Harry watched Randy slow as they crested a hill. “Guess this is the place. He mentioned stopping and picking up a few more people.”

“Looking like more than just a few. Four vehicles included two large extended-cab pickups with trailers, a suburban and SUV.” John shrugged.

Harry glanced up at Cody in the rearview mirror. “Has she moved?”

Cody moved his head from left to right. “No, sir. She’s still sleeping. My sister is sitting with her, sir.”

John turned to Harry. “I told you, I checked her. Looks like she’s sleeping.”

“She ain’t been right since the ambush. I’ve seen her favoring her side when she thought no one was looking. I hope her ol’ man’s place isn’t far.” Harry answered.

“Randy’s motioning the trucks to move out. Hold back. Looks like we’ve got four more vehicles coming with us.”

Harry pulled to the side to allow Pablo to pull up next to the camper. Harry gave a careless wave. “Picking up a few friends.”

Pablo laughed. “Sí. Y cabras, goats.”

John chuckled. “Makes sense. Goats can live on limited forage and can provide meat and milk. Smart.”

“What we’re attacked or someone tries to follow us?” Hugo asked.

Pablo shrugged. “Señor Randy say we shot them.”

Hugo shrugged. “Sí.”

Pablo nodded toward the last vehicle as it pulled onto the highway. “Señor?”

“Yeah. Got it.” Harry slid the camper into gear and pulled the camper out to follow the last vehicle.

Harry followed the trailer for another ten miles then saw Randy lead the caravan into a turn. When Harry got to the turnoff, he guided the camper across a cattle guard onto what looked like a fire road. It was a gravel trail that was little more than a cattle path. He glanced at the side mirror and saw Pablo pull across the ground gate and stopped.Hugo stepped out of the truck and stepped into the brush and pulled several dried branches from the roadside. He shoved several tree-looking pieces of the brush into the cattle guard. Once that was done, he used two more lengths of the brush to obscure the tracks of the vehicles that had just passed. He tied a rope on each limb and tied the end of the line to the back of the truck. He hurried back to the cab and the truck followed.

The caravan spent another two hours winding through scrub oaks, rock formations and a terrain that got steadily more rugged. Canyon walls gradually grew up from the rough landscape in the distance. Soon, the vehicles were swallowed by the wilds of Guadalupe National Park.

Harry growled as the camper bucked and rolled at yet another dry gully crossing. “Damned road sucks. I wonder how much longer.”

John pointed at a building in the distance.  It was not what he had expected. As they drew closer, he could see a large log structure on a distant hill. The lodge was a two story log structures with a metal roof of forest green. Additional buildings could be seen through the stands of trees. On either side of the trees in the distance could be seen the towering faces of the canyon.

“So this is it. Pine Springs.” John whispered.

“I’m clueless. The only one I’ve even talked to has been the preacher. I was hoping to get a few of the girls into separate quarters. It’s one thing to have a dorm for kids…but all the adults in the Rec Center with them, is a pain in the ass. No one is getting any sleep between the snoring, kids giggling, and going to the bathroom all night long, it’s fucking circus. Then add all the bitching…shit.”

“Is there more units at the camp?” Matt asked.

“At least three. They’re not in the best shape but movable. Maybe with a little cleaning and a new mattress or two, they’ll be serviceable. We can keep looking for campers if we head back toward one of the bigger towns.”

“Hell no! We make due. No one’s heading into that cluster-fuck.” Matt growled.

“What if we get a bunch of tarps from that home improvement store or look for some place with tents?” Larry suggested.

“Tent’s might work if we can find a sporting goods store or a rental store. They have those big white ones like they use for weddings.” Matt offered. “Get a couple portable air conditioners and generators, maybe. But then we’re back to making way to much noise.”

“I’ll talk to the team and see if anyone knows of a place that might have supplies we can use to expand our living space.”

“Meanwhile, let’s go over to Billings and put half those women in the empty camper. It’s stupid for all those women to be in one camper. The damned waste tank will be overflowing by morning.”

Matt and Larry walked across the parking lot to the furthest pair of campers. They got to the preacher’s trailer and tapped on the door with the end of a flashlight.

“Billings? We need to talk.” Matt called out. He could hear a harried discussion then the door opened a couple inches.

“What do you want?” The man in coveralls growled.

“I want to talk to Billings,” Matt announced. “Get him out here, or I’m coming in.”

“He’s busy.” The man retorted.

Matt sighed. “You were starving, and now you have a full belly. Either Billings gets out here, or you can load up that fucking bus in the morning and drive on outta here.”

The door slammed, and a frantic conversation took place behind it, then it reopened, and Billings appeared. It was evident he had been in bed. When Billings opened the door to speak Matt caught a glimpse of a young girl in a white shift staring at him. Her hair was a tangled nest while red marks marred her young face. Her eyes were red and puffy.

