Posts Tagged ‘Matt’

Thirty minutes later, Matt glanced over his shoulder at the growl of engines in the distance. He figured he was at least four miles from the Humvee and the booze was oozing from his pores. He had guzzled three bottles of water and was fighting the nausea that had crept up with a belly full of water.

With his hands on his knees and his head hanging water and booze exploded from mouth and nose.  He gasped to catch his breath then his stomach clinched and hurled another stream of the fowl mixture across the scrub grass and sand. When his stomach had nothing left to spew across the landscape, dry heaves set in and he fell to his knees.

Still gasping for breath Matt could hear the sound of the engines grow steadily louder.  He recognized the sound of the two ATVs.  The guards were coming after him.

Matt looked up and saw a small rise with a rock formation at the apex in the distance. He climbed to his feet and kicked sand over the evidence of his sickness and stumbled toward the outcropping.  He brushed the blanket in the sand as he walked obscuring his trail.  When he got up the hill, he climbed over a few scattered rocks and worked his way up the sun-bleached stone formation.  He climbed for several minutes and found a turret of limestone to hunker down behind.  He dropped his pack and pulled another bottle of water from his pack.  He threw two white pills back and took a sip of the water to get them down.

The sound of the engines grew louder.  Matt stretched out across a massive flat rock and crawled to a raised ridge. He eased up on his hands and peeked over the edge and saw two dust trails billowing up in the distance. He was right. The defenders were coming after him and were less than a quarter mile away.

He slid down the back face of the rocks and grabbed his pack and lumbered away from the formation.  He began jogging over the rough ground. He felt like shit but still lasted nearly ten minutes before he was forced to stop.  The sound of the engines had begun to fade.  He hoped it meant they had lost the trail.

He took a long drink of water and peeled open an energy bar and bit off a third. It tasted like sawdust and dried crap but he finished it off as quickly as he could chew and wash it down.  He needed the protein and energy after puking up his guts.  He stuffed the wrapper in his pocket and headed north at a brisk walk.

As light faded, Matt thought he heard the engines in the distance then the world faded into night sounds.  Matt watched where he placed his feet while pausing from time to time to listen for the ATVs.  Matt glanced toward the setting sun.

After a few minutes, the engines roared to life. They sound as if they had made it as far as the stone outcropping. Matt worried they might pick up his trail when he heard two shots.  After a minute, three more weapons discharged.  The sound of the engines grew more and more distant.  After a full minute, the sound disappeared entirely.

Matt turned north and began walking.  He walked through the pain and sickness for another hour before changing to a more eastly direction. He imagined the map on the GPS and felt sure he had been about fifteen miles south of the railroad track and blacktop where they had picked up the shipping crates but at least four miles west of the site. He mentally calculated the distance he should be from the Tate’s Orange Bitch.  All he could do was hope Larry and Jake got his message.

The night grew cooler as evening settled over the Texas Hill Country. The cooling temperature was a relief, but the dark left Matt feeling exposed and jumping at every snap of dry twig. The dark could hide all forms a danger: a hole or gully to fall into where he could break a leg, stumble into a nest of monsters, or the men from the roadblock. He saw a cluster of shadows in the distance.

As he drew closer, he realized it was the remnants of a stone house. Only a corner of the structure betrayed the original form. There was a pile of trash at the side of the wall that included cans, a child’s tricycle, a few boards and a piece of plywood. After a couple minutes of considering his options, Matt decided to make a shelter for the night.

He dropped his pack and walked to a nearby mesquite where he broke off a branch. He used the end to brush into the corner to clear any critters that might be lurking and then picked up the plywood from the trash and dropped it in the corner. While he was digging in the trash, he pulled a dozen cans with half-open lids from the pile and set them aside.

He turned back to his pack and pulled out a ball of string from one of the pockets. He walked out into the dark about thirty feet and tied the end of the string to a mesquite about waist high and walked about twenty feet to another mesquite, made a loop to anchor it and walked to another stand of brush, tied it off and did the same thing again and again, until he was back at the original mesquite.

He squatted down and picked up a dozen cans with open lids then walked back out to the string. He stopped at the string and folded the lid over the string. He picked up three pebbles and slid them down the side of the can then walked down the string to repeat the process until he’d hung about a dozen cans.

With the can alarm complete, he used the remaining light to gather five and six inch rocks and tossed them in a random arc about twelve to fifteen feet out form his small corner of the house. He figured any infected approaching would never make it over the rocks without stumbling a few times.

When he was finished, he settled on the scrap of plywood and pulled his pack onto his crossed legs. He pulled another energy bar from the back and his last bottle of water. He stared into the dark as night sounds surrounded him. Each bite of the bar hid the night sounds only as long as it took to swallow the mouthful. He made the protein bar last as long as possible. Eventually he finished it and washed it down with the last of the water. He stuffed the trash back in his pack.  His hand brushed against the glass bottle.  He twisted off the cap and took another pull at the bottle, enjoying the burn as it slid down his throat.  One more swallow, then Matt tucked the bottle back into his bag.

Despite his determination not to fall asleep, Matt jerked awake with a start at the sound of a slight rattle of a tin can. He sat perfectly still and waited. A snort and a snuffle followed by a squeal made Matt reach for a two by four he had found in the trash pile and laid next to him. Matt decided it was a good thing he had made the line waist high.

The sound of the feral hogs behind the wall at his back grew louder. The wild pigs made their way under the string snorting and snuffling. The first of the baby pigs walked around the corner of the structure. The piglets had walked under the string so it was still intact and now the piglet rooted around behind the wall. Suddenly, a terrified squeal shattered the morning quiet. Before the sounded faded pained screeches filled night.

In the dawning light, Matt watched the piglets bolt and run away from the sounds in the distance. All hell broke loose and suddenly the string alarm rattled in multiple directions. Matt jumped to his feet and peaked over the top of the wall. Three infected stumbled after the piglets. Just as he thought he could wait for them to pass, a can in front of him rattled.

“This just gets better and better.” Matt mumbled under his breath.

He grabbed the strap of his backpack with one hand and rifle with the other. He ducked down and hustled past the trash heap into a stand of mesquite. He winced at a jab from a thorn and pushed deeper into the stand. He watched as the number of infected grew.

When day broke, Matt knew he would be visible to the herd that was amassing. He turned from the dozens of infected and studied the tangle of branches. He saw a semblance of a trail through the brush. He knew it would be painful but he had no choice. He dropped to his knees and entered the warren of mesquite.

Matt crawled under a thick branch only to find he had a choice of going left or right. He studied each pathway in the dim light and ended up heading to the left since it seemed to head deeper into the warren. As more light filtered through the leaves and branches overhead he noticed clumps of hair clinging to some of the branches. He was following a wild life trail, probably coyote or badger. Matt figured if he met either it would be bad news.

He flattened himself on the bare dirt and used his elbows and toes to crawl forward. Deeper and deeper he made his way into the maze of tangle of branches and jabbing thorns.  The infected surrounded the grove of mesquite chasing the hogs.  He lay in the dirt smelling animal and listening to the screams of terror and pain when another piglet ran into the arms of an infected.  He was out of water and would probably die in the maze of mesquite.  He spun the cap off the glass bottle.

Matt slowed the Humvee and revved the engine to ensure the infected focused on his vehicle while the big rig trucks with trailers loaded with the shipping containers picked up speed and rumbled ahead. Nearly a mile ahead, they turned off the blacktop and disappeared from sight behind a stand of trees. Before he got to the intersection, Matt turned on a farm-to-market road and stopped about a hundred yards from the intersection.  He pulled the bottle from between the seats and took a long pull at the fiery liquid.  He relished the familiar burn and sighed.  He replaced the cap and stared at his hands until the trembling began to lesson.

He debated about another drink but decided against it, he had to get going.  He laid on the horn and the ghouls quickened their steps.  He let his mind wander to imagine a reunion with Amy and Claire.  He knew they waited and the camp and wanted to get his act together.  They depended on him. He had no kids of his own so he was a little surprised that his attachment to the children had grown so quickly.

Without even thinking about it, he grabbed the bottle, unscrewed the cap and gulped down a double shot’s worth.  He took a second pull before replacing the bottle to its place between the seats.

Amid the warm developing haze of the alcohol flowing through him, Matt wondered about the mother who sacrificed herself for those kids. He imagined Amy must be a lot like her. She had found a place to hide her sister and herself. Then the kid had known enough to silence his drunken rambling to protect the three of them until Larry and Jake had come for him. If not for the little voice calming his drunken mumbling, they would have all died that first night.

He smiled as he realized he wanted and needed to get back to the girls and his camp full of kids. It was his job to protect and provide for the entire lot of them. He decided life had gotten complicated for a man who had once prided himself on staying unattached. He smiled to himself as he thought of Claire in his arms and snuggled against his collar.

A slap on the back window of the Humvee startled Matt from his drunken musing. He looked in the rearview mirror and was stunned. The group of a few dozen infected had grown into a hoard of over a hundred. More slaps against the vehicle sent him into action. He stepped on the break, slipped the vehicle in gear and stepped on the gas.  The Humvee fishtail when he stepped on the accelerator with more force than he intended. He eased his foot off and righted the vehicle.

The Humvee lurched forward and an infected man alongside of the Humvee fell under the back tire. Through the side mirror, Matt watched another infected in a flannel shirt and jeans disappear under the mass of bodies as the vehicle lurched.

Still annoyed he had let himself get distracted, he eased up on the gas and steered the Humvee down the single lane road. The narrow blacktop wound through acres of fallow ground covered in scrub grass and brush. He maintained a speed slow enough to ensure the infected followed. According to the GPS there should be a side road heading north in another mile right after a tight curve.

When he got to the turn off, he figured he could speed up leaving the infected in the brush and scrub grass to cook in the Texas sun where they could do no harm.

As he mused about the possibility of baking brains, he rounded the curve in the road and slammed on the breaks. There was a road block. Before he could decide what to do, men manning the roadblock began firing. The windshield shattered on the passenger side as bullets pinged off the metal of the hood and grill.

