Archive for July, 2015

Della slid over and pulled Jimmy from where he rested on an unconscious Sandy. Sandy’s clothes were covered in blood but it didn’t take long to realize it was from a wounded Jimmy. Blood ran in rivulets from his neck. Della ignored Sandy and pressed a rag to Jimmy’s neck.  He moaned softly.

Still pressing her right hand against the wound, she jerked the door open with her left. She slid out, pulling Jimmy after her as she stepped from the vehicle.

“I got this.” Zack slid out the open driver’s door and reached for Jimmy.

Della stepped aside as Zack grabbed Jimmy under his arms. He gently eased him from the truck seat. Della stumbled along still pressing the rag against his neck as Zack made his way across the road. They made their way to a huge oak tree and laid him against the trunk.

Steve climbed from the front passenger seat and jerked the second door open. With Della and Zack focused on Jimmy, he concentrated at Sandy. She lay slumped across the back seat unmoving. Blood covered her left shoulder, neck, and the back of her head.

After a quick examination, he realized she had no wound to account for all the blood. He laid two fingers on her neck. The beating beneath the fingertips was strong and steady. He leaned her back against the seat and saw the gentle rise and fall of her chest. The middle of her forehead had a golf ball size knot that was growing darker as he watched.

Steve left Sandy stretched out on the seat and hurried around the truck as quickly as the blades allowed him after grabbing the backpack with first aid supplies.

When he got to the trio under the tree he stumbled to a halt. It was bad. Della’s hand was pressed to Jimmy’s neck while the blood oozed through the rag and spilled between her fingers.

Steve fell to his knees and pulled at the zipper of the bag. He pulled a package from the bag and tore it open. He pulled Della’s hand away and quickly pressed the compression dressing to the wound then pressed her hand back in place. When she looked back at him tears streamed down her cheeks.

Jimmy moaned and his eyes fluttered open. “Hurts….” He whimpered.

Steve forced a smile. “Easy kid.”

Steve turned to Zack. “Get a couple bottles of water, man.”

Zack lumbered toward the truck, his shoulders slumped in defeat.

“Is it as bad as I think?” Della whispered.

Steve nodded. “It nicked the carotid. There’s nothing we can do.”

Zack reappeared with bottles of water in hand. “Sandy’s waking up.”

Steve took the bottles. “Keep an eye on her. We got this.”

Bandages soaked through nearly as fast as they changed them at the side of Jimmy’s neck. Steve pulled two more compression bandages from the bag, opened the packaging and exchanged the soaked one for two clean ones.

Jimmy sighed. “Am I dying?”

Steve nodded then whispered. “I’m sorry.”

“Well, fuck.” Jimmy whispered as his eyes closed. A moment later, his eyes opened with a look of terror. He grabbed at Steve’s hand. “I don’t want to turn into a monster.”

“You won’t,” Steve answered.

Zack walked back to the old oak tree. Along with Della and Steve, he watched Jimmy’s eyes lose focus and his face relaxed. Zack cleared his throat twice then gave up as tears spilled from his eyes. He cried quietly. Della sobbed as she brushed hair from Jimmy’s face.

“I’m sorry, sweetie.” She whispered. “I wish I could do more.”

Jimmy’s chest rose and fell more slowly as the color faded from his face. It rose one last time then his whole body relaxed and the tension in his face disappeared.

Steve reached to Della’s hands and pulled them from the blood-soaked bandages. She leaned back and watched as he used the bottles of water to wash the blood from her hands. When he was done, she took the dampened towel and wiped blood from Jimmy’s face, her dark skin accentuating the paleness of his skin.

Della whispered. “I feel like I’ve lost a child.”

Steve swallowed hard. “So do I.”

Zack stood behind them with tears glistening on his round cheeks. “We’ve been friends since sixth grade. When we were kids, his mom told me she knew he’d be safe with me.” Zack snuffled. “I let her down.”

“No, you didn’t, Zack. You did everything you could to keep him safe. We all would have died at the center if it hadn’t been for you.” Della said.

Steve nodded. “There will be paybacks…I promise, if we come across the rest of that bunch, they’re dead.”

A distant moan interrupted and Della jumped to her feet. “Oh God, I forgot about Sandy.”

Steve looked up and Zack pulled him to standing and let him get balanced on the blades.

“Is she going to be alright? She has a really big goose egg on her forehead.” Zack picked up the backpack and pulled the zipper closed.

Steve added. “She was unconscious so she could have a concussion. It’s hard to tell. We need to keep her awake for a while when she comes around.”

By the time Steve got to the truck, Della had Sandy sitting up. Digging around behind the back seat, she found a roll of paper towels. She poured water on the paper and began wiping at the blood covering Sandy’s neck and side of her face. Steve reached behind the back seat and retrieved a faded t-shirt that had seen better days, but looked clean. Della pulled Sandy’s blood soaked shirt off, finished cleaning her as much as she could then pulled the clean shirt over her head.

“My head.” Sandy whimpered. She reached up to feel the knot above her left eye. “I think I feel sick.”

Della leaned her out of the truck and the remnants of a meal of energy bar and water spilled into the grass.

“Look y’all!” Zack called out suddenly.

Steve looked back down the road to where Zack pointed at a distant plume of dust.

Steve called out. “Come on Zack. We have to go!”

“We can’t leave Jimmy!” Zack protested. “I can’t leave him.”

Steve grabbed a blanket from behind the seat and hurried to Zack. Together, they wrapped Jimmy into a cocoon of army green wool. Zack leaned down and pulled his friend into his arms and hurried to the back of the truck. He laid the body gently in the bed of the truck and raced around the back of the truck to the driver’s side. He got behind the wheel while Steve climbed in the passenger door. Della buckled Sandy and herself into the back seat.

“Go! I see them coming!” Della called out.

Zack turned the key and the motor roared to life. He slammed his foot on the accelerator and they sped down the road with no real destination in mind. Zack made random turns until Steve finally pointed to a cross road at the base of the steep hill they had just crested.

“Slow down,” Steve ordered. “It will take them a few minutes to get here and I got an idea.”

They could see multiple vehicles ahead had been abandoned on either side of the road. One of the vehicles was a Department of Public Safety vehicle.

“What are we doing?” Zack asked.

Steve’s mouth turned up in a lopsided smile. “Paybacks. Stop by the DPS unit.”

“Okay. Then what?”

Steve used the drive time it took to get to the DPS vehicle to outline his plan. With tire iron in hand, he climbed out of the truck and walked to the black and white vehicle. He quickly realized the officer sat slumped into the steering wheel. A head shot had taken the officer out shattering both driver and passenger windows. It looked like a vehicle had pulled up and either the driver or passenger pointed a gun and fired.

Steve looked into the front seat and saw the officer’s service belt and revolver were gone. The service shotgun was no longer in the rack under the dash. At seeing that, Steve still couldn’t imagine anyone taking the time to remove the spike strip from the trunk so he reached inside the door and popped the trunk. He strode back of the unit and smiled when he saw the trunk had not been disturbed.

The officer’s trunk was a study in organization. It included two plastic totes with file folders for forms and papers, a tool box, several items to use for road side assistance in a canvas bag. In addition to the two spike strips and a large plastic gun case.

Steve leaned over and flipped the clasps and grinned. Inside was nestled a scoped rifle and several boxes of ammunition for the rifle. He left the rifle and other supplies for the time being and pulled both spike strips from the trunk. Tucking the tire iron in his waistband, he tossed several items from the trunk into the canvas bag and picked up both spike strips and headed up the hill where Della and Zack were finishing moving cars as he had directed.

Two vehicles were pulled to the center of the road with their front bumpers meeting in the middle of the road. Zack grabbed one of the spike strips from Steve then lumbered after him as he made his way around the blockade.

As Steve lurched past Della, he called out. “Head down the hill and open some of the car doors. Make sure it’s safe first. If no one’s inside, then toss the contents around. Make a big show. We want the guys in the truck as distracted as possible so they don’t see the spike strips.”

Della took off toward the cluster of vehicles after checking on Sandy.

Steve rolled the first spike strip across the road and could clearly see the zigzag pattern of spikes. He motioned for Zack to roll out the second strip. He looked across the road and realized the truck driver would have to be blind or extremely distracted to not notice the dark strip of spikes lying across the asphalt.

“Will they see the strips?” Zack asked.

“That’s the reason for tossing things around.” Steve answered. He pointed at one of the vehicles and continued. “There’s a propane tank in that blue pickup. Get it would you? I’ve got bungees from the unit. We’re anchoring it between the bumpers and if they hit the strip full speed, there’s a good chance they’ll slam into the cars and hopefully the tank will go boom.” Steve grinned.

Zack brought back the tank and helped mount it between the two vehicles. When they were done, they got back in the truck and headed down the hill.

They studied Della’s handiwork as they headed down the hill and saw what looked like a woman standing at an open car door. As they got closer, Zack’s eyes got big and Steve snorted.

“I’ll be damned.” Steve snorted.

A life-sized plastic doll had been taped to a car door with duct tape. The plastic arm extended up as if waving. Della had pulled a glittering sequined shirt over the doll’s upper body and now the dime-sized sequins on the shirt sparkled in the sun and light breeze.

“Now that’s something you don’t see every day,” Zack noted.

He slowed the truck and Della climbed in next to Sandy. She glanced over her shoulder and commented. “I’ll never stop being amazed at the stupidity of people. What kind of person takes a blow up sex doll with them when they’re running for their lives?”

Steve smirked. “It works for us.”

Della leaned over Sandy to check on her. She was slumped against the window and dozing.

“She shouldn’t be sleeping.” Della commented as she attempted to rouse Sandy. Della dampened a rag and wiped at Sandy’s face.

Zack stopped the truck at the side of police car and Steve stepped out to retrieve the rifle and filled the canvas bag with additional salvageable goods from the trunk. When he was back in the truck, he pointed to a side road at the base of the hill.

Zack drove down the hill and made the turn. When he had gotten far enough from the intersection to be hidden from the highway by a stand of trees, Steve told him to stop again.

“Stay here and keep an eye out. If you hear that truck make it around the road block or you see anyone else besides me heading through those trees, take off and don’t come back.”

He scratched around and retrieved a plastic bag from the floor then dropped two bottles of water and a couple energy bars inside. He picked up the plastic gun case and opened the door.

“Where are you going?”

“I’m making sure these people don’t go after anyone else.”

Steve grabbed the strap of the rifle and slid from the passenger seat of the pickup. He pulled the rifle strap over his shoulder. “Don’t stick around if you see anyone else besides me heading this way.”

Zack nodded. “Got it, man.”

Della reached out. “You should let me go with you.”

“No.” Steve stepped away. “I have to do this. You have to take care of the kids.”

Steve looked back without smiling. Attempting a terminator impersonation, he answered. “I’ll be back.”

Della forced a smile while Zack shook his head and laughed.

“That was really bad, man,” Zack commented.

Steve gave them a careless wave then turned and walked toward the wooded grove overlooking the trap. He maneuvered carefully through the brush and briars until he found a spot he had spotted earlier. It was a gentle rise crested with a cluster of boulders. He laid the rifle on the biggest rock and eased onto a smaller rock behind it. He dropped the plastic bag next to his leg. He opened a bottle of water and drank most of the bottle.

He was tired. The stump of his right knee hurt like hell. He wanted to pull the thermoplastic cup and silicone sleeve from the tender flesh, but he didn’t dare. If his little trap failed to stop the men chasing them, he had to be able to move quickly.

The sound of an engine in the distance interrupted his silent musing. Steve rose and looked toward the hill in the distance. The big truck with the roll bar and lights crested the hill.

The vehicle had been jacked up to allow room for the massive oversized wheels with thick tread, mud tires. The engine screamed as the truck vaulted over a distant hill with the tires leaving the road for a heartbeat.

Steve raised the scoped rifle to his eye and watched as the vehicle landed hard and the sound of its approach grew louder. He waited for the truck to climb the last hill before the trap. The truck raced to the top, caught air then landed with a bone-jarring thud, the engine screaming in protest. The driver struggled to control the vehicle but didn’t let up on the gas.

Steve aimed at the driver then moved the barrel to lead his target. He took a breath then let the air out and squeezed the trigger. The explosion of the shot was all but obliterated by the roar of the truck engine when the driver slumped forward.

Steve watched through the scope as the passenger jumped into action reaching the stirring wheel struggling to get control of the truck. The front tires hit the spike strips. Tires exploded. The vehicle swerved to the left and the tires lost any semblance of traction.

The vehicle tipped and began to roll. The two men in the bed clinging to the massive roll bar sailed over the side of the truck then disappeared under the crush of metal as the massive machine made the first rotation.

The second rotation took the truck into the two cars with the propane tank. The resulting explosion was deafening. A billowing mushroom of flames rose up from the twisted metal. One by one the gas tanks of each vehicle succumb to the heat and exploded. Within seconds, the entire trio of vehicles burst into flames. Debris fell from the sky all around the crash site.

Steve pushed himself onto his blades. He picked up the bag and rifle. He turned to walk back to the truck where Della and Zack waited. He grimaced with each step. By the time he got within site of the truck, he was using the rifle to support his weight.

Zack jumped from the truck and raced to Steve’s side. He grabbed the bag and pulled the rifle from his hand. He slid his shoulder under Steve’s arm and took the weight off his right leg. They stumbled back to the vehicle. Della opened the passenger door and Zack eased Steve inside.

“How bad is it?” Della asked.

Steve grimaced as he eased the cuff from the stump. “Bad enough.”

Della pulled the blood filled silicone sock from the stump. The skin across the stumps was raw and angry red. Pressure sores had formed and opened. Blood seeped from the open eruptions.

“Oh my God.” She whispered.

“I guess it’s a little worse than I thought.” Steve rubbed at the skin above the stump.

Della pulled at the second prosthetic. When it was also removed she found the skin was red and angry, but not yet blistered or broken. “Well, at least it’s not as bad as the right leg.”

“We have to get out of here,” Steve advised.

“After I clean and bandage your leg,” Della replied as she pulled the canvas bag from the back seat. “And you will be not using the blades for a while.

“Is he going to be okay?” Sandy asked.

Della nodded. “He’ll be fine.”

She finished dressing the wound then allowed Steve to turn around in the truck seat. She poured water into the silicone sock and rinsed the blood from it. She wiped both out with alcohol wipes from the first aid kit. When she was finished she picked up the blades and handed them to Sandy to store on the floor in the back seat. She closed up the bag and passed it back as well.