Matt turned and whispered to Larry. “Assemble the men and make sure they’re armed. Tell Jasper and Joan to get the kids in the Rec Center.” He whispered.

Billings watched as half a dozen uniforms in addition to Larry lined up behind Matt. “What is the meaning of this?” He puffed up his chest and did his best to look authoritative.

“Get out here. All of you. And leave your fucking guns inside.” Matt ordered as he pulled his handgun. Larry and the men behind him raised their weapons.

Billings started to close the door, but Matt slid the Mag Light into the opening. “What do you want? You don’t have the right to order….”

Matt grabbed the door and jerked it open with Billings still clinging to the barrier. He stumbled outside. Matt caught him and pushed him to the ground.  With a nod to Larry, he was searched, and then pushed to his knees.

The remaining men stared at the scene, unsure what to do. Matt reached into the camper and pulled the rifle from the man wearing coveralls. Matt raised his handgun at the men. The little girl’s eyes were big as saucers.

“You men get out here! Don’t make me shoot you,” Matt ordered. “I’ve had a long fucking day, and you’re pissing me off.”

Larry and the soldiers took control of each man as he came outside. Matt walked inside the camper while the remaining men were each searched then forced to their knees next to Billings with zip-ties on their hands.

Matt nodded at the second camper and ordered. “Everyone out of there, too.” He walked into the men’s camper where the child still stood trembling. He sat down at the table while the girl stood staring at him. The child was terrified.

“My name is Matt. You don’t have to be afraid of me. I’m here to help you. Can you tell me your name and how old you are?”

“Mary.” She answered as tears slid down her cheeks. “I’m twelve.”

“Is your father one of those men?” He asked.

She moved her head from left to right then answered. “My daddy’s dead. I don’t have no family.”

Matt was confused. “Your mother is not one of those women?”

Mary squared her shoulders. “No! My family’s dead. Some sick people came into the camp. Daddy locked me in the camper, then he and mama and two other men tried to kill them, but they got hurt.”

“What about the preacher and his men?”

“They didn’t come out to fight them.”

“When it was over, they were covered in blood, and the preacher said they would get sick, so the men shot ‘em all. Just like that, they shot them.”

“Did the other men have families?” Matt asked.

“Yes. There was a lot of yelling and screaming. They killed Becky’s mom when she pointed a gun at the preacher. The other man’s wife and two daughters are here. Becky’s daughter is my age. They came got me and said I belonged to them now.”

Matt struggled to control the rage that was building. He wanted to kill the bastard. After taking several deep breaths to steady his voice, he asked. “Did he hurt you?”

“Yes.” Mary turned toward the door and whispered. “He said he was saving me.”

Matt jumped to his feet with his fists clinched. When he saw Mary shrink away, he realized her fright, and he sat back down. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to frighten you. I’m just so angry right now.”

“Can I shoot him? He did it to my friend, too.” Mary asked.

Doc opened the door and saw the large black man sitting on the top step with a worried look distorting his face.

“Well.” Doc turned back to Amanda. “It seems we have a changing of the guard, young lady. Jake is outside, and the Lieutenant has disappeared.

Amanda smiled at Jake from the bed and held out her hand. “He’s my coach.” She announced.

Jake’s face bloomed with surprise and joy. “Me? Are you sure?” He rose and stepped inside the bedroom to kneel at the side of the bed. “I…I….” He stuttered.

Despite the grip of another contraction she reached out her hand and whispered. “I couldn’t think of a better person. You know I love you.”

Jake grinned. “Really? Really?” He pulled her hand to his lips and kissed her fingers. “I was…I just couldn’t. Really?”

Amanda laughed. “It’s alright. Now, do what you do.”

She turned to her side, and Jake immediately began to massage the small of her back. Amanda relaxed and focused on her breathing. When the contraction eased, Doc cleared his throat. “Well, it’ll be a while, and I think you two have things handled for now. Helen and I will be downstairs for a few minutes. Someone mentioned coffee?”  They disappeared from the room.

Jake sat back, and Amanda turned toward him with a questioning look on her face.  He whispered. “I know you loved your husband and I’m sorry he didn’t make it. I know I can’t take his place, but I love you and want to be this baby’s daddy.”

“I love you, too.” She smiled. “Now let’s get this baby born.”

Jake grinned back until he saw her face melt into a grimace. “Right.” He grinned. “I’m gonna be a daddy.”

Doc and Helen came down the stairs whispering and chuckling. They appeared at the kitchen door, and Doc asked. “Did I smell coffee?” He asked as he walked into the kitchen where Matt, Larry, and the girls now sat.

“We’re having a baby now?” Amy asked.

