Posts Tagged ‘Tate’

Doc and Matt spent half an hour collecting jars of home canning, half a dozen rounds of deer sausage and several packages of hard cheddar and gouda cheese.

“This is a hell of a stash,”  Doc commented as he sliced off a chunk of sausage. “You gotta know country folks would have extra food around the house.”

Matt nodded.  “In the morning I want to check for a garden or fruit trees.”

“Sounds like a plan.  With being this far from a major highway, these folks were in pretty good shape.” Doc continued.  “I guess old age is a weakness we all face eventually. They couldn’t do anything about that.”

After spending a few more minutes stacking the food stuff in two wooden boxes, Matt rigged a rope handle on each box then announced.

“Time to get this stuff back down to the store.”

Each man picked up a box and clutched a weapon in their free hand.  They stepped out of the house and headed down the gray shadow that was the lane leading back to the store.  The full moon provided enough light Matt pocketed the small LED light.

“Slow and easy.  I don’t want to break any of these jars.”

“Got it.” Doc answered.

“Where did that bunch pick up you and your people?”  Matt asked.

“My son and his family had a lake house on Medina Lake.  It was only the second day and my wife and I lived far enough out, we didn’t see anything but what was on the television.  My son was heading to his lake house and stopped long enough for me and Helen to load up the car and follow. About eight families made it up there.  Some belonged there, others we settled in the empty houses.  There was a cluster of six houses within sight of each other. We shared what we could.  We had a couple generators, couple boats, and plenty of fishing gear.  It wasn’t bad.  We figured we were pretty safe with only one way in and that was a gravel lane.  Problem was, my son and only three others had firearms with ‘em.”

“Sounds pretty sweet.”  Matt commented. “Except for the lack of firearms.”

“Would have been.”  Doc answered.  “Seems that bunch of rednecks were riding the backroad looking for exactly what we had; lots of women and not enough men or arms to protect ourselves.”

“Sounds like a bad deal.”

“They had to have been watching us for days.  They waited until three of the men were out fishing and used a deer rifle to take them out.  Just like that, my son and two other men were dead.  My daughter-in-law came out of the cabin with a rifle and they dropped her right on the porch in front of the girls.

By then, the rest of the adults including me and Helen were gathered up and on our knees.  They called the kids out telling them they would start killing the parents if they didn’t come out quick enough. The poor girls could barely walk they were so devastated.”

“Poor kids.” Matt mumbled.

Doc stopped and traded the box from his left hand to his right. “There were nearly forty people.  When everyone was present and accounted for, they executed five men and four teen boys.” Doc started walking again.  His voice was barely more than a whisper when he continued. “By then, the rest of us were in shock and so terrified we just did as we were told. They herded the women and children in the trucks. They knew I was a doctor and who my granddaughters were. They told me and Helen to get what we needed for the girls and get in the car.  If we did anything to cross them, they would kill the girls.  We had no choice.” His voice trailed off.

“You did what you had to do to protect the girls.  They had just seen their folks killed.” Matt commented.  “ Let’s get this inside.” Matt knocked on the door.

“Well, you took your sweet time.”  Tate groused.  “I’m getting cleaned up.  The kids are at the back of the store sleeping.  The rest of the women are in the break room.”

“No problem, I’ll keep watch soon as I set this stuff down.”  Matt answered.

“You two might get cleaned up when I’m done.  You both smell like shit.”  She walked away without looking back.

He pointed the barrel of the automatic weapon at the man called Stubby. “You keep yourself nice and frosty.”

Grant slammed his fist on the camp table. “Who in the fuck are you?”

Matt laughed. “The guy that’s gonna shoot you if you make another move like that.” He threw a length of paracord at Stubby. “Tie up your boss.”

Stubby looked confused for a moment then slowly rose with the cord in his hand.

Tate found the man called Arty still grunting with his bare ass glowing white in the light of the moon. Tate muffled a giggle as he farted and sighed. He belched as he got to his feet and pulled his pants up.

“Sounds to me like you have a digestive problem, there Arty.” Tate laughed softly as she made sure he saw the gun in her hand. “Don’t do anything stupid.”

Arty jumped and stepped in the muddy pile at his feet. “Fuck!” He slid his foot across scrub grass trying to clean his boot. “Who in the hell are you?”

Tate answered. “Not a fan for sure.”

Arty reached for his handgun and Tate squeezed the trigger.

Stubby’s friend, with the key on the string around his neck, walked to the cage. “Time for a little fun, Red.”

The women in the cage backed away from the door, all but the two Matt had spoken with. They moved toward the door where Black Beard was inserting the key into the lock.

He glared at the dark haired woman. When she didn’t move, he pointed his gun at her. “Back off bitch!”

The black-haired woman hesitated. When Black Beard pointed raised his gun, Red slipped the knife from her left hand to her right behind her back.  She looked toward her friend. “I got this.”

