Bob Horne looks around solemnly before adding, "And our prayers."
Some boxes of canned food, bottles and canteens of water, two 9mm pistols with a little less than 100 rounds, and a shotgun with a dozen shells are laid out on a table. Added to this are a few knives and a machete, some blankets, a first-aid kit, and a tool kit. Next to it are two full propane tanks. This is what could be offered up without stripping the remaining people of too much.
The group of about 40 people has gathered in the town's restaurant, Eats. Everyone is in the same predicament: This is as far as their cars would carry them. Some singles, some couples, even a couple of families are stuck here off the Hodge Road exit of I-15 south of Barstow. Everyone's been making do, because that's all that can be done.
The San Bernardino County Sheriff, California Highway Patrol, and even the military stopped passing by two weeks ago. Probably for the better, anyway. Between the three of them, they nearly drained dry the gasoline and diesel storage tanks. Most of the cooking has been done using the propane stoves, the storage tank for which has been largely untouched.
There's no radio or TV. Those broadcasts ended within a couple of days of it all starting. There still seems to be no consensus on what happened. Some postulate that it's a virus that got out of control, maybe even from a terrorist attack. Some blame mass hysteria. Others thought it might be race or religious riots that sparked suddenly and spread to almost every city in the nation -- maybe the world -- within hours or days. A growing number of people speak of armageddon, and that these events presage the end of the world.
Beyond the horizon is smoke from the fires that come from every panic situation, only whoever was left to fight them didn't succeed. It's not as bad now, not like it was last week or the week before. Some of them must have burnt themselves out. That's the best way to go, everyone figures. There's less smoke up the northern stretch of I-15, but civilization is -- or was -- back down south. If there's any chance of something better, or at least some place to find supplies, it's there.
Two trucks have been designated for use. One is a white 1998 GMC Sierra 3500 Crew Cab, and the other is a red 2001 Toyota Tacoma Crew Cab. Both are topped off with gasoline, and each has four five-gallon cans strapped into the bed. They were selected for running condition, their off-road abilities, and their visible colors. To help ensure the last, they've been washed and even waxed; there's a water well here, so that's not an issue, and it gave everyone -- particularly the children -- something to do. Also included are a twin-sized air mattress in each, and CB radios have been hooked up. So far, no one's heard anything of substance on them.
The group sits quietly before its meal of corn, green beans, peanuts, and milk reconstituted from powder and sweetened slightly with honey. It's meager: two meals could easily fit on a small plate, and everyone's always hungry. It's not especially tasty. But it's something. Bob stands and offers a prayer:
"We thank those who have provided these meals to us, and pray that we will continue to have the wisdom to survive. Lord, we pray that you watch over these brave souls who will venture forth with our hopes. Protect them in their travels, and speed them back to us with news of our families and the world we once knew. Amen."
Early the next morning, Tristan, Brian, Jack, Joe, Devon, Jeremy, and Sid are waiting in the cold, wind-whipped desert air for Henry Ridge to say his goodbye to his wife, Sarah. Henry, a structural engineer, volunteered to go since his skills might keep the team out of harm's way when entering a shaky building. He climbed his way out of Compton's bleaker areas to attend UCLA, and now he wants to see how his home city from birth has fared. He tenderly hugs and kisses Sarah, then steps back, her hands falling from his. He turns around, breathes deeply, and nods, steeling himself before jogging over to the trucks.
"Let's go," he says, opening the back passenger door of the Tacoma. "We asked God to look over us last night, and I don't want to test His patience on this one."
The sun is just starting to creep above the horizon. Even at highway speeds -- which aren't guaranteed -- it's more than an hour back to Victorville, and then another hour to the San Bernardino/Riverside area.