Beams of sunlight slipped through the rents in the cloud cover bathing the rolling hills and ridges in warm golden light. a cool wind heavy with the scent of rain and earth blew through the area. White clouds rimmed with sullen grey difted over the steep sided wooded hill.
“Got it, “Travis said excitedly as he pulled the lasso tight around the Log that Darius had set up for him to practice on. “I still can’t believe you can do this while riding, I mean I’ve seen you do it. But its no where as easy as you make it look.”
Darius smiled, remembering the the look of astonishment on Travis’s face when Darius had raced down and roped the three almost wild horses they had encountered over the last two weeks.
He had let Travis pick one of the horses to claim as his own and the kid had chosen the Palimno. The kid like the color, and a palomino wasn’t the worst kind of horse, but it really wasnt suited for rough rides which the new world was full of. But some place like Porters Town would be an excellent place for a light riding horse to get around.
“It easy, and its not” Darius said cryptically then chuckled at the look Travis gave him. “Its easy after years of practice and experience. when my dad and grandpa started teaching me I think I roped myself more then I did the post. ”
Travis grunted as he pulled the loop from the post and began to coil the rope so he could give it another try. “your doing pretty good considering you’ve only been learning the skills for three weeks now. ” Darius commented as Travis began to swing the loop over his head again.
they had spent two weeks scrounging the area outside of Porters town, a full ten mile radius. There hadn’t been much in the way of food, clothes or ammo, Porters Town had long since stripped all that years aback but here had been some tools, tack, and other things that people hadn’t really seen or known of a use for laying around in the ruins of the old homes and business’s.
Now they were a day into the Empty, a region that supposedly was empty of human life for almost a hundred miles in any direction. Darius had traveled through larger regions deviod of human life or it had seemed to be empty at any rate. who knew how many people he had passed then and now that had just hidden and watched him go by.
He sat down on a stump, his rifle across his knees, half watching Travis practice as he kept watch. Their camp was actually one hell of a good find, he thought. situatiated in a narrow valley, formed, who knew how long ago, by a wide rapid creek.
The small valley had once hosted a double wide trailer, at least judging by the four foot cinderblock walls that rose up out of the weeds, that had once been the foundation of the trailer. Now it was a good spot to camp in or used as a pen for the horses at night. During the day the horses were let out ot graze on the abundance of grass out in the overgrown pasture that that ran all the way down to the creek.
Judging by the twisted wreckage of a old metal shed, the splintered trees that littered the old home site and the battered truck that lay on its side near a flattened pump house, a Tornado had probably swept through the area and carried the double wide away.
All in all this was a pretty good camp site, water in easy reach, plenty of grass for the horses to graze, it would make a good base for a few days while he scouted out the area. He considered that for a few moments as he scanned the ridges for any sign of movement or things out of place.
Travis could handle the camp pretty well and was competent enough to exercise the horses and move them back and forth from the pen to the pastures while Darius was gone. Travis wasn’t the best shot with a rifle but he could handle one well enough.
Darius really didnt want to just ride into what could be dangerous territory with the whole damn outfit and loose it all to Bandits, raiders or wild life. It made sense to scout around and find out what the area was like. At least the undead were gone, that was the continous silver lining in his life. Well that and Kronnen was dead and his army shattered.
He waited till they were eating dinner, watching the sun sink into the west before telling Travis his plans to spend a few days scouting out the area. Travis argued a little, worried he couldn’t handle the job. But in the end the kid agreed showing some pride in being trusted to handle not just a job but what amounted to the entirety of Darius’s wealth in the world.
By sunrise the weather hadn’t improved, the angry gray and black clouds covered the sky and the the smell of impending rain filled the air. He double checked the gear he was taking then strapped it to his horse.
Travis, finished with his morning chores, came to stand beside Darius as the morning mist curled lazily around them like a soft lace curtian.
Satisfied that everything was ready Darius turned to Travis, “Travis, if some one tries to take this stuff, let them have it. We can collect more gear and find more horses its not worth your life.” Darius told the boy. By his expression Travis didn’t like the idea but if he was tempted to protest the words remained unspoken. Instead the kid nodded in agreement. “Don’t get me wrong Travis. I want you to live so you can Marry that girl you like so much.” Darius said then swung into the saddle. Travis blushed but nodded, hopefully all the testosterone the thoughts of Ursalu generated wouldn’t send the kid off into some macho jag and get him killed.
Besides Kid, if some one takes our stuff I will get it back, Darius thought grimly feeling the hunter inside strain at its leash eager to be free. “Be careful, I will be back in four days to a week.” If the kid was scared of being left alone he wasn’s showing it Darius thought as he rode away. That kid will do all right.
Two weeks later.