“That’s right bitch. Red and I are going to do a little bump and grind.” The Beard answered as he grabbed himself. He stuck the key into the padlock and opened the door then stepped to the side.  He motioned with the tip of his handgun for her to climb out of the truck.

Red stepped to the door and jumped from the truck. She landed hard on the ground falling to her knees. She sat crumpled in the dirt while the big man snapped the lock hasp close again.

Black Beard grabbed at Red’s arm just as the sound of a shot echoed in the distance. He let the barrel of the gun lower and Red swung the blade in a wide arc. She stabbed into Black Beard’s protruding gut. He stumbled back staring down at the blade.

Red pulled the blade free and swiped it across his throat. He tried to raise his gun, but Red jerked it from his grip as he fell to the ground. She pulled the keys from his neck and threw them to the waiting hands reaching from the back of the truck.

“Get out of the truck. All of you.” She tossed the knife toward the truck. “Free the Doc and his wife. Stay together and hide until this is over.”

Matt heard the shot the same time as Stubby struck out with the length of cord in his hand. Matt pressed the trigger and sprayed a burst of bullets in Grant’s direction. Stubby tackled Matt and the pair went down in a crush of swinging fist and grunts of pain. Stubby was every bit as large a man as Matt. It was not going to be a quick overpowering of the man.

Stubby rolled and slammed his fist into the side of Matt’s head. Matt blocked a second blow and swung out with the butt of the rifle. The hard plastic connected with Morgan’s head. He fell back dazed.

Matt slammed the rifle at his head again, but Stubby rolled away just in time to avoid the blow. He swung out his leg and connected with Matt’s knee. Matt went down, rolled and kicked out. His boot heel connecting with Stubby’s face.

He fell back dazed. Matt picked up the rifle and pointed it at him. He shook his head, trying to focus.  Finally, he sat up staring at Matt.

“Move again, I’ll shoot you.”

When he was sure, Stubby would remain still Matt got to his feet. He picked up the rope and quickly tied Stubby’s hands behind his back. When he was secure, Matt stepped over the man’s bound legs and checked Grant. He was barely breathing. He had a bullet hole in his chest where bubbles of blood hissed with air.

Matt rose just as the tent flap flew open and Tate rushed in with a gun in hand. The two women from the truck followed her ready to rumble.

“Well, I guess we got this done,” Tate announced.

The dark-haired woman stomped over to Stubby and kicked him in the balls. He howled in pain, rolled over, curling his knees against his chest trying to protect his crotch against another assault.

“Pig!” She pulled her leg back to kick again but Red stopped her.

“That’s enough.” She grabbed the gun from the dark-haired woman. She pointed it at Stubby’s temple and fired before anyone could stop her.

“What the fuck!” Matt grabbed the handgun from Red.

“He killed my husband. He raped Theresa and two of the other women.” She answered.

Tate stepped up to Matt and placed her hand on his chest and pushed him back from the body. “I would have done the same. Let’s get out of here.”

She grabbed Red’s arm and led the two women out of the tent. Matt followed after a backward glance at the two bodies in the tent.

Outside, Doc and his wife and three children were huddled together still looking a bit like deer in headlights. Besides, Red and Theresa seven women and two more children stood waiting for someone to speak.

Tate looked at Matt. “We have sixteen people here. What are we going to do with ‘em?”

Matt nodded toward the vehicles. “We take ‘em back to the camp.”

Tate laughed. “You just the fucking Pied Piper, Monroe.”

Red and Tate went back for the white rig and the guns stowed inside. By the time they returned Matt had drivers and guards assigned to trucks. None of the women had options so they agreed with Matt’s plan. Amid the supplies, clothes were sorted and distributed to those in need.  All were fed.

They gathered the remaining supplies, but left the tent as it was. No one wanted to salvage anything from the men other than their weapons. Matt had retrieved the guns as they walked out of the tent.

Tate led the caravan away from the site of the carnage and toward sanctuary.

Matt slipped back into the shadows. He lowered the body of the guard he had just killed to the ground. He retrieved the weapons and dragged the corpse behind a mound of rocks. He watched the pickup pull to the far side of the camp and park. He hoped Tate got Rodney secured and silenced as planned. If he didn’t fight back, Rodney might survive but, then what? What do I do with a man who took part in abducting and abusing women? Matt mentally shrugged, that decision would have to wait.

There were six men in camp according to Rodney. It sounded right with what Matt had seen. One guard down, five to go. Matt jogged into shadows around the back of the camp watching the two men standing at the edge of camp.

“I plan on getting to know that little red head tonight.” A big man with a thick black beard laughed.

The short guy retorted. “She’s a feisty bitch for sure. Think you can handle her?”

“Damned straight, Arty.” The beard laughed.

Arty laughed. “I gotta drop a load, so wait till I come back before you go courtin’, Josh. That bitch will take off your head if you try something without some backup.”

Matt watched a third guard near the truck where the women were held.  He decided he would be next neutralized.

