Posts Tagged ‘Orange Bitch’

SURVIVE TEXAS DEAD, Book 3 in the “Torn Apart Series” is NOW available on Amazon and Amazon Unlimited. Order and enjoy an undead thrill ride. If you enjoy, please leave a review.


Survive Texas Dead

Chapter 1

Strength in Numbers


Liz Jameson clung to the man from Pine Springs Canyon. “You don’t know how glad I am to see you,” Liz whispered. “My father? Is he alive?”

Randy Matherson laughed. “That old goat is just fine.” He stepped back to get a better look. “You’re skinny as hell, but at least you’re alive! So glad to see you and the girls got off the base. Where are Brian and the munchkins?” He turned to the camper and called out. “Hey, Amy! Don’t I get a hello from my favorite girl?”

Liz leaned into his arms and Randy. “They’re gone!” She sobbed against his chest. “I lost them.” Her knees buckled, and she collapsed. “Brian and the girls are gone.”

Randy reached down to pull Liz into his arms and held her against his chest protectively while he glared at Harry and John. “What in the hell is she talking about? The kids and Brian are GONE? Are they dead? What’s wrong with her?” Randy demanded.

“The kids are not dead. Last time we saw them, they were with three soldiers. It’s a long story. As for Lizzy, we’ve been on the road since the day this shit happened. I think she’s exhausted, she hasn’t been eating, and then add, worrying about her family.” Harry shrugged helplessly. “For now, bring her into the camper then we can talk.”

Randy made a curt nod then followed the two strangers toward the camper. On the way, he nodded at Miguel. “Take the trucks back to that stand of Pin Oaks about ten miles down the road and set up camp. Leave room for the camper to pull along one side. Be sure to use a Dakota Fire. I don’t want the light being seen after dark. That house burning is going to draw enough attention. We don’t know who’s out there looking for survivors.”

“Sí, Senor Randy,” Miguel answered then jogged back to the three men standing at the side of the vehicles. After a brief conversation, they got into the two trucks and left.

John stepped into the camper and called out. “It’s okay kids. Come on out.”

Cody and Trace appeared in the back bedroom doorway looking a little like deer in headlights.

“This is a friend of Ms. Lizzy’s. Come sit down so we can put her in the bedroom. Cody, can you bring a couple wet towels and a bottle of water?” When Cody gave a nod and stepped into the kitchen nook, John led Randy through the camper.

“Is she dead?” Trace asked.

Harry laughed. “No, of course not. She’s just not feeling well and really tired.”

John pulled fluid-stained sheets from the bed and stretched a comforter across the bare mattress before answering. “She’ll be right as rain, soon enough.” Randy deposited Liz in the bed, and he continued. “Why don’t you two sit with her and let us know when she wakes up.”

Trace took the wet towel from her brother and laid it on Liz’s forehead. With big sad eyes, she watched the men walk to the sitting area at the front of the camper. Cody hunkered down on the floor, with his back pressed against the foot of the bed to watch the men in the room.

Harry settled his ample bulk on a bench seat and slid his hand across his thick mustache then down his beard, “My name is Harry Walters, this is John Tilman. Lizzy has had a tough time. She told us about her dad’s place up in the mountains. I take it you know each other pretty well.”

Randy nodded. “Couple years now. What happened to the girls? You said they were with soldiers?” Randy asked.

Harry sighed. “We got no way of knowing. Lizzy had to put them through a fence to protect them and led a bunch of infected away. By the time we met and made our way across a half dozen rooftops to get to the kids, they were picked up by three soldiers. The alley was getting overrun with the infected, men yelling, and then gunfire. There was no way to let them know we were even there. Anyway, we tried to follow, but we lost ‘em. We’ve been trying to find them, but they seem to have disappeared around Kerrville.”

“In other words, they’re probably dead,” Randy answered.

“No. We don’t think so. We saw a message on a trailer. It was something Lizzy recognized.” Harry continued. “Before we could check out the area we got ambushed and had to spend some time in the camper yard recuperating. Then the kids and their father showed up. Things got complicated, and we ended up here. It’s been hell convincing her she can’t keep going on like this. I put a stop to it for the baby’s sake.”


“Yeah, Lizzy is pregnant.” Harry nodded.

“What about her husband, Brian?” Randy asked.

John folded his arms across his chest. “No idea. She said he warned her. She tried calling him several times when she was leaving San Antonio then they got trapped, and she lost her cell phone. I know from everything we saw on television early on, the base was overrun. We have no idea if he survived.”

“All we know now is we need to get someplace safe. We got an exhausted pregnant woman and two malnourished kids that just lost their dad.” Harry lamented. “And we’re a couple old goats too beat up for this shit.”

Randy nodded. “We’re only sixty miles from the canyon. We’ve been out searching for supplies. Tomorrow we’re making a stop in Van Horn then we’ll be heading back to Pine Springs. If you don’t mind a little side trip, we should be home before dark.”

Harry glanced through the windshield toward the collapsed house and dying fire. It had been a hot fire that burned the dry out wood quickly. “We’d better move out before the smoke draws attention.”

John cranked the engine and slipped the camper engine into gear before commenting. “We got less than half a tank of gas, but I’m pretty sure we can make it sixty miles.”

Harry chuckled. “Yeah. This is a gas guzzling bitch for sure, but easier on my ass than my bike.”

“It’s settled then.” Randy directed John almost ten miles down the highway to a dirt path heading back into a thick a stand of Pin Oak, briars and scrub grass. They drove half a mile from the highway then turned sharply, into an open camp area. Randy pointed to an opening between the two vehicles. John parked the camper and turned off the engine. Randy opened the side door to the waning light of late spring. The cooling breeze was a welcome relief to the afternoon heat of the stuffy camper. Harry waved at John as he headed to the rear of the camper. “I’ll be out after I check on Liz and the kids.”

John glanced around. “Looks like a pretty good place. No main roads just through those trees I take it.” Randy looked confused, and John laughed.

Harry walked up and answered. “Inside joke. We stopped and parked in a bunch of trees one night. Figured we were good.  Far enough off the road and all. The next morning our truck was surrounded by dead fucks.”

“Not something to worry about here.” Randy slapped his hands together. “I’d like to hear more about your trip, but for now let’s get busy. My guys will set up some traps at the perimeter. If you two don’t mind, we’ll split the watch three shifts, two each for four hours.”

Harry nodded in agreement. “Sounds like a plan. We can take care of that while Lizzy and the kids get a good night’s sleep. When we hit that town tomorrow, we’ll check to see if we can get filled up while you get your supplies. Might be better for Lizzy and the kids to have the air conditioning when we head out.”

Liz stood in the doorway watching the two men frowning. “So, I guess you have it all worked out?” She said crossly.

Both men turned, and Harry began. “Now, Lizzy. We’re just….”

“I know what you’re doing. You’ve decided I don’t get a say in anything that happens. When did I suddenly become a helpless female?” She railed. “This is not circling the wagons protecting the women and children time.”

