In desperate times desperate people head here – an online journal of Apocalyptic-themed fiction and commentary.

There Must Be Cowboys

Copyright © 2010 by John Darling. All rights reserved.

There Must Be Cowboys

     “Runners on the right, son!” warned Carl.

     James glanced to his right even as his hand pulled the scattergun from its cross-bar mounted holster.

A shot from his dad at the feet of the middle Runner caused him to stutter step, which made the three of them momentarily separate from their columnar attack formation. In that instant, James fired. He heard a scream as one Runner fell. The others fled back towards the thicket of bushes that had come from; both limped badly. Before they could make it all the way, though, another shot caught the rear Runner between the shoulder blades, causing him to pitch forward into a heap.

“Dad, why did…”

“Not now, son; there may be more up ahead. Keep focused.”

With that admonition, James and his dad pedaled furiously until they reached the top of the small hill where their house, such as it was, commanded the dead end street below them.

Mom was waiting at the garage door and swung it open just before her men’s bikes struck the front of it. The moment they were inside, James and his dad performed flying dismounts and helped her slam it shut.

They all lay, breathing heavily, with their backs to the reinforced, steel door.

Rona began to cry, something she had been doing a lot lately.

“I don’t know how much longer I can stand this,” she said through her sobs.

James reached over and held her hand, telling her not to worry, that everything would be all right.

“Your son speaks the truth, hon,” said Carl. “It won’t be long now. Maybe just one more foraging run, then we can ditch this place and head south to the Rincon and join the Cowboys.”

While he doubted she believed his words, at this time, in this world, Carl had little more to offer his dear wife. With the end of the world’s supply of oil, civilization had spun out of control, slowly devouring itself and all that had once existed.

“Let’s go, son”, Carl said as he locked the garage door. “We have to pack up what we got today. We may have to move at anytime.”

Getting up, James moved wearily, seeming to be much older than his 24 years. Carl cursed softly. His son did not deserve any of this. What the world had come to was not his fault in any way. The fault lie in the conceit, miscalculations and ignorance of Carl’s generation, all of which had been passed on to them by their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. These were the people that made the present as it now is. They had raped and abused the Earth for centuries, all the time taking while giving nothing back, and creating the world that his son would have to inherit.

Every time he looked at James, the guilt of the ages fell heavily on him. It was as if it were bearing down on his shoulders, threatening to crush the life out of him, which was something that he could not allow no matter how black his remorse became. He had to keep telling himself that there was no way he could correct the past; all he could do now was look for the best future his son could have. And that future would be with the Cowboys. There must be Cowboys.


     “But why the Cowboys, even if they do exist? Why is it you’re so all fired up to join them? How do you know they will take us in?”

     “We’ve been over and over this, Rona. You know the answers.”

“Oh, right, cowboys are good and ‘righteous’, hard working men who settled the West. Honest, decent people — every one of them. If they exist, if they will have us, if they are not just remnants of your memories of western movies.”

“They exist and they will have us. We just have to get to them before it is too late.”

“So we are going to give this all up to go out into the Wild Lands looking for some people that may not be real and whose whereabouts we only know of because of a dying drifter we took in at the risk of our own lives.”

As tempted as he was to shout at her, he resisted. James would need his family to be whole if he were to survive.

“He spoke the truth, Rona; I believed him. He was going fast. Why would be tell us stories with his last breath? He had no reason to say anything to us, but we took him in and showed him kindness and courtesy in this hellish world. Maybe he felt he owed us something, maybe he wanted to give us the future he would never have. Besides, his dying statement did not ring hollow to me; he knew the area too well to be lying. Those beach formations he spoke of at the mouth of San Jon Creek on the Rincon are just as I remember them. There could easily be a settlement there. They would have the sea to harvest provisions from, fresh water for the people and the horses they are breeding, and if they are fashioning their new world order after Cowboys, then it will be a better world than we can offer James here holed up in a decaying house with gangs closing in on us each day.”

Rona began to cry again, softly.