The man walked from the front of the vehicle to the back. He glanced around the camp while he lit a cigarette. With the tip of the cigarette glowing red he paced to the front of the truck. He settled on the bumper smoking and stared out into the shadows.

Matt slipped to the side of the truck with the eyes of the women following him. He held his finger to his lips and crouched in the shadows of the truck and waited.

The guard rose and dropped the cigarette butt on the ground and smashed it into the dirt with his boot. He looked up at the women and slapped the screen. “What the fuck are you looking at, bitch?”

“Nothing. Absolutely nothing.” The red head snapped with a wicked grin.

The guard stepped to the back of the metal cage. Matt rose from the shadows and slit the guard’s throat. After a quick jab of the blade into his temple, he released the body and nudged it under the truck.

The red head rushed to the screen. “Help us!” She whispered. “Get us out of here.”

“Who has the key?” Matt slipped the guard’s handgun and knife through the bars into the cage. “Be damned careful who you shoot at with this. A friend of mine is out there. If you shoot her or me I’ll be pissed.”

“The big guy with the beard has the key.” She answered as she accepted the gun and knife. She passed the gun to another woman.

“Him and his friend will be coming to see you in a few minutes. See if you can get him to open the cage then kill them. I’m going after the last two.”

“I’ll take care of Black Beard.” The red head announced. “I want to be the one to kill him.”

“Who’s the boss and where is he?” Matt asked.

“He’s in the tent. His name is Gregory Grant. He’s always got a guy named Stubby with him.” Another woman answered. “There were only six left in camp until the truck came back.

“Don’t worry about the two in the truck. What about the old couple?” Matt asked.

“They’re keeping them alive because he’s a doctor. They’re being used to cook and take care of us. They won’t fight back because their grandkids are in here with us. Those assholes killed their folks.” The red head answered.

“That means there’s four left.” I’m going after the pair in the tent. If the other two come after you, kill them.”

The red head smiled. “We can take care of them.”

The woman with the black eye stepped closer. “Give me a chance and I’ll take care of Arty.” She hid the gun in the folds of her skirt.

Matt gave a quick nod and disappeared into the shadows again. He moved toward the tent until he heard the sound of angry voices. It came from the truck. A door slammed.

A man’s voiced cures. “Bitch!”

There was a muted thwack and then silence. Matt saw a single figure move into the shadows at the edge of camp. The slender figure reappeared heading toward the caged truck. Matt stepped back into the shadow of the truck and disappeared. I guess Rodney didn’t play nice.

Matt heard Tate’s footsteps before he saw her step into the moonlight. She startled when he appeared next to her.

“Rodney?” Matt whispered.

“He won’t trouble anyone else, again.” Tate whispered. “How many left?”

“Four. I’m going after two in the tent. There’s a big guy and a greasy little shit walked off that way to take a shit.” Matt whispered back as he pointed toward the back of the camp.

“I’ll find him.” Tate shrugged. Matt reached out, but Tate held up her hand. “I got this.”

Tate stepped into the brush heading toward the direction Matt had indicated the man had gone. She stopped and listened. Night sounds filled the evening. She moved slowly through the shadows created by the branches of the oaks overhead.

Matt slipped away from the truck, all the while watching the tent for the two survivalists described by the women. He took a quick survey of the camp then studied moved closer to the tents. From one he heard voices.

A gravely male voice ordered. “Take care of Doc and Granny. Make sure they’re chained to the car again. I don’t want them wandering around getting ideas.”

“They won’t. The kids are still locked in the truck.” A second male voice answered.

“I don’t care. I want ‘em secured.” The gruff voice ordered. “Have the rest of the men come back?”

“No. Not yet. Rodney said they picked up the soldier’s rig and were getting extra diesel from behind the shed.”

“Good. With the extra fuel we can make it to the camp by tomorrow afternoon. We’ll refuel then head out first thing in the morning. With this trip there’ll be enough women for a bit of comfort.” He laughed.

“Yes sir.” A second voice answered. “Moving the camp to the edge of Indian Springs was a good idea. If they’ve followed orders at campgrounds we’re set for the duration.”

“Duration, hell!” Grant answered. “Stubby, you don’t get it. It’s Armageddon. I’ve led the faithful into the Promised Land. We have thousands of acres fenced off and secured by the government. From the same fucks that wrought this plague on the good folks of Texas. It’s our duty to bring the weak and defenseless into the fold.”

“Yes sir.”

Matt reached for the flap of the tent with the automatic pointed at the two men sitting on camp chairs with a table and bottle between them in the room sized tent. “Keep your hands on the table, gentlemen.”

The second man rose to follow but found Matt rushing toward him. In a flash, he swung out his left leg and connected with Matt’s side. Matt doubled over, spun and kicked out himself. His foot connected with the man’s leg and the man went down. He tucked his body and rolled away coming up with his handgun in his hand. As he brought the barrel to aim, a shot rang out.

