Below, you’ll find Chapter Eight of the Uncommon Bravery short story. If you’re interested in reading the chapters as they’re released, please subscribe to my newsletter.

Chapter 8 – Toad in a Pokey

Tinker slid his arms beneath Clara’s unconscious body. Fueled by adrenaline, he lifted her easily and gritted his teeth, fighting back his surging emotions at her condition. The small, battered figure he’d dragged from the river was barely recognizable as the woman who always seemed larger than life to him

“There’s not enough room,” Knight said, coming forward to help Tinker as he backed into the overseer’s small cab. “Come back for me.”

Tinker’s AI projected a warning onto his field of vision, outlining a deep, still-bleeding gash in Knight’s shoulder. It went against Tinker’s protective instincts to just push the unconscious Clara unceremoniously up and into the small vehicle, so he carefully clambered up with her in his arms. Lester, however, would need some urging for he seldom prioritized his own needs above someone else’s.

“Get in, now,” Tinker demanded, turning sideways and cradling Clara’s head so it wouldn’t ride against the glass.

“Damn it, Tinker,” Knight said as he squeezed in. “Overseer, take us to the sheriff’s station.”

The simple machine slowly lifted from the river bank, giving the two men a good view of the eastern plains of Iowa. A band of the cockroach-like aliens they’d heard referred to as Kroerak paced back and forth on the opposite side of the river, looking for an opportunity to cross.

“That’s not good,” Tinker said, as the overseer rose over the bluff and sailed west into town. Knight toggled a setting on his HUD so he could see what his friend was seeing. Two of the bug aliens were collaborating down on the closed highway, pushing a vehicle into the river.

“What are they doing?” Knight asked, fearing he already knew.

“If they push enough cars into the river, they might be able to build a bridge,” he answered.

“The cars will just get washed downstream.”

“Some will stick,” Tinker answered, looking back at the river of abandoned cars on the highway quickly disappearing behind them. “And there’s no end of them. How in the hell is a dirt wall going to stop an army that can do that?”

“An undefended castle falls to even the smallest army,” Knight answered, remembering conversations from his Army Ranger training. “They can’t be allowed free reign or that wall will fall.”

Tinker pushed a lock of hair from Clara’s face. “She’s really cold. How do you suppose she got on the wrong side of that river?”

Knight looked out over the small town as they flew. Even though it was late, there was considerable activity in the neighborhoods as families packed belongings into vehicles to head west into Omaha. Idly, he wondered if there would be anything left for them to return to.

“Current pushes against that bank. She’s smart. She knew she couldn’t make it back if she fought against the river,” Knight answered. “Aww, damn it all.”

As instructed, the overseer set down in front of the sheriff’s station. A Daws’ Earthmoving pickup was backed up to the open front doors.

“What?” Tinker asked. “Who’s that?”

Knight pulled his pistol and fumbled to load a fresh magazine, his wounded arm weakening. “Paige and Joe Thedford are looting the station.”

As if using his name called him forth, Toad Thedford, exited the station with an armload of supplies. With a startled look of recognition, he cussed and dropped the items, running back into the station.

“Stay here,” Knight said, jumping free of the overseer.

“Lester, no,” Tinker said. He might as well have been talking to the wind.  Knight ran forward with the pistol in his right hand and his left arm swinging limply.

Gently lowering Clara to the floor, Tinker pulled off the uniform shirt Knight had given him. With the shirt off, the cold night air chilled his skin. Working quickly, he wrapped it around Clara, pulling her arms through the too-long sleeves. Knowing he couldn’t leave her alone while she was still hypothermic from the river’s freezing water, Tinker hoped that if the specialized clothing could provide flotation, it would also provide much-needed warmth.

“What are you doing?” Clara fought against him weakly.

“It’s me, Tinker,” he said, zipping the shirt into position. “Knight’s in trouble, I have to help him. I’ll be right back.”

Either slipping back into unconsciousness or placated, Clara stopped fighting. Carefully, he rearranged her legs so she’d be as comfortable as he could manage and then he ran off in the direction Knight had been going.

