Posts Tagged ‘Steve’

“It’s bad, I won’t lie. But those bodies are decaying. Eventually, there won’t be the herds of infected. The world will have to learn to deal with the dead and dying in a new way, but I think we can survive. Maybe, even thrive.”

“How can that be? More people are infected every day. We see new turns every time we stopped.”

“Like I said. People will hunker down and survive while the bodies of the infected decay. Once they’re gone, communities will learn to trade and co-operate.”

“Or not,” Zack added.

“Good people will step up and work together. It will be different than it was before, but life will go on.” Steve yawned. “Come on big guy, get some rest. We stay close to the girls. I’ll wake you around two.”

*****

At first light, Zack retied his shoes and yawned as he got to his feet. He walked past Steve as he added several sticks into the Dakota pit.

“I’m gonna check the snares I put out. Maybe we can have something besides oatmeal.” He checked the skinning knife at his belt as he walked away.

“I’ll put on the water for oatmeal,” Steve called after him.

Zack raised his hand with his middle finger extended.

Steve chuckled as he picked up his prosthetics. When both were in place, he made his way to the stream where h found a large rock at the edge and settled on top. Steve retrieved a bar of soap then pulled off his t-shirt and used it as a makeshift washcloth. When Steve was satisfied he was as clean as he could get, he splashed the shirt around a few more times before fumbling to his feet with the wet shirt in hand.

He made his way back to the camp where he took a long stick and draped his shirt over the end and propped it over the fire to dry. Just as he finished adjusting the angle of his shirt, he heard a branch snap nearby and stepped back against the thick trunk of the Pin Oak tree. He took a calming breath the eased around to look toward the sound with his handgun drawn. A heartbeat later he stepped out just in time to intercept Zack. “Well?”

Zack held up two squirrels that had been skinned and gutted. “Breakfast of champions.” He whispered softly. “You think Della can make some fresh biscuits?”

“I wouldn’t plan on it.” Steve laughed. “I’ll break the backs and lay them out on the grate. While I do that, can you get the girls up then get the horses watered. We’ll let them graze a bit more before we saddle up and head out. Penny can come help me.”

Zack sighed dejectedly, “I was hoping for three.”

“You did just fine. We’ll make due,” Steve answered as he pulled his shirt off the stick and pulled it over his head. It smelled of smoke and was still damp but at this point, felt cleaner than it had been.

After a quick breakfast, the tarp was taken down, the horses were saddled, and the duffle bags loaded. When everyone was mounted, and Penny sat in front of her mother, she kicked her heels then called out. “Gitty up.”

Steve obliged by touching his stirrups to the horse. The day got hotter and hotter as they shadowed the highway. His t-shirt clung to his back while dark rings of sweat circled his armpits. Trees grew fewer and farther between. As he rode, he hoped the place he was leading the other to was not this arid and unforgiving. For the first time, he began to question his destination. The horses plodded along without complaint but the riders not so much. Hours became long and grueling.

“Steve we have to stop. Everyone is exhausted.” Della called out.

The light faded as the party of five sat watching the sun settle behind distant hills is a display of gold, oranges, and shades a red. Finally, Steve spoke. “We should get to the outskirts of Van Horn in two days.” The Dakota Fire still smoldered below ground.

“How big of a place is it?”

Steve shrugged. “Maybe two thousand people so I’m hoping to find some supplies. We could use clothes, food, and footwear.”

Darlene brushed Penny’s damp hair from her face. “It’s hot now, but winter this far north can be brutal.”

“I don’t want to show up at Randy’s with nothing to offer,” Steve commented.

Della turned to Steve. “What do you mean? Do you think they would turn us away?”

“No. Not at all,” Steve answered.

“Then why do you seem worried?” Della asked.

“I just want to have more to offer than a gimp and three women,” He laughed.

“You’re baiting me,” Della smiled.

Steve nodded. “We have five horses, but I don’t plan on handing them over to anyone if I don’t have to. They’re our trading future down the road.”

“What do you mean?” Darlene asked.

Steve took a deep breath. “We’re joining a community. As such, we either live off their charity, or we become a critical component. We have five horses two males, and three mares and two of those are pregnant. That gives us leverage.”

Zack cocked his head to the side. “You’re thinking long term?”

“Yes. But this only works if the camp doesn’t have many horses. That’s why, if we get a chance, we need to gather supplies or items that are light, easy to transport and will be in high demand. Drugs or seeds are at the top of the list. A good alternative would be ammo. But ammo is heavy, and that would limit the amount we could carry.”

“What about fishing gear?” Zack asked. “Line, hooks, that kinda thing.”

Steve laughed. “Anything that will help a community survive would be good. We’ll just have to keep our eyes open.”

Della picked up her bedroll on the patch of grass near where she had been sitting. “I’m going to turn in, folks. I’m exhausted.”

“Sounds like a good idea,” Steve agreed.

Darlene chuckled. “Penny has been out for the last ten minutes. Della, will you spread out that extra blanket for her?”

“Sure.” Della laid the blanket out for Penny near Darlene’s bedroll under the tarp.

After a few minutes, both women had settled down under the tarp. Zack and Steve still sat by the dim glow of the fire.

Zack swatted at a dark spec on his arm. “Damned bugs.”

“Yeah. Nothing compared to the mosquitos around South Houston.” Steve laughed. “Half a dozen of those suckers are big enough to suck you dry in twenty minutes.”

“Never been there,” Zack answered. “Fact is, I was never outta San Antonio before now much less the state.” His voice trailed off.

“You doing alright?” Steve asked.