Matt saw a flash from the hay bale and threw up his hand in a careless wave. He hunkered down ready to follow the last man when three more shots rang out in the distance.

Snorts and stomping hooves filled the night. The sound of a thundering stampede of hooves filled the night. Another terrified scream was suddenly muffled by the sound of the charging buffalo.

Matt reached the corner of the shed and looked around in time to see a man disappear under the mass of moving bodies. The herd trampled over the ground where the man had been standing. The herd in mass, ran past the building, made a wide arc and moved off into the distance.

When the sound of the herd disappeared, Matt made his way to where the man had disappeared amid the stampede. There was little left of him. The chest was crushed, while the man’s arms and legs were broken and bent in odd angles.

Matt turned toward the hay bales and double clicked his LED light. Tate blinked her light back. Matt watched as a slender shadow appeared from the top of hay. She looked toward the retreating herd one last time then slid down the side of the bale.  She began making her way toward the light then stopped at the body of the man she had shot. The bullet had gone into the middle of the chest and blown out the back of his spine.

When Matt approached, she asked. “Well, did we kill ‘em all?”

Matt answered. “Except for one, I left strung up a ways back.”

Tate looked at the body on the ground. The lower jaw had begun to work spastically. “Now that’s fucked up.”

Matt squatted down next to the body to get a better look. “I thought it took a bite or blood to get the virus.”

Tate let out a long breath and whispered. “You know what that means?”

Matt looked confused. “Not exactly, no.”

Tate gagged. “It’s air born. The virus has mutated and we’re all going to come back.” She leaned over with her hand on her knees taking deep breaths fighting the clinching of her stomach. She could feel the nausea begin to fade. “The world is fucked.”

“Looks like it.” Matt pulled his blade and slid the ten inch steel into the attacker’s eye socket and twisted. “Let’s go talk to a man about those women and kids.”

As Matt led Tate to the man hanging from the oak limb, he retrieved the weapons he had hidden. He only bothered with the handgun from the trampled man. The rifle barrel had bent under hooves of the herd.

When they got to the oak tree, Tate gasped when she saw a man swinging from the oak limb. The whites of his eyes glowed in the shadows of the night. He was terrified. Matt got to his side and untied the bandana and pulled the end of the rag from the man’s mouth.

“Talk.” Matt ordered.

The man moaned. “I can’t feel my hands. Cut me down.”

Tate walked up and slapped the man’s face. “Quit whining. Now tell us about the women in the cage, asshole.”

The man looked panicked. “They’re for the camp. We were alone. Jed said we needed women. It’s his place.”

Matt stood back and folded his arms across his chest.  Tate leaned closer with an angry scowl.  “What kind of place?”

“Camp.  He’s a survivalist sort of.  We went out to shoot guns and had a couple whores….”  His voice trailed off when he noticed the look on Tate’s face.

She slammed her fist into the man’s gut. “You fuckers kidnapped ‘em?”

“Well?” The man began, but Matt grabbed his face in a vice-like grip. “You’re going to tell us all about the camp. How many men are went on this little kidnapping raid and who’s in charge? Where they’re camped, now.” He leaned close and spoke softer yet. “If you don’t tell me everything, I’ll slit you open and leave you tied to a tree with your own guts.”

The man nodded his head. “I’ll tell you!”

An hour later, Tate, Matt and Rodney, the kidnapper, were headed back to the camp where the women were being held. Rodney drove, Tate sat next to him in the truck cab with a gun pressed into his rib. Matt stood in the truck bed with his boonie hat pulled down over his face.

“Make this good or I’ll start shooting and you’ll be the first one I take out.” Tate ordered.

Matt studied the camp as they approached. The only people they had to watch for were an elderly couple that had been in the Oldsmobile. Their daughter and two grandkids were in the cage so easily controlled.

Six survivalists remained in camp to control the old couple and the caged women. Rodney slowed when he neared the camp and saw the first guard. Matt slipped from the back of the truck.

“Don’t do anything stupid and you might live through this.” Tate advised in an angry whisper.

“Sammy? That you?” Rodney asked as he neared a man standing guard at the entrance of a farmhouse driveway.

“Sure is. Where’s the rest of the men?” Sammy asked.

“Bringing up the big truck soon as they syphon diesel from another truck. They’ll catch up soon enough.” Rodney glanced toward Tate.

“Good deal. We need all the fuel we can get.” Sammy laughed. “Head on in. Cows are fed and it’s almost time to check out one or two.” He laughed wickedly.

Tate jammed the gun in Rodney’s rib. “Move out, she hissed.

Rodney pulled away. Tate glanced back and saw a shadow swallow Sammy in a deadly embrace.

Matt hurried after the two men sent into the woods. After a five minute sprint through the dark, he heard them. Slowly, he advanced. He saw their silhouettes against the fading night sky. They carried rifles held to their shoulders, fanning the barrel back and forth as if monsters would jump from every shadow. They drew close to a massive stand of mesquite.