He’d visited Knight a few times while at work and knew something of the layout of the sheriff’s office. As stealthily as he could manage, he ran to the front door, careful to stay out of the line of sight from the inner hallway. Ducking his head around the corner, he glanced into the building through the transparent front doors. Seeing that the darkened hallway was clear, he slipped through the front doors and plastered himself to the wall.

“You’re hurt, Knight.” Tinker recognized the voice of Toad Thedford.

“I’ll give you a free pass tonight, Joe. Drop your gun and walk out the front door. You can even keep Frank’s truck.” Tinker could hear but not see his friend and continued forward, staying out of the light.

“Yeah, right,” Toad answered. “Give me the codes for the armory. Those aliens are coming and people need weapons. Don’t you get it, Knight? This is real end-of-the-world shit and I ain’t dying because you got stingy with the rifles.”

Rounding a corner, Tinker couldn’t believe his good luck. Standing between him and Knight was Toad. He looked for something to hit the big man with. A blur of motion caught his eye just before he felt the strike of something heavy on the back of his head. Stars filled his vision and he fought to maintain consciousness as he fell.

“Dumb sonnova b-word,” Paige Thedford said, in her thick southern accent. “He like to’ve snuck right up on you, Toad.”

“Knew you was worth keeping around,” Toad scurried over and grabbed Tinker by the hair. He hauled him upright before Knight could react.

“Put him down, Joe,” Knight said.

“Fraid your time’s up, Knight,” Toad answered, yanking Tinker around in front. “Open the armory or I’m blasting a hole in your sweetheart, here. Feel me?”

“Joe. We need those guns. The aliens are coming across that river at any minute.” Knight tried reasoning with him.

“First rule of survival is to use what’s at hand,” Toad said, pressing the weapon onto Tinker’s head menacingly. “And I’m planning on surviving. Now if you want your girlfriend here to survive, you’ll do what I’m telling you.”

“Don’t, Lester,” Tinker said. “You can’t give this psycho …”

Toad pulled his hand back and bashed the butt of the weapon into the side of Tinker’s head, quieting him.

“Stop,” Knight said. “I’ll open the room.”

Toad gave his wife a knowing smile. “See Paige, I always told you a little elbow grease gets the job done.”

“It’s open.” Knight shook his head. “Guns are yours.”

“Put your gun down, Knight. We don’t need no Army heroes,” Toad said. “Then we’ll get you and your boy here to load the truck up so me and Paige can be on our way.”

Knight put his gun on the ground and held his good arm up, trying one more time to reason with the man.  “You don’t need to do this, Joe.”

“Pick up his gun, Paige. The two of you get in that room and start hauling. I’ll bet anything these’ll go like gold on the black market.” Toad waved his gun as if it were a director’s baton.

“Knight needs a dressing for his wound,” Tinker said, rubbing his head where he’d been struck. “He’s still losing a lot of blood.”

“He’ll live,” Toad replied.

Tinker scowled. “He’ll haul your precious guns faster if he doesn’t pass out.”

“Make it fast and don’t try anything stupid.”

Tinker opened a first-aid cabinet mounted on the wall and pulled a large med-patch from the shelf.

“You shouldn’t have come in,” Knight said. “Where’s Clara and where’s your shirt?”

“She was freezing so I put the shirt on her in the overseer.” Tinker opened the torn uniform shirt and placed a patch over the oozing wound.

“She needed your help,” Knight argued quietly. “Damn it.”

“Stop talking,” Toad said. Somewhere along the line he’d picked up the baton Paige had whacked Tinker with and was using it to prod them back to the armory.

“Now, that’s what I’m talking about,” Toad said as the three walked into the rectangular room. Along one wall was a cage full of 816 rifles, each with several magazines carefully hanging next to them. Metal cases of ammunition were stacked in neat square towers sitting on the floor in front of them. Other cabinets displayed a variety of other emergency gear, but Thedford only had eyes for the weapons.