“I guess. I don’t know. I keep thinking I’ll never see my mom again.” His voice was soft with emotion.

“There’s a good chance none of us will know what happened to our families. My dad still lives in Galveston. I don’t imagine it was spared since Houston was overrun.”

“The world is pretty screwed,” Zack whispered.

Penny bounced on the back seat while she called out to Zack. “We go? We take horsy?”

Steve laughed. “We go.” He slapped Zack on the back and chuckled at the uncomfortable look on the kid’s face. “Remember, slow and easy taking off, and it will take longer to stop with the extra weight.”

Zack shifted in the seat with a bit of discomfort. “Got it.”

The drive down the access road was a bit hairy, but once they pulled on the blacktop the morning wore on pretty uneventful as they drove down State Road 505 toward US 90 West. The rough hill country terrain had disappeared shortly after they left the cabin and trees grew more stunted, and patches of bare earth turned into even more arid land. The straight arrow road disappeared into the distance. Mountains gradually appeared through the haze in the distance.

Zack pressed his foot on the gas, but Steve interrupted. “Keep it around forty. Remember about stopping.”

“Valentine Texas? I saw a special on television about that town. It’s famous. The post office receives thousands of cards every year so they can be sent from Valentines all over the country.” Darlene announced.

Della laughed. There was a movie called “Dancer, Texas” filmed there in the nineties.”

“And that’s important why?” Steve turned and asked.

Della poked him with the tip of a slender finger. “It was a cute movie. I wonder if the eighty or ninety people who lived here are alive.”

Steve sighed. “I guess we’ll know soon enough. It’s not much more than five miles ahead. Then we pass Lobo. Then hopefully, a clear shot to the mountains.”

“There’s a Prada store there.” Della laughed. “I saw it on a Sunday morning program, Prada Marfa was erected as a work of art. It has shoes and stuff from a Prada collection.”

“For sale?” Darlene asked. “Can we stop?”

Della shrugged. “No. It never opened. Supposedly, it’s an earth-friendly building that will decay and fall into ruin along with the shoes and purses. I doubt anything there will be worth our time.”

Steve chuckled. “Not many places to wear high heels now.”

Darlene sighed. I could have tried on a pair of Prada shoes.”

Zack interrupted the conversation when he stepped on the breaks. “There’s your Prada store, but where’s the rest of the town?”

Zack slipped the truck into gear and stepped on the accelerator. The truck pulled away from the cabin as his eyes filled. “We could make her come.” He whispered.

“It was her decision. She only has a few days of medication left.” Steve answered.

“What if someone comes?” Darlene argued.

“She has a gun,” Steve answered.

“She can barely see. How can she protect herself?”

“Not why I gave it to her,” Steve answered with a catch in his voice. “Enough. Drop it.”

Darlene flopped back in the seat more than a little angry while Della remained quiet. Her words had failed to dissuade her when Millie announced her intent of staying behind when they left. Despite Della cussing and discussing the decision over and over again for the last two days, Della knew she could say nothing that would change Millie’s mind. In the end, Millie turned away and refuse to even discuss it.

Zack followed the narrow trail back to the shed and corral. The horses milled around the gate, anticipating their daily allotment of hay. Zack stopped the truck, and Della jumped out of the back seat door anxious to be out of the cab and the sadness of sniffles and tears. She hurried to the trailer and stood next to the hitch on the trailer with her arm above the connection.

“Can you do this?” Steve asked with a raised brow.

“Hope so,” Zack answered.

He slipped the truck into reverse, and it moved toward the trailer. Della began to point to the right. When Zack seem to ignore her guidance, she made a more frantic pointing motion and yelling, “Right! Go to the right!”

Steve turned and could see he was missing the hitch. “Hold up a minute.” Zack kept moving, and Steve shouted. “Stop!” Zack stopped, jerking everyone against the seat belts. Steve leaned forward. “Let’s try this again, but this time, you do what I say. Let’s do this slow and easy, okay?”

“Alright.” Zack pulled the truck forward, stopped and put the truck in reverse.

“Straighten the wheel before you start moving, then just do as I say,” Steve spoke calmly.

After three long minutes of left then right and back again, the trailer was connected, and Zack pulled the trailer from the barn. “Damn. That’ a lot longer than I thought it would be.” He stopped when he got well past the gate and again slipped the truck into reverse.

“This is a little different,” Steve instructed. “You turn the wheel in the opposite direction you want the trailer to go. It seems crazy, but that’s how you do it backing up a trailer. Now, straighten the wheel and get a clean start.”

Zack took his foot off the break and with a few adjustments, the trailer rolled toward the gate.

“Wheel to the right,” Steve instructed. “Ease off the gas. Slightly to the left.” A moment later he announced. “That’s it. Stop.”

Zack jerked stepped on the break with a sigh of relief. “Shit. I would have never gotten that done by myself.”

Darlene and Penny climbed out of the cab to watch all the activity fro the side of the corral. Della and Zack walked inside the pen closing the gate behind them and bridled each of the horses. Once they were each tied to the fence, Zack led them, one by one, into the trailer and tied them in place. The whole process took nearly an hour. When Zack was done, he got back in the cab with a sigh of relief while Darlene, Penny, and Della climbed into the back seat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Great.”  Zack lamented.

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

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

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

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

“Gotta find one more,” Zack commented.

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

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

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

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

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

“Shit.”  She whispered.

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

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

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

“Shit!”  Della cursed.

Della hurried to the white fencing surrounding the paddock. She hid behind a post and studied the paddock and then the area around the outermost buildings. The horses must have heard her because they raced to the corner nearest the buildings. The wandering pair of monsters had noticed the movements and turned to head in their direction.

