The Hunters Trail Part one, an Aftermath Story


The Cowboy’s Life

The bawl of a steer
To a cowboy’s ear
Is music of sweetest strain;
And the yelping notes
Of the gray coyotes
To him are a glad refrain.

And his jolly songs
Speed him along
As he thinks of the little gal
With golden hair
Who is waiting there
At the bars of the home corral.

For a kingly crown
In the noisy town
His saddle he would n’t change;
No life so free
As the life we see
‘Way out on the Yaso range.

His eyes are bright
And his heart as light
As the smoke of his cigarette;
There’s never a care
For his soul to bear,
No trouble to make him fret.

The rapid beat
Of his bronco’s feet
On the sod as he speeds along,
Keeps living time
To the ringing rhyme
Of his rollicking cowboy’s song.

Hike it, cowboys,
For the range away
On the back of a bronc of steel,
With a careless flirt
Of the raw-hide quirt
And the dig of a roweled heel.

The winds may blow
And the thunder growl
Or the breeze may safely moan;
A cowboy’s life
Is a royal life,
His saddle his kingly throne.

Saddle up, boys,
For the work is play
When love’s in the cowboy’s eyes,
When his heart is light
As the clouds of white
That swim in the summer skies
~ traditional, from Songs of the Cowboys, 1921 cowboypoetry.com

It was almost noon when he came riding into town, a wide shouldered man with a flat belly and pistols on his hips. The cowboy hat he wore was battered and pulled low over his eyes to shade them from sun. He swayed in the saddle in time with the horses motion as if born there. His jeans were well worn and the shirt he wore was faded from sunlight.

The horse he rode was spirited and colored like storm clouds. A rifle in a fringed scabbard was lashed to the saddle just in easy reach of his hand.
Behind him another eight horses on leads followed along, two of the horses had boxes and bags lashed to wooden frames on their backs. The cowboy and his horses wove through the long abandoned and dead vehicles that littered the street.

Porters town, what was left of it, was centered along the old main street and two streets to either side where most of the residents now lived. The buildings he could see were built of either brick or stone. From the streaks and pits in both th e stone and brick it was obvious tht they had been built pre-dead

Windows that had been broken out had been covered in opaque thick plastic, Tin sheets or wood to keep the elements out. What little intact glass there was, was dirty, the awnings tattered. The bulk of the buildings had been built in the early 20th century in a style that evoked nostalgia for an age that Hollywood had more a hand in creating than History.

Jeremiah Rogers stood in front of the Masonic Lodge, a box like native stone building, watching his eyes wide with surprise of all the things he had thought he might see again, a Cowboy on a horse was at the very bottom of the list. To be honest he hadn’t really even had it on the list at all.

The cowboy rode up and reined his horse to a stop looking around at the men and women who were emerging from the buildings on both sides of the old crumbling street watching silently. The last time any one had seen a horse was at least eight years ago and for most of them it had been in movies. The kids, the few that were in sight, had never seen a horse before at all, though they had heard them mentioned occasionally. They stared in rapt fascination at the huge beast and its rider.

“Just passing through, but I would love to do a bit of trading for some supplies” The cowboy said gazing at Jeremiah, then his gaze slid to Jeremiah’s left and rested on the Shapely figure of Ursula Quin the most sought after Single woman in Porters town.

“Where are you from?” Jeremiah asked as those intense looking gray eyes came back to rest on Jeremiah.

“Originally Texas, now I’m heading to Thebes” The man said as he pulled off his white straw hat and raked fingers through his sweat slicked dark hair.

“If your heading to Egypt your horses are in for a hell of a Swim” Jeremiah observed.

The man smiled at him it was a hard, but amused smile . “I have it on good authority that a bridge is being built.” The man said as he leaned forward in the saddle as if born to it resting his crossed wrists on the saddle horn. “Didn’t expect to see so many people here.” He commented eyes sweeping the crowd.

“Not surprised, there aint to many other people for a hundred miles around here.” Jeremiah said looking up squinting his eyes against the sunlight. “its one of the reasons we call the area around here the empty.” The Empty had been reclaimed by nature and wild life, and a few desperate people who either couldn’t or didn’t want anything to do with society.

The Cowboy didn’t say anything but Jeremiah had the impression he had filled that name away and wouldn’t forget it. Probably didn’t forget much come to that.

“Looks like you folks made it through the day better than most” the Cowboy said. No one needed him to explain which day he was talking about. There was only one day, The day the dead rose and began to slaughter humanity.

“The town made it through the Day pretty well,” Jeremiah said with a depreciating shrug. “ We never saw more than a hundred of those things at any one time, mostly it was just one or two that wandered in from where ever. Then one day they were gone and people started showing up. Aint the same town it used to be,” Jeremiah said. The bitterness in his tone was almost unheard.

“The name is Darius” The stranger said leaning down and extending a hand. Jeremiah stepped forward and shook with the man “ Jeremiah Rogers, Welcome to Porters Town.”

That wasn’t what it had been called back before the world ended, but it was the name they used now. “What kind of supplies are you looking for?” he said moving past what his town had become with relief. That kind of talk might bring trouble and he didn’t want to deal with it.

“ Bullets, Beans and Bacon.” Darius said as he swung a leg over the saddle and dropped lightly to the ground.

“First thing in the morning, every day, we have a farmers Market” Jeremiah said. “Bullets are kind of hard to come by these days, Bacon well some folks have pigs, but Beans and other things we have in plenty.”

The cowboy had the hard

He noted the loops on the mans gun belt each one filled with a very large bullet, there had to be sixty plus rounds on his belt alone, which was more bullets than Jeremiah had seen in one place in a few years now. “Mind if I ask where you got horses, I would have thought the Walking dead would have gotten them all.”

“Spent a week rounding them up down near Knoxville. Took me a month to break this one to the saddle again” Darius said gently stroking the horses’ head. The horse snorted lifting its head then placed it on Darius shoulder for a moment. “ He’s a Nokota, one hell of a good breed. I will work with the others when I get to Thebes.” Truth was he worked with one each morning and had for the last month and a half as he traveled towards Thebes.

Jeremiah had no idea what a Nokota was, but apparently this guy felt it was impressive. Just seeing horses again was enough to impress Jeremiah.

“I bet there’s a few men that would give you everything you want for just one horse” Jeremiah said.

Before Darius could respond a kid with wild dark hair wearing rough home made overalls darted out from the crowd of people behind Jeremiah.

“Are you a real cowboy?” Ten year old Raymond Porter asked as he came to a stop and stared up at Darius then looked excitedly at the horse. He had heard stories about cowboys from his Dad and some of the old folks when they swapped stories down at the get together’s at the creek. He had heard all about Doc Holliday the deadly dentist, Wyatt Earp and Bill Hickock amongst others. Now seeing this man on his horse Raymonds imagination was running full tilt conjuring up images of all the far away places and adventures a horse could take him if he were a cowboy.

“As real as they come” Darius said smiling kindly down at the boy. “been riding since I was younger than you, worked my families ranch and did the Rodeo for several years before the Dead rose.”

“Cool!” Raymond said awed like only a child could be. “Can I ride it” the boy asked almost bouncing up and down in his excitement.

“Raymond get back here, you know your not supposed to talk with strangers” A thin dishwater blonde woman, with a rich figure said as she stepped through the crowd.

“But mom…”

“Your mom is a wise lady Raymond, not all strangers are nice like me. Listen to her” Darius said flashing a very white smile at the boy. If he was bothered by the distrustful look Raymonds mother gave him it didn’t show.

The woman took her sons hand and hauled him safely back into the crowd. “to be honest we haven’t seen to many outsiders in the last few years and most of the ones we have seen were less than neighborly” Jeremiah said, his eyes darting to the pistols Darius wore.

“I’ve met more than a few people like that since the dead rose” Darius said. “but there are some good folks out there too, helping each other to rebuild.”

“Shit that aint happened around here, there used to be a town about ten miles that way” Jeremiah said waving a hand to the west. We tried to offer them help and they shot at our messengers so we let them be. Stupid assholes ended up either starving to death or those that didn’t starve got carried off by sickness. Maybe ten ended up here, the rest,” he said shaking his head sadly “Two hundred five people all gone.”

“Seen that too” Darius replied glancing again at Ursula. “you said there’s a market open in the morning.”

“yes, you can find just about anything you might need there.” Jeremiah said nodding as he rubbed at his stubble covered jaw with a thumb

“ Where can I get a bit to bite to eat around here and where is a good place to camp that’s close to the market and wont cause a problem for you folks” Daris

“Where did you get that” A surly looking man with thinning blond hair, and a powerful frame that was slowly going soft with age said emerging from the crowd, pointing to the Rifle scabbard and the brand proudly on display.

“Why?” Darius asked calmly ready to draw a pistol and get out of town fast if need be.