Matt jerked the wheel to the right and the Humvee shot over a shallow ditch and into a dilapidated fence at the side of the road. The barbed wire stretched then snapped and he stomped the accelerator. The Humvee barreled through scrub grass and onto the rocky ground beyond. He kept his foot pressed down and maneuvered around mesquite bushes. The shooting behind him continued but seemed to have redirected their attention to the hoard of the infected he had delivered on their door step.

“Fuck!” He cursed as he white-knuckled the steering wheel in frustration. He had led the infected right to someone’s front door. The road block protected access to a community. Matt sobered somewhat as he hoped the guards had enough ammunition to take care of the horde of infected but knew he couldn’t go back. Judging by the initial reception, no amount of talking would convince them he had not led the horde to their doorstep intentionally.

He eased up on the gas and slowed the Humvee to twenty miles an hour. He expanded the map screen on the GPS. The arrow, symbolizing his vehicle, moved across open terrain. He was further from the main roads than he had ever intended to be.

He studied the expanded mapping for a moment and realized his only option was to drive through the scrub grass and mesquite toward an asphalt road several miles away. He contracted  the screen and saw a road number he recognized and aimed the Humvee in the general direction.

He made his ways around gullies and dry streambeds. He fought against the rough terrain all the while with his speed becoming less and less.  With the first wafting cloud of steam he realized his truck was damage.  Matt glanced down at the Humvee’s gages.  He could see the needle climb. The hissing noise coming from under the hood grew louder and he knew repairing the Humvee out in the desolate wild was way beyond his expertise.

His only option was to drive as far as he could, then do whatever he needed to get back to Camp Verde even if it meant walking. Using the online GPS, he knew he was at least thirty miles from the camp. It was not going to be a good afternoon when the Humvee died and it would die.

He activated the mic on the radio. “Home Camp, Monroe here. Over.”

He released the talk button and waited. Static crackled from the speaker but didn’t include words of response. He used the mic a second time, but again the only sound was the crackle of static gradually being overpowered by the struggling engine.

While Matt aimed the Humvee toward the general direction of the railroad tracks, the needle of the temperature gauge pegged out. He estimated the distance at least five miles from his current location.  Steam hissed around the hood in billowing clouds of white. Matt eased up on the gas and the vehicle coasted to a stop. He slammed the shift into park and stepped from the vehicle.

He could still hear sporadic gunfire in the distance as he walked around to the front fender and opened the hood. As Matt looked at the damaged radiator, he pondered the fate of the guards at the roadblock.

He decided with the roadblock and fencing on either side of the road, the men facing the horde could hardly be missing their targets. As long as the ammo lasted, the guards should be able to handle the crisis. Matt shrugged. Nothing he could do about it.

After a few minutes of looking around he saw two bullets embedded in the radiator. Steam hissed around the metal projectiles. Matt dropped the hood. The best he could do was limp along hoping he could make it back to blacktop and find a working vehicle before the Humvee died. He walked back to the door and listened for a minute. The sporadic gunfire was now deliberate and spaced several minutes apart.

“Great. If they have enough ammo left, they’ll be coming after me.” He grumped.

He looked up at the afternoon skies as he cranked the engine. He eased the Humvee into gear pointing the arrow on the GPS toward the highway.

With a sigh, Matt picked up the bottle and emptied the last of the amber liquid and mumbled. “This day is just getting better and better.”

Six minutes later the Humvee died with a clattering of overheated moving parts. The engine locked up with the smell of burning oil and scorching metal wafting up from the front of the vehicle. Matt opened the door and reached into the back seat to grab a go-bag. He was glad they had removed Claire’s car seat from the Humvee before he had left camp.

Matt picked up the mic and spoke into the mic. “Camp, Monroe here. Larry, I’m on foot. Headed to the Orange Bitch. Over.” At the crackle of static he repeated the message. “Larry? Jake?  I’m headed to the Orange Bitch. Over and Out. Pick me up there.” He drove his foot into the dash then reached under the dash to pull wires from the electronics to ensure his sins didn’t follow him home.

He stepped out of the vehicle and settled a pair of sunglasses on his face and a boonie hat on his head. A stiff breeze pelted grains of sand across his bare skin.  He was glad he wore his boots, the black T-shirt and camo pants. It was going to be a miserable walk.

He looked into the vehicle and pulled a wool blanket from the back of the Humvee. He picked up a six pack of plastic bottles of water from behind the seat and dropped them into the pack along with half a dozen energy bars and his bottle of Jack Daniel. He slid the bag over his shoulders and grabbed two corners of the blanket. He had been driving east, so he headed off into the brush and scrub grass toward the north.

“No shit. Sherlock.” Tate glared at Matt as she pulled a cigarette from her pocket, stuck it between her lips and lit the end with a Bic. She inhaled deeply then blew the smoke at Matt.

“Dumb shit. Why in the hell would the asshole pull the keys?” Tate asked.

Jenkins and Dreschel walked up to see what was going on. Hearing Tate’s rant, Jenkins laughed and called over his shoulder.

“Hey, Jake! Can you hot wire the truck?”

“Dickhead, just because I’m black don’t mean I know how to boost a car much less a fucking truck,” Jake answered.

Jake walked up to the closest body and gently tapped at the pockets. It was the youngest of the fresh turns. After a quick search, he looked up and moved his head from left to right.

Dreschel headed toward another body, dressed in office attire. The body had no shoes, torn flesh hanging from arms and legs. Most of the clothes had been torn and shredded.

Matt called out. “Just the fresh ones.” He pointed toward to other bodies.

“What if he ran?” Jenkins asked.

“Wouldn’t make any sense to run if he had keys in his pocket. It’s one of these fresh ones.” Matt pulled on a pair of gloves and answered. “I’m really getting tired of smelling these shit-bags.”

He began dragging bodies to the far side of the road while the two men and three women hunted for keys to the truck. He swallowed bile trying not to lose his breakfast. He dropped the leg of the body into the ditch and used his boot to roll it into the trench.  He walked away to retrieve two more and do the same. He struggled to hold his breath mentally listing the mixture of shit, piss, and rotten meat.

Jake walked up to Matt and began helping him move bodies. “There’s just nothing easy about the dead walking around killing people.” He commented.

Tate headed toward an older man’s body dressed in jeans and a plaid shirt. She leaned over and patted one pocket after another until she suddenly stopped and jammed her fingers into the front pocket of his jeans. She pulled her hand away with a finger inside a round key ring. She examined the bloodstained keys until she found one with a GMC logo.

“Got em!” Tate held the key ring out and poured a stream of water from a plastic bottle over them. She pulled a red handkerchief from her pocket and wiped the stains from the keys. She jammed the keys into her pocket then grabbed the legs of the dead man. With the cigarette dangling from her lips, she pulled the body across the asphalt to the ditch.

Once there, she dropped his leg then booted his backside and rolled him into the ditch. Tate crossed the road to the cab and climbed in the rig.  She settled on the worn seat and slid the key in the ignition. She turned the key and the motor roared to life. She turned it off, leaving the keys in the ignition and jumped to the asphalt and jogged over to joined the men.

“We’re in business, folks.” She grinned as she tossed the cigarette butt toward the ditch.

Matt and the others quickly moved the last few bodies then walked to the back of the truck to look inside the trailer. A clipboard lay on the side of the open door. He picked it up and glanced down the list.  He could see a hand written list with several items crossed off.  He shrugged and tossed it aside.  He eased the trailer door open and cautiously peered inside.

The back was filled with cases of canned good. They were stacked several deep, but it was obvious the transfer of goods had been hasty. As he stared at the helter-skelter of cardboard boxes, he wondered if the people they were trying to feed were still alive.  Would they survive without this load of food? He shrugged as he realized he would probably never know.

Matt took a deep breath and pointed toward the open freight car. “Let’s finish what they started. We’ll get this truck loaded, moved out then we’ll snag a couple containers and get back to the camp.”

“Sounds like a plan. But I’ll be taking this bitch. I’m claiming it as mine.” Tate said as she squared her shoulders and set her jaw as if expecting a fight.

Matt shrugged. “Its all yours…You more than earned it.”

“Then let’s get moving.” Tate locked the doors open then jumped up into the truck to disappear into the gloom. Matt could hear her moving cases to the front of the trailer.

“You want some help in there?” Jenkins called into the dark.

Tate answered. “Sure, we get this shit stacked decent and we can get a lot more in here. We can make this trip worthwhile. The rest of you hump up and get those cases over here.”

“Stand guard, Dreschel. Jenkins, inside with our new friend.” Matt ordered then looked to Jake. “Okay, big guy, let’s hustle this shit over here.”

They worked hard hefting cases of canned goods for thirty minutes then Matt called a break. The trailer was loaded and buttoned up. While the men sat at the side of the road, still glistening with sweat Tate walked around the rig and trailer clutching a bottle of water. Her brown hair stuck to her face in damp ringlets as she pulled at the break hoses, looked over the tires, and, in general, inspected her new ride. When she was finished, she walked back to the men grinning.

“We’re good to go. You trust me to move the truck out of the way?”

Matt hesitated only a moment then nodded. “Give us plenty of space to maneuver.” He pointed at two rail cars. “When you get done will you watch our six while we work on moving containers to the flat beds?”

Tate gave an imitation solute. “You got it.”

When she got in the cab and fired up the truck, Jenkins asked. “What if she just drives away?”

Matt shrugged. “Her bag is still in the Humvee. I don’t think she’ll leave it.”

Two minutes later, Tate stood in front of the men. “Well, you slobs going to sit on your asses all day? I can bring up the crane while you four lounge around.”

Dreschel jumped to his feet. “No way! Just stay out of the way.”

Tate grinned at Matt and lit a cigarette then opened the door of the Humvee and retrieved her rifle.