Matt grinned. HE was the monster, they were expecting. He slipped deeper into the gloom of the mesquite bushes and picked up a rock. He glanced at the pair then tossed the stone to the opposite side of the pair. Both men stopped, frozen in place.

After a brief whispering conference, one of the men headed toward the sound where the rock had landed. The second man stood still waiting for his companion to check out the noise. His hands trembled holding the rifle as he moved his weapon covering his cohort.

Matt stepped back into the shadows. It took several seconds to circle to the back of the cluster of mesquite. He stood so close to the man’s side he could hear the man’s raspy breathing. Matt side-stepped behind him, pulled his head up, and drove the blade up into the flesh under the man’s chin. He pulled the inch blade free.

Without a sound, the man relaxed against Matt’s chest. Matt grabbed the rifle strap before the weapon could fall from his fingers. He pulled the body back into the brush and slowly eased it down into the dirt. He placed his foot on the dead man’s back and rolled him under the brush.

Footsteps in the dark alerted Matt of the second man’s approach. Matt stepped behind a forked cedar as he listened to the man draw closer.

An aggravated whisper called out. “Asshole, where the fuck are you?  Get over here!”

Matt whispered. “Help me.”

“Where are you?” The man stopped and whispered back.

“Here.” Matt whispered.

The man took a tentative step forward, then another and another. Suddenly Matt slammed the butt of the confiscated rifle in the man’s head. The man went down without a sound out cold. Matt took less than a minute to string the man up under a massive oak limb with a length of cord. The man’s feet dangled inches from the ground when Matt was done.

After taking a few seconds to search the man’s pockets, Matt fished out a used handkerchief. He shoved it in the man’s mouth, pulled a second from his own pocket and forced it into the man’s open mouth and tied it behind his head. He gave the man a shove and walked away. He picked up both rifles and handguns. He slid them under the brush where he’d left the other man’s body.

Matt glanced toward the road and realized he was less than a quarter mile from the shack. The moon was up full and bright. He sprinted after the two men sent to circle around the front of the shed.

Tate lay out on the hay bale nearly forty feet from the corner of the shed. She could see the hint of light from the lantern inside through the weathered boards. She had a clear view from the roadway to the pasture behind the shed. She kept her eyes moving, examining every shadow, looking for movement from the road to the woods.

Suddenly she noticed half a dozen dark shapes appear from the woods to lumber across the pasture toward the shed. Tate watched the four legged, short-horned, thick bodies plod toward a water tank. She heard a nearby snort and realized another dozen animals rounded the hay bales heading off to meet the rest of the herd.

She studied the shapes and decided they were buffalo, not cattle. She knew of a couple ranches in the Hill Country supplied buffalo meat to specialty restaurants in Houston and Austin. This could be one of them. Getting back to the truck might be interesting with a herd of buffalo to avoid. They were unpredictable and would kill if they felt threatened.

Tate saw a sudden glint of light from the road. She squinted and made out two bent shadows rushing across the blacktop.

Tate followed the moving silhouettes with the rifle scope as they sprinted toward the shed. The men made it across the open road and squatted at the corner of the fence pointing rifles toward the shed. After a full minute, one of the men rose, rushed to the corner and disappeared into the shadows.

Once she turned back on the blacktop, she slowed and pulled out a map and tossed it into Matt’s lap. “Figure out where we are and the best way to get to Hondo.”

“Hondo is back toward San Antonio.” Matt protested.

“No shit, Sherlock.” Tate snapped. “I told you I need a new ride.”

“How do you know you can find a truck there?” Matt asked.

“There’s a Mack dealer there. Saw the trucks with my dad a few years back. Dozens of rigs lined up out in the middle of nowhere. It’s one of the biggest dealerships in Texas.”

“It’s at least sixty miles.” Matt protested as he examined the map.

“I imagine that’s about right.” Tate answered.

“I don’t suppose I can talk you out of it.” Matt argued.


“Alright, then I suggest we weave through the back road until we get to FM 426 then catch that into Hondo.” He took the time to designate the route he had picked out then finished by adding. “If that works for you, take the next right.”

Tate downshifted, as they approached the turn off. “Sounds good.”

Matt asked. “Where is the dealership?”

“South side of town.”

Tate downshifted then turned on a narrow blacktop. She accelerated, clutched and shifted until she was rolling along at forty miles per hours. The white truck rumbled down the highway all alone passing stalled and abandoned vehicles.

Tate glanced at Matt. “I figured we’d hold up tonight then head into town in the morning. By the time we get there, the light will be going and I don’t want to go into a populated area in the dark. I’ve done that before and it’s ugly. I got a place in mind that is remote enough to be safe.”

Matt looked around the truck and at the woman sitting next to him. “Why did you come after me?”

“Simple. Those people need you.” Tate answered.

“I don’t know about that.” Matt whispered morosely as he stared out the side window.

She nudged Matt’s arm and nodded toward the road ahead. “What do we have here?”

