A sample of a short story prequel to End Game, Dust of Kansas.
Interesting fact: Fort Leavenworth Kansas is home to the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, which offers a number of master’s degree programs in military science. The majority of students are ‘mid-career’ Army officers — ranks Major, Lt. Colonel, and Colonel — with a smattering of inter-agency, international, and inter-service students. Fort Leavenworth lies on the Missouri River, about 30 miles north of Kansas City.
Emma MacLaren, recovering army wife, looked around the kitchen judiciously. All the newly stocked cabinets were closed, cooking utensils at the ready. She nodded approval of a job well done. “Well, that’s the last of your crap stowed away. Welcome home, Emmett. And welcome to the Midwest, Cam, John.” She smiled warmly at her son’s new room-mates.
“Thank you, Momma,” crooned Major Emmett MacLaren, giving her a peck on the cheek. “See guys? Told you I had a pro army wife.” There was no mistaking the resemblance between mother and son, from the twangy Ozark accents, to bushy brown hair, craggy tanned features, and wiry buffed strength. Though at 53, Emma looked far too young to have a 34-year-old son.
“Uh-huh,” Emma said, mock-scowling at her only child. “But not your wife, Emmett. Men can learn to do this crap on their own. And don’t forget to mind the chickens out back.”
“We have chickens?” Major Cam Cameron asked, surprised. Blond, handsome, earnest, fastidiously dressed and erect of posture, Cam was only a couple years younger than Emmett, but looked wholly too young for his new oak leaves.
“Six,” Emmett confirmed. “Should be enough eggs for three of us. I’ll introduce you later. So what else do we need, Momma?”
“Supermarket for supplies and food. Basic furniture for Cam and John – beds, dressers, desks, desk chairs, lamps,” Emma replied, considering. “Emmett only has linens for full-size beds,” she cautioned the other two. “And whatever else you want. You’ve got two kids, right, John? Maybe a second daybed.” She stopped, considering. “You could buy new if you want, but... Seen the Okie camp down by the river yet?”
“Last year,” agreed Emmett, subdued.
Last year, Emmett alone of the new room-mates had been here at Command School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He’d taken ILE, Intermediate Level Education, required of Army Majors seeking battalion-level command or staff positions. Cam was here for that now. Emmett and John would attend SAMS this year, the School of Advanced Military Studies, a post-ILE master’s degree program focused on planning complex inter-service operations.
Emma nodded, lips pursed. “You should see the camp again. Let’s go shopping down by the river.”
Coast Guard Captain John Niedermeyer, bald and virile and a good dozen years older than his new room-mates, frowned. “We were warned that was a dangerous area. Race riots?”
“Uh-huh. Lotta that going around,” replied Emma. “Good thing you got a county sheriff to protect you then, huh?”
Emmett smiled crookedly, as the other two officers looked abashed. “Momma retired as an Army wife a few decades back.”
“PX first for shopping,” proclaimed Emma, and hustled the sheepish scholar officers out the door. On the way out, she hung a plaque on their door — BOQ, for Bachelor Officer’s Quarters.
The point of going to the PX first was soon apparent – Emma had them stock up on meat, fruit, vegetables, and canned goods not for their fridge, but for barter. They hit the ATM there for several hundred in cash apiece, as well.
“Last year, there wasn’t a tenth of this,” Emmett murmured, as they jostled their way into the vast migrant camp. “That’s not safe, camping on the river bottom.”
There was no road. This was once good farmland by the side of the broad Missouri River, partway between Leavenworth and Kansas City. The green fields were long dead, the trees leafless, the Missouri shrunken, its mud flats cracked and bare under the blazing summer sun. Trucks, campers, SUVs, cars and tents stretched as far as they could see down the river bank, and well into the bare river bottom. The stench attested to open-air latrines and no wash water.
“Can’t stop ’em,” Emma returned. “State police had the bridge barricaded on route 92. Stopped me before I came across, asking for ID.” Emma had driven up from her home in the Ozarks in southern Missouri that morning, towing Emmett’s furniture trailer. “They warned me that coming back, I wouldn’t be allowed through without Missouri proof of residence.”
“What if you’re just driving through?” asked Cam. He and John were from Connecticut.
“Don’t know,” Emma sighed. She studied the squatter community from the back seat with Cam. Emmett threaded her pickup truck through the camp, barely going 5 mph to avoid the darting children and cheerless milling adults.
“There was nothing about this on the news, in the Middle East,” Cam said. He’d just rotated back to the States from active duty.
“There were bits on the national news back East,” John allowed. “But nothing like this.” He pointed to a big sign. “Homeless veterans, will work for food.”
“Good enough, Momma?” Emmett inquired.
“Keep going, Emmett,” Emma directed. “Might visit them on the way out.”
“Where are these migrants going?” Cam asked. “Or trying to go. Race riots?”
“They’re going nowhere,” Emma confirmed. “They’re trying to flee Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Oklahoma – this whole stack of states. Missouri’s not much better off on this end. The drought’s been too long. The wells ran dry. They’ve started shooting migrants at the Arkansas border. We just can’t take any more.”
“But why ‘race riots’?” Emmett pressed.
“Sounds like b.s. to me, my son,” Emma replied. “Why I wanted you to see this.”
“Why don’t they just cross the river?” asked John.
“Too deep to drive across,” said Emmett. “Yet. Maybe not for much longer. But they’d have to leave everything they have left, to cross without a bridge.” He frowned. “Is it legal to block the interstate into Missouri, Momma?”
“Yeah, to preserve public order,” Emma replied. “Kind of an oversight in the law, I always thought. Pull up here, Emmett, on the left. Be sure to lock the truck.”
They alighted into an open-air bazaar. Late afternoon brought less painful light, but no less breathless heat. The summer sun baked off the ground in 105-degree waves. A gaunt 60-ish man nearby offered drinking water for 5 dollars a ladle, from a half-full grey trash bin. Scraps of awning provided scant relief to gaunt and deflated people hiding beneath.
As healthy Emma and her three strong upright men appeared, the hawkers began to swarm.
“Water!” “Clothes!” “Furniture!” “Sex!” “Take one of my children!” “Do you have food?” “I’ll sell my car!”
“Back away!” yelled Cameron, arm held out.
Emmett and John traded shrugs of surprised ‘not-bad’, impressed at how much menace their pretty younger roomie could project. They took Cam’s lead, extending arms with elbows locked, to signal the crowd back.
This paused the crowd only briefly. People pushing from behind forced the front lines to stagger forward.
Emma unslung her pistol and shot it into the air. The crowd backed up.
She bellowed, “We’re here to buy furniture – ONLY FURNITURE. Anybody else, go away!”
As the crowd sloughed backward, many cast angry sneers back over their shoulders.
Emmett suggested warily, “Momma, maybe we should go while the going’s good. Some of these people would kill us for what we’ve got.”
“Buck up, Emmett,” she growled.
Want more? Dust of Kansas is available on Amazon.