“Now Lizzy. You’re in the family way and….” Harry began then grew quiet when he saw the scowl on her face.

“I think it’s time I see to making the camp.” Randy escaped with a quick nod to Liz.

John looked at Harry, then Liz and quickly followed. “Wait up I’ll help.”

Harry started to speak, but Liz held up her hand. She turned and walked back into the camp and dropped to the seat next to the table. She felt tears threatening and bit her bottom lip. The ache for her children was overwhelming.

“Ms. Liz. What’s wrong?” Trace asked sadly.

Liz took a shallow breath and squared her shoulders. “Nothing. Let’s see if I can get you a couple clean shirts and boxers. You can get cleaned up, and I’ll get your clothes washed. They’ll be dry by morning.”

An hour later Liz and the kids were clean. The water was fast moving and clear in the small creek. Using a bar of soap, clothes Liz washed shirts while John and Harry set up camp with Randy’s men. Afterward, the men sat around a small campfire getting to know each other.

“Spyders?” Randy asked. “You got that far on tricycles?”

“Fuck you, asshole.” Harry laughed. “We did alright until some assholes waylaid us on the outskirts of Odessa.”

John poked at the dying fire. “They blocked off streets, kinda random like. It looked like accidents, abandoned vehicles. Not really suspicious like. We didn’t suspect a thing. I hit the cable then it was too late. They strung a steel cable across the road and when I hit it caught between my wheel and handlebars. I think it was supposed to catch up in the wheels of a vehicle and stop it. Instead, it threw us for a loop. We managed to pick up rifles and packs from the bikes and crawl off. We made it to the edge of town and hid out in a camper lot until the kids, and their dad broke into the office. Who knows, the gang chasing them could have been the same men that attacked us.”

John looked at the camper then continued. “There was a dead fuck in the cashier’s booth with a case of water and a few candy bars laying on the counter. The kids hadn’t eaten in a couple days and were hungry. The father broke in and got bit.”

“That’s tough,” Randy answered as he rose. “Well folks, let’s get some rest, we got a big day tomorrow.”

The next morning Randy led the caravan of three vehicles to the hill overlooking Van Horn. It wasn’t much of a town. Main Street was six blocks long. At one end of the small cluster of buildings were the school, a drug store and Quick Stop while at the other was a veterinary clinic, a single island gas station and Rosita’s Cafe advertising fry bread and taquitos. Several buildings in between were empty storefronts. Clustered around the retail center were several dozen houses and a few large metal buildings.

Vehicles were stopped haphazardly up and down the streets. In the distance the Randy could see, a heavy-duty truck had been driven up the two steps into the glass front of the school entrance. There were neither people or infected on the streets. The small town was eerily quiet.

Randy, Harry, and Miguel met in front of Randy’s truck. “Where is everyone?” Harry asked in a hushed whisper.

“I don’t see a soul. This can’t be good.” John added.

“I don’t know if we’re lucky or not with the vet and gas station across from each other,” Harry commented.

“We’ll go to the veterinary office while you gas up that gas guzzler first. You roll into the station and with your crew. Pablo and his son will keep watch.” Randy announced.

“Sounds good. We have a dry lift siphon pump we found in the camper garage. It’s not fast but works with the ground storage. After we fill up, we’ll get inside the store and see what we can salvage.” Harry added.

“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.

Tate got in the rig and pumped the choke before pushing the starter. The motor roared to life.

“Ready for this?” Tate answered.

Bill nodded with a grin. “Sure thing.”

The gate opened and three pickups rolled through the opening with Doyle’s rig close behind. Tate shifted into first and followed. She glanced in the side mirror and saw the gate sliding back in place just as she made the first curve.

“So, you think we can do all this?” Bill asked.

“I hope so. If the three men in the pick-ups can get the FEMA trailers without a problem and we find semi-trailers at Walmart loaded with canned goods… With us all going to Boerne and not splitting up, we have a real good chance.”

They drove past the cluster of vehicles they had passed when they turned off Highway 16 the day before. The smell of the scorched earth as they passed still hung heavy in the air.

“I’m afraid we need more people,” Tate commented to no one in particular.

“The FEMA trailers are on the edge of town. Walmart is only a mile further down the road so it’s on the edge of town, too.” Bill added.

“RVs would be a lot nicer. Why FEMA trailers. ”

“They include an air conditioner, a furnace, water heater, LP gas supply, water supply and plumbing, appliances, ventilation fans and able to be towed. Besides, no one should be around there. The RV lot is in the middle of town.” Bill chuckled. “That asshole with the teenage boys, Stewart…thought he ought to get the pick of the RV lot. He was all excited about it until Phil told him; he would have to get it himself if he wanted one.”

“At some point, we’re going to have to make a run to a home improvement store for plumbing supplies,” Tate commented.

“We’re gonna need a lot of stuff. Most of it is gonna be dangerous to get, but there’s no way around it.” Bill answered.

“How many acres does Phil have fenced?”

Bill screwed up his face, obviously pondering the question. “Best I can guess fifteen/sixteen acres. There’s deer fence around three sides. Deer fence is taller and sturdier than barbed wire, but a heavy truck or a herd of those monsters could bring it down.”

“Three sides?” Tate asked.

“There’s a two thousand foot drop at the back of the property. It’s why Phil bought the place. Defense. Only problem was when he got hurt. He had back surgery about a month ago, but it didn’t seem to have solved the problem.

“Usually there’s physical therapy involved after something like that.”

“He was supposed to be cleared for the physical therapy, but Beth got caught waiting for us and the world went to shit.” He paused for a minute then spoke softly. “I haven’t really thanked you for saving Ben. He wouldn’t have lasted much longer up there.”

Tate laughed. “I didn’t do much. I drove up, he jumped into that seat. We picked up Doyle and drove up the hill.”

“You took a big chance trying to come after us.”

“Again, we didn’t do much. We blew shit up and now you have Roger and Stewart on Phil’s doorstep. I’m not sure Phil’s real excited about that either.”

“Look.” Bill pointed where the lead truck turned off the highway into a lot with hundreds of white trailers. Rows of trailers were lined up. The man in the lead vehicle ran up to the gate with bolt cutter in hand. A minute later, the three pickups pulled into the parking lot.

Doyle and Tate pulled to the side of the road and waited outside the gate to watch for trouble. John, Roger and the young father ran to the first row of trailers. They did a quick inspection of the trailers including tires and trying the doors. They worked together getting each truck backed up to a trailer and connected to the hitch. Within fifteen minutes, they headed out the gate. Roger jumped out of the last truck and reconnected the chain with the shank of the padlock.

John pulled alongside the rigs. “You’re up. Sure you don’t want us to wait?”

“We’re good,” Doyle answered.

He shifted into first and his truck began to roll forward. Tate waved at John and followed Doyle.  She glanced in the side mirror to see the caravan of white trailers head back to Phil’s compound.