“I’ve seen that symbol painted on a few trailers and building walls all through Missouri and even Tennessee. Met some people says it’s the sign of some boogey man. Other folks say he is some kind of hero that folks called the Hunter.”

Darius laughed with real amusement thankfully the man didn’t take it as mocking or an insult. “I’ve heard a few of those stories, and stories are what most of them are.” Darius said with a shrug then lied casually. “I found the scabbard a while back. So I cant tell you much about the symbol other than its an old brand I used to see on some Cattle and horses back in the day.” none of that last part was a lie, Darius thought. He had no desire to talk about those days or to become the Hunter again.

The man watched him for a moment then looked questioningly at Jeremiah.

“Well word of caution Friend, don’t let Dutch and his crew see that brand” Jeremiah told Darius.a frown flitted across his face for a second.

“why?” Darius asked hoping he wasn’t going to hear the past had caught up with him. there was only one group of people who had a burning hatred for that brand. A well earned hatred at that.

“Him and his crew came rolling into town a couple of years back, not the kind of folks you want living next door and all, but what can you do?” Jeremiah said with a shrug. There was nothing lighthearted in his eyes Darius noted. “One night we were all gathered down at the Creek having a Birthday Party, the creek is where we go to have get together’s and such.

Well Dutch and some of his crew showed up, trying to make nice. Sometime during the party, Dutch starts telling folks about this guy they call the Hunter.” Darius noticed the way Jeremiahs eyes tightened and the muscles in his jaw jumped every time he said the name Dutch. “See Dutch was part of some outfit that this ‘Hunter’ took a personal dislike to and was killing them off in Job lots.

According to Dutch, the Hunter always left that ‘brand’ painted on something every time he killed some of Dutch’s friends.” Jeremiah looked around. “they didn’t take to kindly to another stranger who came into town a month back who talked about the Hunter like he was some kind of hero. Poor bastard got the hell beat out of him.”

“Ike put a stop to it though.” The man standing beside Jeremiah pointed out.

The expression on Darius face never changed but inside he felt a slow boil begin. I am not here to deal with Former thugs of the warlord, supplies and nothing else. he told himself. .

“Yeah I will give them that, Ike and Dutch pretty much keep their people in line. Ike is Dutch’s right hand man, A mean looking SOB, but he tends to keep the rougher gang members under control.” Jeremiah explained. “Him and Dutch are as polite as they come, and keep a firm hand on their people. I heard one of their men saying that Dutch, Ike and another guy, Jones I think, had been part of some Special Forces unit or something. The guy was complaining about how tight a ship Dutch runs.”

Darius frowned thoughtfully, during his stay on Sullivan he had actually talked several times to Proctor, who had been Kronnen’s right hand man and betrayed him in the end. Proctor had mentioned that there towards the end, Kronnen had been using two former Guard SF men to put together and train two Action, or A teams. Those two teams had vanished during the final days of fighting. Still not your business and if they are behaving themselves maybe Dutch and his crew are trying to turn over a new leaf.

“I take it you don’t like them.” Darius asked with out pause.

“Not really, keep in mind they haven’t really caused many problems for us, they just rub me the wrong way.” Jeremiah said with a slight shrug.

“Dutch is polite, scary polite, rarely raises his voice but his men jump when he speaks. And if one of his men steps out of line, he is merciless. Last fall two of his men decided, they were going to rape a sixteen year old girl. I don’t know how word got back to him, But Dutch shows up and drags one of the men off the girl, shoots them both in the crotch then has them dragged back to that old house he stays in and hung up out front as a warning to his men.”

“Sounds like a hard case with some morals” Darius said with out any real feeling. Kronnen used to kill rapists in the ranks all the while keeping a sex slaves around his camps. If you’d had skills Kronnen and his group needed your were a citizen, if you didn’t your only recourse was to serve as a pleasure companion. Men or women it didn’t matter. Though men had,more often than not been sent packing.

“Seems that way yeah, but he is like a used car salesman, there’s a stone cold killer behind that smile and the judging by the stories I’ve over heard his men telling on occasion…” He shrugged. “He aint what you would call a good man that’s for sure.”

“Not my business anyway” Darius said forcing a smile. He wasn’t going to let himself get drawn into the Hunters world again. “Just point me to a good hot meal I don’t have to cook and a campsite and I will be a happy man”

“Jeans Diner, best food in town.” Darius knew from his travels that one of the first business’s to start back up were diners, followed by Inns, at least along the convoy routes in Jared Stones Safe zone. None of he diners he had visited had a huge menu and the food and food choices were limited but a man on the trail wasn’t picky. “We only have three places to eat out at. not much variety on the menu’s. But Jeans is the best of the lot.” Jeremiah said “ as for a campsite I think you should be camping down near Flats creek, its not to far from where the Market sets up. I can show you where its at after you eat.” Jeremiah said.

“sounds like a plan, or as they used to say in Westerns” amusement twinkled in Darius’s eyes. “ Much obliged pardner.”

Jeans Diner was just past the old Boutique, Two large cement planters filled with herbs and flowers flanked the door. it looked like some one had replaced the glass in the window with a clear plastic, not the cheap plastic sheeting, but a clear plastic 4×8 ½ thick sheet. The original door was long gone, replaced with well crafted hand made wooden door.

Darius ignored the people who had followed him down the street. that was something else that happened a lot when a stranger entered town, especially a stranger leading horses. He tied off the horses to the bumper of an old delivery truck, pulled his saddle bags off and slung them over one shoulder before he stepped onto the sidewalk that some one went to pains to keep clean, then pushed the door open and stepped inside.

Darius slapped his gloves against his jeans knocking some of the dust off, giving his eyes time to adjust to the dimmer light inside. not that his gloves were going to do much to remove even a quarter of the dirt and dust he had acquired over the last few weeks. Maybe I can find some one to launder them for me, Darius thought then shook his head, not likely Guess I am going to be spending time at a creek in a day or two.

He pushed the brim of his hat up with a knuckle and looked around the room, it was clean, he thought shaking his head in admiration. not many people even tried to keep a place this clean anymore. For most places these days, the definition of clean was far from what it had been pre-dead. Jean, or who ever owned the place kept it almost spotless. The tile floor was scrubbed and free of grime, the off white walls were clean and the pictures of pre-dead cities and towns had been artfully placed on the walls to detract from the empty spaces.

The tables and chairs scattered around the room were a mixture of old and newer cheap stuff. Who ever owns this place must have done some serious scrounging for all this stuff, he decided as he chose a table near the window and sat down.

He didn’t look to closely at the pictures as far as he was concerned it was better to let the memories of what it had been like before the dead fade with the passage of time. If it didn’t fade, the pain would never go away.

Even the jukebox that sat against the wall below the pictures had been cleaned till it shined. Personally, he would have junked the think for whatever parts might be inside. with out power it was only so much junk anyway.

He ignored the suspicious looks the other diners cast his way and sat looking out the window, watching the room out of the corner of his eye. He wasn’t likely to be attacked, but it was better to be safe than sorry. In today’s world, either you stayed vigilant or you got dead.

A lithe athletic woman with honey blond hair approached his table. Under her flour spotted gingham apron she wore a blue denim dress and a white shirt. She had long smooth tanned legs, that were hard not to look at. And if she was holding the small chalk board she wrote her orders on a little to tightly and there was an edge to her voice it wasnt anything that Darius wasn’t already used to.

“Afternoon sir, we don’t have much today.” she informed him. “we have some venison, lots of salad, beans and soup.” She said. She had a husky contralto voice he noticed and it fit her pretty well.

“I have some gold, a brick of 9mm, and half a pound of tea.” He told her as he placed the saddle bags in the chair beside him, the five pounds of coffee he had stashed was for him, not for trade.

“I…” she said then paused thinking over the trade as he opened the saddle bags and pulled out the items he had for trade and placed them on the table for her to see.

“Bring me a salad, some of the venison, some biscuits or bread if you have it and make some brown gravy out of the venison juice. That should be worth a quarter of a pound of tea, plus give me some change in return.”

She thought it over for a moment then nodded as she wrote his order down on the small chalk board she carried then placed chalkboard in the big pocket in her apron before she scooped up the half pound of saran wrapped bricks of tea then turned and headed back to the kitchen.

Most people didn’t like or want gold these days, the prevailing sentiment seemed to be you cant eat it, shoot it or build with it so it was pretty much worthless. That would change in time of course. They had already started issuing currency in the Zone, and it would spread out from there.

It wasn’t a bad little place, he thought his mind switching tracks smoothly to something less annoying than money. Porters town is neat, the people friendlier than most places, but still pretty guarded compared to the zone. As the saying went, nice place too bad I cant stay.

He had still had a long slog till he reached Thebe’s and to be honest he couldn’t wait to get started in Thebes, when we are done we will be able to say we built our town from the ground up and it will be true.