“Zack, get behind the wheel. We need to find a place to hide out for a few days.” Steve ordered.

Della climbed in the back seat and slammed the door. “I second that.” She passed Steve two white pills from the medical kit.

Zack turned the extended-cab pickup around and got back on the main road. He saw a sign advertised Utopia as only twenty miles ahead. “We’re heading to Utopia? It’s pretty far off the beaten path.”

Steve downed a couple Tylenol. “Let’s see what it looks like.”


Liz dressed quickly, descended the stairs carrying her shoes and the drawn handgun. She saw Harry and John standing at the window looking through the narrow openings between the wood slats on the outside of the glass. She made her way to the parlor and to a worn armchair. There, she sat down and stepped into her shoes.

“What’s going on?” Liz asked as she tied her laces.

Another two shots echoed in the distance. They seemed farther away than the first. John continued to watch the front gate while Harry turned to look in her direction.

“You look better than you did yesterday?” Harry commented then asked. “Are you feeling better?

“Yeah. I felt as bad as I looked.” Liz smoothed her fingers across her shortened hair at the side of her face. “Do you know who’s shooting?”

“Shots came from the other side of that stand of trees across the road.”

“Do we need to go see what it is?” Liz answered.

Harry shrugged. “I don’t know.” He turned back for another look. “I don’t see anything.”

Hazel and Benny came into the room with cups of coffee for each of them. Hazel handed Liz a cup. “You don’t need to worry ‘bout that shootin’. That’s just ol’ Clyde down the road.”

Benny spoke up. “He’s giving peace to those soulless folks coming from the highway down south. That’s why we don’t get many coming up this way. They have to go past Clyde’s and he sits at the window shootin’ anything that walks past his place.” Benny chuckled. “Long as you drive you’re fine. I wouldn’t want to be on foot and walking to slow, though.”

Hazel slapped Benny’s arm. “Now, don’t be scarin’ folks. You know Clyde don’t shoot no one running.”

John chuckled. “In other words, run don’t walk.” He and Harry accepted cups of coffee and settled on two straight-backed chairs.

Benny swigged a mouthful of coffee then settled into his recliner. “You got time for breakfast?”

John answered. “Sure. We don’t have many supplies. Breakfast would be appreciated.”

An hour later, Hazel and Benny stood on the porch waving as the trio pulled away and headed down the driveway.

Liz asked. “Why did you accept all that food? They’ll need it soon enough.”

Harry answered. “No. I doubt it. Benny’s pacemaker battery was scheduled to be changed last week and Hazel is almost out of insulin. It’ll be a toss-up who checks out first.”

“Maybe….” Liz began,

Harry interrupted. “Maybe what? We can’t do anything for either of them. Even if we found insulin, electricity has been off for days. It would be bad. As for Benny, nothing can be done.”

“Liz, we’ll help people that we can, but in this case, we can’t. We leave them in peace. All we can do is hope they’ll die quietly without any help from the rest of the world.” John commented.

Liz sighed as she blinked away tears. They closed the gate and headed down the road toward Clyde’s place.

They rode a mile then saw a well-kept ranch with the house situated a hundred feet from the road. The property was surrounded by a white board fence. A wrought iron gate stood open allowing an old man to drag a body from under a natural rock arched entrance. The man looked up and waved.

“Hello, young fellas.” Clyde dropped the legs in his hands. “My name’s Clyde. Nice day for a ride.”

Harry pulled off his helmet. His gray hair was pulled back from his face with a red bandana around his forehead. He smiled around his grizzled beard. “Not as young as my boyish good looks imply.” He chuckled.

“Well, guess you’re not.” The old man commented. “Excuse me for not shaking hands but got my hands full. World has gone to shit with these dead fucks wandering around.”

John stepped off his bike and kicked the stand in place. He reached down with a gloved hand to grab a handful of pant leg. “I got this ol’ timer.”

He pulled the body off the road and across the asphalt to lie next to two more bodies in the middle of a charred circle. One body was dressed in khakis and a Best Buy shirt and the other in a tattered housedress. All three had grievous wounds beside the holes in their heads.

“Thanks, young fella. Where you boys headed?” Clyde asked.

Liz pulled off her helmet and answered. “We’re looking for my children. They’re with three soldiers in an Army Humvee. Have you seen a military vehicle?”

Clyde looked at Liz. “Guess you ain’t a boy.” He chuckled. “As for your question, only soldiers I seen, blew through here in half a dozen vehicles. Was about three days ago. Had Humvees but they didn’t stop so I couldn’t say nothing ‘bout no kids. Course, I didn’t flag ‘em down, but from what I saw they didn’t look to be the babysittin’ type.”

Harry turned to Liz. “I doubt they would be racing around like that with the kids. I’m sure there’re more military vehicles in this neck of the woods than the Rangers. We’re less than a hundred miles from Sa Antonio.”

Clyde interrupted. “Maybe the military is setting up refugee camps for the people they evacuated from the city.”

“Would they go there? I mean to someplace like that.” Liz asked to no one in particular in a near panic. Her stomach felt queasy at just the thought of her children Wandering around an overcrowded camp without someone to care for them.

Harry answered. “Who knows? But it wouldn’t be my first choice.”

“With communications down now, how would anyone even know where to go?” John answered. “I think our best chance is still our original plan.”

“Those boys are Rangers. They would take it personal and make it their mission to get those kids to family not drop them off in an overcrowded camp. Your older girl knew where you were headed and why, right?” Harry responded.

“Yes,” Liz answered. “She loved visiting my father.”

“They would know as well as we do those camps are a bad idea for a lot of reasons. I still think they’ll head to the Guadalupe Mountains. It makes sense. There’s a place to set up defenses and with the wildlife it includes a way to stay alive.”

Liz nodded. “You may be right, but we still have to keep looking.”

“Well, ol’timer. I guess that means we’re on our way. You take care.” Harry advised.

Clyde laughed. “Hell, you folks are the ones that need to take care. This shit beats all.”

John laughed without much humor. “You’re right about that.” He stepped onto his bike. “You take care.”

Clyde pulled a single shot twenty-two from his belt. “Savin’ one to make sure I don’t end up like these poor bastards.”

Liz frowned. “I hope it never comes to that.”

Clyde shrugged. “I landed on Normandy and survived when a lot better men than me didn’t make it. I spent two years in Korea and a year in Viet Nam with the French. Hell, I’ve been skating on thin ice since I was seventeen. Most likely, I’ll be here when all those poor bastards have rotted to dust.”

Harry laughed. “I wouldn’t be surprised.” He stepped over the seat of the bike and nodded at Liz.

“Goodbye, Clyde. God speed.” Liz called out as she crawled on the seat behind Harry.

“You too, young lady…you too.” Clyde answered.

He picked up a red gas can and walked across the road to the bodies in the blackened circle. He began splashing liquid on the bodies of the dead as they rode away.

Harry called over his shoulder. “Let’s get back to looking for those girls.”

Phil Baker made a compelling argument for Tate and Doyle to remain at his high bluff compound in the Hill Country of central Texas. When he had finished his speech, he let the subject drop. Tate Hamilton, once a long haul truck driver, was left to mull over her options, stay at the protected refuge or leave and find her family? Phil’s retreat was a safe place to stay, but if she stayed, she would never learn the fate of her mother and sister in Houston.

Phil spun the wheels of his chair and rolled toward his wife sorting bedding for the latest arrivals. There were a lot of people to feed at Phil’s compound and sleeping arrangements to make. Phil’s family included his wife and two girls, John and Mary with two kids, Bill and Janice, Ben’s parents, and Gina, with her baby. The couples and Gina each ended up in bedrooms while the kids were left to sleep on pallets on a second story sleeping porch.

Doyle turned to Tate. “Well, what are your thoughts?”

Tate shrugged as she picked up her own quilt and walked toward the leather couch. “Guess I’ll think about it.”

Doyle and Tate, as outsiders were offered the sizeable L-shaped couch in the den. She threw her quilt over the seat and back to retrieve later if she got cold. Doyle threw a pillow on a pallet on the floor and within minutes was snoring softly.

Ben, Phil’s nephew Tate had rescued, complained he was too big to bunk with the little boys, and he didn’t want to hear the young girls chatter all night, so he opted to sleep in the den with Doyle and Tate. He curled up with an Army blanket and pillow on the short section of the sofa opposite Tate.

Tate and Doyle offered to be part of the guard rotation, but Phil declined. He announced they deserved at least one night’s sleep. John and the other guards walked outside leaving the occupants of the house to settle down for the evening. Phil disappeared to his third story look-out in a cubical on the roof, and the room grew quiet.

Tate shifted her position for the third time in as many minutes trying to get comfortable. She slid the cushion, under her butt, back in place then folded her hands behind her head while she listened to the guard’s heavy steps on the boards outside the window, as he strolled the wrap around porch. She lay awake thinking about Phil’s offer of a place to stay.

“Psst,” Ben whispered. “Tate, you awake?”

With the moonlight through the windows, Tate studied him. “Yeah. I’m awake.”

“You know, I played a lot of games on my X-box. One was killing monsters. This is like that in real life.”

“Yeah. I supposed that could sum things up pretty well,” Tate answered, wondering where the conversation was going.

“I’m not sure I can do it,” he whispered; his voice catching. “They‘re people.”

Tate swung her feet around to rest on the floor. In the moonlight, she could see Ben huddled against the arm of the couch, with tears glistening in his eyes.

“You can’t think like that. The walking-shit-bags aren’t people now. They’re just dead bodies moving because they were infected by an engineered virus.”

“But…” he whispered.

“But nothing. If you hesitate, you’ll be a danger to yourself and everyone around you. I know this sucks Ben, but you have to forget they were people and see only monsters ready to tear you and your family apart.”

“Are we going to make it?” he whispered. “I mean people. Can we recover from this?”

“All we can do is try to survive.” Tate sighed. “You need to get some rest, now. Things will have to change for sure.”

Ben slid down on his end of the couch. “I guess you’re right. Good night.”

Tate closed her eyes and tried to sleep, but instead mulled over her and Ben’s conversation until exhaustion took over.

Tate woke to the smell of coffee when dawn barely peeked through the trees. Phil’s wife, Emma, was busy in the kitchen making biscuits and white gravy with ham. By the time Phil appeared, Doyle and Tate were already moving around. When they had both gotten a cup of coffee, he asked them to follow him outside. He rolled out on the porch in his wheelchair and pointed Tate and Doyle to two woven-willow chairs.

“Have you thought about our conversation?” Phil asked.

Doyle slapped his leg and snorted. “I’ll be damned. You really want us to stay?”

“This is a big decision you’re making, considering you have known us for less than twenty-four hours,” Tate answered.

Phil nodded. “I got a chance to see you both in action. With me being in this damned chair, we’ve only got four able-bodied men, and that’s counting Ben as one of them. That’s not enough. If these people are going to survive, I have to have good people to help.”

Doyle nodded. “I ain’t got anyone expecting me; I was just looking for a place to hunker down. I’ll take you up on the offer.” He turned to Tate. “What about you, girlie?”

Tate looked at Phil, unsure of what to say. “Since I left San Antonio, I’ve been heading to my cousin’s place. It’s remote, and I’m hoping my mom and sister made it there.”

“The roads are pretty bad right now; lots of cars and dead out there. Maybe it would be safer to wait a week or two before you head out, again,” Doyle advised.

Phil added. “I don’t want to pressure you, but Doyle might be right. The roads have all the city folks trying to get somewhere safe and ending up being part of the problem. That’s exactly what happened in Bandera and Bandera Falls. Out-of-towners brought infected with them. Only took one or two to take down both towns.”

“You might be right,” Tate mumbled.

“You could stay here and wait it out.” Phil offered.

“I appreciate the offer, but you have too many people already for a four-bedroom house,” Tate answered.

Phil chuckled. “I agree, accommodations leave something to be desired. I’ve been thinking about it, too. If you help us with the housing situation, and you still want to go, I’ll add two full fifty-five-gallon drums to my previous offer. That would be an extra hundred gallons of diesel, plus supplies to get you to your family.”

“All that for a day of hauling?” Tate asked.

Phil shrugged. “Yep. That’s the deal. But if you change your mind along the way, you’re still welcome to stay.”

“What did you have in mind to solve the housing problem?” Tate asked.

“There’s row after row of FEMA trailers lined up in Boerne about twenty miles south on Hwy 46. If we could get three or four of those brought back here, it would alleviate the housing issue real quick. We’re going to have to upgrade the septic system eventually, but water is no problem. I have two wells. We’ll have to do some plumbing work and lay some piping, but otherwise, we should be alright.”

Tate laughed. “It sounds like it’s more than a couple days of work.”

“Yeah. If we can add a couple trailers full of provisions, we’d be set for months,” Phil answered.

“It looks like you’ll need a few more than that,” Doyle pointed toward the gate. “Look outside the gate.”

Tate and Phil turned toward the gate and saw three vehicles sitting outside the wrought iron barrier. John and Bill with rifles in hand rushed out of the house and up to where Phil sat staring at a pickup, van and sedan.

John asked, “What are we going to do about them?”

Phil reached for the wheels on his chair and rolled toward the gate. “John, you and Bill cover us.” Both Tate and Doyle followed Phil.

A man with a bat in his hand stepped out of the front vehicle. His eyes darted from left to right as if expecting an attack at any moment.

Phil rolled up to within a dozen feet of the gate and looked out at the three vehicles. Doyle and Tate stood on either side.

Outside the gate sat a relatively new Ford F-150, a minivan, and an old Chevy Impala. Tate stepped away about ten feet from Phil to get a better look at the occupants. There were two men still sitting in the truck the leader had been driving. In a light green minivan smeared with blood set a young couple with the heads of two small children peeking over the front seats. The Impala sat behind the van with an old man wearing a baseball cap and a gray-haired woman at his side. The back seat seemed to be filled with boxes and stacks of supplies.

Phil scowled at the man outside the gate. “George, what do you want?”

“Your little escapade at the ball field yesterday burned down the Electric Co-op. A bunch of us were staying there. We need a place to stay.”

“Who’s in this WE, you’re talking about?” Phil asked.

Tate turned at the sound of running steps behind them. Ben followed by John and Bill raced to Phil’s side. Ben cupped his hand and whispered something at Phil.

George opened his mouth to speak but was interrupted when Phil demanded. “What are you trying to pull? You have more vehicles down the hill from my property.”

