Another Taste of Camp Expendable

I don’t take vacations or observe holidays, so it’s appropriate that I post another chunk of Camp Expendable during a holiday weekend.

Chapter One, part two

Most of the men were on their feet now, pulling their belongings down from the overhead racks. A few shoved their way to the front of the bus, followed by angry shouts.

Jake pointed a skinny finger. “Take a gander, will ya? Gotta be the first off, even if you ain’t nowhere when you get there. Just like it used to be on air flights. You’d think people with the money to ride a plane would be politer than these assholes, but there ain’t really much difference. Except airline passengers smelled a whole lot better.”

Was this going to be one of Jake’s stories about the old days? They were usually amusing, and every now and then they let slip clues about Jake’s past life. But right now, all Casey wanted was off, as fast as possible. His ass hurt from a night and almost two days of sitting, and he was as stiff as if he were Jake’s age instead of thirty-eight.

“If they’d been riding on a broke-back bus with all the windows shut, and dust still sneaking through the cracks, not to mention the damned heat, they’d probably have been stinking to high heaven, too. Just like us.”

Each time they got back on the bus after a rest stop and a chance to breathe some fresh air, the fug of body odor, foul breath, and stale urine had hit him right in the gut. He couldn’t smell himself most of the time, thank goodness, but he itched all over. Maybe this new camp would have enough water for long showers. Hot showers. He could dream, but he knew better than to hope. Long was rare; hot was almost non-existent, an impossible luxury for anyone on the drift.

The smells had become part of the background of misery between stops, unavoidably there, like the aches and pains that came with long hours of immobility and the fatigue of too little real sleep. The worst part of the trip was that they had driven through the night, two of the soldiers taking shifts, while Sargeant Marshall—damned Marshall—sat like a grim statue, his rifle across his lap, watching, always watching. Every time Casey woke up and looked his way, he was wide awake. Maybe he slept with his eyes open. The damned man probably wasn’t human, but Casey was too desperate for sleep to stay awake and try to catch him with his eyes shut.

“Yeah,” Jake said.  And they’d be bitchin’ and moanin’ about it to beat the band. But I gotta admit those were the good old days before …” Jake came to one of those abrupt halts that meant he’d almost touched on something in his old life, before the streets and the transit camps. That was the only topic he was tight-mouthed about.

Two years now and Casey still didn’t know much about his closest friend. His only friend. He was pretty sure Jake wasn’t the grammar-challenged bum he seemed to be. That persona slipped now and then, but Casey never made the mistake of appearing to notice, or of asking questions. Jake wasn’t the only one in the camps with a past life closed to discussion. That was something most people respected.

“And they had soft drinks on the plane. And whiskey. And beer. And water! Man, I could drink a gallon or two right now. And then jump in a shower and stay there till I prune all over. I’m just about as dry inside as out. I don’t think I could even take a piss.”

Casey grinned. “Can’t piss. Can’t spit. You’re in bad shape, Jako. I think you’re just about to dry up and blow away.”

“Real funny,” Jake growled.

“Water,” Casey murmured, as a tendril of memory flew by, too fast to catch. Even vanished, the dream continued to bother him. “A lot of it. I remember that. But why salt water?”

Jake gave him a puzzled glance, then a commotion up front caught his attention. “Oh jeez! Would ya take a gander at that poor bastard? He ain’t never gonna get all that stuff back together.”

An elderly man was trying to save his belongings from the scavengers picking through them. A torn plastic garbage bag hung from the rack above him, trailing a few raggedy items that looked like salvage from a dumpster. The rest was scattered on the floor or being yanked back and forth between the men around him. Casey sympathized. Everything he owned was in his duffle. He couldn’t blame the old man for trying to save his possessions, even if they did look like trash. The soldiers sitting up front watched what was going on, but neither of them moved to put a stop to the thieving. In fact, Sergeant Marshall was grinning as the old man tried to grab something that was being held up, out of his reach. Casey turned to look out the window, disgusted, then startled at a shout.

“Enough! All of you sit down and shut the hell up. Where do you think you’re going, anyway? Some fancy hotel? I don’t want to see any more pushing and shoving. And lay off grubbing through that crap. What the hell you want with that old geezer’s garbage anyhow?”

Complete silence fell, and every face turned toward Marshall, now standing by the driver. Typical, Casey thought. The sergeant didn’t give a shit about the old man losing his stuff. It was just another chance for him to throw his weight around, like he’d been doing during the whole trip, and even before they got on the bus, acting like he’d love to shoot someone if they’d give him a justifiable excuse. One of his first targets had been Jake. In the exodus from the camp, Marshall had treated the men as if they’d deliberately set out to make his life difficult. He yanked one man around, then another, for no reason that Casey could see, creating more confusion than if he’d let them alone to line up for the bus. By the time they’d finally formed up to the sergeant’s standard, his patience was apparently exhausted. He’d given Jake a hard shove in the back as he stumbled on the first step. Jake fell to his hands and knees, trying to catch his breath before pulling himself the rest of the way up. Casey got between them, infuriated, when Marshall reached out for the old man again, cursing at him for his clumsiness.

“Don’t you dare hit him, you son of a bitch!”

Marshall’s face had turned a violent red. He raised a fist toward Casey, but noticed the other soldiers  and the camp supervisor watching them. “I’ll be keeping on eye on you, asshole,” he ground out in an undertone. “Don’t think I won’t.”

“That’s just great,” Jake had told Casey. “That’s the kind of son of a bitch that holds a grudge. And now you’re in his line of sight, too. You should have just let it go.”

“And let him hit you? Don’t worry, Jako, I won’t have any problem keeping an eye out for both of us.”

Just like Jake had warned, Casey had caught the sergeant staring at him several times during the long trip. Whenever their eyes met, the soldier gave him a toothy grin and swung his rifle toward Jake, just for a fraction of a second, as if he was adjusting its position. He did his best to shut out the man’s voice, but it rode over the commotion. He hoped the bus would do a quick turnaround once they were all off and take the bastard with it. It wouldn’t be too soon to see the last of Marshall’s ugly face

“That means everybody. Nobody gets off the bus until I say so. And you!” Marshall pointed his rifle at the man scrabbling to save his belongings.  Everyone near him ducked. “Get that trash off the floor. The rest of you set your asses down until I say you can get up.”

“Yes, sir. Yes, sir,” Jake muttered in a low voice, flipping off a quick parody of a salute. “I’m already gettin’ pretty sick of these soldier boys. At least we didn’t have to put up with them in the camps.”

Casey stretched and groaned as stiff muscles protested, then concentrated on what little he could see through the windshield, shifting in his seat to get a wider view. “You might have to get used to the soldier boys, Jake. Can’t see a whole lot from this angle, but that looks like a row of army barracks.”

“Aw no! Tell me it ain’t so, Casey.”

“Okay, it ain’t so. That make you happy?” Casey couldn’t help laughing at Jake’s  expression. “Look on the bright side. A solid roof over your head instead of tents flapping in the wind. Maybe even hot showers. And hot meals!”

“Don’t get my hopes up,” the old man grumbled, running his fingers through his tangled and filthy white beard. “You don’t even know if those barracks are for us or the soldier boys. And speakin’ of hopes, when are we gonna get off this rattletrap?”
As if in response, the bus gave a jerk as the gate slid open, pulled forward, and turned toward a dirt parking lot. When the engine died, Jake gave a big sigh. “It’s about damned time.”


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