“Yes. By marriage,” Leo said. “We didn’t know your husband took your little girl by force, but I figured I’d better collect you. Don’t want you bringing the marines down on us before we get the situation straightened out.”
“What do you mean by ‘straightened out’?”
Leo shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s out of my hands. We may send your daughter home tomorrow morning, but only if we know it won’t bring the marines down on us. Living in Bear Country is illegal.”
“So you know it's illegal to live over here.”
“Yep. It's against a bunch of laws, treaties, executive orders, and probably some local ordinances,” Leo said. “But sometimes we obey a higher law.”
“The laws are to keep Bear Country animals from learning to be afraid of people,” Sharon said. “That would make them harder to catch if they got loose in The World.”
“So I've been told,” Leo said. He turned away and concentrated on his driving.
Leo didn’t pull a gun on Sharon. Sharon thought about trying to use her martial arts skills to overpower the man. She decided against that. A fight could easily wreck the truck, and Leo’s overwhelming size advantage would be hard to counter at close quarters. She leaned back and tried to relax.
Leo looked over at her. “If you don't get ice on your jaw you won’t be able to open your mouth tomorrow.”
“Where would I get ice over here?”
“Good question. Maybe we’ll have it in a few years. For now we’ll try cold water.” Leo studied her face. “You would look good minus the bruise and with a smile.”
“You won’t see that for a while.”
“Maybe.” He kept looking at her.
“What are you looking at?”
“I like the way the sun plays through your hair—turns it from brown to auburn.” A smile wavered onto Sharon’s face then faded. The tall man turned away. “Sorry.”
They rode silently for a few minutes, then Leo said, “You’ll be okay. Don’t worry.”
“The DJ on Rockport’s radio station said that nothing is what it seems out here,” Sharon said. “I’m starting to believe him.”
Leo said, “He’s right. Absolutely nothing is what it seems out here. No one is who they seem out here. Trust no one.”
“Not even you?”
Leo grinned. “You know the answer to that, or you think you do. Even there, remember that there are wheels within wheels, lies within lies.”
Sharon looked at the ruts ahead of her. “So nothing is what it seems. Here is something that doesn’t make sense. Your trucks have reinforced suspensions. You were ready to move out into Bear Country in less than eight hours. I thought no one could predict an Exchange until three hours before they happened. You didn’t prepare for this in three hours.”
“No, we didn’t.”
Sharon waited for him to continue, but he didn’t. Instead he asked, “Know anything about the Wickes brothers?”
“I went to school with Joe Wickes,” Sharon said. “He's a nice guy. Darrel tried to pick a fight with him once—drunk and stupid as usual. Joe walked away when he could have pounded Darrel, and should have. I can't believe Joe's living in a rusty old trailer with the other brothers and their wives. I heard they use an outdoor toilet.”
“And they drive with no driver's license or registration, doing everything else they can to thumb their nose at the law,” Leo said.
“That's Anthony Wickes' doing. He's like another Sister West, only maybe even more nuts,” Sharon said. “He thinks the government is out to get him, so he does everything he can to make that true. He may try to join you out here.”
“If he does he'll regret it,” Leo said. “So what does Sharon Mack do back in The World?”
“Computer stuff. Hardware, software, low-level stuff,” Sharon said. “I used to be a real get down to the hardware and tweak the bare metal kind of girl, but now I mostly do support.”
“A techie. You don't look like a techie.”
Sharon shrugged. “What does a techie look like?”
“I don't really know,” Leo said. “Maybe you could help if we have trouble with the stuff we have in the back.”
Sharon glanced at the back of the truck. “What are we carrying?”
“Solar cell panels,” Leo said. “This truck represents about five percent of our electricity.”
“Just five percent?” Sharon asked. “How many trucks did you have?”
“I’m afraid I can’t tell you that,” Leo said. “Solar cells are the key to making it over here. They’re expensive and they don’t give a lot of power, but they’ll keep giving it any time the sun’s out for the next twenty-plus years. By that time we’ll have built up enough to make our own sources of power.”
“What about night time and cloudy days?” Sharon looked up at the sky. “Speaking of clouds, have you ever seen anything like that?”
Leo took one look at a towering mass of clouds approaching from the southwest, and then stopped the truck. “I’ll need your help! We have to get a tarp over the solar panels and tie it down. We’ll remember it when we decide on your daughter.”
Sharon hesitated, then got out and ran to help Leo with the tarp.
Thunder rumbled, and the air suddenly got much colder and wetter. Sharon secured her part of the tarp and ran on to the next section. She found herself beside Leo, their hands touching as they worked to tie the tarp. The clouds went in front of the sun, and the afternoon suddenly looked like dusk. A few large, heavy raindrops fell. Lightning flashed, followed almost immediately by a clap of thunder, then by a gust of wind. A line of rain came toward them at freight train speed across the savanna. The rain hit them, almost instantly soaking and partially blinding them.