The driver of the Impala stepped out of the car and walked up to the gate. “Shut up, George. I told you this was not a good idea.” The old man turned to the gate. “Phil, twenty of us got out of the co-op. We got women and children and have nowhere else to go.”

Phil nodded at Ben, John, and Bill. “Call them up here. Pull up to the gate, one at a time. The vehicles will sit outside until we bring ‘em in one at a time. Everyone gets checked for bites before they step through the gate.”

George started to protest, but Phil raised his hand. “My place, my rules.”

“I’m the mayor of Bandera –” George protested.

“And this ain’t Bandera! Anyone don’t like my terms, turn around and go back down the bluff.”

The portly, old man looked at George, one last time before calling out. “The wife and I agree to your terms, Phil. I’m sure the rest will.” He turned to George and added, “If you got a problem with it, George, pull aside, and let us start lining up at the gate.”

George got in his truck and pulled to the turn-around at the side of the wrought iron fence. He parked the F-150 but stayed behind the wheel.

The old man headed back to his vehicle, stopping to speak to the couple in the mini-van on his way. The green van rolled up to the gate, both front doors opened, and the man herded his wife and two children to the gate. Quietly, without a word, the couple stripped to underclothes and turned around slowly, then dressed and undressed the kids. Phil nodded to Ben, and the gate rolled open.

The woman picked up the kid’s clothes and hurried to the passenger door with the kids in tow. They jumped inside and the man drove through the gate. Ben closed the barrier behind the van.

“Stop!” Emma Nolan stormed through the front door of the house. “Phillip Nolan! You will not do what I just saw, again!” She yelled at the open windows of the van, “I’m sorry!”

John waved the van to the side the compound. The Impala moved to the closed gate and stopped. Three more vehicles rolled up behind the Impala.

Emma rushed to Tate and pushed a handful of sheets into her arms. “We’re civilized human beings and will not be traumatizing women and children. No more strip searches for women in front of all these men. We’ll do the inspection behind these sheets.” She turned to Phil with a pointed glare.

Phil held up his hand in surrender and called out for two pieces of rebar. A minute later, Ben ran across the yard with two six foot lengths of metal.

Emma crossed her arms and John rolled back the gate wide enough to walk through. Tate joined him with the stack of sheets in hand. She tied a corner of fabric to a spiked length of wrought iron fencing then another about five feet away. She tied two more sheets, at either corner. By then, John had pushed both pieces of rebar into the ground. Tate tied the ends of the second and third pieces of fabric to the stakes. She used the fourth sheet to finish off the enclosure. When she was finished, she had a sheeted enclosure.

The older couple got out of the car, and the woman grinned at Emma. “Bless you, dear. I appreciate this.” The woman stepped into the enclosure and a few minutes later called out, “I’m ready.”

Emma tapped Tate’s shoulder. “That’s you, dear.” She turned to hurry back to the house.

Cringing, Tate stepped to the sheet and pulled back the edge of the sheet that allowed her to peek inside.

The old woman smiled. “It’s alright, honey. I ain’t got nothing you haven’t seen in the mirror.” She made a slow turn and at Tate’s quick nod, began redressing.

Tate turned back to Phil and gave him a thumbs-up. The Impala entered the compound and parked next to the mini-van. The elderly woman joined the young family on a nearby picnic table in the shade of a large oak.

The occupants of three more vehicles went through the inspection, then came through the gate. Only the F-150 sat outside. The old man walked up to Phil. “Don’t know if you remember me, Phil, I’m Bradley Wilson. I’m not much for telling tales, but you better be careful with George. He’s losing it.”

“Who’s with him?” Phil asked.

“His two boys,” Bradley answered.

“You can’t leave us out here,” George called out from the window of the F-150.

Phil called out, “You know what it takes to come in.”

“I got my boys. I’m in charge of this group,” George protested. “I need to be in there to take care of them.”

“Do what I ask then,” Phil demanded.

Finally, George spoke to his sons, then slowly stepped out of the truck. Both younger men followed. They stepped up to the gate and began removing clothes. Following their father’s instructions, they unbuttoned their shirts and removed them then loosened their belts and pants to pulled them to their knees. Meanwhile, George stepped out of his loafers, then pulled off his shirt, and his pants down. He scowled as he turned around.

Phil nodded, then rolled over to the boys.

The older of the two young men appeared to be in his late teens or early twenty’s while the other looked no more than fifteen. The older had stripped off his shirt and pulled down his pants to hang around his knees, then stood without turning. The younger man stepped out of his boots, then slipped off his pants. He did a quick turn, and when he saw Phil scowl, he turned again more slowly.

After looking over George and his younger son, Phil gave the man a quick nod then turned back to the older brother and sighed, “Boots off. I want to see your legs and feet.”

The young man turned to his father, and George protested, “Damn-it! This is bullshit! Open the fucking gate!”

Jasper Kovak, Amanda, and Joan each presented a list of supplies they announced were essential for the health and well-being of the camp residences.

Matt looked over the pages and huffed. “You know, if I get a quarter of this shit, we’ll be lucky.”

Joan spoke up. “We have almost three dozen people in this camp now. Do you know how much it takes to feed that many people three times a day? Even twice a day?”

Matt raised both hands, palms out in defeat. “I know. I’m sorry, but every trip out looking for supplies gets more dangerous. The infected have started coming out of the city and the suburbs. It just keeps getting worse. We have to be careful not to lead them back to the camp.”

Jasper squared his shoulders. “We need to get larger quantities.” He took a deep breath then continued. “I’ve been thinking about it and there’s a place we can get really big quantities.”

Matt looked at him with renewed interest. “Alright, I’m listening but we can’t devote a lot of men, we need to make this camp as secure as possible and start becoming more self-sustaining or think about finding a place more suitable.”

“I agree, but until then, there’s a freight depot north of San Antonio. Loaded shipping containers come in by train and are off-loaded there, broke down into pallets, and sent out to the grocery warehouses. You could pick up shipping containers filled with goods. All you need is trucks and trailers to set the containers on.”

“All!” Matt snorted. “Are you out of your fucking mind?”

Larry, who had been standing nearby, interrupted. “No. Listen to him, Matt. He may have something there. We make one big haul then we’re stocked up and we can focus on security.”

“We’d need drivers, at least half a dozen. Can you drive a big rig?” Matt asked.

Larry shrugged and Matt continued. “We have a camp full of kids. Out of all the people, we have here we have less than a dozen adults; four women included-one pregnant, one barely out of high school and the other ready for retirement.”

“Young man?” Joan interrupted, lines creasing her face.

“Excuse me.” Matt responded then continued. “That doesn’t leave enough adult males to provide security and scavenge for supplies at the same time. A trip to that place would take days to complete and involve going into the city. Besides that, we’d need to find drivers, we’d be leaving the camp without protection.”

“But….” Jasper protested.

Matt held up his hand. “We don’t have enough people. Plain and simple. We have to keep the camp secure. That has to be a priority so we can’t take more than four people for supply runs.”

Jasper’s shoulders slumped and he shrugged. “I guess you’re right.”

“Wait.” Jake stepped up to the small group. “He’s on to something, just not the right location. There’s a train about fifteen miles east of here filled with storage containers.”

Matt shrugged as he rubbed at his temple. He wanted to head back to the house and the bottle he had stashed behind the couch. Finally, he answered. “That’s still a lot of moving parts to work. How far is the track from a highway?”

“That’s the good part. The road runs parallel to the track where the train is sitting. It’s probably three miles of cars with containers double stacked.”

Jasper grinned. “Was it a southbound train headed into San Antonio?”

Jake shrugged. “On state road-16. West of us. They would be headed that way, I guess.”

“How will we know what’s in those cars?” Larry asked.

Matt shrugged. “We can’t. “I’m sure it’s all electronic inventories these days, all computer controlled. I would think the engineer would know what he’s carrying. But that was him and won’t be us. We’ll have to open containers until we find one we want. Then we load it.”

Larry snapped his fingers and grinned. “If we can find a heavy duty crane truck, we can move whole containers. We won’t have to transfer supplies into a trailer, that way.

“We’d only need four people to get two or three containers at a time,” Jake commented. “In and out in less than an hour.”

“And what would we do with all those containers?” Jasper asked.

Matt answered. “We offload the containers and used them for storage and security. They could be used inside the fence as added protection. We can weld plates between the units on the outside.”

Amanda nodded. “That’s sounds like a long range plan to keep us safe.”

Joan nudged Jasper. “What do you think?”

“If I could get some help inventorying.” Jasper began.

Matt looked back at the gathering. “Okay, then it’s settled. We’ll need a couple days to locate a crane, rigs with container trailers and maybe even scout the train.”

That evening Matt sat at the table with a glass of amber liquid clutched in his hand. His eyes drifted from the glass to the yellow pages. Amy sat a few feet away on the floor playing with Claire. Amanda sat in the kitchen going over an inventory listing of supplies in a spiral binder, adding items to the list to the list to be given to the Matt in the morning.

“How long are we going to stay here?” Amy looked up and asked.

Matt looked up from the yellow pages of ads. “Honestly, I don’t know. There’re a lot of people here who need our help. If we leave, there won’t be enough folks to find food and supplies or protect everyone from the sick people.”

“I miss my mom.” Amy looked up at Matt with sad eyes. “How will my mom know where to find us?”

“I know you miss her, sweetie. I’ve been thinking about that. I’m going to start leaving messages for your mom.” Matt answered. He pulled a piece of paper from his pocket. It was the drawing Amy had done for her mother. A red heart with Amy and Claire’s names in the middle of the heart. I think she recognize this message.

“Yes.” Amy nodded excitedly.

Amanda gathered her papers and stacked them on the binder. She turned to Amy. “Let’s get you and Claire in bed.” Amy got to her feet and followed Amanda up the stairs.

Matt downed the two fingers of Jack Daniels and poured another.

An hour later, he stumbled into the living room to join Larry and Jake on cots recently retrieved from a sporting goods store.

The next morning Matt downed three Tylenol and found the supply list, phone book and the map still sitting on the table. He fanned the pages and pleased he’d dog-eared the page for a sign service company he’d seen listed in the yellow pages. He glanced over the route for the scouting trip to locate a crane and the trucks.

Matt walked out of the house and met Jake, Jenkins, and another soldier by the name of Dreschel at a picnic table to plan the coming supply run.

Larry came out of the Rec Center and Matt looked up.

“You’re off?” Larry asked.

Matt nodded. “In a little bit.”

“Roger that. Guard shifts are squared away. I’m taking some of the kids to the garden. We’re going to try to resurrect some of the plants and get them producing again.”

“Work the plan. Later.” Matt mumbled as he leaned his head back against the headrest.

Jenkins pulled the Humvee through the wrought iron gate. Two soldiers pulled the gate closed as they drove away.

Larry gathered the six oldest kids and headed for the garden. Each carried a thick wooden stick with a sharp point. He stopped at the corner of the office and picked up a coffee can of dirt. The can contained night crawlers he had gotten up early to collect from the dew dampened grass.

“Mr. Larry, what are we doing today?” A sixteen-year-old girl asked as they all walked toward the back of the property.

Larry stopped at the back gate. “We all have to contribute. You girls get a choice. Pick tomatoes and peas and weed the garden or clean out the barn.” He chuckled at the screwed up faces looking back at him. He studied the trio in matching soccer shorts and t-shirts, a blonde, red head, and brunette. “We all have to help out.” He added.

“I’ll pick vegetables.” Mandy, the blonde, answered quickly. The girls with her nodded their agreement reluctantly.

Larry grinned at the boys. “Well looks like you boys will have to muck out the barn.”

One of the boys screwed up his face in protest. “Hey, we believe in equal opportunity. I would rather work in the garden.”

Larry interrupted. “It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it. I appreciate your volunteering, fellas.”

The girls laughed.

Larry took the time to hand the girls two buckets and point out the peas and tomatoes to be picked. “Joan said bring a couple onions too. Pay attention and don’t miss anything ready to harvest. We want the plants to keep producing. One of you take what you pick back to Joan and then come back and you can all spend an hour weeding. After that, you’re on your own unless Joan or Amanda needs some help with something or replanting to do.”

The girls walked into the fenced garden while Larry led the boys toward the barn. He stopped and called over his shoulder. “Don’t forget defense training this afternoon. Keep your weapons close by and don’t miss practice.” Larry walked away with the boys in tow.

During his first inspection of the property and the fence line, he had rounded up a half dozen horses, a dozen goats and the coop netted over two dozen chickens. The side of the property ended at a steep bluff with a thirty-foot drop while the back of the property was bordered by a lake of several acres. The fence started at the edge of the lake with a natural rock formation and ended at the edge of the cliff.

Larry pitched another fork of dirty straw into a small wagon as he pondered the limited protection offered by the deer fence around the property. If the fence fell, they would be in trouble. He hoped the scheme to bring in shipping containers worked out.

The smell of animal waste filled the air. For Larry, its aroma brought images of being a kid and working on his grandfather’s farm. He spent summers in the hills of West Virginia. He imagined all the family back there and wondered if they were safe. Trying to chase away the ghosts of family that could be lost to him, Larry asked.

“Carl, you boys know how to fish?”

“Sure, Mr. Larry,” Carl answered as he wiped his bare arm across his forehead smearing a dark smudge across his skin. “I used to go with my family to Lake Austin.” His voice trailed off.

Mark interrupted. “How do you know fish are in the pond?”

Larry answered. “There’s no reason to think there isn’t, since it doesn’t go dry. Add that to the fact I found a brochure in the office that advertised great fishing in a natural, spring-fed pond. I imagine the owners stocked it every year or so.”

“How long are we going to stay here?” Carl asked.

Larry shrugged. “Don’t know. It’s dangerous out there.” He tossed another fork full of muck then continued. “We don’t have enough men or weapons to move this many people.”

“What are we going to do then? Just sit and wait for a bunch of monster people to find us.” Ben asked.

“Hell no. We’re going to make a place that’s as safe as possible. In time, we’ll find some other survivors to join us.” He pressed the metal points of the fork into the ground and leaned against the handle as he studied the three young men. “Look, fellas. We’re all winging it, here. I don’t have answers and I don’t think anyone else does either.”

“But what happened?” Carl asked. “Why are dead people eating people?”