Lightening flashed overhead, darting down from the sullen clouds, spreading jagged glowing fingers of light across the sky as if some giant were trying to grasp the earth then it was gone. Two seconds later thunder crashed batter at Darius, his horse jerked under him.
The wind was rising, driving a heavy curtain of rain across the shadow shrouded land. A wall that cut visibility down almost nothing. Then the storm swept across the Ridge and valley below flowing over a man on horse back and the herd of horse he was driving. The temperature dropped notably, leaving the rider shivering despite the heavy duster and clothing he wore.
He let his horse do the guiding, its senses were superior to his. Around him, thunder boomed and lightening played across the sky. Occasionally the Heavy rain parted revealing Dark trees that swayed this way and that under the heavy wind gusts that flowed down the ridge. Then the rain would snap back into place cutting off the view like a switch had been flipped.
It had rained for almost four days his first week out, then had cleared off into perfect weather for almost a full week, then the storms had returned sending rain pouring down every few years for several days now. But the current weather seemed determined to outdo what had come before in both intensity and duration
Darius rode with his hat low and head bowed, water pouring off the flat brim to sluice down his duster. It was hard to keep track of the horses in the rain, but it had to be done if he wanted to keep them together and unharmed.
The wind slapped and shoved at him, as if to push him out of the saddle. The rain stung where it struck bare flesh. The rain hammered at his back with each gust, some pouring down his collar and threatened to rip the hat from his head. his pant legs and the back of his shirt were soaking wet from the rain that some how evaded all his rain gear and got inside. .
He lifted his head and squinted as the rain slapped against his face, “unharmed, sure till lightening gets us all. Survive the undead, Survive hunting Kronnen and his goons and get killed by lightening eight years later because I was to stupid to get out of the rain.” He muttered then moved to cut off a Palomino that was moving away from the small herd.
The storm lessened after awhile dropping to a drizzle sometime after noon. He kept the 12 horses moving, hooves splashing through the standing water and chewing up the mud. Just before sunset as the storm began building again, he spotted a dark building to the west nestled in the edge of the tree line at the base of a ridge.
The building turned out to be a three-door steel framed metal work shop/garage. The tumbled overgrown ruins of a house were nearby. He dismounted and tied his horse off to the bumper of an old rusting truck. while the small herd milled around, churning the ground into a muddy soup, he retrieved a micro solar LED lantern from his saddle bags then walked to the roll up doors.
Got to make this quick, he thought ignoring the man sized door set into the far left wall. that door was too small to get the horses through. He tried the first roll up door and found it stuck, or maybe rusted into place. The second door gave a little, maybe an inch then stopped. He grasped the handle of the third door and heaved. With a squeal and much rattling it moved upwards, the grease long gone. He stepped into the darkness, leaving the rain behind. he got the lantern lit and lifted it high.
The place was mostly empty, a dusty 65 Corvette, its hood up, sat on jack stands. The car seats sat on the wall length work bench. The engine block was still there he saw as he stepped closer holding up the LED lantern, but most everything else had been removed. He peered into the interior of the car and saw that there was enough room for him to stretch out inside if he wanted to. .
The rolling toolboxes had been stripped bare. Empty racks that had once held screws, bolts, nuts and other things hung above the custom workbench. The only tools that had been left were all power tools.
The massive Air compressor still remained, with out power it too was worthless. Worthless for what it was made for, but most of its parts could be useful for other things, Darius would strip out the parts he could use before he left,
Scattered across the floor, were old magazines, vehicle manuals and other books that had been dumped out of the neatly labeled boxes that lay beside them. Faded, with curling pages and spots of mold the refuse of a dead world good only for nostalgic trips of memory that were more depressing than they were fond rememberances of the past.
He made a quick search of the place finding only a few old snake skins, but no other sign of animals and satisfied it was large enough. He returned outside and got the small herd moved inside and out of the storm.
With the horses inside, he got the door shut blocking out the wind and rain. He stripped the gear bags and saddle from his mount and the pack horse and placed them beside the Vet then stripped out of his wet clothes and toweled himself dry with a shammy before he retrieved clean dry clothes from his pack. .
Dressed once more and feeling human again, he broke out the small camp stove and fired it up, using some of the precious butane fuel he had been hording. Placing a small camping pot full of water on the stove. He quickly sorted through the fresh and dried veggies and meat in his supplies, adding what sounded good to the pot of water. A couple dried herbs and some now very old spices from a store and his food preparations were over, now it just had to cook.
Taking advantage of the time it took to cook his soup, Darius checked the horses hooves for rocks and other debris. A rock wedged up in the Frog and not removed was a good way to cripple a horse. By the time he finished, the soup was ready. Filling a tin bowl, and breaking off a hunk of hard bread he sat down beside the Vet and at his soup, while watching the horses.