Dreschel jogged back to the crane truck’s cab, climbed in and fired up the big rig. After about a few minutes of back and forth, he had the vehicle parked on the road next to the tracks. After a few minutes, the telescoping arms extended the outriggers toward the solid rail bed. He shifted counterweights to the opposite side of the vehicle then announced he was ready.

Meanwhile, Jake had pulled the first big rig closer. Dreschel stood in the road directed Jake as he parked the trailer in front of the crane.

When Dreschel was satisfied with the placement of the vehicle, he went to the truck and pulled cables from a box and tossed them down to Matt and Jenkins then spent a few minutes explaining the procedure he anticipated.  He climbed into the crane cab and fired up the engine.

Matt frowned when he heard the engine roared to life, but they couldn’t change it. They needed the crane to move the containers to the trailer.  They would have to hurry.

The crane swiveled on the turntable to face the designated container. He extended the boom over the container then lowered the cables with hooks.

Jenkins climbed to the top of the container ready to grab the fishhooks.  One by one, he secured lines to each of the four corners. When he was done, Matt threw up two additional lines Jenkins anchored to the front and back of the container.

“Okay Jake, we use these to guide control the swing, so put some muscle on it,” Matt yelled out.

Tate walked back to the Humvee and retrieved a rifle from her canvas bag and headed back up the road to the crest of the hill.  She stopped and began her scan of the back road and distant buildings.

Her brows furrowed as the motor of the crane rumbled into action. It was loud and the motor billowed black smoke from the exhaust pipes. It wouldn’t take long for the dead to hone in on the sound. They would hear the motor, smell the exhaust and the monsters hanging around the small community she could see about a mile away would begin heading their way.

Her head throbbed and she dry swallowed two more OTC pain killers. She couldn’t take anything stronger for now. Her eyes never stopped moving as she surveyed the surrounding fields and roadways. She glanced toward the operations from time to time but for the most part, she studied the distant terrain.  As she watched distant figures began moving out of the shadows.

Jenkins climbed down from the container and grabbed the front guideline while Matt grabbed the back one.

At the controls, Dreschel powered up the hydraulics and raised the boom. The cables grew taught and the container began to move. When it cleared the rail car, Dreschel swung the boom toward the waiting trailer.

“Too high!” From the top of the container, Jenkins called out. “Lower the box now.”

Dreschel worried the controls into sending the container into a wide arc toward the cab of the truck with the waiting trailer.

“Easy! Take your time.” Matt yelled. “We got this. Slow and easy.”

Jake and Matt pulled at the ropes until they got the swinging container under control. Dreschel began moving the boom again, this time slower and with a bit more precision. He stopped the boom when the container hovered over the trailer.  With another control he slowly began lowering the cable. The container inched toward the trailer.

Dreschel eased forward on the controls and the boom slowly lowered the container. Matt and Jake pulled at the lines as the container turned and wavered. Finally, the container brushed against the edge of the flatbed causing the trailer to rock. As it got closer, Matt and Jake made small adjustments to ensure the container settled on the trailer mountings.

With a loud clank, the container slipped onto the mountings and the lines slackened. Jake rushed to the metal container and pulled himself up to free the fishhooks. And guide lines.

“Got it!” Matt called out as he matched Jake’s actions at the opposite end of the container.

With shaking hands, Dreschel lowered the boom to allow more slack in the cables. When everything was loose, Dreschel stepped from the cab. Matt gave him a thumbs-up in answer to his unspoken question. Jenkins climbed down to the ground.

“I’ll get this truck moved,” Matt called out. “Jenkins, get to the next container.”

“Fuck! That wasn’t pretty.” Dreschel commented with a tremble in his voice.

“You did fine, man.” Jake gave Dreschel a wave. “Let’s get this last one and get outta here.” He ran toward the second truck and empty trailer.

Matt jumped into the cab of the loaded trailer and fired up the engine. He ground gears as he shifted into first to get the truck moving. Several minutes later, he pulled up behind the white trailer of the wreck and turned off the engine.

Matt ran to the white trailer and retrieved a can of red paint from his pack.  He pressed the nozzle and made sweeping motions inches from the white trailer.  He ended with a giant symbol and initials.  As an after-thought he made three smiley faces as a signature.

By the time he walked back, Jake was looking around obviously nervous. “What in the fuck are you doing?  This is taking a long time and we’re making way too much noise.” He pointed toward Tate jogging toward them.

She got about twenty feet away and answered slightly out of breath. “We’ve got company coming. There’s a small cluster of houses about a mile and a half from here.” She glanced over her shoulder pointing off to the east. “They’ll be here in less than half an hour.”

“We got time for one more container.  We’ll be quicker this time.”

“That took us nearly half an hour,” Dreschel answered from the cab of the crane.

Matt stood silent for a minute then looked at Jake. “Get that last truck up here.” He turned to Dreschel. Get busy and pick up that last container. Jenkins, get back up there and do what you did but make it quick this time.”

When he turned back, Tate handed him her rifle and pointed into the distance.

He squinted into the scope and saw monsters being drawn toward them by the noise of the roaring motor of the crane.  He handed the rifle back to her.

“Keep an eye on ‘em and let me know when they come over the rise.”  Matt ordered then turned back to the task at hand.

Tate jogged back down the road to watch the herd of monsters stumbling toward them. It included men, women and children, all torn and injured beyond belief. She made a quick count and her breath caught in her chest. She realized there were between fifty and sixty of the infected shuffling toward them.

She glanced over her shoulder and saw the container dangling above the trailer. With a final growl of the crane motor, the container settled on the raised sections at either end of the trailer. The container hung over the end of the trailer by at least six feet but looked to be balanced on the back axel. The boom lowered and the cables collapsed to the top of the container.

She watched as Jenkins freed the cable hooks from the boom and the telescoping arm retracted back into place. Dreschel jumped from the crane and began retracted the out-riggings and restored the counterweights to their resting position.

Matt, Jake, and Jenkins struggled with tie-downs to anchor the container. She watched as they settled for retractable tie-downs across the container and tied together.

Tate shrugged. It was far from ideal, but would have to do. She heard a moan and the sound of shuffling feet and startled.

She’d been paying too much attention to the salvage operation and not enough to the approaching undead. She was shocked seeing the infected were less than a hundred yards from her and heading up the hill with dogged determination. She realized their shambling gate was coming much faster once prey was sighted.

She stuck her fingers between her lips and blew. A shrill whistle pierced the sudden silence. “Company coming!” She turned back to take three quick shots then turned back and continued. “They’re here! We gotta get going.” Tate backed down the hill toward the white truck still firing at the monsters.

Matt threw a wave toward the trucks. “Get to the trucks!”

Jake, Jenkins and Dreschel each headed toward a truck cab and climbed in. Jake got in the rig with the last container and fired up the motor. Jenkins started the first rig behind the white truck. Dreschel climbed in the crane rig cab and the engine roared to life.

The three trucks were ready to move, but trapped behind the white truck in the middle of the road. Tate began jogging toward the waiting trucks.

Matt raced to the Humvee and cranked the engine. He slammed the vehicle in reverse and planted his foot heavily into the floorboard. The vehicle swerved toward Tate as she backed downhill. She continued backing up and shooting at the leaders in the pack until the full force of monsters crested the hill.

Matt got within ten feet of Tate and slammed on the breaks.  With the Humvee still rocking, he threw open the passenger and yelled.

“Get in!”

Tate turned, ran to the open door and jumped in the Humvee.  Matt slammed the vehicle into drive. “I’ll be dropping you at your rig. Pull to the side and let the other three pass then fall in behind Jenkins and follow them to the camp.”

“But…” Tate interrupted.

“Just do it. I’ll fall back and lead the infected back the way they came to make sure they don’t follow us back to the camp.” Matt answered.

He pulled alongside the white truck cab. Tate grabbed her bag, jumped out of the Humvee and raced around the front. She threw the bag inside, climbed into the cab and settled behind the wheel.

She fired up the engine and steered the rig slowly toward the left to allow Jenkins to pass. He shifted gears and the blue tractor roared around her on the right to the lead position. She stepped on the clutch and slammed the rig into second and then through the gears as she accelerated. Jake and Dreschel fell in behind her truck. Now the four vehicles sped up. They got up to thirty miles an hour and she saw when the Humvee disappear behind a stand of trees.

Thank you for reading the first three chapters of “DEAD TEXAS ROADS”, Book 2 in the “Torn Apart Series”.
I hope you have enjoyed it.  The book RELEASE DATE IS APRIL 17, 2017.  Available in ebook and paperback.
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Dead Tex Rds frt cover

Thanks again for your interest.
Leave a review if you’ve enjoyed my efforts.

C. A. Hoaks

Larry Benson, one of the soldiers protecting the Kerrville camp of survivors, heard someone screaming his name above the chaos of several teens racing toward the main buildings, as they had been trained to do during a time of danger. All available defenders sprinted toward Carl.

“Help! Mr. Larry!” Carl, the eighteen-year-old with Downs Syndrome, loped toward Larry as he called out, “Soldiers!” He waved his arms over his head, desperate to attract attention. “Soldiers in trouble.”

Larry was first to get to Carl with three soldiers from the on-grounds protection team close behind. “What is it?” he held Carl by his shoulders, “Calm down, Carl. Tell me what’s wrong.”

Carl pulled free and grabbed Larry’s sleeve to pull him back the way he had come, “Soldiers down under, and the monsters gonna get ‘em!”

Still confused, Larry answered. “Show us.”

Carl stumbled around to run back toward the barn and livestock pens. Larry and the soldiers followed Carl past the main building and food truck, down a narrow path past the garden to the wooden fence at the edge of the barnyard. Beyond the wall was a steep drop-off overlooking a country fire road. Larry climbed over the rough-hewn rails. Still gasping for breath, he looked down at the scene below. A rope tied to the nearby fence post hung halfway down the face of the bluff.