“We sure are, little one.” Doc settled at the table, and Helen poured two cups of coffee, crossed to the table and settled on a chair.

Doc took a sip of coffee then spoke. “Well, Matt, quite the merry little band you have here. I take it, the illustrious Reverend Jacob Billings is a new arrival.”

Matt bounced Clair as she pulled at his collar giggling. “It does seem to be getting a little out of control. And yeah, we got Larry to thank for Billings.” He frowned.

Larry looked up from the cup of coffee in his hands. “I think I should have turned around and left the bastard there. But they were starving. They had those little girls.” His voice trailed off.

“Who exactly did they have?” Matt asked.

Larry shrugged. “Five men plus Billings, two are young men, maybe early twenties. There’s eight women, four middle age, four real young and then three little girls, preteen I’d say.”

“No little boys?” Helen commented. “That’s strange, and all the women are dress in long dresses. They remind me of those Amish or Mennonite folks except the look on the younger women’s faces.” Her voice trailed off.

Larry continued. “The preacher insisted all the women stay in the big camper and the men are in the smaller one next to it. They turned the campers, so the doors face each other. Something weird about them, for sure.”

Doc stood up and nodded toward Helen. “You gentlemen seem to have things to discuss, and we have a baby to deliver.” The old couple ascended the stairs without more comment.

“Well, this is a fine mess you’ve gotten us into.” Matt chuckled and turned to Amy. “Time for you two to get back in bed. One of us will be in to tuck you in in a little bit.”

Amy yawned. “Yes, sir. I’ll fix Claire’s bottle then we’ll go.”

Matt smiled and nodded. “Thanks, sweety.”

He let Claire’s hand slide across his face to his lips. He caught her fingertips between his lips and blew out. The baby giggled as she collapsed against him and hugged his neck.

“Da Da.” She giggled. She pulled at his hair, then sat up and grinned.

Amy appeared and reached out for her sister. “Good night, Mr. Matt and Mr. Larry. Tell Mr. Jake good night for us, please.” She disappeared down the dimly lit hall without a backward glance. The small lantern flicked on and a hint of light spilled from the back bedroom.

“Da da?” Larry grinned.

“Drop it,” Matt growled. “Now, about the preacher.”

“I don’t know what to tell you, but I do know, all those women and girls can’t stay in a one-bedroom camper.”

“What?” Matt jumped to his feet. “How many units did you bring back?”

“Six,” Larry answered.

“I put Doc and Helen and the girls in one, Red and Theresa with a couple kids in another, then the rest of their group in the third. We can go back for two more units tomorrow.”

Matt ran his hand through his hair. “Aren’t any of them families? What in the hell is going on with them?”

Brian pulled his legs from the window ledge and sat upright.  He got to his feet and turned to study the four sleepers now only shadows in the gloom. He turned back to Billy’s flushed face visible in the moonlight through the windows.

“What is it? Is it midnight?” He whispered.

Billy pointed through the window. “No! There! I can see lights.”

Brian wiped his eyes with the back his hand and studied the dark shadows in the distance. He got to his feet, squinted and leaned closer to the glass. After a full minute, he was ready to give Billy hell for waking him when he saw a flash of light. Suddenly there were three more flashes in quick secession.

“Gunfire?” Billy asked.

“You got the keys to the truck?” Brian demanded. “Stay here and keep watch until morning. If I don’t make it back, you know where to go.”

Billy handed Brian keys. “The truck has a full tank. Are you sure you should go?”

“I don’t want someone or something to sneak up on us. Besides, there might be someone we can help.” Billy looked unsure, and Brian continued. “You see any other vehicle than this truck headed this way, you load up and head out the back. Drive like hell. I’ll catch up.”

“Got it,” Billy answered. “I’ll be watching. You want me to get the others up?”

“I’ll take Leon with me but let the other’s sleep for now.” Brian walked to Leon and gave him a shake. Leon jerked away grabbing for a big knife at his side. “Easy, big guy.”

When Leon realized it was Brian, he flopped back against the pile of T-shirts. “Boss, you scared the shit outta me.”

Brian shrugged. “Come on. We have to check out something.”

Leon stumbled to his feet and stepped into his boots. “What’s going on?”

“That’s what I want to know,” Brian answered.

Brian and Leon grabbed a couple go-bags and climbed in the old truck.

The eighty-nine Ford 150. It had original red and white paint and interior though a little worn was in good condition. When Juan had examined the motor, it was evident it had been well cared for. Brian had debated because the standard tires had been replaced with wide, deep tread, off-road versions. The truck would be top-heavy, but at least the engine and muffler hadn’t been modified.

Just as Leon pulled the passenger door closed, Brian slammed the big engine into gear. He stomped on the gas heading for the parking lot entrance.