They tried to keep working, but marble-sized hail began pelting them. Leo hesitated, tied one last rope, and then tapped Sharon on the shoulder. They ran to the truck cab and hopped in, dripping and followed by nearly horizontal rain.
Leo leaned back and yelled over the noise of the storm, “It’s a bad one. I’ve only seen it get that dark that fast one other time, and I’m glad I wasn’t outside then.”
The wind shook the truck. A gust raised something in the back and let it slam back down. Leo shook his head. “Solar panel is like a sail. I hope we got them down tight.”
Sharon started shivering as her adrenaline flowed away. Leo took off his soaked shirt, pulled her over and put it over both of them. Sharon moved closer. Leo pulled her head down onto his chest. She could feel hard, bare ridges of stomach muscle under her hand. Leo brushed a strand of her hair out of her face, and then gently stroked her wet brown hair. She looked up and met his eyes. He half-smiled, moved a fraction of an inch toward her lips, then closed his eyes, sighed, and leaned back.
She started to pull away, then put her head back on his chest. She closed her eyes. I didn’t want him to kiss me. An image sprang into her mind of him continuing the slow movement of his lips toward hers—of lips touching. She tried to push that image out of her head, but part of her mind held and savored it. After a minute or two, she raised her head. “What’s that?”
“Rain. Wind. Thunder. Oh wait, it’s hailing again.”
The hail came down with increasing force. Sharon looked up after a particularly loud impact. “It’s pitting the glass. If this keeps up we may have to walk back.”
“No. You really don’t want to be on foot in Bear Country after dark. Speaking of which, it looks like it could rain all night.” Leo sighed. “I would drive on but I can’t see ten feet in front of me.”
He started the truck and turned on the heater. “We can’t let it run too long or we’ll run out of gas.”
They huddled together in their wet clothes. Sharon said, "It sure got dark in a hurry." Thunder crashed very close to them, and she felt Leo jump at the sound. "At least you're human. I was beginning to wonder."
The thunderstorm continued through the evening and into the night. Leo let the truck run for fifteen minutes every hour. He found a thin, tattered blanket in an emergency kit and they wrapped that around them. That helped some, but they were both shivering soon after the heater stopped. Finally Leo sat up. “This isn’t working. I could probably make it, but you need to get out of those wet clothes.”
Sharon pulled away. “That would be a no.”
Leo smiled. “I know. You don’t trust me. Why should you? That’s why I’m giving you back your pistol, fully loaded. No tricks. I don’t want you to die of exposure.”
Sharon took the weapon, checked to make sure it was loaded, and then put it on the seat beside her. She stripped to her underwear and put her clothes in front of the heater vents. She moved back to her side of the cab, but Leo reached over and gently pulled her back to him. “For tonight—just for tonight, consider me just a way of keeping warm.”
The thunder and rain eased off from time-to-time, but new lines of thunderstorms kept coming. Wind and rain lashed the truck, and thunder cracked sharply, uncomfortably near the truck. In spite of the storm, Sharon’s body gradually relaxed against Leo’s. Eventually the rain fell into a soothing rhythm. After a time she realized that she had dozed off. She frantically reached back for the pistol.
“It’s still there,” Leo said. “No tricks. Not tonight.”
“That's what the first guy I kissed said before the kiss, after which he tried to get me to sleep with him,” Sharon said. “Didn’t want to take no for an answer.”
Sharon looked up at Leo, “I sure know how to pick them, don’t I? Darrel, and Sam Kittle--”
“Sam Kittle,” Leo said. “That's a name I've heard before. One of the escaped convicts. And he was---”
“Yes, he was my first kiss,” Sharon said. “Not a really great choice, huh?”
Leo shrugged. “The pistol is still there and still loaded.”
“I believe you.”
Sharon dozed off again. Sometime later she was vaguely aware of firm ridges of muscles against the front of her body. Her arms were moving slowly across masculine flesh, massaging the cold away. She felt the response as her hands moved, and her own body started to respond. Then she woke up a little more and stopped her hands abruptly. Leo sat up and pulled away from her. "You might not want to do that. I’m here to keep you warm tonight, but I’m not made out of stone.”
“I’m not.” Leo took her hands in his. “But let’s just sleep now, okay?”
They sat in the darkness. A silence grew between them, not uncomfortable but with a certain tension. Finally, Sharon heard Leo’s breathing get slower and deeper. As she tried to fall back asleep, her mind darted uncomfortably between images—from Darrel in one of his many mean drunks with Allyssa huddling terrified, to the balding convict’s head bouncing off a rock, then to Sam Kittle and the kiss.