Below, six individuals in military gear were perched on a cluster of boulders about forty feet below. The soldiers were barely balanced on the highest, a dome-shaped rock and struggling to maintain their perch while a dozen dead infected reached for them. The soldiers were trapped with no place to go. When a reaching hand got too close, a soldier slammed the butt of his rifle on fingers.

Mark, one of the teens rescued by Larry and the soldiers in the camp, explained breathlessly, “They heard us and started calling for help. Carl heard ‘em, and we tried, but the rope wasn’t long enough.”

Larry answered. “You did fine. Now let’s see what we can do to help them.” He leaned over and called out. “Yo, soldiers!”

The yelling suddenly stopped, and faces looked up. “We need help.” A female voice answered. “We’re outta ammunition.”

Larry called back. “Stay frosty for another five. We’re gonna help.”

“Yes, sir,” answered a female voice.

Larry gave his men instructions. Two headed to the barn, one loosened the rope tied to the post while he jogged to the pasture. At the fence, Larry whistled once. Bessie, a large-boned, chestnut mare with a gentle temperament, strolled across the paddock to stand. Larry pulled a bridle from a fence post and slid it on Bessie’s head. He led the horse to the barn just in time to see one of the soldiers step out with a harness in hand.

The soldier slipped the harness over Bessie’s neck and buckled the leather traces in place. A second soldier brought another coil of rope from the tack room and hurried to the fence where Mark had pulled up his twenty foot of line. Larry backed Bessie close to the rail fencing, then tied the rope to the harness. He used a square knot to add the second length to the first and tied a loop at the bottom.

Stepping over the fence, Larry walked to the edge of the overhang and called out before tossing the coil of the rope toward the soldiers below. The first attempt fell short. One of the men reached out and would have slipped from the boulder if not for his fellow soldiers. Larry yelled. “Wait for it!”

A female voice below echoed. “You heard the man! Bailey, do the catching. We’ve come too far to screw up now.”

Larry pulled the rope back up and coiled the end again. He made another toss, but still, it fell short. Larry cursed under his breath, looped the rope, and the coil arched away from the cliff and dropped toward the soldiers. Larry held his breath as the line fell and one of the soldiers reached up and caught the loop. He called down, “One at a time. Put the loop under your arms, and when the rope gets tight, I’ll give the word, and we’ll pull fast, so you swing up and clear of the infected. Use your legs to catch yourself to walk up the rock-face, or it’s going to be a rough trip.”

Larry watched as a female soldier slipped the loop over her head and settled it under her arms. She slung her rifle rifle and pack over her back and grasped the rope in one hand and gave Larry a quick thumbs-up.

“Remember what we talked about, Carl. Fast, then slow.”

Carl nodded then graced Larry with a broad smile and grabbed the bridle. “Bessie and Carl gonna do a good job!”

“Now!” Larry waved Carl into action.

Carl jerked the bridle and pulled Bessie into action as he ordered. “Run, Bessie!”

The rope grew taut, and the female soldier was jerked off of the rock and swung toward the rock face of the cliff. She hit the dirt and rock and bounced hard, but well above the infected’s reach.

Larry called out, “Easy now, Carl.”

“Woh, Bessie.” Carl pulled back on the bridle, and the mares slowed to a sedate walk.

The soldier swung out, and her’s boots hit the loose caliche and scrub grass. She walked her way up the bluff, crested the rim, and Larry reached out to pull her to solid ground. He called back over his shoulder, “ Got it, Carl. Back up now.”

Carl pulled the bridle, and Bessie stopped. With a big smile plastered across his face, Carl pushed against the big mare and ordered. “Back Bessie. Good Bessie. Gotta go back now.”

One by one, the next three soldiers made their way up the bluff. When Larry tossed the rope again, the two remaining soldiers began passing the line back and forth. A discussion ensued that none of those on the bluff could hear.

The infected stumbled and reached up while the last two soldiers continued their heated discussion. The female soldier used the butt of her rifle to smash in the head of an infected that got too close then pushed the rope at the male soldier again. The infected had grown more and more agitated as they watched their prey escape. The monsters clambered and climbed over each other trying to get at the remaining soldiers.

Suddenly a shot rang out when one of the infected grabbed the leg of the female soldier.

Larry glared down at the pair and yelled, “Leader, get your soldier on the rope, or I’ll leave you both down there for the night.”

“Yes, sir,” Answered the female soldier.

“Bailey, now. That’s an order!”

Bailey stepped into the circle, and the rope jerked from the boulder. He slammed against the rock face and was pulled upward, scrapping his way up the rocks, against the dirt and scrub grass. When Bailey was halfway up the bluff, another shot rang out Baily looked down.

Karen Hill was kicking against a rotted hand clutching her ankle.

“Down!” Bailey called out, “Put me down!” He continued to rise, despite yelling at the men saving him. He got to the rim and pulled himself over the edge and freed his foot from the rope loop. “Give me ammo!”

Larry ordered calmly, “Someone kill that shitbag!”

A shot rang out but missed the infected clinging to Hill’s boot. She was pulled off her feet and she fell to her knees where she struggled to maintain her hold on the rock.

Larry snarled,” Kill that fuck!”

The man fired again, and the infected fell to the ground.

“Watch it, Hill,” Bailey called out.

Hill got to her feet and yelled, “Toss the rope! Time to get the hell outta here!” She kicked at another monster trying to reach up to her boot.

Larry tossed the rope and Hill caught it. She slid the loop over her head and settled it under her arms when suddenly another shot rang out. An infected woman’s head exploded sending a spray of blood and brains out in an arch of gore. Hill jumped back and a second infected climbed over the bodies of the dead and grabbed Hill’s leg.

The sudden shift of weight threw Hill off balance. She stumbled over the edge of the boulder. The rope scraped against her face as she grabbed for it with both hands.

Bailey pulled his rifle from his shoulder and yelled, “Ammo, I need ammo!”

A magazine sailed in his direction, and he caught it mid-air. He pulled the empty magazine from the weapon and slapped the load in place. He took aim and fired. The hand clinging to Hill’s ankle fell away, and she slammed against the wall of rocks and clay.

Larry called out to Carl, “Forward, Carl. Fast!” Then he turned back to see the last soldier clinging to the face of the bluff, within easy reach of the monsters. “Hang on, don’t let go.”

Carl panicked at the yelling and jerked at the bridle, spurring Bessie into a quick trot forgetting to slow after the initial rush.

Hill faceplanted into the dirt and scraped against the rock as she rose toward the overhang at a harried rate. She bounced against gravel and dirt, unable to get her feet in front of her as she rose toward the rim of the bluff.

“Easy, Carl. Slow down,” Larry called over his shoulder.

When Hill got to the rim, Larry grabbed the shoulder strap of her pack and pulled her to safety, then turned back to the others. “Kill the rest of them, then burn the bodies.”

Hill pulled the rope over her head and pulled herself into a solute. “Squad Leader Karen Hill reporting, sir.”

Thank you for reading the first three chapters of “TERROR IN TEXAS”, Book 1 in the “Torn Apart Series”.
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Leave a review if you’ve enjoyed my efforts.

C. A. Hoaks

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.

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.”

They wrapped the body of the infected child in a garment bag and laid it in the back of the Humvee. Matt looked at Jenkins then back at Pierce.

“You have to let me come with you. I don’t want the kids to see me turn like the others.” Piece demanded. “You know that’s what’s going to happen.”

Finally, Matt gave a quick nod. “I know.” He whispered. The implication was not lost on anyone.

He turned to Larry and the soldiers to be left behind. “No more accidents. Work in pairs or small groups, one person with a gun out and ready at all times. Double check all the buildings including the out building down by the lake. Set up the recreation center to bed down the kids. Close off the outside entrances to the restrooms. They can stay open during the day, but I want the camp buttoned down by dark. Two men on the gate.”

Larry made a careless salute. “Got it. No worries.”

He turned to Jake and Jenkins. “Let’s go.”

When he looked at Pierce, he saw she was sweating profusely. He had not seen early signs or symptoms so he had no idea how quickly the changes were occurring. Her complexion had grown synodic. Her lips were dusky and dark circles under her eyes had developed. The whites of her eyes turned blood red and the color of the iris had started to fade.

Pierce nodded. “I don’t think I have much time.”

As she walked toward the Humvee, she began removing items from her pocket and passing them to the soldiers walking beside her. She removed her gun belt and pulled off her vest then stripped down to her t-shirt. By the time she got to the Humvee, she no longer wore the trappings of a soldier. She wore only camouflage cargo pants and a t-shirt.

She pulled a necklace with a cross over her head and held it out to Jenkins. “It’s my mother’s. I want you to have it.”

“I can’t take that.” He protested.

“Then give it to Lawson when she gets over this shit about blaming herself. This was my fault. You have to make her see that.” Pierce responded.

Jenkins nodded then stuck the jewelry in a pocket and sealed the Velcro tab.

Matt, Jake, Jenkins, Pierce, and another soldier by the name of Ramirez got in the Humvee. Pierce settled in the middle of the back seat and began unlacing her boots.

“What are you doing?” Ramirez asked.

“That pregnant woman can use them. I saw she had on sandals.” She sighed. “Can you beat that?” Pierce gave a rasping chuckle. “It’s the end of the world and she’s wearing designer sandals.” She handed the boots to Ramirez.

No one answered and she poked at Jenkins. “Lighten up guys. We saved those kids. I figured we were all dead three days ago when Bishop rammed the Stryker into the ditch. I got a reprieve. Reprieve is over.”

Pierce leaned over to wave at the gathering of soldiers. They quickly came to attention and saluted. Matt guided the Humvee through the gate and saw Pierce wave through the open window at the two soldiers standing guard. He slowed.

“You boys, take care.” She called out.

“God speed, Pierce.” One of the men whispered.

“Bye, Pierce.” The other choked out.

The faces of both men tightened around the mouth as they raised their hands to salute. Their eyes followed the Humvee as they secured the gate and the vehicle drove away.