“Lights!” Leon commented as he clung to the dash, “We need lights!”

“No, we’re going in stealth. I had Juan take out all the light bulbs in the breaks.” Brian answered. “Only headlights left.”

“Where are we going?” Leon asked.

“There.” Brian pointed to two flashes of light. “I want to know who’s doing all the shooting.” The truck turned onto the narrow blacktop and headed toward the gunfire in the distance. Leon rolled down the window and stuck his head out. “I can hear it. Some of it sounds like automatic weapons. Not a .22 for sure.” Leon called over his shoulder.

Brian turned the steering wheel, and the truck left the highway for a narrow side road heading toward the small war in progress. The truck bounced over the rough road, and half a mile from the station could hear the roar of several big engines as heavier gunfire echoed in the distance.

“What are we gonna to do?” Leon settled on the seat and picked up a military rifle with the muzzle pointed out the window.

“We’re stopping in that grove of trees and check out what’s going on.” Brian drove another three minutes while the gunfire got louder and more sporadic. He pulled off the road and backed into a corpse of scrubby trees. He turned off the engine.

Both men jumped from the truck.

“What’s the plan, boss?” Leon asked.

“Follow me, but not too close. If anything happens, head back and get the hell outta here. You and Billy load everyone up and move out.”

Brian jogged to the side of the road with Leon following ten feet behind. The two men hurried between dark shadows until they neared the crest of the hill. Brian took a knee and pulled a small pair of binoculars from his vest and studied the scene below. Leon moved closer and waited in the dark shadows of the overhanging trees alongside the road.

Below in the middle of a small clearing sat half a dozen vehicles. Two heavy duty pickups blocked the road in front of a minivan and truck. The second pair of trucks had blocked their retreat. The van and truck driver had tried to evade the attacker by driving into the trees on the side of the road and gotten trapped by a small stand of trees. They had made their last stand, and it had not gone well.

Four bodies lay on the pavement where they had been drug from the shadows of the trees. A young woman and teen girl had been forced to their knees in the middle of the road. A man in front of them was laughing and poking at the older woman. Each time he reached for the teen the woman slapped the man’s hand and pulled the girl closer. Even at a distance, Brian could hear sobs of terror from both.

Brian tore his eyes from the women and examined the men dressed in camouflage. After a barked order from the man harassing the women, the dozen or so people milling around each seemed to find purpose. Trucks were pulled off the road, supplies were removed from one of the pickups, and a fire was built on the side of the road. One of the men put a coffee pot over the small fire.

Two men began scavenging supplies from dead bodies. They drove a knife into the eye of each body before dragging them away from the camp. Three people went to the disabled vehicles and pulled supplies and personal items from inside each. Suddenly there was a yelp of excitement.

One of the men reappeared from the minivan with a quart bottle in hand. He passed the black-labeled bottle to one of the offenders spreading out a sleeping bag. The man took a long draw on the amber liquid then gave it to another person. Within minutes several of the men were passing the bottle back and forth. Some stopped at one drink and gathered bedrolls and laid down near the fire.

A man gave some gruff orders and the group as a whole drifted to the side of the road where they quickly built a fire and began heating cans of food and a coffee pot.

Brian, Billy, Leon, and Juan walked back into the fueling station gift shop. Margo and Paula had pushed racks and remnants of merchandises into a pile at the back of the store while sorting through the remains of useable supplies. Most of what remained was souvenirs for the traveler; hats, t-shirts, and plethora of knickknacks including a large velvet painting of Elvis that had been leaned against a wall on top of one of the piles as if in a place of honor.

Juan walked to the last standing rack with half a dozen ball caps still clinging to the hooks and pulled one from the stand. He pulled the dirty cap from his head and tossed it to the floor before retrieving a new one and settling it on his skull. He sniffed at his sweat-soaked armpit then moved to a pile of shirts and found a sand colored camouflage pattern T-shirt and headed toward the bathroom. “Gonna get cleaned up.”

Leon followed suit. He sifted through the pile and laid out three or four shirts and began checking sizes.

Margo looked up from a small stack of supplies she was sorting through. “Not a lot left in the larger sizes. Most of the food stores we found were in the office where the manager died.”

Paula appeared from the back office holding up a bottle of Jack Daniel and box of candy bars. “This is the last of it.”

“I’ll take that.” Juan appeared from the bathroom and reached out for the bottle.

Brian pulled Juan’s arm back. “Not so fast. Better keep it for medicinal purposes.”

“It would be. I haven’t had a drink since the bar back in San Antonio.” Juan answered.

“But we’re not wasting it.”

“Señor Brian, you are a hard man,” Juan answered as he walked back toward the front of the store.

Brian laughed. “Everyone, get cleaned up and let’s get something to eat before it’s too dark to see what we’re doing. Between the windows and this place sitting on a hill, the light will be visible for miles. So we will be sitting in the dark.”

