As sunset approached, the encampment at the turnoff was rapidly expanding as vehicles arriving from the road joined those returning from Pete's. Dianna, Janie and Meg joined Daniel atop the camper, which with the truck was designated Skybox. Meg quickly estimated the fleet to be forty vehicles strong. Cars were outnumbered by vans and pickups, and there was a high proportion of heavier vehicles, ranging from a completely incongruous ice cream truck to a 30-passenger Gillig school bus. Janie pointed and laughed at an approaching old short bus painted to look distinctly like a watermelon. “Is that Laramie's bus?” Meg asked.
“So, Dr. W told you that story? Actually, no it isn't,” Dianna said. She pointed to the Gillig. “That one is. We call it Gilligan.” Meg goggled and then guffawed. “It started as a rear engine diesel bus in the fifties, probably one of the first, then someone turned it into a big motor home, and then the college rigged it up to run on a diesel-electric generator. There's solar panels on the roof, too. Lar sold it to George and Carlos eventually, but for months, he was trying to drive that thing around town. I heard he spent a grand on parking tickets alone.”
“Then what about that one?” Meg asked as the short bus drew nearer, and momentarily answered herself, “It's a band tour bus... a weird, cheap, messed-up little tour bus.” It was a Dodge truck conversion of late-forties vintage, either an early Power Wagon or one of the wartime trucks they were directly copied from. In addition to bands of light and dark green, there was purple-pink trimming that was wavy and smudged, including a solid field at the bottom that was the backdrop for the legend “HEDLEY KOW”, presumably the band's name. Various irreverent captions in very official letters were positioned in official-looking places around the bus, such as “Gov. Wallace Academy For The Ungifted”, “School of Hard Knocks”, and the evident name of the vehicle “FÄRTHER” on a placard over the windshield.
“Hedley and his band have been with us since our second week on the road. They're nice enough, their music, not so much,” Dianna said. She raised her eyebrows mischievously. “You know what's really funny? The `H' is supposed to be silent.” Janie burst into giggles. “Oh, and look over there. Recognize it?”
Meg followed a pointing finger to a large fire department station wagon, heavily chromed and polished and patriotically painted red, white and blue. “I can tell it's an ambulance,” she said, “and it looks to be late-fifties, I think a Ford. But I've never seen a grill like that. You know, it really looks like a toilet seat, or one of those ladies' urinals.”
“Yeah, it's one of those things everybody's heard of, but hardly anybody would recognize if they saw it,” Dianna said. “What you're looking at is a 1959 Edsel. That grill was actually bigger in the 1958 model, so the the later years are a bit harder to recognize. It was the last vehicle in the fire department lot. The way I heard, they hid it behind the tanker.”
“And they thought injured people were better off in an Edsel?”
“The Edsel wasn't really that bad,” Dianna said. “It just didn't live up to its own hype. And anyway, that paint job says parade duty. I think maybe they used it for a hearse.” Meg laughed.
Dianna pointed out a rustic Power Wagon, with a meshwork variation of the “longhorn” grill that had only been used in 1961, with a stake bed that was serving as a pen for a flock of goats. A horse trailer was unhitched to let the goats out, and a couple burly ranch hand types started releasing live chickens from the trailer.
“That's Horace Horsehauler,” Dianna said. She pointed to the ice cream truck and an L600 panel truck. “Those are Frosty and Chilly Willys, our refrigerated trucks. Frosty has a walk-in refrigerated compartment, and Chilly is a retired mail carrier fitted with an industrial ice maker and a shaved-ice machine. At the start, we stocked them with perishables we found at grocery stores, but most of that stuff went south months ago. Now, we use them to store eggs, milk, leftover canned goods, and any meat we can bag. It just about makes up for the power and upkeep on the refrigeration units.”
“Say,” Meg said, “why don't you use regular semis?”