Thebes was a unique place that sat on the banks of the mighty Mississippi. Once it had been a town but at some point long before the dead every one had packed up and taken everything, apparently even the buildings, since the only thing left were just the streets separating empty lots. The only building that still existed was a Historic old court house that sat high above the old town site and river on a bluff.

For some reason, he and the majority of the other members of his group of survivors had loved the place and they had spent a lot of time making plans to return and build their own town on the site. Jared and some of the others back in the zone had pitched in offering help and idea so that Darius and his crew would be as well prepared as possible to return to Thebes.

during one those long talks with Jared, one of the things that was apparent to both men was that for many years into the future fuel was going to be critical and whether Jared and the council like it or not what they were able to produce would only be able to be used for critical things, like tractors, some boats and ships, the big rigs used by the clearing teams to haul back all the things recovered from the ruins around them and of course critical military vehicles and aircraft.

Even with the stills and the new fuel plants, it would years to reach the point where they could consider giving or selling fuel for private needs outside of farming.

Gasifiers would take up some of the slack, thanks to the coal coming out of Hot springs, trains and any steam equiped vehicles and craft would be able to run. But they couldn’t strip every tree down to burn in gassifers for people to drive five miles to a friends house or to one of the bars or resturuants that were spring up in every community these days. So one day they had come up with the idea of Darius and his Thebians, as Jared had liked to call them, would round up horse’s to trade with the Zone for food stuffs and supplies.

Jill, Jareds wife had sat down and done some math that showed if the farmers switched to horse drawn wagons to hual food stuffs to market and local ruin reclamation teams switched to horse and wagons, they could almost double their fuel supplies in a years time. not to mention that the average person could buy or trade for a horse and do some personal traveling with out having to depend on fuel supplies that they probably wouldnt be able to get in the first place. Of course there was always foot and pedal travel, Bicycles had come back into popularity.

What really matters at the moment, he thought, is the sixty head that we rounded up and that Quinten and the others should already have gotten to Thebes and what ever herds and horse I find on my way to Thebes. By next spring Kate and I can have every horse in our herd ready to ride. Well ready to ride for almost any one at any rate.

He smiled at the thought, Kate was supposed to be teaching His best friend, her husband how to ride, rope and do all the cowboy stuff and he wished he could see it. I bet Quint is eating dirt five times a day, if that man can sit a saddle for longer than five minutes I will eat my hat. he chuckled not caring if the other diners thought he was a little off chuckling over nothing.

He sat there gazing out the window for a time then turned and looked into the Kitchen through the open door beside the Jukebox. A older woman priming a hand pump at what had been a modern sink in the kitchen. As he watched water began to pour out of the spigot and into the pot she had placed in the sink.

When he had been a kid his grandmother, who had lived just outside of Hillsborough Texas, had still used a hand pump for water and a wood burning stove to cook on. funny how things come around again he thought with of a shake of his head as he turned his head to watch a gray haired man with a lined face enter the diner and stop beside the jukebox. Unlike the pre dead elderly, this man was solidly built and had the look of a farmer.

The older man flipped a switch on the wall beside the Jukebox as he pulled a handful if crumpled dollar bills from a pocket .. Darius’s eyes widened in surprise as the juke box came to life. lights flickered and danced across the front.

the man fed in his money and punched in a series of letters and numbers and music began.

Darius settled back enjoying some old Hank, something he hadn’t heard in a long, long while.

“aint used to that are you” the waitress asked tilting her head towards the jukebox as she returned to his table with a glass of tea and placed it in front of Darius.

“Power, Not since I’ve gotten back on the road.” Darius replied. It was the waitress’s turn to look surprised. “but a working Juke box, that I haven’t seen since before the dead.”

“where your from that they have power?” she asked.

“I’m not from there, but I spent a few years there after the dead fell over.” Darius said as he picked up his glass. He took a sip and sighed with pleasure. “and yes they have limited power. Solar and some tidal, Mostly they use it for lights in a few places and to run critical equipment. Jukeboxs arent considered critical. In a few years those Navy nuclear guys will have a reactor back online or at least that’s the plan.” .

“Nuclear reactor” she said softly then shook herself then flashed him a smile. “I don’t think I would have left there”

“They are good folks and are well on their way to rebuilding the US its just not where I wanted to spend the rest of my life.” Darius replied. “besides you’ve got power here” He said pointing towards the Jukebox.

“its just a solar set up that runs the Jukebox and the lights. nothing fancy. But it does make us the hot spot for the towns nightlife.”

“most places dont’t have a nightlife, most are lucky if they can have a party once every few months.”

“what about this zone you were talking about.”

“oh they have parties and every saturday they have live bands at this park, sometimes they even put on plays and stuff.” Darius said.

“Megan?” the older woman in the kitchen called out, coming to stand in the doorway. She wiped her hands on the apron she wore, giving Darius a hard look.

“sorry have to run, Mom is not the most patient of people at the best of time.” she said then turned and returned to the kitchen.

Her mother’s disapproving gaze lingered on Darius for a moment longer then she turned and followed her daughter into the kitchen. No doubt she suspects I will try to seduce her daughter and then leave her high, dry and pregnant.

five minutes later both women brought his food to the table, Darius thanked them then set to demolishing his meal.

The food was good he decided half an hour later as he pushed aside the empty plate, they had even added mashed potato’s to give him his moneys worth.

Finished with is meal he gathered his things then rose from the table glancing out the window he noticed four men near his horses, One of them was eyeing the Pack saddles, while the other three talked. Not going to happen sport, Darius thought. Those horse will rip a chunk out of you if you get close enough. He nodded politely to the Waitress and headed outside.

As Darius stepped outside, the four men spread out, putting about two arm lengths between each other and trying to act casual. Really, casual, as if your spreading out to rush me isn’t a good enough warning, amateurs. .

You boys really don’t want to do this, Darius thought, noting the way the other locals moving about were avoiding this stretch of sidewalk.

“how long you planning on staying in town” A round faced, squinty eyed man dressed in faded clothes asked as he hooked his thumbs in his pockets in what he had to think of as a casual, manly intimidating pose.

Two ways to handle this, confront them bust a few heads to make my point or nicely and let round face and his friends push the confrontation. Darius thought, I chose Option two, I am turning over a new leaf, beating them shooting out their knee caps and shoving a pipe bomb up one of their butts is not friendly.

“not long, a day or two. I need to do some trading at the market and….”

“I bet you think your special because you have horses.” Roundy said, his given name was actually Arthur, glowered at the cowboy. Who seemed totally unfazed, Arthur how ever didn’t even begin to suspect that the man he faced wasn’t scared in the least. In Arthurs mind way to many strangers had shown up in his town over the last few years, and Dutch and his crew had pretty much spelled the end of Arthur and his friends patience with Strangers.

Strangers took food, materials and supplies the people of Porters town needed. It really never occurred to him that those same strangers traded goods that the people of Porters Town wanted or needed.

Not being the sharpest pencil in the box he also couldn’t see any need for horses other than as eaters of food along with the stranger and allowing some poser to pretend he was straight out of some western.

Darius stood there for a moment, seeing the verbal trap. No matter how he answered, the Idiots would use it as a pretext to take offense. It was juvenile, but he had seen plenty of fights start just this way and make no mistake these idiots wanted a fight. I wonder if they really think I wont use my weapons, not that it would make much of a difference from what I see.

Force the issue or play along, Darius asked himself trying hard to keep a leash on his first instinct. He was tired of blood, tired of fighting and more than anything else he was tired of the sick anticipation of the fight. He hated what he had become and hated the fact that he didn’t regret a single kill he had made.

There was nothing he could really do to still the singing anticipation that send adrenalin crashing through is system but he could refuse to give in to it. “I am going to do you four a favor,” he said his voice as flat and cold as steel in deep winter. “Turn around and go home and I will go my own way. Stay and you will regret it.” he said resting a hand on the saddle bags thrown over his shoulder. He carried the sheathed rifle in his other hand.

Darius could feel the Hunter now, just waiting to be unleashed and the twisted hunger to let that part of himself loose.

Arthur might not be the brightest person, but the tone of voice and the man posture finally broke through. He finally noticed the well worn pistol, all the ammunition on that well cared for belt. the stranger was balanced on the balls of his feet, leaning slightly forward ready to explode into action, but it was the mans eyes that sent a icicle of fear worming through him, the mans eyes were had gone dark and deadly filled with the promise of violence.

It came down to pride and ego really, Arthur wanted to leave but he had to consider what his friends and other people might think. It was stupid, but it was a situation most every guy had faced since the Dawn of time. The smart ones swallowed that pride and moved on, living to fight another day. but some, and there were always some refused to back down and even fewer saw any other choice than to make their stand because they couldn’t deal with the not just how their friends would take surrender but the beating their own self image would take.

