After the Apocalypse
Chapter 54: Another Search

by Mark Bollman--> and Steve Donohue

At Mark's insistence, the second night of searching began with a drive to the barns to mount horses for easier travel. Amy had been faithful in her care for the three dozen or so animals; they were in generally good shape and seemed anxious to be let out for a ride. They headed out on the camp roads through Jack Lord subcamp, carefully avoiding Beaver Creek and the occupied cabins-there was no point in tipping everyone off by tripping the alarm system. As they passed through Shady Oaks campsite and headed into the woods, the five had seen nothing.

Jeff was in the lead, and he halted atop the hill that led down to Chippewa Swamp. "You think he might be down there?" asked John.

"Don't know, but I think we need to check it out. It'll be hard to get down there with the horses. Anyone want to head down on foot?"

"Don't bother," said Ron. "I've got a better idea." Without pausing to rethink his decision, he shouted into the valley.

"HO!"

Ron's voice was easily the strongest of any Winter Camper, and it echoed throughout the area. He knew that Steve would recognize Mahican chapter's all-purpose greeting/verbal beacon, and would answer if he wanted or needed to be found.

No response was heard. "Either he's not down there-which is the explanation I favor-or he's down there and doesn't want to be disturbed, although I can't imagine him taking cover in a swamp. In either case, there's no need to go down there. Sorry, Mark-I know you were looking forward to the trip."

"Ah well, such is life," joked Mark. "My time will come later."

They continued forward through the forest until they reached the Ordeal site.

"Down the hill?" asked Dan.

"Yep," said Ron. "I figure this is one place Steve would be likely to come to. He used to talk about being cremated and having his ashes spread here. As much as I don't think he's suicidal, it wouldn't surprise me to find him here if he was."

Ron's words had a curiously galvanizing effect on the searchers, and they pushed the horses down the field sports access road as fast as they dared go. Mark dismounted and ran down to the only building in the area at the rifle range, but reported no signs of recent occupation there or at the nearby executive latrine. They fanned out and carefully covered the entire ceremony site without finding anything, then pulled the horses into a tight circle for a conference.

"What's next, Ron?" asked John. "We've got the swampland and the panhandle left to do. Want to take them both on tonight?"

"Not a chance," said Ron. "I can't imagine why Steve would walk down into the panhandle voluntarily under any circumstances, let alone these."

"Unless he was heading for Metamora," said Jeff.

"Possible, but unlikely," said Ron. "We can hold that thought for later, but for right now, we need to trace all the paths down here that we can."

"But I saw Steve heading the other way when he left," said John.

"True, but who knows how disoriented he might be? Wandering around in the dark, he could have easily circled around and wound up down here."

The trails through the trees were easy to find, and the horses made the going quick. While they were able to traverse most of the paths, they still spotted no signs of recent invasion. Mark pointed out their minor shortcoming as they rode back to Beaver Creek.

"Daylight would make this a lot easier," he said. "Who knows what we might be missing in the darkness?"

"True, but I still want this situation kept secret for as long as possible," said Ron. "And if Steve wanted to be found, I'm sure there'd be a fire for us to see. There's really no need to look for microscopic clues-the information we need will be significant and visible."

"Yeah, Mark-we're not talking about a trivia test here," said John. "The details aren't important-we need to stay focused on the big picture."

"The details are always important," insisted Mark. "But you make a good point. On the other hand, maybe it'd be a good idea for one or two of us to check out the cabins in daylight one of these days."

"We'll see," said Ron. "Meanwhile, let's get back and get warmed up."

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