“You haven’t set foot out of the compound in months, Rona. You don’t realize that there is nothing left, nothing at all; ours is the last house standing on our hillside cul-de-sac, and it is only standing because I saw this coming. Despite your saying I was ‘paranoid’ and your laughing at me, I stored up weapons, ammunition, food, portable heaters, extra wood for the fireplace and water, all of which have let us defend our property and hold out this long.”

Carl wanted to hold her and comfort her as he had done so often through their 32 years of marriage, but he resisted. She would have to be strong now; she would not have the luxury of falling to pieces at every crisis. There could be too many of them ahead, and he would need her to stand tall, not for him, but for their son.

“Most of the insides of houses have been torn out, and every tree within site has been chopped up right down to its roots. If it will burn, they will use it. It’s all gone, Rona. All of it. James and I ran our last foraging party today, it is no longer worth the risk of going out looking for more to take with us since the Runners Gang keeps getting bigger and more desperate every day. It won’t be long before they lose their fear of going out at night and we will lose whatever little advantage we planned to have. We must leave before the morning sun rises.”

“Oh for God’s sake, Carl,” she choked out. “He could have been a surfer, one of those who hung out and ran around naked half the time. You’re a fool to believe one word of what he said.”

Giving in to his desperate love for her, he reached over and stroked her cheek just before laying a soft kiss on it. He was sure now; they had to go and join the Cowboys tonight. There was no future left for them otherwise.


     Carl and James packed the backpacks, saddle bags and the small child-carrier trailers that they would be towing behind them as they made their way to the land of the Cowboys. Rona helped as she could, seemingly more interested in leaving the house in order for whomever the next occupants would be. Carl thought she should be more interested in trying to get her son to a place where he might be able to meet a girl, work, and live out his life in relative peace.

     Finally all the food, ammunition, and weapons they could carry were packed away. It was with these materials that Carl planned to barter his family’s way into the Cowboy’s life. As a guest he had never shown up empty handed, and though it was not much, he was not going to do so now, not with so much riding on it. When he approached the Cowboys, he intended to commit everything to them — all of their food, the family bicycles and three healthy people who would do whatever work was necessary.

In the worst case, the Cowboys could choose to not take them in. If that happened, at least his family could become beach combers. He could build a house of driftwood, maybe even a raft, and if his son someday decided to leave the world as it was on the Rincon, he could become a mariner and sail the seas looking for a new place to settle down. A tear came to Carl’s eye as he wished him well in this imaginary scenario.

“Why do I have to carry a gun?” Rona asked when Carl handed one to her. “I don’t plan on shooting anyone.”

“You will shoot, Rona. If someone is standing over your son ready to kill him, you will shoot and you will shoot to kill.”

Still she refused to carry it, so Carl had to rig up a holster on her bike’s cross bar. Then they settled down and waited for the darkest part of the night to engulf them, leaving on a single light in hope that anyone approaching would stay away.

James was restless and ready to move on; Rona was just the opposite. Carl hoped that she had the nerve to get on her bike and make the wild ride lay ahead of them. He was thankful that most of the way was downhill so they would at least make good time as long as he was able to negotiate the potholes in the long neglected streets. Without light, that would be the most hazardous part of the journey.

Peering out a small hole cut in the garage door, Carl decided that the time had come. Not a creature stirred and the moon was so small it barely lit even the darkest of recesses. Suddenly, Carl wondered what the date and time was. At one time that had seemed to be such crucial information, but now he had lost track. He wasn’t sure why he felt the urge to know now. Perhaps it was just because his family was entering a new phase of life.

“Gather round family, get close into a circle. Hold hands and bend forward.”

James and Rona did so, moving close as if they were trying to get warm.

“You both know that I have never been a religious man and I won’t be a hypocrite and become one now, but if there is a Supreme Being, I wish that he would oversee us in our journey to the new world which we seek.”

With that they all stood and mounted their bicycles. Before opening the garage door, Carl looked back at his family. What the night and the next day and all the rest of the coming days held for them, he did not know. But there was hope out there while there was none here. And more than anything, he wanted to his son to at least have that.

It was the only thing Carl had left to give him.


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