The rubber hose snaked its way down into the dark tank. With no electricity to power the gas pumps, the only way to get the precious fuel was to extract it by hand.
Farley’s sister, Cat, lined up a series of fuel cans and stuck the other end of the tube in the first one.
“I didn’t think I’d like bear meat,” she said. “I mean, it’s kind of like eating Winnie-the-pooh and it’s not like you ever used to get bear burger on the menu at McDonalds. But it was nice. Bit fatty.”
“Yeah, wasn’t bad.”
Between the two ends of the tube an old truck piston stood, welded to a steel plate. The upper part of the piston had been extended with the handlebars from a bicycle.
The rubber hoses fitted over two short stubs of copper pipes with non-return valves that had been added to the piston to act as the inlet and outlet.
Farley stood with one foot on either side of the plate and started to lift the bike handle plunger up and down. The hose wriggled as the gas sloshed up through it.
“And, real bears aren’t like teddy bears anyway.” She peered into the can as the pipe delivered the first pump of gas. “How much do you think is left?”
“I don’t know, it can’t be a lot, we’ve been using this one for nearly a year now.”
The gas station in question stood just off what used to be the major highway through the area. Now the ribbon of asphalt wound its way silently through the mountains. The two or three vehicles from Camp GenX were probably the only ones to use it in years.
Farley adjusted the strap of the hunting rifle slung across his back. After his report to Vickie about the group they’d crossed paths with further south on the last foraging trip, she’d insisted that every party that left the camp went armed.
“That one’s full,” Cat said.
Farley paused while she capped the can. A white flake settled on the back of his hand with a little jolt of cold. A moment later, Cat swatted at something which had landed on her forehead and then looked up.
“Snow,” she said, beaming, like only a twelve year old could, who could still see snowmen in the snow, rather than huddling in blankets round a dwindling fire.
“Yes, so hurry up.”
She poked her tongue out but moved the end of the tube to the next fuel can.
Working with his sister was no hassle, she was smart and never afraid to get herself dirty like a few of the girls back at the camp. She wiped a grubby hand on her denim dungarees, leaving a black streak.
As the next six cans filled the snow grew heavier and dusted the ground with a thin layer of white. It wouldn’t last, but it was a herald of things to come.
With two cans left to fill, the tube began to gurgle and sputter out air as well as gas.
“Looks like we have an answer to your question. Knew it couldn’t last forever,” Farley said with a sigh.
The low purr of the engine had been creeping up on him and it wasn’t until the approaching vehicle was quite close that he registered what the sound meant.
“Is that a car?” Cat asked, standing to look towards the empty highway.
“Maybe. Go back to the truck and wait in the back.”
She didn’t hesitate. When they’d run into people before she’d insisted on staying by his side and it nearly got them both killed. Obviously she’d learnt from that.
There was no way to hide the van, no time to pack up the pump and gas and try to drive off unnoticed. Besides, the car might not stop, or the people might be friendly.
While he waited for the car to reach them, Farley stacked the full gas cans by the side of the truck.
The car pulled into the gas station and stopped on the forecourt, under the awning.
Farley stood warily by the cab of the van. He unslung his gun and held it loosely in one hand.
The glare of the low sun reflected off the windows and he couldn’t see who was inside or what they were doing. After a couple of minutes the door cracked open and a man climbed out.
Either he’d scavenged some clothes that were too big for him, or he’d lost a lot of weight, because his hooded sweater hung off him like a sack. Greasy black hair flopped down his forehead in an uneven fringe. He’d probably cut it himself to keep it out of his eyes, and hadn’t been able to keep the line straight in the mirror.
He had one hand behind his back which was the detail Farley was most interested in.
The newcomer walked closer and Farley’s grip on the rifle tightened.
“You’ve got gas?” the man said, indicating the cans with a nod of his head.
“Yeah, but this place is tapped out now. I can spare you one, but I’ll need the can back. Is that fair?”
The man paused as if he was calculating in his head, or perhaps he’d not expected to be offered anything.
“Not enough,” he said and whipped his hand, and the pistol it was holding, from behind his back. “I’m sorry, lad, I’m going to have to take all of it. Your pump too. Put the gun down.”
Farley slowly lowered the rifle to the floor, keeping his eyes on the man who wiped his sweaty palm on his jeans. He couldn’t be more than thirty and, given he was the one with the gun, he looked terrified.
“Come on,” Farley said, raising his hands. “I need it as much as you do, so why don’t we agree to split it?”
The man took a half step forward, thrusting the gun out. “You don’t know that. I need that gas.”