Darius could almost read Roundys thoughts as the man wavered there on the edge, fight or flight. Do the right thing you idiot, Darius prayed. Do not make me do this. It wasn’t that Darius arrogant enough to think he couldn’t be beaten, but the fact that in the end no matter how bad his beating might be. His attackers would get worse.

There were very few men or women that could take the punishment that a Rodeo cowboy could. That wasn’t pride but a simple fact in Darius’s world. Most if not all Rodeo guys had a high pain threshold it came with the territory. What they did for fun included being stomped on by horses and bulls, thrown sky high to crash to the ground. Twisted, dragged, spindlated and mutilated and that was before they got into fights around campfires and in bars over women, slights or some one suggesting Hank Williams was not the greatest country singer of all time.

Roundy made his decision, ego won out. He leaned forward his hands balling into fists, his friends were about two seconds slower figuring out a fight had just been declared.

I am not going to kill them, Darius thought, as he snatched the heavy saddle bags from his shoulder and swung them right into Roundy’s face. Loaded with cans, ammo, gold and other items, they weighed close to twenty pounds, Darius twisted slightly adding his body weight into the swing.

The bags connected with Roundys face with a satisfying crunch and sent the man sprawling to the ground. Darius turned and threw the bags at the single man coming at him from the left, hitting the man in the feet and tripping him. He turned the other way where the other two men were charging him and brought his rifle up smashing the stock into the jaw of the blond, dim witted looking fella. The other man swung a meaty fist and struck Darius in the side of the send.

Staggering, Darius dropped to one knee and somehow blocked the kick that the dark haired meat sack aimed for his gut. He grabbed the mans ankle and threw his body on the other mans knee, there was a crunch and pop and the man went over screaming in pain.

Roundy was back on his feet spitting blood, he leaped on Darius’s back punching hard trying for a kidney score. Darius rammed his elbow into Roundys gut, and foul breath exploded on the back of Darius neck. Blondie was still dazed, but game waded in and threw two quick jabs, striking Darius in the face. Darius twisted around and the blondies third jab struck the back of Roundys head.

Free of the weight Darius lunged to his feet, spun in place and threw a rising upper cut that snapped blondies jaw closed and cost him two teeth. Blondie fell heavily, holding his face and crying. Darius turned and slammed a boot down between Roundy’s shoulder blades.

Arthur looked up as he started to struggle free and froze in place as he stared into the pitch black bore of the worlds biggest pistol barrel or that’s how it looked from down here staring up at. In fact he was pretty sure he could see just a little sunlight gleaming on a steel jacketed round. That had to be in his mind right? He wasn’t sure and he suddenly didn’t want to get a closer look at that bullet as it came down the barrel.

“How about we end this right now” Darius said spitting blood on the side walk, half his attention on the people who were coming out of the diner, whether to watch or help Roundy he didn’t know. “I really don’t feel like hurting or killing you four idiots or ruining my day any more than its already been ruined. So do we have a deal, the fight is over.”

“Yeah,” Arthur said weakly, then again this time his voice sounded almost normal if a little thick from his rapidly swelling lip. “Yeah, its over.”

Darius stepped back and turned slightly just enough to keep the diner customers in sight as he lowered his pistol to his side.

Roundy rose to his feet, one side of his face already turning interesting color. Darius just gave him a cold deadly look. and this time Roundy was paying enough attention to realize he faced a predator. His friends were getting to their feet, grumbling angrily but none of them wanted a second round with the Stranger.

“Arthur Williams, just what the hell do you think your doing” A man said striding up, he was followed by Jeremiah who held a shotgun in rock steady hands. The new comer was maybe forty with a sun tanned weathered face, deep dark eyes with matching crows feet. his neatly trimmed beard and hair were streaked with silver. He carried an old well tended 30-30 in his hands.

Roundy stepped back, his eyes never leaving Darius. “just talking to this man Mr. Robard.”

“It looks like you were getting your ass kicked is what it looked like Arthur, The man is a guest here.” Robard stated harshly. “are you looking to join Dutch’s crew or are you just stupid.”

“I..”

“then move it along, I’m thinking your damn lucky he chose to punch on you dim wits instead of just shooting you. Now move on unless your wanting to try your luck with him again. just let me send some one to get a burial detail ready and give me a few minutes to figure out how I am going to tell your momma you died from a terminal case of stupidity.” .” Robard said as he laid his rifle over his shoulder, barrel to the sky.

The small crowd from the Diner chuckled, a few even laughed. Darius was getting the idea that Arthur was not exactly the most respected person in town.

Arthur wiped some blood from his face, his gaze falling to the ground. He seemed to shrink in size as his shoulders dropped. Darius almost, but not quite felt bad for the beaten man as he turned and limped off. Leaving two of his friends to help the one with the damaged knee follow in his wake.

“Brad Robard, I’m about the closest thing to a sheriff this town has” Robard said slinging his rifle and holding out a work callused hand. “and your Darius McAllister according to Jeremiah.”

“Thanks for stepping in, I really didn’t want to be leaving corpses laying around your street if I could help it.” Darius said shaking the mans hands.

“I was talking to Jeremiah about you, when a few folks came up to warn me that Arthur, who is an idiot by the way, was waiting outside Jeans looking to start some trouble. I’m sorry about that by the way. The boy wants to be seen as a tough, sorry to say.
His momma tried to raise him right, but you know how some people got after the dead. Either that or he was dropped on his head as a baby.” Robard stated with a half smile.

Darius grinned, I like this guy, he decided. “At least I didn’t have to kill them.” He said with a shrug as he picked up his saddle bags.

“I’m thinking that Arthur and his friends are pretty happy with that outcome too. I know his momma will be at any rate.” Robard said “maybe this will finally teach him to walk the straight and narrow, but I don’t think that pinhead is smart enough to get in out of the rain personally. Him or his friends.” Robard said. Jeremiah laughed as he slung his shot gun. “honest question here friend. Would you have killed him if he hadn’t given up.”

“I guess we will never know” Darius said with a shrug. “I have to admit I am surprised though, I wouldn’t have thought there was any kind of law here.” Darius said. Especially not with Dutch and his crew around.

“well I aint much, but they asked me to do what I could and that’s what I do. your just lucky those weren’t Dutchs boys. I don’t hold any sway with them, and there isn’t anything I can do to change that. They wouldn’t have pussyfooted around with a conversation before they started pounding on you the second you came out that door, or just shot you dead so they wouldn’t have to break a sweat..”

“I’ve run into the type before” Darius said as he dug sugar cubes out of a pouch. He walked down the line of horses feeding each one a treat and rubbing their necks. He wanted to ask as many questions as he could think of about Dutch and his crew, but it wasn’t his business and he wasn’t going to get involved. “Well Jeremiah, if your ready I wouldn’t mind getting to that campsite. I really want to clean up and kick back.

“Ready when you are” Jeremiah said, unable to hide the apprehension he felt looking at the horses.

The Cowboy had offered to let Jeremiah ride behind him. Jeremiah had been apprehensive but a little thrilled as he mounted the horse, he had never ridden a horse before. At least he wasn’t trying to ride one by himself even if riding behind the cowboy made him feel like some ones wife on the back of a Motorcycle.

Once he was seated behind Darius, he found that the ground looked much further away than he thought possible, and the horse was so wide that his legs felt like they were being spread wide enough he would split. Darius made no comment about how tightly Jeremiah held on, or how intimate it felt being pressed so close to another man.

By the time they reached the camp Jeremiah had picked for Darius, he ached all over and felt like total idiot. Maybe one day he would get used to it, assuming he ever got the chance to ride another horse in his life.

“This is it, this is the place” Jeremiah said pointing at the old gravel road that turned off into the trees. It was a pretty place, really, with thick old trees, mostly oaks and hemlocks with a scattering of pines and cedar.

Nature was slowly reclaiming the gravel drive that descended a steep wooded slope till it emerged into an overgrown yard, that looked more like a Meadow these days. The Farm house wasn’t much. Neglect and nature were taking its toll.

With a slight tug of the reins Darius brought the horse to a stop. Jeremiah slid from the horse with a sigh of relief, wincing at the pain in his legs and rear.

“you get used to it” Darius said as he looked around . The old barn, looked sturdy enough as did the silo. But the old house was crumbling from years of weather and neglect.. “I’m just guessing but I think we are not at the creek you were talking about.”

“We aren’t, this is the old Dormsetter place. They died a few years back and their kids had all moved to big cities back before the day so they are probably dead too.” Jeremiah said then shrugged. “Truth is I brought you here for a reason, there’s a few of the people that heard our conversation and heard about your fight with Arthur and would be more than willing to tell Dutch about that ‘Brand’ and where I said you should camp at . And if they think your this Hunter guy, they might just want to pay you a less than cordial visit.”