They were happy to be out of the rain, but not thrilled with being inside this place. It might be the smell, or just being inside. But either way they were distracted and restless, he told himself.
With supper finished he cleaned up, hoping the horses would settle down and go to sleep. But they didn’t seem interested in sleep, or settling down.
“come on, you need to sleep as much as I do” Darius said. The horses ignored him of course.
Remembering a song his Grand pa had listened to often during Darius’s child hood, he hummed for a moment then sang.
“Oh, say, little dogies, when are you goin’ to lay down
And quit this forever siftin’ around?
My limbs are weary, my seat is sore;
Oh, lay down, dogies, like you’ve laid before,—
Lay down, little dogies, lay down.
Oh, lay still, dogies, since you have laid down,
Stretch away out on the big open ground;
Snore loud, little dogies, and drown the wild sound
That will all go away when the day rolls round,—
Lay still, little dogies, lay still.”
Singing to them worked about as well as talking to them. Of course they might know that Dogies were cows and felt insulted. He dug into a sack and pulled out some of the apples he had collected along the way and fed one to each horse. With that done he returned to sit beside the car.
As he sat there, his gaze fell on the scattered magazines. He had promised himself he wouldn’t look at them. He didn’t need any more reminders of all the things he had lost when the dead had risen. But after a while the temptation was to much.
He ached to see streets filled with people, running vehicles. read again the plans and predictions of a better future. The old world was like some mythological Atlantis these days, and in a couple of decades most of those who remembered it would be dead and the next generation would have no personal knowledge of what had come before them. Then with out a place like the Zone, the old world, the good and the bad would fade away and be replaced by legend and myth.
Giving in at last he rummaged through the magazines and books scattered nearby, the first one he lifted was a Playboy. Probably hidden out here so the mans wife wouldn’t complain, he thought as he stared at the cover where a once famous actress smiled back at him. the Date on the cover showed it had come up just before the dead had risen.
Something tickled at the corner of his eyes as he gazed at the woman’s picture, she smiled into the camera looking like she had not a care in the world. She had been one of his favorites back then, and it bothered him he had forgotten her till seeing this picture. How much more had he forgotten, he wondered as he stared at her beauty.
His emotions surged, it wasn’t really her, but what she represented. And it was the reason he had tried to resist looking at the magazines. We thought we had it so bad back then, before the dead. If we had only known what was coming, we would have seen the truth. For a moment, images of the truly dead and the walking dead flashed through his mind. in the span of a couple of heart beats he saw again the horror, the despair that had gripped the survivors of the Apocalypse. Almost overwhelmed, he forced the thoughts aside as he continued to gaze into the magnificent blue eyes of a woman who had probably died horribly. Her rich figure, and the desire it had once spawned were gone. The reason was simple she represented not just the world that he had known but all the loss and grief of the end of that world.
He wiped at his eyes with the back of his hand and placed the magazine on the hood of the vet. He no longer felt any desire to look at the old pictures inside those magazines. They were dead, the world they had lived in was dead.
Ignoring the magazines, he began to look through the books, The first couple were thrillers, but the fourth book brought a smile to his face. “Swiss Family Robinson.”, he read as he pulled his legs up to sit cross legged and opened the book. In moments he was lost in the story that had been one of his favorites as a kid.
He read for an hour then closed the book, hoping he got a chance to read a little tomorrow to see what Fritz was going to do next. Then gathering his sleeping bag he climbed into the vet, and settled in for the night.
He woke just before sunrise and found it was still raining. Not in any hurry to get outside and get soaked he fired up the camp stove and heated up the soup he had saved from last night. once the soup was hot, he boiled up a cup of Chickory/dandilion coffee. “you know I would kill for the real thing,” he told the horses as he finished his breakfast.
When he had been preparing to leave Sullivan Island, there had been talk of sending one of the Tall ships down to Columbia to see about finding coffee beans and setting up a permanent run to supply the Zone with Coffee.
Darius secretly suspected it had more to do with securing a supply of chocolate to keep the women from getting to mean, but Jared Stone had dodged the question any time it had been brought up. Ori McBride had commented once “Coffee would bring Raiders swarming in, mad for a caffeine rush and world war three will be the Bean war”
Either the chickory/Dandalion mix was getting better or he was so used to the nasty taste he no longer noticed that his taste buds were trying to escape after each sip. Once he finished breakfast, he cleaned up.
“We should hit the trail, I am already over due and Travis is going to be worried.” He said aloud as he packed his gear. He wasn’t going to go dashing off in this weather unless head to but it was better to have it packed in case he needed to get out fast than have to leave stuff behind if he had to flee danger.
