The front side window was down when Ranya jogged up alongside the weathered RV. The passenger was a plump black woman somewhere past sixty years old, wearing a gold velour tracksuit and a purple crocheted cap. The driver was a thin bald black man at least as old, staring out at her through gold-framed glasses. He was gawking and grinning through ill-fitting dentures, but his wife inspected Ranya more skeptically. She said, "Sorry to make you run so far, but we had to be sure you were alone."
"No problem, I understand." Ranya had already rehearsed what she would say. She assumed the most fresh-faced college girl smile possible under the circumstances, considering that she had slept on the ground in the same clothes she had worn since yesterday. A tiny statue of Jesus glued to their dashboard buoyed her spirit. "You wouldn't be heading to Barlow's Creek by any chance, would you?"
The old driver said, "We sure are, Missy! You're in luck, because that's right where we're going today." He was wearing a white short-sleeved shirt and gray pants. His left hand was on the steering wheel; his right hand was out of sight behind the woman's ample hips. No doubt he was prudently holding a gun, Ranya thought.
The woman looked Ranya up and down and asked, "Lord, what happened to you?"
"My car died last night, back on 287. I walked as far as I could. I have friends at Barlow's campground. If I can make it there, I'll be fine."
The husband was nodding, already convinced. The wife studied Ranya and then said, "Well...I see. It's tight up here in front--there's no room for your pack. So let's throw it in the back, and then you can sit up here with us. How's that sound?"
"Wonderful!" She put her hand out, and shook their hands through the open window. She understood that they wanted her sitting in front with them, to keep an eye on her. It didn't matter, she was just glad for the lift. She would have cheerfully sat on the roof with the other strapped-on cargo.
"Well, okay then," said the woman. "And I can get you some orange juice and something to eat. I don't guess you've had breakfast yet today?"
"No ma'am, just crackers and a little water. Breakfast sounds great."
"I'll bet it does, honey, I'll just bet it does."
In a minute, her pack was in the back of the RV, and she was up front sitting in the middle between them. There was a cloth napkin spread across her lap, she was enjoying canned juice and biscuits with strawberry jelly, as they rolled west at a steady sixty miles per hour.
The woman said, "By the way, my name's Olivia, and that's my husband, Melvin."
Ranya didn't hesitate to give them an assumed name, her last false name from before her arrest. "I'm Diana. Diana Williams." This was the name from her long-gone counterfeit Canadian passport. Now the name held only sentimental value to her, from her last period of living in freedom, down in Colombia on the sailboat with Phil Carson.
"Pleased to meet you, Diana. We're coming from Houston, heading to Utah. We just couldn't stand living around Houston anymore. We just couldn't take it. It got too dangerous, too crazy. No way for civilized folks to live. We lived in New Orleans all our lives until the flood in oh-five, and then we thought we'd finish our days in Houston, but there's no way, no way at all."
"You were in the flood?"
Olivia answered, "No honey, when they said get out, we got out. We were in Baton Rouge in this very camper when Katrina hit, but we lost our house. Thank God, we had some insurance so we could start again in Houston. But then Houston went right straight downhill too, even without a flood."
Melvin said, "We finally figured if we were going to get shot or stabbed anyway, it might as well be on the way to the free states. So we decided to go for broke and make a run for it. We hoarded up all the gas we could, and when we had enough, we loaded up and we left. We bolted. We just walked away from our new house, we just up and left it behind. Gave it back over to the bank, I guess. Or the looters? Now we're heading for a safe place to live out the rest of our lives. We hear Utah's a safe place, a God-fearing place, even if they have a funny religion. That's all we want--a God-fearing place."
"We just want peace," said Olivia. "If we got to spend the rest of our days in this camper, then so be it. And if we don't make it, well, it's better than staying in South Texas, getting robbed every other week, waiting for one of them gangs to kill us for what little we got left in our pantry."
"I don't care if it does get cold up there in the free states," said Melvin. "I just want to live free again, that's all. Free from being afraid all the time."
His wife nodded agreement.
Barlow's Creek was a makeshift RV campground on a private ranch, visible from the state road. It stretched along one bank of a marshy stream that bisected endless miles of scrub prairie and cattle grazing land. Beyond the paved road, a dirt track led to a barbed wire fence, and a cattle guard made from pieces of railroad track.
Next to the break in the fence, a middle-aged guard sat on a lawn chair, beneath an awning made from a gray plastic tarp. A bike leaned against the last fence post. The man stood up from his chair at the approach of the new camper. He had a revolver openly holstered on the belt of his cutoff shorts, and he wore a gray Texas Rangers t-shirt tucked in under it. He carried a notebook and a walkie-talkie as he walked over to greet them.
"You folks ever been here before?" he asked the driver, studying the unusual trio composed of an older black couple and a young white woman.
"Nope, first time," Melvin answered.
"Where you coming from?"
"Down by Houston."
"Houston huh? Any of you all been east of the Mississippi in the last two years? No?" He studied them closely, gave each of them a long hard look, and they each replied that they had not.