“I see” Darius said and he did, he also had to wonder if he was being set up by being brought here. He didn’t want any more blood on his hands, but if he had to add some more he didn’t mind at all adding the blood of Scum like Dutch who worked with Kronnen the slave trading, scum sucking, bottom feeder of a Warlord. Of course Jeremiah didn’t seem to realize that in the same conversation, they had discussed the market too. It shouldn’t matter as long as he left as soon as he was finished with the market and I really need to stock up on supplies.

“Aren’t you placing yourself in danger by helping keep me out of sight?” Darius asked.

“not really, and even if Dutch gets pissed, there’s not much he can do about it. So I’m covered.” Jeremiah said with a shrug. “Anyway I showed you where the market sets up every morning.” Darius nodded they had passed the spot on the way here. “My honest advice is stay here, stay quiet, make your trades in the morning and leave. Dutch has gone out of his way to keep from pissing us off, but if he thinks you’re the Hunter, I don’t know what he might do.”

“I’m not looking for trouble Jeremiah, and I’m not looking to make any trouble for you or your town. So if Dutch starts asking around about where I might be at. Tell him.”

Jeremiah stood there rubbing a thumb over his jaw wanting to protest, it went against the grain to screw any one over and the thought of handing any one over to Dutch and his crew made it even harder but finally he nodded slowly. “if that’s what you want”

“It is Jeremiah, I don’t want any one getting hurt because of me.” Darius said. “Now all I need is a place to get some fresh water.” he said gazing at Jeremiah.

“There is a creek behind the house just inside the tree line and a rock shelter too” Jeremiah replied. Thank god, Darius thought I really want a bath, a long bath.

James “Dutch” Fraker, sat at a battered table, listening to the conversation of the men across the room. Neatly dressed he stood out in contrast to his men, who wore a motley collection of military and civilian clothes, most dirty. He got his dark brown hair cut once a month from a little blond slip of a woman in town. Sometimes she even took sex for payment. He wasn’t a handsome man, but he wasn’t ugly either. most women found him attractive but not in a stand out sort of way, angled jaw, a thick mustache, blue eyes so pale that you had to look close to see more color than his iris’s..

His men were worried and they should be, He thought. If the visitor in town really was the Hunter, it could mean a lot of trouble coming down on their heads. There was also no reason to believe that if it was the Hunter he was here because of Dutch and his men.

“…I say we just kill the bastard and be done with it” Connor Smith was saying. Connor was about as direct as any thug could be and then some and thug was exactly what he was.

“No” Dutch said calmly. “no one is to do a thing to the man. Not here, and maybe not at all.”

“But Dutch…”

“Shut the fuck up Connor” Dutch roared. Conner sat back in his seat eyes wide half expecting Dutch to shoot him out of hand.

“According to what I was told, the stranger was wanting to get supplies and Rogers told him about the Market. Tomorrow morning I want Wildcard and a few of our boys to take a trip to the market.” Dutch said his voice back to its normal volumne. Wildcard was the only man in the crew that had ever seen the Hunter, back in Kansas City when he had been with Kronnen’s Command Group. .

For a one short week the Hunter had been a prisoner, Kronnen had beaten him almost to death then had him dumped, naked, outside for the undead to finish off. Somehow the hunter had overpowered and killed the guards who had dragged him outside and escaped.

“and if he really is the Hunter? Then can we kill him” Connor asked.

“NO, Think it through Connor. We have a good thing here, we do not shit in our own bed. If, and I mean if we take on the Hunter it wont be here in town. We will take him out on the trail somewhere.” Dutch said in a more normal tone of voice.

Connor looked like he still wanted to protest, Dutch shook his head, Connor was one of the stupidest and stubborn men in the crew. At some point I will have to kill him, Dutch thought. “I want you to consider what will happen if any one tries to kill the Hunter and fails. Think about that. Think about what he did after Kansas city. You think about what he did to Dog and the others. Do you really want to risk pissing him off.” He let that sink in for a moment till Connor turned away. “Unless he comes after us, you will do nothing till I tell you too.” Dutch said then turned towards the window. Where Possum Jones sat in a rickety chair staring out into the night lost in his own thoughts.. Unlike the others in the room, Possum knew first hand what it was like going up against the Hunter.

He was the only person that Dutch knew of that had survived one of the Hunters ambushes, and that had been part luck and by playing dead. Which is where he earned his nickname, the men that had given him that name had meant it as insult, but Possum true to form had taken the name and made it his own.

Possum hadn’t actually seen the Hunter during the ambush, he had been shot early on and had dragged himself into a pretty good hiding spot. So all he had experienced was the sound of the bombs, the gunshots and the steady clocking of boot heels as the Hunter made his way through the wreckage putting a bullet into the heads of the men he had killed so their corpses wouldn’t turn and come back as the walking dead.

Possum had never been the same after that. but when Bradley had been putting together his action Teams Possum had volunteered and become in a short time one of the best scouts in the unit which is where Dutch had met him and Ike. He smiled at the memory. Those had been good times, even with the undead and knowing that at some point they would be expected to engage the Hunter and Jared Stone.

Possum didn’t look like much, A short, thin man with a hatchet face, dishwater colored hair, a nose a little to thin that stuck out just a little to much. Possum had been a second story man who had scored some really big heists back in the day. He was about a opposite as possible to Ike, Dutch’s second in command, who was almost six foot tall, dark hair, dark beard, with eyes that were an odd shade of green.

Dutch’s smile faded as he saw again the burned out buildings and the scattered bodies of his friends in the street, victims of the Hunter. Dutch and the team had rushed to get there hoping to reinforce them and finally kill the Hunter but they had been too late.

At least the Hunter had normally put down the men he had killed, instead of letting them come back as one of the walking dead. Normally was the key word. Some times, he had been cruel as hell like when he had attacked Dog and his scout team in Missouri. That ambush had been a nasty piece of work.

Dog had been a nasty SOB too and Dutch, no matter how much he hated the Hunter, didn’t blame the man for what he had done to Dog and Dogs scout team. I would have done worse to the bastard, He thought. Dog had been the worst degenerate in a band of degenerates, Dutch had seen the man do things that had sickened even some of the really hardened men. .

Deep inside Dutch feared the Hunter; every one who had served with Kronnen had learned to fear the man and Myth. The Hunter had been relentless in his pursuit of Kronnen’s force, and had ambushed and killed hundreds maybe more. How many people could have or would have trekked across multiple states filled with undead and hostile survivors, just for revenge and to free their friends,

There at the end it had become hard to tell the difference between rumor and fact where the Hunter was concerned. The rank and file had said the Hunter could move through the darkness like a ghost. He had be beaten half to death by Kronnen then took out a group of healthy uninjured men to make his escape. He could slip in and out of heavily armed camps with out being seen, Ride a tornado and dance on a razors edge. The stories only got wilder with time, Dutch thought. In the newest tales, he didn’t doubt, the Hunter was probably ten foot tall by now and shot bombs out of his butt.

It wasn’t till he had been assigned to Bradley’s unit and started being trained by the former SF man, that he understood, or at least had a enough training to see how the Hunter consistently found the scout teams and teams sent out to find him. They had traveled and scouted in consistent patterns and the hunter had figured out the patterns. And it hadn’t taken a genius to figure out that a large group like the warlords horde needed food and supplies, would check out gun and grocery stores before old homes along a given route and that self same group usually picked mid sized towns to scavenge.

It irked him immensely that the Hunters myth was still spreading around, like Dutch could do a thing about it. Even if his crew killed the hunter, the myth would still be floating around out there and in the end the Hunter would live on, far past Dutchs death as one of the first folk tales from the War of the Dead.

Dutch sat down at one of the empty tables and picked up a deck of cards. He shuffled them like a pro, with flips and flourishes. With the end of the world Cards had come back into style as entertainment especially when there were no women around.

Ike sat down across from Dutch and shook his head slowly with a sidelong look at Connor. Dutch didn’t need the warning, if the Hunter, if that’s who it was, stayed in town more than a day or two, Connor would probably go after him. Connor was that stupid unless Ike or someone else kept a eye on him.

What ever happens I had better keep firmly in mind that the Hunter took out Kronnen in the Battle of D.C. and Kronnen was a hell of lot tougher than the rest of us. If we have to go up against the Hunter, it’s going to be the way Bradley was training the A teams to do the job. From stealth and distance and if the Hunter didn’t die on the first attempt, it was going to get real ugly, real fast.

Hopefully it won’t come to that, he thought. But what ever comes, tonight was going to be long and nerve wracking for the men.

It was, Darius thought a beautiful morning, a band of gold and salmon light lay across the horizon and golden beams of sunlight speared into the vault of the sky to stain the scattered fluffy clouds with glory.

“This is one of those times that surviving the end of the world seems worth it” he told the horse as he fitted the linked bit and slipped the bridle over its head. “maybe we can score some apple cores or corn kernels today.”

Storm snorted his approval of the idea then pushed his large head against Darius’s shoulder. “Pushy for snacks aren’t you” Darius said rubbing his hand on the horses neck.