With nothing else to do till the storm passed or the rain slacked off. Darius spent some time tearing down the Compressor for parts then set to cleaning his weapons and inspecting his gear for wear while listening to the steady beat of rain on the roof of the metal building. Around Nine, or what felt like Nine, the Storm broke and the pounding rain turned to a light but steady fall.
Might as well check things out, he decided strapping on his weapons and then donned his duster and Hat. Rifle in hand he opened the man sized door to the left of the Roll ups and stepped out into the rain.
He moved slowly around the building, looking for Tracks in the sodden ground and any sign of movement. It was impossible not to leave tracks at this point so any one that had been sneaking around out here would give themselves away.
It wouldn’t be the first time he had found some one had been sneaking around a place that he had camped in. There were a lot of people who had gone wild out here since the world had died.
He slowly spiraled outwards till he found himself by the collapsed house. The rain had faded to a drizzle he hesitated for a moment gazing at the ruined old home. he couldn’t see anything worth taking in the rubble. The meter box had been stripped off the wall, where he could see plug boxes, the wire was missing.
There were no chairs, no old clothing, or even a TV in the rubble that he could see. Some one had stripped this place bare, so some one had survived the dead in this area. They might be dead by now, any one of a thousand things from starvation to exposure could have killed them. It had happened in other places, But he guessed the odds were about as good they might still be alive and living in the surrounding area.
Probably best to move on out while they are still sheltering from the rain, where ever it is they call home. I have no desire to get into a fight with survivors who might just be looking to protect what supplies they have, from being taken by outsiders.
Get a move on, two more weeks and you will be meeting Quint and the others and then you can ride in a truck he told himself as he turned his back on the ruined home and headed back to the workshop.
He left half an hour later, closing up the workshop and wondering if any one would ever stop there again. America was full of lost cities and towns, where it would be decades if not longer before some one set foot in their ruins.
Miles behind him, the men who hunted him were closing in.
Possum squatted gazing at the prints in the soft wet dirt, then looked around frowning thoughtfully. “Connor is ahead of us” He said aloud.
“you sure its Connor” Toby Willis asked. Toby was a blocky man with thick dark hair and darker eyes.
“I’m sure” Possum replied. Toby and the others didn’t argue. Possum was the best Tracker in the gang and if he said he was sure, then the others would take it as gospel.
“How in the hell did that jack ass get ahead of us.”
“they used bicycles to catch up” Possum said pointing to the distinctive set of tracks left by wheels to the right of foot prints. Technically Conner Hadn’t gotten ahead of them, the Hunter was heading south again and Connor coming up from the south had probably stumbled over the Hunter or his tracks or more likely had stumbled across the Hunters camp and the Kid.
“I wonder how they knew where to look?”
“Probably found the Kids camp and forced him to talk.” Possum said hiding his distaste. Connor was a asshole at the best of times. Add in the humiliation of having the kid stand up to him in Porters Town in front of God and everybody with that big mean ass pistol in hand. Had stuck in Conners throat and would guarantee he had would have made a point to take the kid at gun point and beat him till he answered what ever questions Conner might ask.
I should have thought of using bicycles, Possum thought disgusted with himself. Those horses have kept The Hunter a couple of days ahead of me the entire way. Bicycles would have made it far easier to catch up or even pass the Hunter and set up an ambush.
Of course I could have done it the easy way and raided the Kids camp and beat information out of him like Conner probably had, Possum thought then shook his head. That just wasn’t his style, and it wasn’t like tracking horses was hard. He had been more than happy to let the kid alone in his camp which also meant that Possum wouldn’t have to kill him along with the Hunter.
Dutch didn’t want a witness to spread the word and bring the hunters friends down on the gang, and if the Kid wasn’t with the Hunter then he wasn’t a witness and didn’t have to die and Possum could live with that and He knew Dutch wouldn’t mind letting the kid live either.
He studied the tracks a minute longer then rose wiping the gritty mud from his hands on a rag from his pack. “Connor is maybe two hours, possibly three ahead of us.” He told his men.
Boscoe, a thin man with thin blond hair and a hatchet face nodded. He looked like a man that hoped they would find Connor died. Possum could get behind that idea himself.
“Lets hope that idiot doesn’t fuck this up” Tom Quigley said, in a tone of mild disgust.
Not a man on the team liked Connor, Possum thought, but not many in the gang do. all but Connors clique are ready to just settle down, make a home and get on with life. Dutch had been right too, Raiding produced far less salvage and a high risk of death than just scouting out locations and salvaging the sites themselves, and had a lot lower risk of being killed that way. Oh occasionally they had picked a spot only to have men appear who claimed the salvage was theirs. With other sites ripe for the picking Dutch had moved on, only twice fighting the strangers.
