Ultimately, we weren’t able to come up with a better solution than to tie our injured people to sleds. We had plenty of great ideas, even without Jonathan’s encyclopedic knowledge to guide us, but we had a severe lack of any kind of materials. Before the Collapse and the ensuing winter, this town had been mostly residential, catering to people passing through on their way to larger towns and the mega farms that used to coat this part of the midwest. There wasn’t a single electric engine to be found in the city and, even if we’d had gasoline, a combustion engine would make us the target of literally everything for miles around, so none of the tractor repair shops could help us.
All of our great ideas were useless, so we stuck to building light-weight wooden sleds with wide runners. They were much bulkier than our typical supply sleds, but we needed to put children and injured adults on them so they had to be. The upside of this was that multiple people could now pull a sled, allowing us to put a little more weight on them than we’d been able to do with the supply sleds. There’d be no mistaking the trail for anything but a large group of people, but we had enough guns and ammo to spray bullets at every problem until they went away.
Material gathering and design took a day, and sled production began in earnest three days after we buried our friends. I’d done some carpentry when I was younger, so I was able to lend our engineer, Jackson, a hand with overseeing the rest of the Wayfinders. We also had a Nomad who used to be a construction carpenter, so we finished the sleds a week before we had to leave.
It felt nice to be able to limp into the small storage room Natalie, Lucas, Camille and I used as our command center with good news. As I hobbled in the door, I smiled at my three friends and waved my free arm triumphantly. “All of the sleds are finished and have passed their preliminary drag tests. We can get four people on a single sled and we should be able to pull all of the Nomad children on one and the injured Wayfinders and supplies on the other without straining ourselves.”
Natalie looked up from her maps and reports. “Eight people? We’re not going to get much in the way of rotation if we need eight people per pulling shift.”
“Sure, but that should mean the shifts can be longer.” I stroked my beard for effect before tossing out the plan I came up with during the drag tests. “Or we can create two groups of two pullers per sled, so we can have five groups per sled rather than just the two. Two hours of pulling followed by three hours of just walking means that they only have to pull four hours out of our ten-hour schedule.”
Natalie absently nodded. “Ten hour days are the minimum, but they should get us there with a week of three-quarters rations to spare, even with the children sticking to full rations.”
“Plus, we won’t need to keep injured adults on the sleds the entire time.” Lucas leaned forward and gingerly tapped the swath of bandages around his leg. “I’ll be good to go about a week out from here, at the latest. Tim and Miles probably won’t be good to walk until after we get to the depot, but everyone else should be by the time I am.”
Camille snorted. “If you’re healed enough to walk before the depot, I will literally kiss my own ass.”
“I’m telling you, this isn’t as bad as it looks!” Lucas slapped his leg waved his crutch at Camille. “I’m just babying it so I can heal faster. Better than Marshall who is up and walking on his leg constantly.” Lucas stabbed his crutch at me and I shrugged. “He won’t even sit down for the end-of-day briefing.”
I shot a guilty look at the chair Camille had set out for me, but shook my head. “I have been sitting all day in the woodshop or the yard. If I have to sit through this, I’m going to gnaw my feet off in frustration. Plus, I haven’t accidentally burst my own stitches twice since getting sewn up and I didn’t get all the muscles in my thigh shredded by a poorly made bullet.”
Lucas opened his mouth to retort, but Camille cut him off. “Tiffany and I have been keeping watch. We haven’t seen any signs of the bandits and Laborers we sent away and I wasn’t able to find a trace of them in the city less than four days old. I’m guessing they moved somewhere else. I couldn’t tell you where, but I know it isn’t the direction we’re going.”
I took a deep breath and nodded. “Good. Did you still want extra guards? Now that the sleds are built, we won’t need as many people to finish up our last few building projects.”
“Yeah. Even just two people would be great. I’d like to cut down on the length of the shifts Tiff and I are taking and I’ve got a personal project I’d like to work on before we leave.”
“Yeah?” I arched my eyebrows.
“Yeah.” Camille crossed her arms. “It shouldn’t take more than a handful of days, even if I don’t lose any sleep or shifts to it.”
“What is it?” I waggled my eyebrows, trying to get a reaction from Camille. Lucas chuckled as he always did, but Natalie didn’t even look up from her papers.
“Am I going to regret giving you permission?”
“Probably not. I think you’ll enjoy the end result, even if it’s going to be a little dangerous.”
“If I set things up right, and I always do,” Camille leaned forward and looked me right in the eyes, face serious as she ignored my bouncing eyebrows, “it will be perfectly safe to all of our people and one hundred percent lethal to the bandits who come racing back in here as soon as they know we’ve left.
“Ah.” I stopped wiggling my eyebrows and Lucas’ chuckles cut off. “Let me know if you need more than two guards so you can get that done. I’d prioritize it higher, if you can.”
Natalie looked up. “Really?”
“Yes.” I glanced at Natalie. “I don’t want to run the risk that this place goes back to being a base for people preying on people traveling through here.” I turned my attention back to Camille, my face a match for hers. “Whatever it takes.” Camille simply nodded.