He turned to the two horses that he was taking today; they were good horses but not his best. He hated the fact that he would probably have to trade them; not knowing how they would be treated by their new owner bothered him, but he need the supplies and training and trading horses had been the plan from the start. Doesn’t mean I have to like it either, but people are going to need horses, to pull wagons and plows, to ride and for all kinds of things.

He made sure the packsaddles and the supply boxes and bags the two horses were fitted with were secured. Petting each horse feeling a little guilty as they greeted him with whickers and nudges. I will try to make sure who ever gets you will not abuse you, he silently promised.

He returned to his horse double-checked the cinch and girth straps before mounting up. he clucked his tongue and lightly touching his heels to Storms flanks. He wore spurs today but was not a believer in raking the horses he rode. The horse tossed its head, but started moving at a sedate pace. Darius had no real desire to hurry so he let the horse have its head and set the pace.

It was a slow leisurely ride down the leaf covered, tree lined road. along the way he caught glimpse’s of farm house through the tree’s, most looked lived in. but a few were just crumbling ruins after years of bad weather and neglect.

Passing a overgrown field he saw a dead limbless tree beside a old stock pond, its waters burnished to bronze by the early morning light. tendrils of mist rose from its surface and even as he watched he saw a fish come up to feed on the bugs on the ponds surface.

He took a deep breath of the early morning air and smiled. I hope this means its going to be a good day.

The Market was just west of the Town set up in an old pasture surrounded by trees, closer to the working farms than town. Across the fields and woods, mountains and ridges loomed in the distance.

It looked like any other Farmers market you might see around the world, a collection of rough booths and old pavilions that covered tables filled with fresh to not so fresh produce, goods and other items. There were even pens that held goats and pigs. Darius rode up to the market leading the two packhorses, used to the looks he got or more to the point his horses got.

Darius found himself surprised at the number of people here. Women with children in tow moved from table to table collecting the food stuffs and items they needed, Haggling loudly with farmers who manned the booths. There were also Men shopping , some with children, carrying baskets haggling loudly to get the best deals they could. They outnumbered the women who were shopping by a large margin, which wasn’t a surprise. Even back in the Zone men outnumbered women.

For some reason there tended to have been far more Men who survived the dead than women. There had been a lot of speculation on why that was. Darius tended to think that there were probably places where more women survived than men out there and it all balanced out.

But the end result for places like this was some rather unorthodox lifestyles that probably wouldn’t have been accepted back before the dead rose. Of course some places were still socially tame, others had gone overboard. It all depended on who had survived in any given area, he thought with a slight smile. A town he had visited in Virginia, had been most defiantly old fashioned, and the bulk of the men had to make due with a bachelors life including risking being beaten up or killed for messing around with another mans wife. Who could blame a guy who was one of three hundred single men, with only a hundred women over 18 in the town and all of them married while the forty single females in town were under the age of fifteen.

Most of the men clustered around the rickety tables of the market were in their thirties and forties. With sunburned leathery faces and rough work callused hands, not a few were already gray from eight years of hard toil and stress. The days of the Metrosexual males were long gone, Darius thought hiding the amusement that thought brought.

It wasn’t that he had a problem with Men who had wanted to look good, it was the fact that the ones he had personally known had only wanted to look good. They had no idea how to do even the most basic of home or vehicle repairs and spent more money on hair products and clothes than on things that would have actually been useful. Well they paid for all that when the dead rose, Sorry to say. That mind set might have been annoying but they still deserved better than what happened to them.

He dismounted as five men and three woman walked towards him, a small crowd of curious people following. Every one of them armed with either pistols or rifles that thankfully were kept holstered or slung over their shoulders.

“What do you need Friend?” a wide shoulder dark haired man asked. Dark haired, with bright blue eyes and a eternal five-oclock shadow on his square jaw. He didn’t even try to make his inquiry sound friendly but at least it didn’t sound rude or threatening either just distant, a formality as they waited to see how Darius reacted.

“Jeremiah Rogers in town, told me I could do some trading for supplies here.” Darius said making himself smile.

“Those are nice horses were did you get em” A short gray haired man asked, his blue green eyes alight with curiosity.

“Found them running wild outside of Knoxville, took me some time to round them up, but its paying off in spades now” Darius replied. a few people in the crowd expressed amazement that he had come from down knoxville way. But the excitement of seeing real live, ridable horse’s trumped any questions about what the rest of the country was like.

“What are you looking to trade for and would you be interested in trading one of those horses for it.” The woman who spoke might be a bit weathered, but she was still attractive with a nice, presumably firm body from the look of it. She carried herself like she was ready to deal with any problem head on with out a second thought and Darius liked that.

Her dark brown almost reddish hair was pulled up into a loose bun at the base of her neck, her face was rounded with high cheek bones and full lips, with incredible Sapphire blue eyes.

“I might, and I have a few other items you might like too” Darius said.

“Unload your stuff and let us take a look. I am Marshal Trinton by the way.” The dark haired man with the wide shoulders who had spoke to him first said extending a hand that could easily swallow Darius’s.

“Darius Zane McCallister” Darius said shaking the mans hand. Introductions with the rest of the small group quickly came and Darius shook hands with each of them.

The woman that Darius found very attractive was named Naomi Green who had nice dimples when she smiled like now. he took her hand half tempted to kiss the back of it, but settled for a gentle shake that seemed to amuse her.

“I don’t break easily” She said with a breathy laugh as her thumb rubbed against Darius’s hand. Oh hell, he thought smiling stupidly not sure what to do at the moment. let go of her hand idiot, which he did instantly.

“hell no she don’t, just ask her ex boyfriend.” Tanner said then snorted a laugh. Tanner was all of five nine, thin as a rail with a narrow pinched face and wavy sandy blonde hair.

Darius moved to the packhorses and began untying and removing boxes and bags opening them up so that the group could see the contents.

“What I need is Bacon, Dry goods like Beans and potato’s, Lard….” He said listing off every thing he needed and hoped they had and the dickering began.

By noon Darius was a much poorer in some ways and a richer man than he had been in others. It had already been a long day, and his plan on leaving today was pretty much shot. He ducked into the shade under a tarp that had been strung up over a group of tables where Naomi waited.

She smiled seeing him walk to her table and motioned for him to sit down.

“I think at this point, your one rich man” Naomi said as Darius sat. “please help yourself” She said motioning to the plate with the slices of cheese and the pitcher of what looked like lemonade.

“don’t mind if I do” he said pouring himself a glass, and helping himself to some cheese.

It was lemonade, he discovered. Wondering what Naomi was thinking as she sat watching him eat.

“its been awhile since you had cheese hasn’t it.” She said eyes twinkling.

“Yes, I was surprised to find you folks had cheese and corn.”

“Matt Pritt, and his family make the cheese, they used to run a dairy outfit before the undead. It took him three years after the dead to round up enough stray cattle to start up again but since then, he has kept us in milk and cheese.” She said reaching out and snagging a piece of cheese for herself. “People in these parts have always grown corn. Mostly in gardens and small plots but we never lacked for it. What I would kill for is wheat so I can have some bread to go with the cheese. Never thought I would be sick of cornbread.”

He sat back in his chair and watched the people going about their business. These people were really determined to make this town a success, Darius thought as four men lifted up the tongue of a wagon made from the bed of an old Chevy and began to pull it towards town. It was loaded with bags of supplies. Best use of a Chevy I’ve ever seen, Darius thought with a grin. There were smaller hand carts as well that looked like old lawn carts that had been fitted with bicycle tires and poles so they could be pulled, wheel barrows and a motley collection of home made carts.

Earlier he had seen a young girl driving a small cart pulled by goats, it might have been funny but when Darius had been a kid he had seen pictures of his Great Grand mother riding in a cart pulled by goats when she had been young, so there wasn’t anything really odd about the idea to him.

It had been some tough haggling with these people but in the end he had gotten everything he had wanted, or reasonable substitutes at any rate and all it had cost him was three fourths of his trade goods and the two horses he had brought with him. But Lord had he made out like a bandit.

He looked towards the road where the Wagon he had gotten in trade sat half filled with more supplies than he could reasonably use including real honest to god Jack Daniels whiskey still in the distillers oak barrel.

It wasn’t an ancient wagon, but it had been made to look like Chuck wagon from back in the 1860s, complete with the Iron hoops that a piece of canvas could be stretched over to proved cover during bad weather.

The only real noticeable difference was instead of the thin iron bound wood spoke wheels, the builder had fitted regular rims and tires and real brakes. He had seen rigs like it on the rodeo Circuit and on the trail rides.

Marshal had traded that wagon, along with some tanned hides, A brace of smoked Bacon and salted ham for one of Darius horses. Marshal had sent his son back to their farm with five other men to pull the Wagon back here, along with the goods he had included in the trade. “its to damn big for me to use,” Marshal had explained. But with the horses Darius had, it would be a cinch to pull.

