Straeder’s name was at the very top of Salazar's short list.
Chernovsky had three minutes of his sales pitch out of his mouth when Straeder said “I am in.”
Sally had been listening in. The apple pie she had been carrying over to the window sill to cool dropped from her suddenly, nerveless fingers.
Steve Straeder said, “I learned a few things from our trip to Howell. For one thing, sleeping in people's houses is dangerous. I need a way to sleep outside. It will take a couple of months. That means some serious shelter.”
Chernovsky said, “The plan is to send a couple of men and have them stick together. Nobody can watch their own back 24/7.”
Steve nodded in agreement. His thinking had not quite caught up to Chernovsky’s. Carrying shelter meant draft animals. Once you committed to animals, adding a second person was not a big step. Furthermore, the problems in Howell happened after the team had split up.
“How far is it to Ames, Iowa?” Straeder asked.
“About 600 miles if you chip the south end of Lake Michigan and head due west” Chernovsky said.
“I am allergic to big cities” Straeder said. “How far is it if I stay fifty miles south of Chicago?”
“I don’t know. I suppose it could add maybe another hundred miles or two to the trip.” Chernovsky guessed.
“If you lead the trip, you plan the route. You tell us what you need to make it successful. We do what we can to supply those needs.” Chernovsky concluded.
Shad Shaw had a conversation with Vernon Blastic and his new wife, Pamela. Shad convinced them that this venture was the opportunity of a lifetime. It did not hurt that Shad was Blastic’s largest customers for hay.
Blastic Farms supplied three horses: Joyce, a fifteen year old mare. Lucky, a seven-year-old gelding who was one of Joyce’s offspring. The third horse was a gelding of indeterminate age named Cairo.
To the best of Vernon’s ability to tell, all three animals were easy-keepers with good feet and a fast walking pace. None of the animals were particularly young or photogenic nor were their coloring the least bit unusual. As much as three, rangy horses could be, they were anonymous and unlikely to attract attention.
Vernon suggested that they hitch two and rotate a fresh one in daily and let the one who had been pulling for two days have a break.
Kelly was faced with the task of fabricating a robust, lightweight wagon capable of conveying two people through unknown hazards.
He opted to use a 12’ long, aluminum jon-boat for the body of the wagon. Wheels were lifted from dirt-bikes with pneumatic tires, knobby and tough. The cover was rip-stop canvas and an awning was “borrowed” from a camper to extend the covered area when camping.
Kelly also built-in a “rocket stove”. Straeder did not anticipate much cooking. They needed to move fast-and-light. But two months was too long to pack food. They would have to find provisions along the way and there was a high need to cook somewhere along the way.
For his efforts, Kelly had a "share" in the venture.
Shad did not see how he could leave the family business. Sending one of his younger siblings was not an option. Shad did have an older brother, Walt, who was one of Chernovsky’s fighters.
Shadrack Shaw went to Chernovsky, hat-in-hand. “I hope I am not out-of-line, but is there any way you can spare Walt to go on this expedition?”
Chernvosky rolled the idea around in his head. Walt was well known to Chernovsky. His nickname was “Preacher” and had been part of Chernovsky’s forces since the very beginning. Losing him would leave a big hole.
The longer Chernovsky thought about it, though, the better the idea looked. Preacher, in spite of his name, was a seasoned fighter who did not hesitate in applying Old Testament solutions when needed. Preacher was also rock-steady and congenitally cheerful and resourceful. As much as Chernovsky would miss him, having him be the other man on the expedition made all the sense in the world.
Straeder was not thrilled by the prospect of the trip. The weather in December and January is unpredictable. His plan for the winter had been to take short, looping trading trips and not be gone from home for more than five or six days at a time. It is not good to be far from home when blizzards are likely.
Straeder was impressed by the plan and gear that came together in half-a-week. He was starting to get excited about the trip. It would be an epic test of wits and stamina.
And then it all went sideways.
Sally said “I am coming with you.”
“Don’t you think that is something we discuss?” Steve said. He had no intention of taking a third person, much less Sally.
“There is no discussion needed” Sally said. “I am going.”
“And what if I say no?” Steve asked.
“Then you better move out, right now” Sally said. “If you say ‘no’ then I will burn down this house while you are sleeping. I swear to God I will burn it down with both of us in it.”
Steve stared at Sally. She was as serious as a heart attack.
“This last time, when you did not come home, it ripped the heart out of me” Sally said. “I am not going through that again. If you don’t come back then I don’t come back. We either live or die together.”
Steve’s emotions were at war with his rational-self. His emotions said “No, no, and NO!” There was no way he wanted Sally to face the risks and privation that he would face on the trail.
A small part of Steve’s rational-self said that a third person would slightly increase the mission’s odds of success. One more set of eyes and ears. One more set of hands to do chores. And Sally weighed just an eyelash over 85 pounds. The horses would not notice the extra weight and she ate almost nothing.
Steve said “Absolutely not. Taking an attractive woman on this kind of trip is a recipe for disaster.”
And then he did the hardest thing he had ever done in his life. He turned and walked out the door.
Sally went on the trip anyway.