“I believe you. Are you trying to get somewhere?”
“None of your business. Just, get in the truck and drive away.”
The truck was low on gas but it probably had enough to get back to camp, or to another gas station. The pump was the bigger concern. It was the only one the camp had and they needed to stockpile fuel for the generator over the winter.
“Not without the pump. You can take the gas, but leave me the pump.”
“No, I need it.”
“Come on, man, I’ve got a lot of people depending on me.”
“A lot of people, huh? Where? You’re the first person I’ve seen in six months. Don’t try to bullshit me. I’ve got exactly two people depending on me and that’s enough.”
Farley ground his teeth. “I’m trying really hard here, you have to give me something to work with.”
“Something to work with? How about your life? You drive away and you get to live.”
He jabbed the gun forward but his voice cracked slightly with an edge of hysteria. This man wasn’t going to murder him in cold blood, but he might pull the trigger out of panic.
“When was the last time you ate?” Farley asked, trying to keep him talking.
The man frowned. “What?”
“Food, when was the last time you had any.”
“What’s that got to do with anything? Just give me the god damned gas!”
“It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. You could come back with us, we’ll get you something to eat and some gas, and you can make a pump of your own.”
The man’s frown deepened. “I don’t know what you’re trying to do, but if you don’t get in that truck and leave, right now, I swear to god I’m going to shoot you.”
“What’s your name?”
The frown disappeared, replaced by bafflement. “Harry. Harry Flanders.”
“Listen, Harry. There is a camp, a group of us, just a few miles from here. We could help you.”
The dark expression returned. “Bullshit. There are no refugee camps, it was all lies. I’m going to give you to the count of three to get in the damn truck.”
“I’m not talking about a refugee camp.”
“It was a summer camp, we were here when the outbreak happened.”
“No!” Cat dropped down from the back of the truck and flung herself in front of Farley. “Don’t hurt him.”
Harry staggered back a pace and twisted the gun to the side. Apparently threatening a seventeen year old boy was one thing, but a twelve year old girl in dungarees and blond plaited pig tails crossed a line. He let out a string of colourful curses.
“Harry?” A young woman approached from the car. The warm colour of her skin and roundness to her cheeks suggested she ate considerably better than the man she was with.
“Get back in the car, Alice.”
Farley used the distraction to shove Cat behind him and kept her pinned back with one arm.
“Harry, they’re just kids. The boy offered you some of their gas, let’s just share. We’ll just go as far as we can and figure it out when we run out again.”
Harry kept the gun vaguely pointed towards Farley but no longer directly threatening.
“They have a pump,” Harry said. “It’s just what we need.”
Cat wriggled free of Farley’s restraining arm. “You’ve only got one car, right? Why don’t you just syphon off gas from abandoned cars?”
“Like with a tube. You suck on one end to get it flowing and then gravity takes over.” She mimed sucking on the tube, capping the end of it with her thumb and pointing it towards an imaginary container.
Harry gave her a blank look. They were probably city dwellers before the End which meant they must have had a lucky break somewhere along the line.
The silence was broken by the sound of a crying baby coming from Harry and Alice’s car.
Both of them suddenly stiffened like cornered animals.
“You have a baby?” Cat asked. “Maybe you could help Holly.”
Farley put a warning hand on her shoulder, but he didn’t want to startle the couple.
Alice’s expression softened, but Harry remained bunched and loaded.
“Who’s Holly?” Alice asked.
“One of the girls at the camp. She’s pregnant, but there’s no doctors and no one has had children, not even Vickie.”
Alice turned to Harry. “Maybe we could go with them, just to see. The boy said they could help us.”
Harry‘s gaze darted between Farley and Alice. “It could be a trap.”
“Hey, you threatened us, remember?” said Cat, clenching her fists.
Farley glared at her but it seemed to undermine Harry’s last argument enough for him to concede to Alice. Throwing his hands up in resignation he stalked back to the car.
“I’m Alice.” She held out a hand and Farley shook it.
“Farley, and this is my sister, Cat.”
“Nice to meet you. I’m sorry about my husband, he just wants to protect me and the baby.”
Cat picked up one of the gas cans. “Here, why don’t you fill your car up and then follow us.”
While Harry emptied the contents of the can into the car, Cat topped up the van. Farley loaded up the rest of the gas and packed away the pump. Then the short convoy departed, leaving shallow tire marks in the newly settled snow.
“You should have stayed in the van,” Farley said as they drove down the white cloaked highway.
“Shut up. I totally saved your ass and you know it. You suck at negotiating.”
He refused to acknowledge how right she was.