“When we started, we picked up a diesel big rig and a ten-thousand gallon tanker,” Dianna said. “We called it the Purple Diesel Eater. I'm convinced it slowed us down by at least two weeks, which I suppose is all for the best to you. We not only couldn't keep it full, we couldn't even get enough extra gas to make up for what the rig was using up from our diesel stores. On top of that, it wasn't anywhere near suitable for the kinds of roads we have to deal with. The L-series is better cross-country, and also more maneuverable.”
Suddenly, Daniel snapped off two shots. Meg looked in time to see a shuffler go down a hundred yards down the road. Daniel kept his weapon up. It seemed to Meg that he actually relaxed when he saw five more following behind. He cut them down one after the other with well-aimed double-taps to the head, and when four of them rose again, he fired even more precise shots to the neck. He glanced at Meg, and answered the unasked question: “Corporal, Army special reconnaissance. I wasn't over there, that got done while I was finishing first in my class at the academy, but I wouldn't deny being in the neighborhood.”
He shot a shuffler again, and continued, “We came up from the south and east. About a month back, our scouts ran across a big group out in the desert. We slowed down to stay behind them. We wouldn't be as close as we are now, but we really needed what we're looking for here. Those, and the ones you ran into, are just the ones that wandered off from their stragglers.”
“Wait a minute,” Meg said, “I came here from the other way, and I didn't see anything like what you're talking about.”
“You wouldn't have,” Daniel said. “At the start, there were films of bunches of Jonny Revs stumbling around, bumping together and tripping over each other like it was a vaudeville act. They showed it to us as training footage, and I heard they released it to the public. All BS from the brass. They staged it with captured specimens that were already in bad shape. I'm sure at least some were deliberately mutilated to make them slow and off-balance, the way they cripple a bull before they let it in the ring with the matador. I don't know what all they did, but I can tell you, no revenant in the field ever runs into another rev. It's an instinct, it has to be, and however it works, it gets stronger when they're together in greater numbers. The more there are, the more they spread out. With the biggest groups, you could walk right through and only see a few- until and unless they come after you.”
“How often do they do that?” Meg asked.
Daniel shrugged. “All we know is, if they come after you once, they'll do it again. Always.”
Meg looked about for some other topic of conversation, and her eyes lit on a returning GMC van, which she recognized as both the same van that had driven into the station behind the Goliath and the same model she had seen on the flatbed. “Hey,” she said, “are those the same Vanduras that Carlos's Dodge got sold for?”
“The very same,” Dianna said. “I swear he took them with us just to keep trashing GMC. That one on the flat bed hasn't run in months, and we stripped anything worth saving weeks ago. It's almost like he's saving it for some kind of revenge.”
Back at Pete's, the last of the vehicles were pulling out. Carlos smiled were he stood tall in the front seat of his Thing as Flipper drove away with Teutonic poise on a set of new shocks. Then he looked to the new acquisitions as they lined up before him. There were the two RVs, the Subaru 360, the VW pickup, the Jeep van and the Power Wagon. He stepped forward and started tapping each vehicle with the side of his hammer.
“I confirm your titles as Lady Maude, Duchess of Goldbrick and Chuck, Prince of Daystar,” he said for the RVs, and continued down the line. “I dub you Princess Ladybug, Baron Van Flatbed, Lord Redbrick, and you shall henceforth be known as Dodgzilla. You have been found worthy of the fleet. Perform your duties well, and we will take good care of you. If you do not...” He slapped the hammer in the palm of his hand and then glanced expectantly in the direction of the Vandura.
“Is he nuts?” Phil said over the hiss of an acetylene torch.
“It's his aboriginal heritage,” George said, then hedged, “I think. I understand he spent most of his childhood with his parents and their tribe, before he was adopted by a white family. He doesn't talk about it much. Native Australian culture is based on animistic religion: Animals, plants and even the inanimate can be seen as having spirits with broadly anthropomorphic qualities. There are also many aspects that are a matter of symbolism and tradition, as much as literal belief...”
“I believe what the Prof's getting to,” Laramie said, “is yeah, of course he's nuts.” He lowered a mask and started a heavy buzz saw.
David N. Brown Mesa Arizona