When the infected finished feeding on the bodies at the front of the paddock they would come for the rest. She had to move.

Della climbed over the white fencing and hurried across the open pasture toward the gate where the remaining horse gathered. She drew closer and the beautiful black and brown horses stamped and skittered away from her. They were terrified.

She glance toward the front of the pasture and realized the infected had lost interest in the remains of the dead and now where stumbling toward the remaining animals. The horses began prancing and charging toward the gate, then back toward the open paddock looking for escape.

Della stopped and whispered. “Whoa…it’s okay.” She cooed. The big black mare turned at the sound. Della kept whispering calming words and the mare separated from the group and nickered. The black took a step toward Della and she stopped. She held out her hand and the horse nuzzled her palm. The mare snorted.

“I’ll get you out of here. Just let me through girl.” She stepped forward and the black stepped to the side. Slowly Della made her way to the gate. She walked past the nervous animals with the black at her side.

Della stepped around a brown horse to the wooden gate and reached over the top to unhook the latch. She pulled the gate toward her and all but the black mare charged through almost trampling Della in the mad rush to escape.

She stumbled back against the gate and fell to her knees. An infected appeared from behind the spooked animals and reached toward Della. The black dashed forward and reared up. Her metal shoed hooves came down on the infected teen. The black reared again and again until the monster lay still.

Della pulled herself to her feet, retrieved the gun and looked at the remains of the infected. The black nudged her toward the gate. “Got it. Let’s go girl before the rest of those monsters get here.”

The horse and Della got through the gate and Della re-latched the gate. She grabbed a rope hanging from a fence post and looped it around the gate.

“Just in case the latch gives out.”

She turned from the fence and jogged to the barn door. She slowed and looked into the gloom. The building had a main passageway with horse stalls on either side opening toward the middle. While the rest of the horses raced through the corridor and disappeared behind the buildings, the black followed Della.

She approached the stables with a real sense of foreboding. It was dark inside. She was terrified at the thought of entering the stable but knew she had to find the veterinary supplies.

Finally, she squared her shoulders and walked into the gloom. She got to the first door and recognized it as a stall. She quickened her pace and hurried past five more, toward the opposite end of the building. Each dark opened gate terrified her but she moved through the building out into the barn yard beyond. The office wasn’t in the building. She walked out into the sun and looked from one side of the opened ground to the other.

The owner’s home was a white plantation style mansion with white pillars and a huge veranda circling the house. The gravel drive sat empty. The only evidence of something amiss was the front door standing open and a single shattered window glass.

Della glanced toward a building resembling a miniature of the stable facing the stable. Someone had been working at planting a flat of flowers around the front door. The half empty flat and tools lay at the side of the bed. Above the door, was a sign advertising the ranch office. Della glanced around the yard then jogged toward the office.

With the 9mm in hand she approached the building. Della could hear the mare walking close on her heels. Feeling paranoid Della looked from left to right and back again. When she glanced around looking for more infected, she realized the mare had been calm until she got near the office building.  Now the black shied away from the building and pranced back and forth nervously.

She stepped closer to the door and peeked through the window. Her breath caught in her throat. There was blood smeared on the inside of the glass door. A bloody handprint on the door handle spoke volumes. Now I know why the horse is upset.

“Shit!” She cursed as she stepped back and glanced around. She saw the hoe and reached out to wrap her hands around the handle. She slid the handgun into the bag over her shoulder and looked inside the window again. The monster inside was still looking out a back window. She could do this.  One quick swing of the hoe and the monster would no long be a problem.

The black horse reared up and screamed. Della turned. “Okay…I know. But I have to do this.  Be quiet!”

Just as she reached for the door again a bloodied body slammed against the glass. Della fell back and stumbled to the ground.  The infected man, dressed in a pair of bloody khaki pants and polo shirt, snarled and clawed from behind the glass.

“Now you’ve done it.”  Della scolded the black horse.

Della leaned against the hoe and watched the monster claw and scream in frustration too stupid to know as long as the door was closed it couldn’t get to the black horse. That was it…release the latch and the infected man’s weight would push open the door.

Della stepped out of sight while the black seemed to sense there was a plan in play.  She stomped the bare packed ground and whinnied.  The rest happened so quickly, Della had little time to even think about the danger.

With her back pressed against the wall, she reached over and depressed the latch, the infected it the door and it swung open.  Not expecting the freedom to reach his prey, the infected fell from the building.

Della raised the hoe and slammed it down as the monster’s head from behind.

The blade struck the skull and skid down the side of his head landing on the man’s shoulder with a snap of a collarbone. She jerked the hoe up again then slammed it down on his head with all her might. The man fell and she stumbled to her knees.

Before she could get to her feet the mare slammed her hooved into the mangled head. Terrified, Della quickly got to her feet and backed toward the building.

When the infected man remained still, the mare nickered and strolled up to Della for a nuzzled and pat on the nose.

Della pressed her face against the mare’s head and took a deep breath. “I’m not sure if this relationship is going to work out long term, but for now, we’re a team. Okay?”

The mare whinnied.

Della turned and walked toward the office.  She looked through the gore smeared door and into the room beyond. It seemed empty.  She grabbed the hoe and opened the door and stepped inside.

She walked around the office, opened the cabinets and found nothing useful. At the side of the office were two doors. A quick peek, verified one was a bathroom and the second a room with white cabinets, sink and table. A medical bag sat on the table. She opened the bag and after a quick perusal, she continued her search.

At one side of the room was a cabinet with a lock on the door. Della pulled a knife from the her bag. She jammed it in between the doors and popped the door open.