Larry hesitated then answered. “I guess you could call it that, but I think they’re infected with a virus that controls their actions. My unit investigated an outbreak about three months ago. A terrorist group infected a small village in the Middle East. It’s a bio agent that could be passes through blood and body fluids. The important part is, it affected the behavior of the infected causing cannibalistic behavior. Local authorities dealt with it. No one survived and the village was burned. After all, humans have been suffering from new illnesses from time to time since we began walking upright. No one knew for sure what the authorities knew. It was our first hint of an agent causing unpredictable behavior.”

“How did it get here?” Mark tossed a fork of straw toward the window.

Larry went back to work as well and continued. “It was a deliberate attack. Someone released the agent on military bases. They flew a drone over the base with an aerosol release device.”

Mark nodded. “Do you think it’s all over the country or just here?” He used the fork to pull the last of the dirty straw into the open to pick up.

Larry and the boys set the forks aside and pulled four bales of straw from the stack at the back of the barn. Larry cut the strings and began tossing armfuls into the stall. Finally, he answered. “Yeah, strategic bases were hit. They chose bases they knew would have big civilian population surrounding them to spread the contagion quickly and cause the most destruction.”

Carl shook at a clump of straw. “Can the sick people get better? My mom and dad were on the base when I went to school.”

Larry stopped and turned to the boys. “Listen, I hate to tell you this, but we may never know for sure what happened to your folks. Just know they would want you to survive.” He tossed a final cake of straw toward the back of the stall. “Let’s go fishing.”

He led the boys into the tack room and sorted out rods and reels, bobbers, lead weights and hooks. When he was satisfied he had two poles and two working rods with reels and a bucket for the catch, he led the boys to the lake carrying the can of worms.

Larry found a stump and settled down for a cigarette as he watched the freckle-faced red head, Mark, pinch a worm in half and expertly feed the squirming body on the hook. He made a tentative cast and dropped the line midway across the pond.

Carl brushed his hair aside and adjusted his glasses before he settled down on the grassy bank to bait his hook. Still seated and with a jerk of his wrist his line dropped a dozen feet from the shore with the bobber resting on the top of the water.

It wasn’t long before Carl yelped in delight. His pole bent over and he jerked the pole. The fish landed on the dirt at his feet.

“I got one!”

One of the other boys walked over to Carl and congratulated him and helped him take the fish off the hook and fill a bucket with water. With a plop, the three-pound catfish was dropped in the bucket.

Carl waved at Larry with his face glowing with his accomplishment. “I fish good, Mr. Larry.” He grinned, then turned back to the stare at the bobber dancing on the crystal clear water.

Larry watched the boys as they each pulled in catfish and re-baited hooks then tossed the lines back into the pristine water. When he was satisfied the older boys were helping Carl and the two younger two boys that Wandered over, he put out his cigarette and walked back to the barn.

He harnessed one of the horses and walked it to the wagon. He backed the mare he’d taken to calling Bessie, between the shaves and buckled the harness to the wagon.

He led the animal forward until he’d cleared the edge of the barn and made his way to the garden. The girls had both completed the harvesting and headed back to the food truck with the bounty. He guided the wagon to the edge of the garden where a compost pile had been started by the previous owner. He pulled his shirt off and pulled the contents of the wagon to the pile. If they stayed, the compost would be mixed into the garden before the fall planting.

When Larry finished with the wagon, he cleaned it out and returned it to the barn and let the pregnant mare out into the pasture. He walked back to the pond with a second bucket. He found the boys still fishing. He looked into buckets and found three in one bucket and four in the other. All in all, Larry figured the boys had caught at least twenty-five pounds of fish.

“Not bad, fellas,” Larry commented. “It’s about time to head back for lunch.”

Carl puffed up his chest. “I’ll catch more.” He cast the bait and it landed in the water with a splat.

Mark nodded. “We’re on a roll, aren’t we, Carl? Can’t we stay for a while?”

“I guess another thirty minutes won’t hurt anything. Just don’t miss lunch or you’ll be waiting until the evening meal. Defense lesson is at one.” Larry sighed. “I’ll clean what you have and take them back to Joan.”

“Sure.” Mark laughed. “Maybe you can teach us to shoot a gun and we can kill some deer tomorrow.”

Larry laughed as he dumped the water from one of the buckets and spilled the fish into the second. “Don’t think that’s gonna happen. Won’t be any shooting around camp. We don’t want to draw any unwanted attention.” He picked up the bucket. “You boys clean what you catch before you take it to Joan. Bury the trash in the back corner of the garden and make sure you clean up when you’re done.”

Larry stopped by the food truck just as lunch was in full swing. He called out to Joan. “Can you fix a meal with fish?”

Joan stopped dishing macaroni and cheese long enough to give him a quick wave. “Sure. I have all the makings for a gumbo. We can use the fish and deer sausage the fella’s found yesterday.”

Larry opened the door at the end of the truck to pick up a metal pan, fillet knife, and a butcher knife.

Joan grinned. “Bring back my knives in the same condition you found ‘em.” She ordered.

“Yes, mam.”

Larry carried the fish to a trailer pad at the back of the yard. He pulled a short hose and tested the water pressure then put on a nozzle to control the water. He dropped a short cutting board on the concrete and went to work. He spent the next hour cleaning the catfish. Life at the camp was becoming one of quiet routine. He looked up and smiled at the sound of children laughing.

“They won’t stop looking for us,” Jimmy whispered. “They killed those people in the store when the old man couldn’t or wouldn’t tell them which direction we went. They said you shot someone at the barn.”

“Damn.” Steve responded as he steered the vehicle through a dry creek crossing. “I don’t suppose pleading it was an accident would help.”

Zack smirked. “They don’t look like the understanding type.”

Steve slowed the van and turned off the motor. He opened his window and leaned his head outside. After a moment, he leaned back in the seat.

“Did you hear that?” Steve asked.

Della whispered. “I think I hear a motor in the distance. I can’t say for sure.”

Steve cranked the engine and slammed the van back in gear. He accelerated too quickly and the van jerked forward slamming the riders back in their seats. By the time they righted themselves from the sideways momentum, they were racing down the road again.

Della grabbed at her seat belt with trembling hands. She snapped it into place then glanced over her shoulder to the trio in the back seats. They bounced and jerked from side to side as they grasped at whatever they could find to hold on to.

“Steve! You’re going to kill us if you go off the road driving this fast.”

“Buckle up! If they catch us, we’ll be in a lot worse shape.” He answered. “I heard a truck motor.”

The gravel road disappeared and the van traveled a path overgrown with more patches of weeds with each passing fence post. Steve reduced the speed as the path grew rougher with deep washes in the hard-packed dirt hidden by the vegetation.

When the path opened up, Steve accelerated and they were racing down the road at over forty miles an hour. Brush and overhanging limbs slapped against the sides of the van. They hurled along for nearly a quarter mile when they raced around a curve in the road and a massive barrier of green appeared. Vegetation covered the middle of the road. Steve braked, but it wasn’t quick enough.

The front of the van was air-born for a fraction of a second then hit a solid wall on the distant side of a massive wash in the road. The van landed with a shuddering crash that could be felt through the undercarriage and threw belted occupants toward the front seat.

The steering wheel jerked from Steve’s hands while the back end bounced and tossed the occupants again. The grill hit the opposite rim of the crater and came down so hard the axle collapsed with the front end settling on bent wheels and flattened tires.

Steve jerked the accelerator lever back and slammed the van in park. He turned off the motor and slammed both hands against the steering wheel. The van grew quiet and the only sound was heavy breathing and whimpers from the back seat.

“Everyone okay?” Steve asked.

Zack looked around the back of the van then answered. “We’re fine back here.” He began righting crates of food and supplies. “Is the van drivable? I heard something that didn’t sound good.”

“No. We’re walking until we get another vehicle. Get what we can carry together. Throw out the crap in that canvas bag and that backpack, put food and water in them.”

Della asked. “We’re walking?”

“No choice. The van’s toast.” Steve answered.

“Then let’s get out of here, people.” Della sighed.

Zack grabbed the duffle and began stuffing food into the bag.

Steve opened the glove box and retrieved two boxes of ammo and a spare magazine from inside. He pulled a jacket from the back of his seat and dropped the ammo in the pockets and zipped them closed. He tied the arms around his waist.

“Where are we going?” Jimmy asked as he slid the backpack on his shoulder.

Steve answered. “Back the way we came. We don’t know where this road comes out on the other end. I’m hoping they left at least one of the vehicles at the store we can take. For now, we have a long walk. With a little luck, they split up and we will only have the occupants of one vehicle to deal with at a time.”

Della waited for Steve to exit the van. She picked up two filled plastic bags and stepped to the ground. “What happens when we meet those rednecks? You know it’s going to go bad for all of us.” She whispered.

“We hide,” Steve answered. “We hear a vehicle, we hide. Until then, we move as fast as we can. I figure we traveled at least five miles from the gas station.”

Steve called Jimmy and Zack to his side. “Head down the road past the van and go into the woods about a hundred yards down the road. Drop some trash and stomp around then head back this way as quick as you can. Try to make it look like we all went that way and don’t step in bare dirt coming back. You have five minutes to catch up.”

Both young men nodded then took off.

Della and Sandy began walking back the way they had come. Steve soon passed them and set an easy pace until the boys caught up. They managed two miles in less than twenty minutes. By the third mile, all were struggling to keep up the pace Steve set.

Sandy gasped. “I can’t go on like this.”

“Five minutes rest.” Steve relented. “Drink plenty of water while you can.”

Everyone pulled plastic water bottles from bags and gulped the contents. When Jimmy went to toss his bottle in the grass Steve stopped him. “We may need the bottle later. Put them back in the bags. We don’t want to leave a trail for the rednecks to follow.”

Sandy Wandered away to pee. She found a bush and squatted behind it. She grumbled as she swatted at bugs flying around her. “Fucking mosquitoes.”

She pulled up her pants and straightened her clothes. When she headed back toward the others she paused to cock her head. She turned back toward the distant sound for a moment then raced back to the gathering.

“I hear a truck!”

Steve glanced toward the road. “Move it, people! Let’s go!”

He set a grueling pace for about two minutes then stopped at the edge of the road near a cluster of bushes under a rock outcropping. He stepped into the shadows then waved the others toward it.

“Hurry.” He ordered as he broke a branch from the back of a scrub and dusted at their footprints in the dirt at the edge of the road. “Break off some branches from the back and pass them up to me.”

Della hustled the trio under the outcropping, guiding them deeper into the shadows of the overhang. The roar of the heavy-duty truck engine grew louder and closer.

Zack and Jimmy snapped two thumb-sized branches with fans of leaves. They passed the foliage back to Della and she passed them to Steve. He backed into the gloom brushing at the dust and dirt. He planted the branch in the dirt at the opening and backed from the branch and squatted on one knee.

Steve pulled his handgun and pointed it toward the road and sound of the big engine. Everyone receded deeper into the shadows as the sound grew louder.

“Quiet, everyone!” Steve whispered.

The roar of the truck filled the afternoon silence. The vehicle raced toward them filling the air with the angry growl of a motor being pushed hard. The truck rolled down the road at an alarming speed. Everyone cringed at the sight.

The flat-black, heavy-duty pickup with jacked-up body and massive tires sporting wide treads sported a heavy duty brush guard and six-inch roll bar. Four mounted lights rose above the cab. Two men clung to the roll bar, holding rifles on their hips as they shouted at the man driving the truck. The roar of the engine and shouts grew more distinct. Steve melted back into the shadows as the vehicle raced by. They waited for a full minute before Steve pushed the brush aside. He stepped to the road and motioned the others to follow.

“Now! We have to get to the intersection before they come back. Hopefully, it will take them a while to figure out the trail is bogus.”

Steve took off jogging again with everyone following. No one protested the pace. Another twenty minutes they made it to the placed Zack and Jimmy had slipped down the hill to the gas station.  After a moment of hesitation, Steve raced over the side.  The rest followed. Everyone was gasping for breath and dripping wet with perspiration when they stumbled into the parking lot.

The truck and car seen earlier still sat in the lot undisturbed. Three bodies lay at the front of the truck. Zack ran to the extended cab truck.

“Door open, but keys are not here!” He called out.

Jimmy tried the door handle on the Oldsmobile eighty-eight. The door wouldn’t open. “Nothing here!”

Della went to the younger of the two men pressed her fingertips against the front right pocket of the man’s jeans. She looked up and shook her head then moved to the left pocket and again felt nothing. In frustration, she worked her fingers into each of the pockets and spilled the contents to the ground. She turned the man to his side to check his back pockets and saw the key ring clip anchored to his belt loop over his right back pocket. She unclipped the keys and raced toward the red truck.

“In everyone!” Steve yelled then turned to Della. “Can you drive it?”

Della reached for the back door as an answer.

Zack laughed. “I got this! I always wanted a big-ass truck like this.”

They threw the bags in the back and Steve got in front while Sandy and Jimmy followed Della into the back seat.

Zack settled in the driver’s seat and Della passed him the keys. He stuck the key in the ignition and turned it. He laughed nervously. “Really, I’ve always wanted one of these.”

The first shot took out the side mirror on the driver side and shattered the glass and plastic.

Screams filled the cab as Steve pulled the gas nozzle from the red truck, locked it open and raced to the cab and jumped in.  He yelled. “Drive!”

Zack thumped the truck in reverse and stomped the gas. He slammed on the breaks as another shot rang out. The back glass shattered with an explosion of glass. Jimmy, Sandy and Della were thrown to the right with bone-jarring crash.

“Stay down!” Steve ordered.

He struggled to his knees in the passenger seat and leaned out the window. He clung to the doorframe and pointed the handgun back at the huge black truck racing toward them. He fired three quick shots and the truck swerved.

Zack slammed the truck into drive and pressed his foot to the floor. The truck swerved around the fueling island and fishtailed onto the gravel and broken asphalt.

More shots pinged off the top of the cab. Steve leaned out the window with the next swerve of the truck. Della grabbed his belt as he overbalanced and nearly fell out the window.

Once righted, Steve leaned back out of the window to take another shot. Della clung to his belt while Jimmy and Sandy remained slumped across the back seat.

Zack righted the vehicle and slammed his foot down on the gas. The truck’s Hemi kicked in and the vehicle raced toward the blacktop. The pursuers came around the corner of the building and raced at them.

Steve took a final shot at the asphalt next to the fueling island just as the black truck raced by. The black truck exploded. The fire billowed out like a living creature to engulf the men in the bed of the truck. Screams from both men could be heard as they were enveloped in the flames.