Raids had dwindled down and pretty much stopped the last three years, with the exceptions of the Raids that Connor and his clique launched occasionally. Part of the reason raids were dropping off was with no vehicles, the Raiders had to range out almost a week or more away on foot to find any settlement or group to raid.
I wonder how long Connor and his people have been using bicycles and has he been launching more raids than we know about, he asked himself. Who would pay much attention if Connor and his group were gone for three or four days, I never did! they couldn’t get out of the Empty in four days on foot. But with bicycles they could and if they showed up with loot, every one would believe they had just found some old home or shop and looted it.
And if he has been launching Raids with out Telling Dutch how long before a bunch of men from one of those communities shows up looking for blood, Possum wondered. Well that will happen when it happens and no point in worrying about it now. Focus on the task at hand, Possum told himself, that storm slowed down the hunter and we have a real chance to catch up.
But if Connor tries to kill the Hunter and fails, all of us will pay and if he succeeds he will use that to try and take over. Not a pleasant thought either. Maybe He will drop over dead before he can cause any more problems. Possum sighed, I am not that lucky.
“Lets pick up the pace, the hunter is ahead of us and there is no reason to cover our tracks.” He said then glanced at Quigley, a stocky dark haired man, with a thick mustache and a long Fu Manchu goatee. “Lets hope he doesn’t, but we both know if there is a chance of Screwing up, Connor will screw up.”
I would rather be sitting back in my old apartment, worrying about fencing jewelry and art work than this crap, he thought as he shrugged to settle his pack then started off at a jog.
Connor growled angrily as his bike threw up a spray of dirty water that drenched his pants. Maybe horses did have a few advantages, he told himself as he pedaled harder to get up the ridge.
Just below the crest of the hill he stopped and climbed off his bike. his men coming to a stop behind him. Laying his Bike on the ground, he got down low and moved slowly up to the crest line and peered down the road. Over the years since the fall, Men and women had, had to relearn all the things their ancestors had known. One of those lessons had been never silhouette yourself against the sky it made it much easier for the other guy to spot you and get a shot off. Assuming the other guy still had bullets. In this case, the other Guy was the Hunter and he damn sure had bullets and didn’t mind using them on people like Connor.
Conner peered over the crest and through gaps in the trees he was able to get a half way decent view of what lay below. The road curved around a outcrop of rock and vanished as it snaked around the backside of the hill. Connor could see the valley floor, or hollow as it was called in these parts. A smile spread across his face as he saw horses moving south and then a man on horse back appeared. Oh yes, you are mine, Connor vowed silently as he watched the horseman.
It had only been luck that He had come across the Hunter so soon after finding the camp.
I still should have just gone in there and taken the kid, but the two men and the woman who had shown up at the kids camp had made him super cautious. Besides, if the boy was camping there, then the Hunter would be coming back and there were only a few ways to reach that camp that didn’t involve riding over rough country.
Since the Hunter had been moving steadily north since he left Porters town, and Connor knew the Hunter was looking for horses, it only made sense that the Hunter would head deeper into Kentucky which had had a reputation for being horse country before the dead. With that thought in mind, Connor had taken the only road that led deeper into blue grass country and here he was, four days later looking down on the Hunter.
An elevated shot would be better, Connor thought, but at this distance much harder and we don’t have bullets to waste. We need to get closer, he thought as he slid back from the Crest and retrieved his bike.
Just have to hope the Hunter doesn’t look up and spot us as we go over the top, but we can make up a lot of time going downhill and with all those horses to take care of, the Hunters top speed isn’t going to be good enough to get away from us.
He smiled for the first time in days he was looking forward to the moment. I only hope we can take him prisoner, He will still die of course but it will be long slow and painful and unlike Kronnen I will kill him instead of leaving him to die. I will not give him a chance to make one of those miraculous escapes of his. With that thought to warm the cockles of his little black heart he got his people moving again.
The Storm had moved out of the area by noon leaving a deep blue sky and a cool wind behind. Darius tilted his hat back with a knuckle and gazed up marveling at how blue it seemed he knew just by the quality of light that it was mid august and summer was winding down. in another week or two fall would start and he wanted to be snug in some kind of shelter before winter set in.
He swayed in the saddle, relaxed but alert and enjoying the day as he watched the horses he had collected splash through the puddles and mud. Three days and he would be back at the camp, assuming Travis was still there since he was a week late already. I hope he is, I want a decent meal, some of that whiskey I have stashed in the Wagon and company.
The problem with spending so much time alone, he thought, was that it gives me far to much time to think about the old world and who I became afterwards.