Matt studied the line of vehicles moving at a slow even pace toward them. Tate reached into her duffle bag and handed him binoculars. He brought the glasses to his eyes and studied half a dozen vehicles heading their way.

The lead vehicle, a pickup with big tires and a roll bare had two men in the cab and two rifle-toting, rough-looking men in the back. Another truck, a lot older and in really bad shape followed the first.

Behind the second truck was a flatbed with a cage up the sides and over the top. Canvas had been stretched across the top. Inside the truck stood women and a few children while on either side of the vehicle walked men. Platforms had been welded onto the back and side of the vehicle for the men to ride on if they picked up speed. Behind the open bed truck was a SUV, an old style Oldsmobile with a glistening paint job splattered with smears of dark brown. The last vehicle was another pickup with two people in back clinging to the hood of the cab.

“What do you think?” Tate asked.

“Pull in to that drive near the shed up ahead.” Matt said.

“Do you think they’ll attack us?”

“They aren’t making any moves, but I don’t like the looks of those women in the cage. Guns out, we need to look ready for trouble.” Matt opened the passenger door and draped his elbow over the door with the military weapon and his garb in plain sight. He threw his hat at Tate. “Put that on and don’t let ‘em get a good look at your face. We don’t want them to know you’re a woman.”

Tate scowled, but put the hat on and pulled it down to hide her face. She held the steering wheel with her knee while she slid her arms into a camouflaged shirt to cover her arms. She picked up the Mossberg rifle and propped it against her leg with the barrel sticking out the window.

Tate down-shifted and let the truck slow. The caravan of vehicles continued to approach. She glanced at Matt. He looked mean and dangerous as he hung over the opened door with the automatic weapon in hand. He relaxed his angle and the barrel of the weapon drifted toward the lead driver.

“ Pull over and stop. Let the lead truck come to us.” Matt ordered. “Pick up the radio when they can see and act like you having a conversation.”

“Got it.” She answered as she down-shifted again and slowed to a stop letting the truck idle.

The convoy of vehicles stopped about twenty feet from the big rig. The driver opened the door and stepped out. He wore forest camo and carried a hunting rifle. He pushed the brim of his hunting had up to expose a faced lined and darkened by lots of time in the sun and outdoors. After examining Matt for a full minute, he called out.

“Is that what the Army is driving these days?”

“You folks doing okay?” Matt asked as he watched the men walking along side of the cage jump to the platforms and start speaking to the women and children. The women in mass stepped back from the men and clustered toward the opposite side of the truck.

The driver scowled. “As good as we can be with every dead fuck in the area trying to eat us.”

“Where you folks headed?” Matt asked.

“Got kin up in the National Forest. We’re headed up that way if we can make it through.” The man answered. “Where are the rest of your Army boys?” He looked around as if worried.

Matt laughed. “Closer than you think. We’re looking for a place to hold up tonight.” He nodded at the truck. “Who you got in the cage?”

“Wives and kids. We’re keeping ‘em safe.” The man answered. “Got miles to go. Maybe we’ll be seeing you around soldier.”

“A good chance.” Matt growled. “A damned good chance.”

The man got back in the truck and put the truck in gear. They headed out with the other vehicles following close behind. One by one the vehicles passed. Tate and Matt watched the procession. As the cage passed a red headed woman in back mouthed the same words over and over again.

“Your shopping trip is going to have to wait.” Matt muttered as he flopped down into the seat.

“I didn’t like the looks of that bunch.” Tate announced. “And it sure didn’t look like those women were happy being in that fucking cage.”

“I saw a padlock on the door of it.” Matt answered. “It’ll take ‘em less than a mile for them to figure out we’re not part of a unit. They’ll send someone back to take care of us and maybe grab the rig and our guns.”

“It’ll be dark by then.”

Matt made a quick survey of the area then grinned at Tate. “Perfect. Let’s park the truck over there.” He pointed at the nearby shed.

They parked the rig outside the small shed. Tate shared a meal with Matt while he outlined plan. The shed was three sided shelter with an opening at each end of on the front wall. It included three stalls with several hay bales stacked in the first two stalls while the last was empty.

Matt walked into the stall in the darkest corner of the building. They used hay stuffed in a jacket and shirt from the truck to create the illusion of men sitting on bales of hay around a small lantern. Tate adjusted the hat Matt had given her on the top of one of the hay figures to complete the illusion. They turned down the small LED lantern and slipped out of the shed.

Matt led Tate to row of massive round hay bale thirty feet from the back of the shed and beyond a wooden fence. He gave her a leg up. “Lie down and don’t give them a silhouette to shoot at. Don’t come down, we’re not alone out here.”

“What do you mean?” She asked.

Matt ignored her question. “Use that silencer if you can get a clean shot. Just don’t shoot me.”

“Fuck you.” Tate whispered as she settled between the two bales and stretched out on the rounded hay.