Of course Darius had, had to trade for rope and other things to make what he needed to hook the horses up to the wagon. Naomi had traded for the other Horse Darius had brought with him, so Darius had ended up with a couple of small wheels of cheese, some ammunition, food and other supplies and that’s not counting what I had already traded for.

Hearing a loud wail behind him, he turned in his chair to see a dark haired man built like a bull trying to quiet a blonde six year old boy. Beside him another man, not as stocky but still powerfully built with a shock of thick blond hair, carrying a large basket loaded with produce turned to the boy and hushed him with a sharp word. “You do what Nathan says” the man continued. The dark haired man flashed him a smile of thanks as the boy fell silent and stood still.

“come on son, lets go see if Dale has any of that milk candy you like, while your dad finishes shopping for us” Nathan said taking the boys hand and leading him off into the market.

Darius felt his eyebrow go up, Maybe appearances were deceiving or maybe not but he supposed it didn’t matter what kind of life they led. Don’t care and don’t mind, but Id rather wake up to Beka any day of the week, he thought then laughed aloud remembering how he had first met Quentin, his best friend and Brother in law.

Naomi seeing where he was looking smiled slightly. Not exactly sure why the man was laughing, “That’s Nathan and Kyle, Nathan lost his wife to the dead, Kyle lost his wife when she birthed Ricky. They were best friends for years before the dead, saved each others lives during the dead and after. They have been living together taking care of Ricky and working Nathan’s farm since Ricky was born.” She watched Darius trying to judge his reaction. “and no as far as I know of they aren’t.” She said guessing what he was thinking.

“Sorry I wasn’t laughing at them. I suddenly thought about how I met my, at the time future, Brother in law. I had been wounded pretty badly and unconscious” he said, though beaten half to death was more accurate. “ he found me and bound my wounds and took care of me. The first time I woke up and could remember it, I was butt ass naked on a table and was worried he might be some kind of pervert.” He said with a laugh, She laughed with him.

“I can see how that might make you worry especially if your butt was sore”

Darius had just taken a sip of lemonade and almost choked as the laughter struck again. God it felt so good to be doing something so damn normal, he thought as Naomi slapped him on the back and she has some strength to her too, he decided his back stinging from the blows.

He finished his glass of lemonade and the cheese then rose to his feet. Feeling Naomi’s eyes on him. She was interested in a little more than just trade, he knew and if wasn’t for Beka he would be more than willing to give her what she wanted and more than once. He hid the smile that thought brought. But you and Beka are not a couple, he reminded himself. True, but its kind of hard to convince a woman your in love with her and want to marry her if you jump into the sack with every woman between here and there, or even with just one woman. But damn it would be fun, he thought with something almost like regret.

While he put the horses into the rope harnesses he had made, Naomi stood watching intently asking questions trying to learn as much as she could about horses and what he was doing. Once the Wagon was at Darius’s camp, she and Marshal would be taking their horses home with them.

“are you leaving today?” She asked as he finished and helped her climb up into the box seat.

“No, I figure I will take a day or two to learn more about the area to help me find the Saddles, bridles and Harness’s you need.” Darius replied spotting Marshal heading towards the wagon, followed by a ropy muscled teen ager with short curly blonde hair and a rather thick, impressive mustache and goatee. What really caught Daruis’s eye was the huge revolver the kid carried in shoulder rig. It was even bigger than the .44 black hawk that Darius carried and that was saying something.

“Trying to skip out on me I see” Marshal said with a smile, then waved the teen ager forward to stand beside him. “Darius I think I have a solution to your little problem”

“I have a problem” Darius asked warily.

“Well yes and our little problem as well. you see you need some one to help you with the wagon and the horses, and we are going to need some one who help us with the not just the horses we just got from you, but the horses we plan getting in the future.” Marshal said.

“I don’t see I have a problem” Darius said, though that wasn’t technically true. Oh he could drive the wagon, and lead the horses behind it. which in and of itself was fine, but it also meant he couldn’t go cross country and would limit the salvaging he could do along the way as well as become a problem if he spotted any cattle or horses, because he couldn’t just snap the reins and take the wagon on a cross country chase and try to rope what ever it was that he had spotted. Not to mention the fact that he would rather be in a saddle than on a wagon.

“You do, trust me” Marshal assured him.

Darius chuckled, watching the silent kid beside Marshal. “so what is your solution to my non existent problem.”

“I think you need to hire Travis here, he can drive the wagon, or what ever you call it, help guard your stuff and you can teach him how to work with horses.” Marshal said.

“First off Marshal when I leave here, It might be months before I can come back this way, I have to get home and see my… um place. then I have to find more horses and round them up,….

“Travis here can help you and that will give him a chance to learn.” Marshal said placing a large hand protectively on Travis’s shoulder.

“what do you want to do Travis..” Darius said addressing the kid for the first time.

“I want to go with you and learn as much as I can.” Travis said, there was an undertone of eagerness and something else that Darius couldn’t place.

“you realize that traveling around out there isn’t safe, what do your parent think abo….” Darius fell silent seeing the look of loss that flowed across the kids face. For a second it looked like he was going to break down then his face smoothed and hardened.

“My folks are dead.” Travis said.

Marshal gave Darius a sharp glance then shook his head once. “so let me get this straight, you think sending a …”

“sixteen” Marshal supplied.

“ a sixteen year old kid off into the wilds with a man you don’t even know for a deal that I might just have no intention of filling, is a good idea.” Darius said. “that is it right, I didn’t miss anything like for all you know I could be a child molester or I might be a cannibal, or something equally bad.”

“Travis is Sixteen, around here that’s an adult. And no I don’t think you’re a child molester or any kind of perv and it was his idea. Anyway. I wanted to introduce him to you and explain the deal.”

“Let me think about it,” Darius said then pointed at the box seat. “how about you two join Naomi up there and lets get this party on the road.”

Darius waited till they were on the wagon then lightly swung into his saddle. He got his horse moving and glanced back to See Naomi snap the improvised reins to start the team then passed them to Travis to let him try. She looked distinctly nervous Darius saw. He looked forward to hide his smile.

As they left the Market and started down the road, Darius spotted a band of six ragged looking heavily armed men. Tattoos covered every square inch of exposed flesh. Their clothes were a mix of old military, and red neck outlaw. His jaw tightened He didn’t need Naomi or Marshal to tell him that these were members of Dutchs gang. He could spot Followers of Kronnen at a hundred yards with out any one’s help. Especially when the idiots were wearing ACU jackets with a New Mexico National Guard flash.

They made no threatening moves as Darius rode past, but they were watching him intently. He had taken the precaution of turning the rifle scabbard around so that the brand wasn’t visible. As much as he hated any one who had served with Kronnen, he was tired of killing them. Kronnen was dead, Darius’s sister and the others were free and he wanted all of that to just be over.

By the time he had reached the farm he had made himself relax or at least relax as much as he ever allowed himself to.

Naomi brought the wagon to a halt in front of the old barn, and watched Darius swing down off his horse.. He pulled a lead line from his saddle bags and clipped it to his horses halter then tied the line off to a rusting tractor beside the barn. She heard the whiny of several more horses from inside the barn and glanced at Marshal. “he has more” She said in surprise.

“some one will end up trying to kill him for those horses if he aint careful” Marshal replied.

“They are more than welcome to try” Darius said overhearing the comment. “I don’t die easy, as the saying goes” he said as he pulled the saddle from his horse and sat it on a log. .

Naomi wondered if he really was as tough as he sounded. He looked it, she thought studying him. his back had felt like stone when she had slapped it earlier. There had been a moment when they had passed some of Dutch’s men back at the market that she could see Darius’s face. The pleasant decent looking guy had vanished as his face had grown hard and a cold light fill those normally warm eyes. I think he just may be as tough as he sounds, she decided as she climbed down from the Wagon in a very unlady like fashion.

“Thanks for the help getting this stuff back” Darius said shaking Marshals hand.

“Hell, Thank you for the horse.” Marshal said. Darius produced more rope and walked over to Naomi, Travis, and Marshal.

“Until we can find you some halters and other gear,” He said holding up the rope. “I want you to watch. This is how to make a halter for your horse out of rope.” He said then demonstrated. He untied the contraption then did it slower the second time. They nodded trying to soak up the lesson, but Darius wasn’t finished, he cut off three more lengths of rope and handed them to each person. “now you do it.” he said.

He made them do it ten times, watching closely and quietly correcting their mistakes with a word. Finally satisfied, he had Naomi and Marshal do it one last time and fit them to their horses. “Since I wont be leaving today like I had planned, Come back here tomorrow and I will show you how to rig up a harness, and a bridle.” He said.

“what about me” Travis asked.

