stopped. One or two of them shouted after the trucks; most turned hopelessly and silently back to their
wandering. There was one woman about fifty yards away; she broke into hysterics and began to bang
her head against a wall. I felt sick.
I turned toward my companions.
"Well, what do you want first?" I asked them.
"A billet," said one. "We got to 'ave a place to doss down." II reckoned I'd have to find that at least for
them. I couldn't just dodge out and leave them stranded right where we were. Now we'd come this far, I
couldn't do less than find them a center, a kind of H.Q., and put them on their feet. What was wanted
was a place where the receiving, storing, and feeding could be done, and the whole lot keep together. I
counted them. There were fifty-two; fourteen of them women. The best course seemed to be to find a
hotel. It would save the trouble of fitting out with beds and bedding.
The place we found was a kind of glorified boardinghouse made up of four Victorian terrace houses
knocked together, giving more than the accommodation we needed. There were already half a dozen
people in the place when we got there. Heaven knows what had happened to the rest. We found the
remnant, huddled together and scared, in one of the lounges-an old man, and elderly woman (who turned
out to have been the manageress), a middle-aged man, and three girls. The manageress had the spirit to
pull herself together and hand out some quite high-sounding threats, but the ice, even of her most severe
boardinghouse manner, was thin. The old man tried to back her up by blustering a bit. The rest did
nothing but keep their faces turned nervously toward us.
I explained that we were moving in. If they did not like it, they could go: if, on the other hand, they
preferred to stay and share equally what there was, they were free to do so. They were not pleased. The
way they reacted suggested that somewhere in the place they had a cache of stores that they were not
anxious to share. When they grasped that the intention was to build up bigger stores their attitude
modified perceptibly, and they prepared to make the best of it.
I decided I'd have to stay on a day or two just to get the party set up. I guessed Josella would be feeling
much the same about her lot. Ingenious man, Coker-the trick is called holding the baby. But after that I'd
dodge out, and join her.
During the next couple of days we worked systematically, tackling the bigger stores near by-mostly
chain stores, and not very big, at that. Nearly everywhere there had been others before us. The fronts of
the shops were in a bad way. The windows were broken in, the floors were littered with half-opened
cans and split packages which had disappointed the finders, and now lay in a sticky, stinking mass among
the fragments of window glass. But as a rule the loss was small-and the damage superficial, and we'd find
the larger cases in and behind the shop untouched.
It was far from easy for blind men to carry and maneuver heavy cases out of the place and load them on
handcarts. Then there was the job of getting them back to the billet and stowing them. But practice began
to give them a knack with it.
The most hampering factor was the necessity for my presence. Little or nothing could go on unless I was
there to direct It was impossible to use more than one working party at a time, though we could have
made up a dozen. Nor could much go on back at the hotel while I was out with the foraging squad.
Moreover, such time as I had to spend investigating and prospecting the district was pretty much wasted
for everyone else. Two sighted men could have got though a lot more than twice the work.
Once we had started, I was too busy during the day to spend much thought beyond the actual work in
hand, and too tired at night to do anything but sleep the moment I lay down. Now and again I'd say to
myself, "By tomorrow night I'll have them pretty well fixed up-enough to keep them going for a bit,
anyway. Then I'll light out of this and find Josella."
That sounded all right-but every day it was tomorrow that I'd be able to do it, and each day it became
more difficult. Some of them had begun to learn a bit, but still practically nothing, from foraging to
can-opening, could go on without my being around. It seemed, the way things were going, that I became
less, instead of more, dispensable.
None of it was their fault. That was what made it difficult. Some of them were trying so damned hard. I
just had to watch them making it more and more impossible for me to play the skunk and walk out on
them. A dozen times a day I cursed the man Coker for contriving me into the situation- but that didn't
help to solve it: it just left me wondering how it could end.
I had my first inkling of that, though I scarcely recognized it as such, on the fourth morning-or maybe it
was the fifth-just as we were setting out. A woman called down the stairs that there were two sick up
there; pretty bad, she thought.
My two watchdogs did not like it.
"Listen," I told them. "I've had about enough of this chain-gang stuff. We'd be doing a lot better than we
are now without it , anyway."