“You may be here all night. Whatever happens, stay there until morning or I come get you.” Matt ordered.

Tate whispered. “There! Look. I see lights, a couple miles down the road.”

They watched the lights for a minute. The lights slowed to a crawl. “This is it.”

Matt slipped into the trees and ran toward the lights. He jogged until he was half a mile from the shed. He watched as the vehicle in the distance stop and raised his binoculars. He watched six men climb out of the vehicle and gather for a short conference.

Matt glanced over his shoulder and could see the dim glow of the lantern through the back opening in the shed. He squatted down into the tall grass at the side of the road. He watched one of the men direct two men one way, another two in yet another direction and the last man followed him when he moved out.

Two of the men crossed the road and disappeared into the brush to work their way to the far side of the shed. The second pair climbed over the fence and headed into the woods to circle around the back of the shed. The last two men stepped into the ditch along-side the fence and crept toward the shed.

The leader, anxious to get to the task soon outpaced his companion. Just as the man lagging behind passed, Matt rose from the grass, grabbed the man’s head under the chin and shoved the blade of his K-Bar under his chin into his brain. Matt eased him into the grass. He picked up the rifle and his handgun behind a fence post.

Matt turned and disappeared into the brush. He ran back into woods and made a mad dash to outdistance the leader.

The leader walked forward with an arrogance that belayed confidence in numbers. He didn’t bother to check on the man supposedly following.

Matt got to the tree he had staked out earlier and peaked around the trunk of the spreading oak. The limbs reaching toward the road made long deep shadows in the waning light.

Suddenly the leader’s steps slowed as he noticed he could no longer hear his companion behind him.

Ten feet from the tree he turned and whispered into the dark. “Arnold? Where in the fuck are you, you idiot. I told you to stay close.” He turned to retrace his footsteps.

Matt lean around the tree and hissed. “Psssst.”

The leader turned back and stopped mid-step when Matt’s knife appeared in his chest. The leader fell to his knees, looking down at the blade sticking from his body. Matt walked to the man and grabbed his knife. He pulled it from the man’s chest and drove it into his eye. The body collapsed into the grass. Matt turned back to the woods and disappeared back into the shadows.

Tate gave Matt thirty minutes from dawn’s first light.  When he didn’t show up she cranked the engine of the white rig and headed across the highway to the overgrown cattle guard and the road.  Once across the guard the road quickly disappeared. She drove for ten minutes around massive stands of mesquite, rocks and dry gulleys.   Amid the weeds and scrub grass she saw the first signs of blood and gore. The scattering of blood and remains made her breath catch. Tate downshifted and stopped. She grabbed a small pair of binoculars from her bag and studied the scattering of blood and bones.  When she scanned the area she saw several infected surrounding a cluster of mesquite.

At the edge of the cluster greenery, she studied a length of bone.  She saw a split hoof at the end of the leg bone being devoured by an infected.  As she looked more closely, she saw more and more remains of a massive feral hog. Several more infected followed running piglets.  As Tate examined the area, she noticed movement amid the cluster of mesquite where the infected continued to press closer.  She studied movement and thought she saw the pink flesh of a human arm.  She looked again and saw it was a hand lying on something amid the brush.  A finger twitched.

She saw a glint of light.  A ray of sunlight flickered off of glass.  It was a bottle, a liquor bottle.  With a grunt of disgust, she snarled.  “Ought to leave his drunk-ass to be eaten.”

He must have crawled under the mesquite and the dead-heads were distracted by the feral hog and piglets.  She realized there were at least a dozen infected pressing closer to the brush pile.  The rest of the pack of infected were gathered to one side of the mesquite focused on the buffet of pork.  From her vantage point Tate looked as if there was a trail through the brush to the back side of the stand.

She took a deep breath and turned off the engine.  “Come on, dick-head.  Talk me out of this.” She whispered to herself.  “He could be lying in the brush dead.”  She gathered her handgun and machete.  She stuffed an extra magazine in her hip pocket.  “Tell me I’m not doing this.”  She mumbled before she opened the door to the cab.  “Fuck!”

She slid to the ground and quietly closed the truck door.  She bent over and duck-walked toward the back side of the cluster of mesquite away from the infected cluster around a squealing piglet.  She moved slowly between rocks and brush with huge thorns across the rough terrain.

Tate rounded a clump of mesquite and stood face to face with an infected man in a plaid shirt and jeans.  He reached out and opened his mouth just as she slammed the machete into the top of his skull.  He fell like a sack of potatoes and remained still.  Tate jerked the machete free then stepped over him and moved around the next stand of brush.

With the death of the last piglet, the infected were losing interest in the scattered remains.  She picked up the pace and crossed the last fifty feet to the back of the mesquite warren where she had seen the bottle glistening in the morning sun.  She bent down and looked into the narrow passage way.  “Hey, dumbass!  Get your drunk ass out here!”