"Well then, fine. Here's the camp rules. Read them, and then put your John Hancock here on the next line in my book. We don't have enough copies of the rules left to give you one to keep, so read it and hand it back." The gate guard passed over a well-worn sheet of paper with a dozen numbered sentences printed on it, and then he began to rattle them off from memory.
"You can only stay three weeks. If you like it, you gotta leave for a week, and then come back. This keeps the grass fresh, and we don't wind up with broken-down heaps that can't move. We don't want homesteaders or squatters--this here is a transit camp. Cost is eighty dollars cash a day, for now, subject to change any time the boss feels like it. If you want, we can take barter in ammunition, gold, silver, canned goods...all the usual stuff. We don't take credit cards, debit cards, E-bucks or bank checks, so don't even ask.
"It's an open-carry camp, but if we think you're unsafe with your weapons, you'll be politely asked to leave. You can carry concealed if you prefer, but nobody cares either way. You can drink, and you can shoot at our range, but if you drink and fool around with guns at the same time, you'll be run out of here pronto. You can only shoot on the range, during range hours, nowhere else. We got a mobile sewage pump out, the cost is reasonable, and if you dump on the ground--well, don't. We keep quiet hours from ten PM to seven AM, and that means no motorcycles, generators or loud music or even talking that bothers anybody. They're pretty reasonable rules, and you don't look like jerks anyway. I think you'll like it here. You plan on staying a full three weeks?"
"Not sure," replied Melvin. "We're heading to Utah, once we figure out the safest way there. New Mexico's out and we're not too sure about Colorado." The gate guard offered, "Lots of people are heading that way, so you'll find plenty of company if you want it. Folks 'convoy up' here. Convoys leave all the time. You can even find gas, if you have enough cash or anything worthwhile to trade. I think you'll make out fine. You made it here from Houston, so the worst is behind you. If you can find gas along the way, you'll make it the rest of the way to Utah, no problem."
"Praise be! That's mighty welcome news, mister," replied the driver. Visible relief flowed into all three of the visitors at the prospect of a layover in a safe refuge.
"I'll lead you to your spot now; it's a nice grassy place. Just follow behind me, okay?" He turned and spoke into his two-way radio, then clipped it onto his belt and mounted his bike.
They drove in at the guard's unhurried cycling speed, jouncing down a dirt track with tents, trailers and RVs on both sides. Most sprouted a wide variety of antennas, solar panels and wind generators mounted on top. The wind generators all whirred madly, their sounds merging from one campsite to the next. Everywhere, flags were whipping back on the breeze: Texas Lone Star flags, the Stars and Stripes, several yellow Gadsden "Don't Tread On Me" flags, and other banners in every color and dimension. Specific state flags appeared among clusters of RVs, evidence of regional clannishness, or convoy intentions.
Ranya asked, "Why did he want to know if we'd been east of the Mississippi?"
"Are you putting me on?" asked Olivia, turning to look at her. "Cameroon Fever, what do you think? But ain't none of us got them poxy scars, thank the Lord."
Ranya simply said, "Oh, yeah. Of course," and let it drop. She had heard rumors from new D-Camp prisoners about a lethal epidemic that had swept through Florida and Georgia, but didn't know how far it had spread. Evidently, traveling east of the Mississippi put one into a greater risk category, at least as far as Texans were concerned. The RV continued to follow the gate guard on his bicycle, swaying and bumping along the path.
Kids rode bikes, chased one another on foot, played catch and threw Frisbees. Their camper passed a wide bend in the creek, where a few people waded and splashed in the sluggish water between cattail covered banks. They passed a redheaded woman riding a mountain bike in the other direction; she had an AR-15 carbine slung nonchalantly across her back, its muzzle down. She exchanged waves and hellos with the gate guard on his bicycle. The staccato popping sound of pistol and rifle shots could be heard in the distance.
The woman beside Ranya asked, "Honey, do you see your friends yet? What kind of a rig do they have?"
"Not yet," she lied. "They should be here, somewhere. At least, that's what they told me last week. We haven't seen half the place yet. They're around here somewhere, I'm sure. I'll just ask around, I'm sure I'll find them. So listen, thanks for the ride, but I don't want to impose on your hospitality?"
The woman smiled and said, "Nonsense, honey, it's no trouble. If you need?"
"If I know my friends, they'll be hanging out at the shooting range. If you let me out now, I'll just walk out there."
"Well that's fine, if that's what you want," said the woman. "But listen...first let me finish cutting your hair: it's kind of rough in the back."
"Olivia's right, honey," said her husband, chuckling. "If you're going on the lam, you'll need a better hair-do. If you didn't cut it yourself, I'd say your hair stylist needs to find a new line of work."
"Is it that obvious?"
"Sure it is honey child, but who cares?" responded the woman, turning more serious. "We're all escaping from something these days, ain't we? Well, join the club. And if you don't find your friends, you're welcome to stay with us for a time. We'll squeeze you in--it'll be tight, but it'll be all right. The good Lord will provide."