After a meal of shortbread cookies, canned vegetables, and Raman noodles the group settled down for the evening. Juan stood at the front door watching the parking lot and black ribbon of asphalt beyond. The rest of the group spread out a few shirts and blankets to make beds. Leon lay on his side using an armful of T-shirts as a pillow. Brian had pulled the office chair from the back room. He leaned back in the chair with his feet propped up on the windowsill.

“It doesn’t seem as dark now,” Margo commented to no one in particular.

“Full moon.” Brain answered before taking a sip of the steaming coffee.

He smiled at the thought of the six bags of coffee they had found in a cabinet. Even if they had to throw a handful in a pot of water, they had coffee for the foreseeable future. He wished there was a way to get the big natural gas tank to his father-in-law’s place. Natural gas would be at a premium soon enough.

Brian folded his arms across his chest and let his chin fall to his chest and mumbled. “Wake me at midnight.” He felt himself drift away to the sound of Leon snoring and Margo sniffling.

“Sir? Sir?” Billy shook Brian’s shoulder. “You need to see this.”

She looked at the double doors and saw multiple pairs of feet outside the sliding doors. She took a deep breath and ran for the stall door. She grabbed the door and swung it across the opening. The infected man saw the movement and changed focus and stumbled toward the opening. She slammed the door and drove the latch home and a clank just as the infected man slammed against the wood.

Releasing the door, she reached for the saddle and grabbed the saddle horn and pulled it from the stall rail. She stumbled back, landing on her butt when the saddled fell against her.  She scrambled to her feet as the sliding door parted and the first of several infected fell into the barn.

Della picked up the saddle and turned toward the distant entrance and the ATV. She was shocked at how heavy the saddle was, but she half drug, half carried the saddle away from the sliding door as two more infected stumbled through.

With her breath echoing in her ears she pulled and hurried as the monsters drew closer. Suddenly the weight disappeared and saw a dark shadow at her side. She raised the machete, and a deep voice called out.

“Run, I got this,” Zack ordered. “Get on the ATV and crank it.”

She turned and ran. Zack stayed at her side with the saddle now slung over his shoulder. They got to the ATV, and while she started the engine, Zack threw the saddle of the pile on the rack and used a bungee to secure the cargo of saddles and bridles.

Zack climbed on the machine, kicked down the clutch and shifted into gear. He gunned the engine just hands reached for them. She swung with the machete. Blood a dark, ugly color spirted toward them as she screamed.

“Faster!” Della screamed.

Zack accelerated, and the front end jumped several inches off the ground, he leaned forward and gave the engine more gas and the pulled away leaving the monsters behind. By the time they got to the road, both were laughing.

The next morning Zack used the ATV to carry Millie down to the corral to orchestrate lessons in saddling, bridling and caring for the horses. Each of the adults took turns saddling and riding. With Darlene, it wasn’t pretty, but she did stay on the horse. When they got back to the cabin, a conversation that had started earlier began again.

“We’re safe here. I don’t know why we have to leave.” Darlene protested again.

“I definitely think we’ve outstayed our welcome,” Steve argued.

“Why would you think that?” Darlene protested. “We have everything we need here.”

“The military boys that rolled into Utopia are probably not the only ones out there scooping up everything they can get their hands on. We’re less than fifty miles from Utopia and half a dozen other communities. Any one of them could be building a power base. ”

“What if we run into them?” Darlene asked.

“I’m hoping we don’t. That’s why we’re taking back roads.” Steve answered. “We avoid populated areas as much as possible. Less chance of groups of infected too.”

“Enough of all this gloom and doom talk. It’s time for us to have our biscuits and gravy.” Millie announced. She set a pan of golden brown biscuits on the table with a skillet of light brown gravy mixed with chunks of raccoon meat from the previous night’s meal.

Three days later, Steve watched as Zack finished loading the few supplies they had come with in the back of the truck. He threw a mesh net over the supplies at the front and tied them down. He waved at Steve.

“Good to go.” Zack grinned. “Are you ready?”

Steve looked down at the prosthetics in his lap. The stumps were still tender and slightly swollen, but the open sores had healed. He extended his right leg and held out the prosthetic cuff to slide in the stump.

“No,” Della ordered. “You can keep them in the front seat with you. Something happens you can put them on in the truck.” She nodded toward Zack and held out her hand for the prosthetics.

“Hey, man, she’s really mean.” Zack climbed the steps and picked up Steve with a wide grin.

Steve frowned and leaned into Zack’s wide arms.

He settled in the front seat and accepted his running legs. He lay them on the floor while Della, Darlene, Penny climbed in the back seat. Both Della and Darlene struggled to keep tears at bay.