Pierce groaned. “This hurts like hell.” She pressed both hands to her head. “We need to get this show on the road, guys.”

Matt accelerated around the corner and onto the highway. Trees flew past, as they raced toward Martinsville. Minutes ticked by while Pierce’s breath grew ragged and she groaned.

“Stop!” She moaned. “I can’t stand it anymore. My insides are on fire and my head feels like it’s going to explode.”

Matt slowed and eased the Humvee off the road under a huge live oak. All four men jumped out, Jenkins reaching back to help Pierce slide across the seat. She struggled to stand, but her legs could barely support her weight.

Jenkins and Ramirez draped Pierce’s arms over their shoulders and wrapped their arms around her waist. They carried her across the grass and spring bluebonnets on the roadside to the edge of a deep ravine overlooking a small winding creek.

The forested hill country lay ahead of them in all its rugged and vibrant beauty. Longhorn cattle wandered a meadow bright with wild flowers on the far side of the creek. Houses in the distance gleamed white and pristine as if they could not be touched by the ugliness of the world when the dead rose up to devour the living.

Matt walked up to the trio and looked at the glory of Lady Bird’s beautification project. Lady Bird Johnson would always be remembered for seeding Texas roadways with native wildflowers. Those same wildflowers spread to meadows and pastures resulting in collages of colors for all to enjoy.

Jenkins fell to his knees in front of Pierce. “God, I’m sorry. If I could….”

She laid her hand on the side of his face. “I know.” She smiled at him. “I guess I shouldn’t have held out so long.” She sighed deeply. “You need to go now.”

He opened his mouth to protest, but Pierce shook her head. “No. You go. I won’t have this on your conscience.” She turned to Matt. “I just want to enjoy the view a few minutes longer.”

Jake and Ramirez grabbed at Jenkins’ arms but he shook them off. He slowly raised his hand in salute as tears glistened in the afternoon sun. Jake and Ramirez followed suit. With a nod from Pierce, they turned and walked to the Humvee.

Matt stepped behind Piece and quietly pulled his handgun. “I don’t even know your first name.”

Pierce stared out over the river and shrugged. “Sallie. Can you believe it? I was named after a grandmother I never had a chance to even meet.” She struggled to take a breath then continued. “I hope she’s there when I cross over.”

“I’m sure she will be.” Matt answered. He fired and Sallie Pierce slumped to the ground. “Sorry, Sallie.”

Jake walked past Matt with the child wrapped in the garment bag. He laid the small body next to Sally Pierce. Together they stood looking at the bodies.

Finally, Jake asked. “Should we try to bury them?”

“We can’t. We don’t have time. It’s nearly three and we have to get supplies for thirty people and get back to make sure we’re buttoned down for the night. Matt turned and headed back to the Humvee.” Matt walked to Pierce and straightened her limbs and slid his hand over her eyes closing them. He covered the bodies with a tarp then turned and headed for the Humvee.

Jake followed. When he caught up with Matt and spoke softly. “That was bad.”

“It’ll be with me for a while.” Matt answered. When they got in the vehicle he continued. “A long while.”

Jenkins was quiet for the remainder of the ride to Martinsville. When they got to the edge of town, he finally spoke. “She was as good a soldier as any of them.”

Matt nodded. “She died like a soldier.”

“Dead is dead.” Jenkins’ face mirrored his distress. “She should have been home having babies or some shit like that.”

“She had a better chance of surviving this as a soldier than as Suzie-homemaker.” Jake responded. “It was just bad luck that infected kid got in the luggage compartment. Not the kid’s and definitely not Pierce’s fault.”

Jenkins shrugged. “It still sucks.”

Everyone fell silent until they saw a sign announcing a discount store in town.

Matt announced. “First thing we need to find is a truck or oversized van. It needs to be big enough to stock up for more than a couple days at a time.”

“What about a rental lot like U-Haul? Keys would be on-site and we’d have a pretty good choice of sizes.” Jenkins answered.

“That sounds like a plan,” Matt answered. “Probably sooner rather than later.”

The Humvee got to the edge of town and the first retail business park included a small storefront advertising: veterinary services, a dry cleaner, a tax office and sports supply center. Matt slowed to examine the businesses then suddenly stopped in front of the sports store when he saw the advertisement for school soccer supplies.

“What are you stopping here for?” Jenkins asked.

Matt jerked a thumb toward the business and grinned. “Kid’s clothes. There wasn’t much in the luggage for the kids. This is single stop shopping, should be a lot of shorts and t-shirts, warm-up sweatshirts and pants.”

Jake laughed. “Sounds like a plan. All we’ll need later is underclothes, shoes, and socks.”

Matt backed up to the door. The four men stepped from the vehicle. The others watched the street and area around the strip center while Matt tapped on the glass. When he heard nothing, he turned to Ramirez.

“Ramirez, watch our backs. Anything at all looks bad, give us a holler.”

When he found the door locked, Jake slid a crowbar between the door lock plate and jam. He leaned his weight into the bar and pushed the door from the jam and facing. The door popped open. Matt, Jake, and Jenkins stepped into the gloom.

Matt made his way toward the back of the store and found the office. Inside, he picked up the local yellow pages. He found pages for a city map, and located a listing for truck rentals. He folded the phone book and stuck it into his back pocket.

Jake and Jenkins found garbage bags under a counter and began sweeping clothes off shelves into the bags.

Matt walked to the back of the store to a door that sported a sign identifying it as a stockroom. He knocked on the door. When there was no sound from within, he opened the door a crack and peeked inside. The store room wasn’t as full as he had hoped, but he found several boxes of children’s sweat pants and shirts.

With his arms full of clothes, he stepped back into the storefront and found both Jenkins and Jake stuffing bags with clothes. Matt opened a bag and dropped his armful of clothes into the plastic then carried two more bags into the storeroom and filled them with sweatshirts and sweatpants.

He stepped into the front room and cross the room to drop his bags by the front door. “Lets’ get moving.” He looked out the window.

Ramirez was looking off into the distance, his face reflecting the concern. Obviously not getting a clear enough view, he stepped on the bumper of the Humvee. A moment later, he dropped to the ground and bolted toward the door.

Matt stepped out to meet him. “What is it?”

“It’s a military convoy with three Strykers. If it’s Bishop, he’ll try to take us out!” Ramirez declared.

Matt stuck his head back in the store. “We gotta leave now guys. Trouble headed our way!”

They tossed bags into the back of the Humvee and Matt guided the vehicle out onto the street. A few minutes later he turned down an alley then circled around a paint store and pulled behind a garage. He killed the engine and watched the alley entrance. Three infected on the street turned and headed toward the alley.

“Fuck!” Matt cursed.

“I got this.” Ramirez chuckled. “These fucks are really stupid.”

Ramirez eased the back door open and stepped out on the pavement. As he walked to the alley entrance, he pulled a slingshot from his pocket and slid a metal ball into the leather patch. He pulled back on the sling, aimed and released. A glass window nearly half a block away shattered. The trio of infected turned in mass and stumbled back toward the distant storefront.

“Long as they don’t catch a whiff of us, we’re good.” Ramirez hustled back to the Humvee as the roar of the convoy grew louder.

Matt pointed toward the corner of the building and they watched the convoy’s approach. The convoy was moving fast, crushing any of the infected that stumbled into their way. They barreled through town and past the garage without slowing.

“Where in the fuck are they heading at that speed?” Jake asked.

Matt picked up the radio and began scanning channels. After nearly a minute, garbled voices demanded. “Stop! Return…base…charges…Bishop! Court….” Then the reception dissolved into static.

“Well, that answers a couple questions,” Matt stated. “Bishop has gone rogue. He’s going to shoot anything in uniform.”

“Can we hook up with regular military?” Jenkins asked.

Matt shrugged. “I don’t know how. The reception is sketchy at best. We don’t dare transmit. Bishop can hear any channel the military is using. They could be anywhere up to twenty miles away. We can’t load up the kids and start driving around the country looking for an FOB. Not with Bishop going out there shooting at anything military.”

Jenkins nodded. “We have a pretty good setup at the campgrounds. It’s a lot more secure than that damned park Bishop stopped at. Our asses were left hanging out for anything that came down the highway.”

“Let’s move out.” Matt pulled the phone book from his pocket. After a quick perusal of the pages, he pointed to a small map of the town at the front of the yellow pages.

“There’s a rental store on the east side of town and a discount store down the street from there judging by the address.”

Matt tossed the phone book on the dash and shifted the Humvee into drive. He pulled out of the alley after a quick glance in the direction Bishop had taken.

Jenkins hooked a thumb toward the back of the vehicle. “We need a cargo van or small moving truck to haul the supplies we need to take care of all those kids. We can only carry enough for a meal or two.”

“Yeah,” Matt answered. “We’ve got a job to do that’s for damned sure.” He slowed the Humvee as he neared the rental store.

The yard was fenced and the only access blocked by a wrought iron fence with a padlock on a chain. The storefront next to the gate advertised specials on short-term rentals and accepting all major credit cards.

“There’re three private vehicles in the parking lot.”

“That’s a bad sign,” Matt muttered. “There’s probably one or two for employees and a customer or two. Most likely the customer will have someone with him.”

“So we have at least four infected to deal with,” Jenkins answered.

“Yep. Ain’t no choice.” Jake shrugged. “Keys will be in the office. Dis brotha’ don’t have a clue how to hotwire a truck.” He laughed at his attempt at ghetto humor.

“Let’s do this as quiet as we can,” Matt ordered. “Don’t use a gun unless you have to. I don’t want to advertise we’re here.”

Matt backed up to the office and all four men exited the vehicle. Jake and Matt pulled machetes free of scabbards. Jenkins held up a tire iron, and Ramirez- a three-foot piece of rebar.

“Same drill Ramirez. You watch our six.”

“Yes, sir.”