Tate was beginning to grow more and more uncomfortable with the layout of the compound; one way in, one way out.

Trying to shake off the sense of foreboding, she glanced at Bill. “What do you think of all this? I slept through the first twenty-four hours. By the time I figured out something was wrong, the world was a clusterfuck. I feel a step behind of everyone else.”

“What do you mean?” Bill asked.

“Is there any chance this is regional or is the state going to be overrun by the dead?

“Regional or state? I don’t think so.” Bill answered.

What about the rest of the country?” Tate asked.

“We’re all in deep shit. The states around the affected areas won’t be able to close the borders completely. The infected WILL get through or around anything they set up. Maybe isolated towns and communities will be able to wall themselves off, but the states, no. The key is going to be to hold out.”

“For how long?”

“Logic tells me the bodies will eventually rot, but how long it takes is anyone’s guess. We can see it in some of the bodies even now, maggots and decay. But if that’s the case, all we have to do is hunker down and survive. The problem is, there is always fertile ground for additional infection.”

“So the best chance to survive is to find a place to hold out.”

“Yep. That’s all we can do.” Bill commented. “Phil has a pretty good set up. You can stay with our family?”

“I have a family of my own I want to get to.” When this job is over, I’m going to head out west to my cousin, Randy’s place.”

The CB crackled to life. “Tate, got your ears on?”

Tate grabbed the mic. “10-4. Go ahead.”

“Coming up on the Walmart. A few infected stumbling around out front but overall it looks pretty quiet. Stewart says it wasn’t a twenty-four-hour store. There’s a chance it closed before the town got overrun. Follow us around back, but not too close.” Doyle advised.

“Roger…” Tate dropped the mic.

She watched Doyle turned off the highway and follow the drive around the side of the store. She turned the wheel and guided the Bitch around the corner and saw Doyle back under the hitch of a white trailer parked at the back door. A second truck sat to the side still with the cab attached. A quick glance at the back and they saw the security seal was intact.

Tate and Bill jogged over to Doyle just as he walked back from the dock. She pointed with her thumb over her shoulder. “The trailer out by the fence is still loaded. I could see the seal on the back door. We need to take that truck out there. It’s good to go if we can find keys.”

“Are we going to have to go inside?” Bill asked with a frown of concern.

“Not until we check out that rig,” Tate answered. “Both trailers are from the distribution warehouse…Non-perishables for the grocery shelves; probably came in together.”

Doyle chuckled. “The drivers probably left together in the missing rig.”

“If that’s the case, the driver of the rig out there might have left his keys.” Tate added then looked at Bill. “You can drive it, right.” He nodded and she continued. “Look for the keys. If you find them get the rig started and be ready to roll.”

Bill jogged off toward the truck. A moment later, he opened the door and climbed inside.

Tate turned back to Doyle and asked. “Is this one sealed?”

Doyle shrugged. “No. I don’t see the seal.

“Then we go inside the warehouse,” Tate announced. “No point in taking an empty trailer. If it’s been off-loaded, we load it back up.”

Doyle slapped his hand on the cab door. “Hey Stewart, bring your crowbar and get out here, buddy. It’s time to earn a living.”

Stewart climbed out of the truck with the look of a deer in headlights. “I’m not prepared for this.” He whined.

“Let’s get this done,” Doyle announced.

Tae rolled her eyes at Doyle and he only shrugged and walked away.

With machete in hand, Take followed Doyle to the access door at the side of the dock. Stewart followed half a dozen paces behind. His head swiveled from right to left and back again. They climbed the stairs silently until Stewart missed the bottom step and nearly tumbled off the concrete.

“Christ! Get a grip, guy.” Tate snarled.

Doyle laughed. “Don’t be so hard on him. He’s not used to hunting zombies.”

Tate snickered. “Neither am I, come to think of it.” She stepped back with a hint of a grin. “Big strong he-man, by all means go first.”

Doyle flashed a grin over his shoulder. “Eat shit, little girl.”

“You first, old man,” Tate answered. “Smells like plenty around here.”

Doyle raised a hand to the door knob. He rotated his wrist, but the knob didn’t move. “I guess we do it the hard way.” He held out his hand to Stewart. “Crowbar, buddy.”

Stewart looked around, hesitant to pass the metal rod to Doyle. “I won’t have a weapon!”

Doyle scowled. He grabbed the end of the machete he was holding and poked the handle toward Stewart. “Don’t hurt yourself and don’t lose it. I want it back.”

Stewart accepted the machete and passed the crowbar to Doyle.

Doyle shoved the end of the bar into the crack between the jam and the door. He leaned into the bar and they heard the screech of metal against metal. He made a quick pivot and the door latch popped free and the door opened a few inches.

The three stood still listening. Tate could hear Stewart’s breathing as he shifted from foot to foot. Tate waited while Doyle tried to hear sounds from inside. She tried to control the hint of panic she began to feel at Stewart’s agitation.

Doyle opened the door a little wider and sniffed.

“There’s dead in here.” He whispered. “Lights on. Tate move to my right…Stewart kicked the brick against the door to hold it open then follow on the left. Watch your backs.”

Doyle opened the door and fanned his light from left to right and back again. He stepped into the gloom with Tate close on his heels. She scanned the shadows with the beam of light and saw the first infected at the far end of the warehouse. Stewart kicked the brick under the door then stopped at the doorway.

Tate turned at the reduced light. “Get out of the doorway!” She whispered as she realized the trailer had been emptied. Dozens of pallets sat around the warehouse in a semblance of order.

Stewart finally stepped forward. His flashlight jerked from side to side in a nervous attempt to illuminate the dark.

“Calm down folks…” Doyle advised. “I’m going to the overhead door and try to get it open. Cover me and take care of any infected that stumble my way.”

“I got it covered.” Tate said as she moved further into the gloom.

Doyle side stepped to the overhead door and began struggled with the chain.

Facing the shadows moving in the dark, Tate glanced over her shoulder at the bottom of the chain used to raise the door and saw a padlock securing the chain to a hole in the track. Doyle stuck the tire iron in the hasp and began to pry.

The moan of an infected grew louder in the maze of pallets. Tate took a step toward the movement and whispered toward Stewart. “Heads up over there! I can’t tell where it is.”

Tate heard the lock snap just as a man in blue pants and shirt moving into view. One arm hung at his side useless. The other arm and bloodied hand reached out as he stumbled closer. A second moan announced another infected and then a third.

“Shit! Doyle. We got a problem.” Tate stepped forward and met the first infect man with a swing of the machete. The blade connected with the side of the man’s head. The man fell to the concrete floor in a heap.

“Shit! Shit! Oh God!” Stewart screamed. “I can’t….” He turned and ran. He disappeared out through the door stumbling over and knocking the brick aside as he passed.

“Fuck!” Tate cursed. “Prick! Doyle, there’s two more in here and the dick head skated. Get that fucking door open NOW!”