Inside was a variety of medical supplies including bottles of antibiotics, syringes, vials and a variety of medical dressings. Della swept supplies into the bag. When it was full, she filled her shoulder bag with bandages, take and sponges.  After a final glance around, she headed back out the door. When she got back in the office, she emptied the trash bag and stepped in the bathroom to retrieve all the toilet paper.

She’d made a haul, antibiotics for Steve and toilet paper for the outhouse.  All she had to do was get to the ATV and get back to the cabin.

On the third morning after arriving at the cabin, Della woke with the rising sun sending shafts of light through the open window. She climbed down the ladder from the loft. Sleeping there had turned out more comfortable than she thought it would be. Opening two trap windows at the ends of the cabin allowed for a cooling cross breeze.

Millie fed kindling into the stove. When the heat from the few glowing coals caught the kindling, she added three small split pieces of wood. She set a kettle of water on the stove to boil and readied the last of her strips of willow bark to soak. She sliced Spam and laid it in a cast iron skillet to warm next to the kettle.

“He ain’t good.” Millie announced when Della drew close.

Della nodded. “I know. I’ve got to find him antibiotics.”

“I ‘member seein’ a horse ranch about ten miles back. It said thoroughbreds. A big operation could mean vet supplies. Vets use same medicine as people.” Millie answered.

“I remember. Behind the white fence was a sign advertising Quarter horses, I think.”

“It could be dangerous. It’s close to that last town we passed.” Darlene added.

Millie nodded. “We need that young man. He’s the one that knew to get us out of Utopia and has kept us alive. If he doesn’t get antibiotics he might just die.”

As if in agreement, Steve moaned softly from the bunk at the back of the room.

The three women sat down at the table speaking softly.

“I have to be the one to go.” Announced Della. “I’m the only one that can go.”

Darlene looked frightened. “You can’t go alone.”

“I have to. Zack needs to check the traps if we’re going to stay here long enough for Steve to get well. If something bad happens and you have to leave, Zack’s the only one that will be able to protect the rest of you. Steve is too sick.”

“She’s right.” Millie agreed. “We’ll send Zack to check the traps because he won’t want to let you go without him.”

“I’ll take the ATV we found in the shed and take one of the five gallon containers of gas so I have plenty of gas. Zack already checked it out and it runs. If I take it, you’ll still have transportation since Zack filled in the wash and the road is wide enough for the truck.” Della argued.

Darlene’s mouth turned down with concern. “I don’t like you going alone.”

Millie answered. “If we’re going to make it, we have to do for ourselves.. We have to stop depending on the menfolk to do ever’thing. The world has changed.”

“Maybe I could come.” Darlene volunteered.”

Della answered. “You’re the only one left to protect Penny, Millie and Steve while both of us are gone.”

They all turned at the sound of heavy footsteps coming into the house though the front door of the cabin.

“All’s quiet. Glad I won’t be working on that wash again today.” Zack noticed the women seated at the table and asked. “What’s going on? Is Steve any better?”

Millie answered. “About the same. You need to head out early to check traps today. I need willow bark to make more tea for Steve.”

“I can do that. I can check the traps and be back with the bark in a couple hours.” Zack announced. “If I can get some breakfast, I can leave right away.”

Millie stepped to the cabinet and pulled out a cloth wrapped loaf of bread. She cut a wedge and laid a single slice of warmed Spam on top. She handed him the sandwich and a bottle of water. “Off you go. Don’t forget your hatchet and that knife you found in the shed. Remember, pink bark and don’t take it from the same tree.”

Looking a little confused by being pushed out the back door, Zack accepted the offering and stepped outside. He threw a wave over his shoulder and called out. “Later, I guess.”

Della chuckled. “Now that was a bum-rush if I ever saw one.”

Millie grinned. “Boy was a bit heavy and that walking every morning is trimming him down real good. He’s turning into a nice lookin’ young man without all sittin’ around.”

Della shook her head chuckling. “You always get what you want, Millie?”

Millie answered. “I see what needs done and that man needs antibiotics or he ain’t gonna make it.”

Della glanced at her watch. “I need to get moving. It’s going to take thirty to forty-five minutes before I get to the ranch. Give me an hour to find what I need and then forty-five minutes to get back. I should be back before noon.”

Millie gave Della a hard look. “Stay away from people, a black gal on her own could find herself in trouble. Some people might try to take advantage.”

Darlene looked frightened. “I don’t like you doing this alone.”

“I’ve got the gun.” Della answered.

“Breakfast is ready.” Millie answered.

She set more bread and Spam on the table and the three women ate quickly. When they were finished, Millie handed Della a bag. “Got you a couple of those power bars and three bottles of water to take with you. You best be going. ‘Member what the boy said ‘bout that gas line being a problem.”

She and Darlene hurried to the shed and pushed ATV around the back of the cabin to the road. They pushed the vehicle down the road until they passed over the repaired wash and Della climbed on the tattered seat.

“Don’t forget the valve.”  Darlene commented.

“Got it.”  Della answered.

The machine had been used harshly over the years. The motor leaked gas somewhere so someone had added a shut off valve. They had mounted a rifle rack on the front and mounted an extended platform on the back.

“Are you sure about this?” Darlene asked.

“No. But I’ve got no choice. I’m not letting him die.” Della turned the key in the ATV and the motor roared to life. She clutched then kicked the machine into gear.

“Be careful.” Darlene called out as the ATV pulled away.

Della used the steep path to the blacktop to get familiar with riding the four-wheeled vehicle. She had ridden an ATV once, but it had been years ago. It short ride, since the guy she was dating didn’t care for the sideline. He lasted about as long as the ride.