Jenkins and Jake waited by the vehicle while Matt walked to the building. He stood at the side of the door and peeked around to look into the gloom of the office. Shadows moved around in the open reception area. Matt ducked below the sill and made his way to the side of the glass door. There he pressed his back against the brick wall and motioned Jenkins and Jake to his side.

Matt whispered. “There’re at least three on this side of the counter. I’ll open the door and take out whatever gets to me first, Jenkins, you go left, Jake right. Take ‘em out quick and quiet.”

Matt raised a hand to quickly count off three fingers one at a time. He jerked the door open and the three men exploded into the room. Matt first, then Jake darted through the doorway with Jenkins on his heels.

Jake used his machete to cleave the top of an infected man’s head. He fell like a stone knocking over an end table and one of the two chrome and plastic chairs in front of a window. Matt took out a fat man in a white shirt and turned just in time to see Jenkins bash in the side of a woman’s face. The infected woman slowed for only a heartbeat and Jenkins swung again. The second swing embedded the crowbar into the temple of the woman. She fell to the floor behind the counter taking the crowbar with her.

Jenkins pushed open a side gate and leaned down to retrieve his crowbar. His wrist was captured by a hand covered in blood and gore. He yelped in alarm and fell back on his backside kicking at the head of the infected man pulling himself up his body. Jenkins jerked his wrist free and kicked at the body covering his left leg. The body rolled aside and Jenkins crab-crawled back until his hand met a previously downed infected body.

Jake stepped on the offending appendage and used the machete on the infected man’s head. “That bastard is really in bad shape.”

Matt leaned over the counter. “Fuck. They did a real number on the counter guy.” Matt swung the gate open and stepped around the body. “Let’s get busy.”

Jenkins jumped to his feet and shivered. “That was nasty. Fuck!” He snorted nervously.

Jake slapped Jenkins on the back. “You move pretty good for a white guy.”

“Fuck you.” Jenkins snorted. “You move pretty slow for a black guy.”

Jake chuckled and punched him lightly on the arm. “I’ll try to do better next time.”

Suddenly Ramirez stuck his head in the door. “I don’t want to interrupt this bonding moment, but we got company stumbling this way.”

Matt grabbed a key on a long stick with a tag identifying it as the gate key. He tossed it to Ramirez. “Get the gate open then be ready to drive the Humvee. Jake, cover him.”

Jenkins looked out the window. “There’s a fifteen foot moving van near the gate. Only one out there.”

Matt opened a metal wall cabinet and studied the array of labeled keys. Each one bore a unit identification number.

“What’s the unit number?” Jenkins called out.

Jake called back the number. Matt picked up the keys and sorted through the tags one by one. Finally, he jerked up a key and headed for the door. He tossed the key to Jake and raced toward the Humvee.

Jenkins stood between the Humvee and the truck looking from one to the other. Finally, Matt pointed at the van. “Ride shotgun.”

Jake cranked the engine and it roared to life. Jenkins jumped in and Jake slammed the vehicle into gear. When Jake gave Matt a thumbs-up, the Humvee took off.

In the panel van, Jenkins shifted through the glove box and found a map and a couple random pieces of paper. He looked behind the seat into the back of the vehicle. It was dark and empty. “We can carry a lot of supplies in here.”

Jake laughed. “It’s got a full tank of gas, too. You gotta love an efficient business model.”

Matt directed the Humvee to the large box store with the truck following close behind. They parked at the edge of the parking lot and Matt rolled down his window just as Jake pulled up next to the Humvee.

“Single entrance. Could be good. Could be bad.” Matt commented.

Jake shrugged. “Your call.”

“Jake and I go inside. Jenkins, you and Ramirez stay at the front door when we get it open. Jake and I’ll bring supplies in carts, one of you cover the other while they load supplies into the vehicles.”

Jenkins made a curt nod and grinned at Ramirez. “If you see any beef jerky, can you grab it? Oh, and some clean underwear.” He laughed.

“As opposed to dirty underwear?” Matt remarked. “Okay, let’s do this.”

With a nod from Matt, Ramirez released the break and made a wide circle across the parking lot to stop with the back of the truck and Humvee facing the front of the store. All four men got out of the vehicles.

Four doors opened and the men walked to the front of the store. Jenkins and Ramirez opened the back of the vehicles then stepped to the outside to protect Matt and Jake.

Matt turned to Jake. “When we get inside you’re on clothing and bedding detail. Pick up shoes, underclothes and whatever else you think we need. Get a variety of sizes for the kids but don’t get too picky. Clear a shelf or two then get bedding, sleeping bags preferably but blankets will do. I’ll get as much food as I can. We’ll fill baskets then drop what we find at the front door for Jenkins and Ramirez to load in the vehicles. I’ll hit the drug department, pick up shampoo and soap and shit like that last.”

“With the cots in the attic of the rec center, I know exactly what we need.” Jake answered.

Matt nodded at Jake. “Let’s clear the place then get busy. I don’t want to be here more than twenty minutes.”

Matt and Jake peered into the gloom.

“I see someone in there,” Jake whispered. “Maybe more.”

“Half a dozen vehicles. Two were parked at the side of the parking lot. Probably employees. The rest are right up front. That blue Fiesta has the door open and no one around.”

Jake nodded. “I can see blood on the door and if they let an infected person inside.” His voice trailed off.

Matt pushed on the door and it opened easily. “Not locked. Not a good sign.”

They peered into the dark for a moment and heard the first moan of an infected.

Jake sighed. “Shit.” He whispered. “Can’t any of this shit be easy?”

Matt shrugged and answered. “You two watch the door. We’re going inside. We’ll take out the infected before we start bringing up supplies. Just in case, don’t get sloppy. Watch the fucking door too.”

Jenkins nodded then helped slid the door back. “Got it.”

Matt strode toward the sound of shuffling feet with Jake at his side. They faced two infected customers. Both had been working men in life, one with a thick body in blue coveralls while the other dressed like a construction worker. Coverall man had a bandaged arm while the construction worker had limbs horribly damaged with gaping holes and open wounds. They each began shambling and reaching toward their intended prey.

Jake and Matt unsheathed machetes and stepped several feet away from each other. It seemed to confuse the infected men. They froze, undecided which man to attack first. Finally, both seemed to forget about Matt and faced Jake.

“I know dark meat is sweeter than white, but boys this doesn’t work for me.” He swung the machete and took the head from the closest monster. The body fell with a hollow thud.

At the same time, Matt stepped up and brought his machete down at the second infected man’s head. The blade glanced off the skull and drove into the collar bone of the man. The infected man remained focused on Jake and took a step closer pulling the blade from Matt’s hand.

“Ah, shit!” Jake stabbed out and drove his blade into the right eye socket and the monster fell with Matt’s blade still wedged in the head.

Reaching for the weapon, Matt suddenly felt a brush of a hand on his sleeve. He jerked his arm free, spun around and kicked out with his left boot. An infected teen went down in a heap.

Jake pulled his machete from the man’s head and made a wide arc with the blade. It connected with the teen’s neck. Her head flew from her shoulders, hit a register and rolled away.

The head stopped with the face looking at them. The clouded eyes blinked and the mouth snapped and gnashed teeth at them.

“That’s just nasty,” Jake commented with a grimace.

Matt stepped over and slammed his booted foot down on the head just as a nasally voice called out from the store speaker system. “They’re coming!” A voice warned through the store’s public address system. “You have to block the warehouse door on the right side of the back wall or they’ll just keep coming!”

Both men were retrieving their weapons as Jake asked. “Who in the hell was that? And why ain’t he blocking the door if he knows about it?”

They headed toward the back of the store when Matt answered. “Don’t know. Come on. Let’s do it.”

As they jogged toward the back of the building, they heard a tortured moan. It began low and anguished, slowly rising in volume. It was answered by an angry keening of another infected. The pair of infected women saw the men and each changed directions to head straight for them.

Matt watched as a monster that had once been a small woman with delicate of features snarl as she limp toward them. The second monster was nearly as tall as Jake. She was massively overweight and her face was masked by a thatch of orange-red hair, a color that could only come out of a bottle. Her throat hung in shreds around her ample chest. Blood covered her house dress while the wound at her neck still leaked thick drops of blackened sludge with each step. Both women looked ravenous as they stumbled toward Matt and Jake.

“I think the big one likes you, Jake,” Matt called out.

Jake chuckled. “Thanks, asshole.”

They rounded a display case and saw the double doors to the warehouse entrance being held open by a jack with a loaded pallet left half way through the swinging doors. Any time an infected leaned against either panel, they fell into the store. As if to verify the evaluation, one of the panels opened and a monster in a blue uniform fell into the store. It slowly got to its feet and zeroed in on Jake and Matt.

Matt ordered. “Let’s take out Big Bertha and Twiggy then you can dispose of the blue man.”

Matt headed toward the mammoth woman, but she seemed to only have eyes for Jake. He laughed and called out. “See, I told you, she likes you better than me.”

When the massive woman reached for Jake, Matt used his machete to remove lower arms and hands. She ignored the loss while she still focused on Jake. Matt kicked out and drove his boot into her kneecap. She fell to her knees giving Matt time to glance at Jake.

He had taken out the petite woman with a blow to the side of her head and without looking back, stepped around the body and headed toward the blue man.

Big Bertha was still struggling to get to her feet when Matt’s next swing connected with the gargantuan woman’s head. Her scalp peeled off with a pin-wheeling flight of crimson tresses. The impact sent her to her knees, but she still didn’t stay down long. She pulled her feet under her and stumbled back to her feet. She turned to face Matt with teeth gnashing.

“Fuck!” He cursed as he jabbed at her face. He missed her eye. She swiped it away with the remains of her arm.  He took another swing at her head, but her flailing arm knocked the blade aside again. Matt backed away from the woman in frustration.

Meanwhile, Jake took out the blue man.

Bertha focused on Matt while he swung the machete again and took her left arm off at the shoulder. Still the woman came after him. Matt swung the machete at her face but she turned and he hit her meaty shoulder slicing off a slab of flesh. She moaned and reached out with her stump. All the while, her mouth opened and closed, her teeth clicking against each other.