“Got it,” Doyle answered.

The overhead door rolled up with a screech of metal wheels on the track. Light spilled around the trailer of the truck.

Tate stepped deeper into the warehouse and swung at the second infected. Doyle spun around and connected with the last monster. He took out the man’s knee, then as the monster struggled to get back on his feet Doyle brought the tire iron down on its head with a bone-shattering blow.

“Damn that prick!” Tate swore. “The bastard left us.”

“I’m getting the second door….we need to get more light in here.”

“Go ahead….I got you covered.”

Doyle crossed to the next door and jammed the tire iron in the padlock. It snapped and he threw the door up toward the ceiling and the warehouse was filled with afternoon light.

Tate studied the warehouse from left to right and back again. She saw a door leading into the front of the store. Two pallets had been parked in front of the swinging doors blocking the entrance to the warehouse. Pallets loaded with soda had been pushed in front of the door and left there. As she looked around she noticed cases of food had been opened and the remnants discarded in a pile near the dock at the far corner.

“Doyle.” She whispered as she pointed toward the door. “What do you think?”

“Infected on the other side.” Doyle looked at the bodies. These three got trapped. “They had food and water. Only problem, one of them got bit. Turned and infected the other two.”

“That must have sucked,” Tate mumbled as the first moans from the store beyond could be heard.

Doyle looked at the back of the truck and with the jerk of his arm, had the door to the trailer open. He turned the beam of his flashlight into the recesses. The trailer was nearly empty.

“Let’s get this done,” Tate added. “I can hear them.”

She walked to an electric pallet jack and pulled it to a wooden platform loaded with cardboard boxes labeled the house grocery brand. Doyle saw a second jack on the opposite side of the warehouse. He made his way to it and slid it under a pallet of bottled water.

“I can run this one, it will be faster,” Tate told Doyle as she rolled the second pallet on the trailer.”

“Fine. Get what we can, then get out of here. I got a bad feeling.”

“Fine, let’s get moving then. Where is that prick, Stewart? We need to get him in here helping us.” Tate complained.

“Leave him out there. I might shoot him, the worthless piece of shit.” Doyle groused.

The sounds of the infected grew louder as they shuffled pallet after pallet onto the truck. When Tate saw a pallet of plastic bins used in the health and beauty section of the store, she slid the jack under it and headed for the truck.

“What are you getting that shit for? We don’t need fucking women’s makeup!”

“Not what it is. Vendors fill those shelves. It’s how they bring in shampoo, toothpaste, soap, over the counter drugs like Tylenol and Cold meds, and feminine products. It includes everything we need to be healthy that doesn’t come from the pharmacy.

“Fucking feminine products…” Doyle carped.

“The blocked doors slammed against the pallet and one of the pallets moved a few inches. Both Doyle and Tate jumped at the sound. The door bounced open and infected got a glimpse of them in the warehouse. They jammed arms through the open door then pulled and pushed at the barrier.

“Natives are getting restless,” Doyle observed wryly.

“Move it old man. Get that last pallet. I think we need to get out of here.”

Doyle pushed the pallet and jack into the truck then grabbed the left door and pulled it closed. He threw a latch then hurried over to close the right door.

Doyle reached for the chain and closed the overhead door. While he pulled at the second chain Tate disappeared into the gloom. A crash and then the sound of tumbling bottles and pallets echoed through the massive warehouse. Bottle caps shattered and the sound of carbonated drinks spewing out muffled the sound of moans.

“Damn it, girlie! Let’s get outa here.”

Tate reappeared with three-liter sized bottles of cola in her arms. Tate and Doyle bolted for the side door. Just then a scream from outside drew them up short. Doyle skidded to a stop, Tate nearly stumbling into him. He peeked out the door.

Outside, Stewart danced around trying to avoid two infected making a real concentrated effort to make him the main course on the lunch menu.

“Help!” Stewart screamed. “You’ve got to help me!”

Tate stepped around Doyle still clutching her prize. “You left us you prick! Why in the hell should we help you now?”

“Please…” He pleaded as he stabbed at the closest of the infected. He stumbled away nearly tripping on his own feet.

Doyle followed Tate through the doorway then turned to wedge it closed while Tate walked to her truck and placed the bottles inside. With machete in hand, she turned to face Stewart’s predicament. Two additional monsters had stumbled forward.

Doyle stepped up to a bloodied man in a t-shirt and shorts. His body was torn and battered. His head tilted at an awkward angle and bobbed with each step. Doyle swung the tire iron and took him out with a blow to the crown of the head.

“Defend yourself, you pussy!” Doyle yelled.

He looked toward Bill who had opened the door ready to help Stewart but with a wave of Doyle’s hand, Bill closed the door and remained in the truck.

Tate walked up and used the blade of her machete to hamstring two of the monsters. She stepped back and sneered. “Take ‘em out now, asshole.”

Stewart’s hair was standing on end while his face glistened with moisture. He raised his arm to swing then again stepped back. “I can’t!” He fell to his knees, sobbing.

Tate stepped up and dispatched both monsters. Doyle was taking out a massive woman in a bloodied house dress. Tate turned to the last with a shrug and swung the machete. She split the teenager’s skull with a solid connect to the back of the head.

The only sound was Stewart whimpering into his hand. Doyle picked up the machete from the ground and pulled the man to his feet.

“You’re going to get someone killed! Tate snarled at Stewart.

Doyle pushed him toward his cab. “Let’s get out of here.”

Doyle backed his rig under the trailer and with Tate’s help, they had the trailer secured and were ready to roll.

When they were done, without saying more, Tate headed to her rig. Her chest ached to scream and yell at the man Doyle was now treating like a child. She fumed as he opened the door for Stewart and helped him into the passenger seat.

She opened the door and climbed in her own rig. She released her breath when she cranked the motor and shifted into gear. She wanted to kill the coward. Not once but twice, he’d put people in danger.

Two hours later she stood in front of Phil. “He’s going to get someone killed.” Tate raged. “Bastard left us to deal with the infected in the warehouse then couldn’t even deal with them when his own skin was on the line outside.

Phil moved his head from left to right. “Some people have a hard time dealing. Afraid he’s one of them.”

“No shit,” Tate fumed.

Doyle reached out to place a hand on her shoulder. “He’ll do better next time.”

“Not with me,” Tate stated. “I’m leaving tomorrow morning. I’ve got family. I’m not hanging around waiting for that bastard to get me killed, because he’s a chicken-shit.”

“You know you can stay. We’d like you to stay.” Phil pleaded.

“Are you going to live up to our deal? I need fuel and supplies.” Tate answered.

Phil looked stricken. “Of course. We’ll provide as much fuel as you can use and plenty of supplies.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But…” he whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You might be right,” Tate mumbled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who’s with him?” Phil asked.

“His two boys,” Bradley answered.