It stopped raining at some point, but the night went on and on. Sharon wasn’t aware of going back to sleep, but she must have because when she opened her eyes the first hints of dawn showed in the now clear sky. A wolf howled, shockingly close. Sharon looked out the window and saw movement outside the truck. She reached back and picked up her pistol. A dog-like face with piercing pale blue eyes appeared inches from the passenger-side window.
Leo whispered, “Amber wolves. They’re probably just curious.”
The wolf stood on its hind legs and looked Sharon in the eye. It sniffed at the window and then walked around the truck. Finally it made a complex twittering sound and walked away. Several dozen other wolves joined the curious one. They trotted to a low hill and sat there watching the truck. Sharon hastily pulled her still damp clothes back on.
Leo sat up and put his shirt back on. He looked at Sharon with a hint not of coldness, but of distance. “It’s light enough that we can go on now. I hope your husband and daughter are ok.”
“I hope Sister West and her daughter are ok too.”
Sharon stiffened. “Daughter?”
“Allison,” Leo said. “Allison West. You’ll like her, for a while.”
“Who knows? You may be kindred spirits. I doubt it though. If Darrel is the one I think he is, then you and Allison may have a common relationship. If you don’t mind me asking, what was the problem with you and Darrel?”
“I’m not twenty anymore,” Sharon said. “I need more from a guy than a nice car, a flat stomach, and a good line of bull. I don’t want my daughter to see a perpetually broke and drunk man as what the men in her life should be like.”
“Yet the Church of the Second Chance shapes people like that into responsible members of our community,” Leo said. “Everyone in it has a past that they are trying to improve on.”
“And what do you have in your past?”
Leo sat upright. “I’ve been investigated for murder twice. Both times it was ruled self-defense.”
“Was it really self-defense?”
His lips smiled. “God and I know. That’s enough.”
The amber wolves kept their distance from the truck when Leo started it, but they kept pace with it, howling or twittering from time-to-time. The rain turned the route to Sister West’s new compound into a treacherous obstacle course. Leo steered the truck in wide detours around mud and standing water. He shook his head. “I’m worried about a couple of low spots. With this much rain they’ll be tricky. One’s coming up in a few minutes.”
The truck came to the crest of a long gentle hill and started down a steeper slope on the other side. Leo steered the truck toward a relatively high spot between two oxbow lakes. Waist-high grass made it hard to see where the lakes ended and solid ground began.
“This is one of the spots,” Leo said. “Looks like a river used to flow through here, but it changed its course years ago. Definitely muddy but we should be able to get through if we keep up our momentum.”
The truck skidded as it hit a mud puddle mostly hidden by grass and fish-tailed. Leo controlled the skid and they made it through a low spot, but then the front tires hit a shallow gully. The gully was only a foot or two deep but the truck bottomed out. It lost much of its momentum and bogged down when it hit the other side of the gully. Leo tried to back up, but the truck remained stuck. He got out and pushed, with Sharon steering, but the truck just bogged down more. Finally he shook his head. “We're wasting gas. Turn off the engine.”
Sharon got out of the truck and waded over to him through the mud and wet grass. She felt ice-cold water seep into her shoes. The amber wolves still kept their distance, testing the air and watching Sharon and Leo with their pale blue eyes. Leo said, “I hear something.”
Leo held up his hand for silence. Sharon listened intently. There was a faint but deep rumbling sound in the distance—deep enough to be thunder but continuous. The amber wolves howled in unison. The rumbling seemed to get closer. Sharon looked at Leo. “What is that? A tornado?”
Leo shook his head. “I don’t think so. The sky’s wrong.”
Sharon felt the ground start to vibrate under her feet. The amber wolves ran uphill, away from the truck. “Wolves have good instincts. Why did they do that? Is it a stampede? Buffalo? Mammoths?”
Leo shook his head. “I don’t think so. It’s something else. Wait a second. Flashflood!”
“In the Midwest?”
“The Exchange must have blocked the river. It’s breaking through into the old riverbed. Come on!” He started toward the high ground.
Sharon hesitated. “What about the truck? The solar panels?”
A nine-foot tall wall of water and uprooted trees surged into sight through the scrubby trees and rushed along the low area directly toward the truck. Water hit and smashed a little grove of trees, adding the smashed wood to the swirling mass of debris. Sharon ran toward the high ground, her feet slowed by the deep mud. She fell, and a strong hand lifted her to her feet. Leo yelled, “We won’t make it! Back to the truck! It may shield us from the debris!”
They ran to the side of the truck away from the onrushing water and grabbed the side. Sharon looked at the wall of water, and then at Leo. “This isn’t going to work, is it?”
Leo shook his head and yelled over the roar, “Get a good breath. Hold on as long as you can. Stay below the windows because the glass will go flying. When the water hits, try to stay deep as long as you can. Don’t give up.” He put an arm around her and grabbed the door handle. She looked up at his face, inches away from her and kissed him just as the wall of water hit the truck.