The driver and passenger screamed as the flames roared surrounded the cab engulfing the passengers and into the open windows of the cab. Steve knew the fire would sear the skin from their faces and hair from their heads. The vehicle hit the second pump and the truck, pump-island and station went up in a mushroom of flames and billowing black smoke. The truck rolled from the funeral pyre with the charred remains still clinging to the structure behind the cab.

Zack clutched the steering wheel and eased off on the gas as he witnessed the devastation in the rearview mirror. He forced breath from his lungs and glanced toward Steve as he settled back into his seat. Della released Steve’s belt and tried to ease back on the seat, but Jimmy and Sandy still lay behind her.

“Okay, you two. You can sit up now.” Della ordered.

When neither one moved, Della looked down and gasped. “Oh God! Stop the truck. The kids are hurt!”

Zack slammed on the breaks. Steve opened the door and someone moaned softly.

Harry eased his bike around another traffic pile up using the torn and trampled medium between strips of asphalt.

The sound of the bikes brought more and more of the infected out of the shadows. By the time the monsters reached the street they rode on leaving them behind.  Harry and John moved far enough away for any new arriving infected to join the herd following the rumbling motors of the motorcycles.

Harry raised his hand to point toward a side street at the next intersection. They eased down an incline and across a paved parking lot. He pulled ahead and guided his bike down the street to another intersection. They turned at the back of a big brick building and suddenly they were leaving the small town and its cluttered streets behind.

Liz looked ahead at the endless line of vehicles stopped on the highway. She could imagine the terrified people trying to escape the infected when they ended up in a traffic jams that went on for miles and miles. She could see a distant rise void of vehicles on the roadway. A disabled vehicle or an accident had caused the massive backup. Everyone behind the blockage had been trapped.

She imagined after hours of sitting waiting for someone to clear the blockage they began running out of gas, the infected arrived and people left their vehicles in a headlong rush to escape. They would take what they could carry and it wouldn’t take long for the infected to catch up. Those attacked soon became part of the wave of monsters on the roadways that followed them.

Evidence showed those too terrified to leave their vehicles fared no better. They ended up trapped. The infected swarmed around vehicles and shattered glass and attacked those hiding inside. In the end, they were devoured or turned. It was an ugly death.

Liz turned away from the long line of cars with a troubled sigh. The blacktop heading away from the interstate was rough and in poor condition. Both men had to go slow enough to avoid rough careless patches on the asphalt.

“We’re getting nowhere fast and it’s almost dark,” John commented through the helmet mic. “Besides, that herd of fuck-heads following us is just getting bigger.”

“We need a distraction,” Harry added. “Something for them to focus on that’s not us.”

When the pavement evened out they stopped at a two-car accident. The front fenders were locked together in a twisted joining of metal. The road ahead looked clear for several miles.

“I got an idea,” John announced. “Harry, can you get a radio or horn going.”

John took a t-shirt from his pack and dipped the end in his gas tank. Harry watched as John stuffed the rag in a gas tank, when he gave a nod, Harry turned the key in the ignition of one of the cars and pushed a couple buttons and a heavy metal band blasted from the custom speakers. He stepped back on the bike and kicked the machine into gear. He raced ahead while John held a lighter to the rag. A heartbeat later, John caught up with Harry and they gunned the engines laughing like a pair of bad kids.

Liz clung to Harry waiting for the explosion. After a full minute, it came. She looked over her shoulder and saw a mushroom of crimson blossom up from the vehicles. Dozens of infected came investigate the noise were hurled into the air from the explosion.

After the first mile, Liz could no longer hear the roar of the fire but she could still see the billowing black smoke. She had no illusions the infected were no longer out there, but there was a morsel of peace in not being able to see them following. The countryside opened up and knee-high cornfields on either side of the road waved in the breeze.

As dusk settled, a gray behemoth of a farmhouse came into view. It was set back from the road on a slight hill. The fenced property was a graveyard of abandoned farm equipment. Outbuildings included a metal shed and tumbled down barn. Harry guided his bike toward the narrow lane.

“Do you think there’s anyone here?” John asked.

“No lights through the windows,” Harry answered. “But the gate is closed.”

After a moment of hesitation, Harry opened the gate and rode through with John following. He refastened the chains used to secure the gate and headed toward the house.

As they got closer, Liz leaned forward. “Windows are boarded up. Are you sure we want to do this?”

They stopped in front of the porch and turned off the bikes. Harry called out. “Hello, inside the house.”

A gravelly voice answered. “What you want?”

“Sorry to trouble you folks but we need a safe place to stop for the night,” Harry answered. “We mean you no harm. If we can just pull into the barn and close the door, that’s all we need. Just a place to be safe for a few hours to sleep.”

Liz called out. “I promise we’re not here to hurt anyone or steal anything.”

A flashlight beam appeared and pointed at each of them in turn.

Finally, a female voice nearly as raspy as the man’s responded. “You don’t need to stay in the barn. Park those motorbikes at the side of the house under the shed. Then you come in and have a cup of coffee.”

“Hazel, you don’t know, they might be infected.” The old man protested.

“Oh, poop.” A frail hand brushed at the old man then turned to the three and asked. “You folks ain’t sick, are you?”

“No mam.” Harry answered.

John turned to Harry and pulled off his helmet. “You think it’s safe?”

Harry shrugged. “From the sounds of them, they can’t be much of a threat.”

They did as told then made their way back to the front porch just as the front door creaked opened. The trio stood in the afternoon gloom and waited to see who would come out.

A diminutive woman well in her eighties with a pleasant face pushed the stooped grandfatherly man aside opening the door out and grabbed at Liz’s hand.

Ignoring Liz’s startled gasp, she announced. “You folks come on in.” She eased the old man aside. “It’s the Christian thing to do to give you a safe place to lay your head for the night.”

John stepped through the door grinning. “It sure is nice to see a friendly face. Last encounter we had nearly got us killed.”

“Both you boys come on in, too. You’re safe here.” She pulled Harry and John into the front room. “Benny, be a dear and lock up the house while I make a fresh pot of coffee.”

She led the trio into a dimly lit kitchen. A single kerosene lamp rested on the kitchen table at the back of the house. She turned up the wick and the room brightened. “Did you folks close the gate? It keeps most of those sick people out of here.” She moved her face from left to right. “Poor folks. Don’t know they’re walking around without a soul.”

Liz looked around and realized no one would be jumping out from the shadows. She took a deep breath asked. “It’s just you two?”

“Yes dear.” Hazel busied herself making coffee in an old fashion percolator. She turned on the gas stove and the flame danced under the metal coffee pot.

“Thank you for taking us in,” Liz said. “It’s a scary world out there.”

“I’ll bet it is, dear. My name is Hazel and that is my husband, Benny Hilton. We’ve lived here for near sixty five years.” Hazel explained as she readied four cups for coffee.

Benny nodded then left the kitchen to settle in a rocking chair in the next room. He picked up a Bible from the nearby table. He turned up a small lamp and opened to a marked page.

Hazel set cups on the table and settled on a chair to wait for the coffee. “Just ignore Benny. He decided when this happened he needed to get right with God. Not that he’s ever been on the wrong side of God. We’re just both closer to meeting our maker than we were a few weeks ago.” She shrugged then smiled at Harry. “Now what about you folks? Where have you come from?”

“San Antonio. Close to the military base.” Harry answered. “We met Lizzy when it first happened and have been trying to find her two girls ever since. We’ve been following three soldiers who found her kids and rescued them.”

Liz asked. “You haven’t seen three soldiers with a ten-year-old and a baby, have you?”

Hazel shook her head and answered. “No, dear, I sorry. But I’m sure those children are in the safest of hands they can be in with those soldiers.”

Harry nodded. “We think so too, but we still need to find them.”

John interrupted when he saw tears welling up in Liz’s eyes. “How have you folks been managing? It’s pretty ugly out there.”

“The property is fenced and we lock up the animals at night. During the day, they stay behind the buildings in a small pen. Only a few of the sick have wandered down the road. If they linger, Benny goes out and gives them peace.”

“You know you have to be careful. A scratch or bite will transmit the illness.” Harry advised.

Hazel nodded at Harry. “Oh, we know. We had television the first few days. The news services had helicopters filming the roadways and the infected. It was terrible. We had some plywood out in the shed. We used it to board up the windows and reinforce the doors. Being out here so far from town, we always kept a lot of canned goods and supplies on hand. Add that to my canning and well, I think we’re fine for now.”

“What about water?” Harry asked.

Hazel shrugged. “We got a windmill. Benny did a bit of hillbilly plumbing and now it pumps into the cistern.” She gave them a gap-toothed grin. “I turn on the faucet and I got water and we can flush the toilet.” A chuckled erupted.

Liz looked excited. “Hot water?”

“Easy enough. You poor dear. I’ll bet you could use a nice bath.” She stood up and started filling pots with water. She placed one on each of the four gas burners of the stove. She turned back to the trio. “Are you hungry?” Before they could answer, she continued. “Of course you are. I’ll get you something to eat while the water is heating.”

Hazel pulled a loaf of home-made bread from a plastic bag and began slicing it. She peeked around the corner into the next room. “Benny, be a dear and go downstairs and get a quart jar of peaches, please.”

Benny crossed the room to a door. He picked up a flashlight then disappeared through a door at the side of the kitchen. The narrow beam disappeared into the black hole. A couple minutes later, he reappeared clutching a jar against his chest. “Anything else?”

“Bring some smoked ham from the pantry and slice some for our guests, please.”

Again, Benny disappeared only to return with a cloth-covered bundle with a string tied on the end. He went to the counter and pulled the cloth from the bundle to expose a ham. He drew a knife from a drawer and began slicing meat. When he was finished, he made a long suffering sigh then disappeared back into the sitting room.

Hazel chuckled. “Poor man. So put upon.”

She set a small bowl of coarse yellow paste on the table. “That’s homemade mustard, but if you’d rather I can whip up some fresh mayonnaise.” She sat a plate of bread, smoked ham, and sliced cheese on the table.

“That won’t be necessary,” Liz answered. “This is a feast. We lost our supplies so anything you set in front of us is great. We’re not picky.”

Both John and Harry grinned in agreement as they began building sandwiches.

Finally, Harry stilled his hands from his sandwich making and looked up. “Hazel, do you know there are some real bad people out there?”

“Of course I do, young man.” Hazel retorted. “I’m eighty-seven years old. Benny and I have seen a lot over the years. We’ve done what we can to protect ourselves but at our age, we’re not changing who we are. Helping good folks is the right thing to do.”

She passed out bowls of peaches and fresh tomatoes and cucumbers to eat with their sandwiches.

Liz laid a slice of bread on the plate, slathered it with mustard then added slices of ham and cheese. She spread condiment on a second slice of bread then closed the sandwich. She groaned with pleasure at the first bite. Once she swallowed, she mumbled a compliment around another bite.

Harry and John wolfed their first sandwich without a word then began building a second. At Hazel’s smile, Harry finally spoke. “Been twenty-four hours since we ate last and it was a three-day-old sweet roll.”

He slurped at the coffee until Hazel poured three glasses of water and placed one in front of each of them.

Liz savored the last crust of bread then smiled at Hazel. “I wish I could make bread like that. That was just about the best sandwich I’ve ever tasted.” She spooned a mouthful of peaches between her lips and sighed at the sweetness.

Steam wafted from the pots on the stove and Hazel called out again. “Benny, dear. Would you carry the hot water to the bathroom, please?”

Liz grinned. She imagined when Hazel requested something of Benny there was no room for argument.

Benny arrived to make four trips back and forth carrying water. By the time he was done, Hazel grabbed Liz’s hand to lead her down the hall.

“Come dear. Now, that’s all hot water in that tub, so turn on the faucet and cool it down a little. Towels are in the cabinet at the end of the tub. I’ll lay a nightgown outside the door for you and you can wash your unmentionables and hang them up. They should be dry by morning. I’ll put more water on for your companions.”

“You can use the bedroom at the top of the stairs, so I put a candle on the table in the bathroom you.” She smiled then added. “Oh, there’s some proper hair scissors in the medicine cabinet.”

Liz had forgotten about her hair. She blinked away the tears that threatened to spill again. “Thank you.” She whispered as she disappeared into the bathroom.

The scent of lavender wafted up from the steam when Liz stepped inside the bathroom. She reached down and turned on the old style water spigot. In another time, she would have been enchanted by the claw foot tub and handwoven rag rug. She pulled off the leather jacket, shoes, her t-shirt, and jeans. When she was out of her underwear, she used a plastic container to add water from the tub to the plugged sink. She dipped her underwear in and scrubbed them against a bar of soap then dropped them in the water to soak.

She turned off the cold water and stepped into the tub full of hot water. She eased her aching body down into the liquid and let thoughts of the girls wash over her. Sobs of despair racked her body. She imagined her girls in a place without hot water and clean clothes. She prayed the men were protecting them and keeping her girls safe. She slipped under the water; holding her breath while she lay in the tub listening to the silence.

When her chest was near exploding she sat up and took a deep breath. With water dripping down her face, she spilled a small amount of shampoo into the palm of her hand. She lathered her hair and hurriedly completed her bath then stepped from the bath. She was clean for the first time in nearly a week.

Liz looked into the mirror. Her hair was a chaotic mess.  She had a hurried job cutting it and it showed.  She grabbed the scissors and began trimming. When she was done, she had a shaggy cut that resembled the female lead in a popular television show. Her version was far from professional but a lot better than before. She left the front a little longer just in case she needed to impersonate a boy again, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch. When she was done she ran her fingers through the blonde strands and turned from the mirror.

She peeked out the door and found the neatly folded floral print nightgown with smocking at the oval neckline. She picked it up and stepped back inside.  After slipping into the gown, she folded the towel over the rack and gathered her panties and damp t-shirt. She opened the door and faced a smiling Hazel.

“Benny and I will be going up to bed, now. There’s water on the stove for the men. You can use the bedroom at the top of the stairs. I offered Harry and John beds, but they are determined to sleep downstairs in the sitting room. I got them a couple quilts and pillows.” She shrugged.

“I can understand it. We barely got away from some really bad people.” Liz answered. “I think they’re still a little wary.”

Liz retrieved the rest of her clothes and gun from the bathroom and went up the stairs. Once inside the bedroom she draped her damp clothes on the foot of the bed and closed the door. She told herself she was being paranoid, but still propped a straight backed chair under the door knob.