Millie stood next to the truck and watched the travelers get settled. “This is a good place to spend my last days.”

Penny leaned out the window. “Come on Granny. We can make room for you.”

“No child, I’m too old for this life. My bones ache, and I’m tired. I got what I need right here.”

“But….” Darlene interrupted. “We’ll find more pills.”

“And in another month down the road, you’ll be lookin’ again, and it’ll be that way until there isn’t any more. Same end.”

“But you’ll be with us,” Darlene argued.

“That’s the point. I won’t have the child see it.” Millie answered.

Steve raised his hand. “Goodbye, Millie.”

He patted Zack’s shoulder, and Millie stepped away to wave with a sad smile on her dark face.

Together they stepped into the shadows of the barn.  The silence was heavy and ominous after the roar of the ATV’s motor.  Della could hear Zack breathing.  As his breathing began to slow, she became aware of another sound.  She heard a shuffling sound and then a gentle brush against wood somewhere deeper in the barn.

Della held out her hand, and they both stopped.  “I hear something.”

Zack whispered. “It’s at the other end of the barn.  Let’s get in and out.”

Della gave a quick nod and flicked on a flashlight.  She fanned it across the dark recesses of the long passageway.

“Nothing.”  She answered as she swung it into the tack room. After a quick pass around the room, she stepped through the doorway.

Della pulled a list from her pocket.  She grabbed a burlap bag and walked to the wall on the left.  She pulled half a dozen bridles from the wall.  She walked to a work bench picked up a grooming box and dumped the contents into the bag.  She tied the end with a length of rope and picked up three saddle blankets.  She carried the items to the ATV and settled them on the back cargo rack.

She hurried back to meet Zack carrying two saddles toward her.  “Only two in the tack room.  Got to be a lot more around here.”

“I think I saw at least a couple hanging over the side of the stalls in the barn,”  Della answered as she helped him stack the saddles on the rack.

“Great.”  Zack lamented.

“I have the bridles and three blankets,”  Della answered.

“Let’s get this over with.  I can carry two saddles if you can carry one and the blankets.” Zack answered.

“Sounds good,” Della whispered as she pointed the small LED beam down into the dark.  “There.”

She focused the beam on the closest stall.  Hung over the top board was a saddle with a saddle blanket next to it.  “One.”  She whispered as they walked deeper into the barn.  She examined the next stall and saw nothing.  She quickly moved the beam to the next stall, she hesitated, then added.  “Two.”

“Gotta find one more,” Zack commented.

Della hurriedly fanned the beam to the opposite side of the barn.  “There!  At the end, on the right.”  She let out a long sigh.  “I’ll get that one.  You picked up the other two and let’s get the hell outta here.”

Zack held out a dark hand.  “Be careful.”

“You too,”  Della answered as she quickened her steps.

Della hurried down the corridor of the barn.  She glanced over her should see Zack had gotten to the second saddle.  With a powerful arm, he pulled the saddle and blanket from the top board of the stall.  Suddenly, Della realized the scratching was louder and closer.

She stopped and fanned the beam of light from left to right.  She stumbled when she was clouded eyes staring back at her from the stall holding the saddle.  She kept the beam on the face and stared.  The gate was open, but the infected reached through the slats of the stall.

“Shit.”  She whispered.

Della fought for control of her breathing and her racing heart.  She raised the machete in her hand to hit at the infected then dropped her arm to her side.  The board where the saddle rested was too high to get to the infected person.

She thought about stepping into the stall with the monster but hesitated.  She could pull the saddle down and take a chance of the monster coming through the door after her or do something about the problem.

The stall door opened outward.  If she closed the door, she could trap the monster, pull off the saddle and run. She glanced at Zack as he grabbed for the second saddle.  A slam against the double doors a few feet beyond the stall made her jump.

“Shit!”  Della cursed.

Randy dodged around a pile of shopping carts in the middle of the road and accelerated.

“This street, right?”  Randy asked.

Miguel fired then glanced ahead.  “If it’s open, go for it. We gotta get back on the main highway! If they go for wheels, we’re in trouble.”

Randy waited to break until the very last minute.  As the tires locked up, he took a quick look down the street and changed his mind.  He pulled the wheel back to the left and accelerated again.

“No, go! No, Go! Street’s blocked!”

“Keep going. We run into a blacktop a quarter mile down.”  Miguel answered before whispering under his breath.  “I think.”

“You think?”  Randy asked.

“I’m sure…I think.”  Miguel mumbled as he fired twice then reached for Randy’s rifle.  “I’m pretty sure if we get to the blacktop it will take us back on the highway.”

“We’ve got to get enough of a head start to lose anyone following before the turn off into the canyons.”

“Just drive.  We’re giving enough cover to keep their heads down.”