"An' have you slinkin' off to join your old mob?" said someone.
"Don't fool yourself," I said. "I could have slugged this pair of amateur gorillas any hour of the day or
night. I've not done it because you've got nothing against them other than their being a pair of dim-witted
"'Ere-" one of my attachments began to expostulate. "But," I went on, "if they don't let me see what's
wrong with these people, they can begin expecting to be slugged any minute from now.
The two saw reason, but when we reached the room they took good care to stand as far back as the
chain allowed. The casualties turned out to be two men, one young, one middle-aged. Both had high
temperatures and complained of agonizing pain in the bowels. I didn't know much about such things then,
but I did not need to know much to feel worried. I could think of nothing but to direct that they should be
carried to an empty house near by, and to tell one of the women to look after them as best she could.
That was the beginning of a day of setbacks. The next of a very different kind, happened around noon.
We had cleared most of the food shops close to us, and I bad decided to extend our range a little. From
my recollections of the neighborhood, I reckoned we ought to find another shopping street about a half
mile to the north, so I led my party that way. We found the shops there, all right, but something else too.
As we turned the corner and came into view of them, L stopped. In front of a chain-store grocery a
party of men was trundling out cases and loading them on to a truck. Save for the difference in the
vehicle, I might have been watching my own party at work. I halted my group of twenty or so, wondering
what line we should take. My inclination was to withdraw and avoid possible trouble by finding a clear
field elsewhere; there was no sense in coming into conflict when there was plenty scattered in various
stores for those who were organized enough to take it. But it did not fall to me to make the decision,
Even while I hesitated a redheaded young man strode confidently out of the shop door. There was no
doubt that he was able to see-or, a moment later, that he had seen us.
He did not share my indecision. He reached swiftly for his pocket. The next moment a bullet hit the wall
beside me with a smack.
There was a brief tableau. His men and mine turning their sightless eyes toward one another in an effort
to understand what was going on. Then he fired again. I supposed he had aimed at me, but the bullet
found the man on my left. He gave a grunt as though he were surprised, and folded up with a kind of sigh.
I dodged back round the corner, dragging the other watchdog with me.
"Quick," I said. "Give me the key to these cuffs. I can't do a thing like this."
He didn't do anything except give a knowing grin. He was a one-idea man.
"Huh," he said. "Come off it. You don't fool me."
"Oh, for God's sake, you damned clown," I said, pulling on the chain to drag the body of watchdog
number one nearer so that we could get better cover.
The goon started to argue. Heaven knows what subtleties his dim wits were crediting me with. There
was enough slack on the chain now for me to raise my arms. I did, and hammered both fists at his head
so that it went back against the wall with a crack. That disposed of his argument. I found the key in his
"Listen," I told the rest. "Turn round, all of you, and keep going straight ahead. Don't separate, or
you'll have had it. Get moving now."
I got one wristlet open, ridded myself of the chain, and scrambled over the wall into somebody's garden.
I crouched there while I got rid of the other cuff. Then I moved across to peer cautiously over the far
angle of the wall. The young man with the pistol had not come rushing after us, as I had half expected. He
was still with his party, giving them an instruction. And now I came to think of it, why should he hurry?
Since we had not fired back at him, he could reckon we were unarmed and we wouldn't be able to get
When he'd finished his directions he walked out confidently into the road to a point where he had a view
of my retreating group. At the corner he stopped to look at the two prone watchdogs. Probably the chain
suggested to him that one of them had been the eyes of our gang, for he put the pistol back in his pocket
and began to follow the rest in a leisurely fashion.
That wasn't what I had expected, and it took me a minute to see his scheme. Then it came to me that his
most profitable course would be to follow them to our H.Q. and see what pickings he could hijack there.
He was, I had to admit, either much quicker than I at spotting chances or bad previously given more
thought to the possibilities that might arise than I had. I was glad that I had told my lot to keep straight on.
Most likely they'd get tired of it after a bit, but I reckoned they'd none of them be able to find the way
back to the hotel and so lead him to it. As long as they kept together, I'd be able to collect them all later
on without much difficulty. The immediate question was what to do about a man who carried a pistol and
didn't mind using it.
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