In the darkened room, she walked to the window and looked out over the pitch-black landscape. She was exhausted, her body was sore from riding the bike and sitting in the booth the night before. Sleep seemed so far away despite her aching muscles.

She stood at the window until she could pick out the international space station in the darkened skies. She wondered if the current crew would ever come home. Would the Russians bring them home without the United States paying for it? Would the men in the station even want to return home? And if they were brought back would they be forced to stay in Russia or Europe. How long would it be before those countries were infected? How could even a terrorist not see it would not be contained? The whole world would be lost.

With a deep sigh, Liz made her way to the bed and pulled back the hand-made quilt. She slid between the sheets. The mattress was old and lumpy but for Liz it was heaven. Her muscles relaxed and her eyes grew heavy.

Morning came with the sound of a rooster crowing then the echo of a distant gunshot.

Tate woke to the sound of voices. She glanced around with a deep sigh. Spending the night at Phil’s place was the first time she had slept in a real bed in more than a month. She had forgotten how good it could feel. She stretched out on the clean sheets and decided it was heaven, even without air conditioning. She slipped from the double bed and into fresh clothes she’d brought in from the rig. After using the bathroom, she padded down the stairs to the huge open room on the first floor.

Phil, Doyle and Ben sat at a massive farm table eating biscuits, ham, and eggs. The two men had mugs of coffee while Ben a can of soda.

Phil glanced up and nodded a greeting. “Get yourself some breakfast.” He pointed at the kitchen then continued his conversation with Doyle. “The family went into Bandera the day it happened. I haven’t heard anything since a phone call from my wife saying they were in trouble and headed to my sister-in-law’s house. If they made it there, my family could be alive.

Tate poured herself a cup of coffee. “Is that why you were here alone?”

Phil nodded, but he forced a smile. “Ben’s folks were on the way to Beth’s house too and they were supposed to pack up and head this way as soon as they got there. Something had to have happened and there hasn’t been a thing I could do about it.”

Tate looked at Doyle. He nodded slightly then picked up the coffee cup and brought it to his lips.

Tate asked. “Bandera Falls? Right up the road from where Doyle’s truck ran out of gas?”

Phil nodded. “No. Bandera. It’s the difference of a dozen miles and ninety and nine hundred people living there.”

“We have two rigs. Maybe we could head up there and pick them up in the trucks?” Doyle asked.

“We could take Ben if he knows the address.” Take continued.

“No. I’m going,” Phil stated. “I’ve got weapons and I know how to use them. Ben needs to stay and take care of the livestock.”

Ben jerked his head up from his third biscuit. “I can shoot.” H protested around a full mouth. “They’re my family, too.”

“I know kid. And when we come back with them if the place is overrun, they have nowhere to go. Someone has to protect the compound.”

Ben beamed. “Since you put it like that, I guess, I’m your man.”

Two hours later Doyle and Phil rolled out of the compound in Doyle’s rig with Tate following behind in the Orange Bitch with a trailer attached to a makeshift trailer hitch. Once outside, she picked up the CB mic and turned the radio to a channel they had agreed on using for the operation.

“Ok, Phil. What’s the deal with Ben? You didn’t want him to come with us, why?”

Phil answered. “Last I heard from his folks, they were headed to Bandera. My brother-in-law was going to pick up my wife and the family at Beth’s house. If it’s bad, I don’t want Ben seeing it.”

Tate sighed then answered. “Got it.”

“The sister lives on Old Hondo Hwy. The problem is the only way to get there is to go into town. If its overrun, your little diversion should give us time to get to them.”

“I’m locked and loaded,” Tate answered with a grim smile. “You boys just take care of your end and get the family.”

She laid the rifle on the seat next to her and patted the pockets on her vest. She had three extra magazines and a box of ammunition, courtesy of Phil. There was also a box with six glass bottles half filled with gasoline with rags hanging out of the top. The smell of gasoline was so intense she lowered windows hoping the slight breeze would pull the fumes from the cab.

As she drove, Tate imagined nine hundred monsters lined up waiting for them. She knew it was ridiculous, but couldn’t help it. Now that she had convinced the men she was the best one to create the diversion, she was getting nervous. Talking about her mouth overloading her ass…she’d done it this time.

The world was screwed and she wondered if anyone would survive. People were becoming monsters then attacking the survivors. She hoped the government nuked the people responsible for this mess.

The drive to Bandera was way too short. She followed Doyle as he passed the green sign advertising the city with a population of nine-hundred and thirty-seven people. The radio crackled and Doyle’s voice announced. “Not good, Tate. Looks overrun.”

Tate pulled to the left to get a better view of the road ahead. It was disheartening. The highway ahead was littered with dozens of vehicles. Some stopped in the middle of the road while others were pulled to the side and abandoned with doors left open. Dozens of infected milled around the front of a store front. At the sound of the trucks approaching, the monsters raised their heads and begun stumbling toward the rumbling engines.

“Shit!” Tate picked up the mic and said. “Ok, work the plan.”

Phil answered immediately. “Drop back and follow us. Don’t shoot unless you have to.”

“Got it.” She answered.

Tate stepped on the clutch and down-shifted the Bitch. Doyle pulled away with a rumble of the powerful engine. The horde of infected stumbled toward them with dogged determination. Doyle steered his rig between two vehicles and crushed four infected: two were gray-skinned men wearing dark blue uniforms, another was a child still wearing a big yellow bow in her hair while the last was teenager in a t-shirt and leggings.

More and more of the infected stumbled toward them. Those monsters that didn’t make it quick enough to approach Doyle’s truck before it passed stumbled after the rig down the middle of the road. Tate rolled over them.

The stench rose up in a nasty cloud of putrefaction. The fumes from the jars of gasoline made it impossible to close the windows. Besides, she needed to be able to use her firearms if Doyle got into trouble. She swallowed the bile rising to the back of her throat and picked up the mic.

“How much farther?”

“Two more blocks. Then we take a left. Try to block access and entertain the masses while we get around the curve in the road right after the turnoff. Out of site, should be out of mind, hopefully.”

“Got it. When you get out of sight, I’ll turn on the music and pied-piper my way to the ball field. After I set off the diversion, I’ll haul ass back to the intersection. Just get the family.”

Tate accelerated and closed the gap between the trucks. She slowed when Doyle’s brake lights flashed and the truck downshifted. She could see the sign for Old Hondo Highway ahead and gave Doyle room to turn off. She downshifted again and stopped in front of the highway.

She revved the engine and turned on the iPod. Speakers on the dash blared music by the Cranberries. The sound drew more and more of the infected to her. When Doyle’s rig disappeared around the curve she stepped on the clutch and shifted the Bitch into gear. She wanted to make sure she continued to keep the interest of the walking dead. Painstakingly slow, she began to move forward. She blew the horn, revved the engine and shifted to second as the music blared.

The Bitch was surrounded by monsters. The ones in the front of the rig fell under the press of the brush guard and knocked down some of their brethren in the process. Dozens of infected were falling under the massive tires. As she accelerated, more monsters turned and followed. She watched as at least a hundred monsters stumbled after her. She grinned as she realized it was working. With a little luck, she would give Phil plenty of time to gather his family.

It was a painfully slow trek to the far side of town and the baseball field. She drew more and more of the monsters to her. Finally, she saw the big lights sticking up over the buildings in the distance. She looked at the digital clock on the dash. It had taken half an hour to get to park. She gunned the engine and raced down the block.

Tate accelerated away from her followers and rolled over the fencing at the side of the ballpark. She stopped on second base, grabbed the music player with the mini-speakers and she jumped from the cab. She ran to the trailer, set the player under the metal tripod then dragged a cinder block from the trailer. She positioned the stone under the trailer tongue and pulled the pin on the hitch. She ran back to the cab and climbed back inside just as hundreds of monsters spilled into the ball field. She cranked the Bitch and began rolling forward.

Tate flicked a grill lighter and used a piece of duct tape to keep the flame fueled. She dropped the end into the cup holder then passed over the flame the end of a gas soaked rag hanging from one of the bottles. When the rag caught, she eased it out the window and tossed the jar about five feet from the trailer. The flames exploded with a whoosh. She repeated the process three more times then eased off the clutch and accelerated toward the back fence.

She hit the hurricane fence then jerked the wheel to the left and tossed two more lit bottles of gasoline at the break in the fencing. She accelerated for half a block then turned down an alley and slammed on the brakes. She killed the engine.

The Bitch sat still and silent while Tate grabbed her rifle before climbing from the cab. She hurried to the corner of the building and peeked around the brick. The scene on the ball field was horrendous. Hundreds of infected had followed her through the opening then stumbled toward the trailer and the blaring rock music. They shuffled into the flames around the trailer. They had hoped the flames would draw in the infected but protect the anchored tripod with the butane cylinder mounted on the top. The first part worked. Not so much the second. Flames didn’t discourage the infected from bunching up and jostling the trailer.

Phil had mounted the tank then used a roll of plastic wrap to surround the tank with nails and ball bearings. Now, all she had to do was hit the valve and blow the tank. She hoped she hadn’t over stated her skill.

Tate pulled the rifle to her shoulder and sighted the valve of the cylinder. She took a deep breath then released. Her heart raced when she saw half a dozen infected stumble through the flames and stagger across the road toward a nearby wood structure.

There were hundreds of monsters milling around the blaring music with at least a quarter of them near enough to the flames to catch fire. She took a breath, released it and squeezed the trigger. The shot took out a bald man with flames climbing up his leg. He fell into the firestorm.


Tate took a deep breath and blew it out in frustration. She pulled the rifle back to her shoulder. Without hesitating she drew in a breath, released it, and fired again. This time the projectile sheared the valve at the top of the tank.

The detonation was deafening. Tate fell back from the corner to the ground. Windows overhead shattered. Glass rained down on her. She dropped the gun and fell to her knees with her arms covering her head. Scorching air burst out from the ball field along with chunks of projectiles hitting the brick of the building. Tate huddled against the wall of the building.

When the only sound was the roar of the flames, Tate stuck her head around the building. The ball field was pure carnage. Hundreds of the infected were scattered around the grounds in pieces and lay unmoving while even more were on fire and stumbling over the shattered bodies.

Tate imagined she had attracted at least half of the town. She picked up the rifle and got to her feet and turned back to the truck. Her breath caught when she faced an infected man. He looked like a reject from a horror movie with half of his face gone and gray hair covered in carnage. He raised his arms, his hands reached out to her as if to draw her into an embrace.

Tate swung the butt of the rifle up and connected with the side of his head. He staggered back a step but the impact failed to take him down. She followed with a swift kick out with her foot and caved in his knee. His leg buckled and he fell to his knees. Tate raised the rifle and fired. The man collapsed in a heap.

Tate turned away from the body in time to see half a dozen more infected heading her way. She ran to the cab and climbed inside. She cranked the engine and jammed the Bitch into gear. She shifted through the gears as it picked up speed and she made her way around the side streets back to the highway.

The radio crackled to life. “Tate? You got your ears on?” Doyle’s voice asked.

“I’m here,” Tate answered. “I’m headed back your way. Got the family?”

Doyle sounded dejected. “Long story. Let’s head home.”

“What?” Tate asked.

“Family is gone. The house is destroyed. The occupants held off a horde before the place was overrun.” Doyle added.

Tate sighed. “I am so sorry, Phil.”

She turned left a final time and went to the end of the side street. She slowed and looked to the left and then to the right. She was on highway sixteen. She turned right and headed back to Old Hondo Highway.

When she got to the intersection she saw Doyle’s rig sitting at the intersection waiting. He saw her and pulled out ahead of her. She followed.

Forty minutes later, they pulled up to the gate and waited for Ben to appear. Instead, a bear of man strolled out of the house with a big grin on his face. He gave Doyle and Phil a careless wave and opened the gate. Doyle and Tate pulled the rigs through the gate. When the man had closed the gate he jogged to the passenger side of Doyle’s truck and jerked open the door.

Phil reached out to be caught in the arms of the big man.

“You son of a bitch!” Phil pounded on his companion’s chest. “Beth? The girls?” Tears were streaming down his face.

“All fine.” The man picked up Phil and headed across the yard as if his weight was nothing. “They’re a little tired, but fine now that they’re home.”

Tate and Doyle followed the pair as the big man carried Phil to the house. Doyle leaned over and whispered. “I’ll be damned. If you had seen what we did, you’d be amazed any of Phil’s family is here.”

Tate asked. “What do you mean?”

“There was blood and bodies parts everywhere. Shell casings, and at some point there had been an explosion. We figured everyone was dead. I thought the man was going to climb out of the cab when he saw the house. I convinced him to let me look around. I told him it looked like people got out, but honestly it didn’t.”

Tate slapped his arm. “I’m glad you were wrong.”

Doyle laughed. “So am I, believe me.”

By the time Tate and Doyle got to the house, Phil had been deposited into his wheelchair and was surrounded by a bevy of people; two men and the bearish man from the gate, four women, and half a dozen kids from toddler to teens.

When Doyle and Tate got to the porch, Phil introduced his wife, Beth and two daughters. Then he introduced John and his wife’s sister, Mary, then Martha and her husband, Bill, Ben’s folks in addition to the handful of children. A woman with a small child in her arms stood off to the side of the group.

“Gina, come here, honey,” Phil called the woman closer.

The woman stood, unmoving. Beth stepped to her side. “I told you it would be alright, honey. Phil is glad you’re here.”

Tears welled up in Gina’s eyes. She clutched the child so tightly the baby began to whine and fuss.

Phil reached out with a calloused hand. “Gina, you’re safe here. You belong to our family, now. You and the child have a home with us. You don’t have to be afraid of anyone hurting you again.”

The young woman began to weep and Phil opened his arms. She fell to her knees in front of Phil and leaned into his arms. Together, the man, the child, and young woman clung to each other for several minutes. Finally, Gina sat back and smiled.

“Thank you,” Gina whispered. “He’s dead.”

Beth stepped up and wrapped an arm around Gina. “Let’s get you and the baby cleaned up. The last three days of walking and hiding wasn’t easy on any of us. We’ll get you settled in a room. The girls won’t mind using the sleeping porch. It’s time we all get something to eat and rest.” She led the woman away.

The rest of the family disappeared into the house leaving Doyle and Tate to sit with Phil.

“I led you on a wild goose chase.”

Doyle shrugged. “Hey, we got rid of a lot of infected. Maybe it’ll be easier to scavenge supplies from Bandera now.”