They lost sight of the attackers and approached the turn-off.  Randy slowed then turned on the blacktop.  He accelerated and raced ahead only glancing up twice before deciding the others were keeping up.

The speed approached seventy, and he held it there until he saw the turn-off.  At the last minute, he slowed, jerked the wheel to the left and steered the big truck onto the highway.  The minute he saw Pablo make the turn he slammed his foot into the floorboard.  The truck sped up and wind whipped through the open windows.

Miguel set Randy’s gun across his lap and reloaded.  He set it aside and began the same exercise with his own.  “You think everyone is okay?”

Randy shrugged.  “Hope so. I don’t think we should stop until we get to the Goodman place.  I hope like hell he’s ready to pull out.”

A full four minutes later, Miguel pulled back inside the cab as the pickup rolled onto the asphalt of the highway.  “See I told you.”  He announced.  “Hit the gas.  I hear engines.  Sounds like motorcycles.”

“How many did we take out?”  Randy asked. “Enough to discourage them?”

“Maybe. I know I killed two.  I heard shots from Hugo with Pablo and from the Camper. More fell then.  I figured there was at least nine in the group. We killed or wounded maybe half. Add the infected that was congregating on their locations.”

“Maybe the infected took care of the rest for us.”  Randy chuckled.

“De su boca al oído de Dios.”  Miguel mumbled.

Randy drove on.  When the pickup neared the Goodman Ranch, Randy picked up the radio that was the mate of the one he’d given to the old man.

“Goatman.  The doctor calling.”  Randy smiled.

“Goatman?”  Growled a gravelly voice.  “Who are you calling goatman?”

“We’re coming through in about ten minutes. You need to ready to pull out immediately?”

“You sound like you’re in a hell of a hurry.”

“We ran into trouble about ten miles back. Afraid they might be following us.”

“We’ve been ready for a couple hours, four vehicles with two trailers good to go.”

Randy sighed.  “Load up and meet us at the gate.”

Randy slowly pulled away from the two other vehicles.  He squinted into to the sun trying to see ahead before he committed to the path ahead.  It left the main street and wound through what looked to be the beginning of a residential area.  The streets were littered with bodies, refuge and abandoned vehicles.  Despite that, it looked as if they could weave through the debris and make it to a cross street running parallel with the main road.

He moved slowly toward the intersection and the turn-off.  Finally, deciding to commit, he pulled into the intersection and dodged around a stalled sedan with room to spare.

Miguel pointed toward the side street.  “Company’s coming.”

Randy accelerated as he turned the wheel to the left.  “Watch out.  I’m not stopping until we’re out of here and across the cattle guard at home.”

“Got it.”  Miguel pushed the barrel of his rifle out the window and scanned the side street.  “Two blocks down, take a right. It’s the first chance to head north.”

Randy nodded at the rifle in Miguel’s hand. “Keep it quiet for now if we can.”  He steered the truck around a car pushed against a light pole and a length of fencing torn away from the metal post and left in the street.

The car’s driver’s door hung open, and the brush guard sent the sheet of metal flying with a loud crash as they passed.  Half a dozen infected turned at the sound. Randy stepped on the gas until he noticed a pile of red in the road ahead.  As he drew closer, he saw it was a fallen motorcycle.

It was an RS-5, one of Yoshimura’s most popular bikes. It was a real eye catcher with the color and the trapezoid shape melded into a sports bike.  Even laid out on its side, it looked to be in pretty good shape with only a scratch or two visible.

“Poppy!  I sure would like to have that bike.” Miguel chortled as he pointed his machete at a large infected man making a beeline for the truck.

“You want me to stop?”  Randy asked as the three infected drew closer. He took his foot off the accelerator.  By then the infected were less than a dozen feet away.

“No!  Speed the fuck up.”  Miguel called over his shoulder, and he leaned out the window.

He extended his arm with the machete over his head.  As Randy sped between two infected, Miguel swung at a thick bodied woman in a house dress.  The blade connected below her chin snapping her neck.  She collapsed as the truck sped away.

He turned to Randy grinning.  “Next one is yours.”

Randy laughed.  “That was sick.”

The passenger side mirror of the pickup shattered in an explosion of glass and plastic.

“Fuck!”   Miguel pulled back in the cab.

“What the hell!”  Randy shouted as he accelerated.

“Taking fire, man.  Get us outta here!”  Miguel dropped his machete and pulled his rifle to his shoulder.

“No shit!”  Randy answered as he glanced at the side mirror.  He jammed his foot into the gas.  A heartbeat later, the camper and Pablo’s truck lurched forward after them.

Two more shots rang out. One pinged off the hood of the vehicle. Miguel exchanged his machete for the rifle, leaned out the window and returned fire.  He made three quick shots.