When Della got to the blacktop she slowed the machine and looked both up and down the highway. There was a lot more cars than had been there when they last traveled the highway. She felt exposed and vulnerable when she pulled off the mountain road and onto the highway. She accelerated as she thought of Steve and the faint red lines spreading from the lesions on his left leg.

Della worried about a cluster of vehicles ahead.  She slowed as she approached the first vehicle. It had two flat tires on the driver’s side. She glanced through the open doors and was shocked to see evidence of a hasty exit. Suit cases had been thrown open and clothing left in a pile inside the vehicle. From what she could see, it was all adults clothing.

She stopped the machine and turned off the engine. Della glanced around and saw nothing to give a hint of where the occupants had gone. She decided to check it out since she was there.  She stuffed anything that looked useable and closed up the case.  She threw it into the carrier and lashed it down with a bungee cord.

When she was done, she stepped back on the ATV and cranked the engine.  She accelerated and the four-wheeler rolled forward. The next vehicle was disabled as well. Again she saw no one nor evidence of the occupants having been attacked by the infected.

Della dodged around two more stalled cars then accelerated down the open road.  The drive was almost pleasant with the wind on her face. Just as she got to the start of the white fencing she saw a terrible accident involving several vehicles locked together across the entrance to the ranch driveway. She stopped the ATV and pulled off the road into a small stand of bushes. Della turned off the key and the quiet was suddenly overwhelming.

She glanced from side to side try to assure herself she was alone. She took a deep breath trying to calm her racing heart and stepped off the four-wheeler. She picked up the small pack holding the handgun, water and protein bars. She pulled out the 9mm, released the magazine, checked the load, and slammed it back home.

“Okay. Let’s do this.” She whispered to herself.

She walked deeper into the woods at the side of the open paddock.  The ranch buildings were nearly half a mile from the entrance. A dozen infected fed on the carcasses of three horses. The pasture was a lethal prison for the half dozen or so horses left snorting and running from a couple monsters trying to catch them.

Della watched the horror in the quiet pasture for several minutes before she could drag up enough courage to move, she took a deep breath and stepped back into the shadows of the trees. She looked toward the stables in the distance. She could make her way toward the building and staying out of sight. She’d figure out how to cross the short expanse of pasture to the buildings when she got there, but for now she’d worry about getting there.

With a plan, she began jogging through the woods. Branches and briars whipped at her arms and legs. Devils Beggarticks, called stick-tights in Texas, clung to her pant legs, her shoes and the strings.

She came out of the woods a short distance from the stable and ranch buildings glanced back toward the feeding monsters. The surviving horses were all huddled together in front of her.  They stood trembling at the gate, eyes wild with terror. Where were the ranchers? Why were they not protecting the horses?

Millie directed Zack to cut the cable into six six-foot lengths. With her guidance, Zack created a one-way locking mechanism on an adjustable loop. He held up the first snare for Millie’s inspection.

She reached out with her hand. “Just a brush of fur will slide the loop tight” Sliding her hand into the loop, she pulled slightly and it snapped around her thin wrists. “They’ll be caught fast.”

She pulled the loop open and extracted her hand. She left Zack to make four more traps while she got to her feet and shuffled back into the cabin.

She pressed her fingers to Steve’s face then looked at Della.  “He’s not looking good. I’ll be looking for some willow when I go out with Zack. But unless we find a honey tree, that’s all I can do for him.”

“Better than nothing, I guess.”  Della answered.

Millie walked back out to find Zack had repeated the trap making while Millie was gone.  She guided him through making an anchor loop on a swivel on the opposite end of each cable.

“Now, they’re all done.” Millie announced. “We go to the woods.”

“Can I go Granny?” Penny asked.

Millie looked at Darlene than nodded. “If your mama will watch from the porch, you can come as far as the garden. When we get there, you gotta go back to the cabin.”

“Yes mam.” Penny nodded.

Millie walked inside the cabin and filled plastic bottles with clear fresh water. She opened cabinet doors until she found a small jar with a lid and dropped it in burlap sack she had fashioned into a shoulder bag.

Steve stirred in the bunk. He reached for his prosthetics when he saw the gathering of supplies being readied to go into the woods.

Millie raised her hand. “Not you. Someone has to protect the child and mother.” After a look around, she continued. “Della will take that pistol and a knife if you don’t mind.”

Darlene stepped to Millie and whispered. “He’s not doing well.”

“Give him that cup of broth I set near the stove. Take the warm water and clean his sores and bandage them with that ointment Della has. If we find a willow, I’ll bring some back for his fever.”

“I’ll do that soon as Penny gets back.” Darlene answered.

Millie led Penny, Della and Zack to the edge of the clearing. There, she pointed Penny back to the cabin. When the child was back in the arms of her mother and waving from the porch, she led Della and Zack into the woods.

The townspeople in Utopia had been generous in sharing clothes with all of them. Della had changed from her filthy scrubs to jeans, a t-shirt and a pair of jogging shoes. Zack was dressed in jeans and a t-shirts as well. After nearly a week in the same scrubs for both, it was a real relief. Neither looked like woodsmen, but Millie was determined to pass along what she knew.

As they walked, she pointed to plants. She described the ones that were toxic and which ones they could eat. She passed a willow tree and pulled handfuls of the young tender branches and stuffed them into her burlap bag.

Millie began talking about game trails and to spot them. She pointed at droppings and the differences between raccoon and what a squirrel left behind. She spoke quietly, but used each example to convey information.