“You’re a good man, Doyle. As for you, Tate, you’re an even better man.” He said with a chuckle. “That was pretty ballsy doing what you did. You made a hell of a boom. Sure was a lot of black smoke when we left town. I hope the whole town didn’t burn” Doyle laughed and Phil continued. “Both of you know how to take care of yourselves. I can use good people around here. I would like you to stay.”

Matt pushed another cart in line then stopped to look at the collection of supplies waiting by the door. He made a mental inventory of the types of supplies and worried he was forgetting something. He’d never cared for kids and worried they would miss something important.

While Jenkins and Ramirez stood guard, Jasper Kovak loaded canned goods in the pickup. Clothing, linens, and bedding had been stuffed into the back seat and trunk of the Toyota Camry Joan claimed as hers. The older woman walked up to him with two shopping bags of bottled spices. She dropped the bags into a basket.

When Matt looked at her, Joan answered. “For cooking.” With a shrug, she kept talking. “I don’t think we can get much more in my Camry. Carl will be riding with Jasper and Lisa can ride with me. Carl wanted to go home, but I told him his folks were out of town. I know if they were still alive they would have come for him.”

“Probably.” Matt agreed. “Same for the girl.”

Joan watched Kovak shift cases of food across the bed of the pickup. “That last day, we came in early. I manage the coffee shop, so I needed to get things started for the day. I listened to the little TV in the kitchen. I told Kovak it was getting really bad out there and tried to get him to lock the doors. He wouldn’t have it. All he could think about was covering the registers.”

“Lot of people didn’t believe what was going on,” Matt answered.

“All those folks that worked in the store are dead because he let someone in that had been bitten.” Joan lamented.

“Mr. Kovak let an injured man in the store and took the man to the break room. He told the assistant manager, Mark Douglas, to get someone to stay with him and wait for EMS. Mark was always cornering the girls in the break room trying to get them to go out with him, all the young pretty ones. Obviously, the bastard thought he was God’s gift.” Joan added sarcastically then continued. “Mr. Kovak went back to his office to call 911 and didn’t come back down. I think he was up there calling corporate to ask them what to do.” She winked. “Poor Mr. Kovak couldn’t fart without their permission.” Joan chuckled then grew solemn.

“The girls came in one by one and went to the break room to get aprons and put purses in the lockers, but never came out back out to the registers. Douglas stomped around the registers cussing and fussing about it until he finally headed back to chew’em out.

My guess is, the man changed then attacked the girls, one after the other as they came in. I was walking to the back room to get supplies just as Douglas got to the break room, all puffed up and ready to give ‘em hell. He slammed the door open and all those girls, covered in blood and open wounds pounced on him. It was terrible. I stood there staring as the door swung closed, him still yelling and cussing. I ran.”

Joan took a deep breath before she continued. “Carl was moving a pallet when I came through the back doors and I just grabbed his arm. We ran for the front of the store. I told him to get Lisa and the other girls and go to the office while I went for Doris in the coffee shop. He could only get Lisa to go with him. By then two of the checkers had been attacked.

When I got to the coffee shop, Doris had been attacked and was just getting to her feet. When she came at me, I picked up a skillet and slammed it over her head. I ran upstairs to warn Kovak and by then those people you took out were in the store. We were trapped. All we could do was watch them come and go. I don’t know when that big woman came in, but she was really scary.”

“You’re right on that one. She was pretty terrifying.” Matt answered as he walked away.

It took another ten minutes to finish loading the rest of the supplies. Every vehicle filled leaving only enough room for a driver and one passenger. They had gathered a lot more supplies than Matt imagined they could, even with the two extra vehicles. The last ten minutes had been tense with the infected in the area noticing the activities around the store.

Ramirez and Joan stood to the side speaking softly while Kovak and Jake stacked the last of the can goods in the bed of the truck. With all the activity and movement around the store, the infected began to notice. One by one, they turned and stumbled toward the store.

Matt called out. “Time to go. Keep it close and tight.” He looked at the two civilians. “Stay behind the Humvee. The white truck will be at the back.”

In less than a minute, everyone was loaded up and moving out. Matt tried to watch the vehicles in the side mirror as they made their way through the streets. He worried the Camry was too small to really protect the occupants if they got overrun with a horde of infected but could think of no better way to protect them. Heading back to the campgrounds was nerve wracking with the number of vehicles. As a result, he constantly watched for infected and tried to anticipate the time it would take them to reach the convoy.

Matt studied the road ahead as they passed an abandoned construction site. He glanced at the side mirror again just in time to see Jenkins and Ramirez in the white truck peel off and disappear into the barricaded site. He slammed on the breaks and the pickup and Camry were forced to stop as well. He turned to pick up the radio, but Jake pulled it from his hand laughing.

“Just wait. Give it two minutes.”

Matt scowled. “What the fuck is going on? We can’t afford to be sitting out here like this. You realize that Camry is little more than a tin can. It’s going to be dark soon.”

The white truck reappeared. Right behind it, a large food truck turned the corner to fall in line. The drivers waved and gave a thumbs-up.

Matt cursed. “A fucking taco truck?”

Jake grinned. “It makes sense. When I was riding with Jenkins, we discussed cooking for so many people. Joan mentioned a few suggestions when I mentioned the kitchen in the office would be hard pressed to provide three dozen meals, three times a day. Ramirez is thinking long term.”

“Long term?” Matt groused. “We’re supposed to be getting the girls to their family. We can’t drag three dozen people to some place that we know nothing about.”

Jake shrugged. “No. We can’t. I figure God gave us a job to do. It just got a little bigger than we originally thought it would be.”

They got to the turnoff for the campground and Matt almost drove past it. The signs on the side of the road had been removed. The grass had been pulled back up to hide the evidence of removing it. A gate at the side of the entrance had brush woven through the lower wire and one of the soldiers stood at the entrance ready to close it once they drove through.

“Looks like Larry has been busy.” Matt guided the Humvee onto the narrow roadway.

Jake answered. “We sure don’t want Bishop and his men to find us.”

Larry stood at the deer fence gate staring at the caravan of vehicles driving through the opened barrier. He pointed to a couple soldiers to close the gate then jumped on the running board next to Matt’s open window. “You brought company I see.”

Matt shrugged. “Couldn’t leave ‘em. They were trapped in the discount store we raided.”

“We could use a few more hands on deck,” Larry advised.

“Don’t know how much help they’ll be. We got a store manager and three of his employees. Not much need for a stocker or cashier as I see it.”

Larry jumped to the ground when the Humvee pulled up in front of manager’s office. We need to have a talk when you get the vehicles settled. We’ve done some exploring and found some real good stuff.”

Matt nodded. “For now, park the vehicles next to the bus. Put the food truck at the side of the rec-center. The pickup can park up here to offload. We can use the bus for food storage until we get something better figured out.”

“On it.” Larry jogged off with a wave of his hand. Two of Jenkin’s men came running.

Matt turned to look out over the campground. “We have to find some campers or something. We can’t all sleep in the rec center indefinitely. People will start getting on each other’s nerves.”

“Campers would work. Sanitation and water hookups are available already.” Jake commented. We can take a four man crew and bring back two or three at a time.”

“Food is not going to last long at the rate we’re dragging in strays,” Matt mumbled. “Someone else needs to manage this shit. Not me.”

Matt stomped into the manager’s office to see Amanda holding Claire and giving her a bottle.

“Well, hello.” She said with a smile. “I thought I’d give Amy a break. She’s a good caretaker for her sister, but she needs time to play with the others and be a kid.”

“No one has time to be a kid, anymore.” Matt answered. “The world has gone to shit.”

“They’re still children. For now they’re safe so they need to be kids.” She protested.

Matt turned away and reached into the refrigerator. He pulled a cold bottle of water from the shelf.

“Did you bring baby formula?” Amanda asked.

“That and about a thousand pounds of shit. Even shampoo and laundry soap.”

Amanda asked “What abou….”

Matt interrupted. “Look, I don’t know what all we brought in. Someone is going to have to sort out all that stuff.”

Thirty minutes later, a couple of camp lanterns lit three picnic tables pushed together for the meeting. All the adults sat around with bottles of water or soda in hand.

Matt stood at the head of the table and looked at the expectant faces staring at him. “Thanks for coming folks. We got a lot of things to think about, but I’m not sure I’m the one best suited for this. I’m a soldier, not a manager…uh…uh.

Sargent, maybe I can help.” Amanda interrupted. Matt stepped back and Amanda continued. “I think what Matt is trying to say, is that we need to organize. I spoke with several of you and I think I have a pretty good picture of our resources.” She looked up from a list in her hands then at Matt and smiled while she placed a hand on her swollen belly. “The military needs to do what they do best. The rest of us need to step up and take the burden of everyday activities from their shoulders.”

Matt took a deep breath and sighed as he crossed his arms and leaned back against a tree trunk.

Amanda continued. “Mr. Novak has already started sorting and distributing the clothing for the children. He’s also begun an inventory of supplies on hand. If there are no objections, I would like to suggest he be placed in charge of inventory and distribution.”

Everyone nodded and Amanda continued. “As most of you know now, Joan and Lisa have food service experience so meals are covered. Some of the older teens have been helping with the younger children as needed and will continue doing so.” Amanda held out her hand. “Larry, will you report what you’ve found during your exploration of the property?”

Larry stood up and grinned. “The property extends nearly half a mile further than we originally thought. There’re a pond and barn with half a dozen horses still in the paddock. The barn is full of hay and includes a stocked tack room. There’s even a shed with half dozen canoes and fishing tackle. Oh, I even found four paddle boats for the kids. There are a few life jackets as well.”

“Thank you.” Amanda continued. “Since the Sargent and the rest of the military with us have already proven their ability to protect us and procure supplies, we will rely on them to continue to keep us safe. The rest of us will do as much as we can to take care of ourselves and not be a burden with everyday affairs. In addition, we women will provide laundry service.”

Lawson jumped to her feet and protested. “Hell no.”

Matt interrupted. “We do our own laundry. No discussion.” He looked at members of his and Jenkins’ groups. “We’re big boys and girls.” He glanced toward Lawson then continued. “We take care of ourselves. We’ll be helping around camp where needed when not on guard duty or out scavenging. We all have to work together to survive.”

Amanda nodded. “As you wish.” She took a deep breath then continued. “We need a way to prioritize what is being brought into camp. I don’t think a “wish list” is a good way to address supply runs.” When she saw a nod from Matt, she continued. “I would like to suggest a meeting between Mr. Novak, Joan and Matt before each supply run to set priorities.”

Again, her suggestion was met with nods so she smiled as she looked from face to face. “Is there anything else to address right now?” When there was no further discussion, she added. “I guess meeting adjourned.”

Matt and the other soldiers remained. Matt turned to Larry. “Well, I take it you have more to add.

Larry laughed. “As you saw, we took down the signs at the road, camouflaged the gate and closed it after you came through. It won’t stop a truck but maybe keep any infected from wandering up the road. I set up a two three-man shifts rotation, guarding the grounds for now.”

“Maybe it would be better to do three men, three shifts.” Matt commented. “No matter which way we do it, we’re light on personnel.”

Larry nodded. “We need guard stands built inside the campgrounds. I’d like a hidden stand in a tree near the road as an early warning. Or maybe set up video. Shit. I suppose we could do a driveway alarm even.”

Matt held up his hand. “I know. We have a bucket load of issues. For now let’s have three men on at all times; one at the gate, another on the far side of the grounds and one rotating in and out. That leaves two to help the kids and women with the kids.”

After a quick discussion on guard locations, Matt rose and headed toward the manager’s office. He walked into the living room to see Amy sitting on the floor with Claire.

“Mr. Matt, you look tired,” Amy commented as she looked up from changing Claire’s diaper.

Matt shrugged. “Long day. You got everything you need?”

“Yes, sir. Mr. Novak brought formula and diapers this afternoon. He even brought baby food. Claire Bear is all ready for bed.” Amy set Claire down on the floor and she crawled toward Matt. “I told Ms. Amanda, she could have the bed. Mr. Jake brought a bed for Claire. It’s pretty cool. It folds right up. I guess we’ll have to have another one when Ms. Amanda has her baby.”

Claire pulled at Matt’s boot laces. Matt leaned down and pulled her into his lap. “Well, baby girl, you all ready for bed, sweetie?” She reached out and giggled. Matt gave her a peck on the cheek then handed her back to Amy.

“Good night, Mr. Matt.” Amy disappeared up the stairs.

Matt picked up a plastic bag of shaving supplies and headed for the shower at the rec center. He grabbed a brand new pair of underwear, sweats, and t-shirt from a second bag. The new underclothes and socks were his allotment according to Novak.

Once showered and shaved, Matt held up the cargo pants in the shower to wash away the blood and gore from his day.  He finished his shower, then rolled up his clothes in a bundle and stepped back in his combat boots to walk back to the manager’s office. He passed through the rec center where accordion dividers had separated the massive room into three sections.

The boys were bedded down outside the men’s restroom while the girls on the opposite side near the girls’ restroom. The middle section provided plenty of room for adults. Matt shrugged. It wasn’t ideal, but at least they weren’t spending another night on the bus.

Matt walked outside and across the grounds to the manager’s office. He draped his wet clothes over a rope tied between two trees at the back of the house along with others recently washed pants and t-shirts. He walked into the kitchen and began opening cabinets. He turned at the sound of footsteps approaching. Amanda, wearing an oversized t-shirt and sleep shorts was brushing damp hair. “Oh, sorry.” She whispered as she turned to go back to the bedroom.

“No, it’s alright.” Jake and Larry had already turned in and now lay out on the carpet. He stepped out of his boots and sat them under the chair. “I was looking for a drink.” He felt the color warm his face.

“I was going to fix some tea.” She walked to the stove where a kettle sat over a flame. “Sweet Dreams tea, do you want some?”

Matt shrugged. “Why not? Sure.”

Once they were settled at the small kitchenette table, Matt asked. “When’s the baby due?”

Amanda placed her hand on her belly. “Six weeks.” She caressed the swell lovingly.

Matt shifted in his seat and wrapped his hands around the warm cup and looked at the swirl of amber liquid.

Amanda continued speaking without looking away. “It’s a boy. His father was one of those the soldiers killed to get in the bus.” She sighed. “He would be glad. He would never have wanted to hurt anyone like that.”

“I’m sorry,” Matt whispered.