What really bothers you, he told himself, is that you liked it. You lived for the hunt and once it was over no matter how much you denied it, you missed it. Jared Stone had understood all to well. Stones Demon was still out there, still a threat to Jared Stone, his family. Friends and all they had built.
“The Problem,” Jared had said one night as they sat on the beach watching the waves. “Is that you didn’t expect to survive Kronnen and now that you have, you know that there is no going back to the person you were and want to be.”
Jared was right about that, but it wasn’t going to stop Darius from trying either. But I refuse to become some bitter traveling gunslinger filled with angst and regret and have some little kid chase me out of town, crying Darius, Darius, come back Darius. That made him smile, I think I prefer to be more like Kevin Kliens character in Silverado than Shane.
He came out of his reverie seeing the Herd suddenly veer to the east, he could feel his own mount tense and turn to follow. Suddenly alert Darius looked around closely then his eyes widened every so slightly as he saw a wolf about fifty yards away, half hidden in the tall grass. It was a beautiful creature, he thought, as he spotted at least three other wolves now, all them were watching the horses.
Darius drew his pistol and fired once into the air. The sharp crack rolled across the narrow hollow, startling the wolves and his horses. His own mount was better trained and resisted, barely, the urge to run. The wolves as one turned and vanished into the grass heading for the western tree clad hill, the horses broke into a gallop heading east.
“ Damn it” Darius snarled as he holstered his pistol and touched heels to horse. Instantly the Nokota flowed into a full gallop.
It only took ten minutes to get the horses turned, slowed and headed south again. Thirsty he leaned over and reached for the canteen that hung from his saddle horn and saved his life.
The first shot, struck him high on the right shoulder. Instinct sent his hand darting for the rifle that hung on the side of his saddle. The second scored a bloody track across the side of his head and then his horses neck. The Nokota, surprised by the pain reared up. Darius his head ringing, was swept away by vertigo and only years of experience allowed him to kick free of the stirrups so as not to fall and be dragged. His rifle flew from his hands as he fell away.
He hit the muddy ground driving the breath from his lungs. A part of his mind amazed that mud could feel so hard. He might have been struck by a hoof too, but his mind wasn’t working well enough to be sure at the moment.
After a minute he became aware of men shouting, and a couple more wild gunshots into the grass around him. Get moving, he told himself as he dragged in a shuddering breath and rolled onto his side. The Raiders, at least that what he figured they were, were getting closer judging by their voices.
“I got him, Connor, I got his ass” a man shouted.
“Till we see a body, you better believe he is alive.” another man hollered. His voice rough and harsh. “Malone, Hofstetter get over there and check it out.”
“why the hell do I have to go? Connor”
“Cause, Hoffstetter, if you don’t I will shoot your ass” Connor, the man with the harsh sounding voice yelled back. “and every minute we waste that horse with his supplies is getting further away.”
“all right, All right, But your going to owe me”
Darius bound his wounds quickly, he had to stem the flow of blood before he grew weak, then drew the sawed off shot gun from the holster on his thigh and smiled grimly. The years of surviving had honed his combat skills and experience allowed him to push aside fear and most pain and focus on killing his enemies. Do unto the others before they can do you, a harsh lesson but one that kept a man alive.
Malone, a Dark haired man with a hair lip, moved cautiously through the tall grass and weeds. If there had ever been a time in his life where he had been kind, he had long forgotten it. the years of being made fun of in school had driven him to fights and petty crime, Jail time had killed any vestiges of childhood kindness. And even if he could be kind, this was the Hunter and the bastard deserved a hard death.
There, he thought looking down, behind a thick and tall clump of weed he saw a leg. with his rifle ready he shoved forward a smile forming.
Darius lay on his belly playing possum, as the first man stepped into view, Darius lifted the sawed off shotgun and fired both barrels.
Hoffstetter, more cautious and less mean than Malone trailed behind his partner by a good six feet, He saw Malone lift his rifle and step forward then a spray of blood, bone and flesh erupted from Malone’s back with a flash of fire and thunder. Hot, coppery blood splattered Hoffstetters face, pure instinct lifted his hand to wipe it away it was his first and last mistake as a pistol fired, once, twice then three times, the heavy rounds jerking his body around. He could feel his life leaking from the wounds as he crumpled to the ground.
“Holy shit” Someone yelled. “he damn near cut Malone in half.”
Conner and the rest of his men hunkered down, hoping to stay out of sight. As Ambushes went this one wasn’t turning out well, Conner thought acidly.
“You sure got him good, Stucker, I bet if we wait around he might actually bleed to death in a few days.” Connor called out venting his frustration and anger on Stucker.
“Maybe if you charge” Connor blinked in surprise as the Hunter called out mockingly.