Matt took two steps back and glanced over to see Jake move the pallet jack against the warehouse door. With the breaks locked, no matter how much weight pushed against the doors from the warehouse, the doors wouldn’t open.

As he walked back toward Matt, Jake called out. “I know it’s been a long dry spell man, but I don’t think she’s your type. Kill her already.”

“Fuck you!” Matt cursed. “I can’t get close enough to take her out.”

With a grunt, Jake raised his machete and cleaved the back of the woman’s head open. The top of her skull shattered and black goo and gray matter spilled from the opening. She fell to the floor, the flimsy housedress riding up to expose a bare butt cheek and dimpled thigh jiggling with fat and the hint of a thong at her butt crack.

“Damn. That’s just wrong.” Jake scrunched up his face and muttered.

Matt and Jake both turned with raised weapons and peered into the dark as hurried footsteps approached.

“I told you, the military would come for us. All we had to do was wait.” The nasal voice announced as a thin disheveled man approached.”

He approached Jake and Matt with his hand held out. “Boy, are we glad to see the Army.” When he saw the blood and gore still covering both Jake and Matt hands and weapons, he quickly dropped his hand to his side.

“My name’s Jasper Kovak. I’m the store manager.” He stepped aside to introduce the three others with him. He introduced a fiftyish woman as Joan, a girl in her teens as Lisa and the third person, a young man who was obviously Down’s Syndrome he called Carl.

Matt stepped to a shelf and grabbed a beach towel. He wiped at the gore on his hands and pants leg. Finally, he cleaned his blade and answered. “We were in the military, but the Army is out of commission right now. At least, as far as we know. We have a group of survivors at a campsite about several miles from here. We came for supplies.”

“You can’t just take merchandise without paying for it.” Kovak protested.

Matt sighed. “We can and we will. Your corporate bosses are either hiding or dead and part of the problem.” He threw the towel to Jake and turned back to Kovak. “Here’s where ya’ll have to decide. You can come with us or go out and fend for yourselves.”

Matt picked up stacks of terry cloth towels and threw them in a cart. He collected a stack of wash clothes and tossed them in as well. He pushed the cart toward Jake and headed toward the front of the store. “Let’s finish filling it up.”

Kovak and Joan huddled together for a moment then called after Matt. “I think we’ll come with you, gentlemen.”

Matt stopped and turned back around. “Good. See if you can find the keys to that big extended cab in the parking lot.”

“No problem,” Kovak grinned as he pulled keys from his pocket.

“Get carts and fill them with canned food. One of you women find Jake, we got a couple dozen kids. We need shoes, socks, underclothes, and shit like that.”

The teen grabbed a cart and headed across the store. “I’ll pick up health and beauty.” When Matt looked back and scowled, she added as if he were a child. “We’re going to need OTC and pharmacy items since there won’t be doctors then I’ll pick up soap, shampoo, tampons….”

Matt held up his hand palm toward her. “I don’t want to know. Just be careful.”

“What are we doing here?” Larry asked as the Humvee moved out.

“What we have to,” Matt answered. “Get us about five miles or so from here then find a place we can stop. We need to know what we have to work with back there.”

They drove for a three miles leaving the horde of infected behind then Matt picked up the radio. “Jenkins?”

“Sir?” Jenkins answered.

“What’s the status back there?” Matt asked.

“We’re checking out the kids and most seem to be pretty hungry and dehydrated. It was hotter than hell in here and the water tank ran out yesterday. If we can find a place to offload the waste tank it would help a lot.”

“You got a bathroom?” Matt asked.

“Think airplane bathroom.” Jenkins chuckled. “The sanitation tank hasn’t been emptied in a while. They did have a few bottles of water or all this would have been a wasted effort.”

“Got it. We’ll be stopping soon. Just hang on a few more minutes.”

“There’s one more thing.” Jenkins began. “Oh, never mind. We can sort it all out when we stop.”

“You sure.”

“Positive,” Jenkins answered.

They stopped alongside the road ten minutes later. After a quick perusal of the area and seeing no infected, Matt and Jake carried two cases of water to the bus. When the door opened, the smell of waste and urine made Matt nearly back into Jake. Two soldiers accepted the water with a shrug and climbed back in the bus.

Jenkins stepped out of the vehicle.

“Holy shit!” Turning away Matt took a deep breath. “We need to empty the fuckin’ tank.”

Jenkins nodded toward the bus. “I know it’s not good, but we gotta get as far away from here as we can. If Bishop starts worrying about survivors and someone reporting him for deserted his post, he might come back to send a rocket up our ass. He’d recognize this bus.”

“There’re some campgrounds southwest of Kerrville. If we take back roads we can be up to the area in a couple hours.” Matt commented.

“A campground would have connections for the water and the sewer line,” Jenkins answered. “If you can spare a couple more cases of water and something for the kids to eat we’re good.”

“I wish we could do something about the waste tank and….” Matt began.

“No worries. We got the windows open. My team has been using an ammo can for the last three days. This ain’t much worse.” Jenkins grinned. “You got us outta a tight spot. We’re grateful.”

Matt and Jake brought back more water and two boxes of snack foods to the bus. As Matt walked away, he turned to Jake and shrug. “I guess you can get used to almost anything.”

“Not me, man. That’s bad. Really bad.”

Three hours and more than hundred miles from the roadside park, Larry turned off the highway onto Goat Creek Road. Ten minutes later, he pointed at a Camp Verde Campground sign. “Should we try it?”

“If you think it’s got what we need,” Matt answered.

“It was pretty rough back in the day. It’s been years since I was out here working at the camps.” Larry answered. “Let’s do it. We have to stop. Those kids won’t last much longer.”

“We should be off the beaten path enough to be safe unless it’s got a bunch of infected wandering around the campgrounds.” Matt answered before he pressed the transmit button on the radio. “Hey, Jenkins, we’re going to check out the campsite. Try to sit tight.”

“These kids can’t take much more.” They need out of here and something more to eat.”

“Roger that. Hang back while we make sure it’s safe.”

Larry guided the Humvee onto a narrow asphalt road. They drove around a narrow curve and faced newly painted sign advertising a secluded, recently upgraded campsite that included electrical hookups, waste and water hookups. Matt nudged him in the arm and Larry guided the vehicle onto a gravel road and up the gentle slope through the open gate of campgrounds.

They found the fenced compound a mile from the highway.  There were only two buildings inside the secured campgrounds. A large concrete structure in the center of the compound had signs advertising public restrooms with showers and a recreational center. Toward the back of the grounds, they could see a small brick building with a sign identifying it as the rental office. Beyond the office they could see a fenced paddock and another outbuilding. The place looked deserted.

“If there’s anyone here, they’ll be in the buildings,” Matt commented. “I don’t see any vehicles.”

“That’s a good sign,” Jake answered.

Larry stopped the Humvee at the front door of the Rec-Center. Matt and Jake slipped out of the Humvee closing the doors.

“You know the drill. Anything bad happens get the hell outta here.” Matt pulled the machete from the scabbard on his gun belt.

Jake, with a crowbar in hand, went to the door and pressed his ear against one side of the double wooden door of the Rec-Center. He turned back to Matt and moved his head from left to right and placed his hand on the doorknob. He gave his wrist a slow turn. It was unlocked.

Matt pulled a flashlight from his belt and gave a quick nod. Jake opened the door and pointed his flashlight to the left while Matt pointed his to the right. They both peered into the gloom. After a quick scan inside the massive open space, Jake kicked the door-stop in place to prop the door open and followed Matt into the gloom. They made a quick circle through the fifteen hundred square foot room then each headed for a bathroom.

Matt walked into the men’s bathroom with the machete ready to strike when he heard scratching. He stopped and listened. For a full minute, he heard nothing but his own rasping breath then he heard the scratching sound again. He stepped up to the first stall and eased the door open. It was empty.

He made his way from stall to stall, stopping at each stall door and gently pushing it open. Each time there was nothing. He rounded the corner to the showers and stopped mid-step when he realized the sound was really close.

Matt felt moisture slide down his back and wished he had a drink to settle his nerves. He stepped up to each of the curtains, eased it back and peeked around the corner. Each time the stall was empty until he got to the last one. Just as he slid his foot forward, he heard the scratching and a screech. He took a deep breath then peered around the final curtain. The light flashed across a small furry animal as it darted across Matt’s feet to escape up the wall and through an opened window.

“Fuck!” Matt gulped air and fell against the wall.

Matt stumbled from the bathroom still struggling with his racing heart rate.

Jake looked back from the blinds he was opening. Light spilled into the room from the head-high row of windows on both ends of the building. The room was slowly brightening with each blind being tilted open.

“Man you look like shit. What happen?”

“Nothing. Just a fucking ground squirrel scared the shit outta me.” Matt forced a laugh. “I thought I was going to have a heart attack.”

Together they walked to the opposite wall and opened the blinds. The room filled with afternoon light from the high windows.

When they were finished, they walked out into the afternoon sun and waved at Larry to follow them to the manager’s office. When they got to the building they knocked on the front door. The door was locked.

Matt called out. “Hello in the house.”

There was no sound from inside and glancing through the window showed the inside of a small office. The room was neat and clean as if someone would appear at any moment ready to do business.

“Let’s see if the back door is open before we break in.”

Matt walked around to the back of the building and under a covered patio found a sliding door with a folded white sheet of paper taped to the window.

Matt opened it and read. The door is unlocked. We’re leaving and don’t figure on coming back. Use what you can. Generator in back will run the water pump and water heater if power fails. Extra gas in the shed. The note included a few instructions to switch to generator power and a scrawled signature.

Matt slid open the slider and stepped inside the building to see an office, a living room, kitchenette, small table. He walked to the back of the building and found two small bedrooms.

“Dibs on a bed.” Jake laughed.

“Sure. It’s half your size, asshole.” Matt answered as he stepped out the front door and opened it. He waved Larry closer and then called out. “Call ‘em in.”