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

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

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

“Do what I ask then,” Phil demanded.

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

Phil nodded, then rolled over to the boys.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tate sighed then answered. “Got it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Got it.” She answered.

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

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

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

“How much farther?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” Tate asked.

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

Tate sighed. “I am so sorry, Phil.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tate asked. “What do you mean?”

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

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

Doyle laughed. “So am I, believe me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I led you on a wild goose chase.”

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

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

Tate drove for nearly an hour before she could find a place to stop the rig after leaving the horrors of bloodied horde. She parked on an overpass with a clear view of the road ahead and behind. She imagined the steep incline on either side of the road would give her plenty of time to jump back in the truck and escape any wandering infected.

She climbed out of the rig and down to the road. She walked to the side of the asphalt and squatted in the dirt. Once the pressure of her bladder was relieved, she buttoned her pants and walked away from the stench of the infected clinging to the rig. She pulled her cell from the truck and tried to call her mother, then her sister. As before, all the circuits were busy. She didn’t have a number for her cousin, Randy, but had directions from State Road 180 and Pine Canyon Drive north of Van Horn.

She paced back and forth wondering what to do next. She had food and water for several days and nearly a full tank of gas. But where should she go? The radio still advertised refugee camps north of Austin, Waco, Wichita Falls and Navasota. Where would her family go? Would they know to go to Randy’s? Or would they be bussed to one of the refugee centers?

Tate climbed back in the truck and opened the navigation screen. She expanded the screen view until she figured out she was approximately sixty miles southwest of San Antonio. Houston was evacuated. No point in trying to go east. She had told Charlie she’d be going to stay with Randy. In the end, that was her decision.

The last time she had seen him, Randy had acted really strange. He was talking about the end of the world. When his mother passed away, he sold the family home and everything in it. He had moved to land that backed up against the Guadalupe National Part and moved into a cabin. She didn’t even know if it had running water. The closest town was Van Horn a town of two thousand people. Van Horn would be lucky to have a Quick Stop and a liquor store. She was four hundred miles from the little wide spot in the road and normally, that would be only an eight or nine-hour drive. Now, all bets were off.

She picked up Charlie’s state map and looked at the warren of side roads that got fewer as the further west she looked. She figured the major roads were probably choked with traffic and the infected. The narrow asphalt road she was on seemed clear enough for now. She could travel from one blacktop to the next always heading north and west until she got to Van Horn. From there she could drive straight north to find Randy’s place or she at least hoped she could.

As she pondered her situation, she climbed back out of her truck and walked around the front. She cringed at what she saw. Remnants of human bodies were wedged into the grill and brush guard at odd angles. She walked back to the tool box and pulled an old pair of gloves on. She spent the next ten minutes pulling limbs from the gap between the guard and the front grill and from around the bumper. She wished she had the water to wash away the remaining blood and gore, but she didn’t. If she found a stream she’d use a towel and try to clean it better.

Satisfied she had done all she could to eliminate the smell clinging to the truck, Tate got back in the cab and pulled the basket of cold chicken and biscuits from the back of the cab. She picked up a wing and tore off a mouthful of cold meat. She chewed while she studied the road ahead. She saw rolling hills and granite outcroppings in the distance.

She would be driving through limestone and granite formations with massive boulders and a thin layer of topsoil that could only support: yucca, prickly pear cactus, cedar scrub, and Texas live oak. Several tributaries of the Colorado River including the Llano and Pedernales rivers crossed the region. The area also included a number of caverns; the deeper of which formed aquifers which served as a source of water for the region.

Tate tossed a bone outside and opened a gallon of water. After a long drink of tepid water, she capped the bottle and cranked the big rig engine. She clutched and shifted until she was doing a sedate forty-five miles per hour on the narrow blacktop road.

She turned on the radio and after a few minutes only found one station still transmitting and it was repeating evacuation instructions. Nothing seemed to be broadcasting active reports. She leaned over and turned down the radio and turned on the CB radio.

At first, all she heard was static. She made sure she was on channel 19 and adjusted the squelch. The static began to clear and a faint voice called out.

“Infected blocking….”

“out of fuel…crushed.”

“fucker bit my leg. Gonna run over as many of the bastards as I can before I turn….”

“Breaker 1-9 for a 10-33, breaker 1-9 for a 10-33…”

“Go ahead 1-9” A deep male voice answered. Tate leaned closer to the receiver. The voice pulled at a memory. It sounded familiar.

“Emergency one mile west of intersection 16 & FM 46. There’s a kid on top of a UPS truck. Got eyes on him, but I can’t help him. He’s trapped by a dozen or so infected. ”

“I wish I could help.” The deep voice responded. “I’m out of commission, man. Sorry.”

Tate waited for someone to jump in, but there was only silence. Finally, she picked up the mic. “Breaker 1-9. I’m 10-51. Three minutes east of FM 46 location.”

“Who is that? Tate?” The deep voice called back through the speaker.

“10-4. Is that you, Doyle?” Tate asked with a hint of excitement in her voice. Someone she knew?

The deep voice laughed. “Yep. I’ll be damned. Little girl, you take care picking up the kid.”

“I’ll get back with you when I have the kid. You gonna be around?”

“Got no choice. I’m out of fuel just outside Bandera Falls.”

“Maybe I can help with that situation when I’m 99.”

“3s and 8s, Tate.”

Tate left the CB turned on, but laid down the mic. She had just passed state road 46 and knew she was getting close. Up ahead, she saw dozens of vehicles scattered across the road in a traffic jam. In the middle was a brown panel truck. She downshifted and slowed the rig.

She studied the collection of vehicles around the panel truck. The infected milled around the truck staring up at a figure sitting cross-legged on top of the panel truck. The kid was rocking back and forth with one arm stuck out and the other strumming air.

“Dipshit’s playing an air guitar,” Tate mumbled. She picked up the mic. “Not sure this dipshit is worth saving. He’s sitting on the van roof playing an air guitar while a dozen infected look up at him like he’s a big Mac.”

Doyle came back. “10-9. Come back?”

“Never mind,” Tate answered. “I see the kid. Give me a few. If I don’t get back to you in half an hour send in the Rangers.”

Tate dropped the mic. She studied the trail of vehicles leading up to the panel truck. Left of the red car, right yellow, between the white and black, around the blue to the right. Tate grinned to herself. Then pull alongside close enough for him to climb in the window. And mow down any infected that get in my way. It ought to work since it looks like someone else cut a path through the vehicles before I got here.

She stomped the clutch and shifted as the truck gained speed. Tate blew the air horn. The kid looked up as the rig rolled toward the collection of vehicles ahead. He pulled white earphones from his ears and waved his arms above his head and jumped to his feet. He began jumping up and down, his arms flailing and obviously shouting. The infected grew even more agitated. They were frantic to get to him. Tate blew the horn twice more and he stopped dancing around to watch her approach.

