After the Apocalypse
Chapter 57: Final Search

by Mark Bollman--> and Steve Donohue

The third search for Steve was launched during daylight, as there was no longer any need for intense secrecy. Additionally, the search party was trimmed to three. Mark Bollman led the crew-Ron had decided to stand down and rest his nerves, and had specifically charged Mark with a simple directive.

"Go around and check every building in camp for signs of invasion," he had said, "but don't be too quick to disturb Steve if you do find him. Make sure he's okay, of course, but be careful. If he's truly all right and just hiding out for awhile, I think it would do us all good to know that."

John was included because he was felt to be the Winter Camper with the best chance of getting through to Steve if direct intervention became necessary or occurred accidentally, and Melissa Collins joined for her professional acumen and, not unintentionally, as a way for the Winter Camp brain trust to demonstrate their faith in the Tundra Stomp survivors. The trio set out on horseback through Jack Lord subcamp, noting no new footprints near Rawhide or Shady Oaks cabins. They checked around the cabins closely, but only when there was no evidence of human intrusion did they dismount and enter the buildings.

"As long as we're here, we might as well see if there's anyone else on the Ranch," said Mark. It was something of a comfort to them that no tracks or signs of passage were present.

The half-mile ride down to Little Prairie gave them time to talk. "Tell me about Steve," said Melissa. "What's he really like? What kind of insight can you give me that might help me work with him?"

After an awkward moment, John was the first to answer. "I think Ron might know more of what you need, actually. He's known Steve a lot longer than anyone else."

"Yeah," said Mark. "You've heard about how he was an extreme pacifist and how none of us can reconcile that with this twin killing-that represents, I suspect, the closest thing most of us will have to 'insight'. Taken by itself, that throws any other observation into a serious credibility gap. All bets are off now."

"Not a lot to go on," said Melissa. "Let me ask you this: Everyone seems to be saying that there's no way they would have seen Steve killing anyone. Wouldn't that be true for anybody? I mean, is there anyone in camp whom you would think had the capacity to kill people?"

"Oh yeah," said John, answering the question almost before Melissa had finished asking it.

"Really?"

"Yep. Any number of people. You remember when we thought those guys were lost in the blizzard when they were out looking for supplies? The night that Steve vanished?" Melissa nodded. "That night, we were getting ready to send Dave Woods and Joe Hall-"

"They're the ones who're still in Lapeer, right?"

"Bingo. We were about to send them out to find the other guys. They actually seemed a little disappointed when their services weren't needed for that. They're also both fairly heavily armed. One can draw some interesting conclusions from that."

"You think they're capable of killing?"

"They've got the means, and they probably have the inclination-particularly given what's gone down so far," said Mark.

"Actually, I don't think they know about Steve," said John.

"Really?" asked Melissa.

"I don't think so. Steve never told anyone that we know of about it-we only found out when Lou, who was there, told us at one of our meetings. And that was after Steve wandered off. If I were betting, I'd bet on them not knowing."

"Hmmm. That makes things a little trickier, but I stand by what I was about to say," said Mark. "Certainly the potential for violence-even murder-exists within them, perhaps more so than in some of us. But that doesn't necessarily mean they'll pull the trigger if the opportunity presents itself. Seems like that would be a big leap. Who can say for sure how they themselves would react in such a situation? Let alone what anyone else would do?"

"Good points," said Melissa as they pulled up to the next cabin. Little Prairie seemed deserted enough, but the searchers were willing to take no unnecessary chances. They circled the building several times before deciding that no one had been around recently. Inspection of the cabin interior confirmed their initial judgment.

On Mark's suggestion, they followed a former camp road, now barely a trail, out through an abandoned Gate 10 and out of the Ranch itself onto Wilder Road. They proceeded north along the dirt road, now essentially filled in by a deep snowdrift, for a short while before re-entering the camp through Gate 8. The stretch of camp which lay before them was essentially an open field; there was none of the dense forest that surrounded the Winter Camp universe down in Beaver Creek.

As they rode up to Indianwood, the first cabin inside the camp fence, Melissa was the first to notice that something odd was going on. She pulled up abruptly, about 200 feet from the cabin.

"Look at the ice under that pump," she said. "I swear, it looks like the pipes have been dripping forever!"

Mark and John looked to the pump, and their minds were immediately set to racing by what they saw. There was indeed a pillar of ice beneath the faucet. The three pressed their horses toward the pump, and as they approached, the pump dripped again.

"It can't be," said John. "Without power, those pumps shouldn't be working."

"If the facts contradict the theory," began Mark, "the theory must be changed. What might this mean?"

"Could it be that there's actual electricity out here? And if so, why isn't the power on where we are? And then does that mean that someone's alive running a power plant on the outside?" asked Melissa.

"Alternately, does this mean that there's someone else staying here, someone who's managed to rig the pump to work and keeps it dripping so it won't freeze solid?" asked Mark.

"Could Steve be here?" asked John.

There was a brief pause. Mark was next to speak. "For the answers to these and many other questions, tune in again tomorrow! Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel!" John and Melissa couldn't help laughing. "Sorry about that, but the way we were all rattling off that sequence of questions got me going."

"So what do we do now?" asked John.

"Another question for tomorrow's episode," laughed Melissa.

"Okay, let's back up just a second here," said Mark. "Are there any signs of humans around the building? Any footprints or tire tracks?"

They performed their usual reconnaissance around the building, finding nothing. "Okay, I don't think anyone's hiding out here," said Mark. "Maybe someone passed through, jury-rigged the pump to a battery, and moved on. Or maybe there's been a battery in place here all along-it could be that the rangers set that up weeks ago."

"How can we be sure that someone's not here and just covering their tracks really well?" asked John.

"Why would they do that?" countered Melissa. "There's nothing to be gained by working as hard as they'd need to to do that. Especially if they had no reason to believe there was anyone else nearby."

"Okay, that's a point," said Mark, "but I suspect there's no one else around. More importantly, though, we need to get back to camp and report this. This is a big discovery, even bigger than finding Steve would be."

"Really?" asked Melissa.

"Yeah-because it's unexpected. We can check out most of the rest of Jack Lord on the way back, but we ought to get back and tell everyone about this. Trout Lake and Arrowhead can wait."

The excitement of the new discovery spurred the trio onward. Mark insisted that the four other cabins be carefully checked despite the lure of speeding back, but nothing out of the ordinary-signs of invasion or dripping pumps-were found.

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