Matt groaned.  He thought he heard a voice but he couldn’t be sure.  His head ached.  He looked down and remembered d he’d crawled in the mesquite labyrinth and was trapped.  He couldn’t fight dozens of the infected alone.

“Dumbass!  Get the fuck up and crawl this way. We don’t have much time before the lunch crowd come looking for us.”

He knew that voice; the Orange Bitch.  “Hey!  I’m here!”  He yelled.

“Shut the fuck up, you asshole.”  Tate whispered.

Matt looked from side to side then asked.  “Where are you?”

Tate was so frustrated for a heartbeat she considered raising her gun and shooting Matt. “Behind you.  Slink around the back of that brush and make it quick.  The deadheads out in front of you are getting restless.”

Matt grabbed his pack and rifle, turned around and crawled to a thinning curtain of vegetation he realized Tate stood behind it.  He got to his knees and crawled under the upper branches and thorny brush.  “Ouch.  Fuck.  Damn it.”

Tate used the machete to clear branches and moved toward Matt.  The blade came down just as Matt stuck his head out from behind a clump of thorny green.  The brush fell against his face and shoulder.

“Whoa!”  Matt startled. “You almost took off my ear.”

“Come on dumbass.  You’re lucky it wasn’t your head.”  Tate grumbled.

Tate turned on her heels and headed back through the brush and briars.  She didn’t bother to see if Matt followed just expected him to.

“I need a drink.”  Matt mumbled.

Tate stopped and turned around to face him.  “You have all those people counting on you and the first time no one is looking, you get drunk.  I don’t know what kind of dumbass you are, but it’s time for you, man up.” She slammed her fist into his chest.  “If you get me bit, I will shoot you.  Now, shut up and keep up!”

Matt follow as guilt silenced his protest.  She was right.  He was drunk when he led those infected to that road block.  If he hadn’t been tipping the bottle he would have noticed long before he drove up on it.  If any of those people died it was on him.  They had a right to go after him.

By the time Tate worked her way back to the edge of the maze of mesquite two infected were heading their way.  The first was an old man in boxer shorts with the remains of a bathrobe still clinging to his emaciated body.  His belly was distended and a brown sludge trickled down his legs.  Even behind Tate, Matt could smell the stench wafting up from the walking corpse.

“Oh fuck.” He whispered and tried to breathe through his mouth.

Tate walked up to the old man and used the gun to blow a small hole in his forehead.  He went down and a farmer in bib overalls stumbled closer.  Tate fired, took him down and turned to Matt.  “Keep up.”

She started jogging straight for the white truck in the distance.  Matt refused to let the dehydration and pounding inside his head slow his steps.  He felt pretty sure, as mad as the woman was, she would probably leave him.

When they got to the truck, it was all Matt could do to keep from puking.  He stumbled around the front of the truck while Tate climbed in the driver’s side of the big rig and cranked the engine.  Matt opened the door and pulled himself into the seat and slammed the door.  He let his head fall back against the headrest.

Tate reached behind the seat and dropped two bottles of water in his lap.  She picked up another, opened it and took a long drink. She ignored the infected that had started following them and now surrounded the truck and slapping hands on the doors and hood.

Tate glanced at Matt.

“You man, are a grade-A, fuck-up. You have forty people looking to you to lead and protect them and you’re a fuckin’ drunk.  God knows why. You saved my life and now we’re even.  Clean slate.”

“You don’t understa….”

“Can it!  I don’t give a shit what your drama is.  The people at the camp are looking to you to lead them.  Either step up and lead or get the hell out of my truck.”  She looked totally disgusted.

Matt sat there for a long time without saying a word.  Finally he spoke. His voice was strong and succinct.  “You’re right.  Everything you said is true and my shit has cost us the Humvee. I owe you.”

“No. We’re even with who saved who, but you do owe those people better than you’ve been giving.”

“You’re right. I’ll do better when we get back.” Matt answered.

“First you’re going to help me.  And if you’re real good and don’t fuck this up, I know where you can get another Humvee.  A really nice one.”  Tate answered with a grin.

“Okay.  I’m in. What do I have to do?”

Tate grinned.  “First, you call the camp and tell them you’re safe.” She tossed a radio in Matt’s lap.  “Next, tell them we’re going on a supply run. And as for you, the entire fucking state is now considered dry and you better remember it.  I’ll shoot you in the ass if I catch even a beer in your hand.”

Matt called the camp. When Lawson answered he stated he’d lost the vehicle and was going to try to replace it.  Larry got on the radio and asked questions, but Matt shut him down.

“Hamilton and I will be back tomorrow.  Don’t take chances and keep the camp safe.”  Matt instructed. When he was finished, Tate laughed at the hang dog look on his face.  “Can we go now?” He finally asked.

Tate cranked the engine of the white truck. She slammed the beast in gear and rolled forward.  Three bodies slid under the front tires of the rig.  She made a wide circle around a small cluster of mesquite and headed back to the road leaving the remaining infected in the dust.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”