The Orange Bitch rolled down the hill and clipped the back fender of the first vehicle, a red hatchback with a flat tire. The little car skittered out of the way just in time for the truck to smash into a yellow Camaro and ripped the back quarter panel off as if peeling an onion.

Tate threaded the Bitch between a white sedan and a black SUV then rolled over half a dozen infected that had turned and made their way toward the truck.

She down-shifted, easing the truck into the back of a blue sedan sitting next to the panel truck. She used the guard to push it to the edge of the road and out of the way. Tate stepped on the break and came to a stop. She shifted into reverse. The engine whined as she backed up to stop next to the panel truck. Tate pushed the button to lower the window a few inches.

The kid grinned. “That was way cool. Shit, you’re a woman.”

“No shit, Sherlock. Are you bit?”

“No. Hell no. Been sitting on that truck since last night.” The kid answered. “You jacked my car, back there. The red one.”

“Get in. I got another dumbass to rescue.” Tate ordered as she opened the window all the way.

The kid slid to the edge of the panel truck and eased down until his feet landed on the open window. He stood there for a full minute shuffling his feet and trying to figure out how to get into the cab.

Finally, Tate called out. “For Christ sake, grab onto the mirror, slide down on your ass and get in here.”

With a little maneuvering, he did what he was told then flopped into the passenger seat with a sigh of relief.

Tate raised the window to block out the moans and stench of the infected. “Okay, what’s your story? How did you end up on the truck?”

“I tried to go around this mess last night. I ran over something and got hung up and my tire went flat. Before I could get away, the creeps showed up. Actually, I think they were already here. I just didn’t see them.”

Tate shifted into first and the rig began to move forward. She stepped on the clutch and shifted again. She maneuvered around a pickup and a sedan, then around the back end of a panel truck. She shifted again and clipped a caddie, taking out the tail light on the driver’s side. After clipping a green van and brown sedan, they were through the maze.

Tate stopped the truck and watched the three remaining infected continue stumbling after them. She opened the door, pulled her handgun from the holster and raised the site to the closest monster. She took a breath and fired. The first infected, a woman, still wearing green scrubs, fell to the ground. After two more shots, a teenage boy with black hair and an old man in dress pants and blood-stained white shirt lay on the asphalt.

She holstered her gun and turned back to the kid. “What’s your name?” Tate asked.

“Ben. Ben Lawson. Hey, you mind if I plug in my iPod. The thing is almost dead.” Barely taking a breath, he continued. “Is this your truck? What’s your name? I’ve never seen a woman drive a truck like this. It’s sure got cool seats.” He slid his butt around on the leather seat. “Smells like chicken in here. You got food and some water to spare. I haven’t had anything to eat in two days. I was scared to stop and get….”

“Christ!” Tate interrupted. “You keep talking and I’ll take you back and put you back on that truck.”

“Sorry.” Ben looked longingly at the charging port.

“Yes, you can plug in your iPod. It’s my truck and my name is Tate Hamilton. That’s drinking water in the jug at your feet. Don’t backwash. The food is in the basket behind the seat. Help yourself.”

Tate got the rig moving again, slowed as she neared the intersection with a sign pointing toward the south. Bandera Falls was less than three miles. She turned up the volume on the CB and picked up the mic. “Doyle, you still out there?”

“Sure am little girl. Did you collect the kid?”

Tate laughed as she looked over to see Ben wolfing down his second piece of chicken and third biscuit. “Yeah. I got him, but I don’t know how long I can keep him, he’s eating me out of house and home.”

A voice interrupted. “You got him? Thank you. You don’t have to keep him. He’s my nephew.”

“Uncle Phil?” Ben asked.

“Yeah, kid. I saw you and couldn’t do a damned thing about it.” Phil answered.

To Tate’s look of confusion, Ben clarified. “Uncle Phil lives on the hilltop not far from Bandera Falls. He’s in a wheel chair. I was headed there.”

Tate held up her hand. “Okay. I’ll see you get there, but not until I lend a hand to a friend of mine.” She clicked on the mic. “Doyle, I’m 10-51. Where exactly are you?”

“If you’ve turned toward Bandera Falls you’ll see my truck two-point-four miles from the turnoff. Can’t miss my rig alongside the road.”

“Hang tight, Doyle. We’ll figure out something when I get there.”

Two minutes later Tate pulled up next to the red GMC rig Doyle had been driving the last time she saw him. She waved at Doyle and he stepped out of the cab with a beer in hand.

“Well scrawny girl, I never expected to see anyone I knew again,” Doyle commented.

Tate jumped from her cab and into Doyle’s arms. “It’s good to see you, you ol’ goat.”

Doyle laughed and set Tate back on her feet. “Interesting hair color. Is that in honor of the fucked up world or to match your truck?”

Tate shrugged. “Before the world got screwed. It was just a wild hair while I was in San Antonio.”

With a big smile he asked. “Well, kid, what now?”

“Let’s see if we can get you some diesel,” Tate answered. “Bandera Falls is close. Have you seen anyone?”

Doyle chuckled. “Nope. After what I saw in Taco Town, I was hoping someone would drive by this morning and give me some idea what’s going on around here. I haven’t seen anything since I barreled through that cluster-fuck back up the road.”

Ben jumped from the truck cab. “My uncle has diesel. I’m sure he’ll help you.”

“Well, let’s head there, then.” Doyle laughed. “Sooner I get some fuel, the better. I don’t like leaving my rig on the road.”

“Let’s get going,” Tate answered.

The trio got back in the truck with Ben still chattering.

“When I was a kid, we used to come up to the cabin and Uncle Phil had all these neat toys for the kids….”

“Stop!” Tate raised her hand. “All I want to hear out of you is how to get to your uncle’s place.”

Sitting on the edge of the sleeper mattress, a little more subdued, Ben guided them down the blacktop to a gravel road.

Tate turned on the gravel road and followed a narrow path as it wound around the perimeter of an uplifted outcropping at least half a mile in diameter. As they drove the last hundred yards the overhanging vegetation opened up to expose cleared grounds surrounding a fenced compound.

An eight-foot hurricane fence enclosed half a dozen buildings. Two of the buildings looked to be barns. One building was a metal shop with an open front and another was a multi-door garage with what looked like an apartment on the end. One of the last buildings was a two-story log house with a tower above the second floor.

Tate downshifted at the sight of the compound gate. When she got the rig stopped, she turned to Ben. “Well, where do we go from here?”

“I got this.” He jumped from the cab and walked to the keypad and entered a code. The gate began to roll back with the rattle of chain and wheels on a rail. Tate drove through and the gate began rolling back into place.

Ben jumped the cab step clinging to the mirror and window. He pointed toward the house where a man was rolling a wheelchair down a ramp. With the rig barely moving, Ben jumped to the ground and ran to the man in the chair.

Tate stopped and killed the engine. She and Doyle stepped to the ground and walked slowly toward the reunion.