Darius looked at the boy thoughtfully, he had considered the matter all the way here. the point to his little jaunt was to get some alone time. it had been hard to convince Quinten and the others to leave him in Knoxville for the long ass ride to the meeting place. But he had to admit he was getting a bit lonely and if the boy drove the wagon he could send the kid ahead on the roads when he wanted to scout cross country.

To trust or not to trust, he thought then shrugged. “you have any gear”

“a little, not much” Travis admitted.

“Sleeping bag at least” Darius asked.

“yeah I got one of those.”

“well you go get your gear and be back here before sunset. I think we have a deal.” Darius said. The boys face split into a huge smile, then he was gone rushing off into the woods.

“Take care, and see you tomorrow” Marshal said. They shook hands then Marshal turned and led his horse back towards the road.

“Thank you Darius, Today has been a real pleasure” Naomi said with a smile, that was almost seductive. She was a widower Darius knew, with two sons about Travis’s age, he again ignored temptation. But the thought of their lips meeting and his hands sliding over her hot skin, exploring….stop it… he told himself.

“it has indeed,” he replied extending a hand. She took it and gave on gentle shake then left him standing in front of the old barn alone once more.

“I’m telling you Dutch it was him” Jay “Wildcard” Pierce stated as he stood in front of the long Table that Dutch sat at.

So what to do now, Dutch asked himself, as a chill race up and down his spine. The Hunter, it was really him. For now we do nothing, not a damn thing. other than I want Possum to keep an eye on him, now that we know he is camped at the old farm house near the market.

“go find Possum and tell him I need to speak with him, and find Ike as well. Might as well let them both know my plan at the same time. “ Dutch told Wildcard who rushed out of the room almost before Dutch had finished speaking.

It was about two hours to sunset as Travis splashed across the creek, his gear wrapped in an old ratty blanket that was tied closed and slung across his back. He was nervous about going with Darius. But if the man was for real, Travis would finally be able to do something to get rich and have something to offer Ursula.

Travis emerged from the trees and headed up the slope towards the back of the barn. He could hear Darius whistling as he came around the side of the barn not really sure what to expect.

He found the cowboy shirtless standing in the middle of the yard holding a line that was attached to the halter of a horse that trotted in a circle around him. when the horse slowed, the cowboy would flick the long rod he was holding in his other hand at the horse’s hind quarters. The sudden snapping noise took Travis by surprise and spurred the horse back to a trot.

Travis could only stare at the scars that criss crossed Darius’s back and shoulders. It liked like he had been cut, sliced, shot and stabbed a lot.

He sat the bundle he carried down on the ground beside the barn then walked over to watch. It only took him a couple of minutes to realize that Darius wasn’t actually touching the horse with the rod he held, the popping noise was from two leather straps at the end of the rod that slammed together well away from the horses hide..

“here you give it a go” Darius said. Travis nervously walked over to stand beside his new Boss, he supposed he should call him. Darius passed him the line, then the rod. “just let her trot. I’ve been working with them for almost two months now and they are pretty well broke in. But if your going to be riding with me, I want you to have a horse and know how to ride and work with them. “ Darius said with a look at Travis and almost smiled at the look of surprise and wonder that spread across the boys face.

“me have a horse” Travis asked, surprised and casting a worried look at the horse at the end of the line he held. A horse any horse had to be worth a fortune these days. He glanced at the Wagon parked in front of the barn, like a wagons worth of supplies.

“well wagons can get stuck, break, or burn. So yeah having a horse is pretty important. Unless you want to walk a couple of hundred miles” Darius said.

They stood there in silence for a little while, Travis working the horse and thinking things over, while Darius watched and gave pointers.

“why run a horse in a circle?” Travis asked getting his mind back on track.

“For exercise mostly, or sometimes after a long ride to get them calm down. especially a high strung horse. But for training purposes it’s a good way to work them into a good gait, or to get them used to moving while wearing a saddle or bridle, instead of getting yourself thrown the first fifty times or so.” Darius said, then explained in detail privately pleased that Travis seemed to pay rapt attention.

By sunset, they had worked three more of the horses, and had them all hobbled out in the pasture to graze. Darius got a fire going and soon had a pot of stew simmering over the flames.

“So why do you want to go with me” Darius asked as he cleaned up the mess from preparing the food.

Travis looked into the crackling fire, studying the coals and the embers the rose up on the hot air then finally back at Darius who had been waiting patiently.

“Ursula” he said blushing slightly. “ Her folks like me, but I don’t have nothing to offer her. Then I saw how much people were willing to offer for just one horse and I thought…” His voice trailed off unsure what to say next.

“your hoping you can learn enough from me to go find some horses for you to set up a ranch and raise your own.” Darius said with a half smile. The kid wants to be trained and become my competition, I gotta like that, those are some big brass ones he’s got to tell me his plans. .

Travis nodded looking like he was worried that Darius would send him packing. “good plan, and the truth is once I round up the extra horses I promised and bring them back. I wont be back for a long while. Got my own plans and places to be..” Darius said. “So some one else setting up around here to supply horses, some one with the training could become a wealthy man.”

Travis’s face lit up for a second then he got control of himself. Trust was something hard to come by these days and he knew better than most that there was always a price when a gift was held out.

“first thing we need to do, is get you an outfit. We can do that tomorrow when we go looking for tack. “ Darius said with a smile. “don’t worry kid, I plan on working you to the bone and taking full and shameful advantage of you.” He said scooping up a piece of rope and tossing it to Travis. “we got some time before the stew is ready, lets start with some knots.”

Dutch sat behind the old ornate desk of what once been a study. One hand idly tapping the desk top as he gazed at Possum who shifted in his seat to get comfortable.

The last three days had been nerve wracking for the crew. But one bright point was the hunter hadn’t entered the town again, which kept him away from Connor or any of the others who might have just decided trying to take out the Hunter was worth breaking the rules. Hell if one of them had managed to kill the Hunter, he would have been considered a hero by the others in the gang, effectively putting him out of reach of any punishment Dutch might want to administer.

Possum got settled into his chair, sitting quietly. One of his habits that really annoyed Dutch. The man always waited for some one else to start the conversation.

“so?” Dutch prompted. At least I don’t sound irritated, Dutch thought taking that as a victory.

“He and that boy he hired haven’t done much the last three days but work with those horses, and go scrounging in some of the homes outside of town. They took most of the stuff they gathered to the market. I heard it was payment for some of the supplies the Hunter received.”

“what kind of things?” Dutch asked knowing that Possum wouldn’t elaborate till asked.

“Saddles, and other thing for the horses he traded. Some blankets, and other odds and ends nothing we normally care about.” Possum said as he reached up and scratched the side of his nose.

“so its just him and a boy. Doesn’t sound like much if he is going to start a war with us.” Dutch said thoughtfully a he sat back in his chair and gazed past possum into a distance only he could see as he considered not only his options but the options the Hunter had, or as many options as Dutch could picture him having. It was all in the details he had learned that as a moderately successful Art thief before the dead, before Kronnen.

“I don’t think he plans on attacking us Dutch, the only thing it looks like he is planning on is a long trip.” Possum said. “either he doesn’t know we used to be with Kronnen, which I doubt or he really doesn’t care anymore.”

“Whose the boy?”

“Travis Collins, the orphan kid, the one that’s been mooning after Ursula Quinn.”

Dutch snorted a laugh, Every man in the area sniffed after Ursula. She was probably one of the best looking women in Town, in fact one of the better looking women he had seen in years and one that he had made off limits, completely off limits to his men. The last thing he needed was to have the men in this miserable town riled up because one or more of his men took it into their heads to try and bed the girl or worse yet force her into bed.

Riled up, now there was an understatement, if any one touched that girl with out her permission, the men in town would come looking for who ever it was with blood in their eyes. “That’s the kid who pointed that god awful pistol at Connors head and made him walk”

Possum nodded “that’s him, the kids brave I will give him that.”

“brave or not the kid picked the wrong side.” Dutch said. “Pack your gear Possum, I want you back out there, if they leave you follow them. Pick four men to take with you too, just in case. When the Hunter is a couple of days out from here, then put a bullet in his head. I don’t want anything that could point back to us if some one finds the body.”

Possum tilted his head in agreement then rose from the chair. “do you want his head”

“No, you I trust to tell me the truth. “ Dutch said rising from his seat and striding to the window.

“and the boy?”

“No witness’s” Dutch said as he gazed at the dew-covered grass. A new day and new decisions, he found he enjoyed his life.

15 thoughts on “The Hunters Trail Part one, an Aftermath Story

      • I really liked the cat and mouse style story as he chased kronnen across the U.S.

        I also liked that he wasn’t military and didn’t have all the experience of jareds crew but still got things done.

        Like

      • Cool beans, I tried to come up with different types of characters in many of the associated stories. Like Lauren, Adam and Lee.

        The Hunter was kind of my salute to Westerns.

        Like

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