Millie walked deeper into the woods studying the ground as she went. “I’ll show you what to look for, but you’ll have to go deeper into the woods to set the traps. I’m just about tuckered out.” At that point she pointed to the ground. “This is a game trail. Animals use the same paths to move from one place to another. Look for a choke point, a place where the trail narrows. That’s where you put the snare.”

She spent the next ten minutes showing how to place the snare. “We have to decide what size animal you’re trying to catch. This may not be easy, since different critters can use the same trail. The animal needs to stick his head through the loop. For now, let’s just say about eight or nine inches.”

Both Della and Zack nodded with each bit of information.

Finally, Della announced. “I think we got it.”

Millie stood with the aid of Zack big hand. “Use that hatchet to mark a trail so you don’t get lost. Don’t go more than a mile out. You got five more snares. Don’t put them too close. A struggling critter will warn off other animals.”

“Yes mam.” Zack answered.

“Don’t get lost. Stay together and mark the trees like I showed you.” She sighed with a puzzled look on her wrinkled face. Go a mile south, then a mile west and then north again. Always go to the right. Use that compass in the knife.” Millie ordered.

Della smiled. “We’ll be fine.”

Millie sighed. “I wish I could go with you, but my legs won’t make it. Be careful. If you be quiet you won’t scare off the game.”

Della and Zack watched the old woman hobble away. She placed her feet carefully on the path as she shuffled back toward the cabin. She had seemed so tireless since arriving at the cabin. Watching her now they realized, she was desperate to share as much information as possible. She provided answers and was determined to do whatever she could to help extend their stay. They realized that with her knowledge of foraging and trapping they could stay for quite a while.

Without Millie, the group would have only been able to spend a week or so at the cabin. Now, if their trapping efforts were successful, they could give Steve time to heal.

“Well, are we doing this?” Zack grinned. “Can you believe we’re doing this?”

Della smiled. “Not really. Lead out trail blazer.”

Della reached into the bag slung over her shoulder to verify the handgun was still present while Zack clutched a hatchet in his hand. He marked the tree as Millie had directed then verified the direction.

They walked deeper into the woods, following the game trail to avoid briars and brush, so when the trail turned they turned. When the trail forked, they kept to the right fork. They set each of the five additional snare traps.

“Well, how do you think we’re doing?”  Zack asked.

“I’m pretty sure we’re doing it correctly.  Now if we can just follow the same trail to recover the game. That is, if we catch anything.”  Della chuckled.

In the end, they found themselves near the base of the narrow road leading up to the cabin when they came out of the woods. Both Della and Zack were sweaty and dirty from their trek through the woods when they got back to the cabin. It was nearly five in the afternoon when Della walked inside the cabin.

Steve asked from the bunk. “Well, how did it go?”

“Long hot walk.” Della answered as she wiped at the perspiration at the side of her face. She settled on a chair at the table.

“See anything interesting? Other people or signs of other people?” Steve asked.

“There’s a good sized watering hole that spills into a small stream. It’ looks clean. We saw fish.”

Zack stomped up the steps appeared at the cabin door. He went to the sink and began pumping the handle. A moment later, water began to flow clear and fresh. He stuck his head under the flow and scrubbed at the dirt and dust clinging to his face and neck. “It’s hot as hell out there. Not even a hint of a breeze.”

Millie pulled his hand from the pump handle and pumped it slow and steady. Zack scrubbed at his face with both hand then pulled the shirt over his head and stuck it under the flow. He wrung it out, then wiped at his face and neck then draped it around his neck.

When Zack stepped back from the sink, he carried two large mason jars of water. He handed one to Della and then settled on a chair.

Millie handed Della a wet towel.

She nodded at the old woman. “Well that was an adventure.”

“Gal, did you two do a good job?” Minnie asked.

Zack wiped at his face and hands. “Yes mam. We did just like you showed us. How long before we know?”

“Trapping ain’t knowing until you follow the trail and check your traps, first thing in the morning. You be hoping for night critters.”

“We gotta get up early, we just got back.” Zack complained.

“If we’re planning on eating what we trap, we might want it fresh.” Millie answered.

“This isn’t such a bad place to be.” Darlene walked in the cabin to join the small gathering with Penny at hand. “Maybe we should stay here until the government gets the infected under control.”

“Maybe.” Steve answered. “For a while.” He lay back on the bunk and closed his eyes.

“You won’t believe all the stuff in the shed.” Zack and Della rushed into the cabin each carrying a five-gallon can.

Zack announced. “It looks like the guy was stocking up.  Maybe he was some kind of prepper or something.”

Della added. “There’s sealed metal cans filled with beans, rice, shortening, flour, sugar and staples.”

Zack continued. “There was a sun hydrator and a smoker. It looks like they stocked up for an extended stay when they came up here. Maybe even planned to spend time living up.”

Steve called out from the front porch where he sat with the rifle across the arm rests of the wheelchair. “Bring the supplies inside, let Millie and Charlene help plan meals around what you find.”

“Do you think the owner will be mad if we use their stuff?” Zack asked. “They stocked up and all.”

“No. I think they’re dead or forced into a FEMA camp.” Steve answered as he tried to find a more comfortable position on the chair. “I found a couple receipts from stores in Houston when I was looking in the drawers. If they were going to come here, they would have made it by now.” He rolled the chair into the room. “My guess is they were evacuated and once in a camp, well. Refugee camps will limit people coming and going to reduce chance of exposure to the virus.”

“That would suck to know you have this waiting and not being able to get to it.” Zack gave a quick shrug.

The three women unpacked the metal cans excited to see so much food available. When they were done, all the items were arranged on the table. Millie sorted the spoils into piles. She checked the cabinets then walked back to the stash, made a face then scrawled lists on a scrap of brown paper bag with a stump of a pencil.