Tate smiled when she saw the old man wipe tears from the corner of his eyes. The man had a broad chest and strong muscled arms despite the wheelchair. His gray hair was thick and had been slicked back exposing his weathered face and sparkling blue eyes. He showed no sign of decline despite the wheelchair.

“I’m glad we’re able to help,” Tate stated.

“He’s family.” The old man answered. “I can’t repay you two for this.”

Doyle chuckled. “Wasn’t me. She did it all by herself without any help from me.”

Ben grinned. “She’s kick ass, Uncle Phil. She killed all those creeps. She ran over ‘em then shot the ones that were left.”

Phil nodded. “I saw it.” He turned to Doyle and Tate. “Please, come inside so we can talk. I could use any information you folks can share.” He turned on the back wheels of the chair and led them inside.

Once in the house, Ben raided the fridge and brought out a bottle of soda and three bottles of water. “Where is the family, Uncle Phil? Without even waiting for an answer he headed for the back of the house. “Can I shower? I really stink. I still got some clothes upstairs, right? I’m so glad to be here, really, I am. I’ll be back in a minute. Okay? Well, later, folks.”

“Go on boy. Make it a quick shower.” Phil answered at Ben’s retreating back. “We’ll discuss the family later.”

Phil turned back to his guests. “You folks come from the city?” At Tate’s nod, he continued. “Can you tell me about it?”

Tate spent the next ten minutes telling Phil and Doyle what she had experienced. When she was done, Phil turned to Doyle.

“Where were you heading?”

Doyle laughed. “I didn’t really have a place in mind. My ex-wife was in Houston, but I really hadn’t thought about where I was heading to as much as what I was running away from.”

“I can relate….” Tate commented.

Phil leaned closer. “Where ARE you two planning on going when you leave here?”

Tate squared her shoulders. “I got family out west. They evacuated Houston so I’m hoping my mother and sister will end up at my cousin’s place at Pine Canyon.”

“What about you Doyle?” Phil asked.

Doyle cleared his throat. “Find diesel and get my truck.”

At Phil’s puzzled expression, Doyle explained how his rig ran out of gas on the highway heading into Bandera Falls and was still sitting there.

“No problem,” Phil stated. “I’ve got a tank of diesel out by the tool shed. You can fill a couple five-gallon cans to get back here to fill it up. It’s the least I can offer, after getting my nephew here. If you want, you’re welcome to spend the night.”

Tate Hamilton had not slept in nearly twenty-four hours. Between drive time, a three-hour wait to offload the trailer then getting the rig back across town, it had been a hell of a day, but added to a profitable month.

She thought about renting a motel room, but when it came down to parting with the money, she always reconsidered. The hefty truck payment due at the beginning of each month seemed daunting at times but then she’d slide into the black leather seat of her rig and well, it was worth it. The orange rig with red and gold flames stenciled on the side of the hood, she referred to as the Orange Bitch, was hers. Well, hers and the bank.

Besides she knew when the sheets in her rig’s sleeper had been washed last and who had been sleeping on them. She parked at the Rios Truck Stop where she could park the rig overnight, use the showers and get a good meal.

She’d have a few hours to kill the next day before picking up the next load, but no matter, it would give her time to visit with the owners. Pablo and Maria Rios had become friends when she was still driving with her dad before his fatal heart attack.

She would enjoy the time catching up on family news. There was always news since Pablo ran the gift shop/fueling station while the adjoining restaurant was his wife’s domain. Tate glanced across the street and shrugged. She could even pick up a bottle of shampoo at Walgreens, so it was a no-brainer.

Tate pulled the Orange Bitch into the parking lot alongside one of several fueling islands next to a red truck, killed the engine and jumped to the ground. She slid her bank card into the slot on the pump and entered the pin number before picking up the diesel nozzle. She pulled the cap off the main tank, shoved the nozzle in, locked the flow open and stood waiting for the tank to fill while considering what she would order for dinner. Shouting drew her attention back to voices on the other side of her rig.

“I ain’t hanging around, man. This shit’s crazy. I heard the base is fucked.” A gravelly voice announced.

A male answered. “¿Qué pasa con la carga?”

“The load? To hell with it! I’m going to my sister’s in Colorado.” A truck door slammed and a motor roared to life. “If you’re smart, you’ll get the hell out of town, too.”

The Hispanic man answered. “Mi familia aquí. I cannot leave without mi familia.”

“Suit yourself.” Another door slammed and another motor cranked.

Tate looked up as a bright red truck pulled away from the fueling island. A moment later, a sun-faded green truck followed the first out of the parking lot and turned into the street heading the opposite direction.

Tate wondered about the conversation while she finished filling the reserve tank before hanging up the nozzle. She quickly forgot the exchange when she saw the hit her checking account was taking and made a mental note to transfer money tomorrow.

She patted the side of the tank. “Well, Bitch, you’re fueled up and now it’s my turn.” Tate pulled herself back into the driver’s seat, cranked the engine and shifted into gear. Tate crept across parking lot and parked the rig under one of the back security lights, climbed out, locked the door and headed to the drugstore.

An hour later, standing in front of the mirror in a private shower at the Rios, Tate examined the tips of her spiked hair. The color matched her truck and that made her smile. She studied the reflection in a mirror and decided she liked her dark brown hair bleached and colored at the ends.

She stepped away from the sink and noticed her reflection in the full-length mirror on the door and smiled at seeing a feline face creeping over her shoulder. She turned to the side and could see the brightly colored tattoo that began on her left hip with the black curl of a panther’s tail and wound around her back to end on her right shoulder with a black head with green eyes peeking through leaves, vines and blossoms over her shoulder.

Mario, the tattoo artist, called her his masterpiece. She had to admit it was a beautiful tattoo even if few people would ever see it in its entirety. The vines and blossoms had started out as a cover-up of an old boyfriend’s name on her shoulder and evolved into a panther surrounded by the jungle in all its glory.

She slipped into underwear, jeans, pencil-strapped tank top and a plaid shirt tied at the waist. She gathered her toiletries in a bag, unlocked the door and stepped out into the hall. She heard voices from the front of the gift shops.

“Hey, Pablo,” Tate called out. “Thanks for the shower. Something smells really good.”

“Ah, Señorita Tate, Maria is making your favorite. Enchiladas with tasajo beef.”

Pablo rang up a customer at the register then waved toward a young girl stocking candy. She set the box back on the cart and walked to the counter.

“Papa, I still have homework.” The girl chided with a grin.

Pablo stepped out from behind the register and winked at the girl took his place. He walked up to Tate and wrapped a thick arm around her shoulder. Together they walked through the store into the restaurant.

“Maria will be glad to see you. It has been a long while. Sí?”

“Yes. It has been.” Tate answered. “How’s the kids? Sofia is all grown up now, I see.”

“Sofia graduate high school next month.” He answered. “Juan is come home from Iraq in June. All is good. Fuel prices down so more customers. Business is good.”