“We might just do that, You cant get all of us Hunter.”
So these aren’t raider, Darius thought as he reloaded the sawed off shotgun and his pistol while looking around for his rifle. Why should I be surprised that Dutch’s folks followed me out here. “I don’t know, I am pretty sure I can get four or five of you pretty fast.” Darius called out finally spotting the glimmer of sunlight off of oiled metal. “you do have more men than that don’t you?”
“fuck you” some one said.
Darius didn’t say anything, leaving a trail of blood he snaked over and retrieved his rifle. He quickly checked the weapon for dirt and damage then lay still listening and watching.
The minutes ticked slowly past, and his pain grew. His shoulder was stiffening, his mouth was dry as cotton and his head throbbed painfully. He was certain that Dutchs crew was working their way towards him.
If I wait too long, I bleed to death or get so stove up I cant fight. If I leap, figuratively speaking, up and start shooting then I am a big mucking target.
“You killed several of my friends” Connor said. “I figure killing you will make us even.”
Darius started to speak, only to pause as he heard something rustling in the weeds about ten feet away. To bad for you asshole, He thought as he leveled his rifle and fired.
His rifle, an old Henry, fired 45.70. which to a layman sounds intimidating as well as meaningless. The bullet was technically a 11.63mm lead round and weighed 405 grains mounted on a brass cartridge that was filled with with 70 grains of powder. At least the standard pre dead rounds were 70 grains. Darius loaded hot, which only meant that more grains of powder had been added to each round. . Today it did the job it had been created for, taking a mans life.
One moment Owen Brooks had been creeping forward and the next he was on his back his neck, and chest a red, blood soaked ruin. He was unable to cry out or protest as the darkness drowned his world and swept him away to oblivion.
Connor swore silently, as his men shouted angrily and hurled insults at the Hunter who was still hidden in the high grass. Connor was sure that the hunter had been hit at least twice, maybe three times before falling from his horse.
We should wait and let him bleed out, but there is no way that Stucker and the others are going to wait they want the Hunter dead, especially now that three of ours are dead, Connor thought. No choice then if I want them to follow me I have to get them moving.
Like others who had craved power, Connor had just learned that a weak leader could only lead by following; he lacked the personal strength and force of personality that could have gotten his men to actually follow his lead. Assuming he had a plan to lead them through which he didn’t..
Darius slowly crawled, inch by bloody slow inch towards the Western ridge, away from the Men who had come down the eastern Ridge, they had probably been following him the entire way, Darius thought as he used ever weed, scrub and tuft of grass to keep concealed.
Before the dead, people had scoffed at how people in stories and movies had been able to move and hide in what to their city bred sense was open ground. The truth was, men could and did manage to move around and hide in ground that might look impossible. It took skill and experience and Darius had acquired both over the long hunt and since.
His wounds made it difficult, and once Dutches people saw the blood trail they could follow him easily. But that was fine by Darius, he was only looking for a place to set up his own ambush .
He ignored the taunts and back and forth calls of the men who stalked him. they were moving cautiously. Knowing they no longer had the element of surprise on their side and they knew the man they were after had killed huge numbers of their fellow raiders in the past. So despite the taunts and the Bravado they were men who knew that they faced a dangerous man.
Forty torturous feet later Darius found a depression, about ten inches deep, half filled with rain water, around it rose thick weeds and scattered brush. He slid in, finding the bottom was covered in a thick carpet of rotting leaves. It smelled of rot, mold and water.
His pursuers had given no sign of seeing him make the crawl, they were still focused on the area where he had fallen from his horse. Something hard edged and grim crossed his face, a charitable person might have guessed it was supposed to be a smile.
There is no escape from it is there, Darius thought almost angrily as he felt the need, the desire, like deadly addiction to answer the siren call of the Hunter. You are who you become through your experiences in life and its not something that can be escaped. Its as inevitable as death and just as binding. ‘and it’s the only way to survive, Jared was right. Damn him.’
He let loose the mental chains that had held his demon in check, cast all thoughts of Bekka and a future aside. There was only now, this moment and the coming thunder and blood.
Connor had spread his men out in a wide semicircle to keep them from being bunched up and becoming easy targets to be mowed down. The Hunter had fallen silent, either refusing, or unable to respond to the insults and threats Connors men tossed out.
The longer the silence went on the more strained his men became. With their quarry silent they had no idea where he was, or what he might be doing. It spooked them and rightly so.
This was the Hunter, the man who had hounded an entire army across half a nation, killing as he came. We had our chance, Connor told himself. The hunter had slipped up, had gotten too relaxed, he should have been easy to take out. But the distance had been to far and none of us are great shots.