Four men appeared from the shadows of a building on the main street in the distance.  They were running toward the truck.  One of the men stopped to raise his rifle, aim, and fire.  A sudden shot from behind the truck exploded, and the shooter in the distance fell to the ground.  When the man fell, his companion jumped behind a stalled truck and began returning fire toward the pickups and camper.

“That was John.  Keep firing.”  Randy yelled.  “We gotta get outta here!”

Half a dozen black-leather-clad men appeared from another alleyway. They ran full tilt from the main road.

“Got more assholes joining the party!”  Miguel yelled as he fired at the running men.

“Gentlemen, gentlemen…no need to be so jumpy.  I assume you’re Lieutenant Monroe, so you’re the man I am here to see.”  The man stepped closer to Matt and reached out with his right hand.  “I’m Reverend Jacob Billings.”

“Well, Reverend Billings, you have just barged into my home.”  Matt ignored the outstretched hand and Billings let his hand drop to his side. “You three can turn around and get the hell out of here.”  He bellowed.

Billings looked startled then reached out as if he could appease Matt’s ire.  “Sir, I mean no disrespect….”

“You damned well did disrespect me by barging into our home.  Now get out!”  Matt nodded at Jake.

Jake walked over to the trio and with Larry coming up behind him, escorted the men outside.  He pulled the door closed behind them and flipped the lock.

Matt slumped into the recliner just as Amanda walked into the room carrying Claire and with Amy at her side. She chuckled.  “Well, that was interesting.  You know that isn’t the end of it.”

Matt looked up.  “No, but it gives me a night to sleep on it.”

Amanda’s face tightened, and she handed Claire to Amy.  She turned to Jake.  “Now I think you can go see if the doctor Matt brought back is all he claims to be.”

Jake’s mouth turned down in worry.  “Oh, Lord, have mercy.  It’s time?”  He raced to the door, flung it open and raced outside.

“I’m going to the bedroom upstairs.  Please have the doctor come up when he gets here. The kids can stay in the downstairs bedroom.”  She suddenly gasped and folded against herself as she clutched at the doorway.

Matt stepped up and draped his left arm around Amanda and swept his right under her legs.  He pulled her off her feet, turned and headed up the back stairs.

“I got this.  Larry, look after the girls.”

Matt carried Amanda up the stairs and through the door at the top of the stairs.  He looked around then crossed the room to the double bed.  He sat her gently down on the sagging mattress.  “What can I do?”

“Help me into this gown,”  Amanda answered around a groan of pain.  She pulled the loose t-shirt she was wearing over her head while Matt reached for the cloth.  She loosened her bra and tossed it and the shirt to a nearby chair.

“It’s going to be hard enough having this baby without drugs.  I’ll be damned if I’m wearing this thing.”

Matt held up the gown while turning away from Amanda’s full breasts and her swollen belly.  She stuck her arms into the armholes and let the thin material fall down around her.  “Okay, I’m decent.  Let me hold your arm” Matt, reached out and Amanda stepped out of her sandals and shed her shorts and underwear.  She reached back to lay a sheet and quilt aside and then looked up.   “You can let me go now.”

He did, and she eased into the bed and pulled the sheet over her just as another contraction gripped her midsection. She curled onto her side and moaned.

“What can I do?”  Matt whispered.  “I don’t know what I can do to help.”

Amanda forced a laugh.  “Can you have this baby for me?”  At Matt’s shocked expression she groaned.  “You can rub my back.”  She rolled to her right.

Matt felt the panic rise.  After a brief hesitation, he reached out with his fingers and lightly stroked her back between her shoulder blades.

“Not there,”  Doc called out from the doorway.  “Use your thumbs and make circles right above the dimples of her bottom. “

Doc walked into the room with Helen at his side.  “Well, I guess we got her in plenty of time after all.

Matt watched as Doc removed his jacket and set a bag and box of supplies on the chair.  He walked around the bed to sit down in front of Amanda.  “Now, Helen will get some things set up then when we get all settled I’d like to do an examination and see how far along we are. If that’s alright with you?”

He continued without giving Amanda a chance to answer.  “I’ve been retired for a while, but having babies is as easy as riding a bike.  I don’t have much to do, but make sure you’re doing what you need to do.  Actually, Helen will be doing more.  She brought a few things but do you have towels and baby stuff?”  He looked around and noticed the stack of newborn supplies on the dresser.  “Well, I guess that answers that.  You’re pretty well prepared, looks like.”  With a nod from Helen, Doc got to his feet. “Well sounds like we’re ready. Let’s see how we’re doing.”  He turned to Matt.  “You can wait outside until we’re done.”

Matt’s heavy footsteps could be heard escaping down the stairs.  A minute later, Doc opened the door to see Jake sitting on the top step.