Tate leaned over to kiss Pablo’s cheek. “Good to hear. I’ve missed seeing you and Maria.”

“You been busy?” Pablo asked in his accented English.

“I spent two weeks on the west coast a couple months ago then had a run to Chicago, from there to Boston, then up and down the east coast a couple times. From Atlanta, I ended back in Chicago. Now I’m here. Lots of driving time.”

“You work too hard.”

“Got big truck payments.” Tate laughed.

“Come, have your dinner. You eat then you rest.”

Pablo led Tate to a table and waved at a short thick-bodied woman with a glistening crown of platted black hair. She hurried across the dining room with tray in hand. She placed a glass of tea, napkin wrapped flatware, chips and sauces on the table.

“Niña. So nice to see you.” Maria gave Tate a big smile. “I bring dinner. You watch TV.” She turned to her husband. “Viejo, back to your job. Your daughter got studies.” She patted his cheek and he headed back to the gift shop. Maria disappeared back into the kitchen.

“You’re daughter, Sophia, tell me already.”  He answered and walked back to the store.

Tate laughed as she emptied two packets of sugar in the glass of tea. She looked to the flat-screen television across the room but only caught bits and pieces of the news reports when several emergency vehicles raced past the station heading in the direction of the military base a couple miles away.

She glanced back at the flat screen and tried to put the collage of images in some context with what the talking head was saying. The reporter talked about a terrorist attack by two drones over a parade ground full of military personnel at the base. There were injured and dying soldiers all over the parade ground. First responders were flocking to the site. It was a confusing collection of reports and images for a sleep deprived mind.

Tate struggled to stay focused on the newscast until Maria brought a plate of enchiladas, beans and rice, then she turned her full attention to the meal. Even with the jalapeno burning her lips she was having a hard time staying awake long enough to eat. Finishing her meal quickly, she barely tasted the spices and tender beef. She laid cash on the table and waved at Maria as she picked up her bag and walked out of the eatery.

After a quick stop at the toilet, Tate stumbled across the parking lot to the truck. She climbed into the driver seat, locked the doors and dropped her shower bag on the floor in front of the passenger seat.

Pulling her legs up into the seat, she turned and climbed into the sleeper. She settled in the middle of the mattress and opened a green duffle bag. She pulled out a Mossberg, checked the load then laid it to the back of the mattress. With the shotgun stowed, she pulled a Ruger from the bag. She checked the load then slid the weapon into the back pocket of the driver’s seat.

She stowed the bag, turned on the air conditioning then stretched out on the mattress. Tate sighed when the unit began rattling softly. The air conditioner needed servicing but at that particular moment, she was thankful it muted the noise of blaring traffic and screams of sirens. She laid her head on the lavender scented pillow and closed her eyes. She fell asleep almost instantly.

“Back! Jackson, damn it! You get away from me!” A voice called out. “Come on son, don’t do this.”

Tate scrunched her eyes closed trying to recapture the untroubled slumber, but the panicked voice outside called out again.

“Don’t do this. I’ll split your skull!”

Bodies slammed against the side of the sleeper. Tate groaned. “Damn it.” She cursed. “You’ve done it now you dick-heads.”

She glanced at the clock and realized it was nine and the sun was shining. She had slept for more than eighteen hours. Her bladder screamed for relief as she ran her finger through her hair. The styling gel in her hair had turned style into a severe case of bed-head overnight. She imagined she looked pretty scary, but as pissed as she was at the commotion outside, she didn’t care.

She ignored the cotton feel in her mouth and climbed into the driver seat, stepped into boots and jerked open the door just as the combatants slammed into her sleeper again.

“Hey you dip-shits, some of us are trying to sleep.”

Tate jumped to the ground ready to enter the fray but froze in place when she saw the two men. They were locked in a grappling struggle, but the fight itself was not what drew her up short.

The younger of the men was covered in blood and gore. The back of his pants were stained dark brown and the stench wafting from his direction left little doubt as to what the stain was. He had remnants of a dressing on an open wound on his arm. His neck had a patch of ragged torn flesh. A strip of tape hung from his neck where a bandage had fallen away. His eyes were glazed over with a whitish film. The undamaged flesh appeared gray and cyanotic. He kept leaning his bared, gnashing teeth toward the older man.

Tate was dumbfounded when she realized he was trying to bite the man’s face. The older man grappled with a bat, pressing the length of wood against the aggressor’s chest trying to keep him away. The assailant just pushed closer.

The attacker swung an arm at the bat and knocked it from the old man’s grasp. It fell to the ground and the attacker lunged. The man grabbed at the attacker shoving his hands into the blood splattered throat wound pushing the snapping teeth from his face.

The defender backed away while the attacker followed never giving him a chance to turn and run or grab the bat. He looked over his shoulder and yelled at Tate.

“Get the bat. Hit him over the head!”

Tate glanced from the battle to the bat on the asphalt and back again. She glanced around the lot for any sign of assistance, but there was no one else to help.

Realizing she was the only hope the man had, she rushed to the bat and picked it up ignoring the end covered with blood and gore. With a clinched jaw, she ran to the fight and took a swing at the younger man.

She slammed the bat down on the man’s shoulder. The impact barely registered despite the sound of his collar bone snapping. He acted as if he hadn’t even noticed the blow. He just leaned his open mouth closer to the older man’s throat as the man’s arm weakened.

“Hit him in the head!” The defender huffed. “Do it now!”

Tate took a step back with the wood over her left shoulder then swung with all her might. The bat made a wide arc connecting with the side of his skull with a hollow, bone shattering thud. The man collapsed in a heap of blood and gore. He remained still, not moving again.

Tate was horrified to see the side of his skull had split open with the momentum of the swing. Blood, so dark it was nearly black, and gray matter oozed from the gaping wound.

The man fell to his knees at the side of the body. He pulled the younger man into his arms and cradled the body as he wept and mumbled. “Son, I am so sorry. Oh, God, son, how am I going to tell you mother?”

Tate looked on in horror. “I’m sorry.” She whispered. “I…I didn’t mean to.”

He turned to face Tate. “You did what you had to do.” He got to his feet and glanced around the near-empty parking lot. “What are you still doing here?”

“What do you mean? I spent the night here. I’ve got a load to pick up down the street at two this afternoon. What in the fuck is going on? Why is all the lights out? Where is everyone?”

“You don’t know?” The man took off his jacket and laid it over the face of the young man at his feet. “You don’t know about the infection on the base?”

“I saw something last night on the television about an attack.”

She got an uneasy feeling and noticed for the first time how really quiet it was. There were no cars or trucks moving on the streets around the truck stop. Traffic lights were out. She looked back at the building just as Pablo, Maria, and half a dozen others stumbled through the shattered glass storefront of the truck stop. Each was covered in blood and bore terrible wounds.

“Fuck girl. You just woke up to a new world and it ain’t pretty.” The old man declared. “We gotta get outta here!”