Toad grabbed an armored vest that read Sheriff and pulled it over his shirt. “Load rifles onto that grav-cart,” he ordered. “And ammo. I want all that ammo.”

Together, Tinker and Knight loaded the heavy-duty grav-cart with weapons and ammunition.

“What now?” Tinker asked when the cart was fully loaded.

“Out to the truck, what do you think?” Toad answered, stuffing his pistol into his belt and plucking a rifle from the top of the stack. “We’ll have to make another trip.”

The loaded cart was easy to push, but considerably more difficult to stop due to its heavy mass. The young men struggled to guide it through the narrow hallway, around the reception desk, and into the main entry.

Pushing through the front door and onto the cement walk where the Daws’ truck sat, it was Knight who first pulled up short.

“Keep moving,” Toad bellowed angrily. “We don’t have all night.”

“Don’t move, Thedford,” a woman’s voice commanded at the same moment a bright spotlight illuminated the three men, casting their shadows against the building.

Toad wasted no time and raised his rifle, pointing it at the light. The movement was met with the sound of a triple shot and the man was dropped to the ground. Knight turned, having recognized the voice as belonging to Deputy Jill Jackson. An excellent marksman, she had undoubtedly triple-shot Toad center-mass to bring him down. They had only a few seconds before he recovered, since Toad had been smart enough to don body armor.

“Freeze, Paige,” Jill commanded as Paige Thedford exited the station, carrying their infant daughter, Cassy.

Knight jumped onto Toad and pulled his own service weapon from the man’s pants. He found it ironic that Toad had traded up for Knight’s weapon and left his wife with the piece of crap he’d been carrying.

“Jill, you have any cuffs?” Knight rolled Toad over onto his stomach and twisted the burly man’s arms behind him.

“What are you doing, Knight?” Paige asked over the child’s intensifying cries.

“Joe Thedford, you’re under arrest for attempted burglary, kidnapping, assault and resisting arrest,” Knight said, ignoring her and catching a pair of zip cuffs that had been thrown to him. “Paige Thedford, you’re under arrest for the same list. Jill, Paige has a gun on you.”

“Is Tinker okay?” Jill Jackson asked. Knight looked up and noticed that his friend, still bare chested, was standing with his hands raised.

“Yes. Damnit, Tinker. Put your hands down,” he said.

Relieved, Tinker ran over to the overseer, passing both Deputy Jackson and Randy Botsworth, another deputy he recognized, but didn’t know well. To his relief, he found Clara sitting up with her back against the overseer’s controls.

“Clara?” Tinker asked, sliding down to the floor next to her. “How do you feel?”

She gave him a glassy-eyed stare. “I’m so cold. How did I get here?”

“What’s the last thing you remember?”

“I was in the water,” she said, shivering uncontrollably. Tinker helped her slide from the vehicle. “I was sinking. I thought I was going to die.”

Tinker slid an arm around her back and lifted her arm to hook it behind his neck. Stooping, he helped Clara walk toward the building.

“Your dad said you drove a dozer into the river,” he said with a glint in his eye. “You know they’re not designed to float, right?”

Clara’s head snapped toward him, her eyes wide even as her teeth chattered together. “What? Oh. How can you joke?”

“I can joke because you didn’t die, Clara,” Tinker said, his face growing serious. “That trick with the dozer probably saved everyone in Elmwood.”

“Someone pulled me from the water. It was Lester, wasn’t it?” Clara asked. Tinker’s stomach soured as he directed her around the Thedford family seated in front of the station. Their hands were now cuffed: Toad’s behind his back, Paige’s in front so she could hold their daughter.

“He wouldn’t have let you die, Clara,” Tinker said, and then more softly. “Neither of us would.”

Clara stopped and looked up into his face. “I know it was you, Jeremy,” she said, pushing onto her tiptoes and placing her hand behind his neck. She pulled up into him and kissed him fully on the mouth. Tinker closed his eyes and wrapped his arms around her, wishing the moment would never end.