“Well, that extends our stay a bit.” Steve ran the back of his arm across his forehead.  “Can I get another glass of water? It’s sure warm out here.” He called out from the open front door.

Della glanced at Steve sitting outside the door, surprised at his request.  She crossed the worn wood floor and pressed the back of her hand against his forehead. “You’re running a fever. You need to rest for a while. We got this. Darlene and I can keep watch.”

“Hey man, Millie said she’d teach me to trap if we can find supplies to make traps.” Zack answered. “We’ll be eating high on the hog.”

“That would improve our situation even more.” Steve rolled through the door and to the bunk where he shifted himself into the bed. “That is, if you catch anything.” He forced a chuckle.  “You don’t look much like Daniel Boone to me.”

Millie directed the supplies to be sorted.  She had Della put a few of the bottles and cans in the cabinets while the rest in plastic bags were returned to storage cans then arranged the cans against the wall near the makeshift kitchen. She instructed Darlene concerning the mid-day meal then led Zack out the back door.

With Zack in tow, Millie hobbled past the shed to the volunteer garden beyond. The scattering of plants left after the mild winter appeared to be volunteer growth. Someone had thrown fresh vegetable scraps into a compost pile where they had germinated and grown. Among the remnants of vegetation were tomato plants, yellow summer squash and zucchini vines with fruit hanging along the remnant of fencing. In a corner of the fallow garden were cucumbers plants and smattering of trailing foliage from sweet potatoes.

Millie followed the fencing to the back of the shed then pointed to several plants a short distance from the garden.

“Boy, you pick these plantago. You pick the tender young leaves then we cook ‘em and have greens. There’s plenty so fill this bowl.” She pointed to a second plant. “That second pan, fill with those leaves and blossoms. I’ll pick some cherry tomato and pull some onions and we’ll have a salad of sorts.”

Zack glanced down at the plants. “Yes mam.” He began laying the lighter green leaves in the pan.

Millie chuckled. “This afternoon, we gonna make you into a trapper. Before then though, we have to find some supplies.” She shuffled off to the compost pile to pick tomatoes.

After lunch, Millie again led Zack from the cabin. This time they made their way to the shed with a flashlight in hand. Millie stood at the opened door for a few minutes then made her way to the work table at one side of the ram-shackled structure.

There they found a thin tightly-wound steel cable wound in a circle several times. She scratched around on a work bench and found tools and a handful of other supplies she added to a box. When Millie was satisfied she had what she wanted, she led Zack back to the cabin and settled on the shaded back porch at a picnic table.

Della walked out of the cabin. “Steve’s sleeping, but it looks like his legs are infected. He needs antibiotics.”

“One thing at a time, girlie.” Millie answered. “We make snares then I’ll be seeing to the man’s need.”

Zack pulled into the small yard in front of the cabin. He turned off the engine and the six travelers sat quietly in the waning light. The hunting cabin was a throwback from a hundred years ago.  The siding was weather cedar that had grayed years ago.  The tin roof was rusted but look to be in good shape.

Millie leaned forward. “Don’t y’all suppose we’d better get settled before it gets dark?”

Steve nodded and answered. Let’s check it out, Zack.”

The two men got out of the truck. Zack carried a crowbar and Steve a handgun. They crossed the bare packed earth to the front porch. Oak leaves danced across the faded planks of the covered porch. Windows at the front of the cabin were dusty but were crack free. The weathered wood door had a gate latch with a padlock for security. Uncovered windows on either side of the door allowed the waning light to expose the minimalistic furnishings inside.

“Someone’s hunting camp. If we’re lucky, there’s a cistern or water well.” Steve whispered as they stepped on the porch.

He pointed to his eyes with two fingers then to the window closest to Zack. He sidestepped to the window to the right and pressed his back against the rough wood logs of the wall. He leaned over the edge of the window and peeked inside.

Zack watched the procedure and repeated it at the window on the left side of the door. “Nothing here.” He whispered.

“Stay here.” Steve mouthed.

Steve stepped off the porch and stumbled around the side of the building. He followed the solid wall to the back of the structure. Looking through the back windows, he realized the structure was a single room with a ladder access to a loft overhead. The back of the cabin included barn doors on an overhead track. He made his way around the corner and a massive stack of firewood at the side of the house. He stepped back up to the porch with Zack.

“Anything?” Zack asked.

“Looks good. Let’s get inside. It’s almost dark.”

Zack picked up the padlock and shoved the crowbar through the hasp. With a snap of his wrist the lock snapped open. He pulled the lock off the door and laid it on a window sill.

Steve opened the door leading with his gun hand. He fanned his barrel from left to right and then back again as he studied the shadows inside. The building was set up with a sink, and few cabinets and a table at one end. The rest seemed devoted to providing sleeping quarters. Bunk beds and from what he could see, a couple more twin beds overhead.

“Let’s move ‘em in.” Steve commented.

Zack went to the truck, while Steve lit a kerosene lamp on the table. He limped to the sink and examined a hand pump. He pumped the handle a few time and rusty water spilled from the spout. After a few more pumps of the handle, the water flowed clear and clean. He dipped his hand in the stream and brought it to his nose. It smelled fresh.

Zack and the women walked into the cabin. Millie still holding Penny’s hand crossed to the sink when she saw what Steve was doing. “Young man, you need to sit done.”

“I’m fi….” Steve drug his arm across his forehead.