“Great!” Lucas hauled himself to his feet and settled his weight on his crutch. “Now that we’ve gotten everything sorted out for today, I’m going to grab some dinner and hit the hay. I’m bushed.”
Natalie nodded and started picking up her papers. I gave her a hand while Camille pushed all of the chairs to the side of the room. While I helped Natalie sort through the messy pile we’d made, Camille helped Lucas out of the room and shut the door behind her. Abandoning the pretense of being busy, I reached out and embraced Natalie. She hugged me back before firmly pushing me in the chair I’d been ignoring.
“Let’s get your leg checked out.”
“I can do it just fine, thank you.” I set my crutch aside and started rolling up my pant leg.
“No, you idiot.” Natalie slapped my hand away. “You’re going to pull all your bandages off if you roll it up. You need to take your pants off.”
“Only if you take off yours.” I winked at Natalie.
Natalie chuckled but shook her head. “Not right now. I’ve got to oversee rationing for dinner and check out our medical stores. I need to know how much longer you’re going to need bandages.”
“Oh, I see how it is.” I pulled my belt off and slid down my pants. “You’re just interested in what’s in my pants, not me.”
“Yep.” Natalie poked at my leg and peeled back a couple of my bandages to inspect the healing wounds behind them. “That’s me. Only interested in one thing. Definitely not concerned with your well-being at all.”
“I bet you say that to all the injured people who let you into their pants.”
“I’ve had a lot of practice. Now put your pants back on. We can check your injuries again later, once I’m finished updating all our stock logs with the supplies we retrieved today.” Natalie winked at me.
I sighed as I carefully pulled my pants back up and cinched my belt tight. “If you want. I’m still pretty wiped so I don’t know if I’ve got enough in me for more than jokes tonight.”
“Marshall!” Natalie gasped in mock surprise as she helped me to my feet, temporarily taking the place of my crutch as we hobbled toward the door. “You really are getting old!”
I laughed and hugged her tightly before stepping out the door and putting my weight back on my crutch. “Maybe I am! Only time will tell, if it hasn’t already.”
Natalie patted my arm and kissed me on the cheek before rushing off to the supply rooms and kitchen with her neat stack of papers. I hobbled after her, a bit more slowly, and waited in the mess hall for whatever dinner tonight’s cooks managed to cobble together.
The next six days passed in a blur. I took up a couple of guard rotations between shifts helping build crates, repair packs, and create tents to replace the ones that had been lost during our capture. Camille disappeared entirely for two days, only to reappear and refuse to answer questions about where she went. Lucas’ wound continued to heal slowly and the two heavily injured Wayfinders finally stabilized to the point of not needing constant observation. By the time we packed up to leave, it was our last night and we were all looking forward to our last properly cooked meal before we ventured out into the cold.
It was a somber affair, as it wound up as a cross between a memorial dinner for the people we lost and a last chance to eat well before the cold and snow forced us to live off of pre-cooked or dried meat and whatever grains we could soak in snowmelt. It was a quiet, sleepy group that set out the following morning, but I could tell everyone was ready to move on. We’d lost a lot, getting here, and everyone just wanted to find someplace safe they could rest until the pain of our losses had started to fade.
Until then, we had four weeks of travel between us and the depot with only five weeks of supplies. Five weeks beyond that lay the safety and shelter of Chicago. If we weren’t delayed, we’d make it with a week and a half before the next storm was supposed to pass. If we were delayed, we were probably going to get caught in a blizzard and wind up dead. It was a sobering thought, but I had faith in Natalie’s plotting. Nothing short of a complete disaster could affect her overall plan and, knowing her, she’d build in enough extra time to account for two such disasters.
I tried to project that confidence as we set out, but it was difficult to do that while strapping a few injured Wayfinders to a sled reminding them that they were responsible for watching our backs. My limp didn’t help, either. I didn’t need a crutch anymore and we’d replaced the few stitches I had with superglue, but it still hurt to move around too much so I was constantly fighting the pain. I’m pretty sure all I projected was a slight amount of frustration mixed with determination to get moving.
Thankfully, everyone seemed to be on the same page so we managed to get under way quickly. We had a long way to go, but it immediately seemed shorter once we got moving. I felt everyone’s spirits lift as we left the town and people saw how easily the sleds moved. In fact, as we completed our first mile outside the city, people started to seem downright happy.
Just as I was about to call out a shift change, though, there was a tremendous explosion behind us, followed shortly by the “whump” of the blastwave flying past us. Thankfully, all it did was startle everyone and knock a couple people over. As the Nomads ran to their children to quiet them, I turned to Camille.
“They didn’t wait very long.” Camille gestured over her shoulder at the giant cloud of smoke rising towards the sky. “They had a lot of dynamite stored up for digging out the underground areas. Now, there’s none left.” Camille shrugged and smiled. “And now there’s no more bandit base.”
I watched the cloud of smoke for a moment longer before turning my attention back to my people. “Alright, first shift change. Let’s get back to moving again. I don’t want stick around to find out what shows up to investigate that explosion.” I saw a few heads nod and, a few moments later, everyone was moving forward again, even faster than before. No one else wanted to find out, either.