Matt turned back to Jake. “When they get inside the compound, close the gate and get a couple men to walk the perimeter and make sure that deer fence is secure. I don’t want any surprises walking in on dinner. Larry can get the girls settled. Jenkins and his men can help me get the kids out of the bus and fed.”

Larry pulled the Humvee to a stop in front of the manager’s office. He helped Amy to the ground then released the carrier from the car seat and pulled Claire out of the back seat. Amy retrieved the diaper bag and followed Larry into the house. She stepped into the living room, sat down the bag then made a quick tour of the interior of the house.

Amy looked into each of the rooms, opened doors and looked into closets. Having satisfied some question concerning her surroundings, she sat down next to Claire’s car seat, released her from the harness and laid her on the couch to change her diaper.

Larry carried a case of water, a case of food and box of baby supplies inside then squatted down next to Amy.

“Little Mama, I’m goin’ outside to help the others. Can you take care of your sister?” He walked to the window in the living room and opened it then headed into the kitchen and opened one above the sink. “I’ll be outside if you need me.”

Amy called out. “We’ll be fine. Claire Bear needs a bottle. I can take care of her.”

“There’s water and food if you’re hungry. I’ll be back soon.” Amy gave him a thumbs-up and Larry added. “If it gets too hot inside, you two can come outside once the bus is parked.”

Across the campgrounds, Matt guided the bus around several picnic tables and smattering of trees to a camper hookup near the public building.

By the time the bus was parked, Larry had backed up the Humvee to the picnic area. He opened up the back. Matt and Larry began carrying cases of food and water to the nearest table. Matt pulled a knife from his belt and slit open the plastic wrap. They broke out packages of single serving pasta, plastic spoons and began setting them out at the tables.

As Matt went back for another case of food, he saw the bus door swish open and the first of the soldiers descended the steps each carrying a child and leading another. The first four children were under the age of six. The men set the small children on a bench.

Jenkins rumpled the hair of a little boy with big blue eyes. “Okay, Jimmy. My friends are going to get you something to eat and drink. When everyone is out of the bus we’ll start getting everyone to the bathroom. Just give us a couple minutes.”

Jimmy looked up at Matt and Larry. “Yes, sir.”

Larry opened a package and slid a pasta meal toward the kid. He passed the little boy a spoon. After a few words, the child accepted the spoon despite the far-away look in his eyes. Jimmy walked behind the next child and placed a meal in front of them and placed a spoon in her hand. Like the boy, she sat staring blankly.

Matt handed the two children bottles of water and three more kids arrived at the picnic table. He glanced around and realized there were at least two dozen children from age preschool to teens.

He opened packages of crackers and laid them on the table. The children sat stone-still until Amy, with Claire in her carrier arrived. She settled on the seat next to Matt and sat Claire down next to her. She pulled a tray of pasta to her and Matt gave her a spoon and package of crackers. She picked up the spoon and took a bite of the cold pasta. Amy took a big bite.

Amy turned to Jimmy and commented. “You know, I kinda like it better hot, but it’s not so bad. Besides, I really like picnics.” She turned to another child. “I got Oreo cookies. If you eat all your dinner, we can have some. Mr. Matt lets me have one when I eat all my lunch. Do you like cookies?”

“Ah huh.” The child across from Amy nodded. She picked up the spoon and took a tentative bite of pasta. After a quizzical look, she smiled and took a big bite. Within seconds, all the children including Jimmy began eating with surprising enthusiasm.

“Do I get a cookie?” A child asked from the next table.

Matt laughed. “Sure. Everyone gets to have a cookie. Drink some water, too. That bus was pretty hot and you were in it a long time.”

Half a dozen older teens came out of the bus to settle at yet another table. Amy jumped to her feet to carry meals to the new arrivals while she chatted and offered the prized cookies if the meals were eaten. With tentative smiles and a soft giggle now and then, the kids began eating while she coached them to drink more water.

“You have to drink all the water if you want cookies.” She called out as she headed for the Humvee.

Matt winked at Amy. “Thanks for the help, kid. I’ll keep an eye on Claire Bear if you want to keep doing what you’re doing. All these kids need to eat and drink lots of water.”

When one of the soldiers walked up and placed a small girl on the bench, he announced. “That’s the last of the kids. You need my help?”

“Just keep opening food and water. They’re really dehydrated.” Matt answered.

Three more people stepped from the bus. One of the girls had a tear stained face, the other walked as if in shock. The pair was being pushed toward the table by a third. Each picked up a tray, spoon and bottle of water. They settled quietly at the nearby tables to eat in silence until Amy showed up and began offering cookies.

“You have to drink all your water,” Amy advised each group of children. “If you gotta go to the bathroom, it’s over there.” She pointed at the bathroom entrances. “We got a playground. It has swings and a merry-go-round.”

She hurried to the next table and began her one-sided dialog all over again.

With the meals devoured, most of the children looked around as if confused about what to do next. Finally, a few of the younger children wandered toward the playground to sit in the swings.

Matt had been so focused on seeing the children fed when an adult hand grabbed for a meal, he caught the wrist and growled. “This is for the kids.”

“Yeah. Well, it’s still for one.” The woman shrugged. She looked exhausted but tried to smile as she placed her free hand on the bulge around her middle. “Sorry, I can wait.” She started to turn away, but Matt held out the dinner.

“Sorry. No. Please, take it.” Matt responded.

“My name’s Amanda. You gentlemen saved our lives. The soldiers told us what you did. If we’d spent another day, we would have died in that damned bus.”

Matt shrugged. “It was Jenkins. He and his men fought their way through the infected to get to the bus. They didn’t even know for sure anyone was still alive, but they were determined to try.”

“I know what PFC Jenkins and his team did. I also know without your help they would never have made it to us or even had a chance to save us.” Amanda spooned a mouthful of tomato sauce-covered pasta into her mouth. She brushed away strands of greasy hair from her face.

Matt handed her a bottle of water. She took a long drink and settled on the end of the picnic table. “We’re all dirty and smell. Is there any chance we can pull whatever luggage is in the bus and then shuffle kids through the showers?

The soldiers with Jenkins came up to the table and picked up bottles of water. Jenkins asked. “Enough food for us to have a meal?”

“Sure.” Matt looked over his shoulder toward the Humvee. He knew their supplies were disappearing at an alarming rate. He looked at each of the soldiers and realized two of Jenkins team were female soldiers.

The kids began to wander away to the bathroom then found a quiet place to rest in the shade. Jake and Larry walked up and grabbed a meal each.

Matt broke out boxes of cookies and walked from table to table. He studied each group and realized there were seven or eight kids under the age of ten, six eleven or twelve-year-olds and six older teens. And then there was the pregnant woman, Amanda.

He sighed. “When we get done eating, I want two of you breaking out any luggage still on the bus. Try to find things for the kids. Amanda, if you and Privates Lawson and Pierce can organize showers and clean clothes for the little ones it will make the kids feel a lot better. The older kids can take care of themselves. We need to be sure they all get rehydrated while we get the power on and water heater working.”

“Yes sir, we can sort that out.” Lawson and Pierce responded in unison then headed toward the cargo doors at the side of the bus that had been moved to a camper pad where one of the men had hooked a hose to empty the waste tank.

Amanda followed at a sedate waddle.

Matt turned back to the remaining soldiers. “I need someone to get the power on.”

One of Jenkins men raised his hand. “I’m pretty good at stuff like that.”

“There’s a shed behind the house with the generator. See how much fuel is on hand.” He handed the soldier the paper.”

The soldier looked at the paper and grinned. “Nice of the owner to leave directions.” The man took off at a trot.

Matt turned back to the remaining men. “I know we’re all tired, but we’ll need to go on a supply run and it has to be now so we can get back before dark. We just depleted half our supplies.” He nodded at Larry. “I’ll take Jake, Jenkins and one more of your men. The rest of you, get with Larry. Put the supplies from the back of the Humvee into the manager’s office then get the generator running. Set up guard posts and secure the compound. Look around. See if there is anything we can use.”

Larry led his team away and Matt pulled a map from a pocket of his pants leg. He spread the map on the table placing bottles of water on each corner. After a few minutes, he pointed at a point on the map.

“We’re here. We have three towns within thirty miles. Any thoughts here, Jenkins?”

He pointed at a point on the map. “No point in going that way. That town had half a dozen fires burning when we drove through. How in the hell it happened so fast is beyond me.” He studied the map a minute. “Maybe, Martinsville. Bishop was heading north and I think it would be smart to avoid him. Besides I don’t really want to be brought up on charges for killing the asshole. If I run into him, I will shoot him.”

Matt nodded. “Martinsville is further west so we shouldn’t have a problem.”

A piercing scream shattered the quiet of the afternoon.

Matt and all of the men drew weapons and raced toward the sound of terrified shrieks and shouting. Another shriek and someone began screaming over and over again.

“Jenkins!” A woman’s voice called out.

Matt and the crew at the table were the first to race around the front of the bus. Lawson was flat on her back struggling to hold back the gnashing teeth of an infected juvenile on top of her. She was shoving against the monster’s throat while Pierce stood aside screaming. Blood poured from a long gash in Pierce’s arm.

Jenkins made it to the infected first. He grabbed the kid’s belt and threw him off Lawson. While he was still down, he made a quick stab of his ka-bar to the kids head. The child laid still, a thick black fluid leaked from the wound. Jenkin’s reached down and pulled Lawson to her feet.

“You hurt?” Jenkins asked.

“No, but Pierce got bit.” Lawson rushed to Pierce.

Pierce had quit screaming and cried softly while Jake wrapped a field dressing around her hand. “I thought he was just scared. I thought he’d been locked in the luggage compartment and all.” Pierce sniffed. “I reached for him and….” She took a breath and sighed. “I don’t want to turn into one of those things.”

Lawson led her away from the bus and sat her on a picnic table away from the others.