Millie interrupted. “Young man? I’m not suggesting, I’m telling.” She walked to the sink and found a pan. She filled it with water then looked in drawers until she found a dishtowel. When she turned back she glanced at Penny. “Child, tell that boy, Zack, to bring us that chair on wheels.”

With another glare from Millie, Steve settled on the chair at the table. She nodded toward the prosthetics and Steve removed the right leg then the left. Both silicone cuffs were smeared with blood when he pulled them from his legs.

Della came in carrying an armful of supplies. She saw Steve’s ulcerated legs and gasped. “I told you. How could you let it get this bad? You’re running a fever.”

Steve shrugged. “I didn’t see I had much choice.”

“Well we do now. We stay until you’re healed.” Della announced.

Millie sat the pan of water on the table and another pan on the floor at the front of the chair. She soaked the rag and dribbled water over the red angry flesh. After the first couple passes of cold water over the flesh, the shock lessened and began to numb the pain. Steve sighed in relief.

Millie looked up when Della walked in the cabin with another armful of supplies. “You got medicine for this?” She asked Della.

“Yes, mam.”

Penny came in with Zack carrying the wheel chair. He looked at Steve’s legs and cringed. “Man that looks painful.”

“A day or two and it’ll be fine.” Steve began, but Della interrupted.

“NO! You need to rest at least a week.”

“Mommy? I really gotta go to the bathroom.” Penny announced.

Darlene looked around the room, then to Steve.

He grinned. “Out house in back. We got running water though.”

“Praise the Lord for that but, an outhouse?” Darlene groaned. “Gross.”

Zack laughed. “I saw it out back. It’s close to the shed. I thought I’d check it out so I’ll show you.”

They walked to the barn doors and unlatched one door and opened it. Zack pulled a LED light from his pocket. He led Darlene and Penny through the back door.

“Let’s cover the front windows and close the door when we get everything inside. I don’t want to advertise we’re here.” Steve announced.

Della placed a tube of ointment on the table with two rolls of gauze. “We have what we need inside. I’ll cover the windows.”

Two hours later, Millie had schooled Zack on starting a fire in the wood stove in the kitchen. They had found kindling in a bucket by the stove and wood at the side of the house. She pulled a pot from a cabinet and dumped an assortment of cans in it and added a can of diced chicken.

All remains of the day slipped into night as the small gathering sat around the cabin eating bowls of Millie’s concoction.

“Do you think we’re safe here?”  Darlene asked.

“Safer than we’ve been since we left Utopia.” Steve answered. “Everyone needs to get some rest.  I’m beat.”

He rolled the chair to one of the windows. “I’ll wake you at midnight, Zack.”

“No problem.”

Della helped Millie to the other lower bunk beds. Zack decided he wasn’t trying the top bunk and pulled the mattress from the top bunk on one of the bed to a place near a window.  Della took the bunk above Millie while Darlene and Penny made their way to the loft. Within a short time Steve could hear both Millie and Zack snoring.

The warmth of the cabin was unbearable. Finally, Steve opened the front door and rolled the wheelchair outside. The handgun rested in his lap. He looked out over the valley beyond and realized how high on the bluff they had driven. He could see a few lights and wondered if what he saw was fires or people running generators.

At midnight Zack stumbled through the opened door wiping sleep from his eyes. “All quiet?”

Steve nodded then answered. “Not much to see out there. I saw a few fires in the distance. There must be a blacktop about six miles north. I saw a few headlights heading west.”

“Get some rest, I got this? Use the bottom bunk. I opened the back windows and with this door open it’s not so hot. I’ll be out here.”

“Thanks.” Steve handed Zack the handgun. “Wake me or aim for the head and pull the trigger.”

“Got it.” Zack laid the gun next to him on the top step of the porch. “I’ll get you if I hear or see anything.”

Steve rolled inside and pulled himself into the bunk. He closed his eyes.

The sound of whispered voices woke Steve. Dust motes danced across the first rays of the sun shining through the opened back doors. The smell and sound of something cooking filled the little cabin. Steve threw his arm over his eyes and listened to the voices coming from the kitchen. His stomach rolled.

“Now, this canned meat is poor folk’s best friend. That garden out back looks to have been cared for last fall. Got volunteer vines up on the side of the shed. Might be something we could use.” Millie commented.

“Penny and I can look around and check it out.” Darlene volunteered.

“I figure to take the young man with me and show him how to set a few snares. I don’t know if we’ll catch much, but I know we don’t have food for more than three days.”

Zack chuckled. “Me? Trapping? Just call me Daniel Boone.”

Despite the warmth radiating from him, Steve slid out of the bed and onto the wheelchair. He rolled toward the back door. “Zack, can I roll this to the outhouse and shed?”

“I’ll go with you. You’ll need a little help.” Zack answered.

“Let’s see what’s in the shed while were out there.”

A few minutes later, Zack rolled the wheel chair at the door of the shed. The owner of the property had put up a shed and used another padlock to secure the door. Zack pulled the crowbar from his belt and performed the same procedure as before to pop open the lock. When he was done, he threw the door open. He gave a low whistle.

Inside the shed was ATV parked against one wall. Zack flicked on the LED light. He looked from one side of the shed to the other. He saw garden tools propped in the corner, some fishing gear, and a variety of hunting equipment. In the back corner was something covered by a tarp.

“We need to see what’s under there.” Steve commented. “But first, I think I need to go inside and lay down for a bit. I’m not feeling real well.”

Zack stepped behind the wheel chair and pushed it toward the cabin. “You don’t look so good man.”

“If we had enough supplies it would be a good place to rest up but we don’t. We can’t sit around and wait for my legs to heal.”

“I’ll check out the shed in a while.” Zack answered.