“How did you make it off the base? I heard it was overrun within eight hours of the attack.”

“I wasn’t on base. In fact, I was drunk on my ass. If it wasn’t for Larry and Jake, I wouldn’t have made it.” Matt nodded toward them and chuckled. “They threw me in a dumpster. That’s where we came across Amy and Claire. Their mother led a bunch of infected away while they hid.”

“Oh God. Where is she now?” Amanda asked.

Matt shrugged. “Don’t know. The girls have family near Guadalupe State Park at a place called Pine Canyon. We were headed that way.”

“And now?”

“I don’t know,” Matt answered as he rinsed the cup and turned it upside down in the drain rack. “Good night. Thanks for the tea.”

“Why were they shooting at us?” Sandy demanded.

“Cause they’re assholes,” Jimmy answered. “Now shut up. You almost got us killed.”

“You heard that scream last night.” Zack added. “My guess is, they killed that woman and are afraid we saw something.”

Della turned back to the back seats. “Please. Just be quiet. We’re not out of this yet.”

Steve navigated the back road driving as fast as he could on the narrow-asphalt highway. All the while, he watched the mirrors for signs of pursuers. His heart hammered with the knowledge one gun could not protect them from three or four well-armed men bent of their destruction. He steered the van through a devastated community turned to the charred rubble of a strip center before he pulled the vehicle behind the remains of a large metal building.

“I think we’re safe now.” Steve turned off the motor. The only sound was the ticking of the cooling engine. He rolled down the window and the smell of charred wood wafted on a gentle breeze.

Jimmy reached behind the seat to scratch through supplies. He handed everyone a drink and a power bar.

“It’s a good thing we didn’t take a lot out of the van,” Jimmy commented.

“We would have lost a lot more than a few pieces of bedding, that’s for sure.” Della agreed.

“We lost a lot. We lost Martha.” Sandy said. “How can you act like nothing happened?”

Steve turned around. “I know what happened to Martha was upsetting, Sandy, but you almost got us killed.”

Sandy protested. “We just left her hanging in that barn.”

“We had no choice.” Della responded. “I’m afraid we’ll see a lot of terrible things just trying to survive. We live in a dangerous world now.”

Sandy retorted. “You mean you don’t care if one of us dies?”

Steve sighed. “No one is saying that. If we didn’t care, we would have left you outside the closet door back at the center. I’m sorry Martha’s gone, but we can’t change what’s been done. She made that choice. All we can do is try to survive.”

“Maybe there are FEMA shelters out there. We should try to find one.” Jimmy interjected.

“Wherever we go, we need weapons to get there,” Della commented.

“How are we going to find guns?” Jimmy asked.

“If my phone worked we could google it.” Zack answered. “Now we’re stuck with yellow pages if we can find a phone book. What’s the closest town?”

Steve retrieved a map from his glove box. After looking over the map, he answered. “Hondo.”

“I don’t think it’s much of a town,” Zack answered. “My folks used to drag my sister and me along antiquing on weekends and from what we saw it was mostly tourist shops and stores.” Zack’s voice trailed off and he looked at his feet. “I wonder if my folks are still alive.”

Steve looked over his shoulder at the big black kid. “Wherever they are I’m sure they’re proud of you. None of us would have made it this far without you.”

Zack looked embarrassed. “Thanks.”

“Now that we all understand how much we need each other to stay alive let’s head out. Watch for a gas station, pawn shops or hunting stores.” Steve advised as he put the van in gear. “Gas is getting to the point where we’re going to be walking soon if we don’t find some.”

They rode in silence until Della pointed at a small mom-and-pop gas station at the intersection of a gravel road. Signs advertised post office, stamps, worms and cold beer and hand-tied flies.

Steve slowed the van as he studied the building and surrounding area. With only two vehicles visible, he released the break and moved the van to the fueling island. Light from inside the small storefront glowed through the large windows at the side of the building.

“They have power.” Della declared excitedly. “I think I see someone inside.”

“Good,” Steve warned. “I’ll fill up the tank before we check it out.”

Everyone waited while Steve inserted the pump nozzle into the gas tank. While the gas tank was filling, he leaned into the window and whispered. “I think I hear big heavy duty engines.”

Della whispered. “Should we leave?”

“We’ll come back when they’ve gone,” Steve announced. “If it’s them, there’ll be trouble.”

The rumbling grew louder. They were moving fast and sounded like they were heading down the road straight for them.

Steve pulled the nozzle from the tank, screwed the cap closed and walked back to the driver’s seat. He slid in behind the wheel and cranked the engine. He put the vehicle in gear and accelerated. The vehicle spun out and he steered it around the back of the building to a side road that headed up a tree shrouded hill behind the store. When the asphalt turned to gravel, he eased off the accelerator and quickly slowed the van.

“I have to pee!” Sandy whined. “Why did you do that?”

Della snapped. “He heard vehicles coming. They could be the ones from the farm.”

“Oh. I still have to pee.” She answered then fell silent.

Della raised her hand. “Give me a minute.” She retrieved the map and studied it a moment. “It looks like this road loops back west a little further down and ends up running parallel to the road we were on for about ten miles then turns back to the state road.”

Steve guided the van down the gravel road to the curve and realized it was following a ridge about a quarter mile above the state road. “I’ll stop when we see the store. You can go in the bushes while I go down and see who that was. I want to make sure it’s alright before we head back down the road.”

“Ugh,” Sandy complained. “Pee in the bushes?” Sandy folded her arms across her chest.

Della turned around and scowled.

Steve parked the van under a canopy of trees overlooking the building and parking lot below. He walked to the edge of the road and the sloping terrain between there and the rooftop of the station.

As he studied the slope with the scrub trees, brush and briers Jimmy grabbed his arm. “You can’t do that.”

Steve scowled. “I can.”

Zack stepped forward. “It’s not that. We know you can, but we can’t protect Della and Sandy like you can if something happens. Jimmy and I can go down there and take a look.”

After a moment of hesitation, Steve nodded. “Okay. Don’t take chances. Look and see who it is. That’s all. Surveillance then get your asses back up here and report.”

“Got it,” Zack answered. Jimmy saluted with a smirking grin.

Zack and Jimmy headed down the embankment toward the buildings below amid a landslide of gravel and dirt.

“Be quiet,” Steve ordered as they disappeared behind a large clump of bush.

Steve watched the boys pick their way down the first two hundred foot slope. They clutched at small clumps of bushes and trees working their way down the steep incline. Steve finally lost sight of them.

The two young men stopped where at the bottom of the slope ten minutes later and worked their way through the bushes to the back of the building.

Zack pressed his back against the cinderblock wall and worked his way toward the front of the building with Jimmy close on his heels. When Zack got to the corner he peered between the wall and the edge of a fenced enclosure. Jimmy squatted to get a good look at the scene in the parking lot.

Two trucks with massive, off-road tires sat in the parking lot, one truck candy-apple red and the other gunmetal gray. The boys listened as an angry voice rose above the idling engines of two pickups. An elderly couple, presumably the proprietors of the small store, and a middle-aged man, probably a random survivor, was pushed up against the metal brush guard of one of the trucks.

“Which way did they go?” A bearded man demanded.

I wouldn’t tell you if I knew, Willie Baker.” The old man answered.

“You’ll tell me or I’ll shoot you, old man!” He yelled. “They killed my brother.”

The old man snorted. “What did you two do now?” He jerked his arm free. “I ain’t helping you kill someone else. Knowing you and your brother, you probably did something to provoke ‘em. You need to get yourself home and protect your family from the judgment coming.”

“That’s what we’re doing. “Squatters broke into the barn on Uncle Alvin’s place. They tore up the camper and damned near burned down the barn. When we came after them, they shot Joe.”

The old man laughed. “As much as you and the truth are strangers, I doubt that. Speaking of, how did you suddenly come by these fancy rigs? I know those trucks don’t belong to you, two boys. Who did you steal ‘em from?”

A sudden shot rang out and the old man fell to the ground. A red blossom appeared on the middle of his shirt. He lay still, unmoving. Dead.

The old woman screamed and dove at the man with the gun. “Good for nothing bastard! You will pay for this.”

Another shot rang out. The old woman fell to the ground next to her husband.

The sole survivor raised both hands and began backing away.

Willie Baker shoved his gun under the man’s chin. “I want to know which way those bastards went.” He pointed at two of the men with him. “Look around. See if you can track ‘em.”

Zack grabbed at Jimmy’s arm. “Gotta go.” He whispered. “Now.”

Jimmy stood frozen in surprise and shock until Zack jerked him to his feet and pulled him back into the brush. They were turning away as a third shot rang out.

Zack pushed Jimmy toward the path leading up the slope. The ground shifted while vegetation did little to ensure their footing, but arms and legs pumped a frantic escape.

“They killed him!” Jimmy whispered as he reached for a clump of grass to pull himself up to the next stand of scrub trees.

“Climb. Just climb!” Zack wheezed. “They catch us, we’re dead.”

Both young men grabbed at vines and roots from the stunted shrubs pulling themselves higher and into the heavy brush out of sight. They continued the climb until they reached the top of the ridge.

When they got to the top of the ridge, Sandy and Della grabbed at clothes and arms to pull them over the edge of the roadway.

“What happened?” Della demanded.

“Rednecks!” Zack answered as he turned to pull Jimmy back on the roadway with a jerk of his wrist. “They’re looking for us.”

The foursome bolted for the van and jumped inside.

“We gotta get out of here.” Zack declared. “They killed three people. It’s bad. Really bad.”

Steve cranked the engine and eased the van into gear and accelerated. He turned the wheel onto the narrow gravel road. “I hope this road goes clear through. Otherwise, we are so screwed.”

“Don’t matter. We can’t go back that way.” Zack ordered. “They find us, we’re dead. They killed those people at the store.”

Jimmy drew in a deep breath. “You ever see that Burt Reynolds movie with the banjos? Their first cousins are after us.”

Liz tapped Harry on the shoulder. She spoke into the mic of the helmet. “There. A pawn shop, maybe they’ll have guns.”

They rolled past shattered bodies and remnants of a typical small town in Texas. A flower shop, a bakery and the remains of a boutique baby store. At the end of the block was a sign in fading colors advertising cash for jewelry, guns, and electronics.

There were several bodies in the street around the shop, but none of them were moving. Some wore biker colors while others looked like some of the townspeople. The front window was shattered and remains of a mutilated body spilled over the glass shards. Harry and John eased to a stop. Liz jumped from the bike and hooked the helmet over a handle at the side of the seat.

“Let me do this,” Liz asked. “It’s time I carried my own weight.”

She picked up a tire iron lying at the feet of the body in the window. She ignored the glob of gray matter and hair on the rounded end. Ready to strike, she looked at the door and sighed. The chances of finding weapons were decreasing by the minute.

“Door’s open.” She called over her shoulder as Harry walked up behind her.

Liz pushed the remains of the door out of the way and peered into the store. Finally, she called out. “Hello? Anyone there?”

“Get the fuck out of here! Let me die in peace.” A gravelly male voice called out.

Liz looked at Harry then stepped into the gloom and responded. “We can help you.”

The voice forced a harsh chuckled and whispered. “I’m gut shot. Can’t help this, little girl.” He moaned softly.

“Harry, John. I need help!” Liz called out as she pulled a rag from a shelf and pressed it to the hemorrhaging wound in the middle of an old man’s stomach.

Harry squatted down and moved the hand clutching the rag. “Sorry man.” He told the old man.

“Who did this?” John whispered.

“Fucking bikers.” The man whispered. “Yesterday morning. About two dozen or so mean looking assholes. Leader was ugly, mean bastard with big hair and a do-rag.”

“Ryder and his bunch,” John whispered. “We ran into them ourselves. They cleaned us out. Took all our food and weapons.”

“Bastards.” The old man responded. “You’re lucky to be alive.”

Harry patted the old man’s leg. “We got some payback.” He chuckled. “Led ‘em right into a herd of dead heads. Last we saw, they were getting chewed up pretty good.”

The old man sighed and pulled a key from his pocket and held it out to Liz. “Behind the register. Under the mat. The bag.”

Liz got to her feet and walked to the counter, raised the mat and inserted the key in the metal door in the floor. “Harry?”

Harry stepped to her side and picked up the handle of the heavy door. There was a gun safe embedded in the floor. Among the guns and ammunition was a white canvas bag with a red cross on the side.

Liz picked up the bag and hurried over to the old man. “What can I do?” She unzipped the top.

“There’s morphine in the bag.” He chortled. “It was for the cancer, but I need it now.”

Liz scratched through the bag and found several small bottles labeled morphine. She pulled a syringe from the collection of trauma supplies. She raised the bottle and inserted the needle.

“All of it.” The old man whispered.

She did as he asked, then turned to the man with the syringe in hand. At her look of confusion the man whispered.

“In the vein.”

Liz tied off his arm, inserted the needle then released the tourniquet. The man’s eyes fluttered then his face relaxed.

“My name’s Ed. Ed O’Hara.” His voice slurred, but he continued. “You ran into that bastard Willie Ryder?”

“He took all our supplies and was gonna to kill us.” Liz responded.

Ed nodded. “They’re bad as they come. I took out a couple, but couldn’t stop them from cleaning out my place.”

Harry patted the man on the leg. “Rest easy, we put some hurt on ‘em.”

John walked to the window and looked out. When he came back, he whispered. “Infected are headed this way.”

“Get what you can use from the safe.” Ed whispered. “You have to get moving.”

Harry grabbed Liz’s arm and pulled her to her feet. “We gotta go.”

Liz let herself be guided to the safe. Without speaking, she helped carry ammunition to the bikes. When only a few boxes were left, she walked back to Ed’s side. “Thank you. Is there any more I can do for you?”

He pushed the med-kit toward her. “Take it. I won’t need it.”

She zipped it closed and slung it over her shoulder. “I’m sorry we can’t do anything more.” She whispered.

“Go.” Ed answered. “Please.” He whispered as he looked at John.

John nodded.

Harry called out. “Now, Lizzy! We gotta go.”

Liz ran out of the store with Harry close behind. He forced a gun into her hand and pulled her onto the bike then cranked the engine. Liz turned and fired at a monster less than six feet away. His head exploded and he dropped to the ground.

“John! Now!” Harry shouted.

John fired from inside the store and a single infected fell to the ground. Two more shots and another infected fell. John ran to his bike, cranked the engine and the pair of motorcycles raced from the parking lot to the street and away.