Let him be dead, Connor prayed silently. Let that be the reason he is quiet. If asked Conner couldn’t have said who he was praying to, like most men in bad situations prayer came easily.
His men swept through the high grass and weeds, skirting the puddles and mud left behind by the last storm. They were being as cautious as possible, but in the end it did them no good. Like the old saying they had poked a sleeping bear with a short stick.
Ray Dubois, just to the left of Conner and ten feet away, had almost reached the spot where Connor had seen the Hunter fall from his horse, when the first shot rang out from Connors right.
The bullet struck Stucker, who had been on the far end of the arc, just below the belt buckle. The burly man a gave a high pitched squeal as blood fountain’d and he toppled over. More gunshots smashed out like thunder, and Dint Harliss, the next in line, went down as silent as the grave.
Connor didn’t know if Dint was dead or not, but he could see and hear Strucker as the other man thrashed around screaming trying to hold the blood in. Or maybe to keep something from falling off, Connor thought as a sliver of ice shivered up his spine.
What was left of his men fired back, a couple of them had even seen where the muzzle flash of the Hunters rifle had been and were putting round after, dwindingly rare round down range.
“hold your damn fire till your certain you can hit him” Connor bellowed “ and stay down”
Will Burns and the man every one called Beans didn’t listen they charged the spot where they figured the hunter was hiding.. They fired slowly, but they were still firing at a target they couldn’t see and were wasting bullets, Connor wanted to scream at them to stop and come back or at least hold their fire till they could see the enemy.
they covered twenty feet, then thirty and Connor was just starting to think they would make it when that damned rifle fired again and Will went tumbling to one side, Beans threw himself to the ground screaming for help.
Darius gritted his teeth, The enemy was hunkered down for the moment, and he took advantage of their inactivity. Laying aside the rifle aside he pulled his knife and quickly cut strips from his shirt and bound the new wound in his thigh. There was nothing he could about the gouge across his shoulder, he couldn’t reach it and didn’t have the time to really try. hearing the soft clink of metal on metal and the whisper of cloth, the enemy was on the move again. He picked up his rifle again, ignoring the warm blood that slowly soaked his shirt and ran down his side. He settled in to wait
His men were ready to bolt, Connor thought, his anger a dull throb behind his eyes. . what was left of his men that is. He added. The worst part of it was, if I ran back to Dutch, Dutch would probably kill me not just for going after the Hunter, but because I failed, Dutch knows as well as I do that the Hunter, if he lives will come looking for payback.
The Decision to take out the Hunter had been easy to make and for all the wrong reasons. It had never cross Conners mind that he could fail. That the Hunter might actually be as tough as all the stories about him had said. But here he was, Surprised, outnumbered and wounded and the SOB was whittling Conners men down just as fast as they came to him.
Now I wish I had just grumbled and muttered a lot and kept my ass in Porters town. He thought. But that wasn’t helping me here. there still might be a chance to finish this asshole off once and for all Conner thought, as he tried to study the situation from every angle.
We have to get close, and that means crossing forty or so feet of rain soaked ground. if we can get there with out losing any more men. And I am not sure we can. But once there we cut that Shit head down. He made up his mind then caught the attention of his surviving men and motioned for them to keep low but join him.
Both sides knew the options to end this were limited to say the least. The real question in Darius mind was how badly had their moral been shaken. Like most of the Thugs who had served Kronnen, these guys even years later still had no real clue how to fight. They still relied on the old bully tactics and amateur hour combat skills.
They hadn’t needed anything more capable to raid most places and it wasn’t as if they couldn’t get lucky.
Darius almost reached down to touch one of his newest wounds, painful and obvious proof that his enemies could get lucky. So how much ammo could they have left, how much can they afford to waste, the answers were I don’t know to the first and Not a lot to the second.
Darius could reload, assuming he survived, but that wasn’t magic. Sooner or later he would run out of powder or cartridges and that would be that. But he was a lucky one, The raiders weren’t they had to hunt down more ammo so they had to be careful about spending it.
Which really shows how badly they want me dead if they are willing to spend it all on me. Man When I set out to piss people off I do a bang up job of it, he decided. I can see that on my tombstone.
Lets face it, They can’t afford to let me live now because if they do, they know that sooner or later I will come hunting them. And that’s what their choices boil down to, fight me now or fight me later. So they are going to find a way to get close and come in guns blazing and hope they nail me before I get too many of them.
Connor was surprised that they got as close as they did with out being seen or at least fired on. No one would ever know just how scared he was at the moment he gave the signal and his remaining men and himself rose to their feet, and opened fire as they charged the spot they were sure the Hunter was hiding in.
Darius grunted in pain as he was shot yet again, he fired his rifle rapidly. One Raider stumbled then fell face first, a second screamed as the Heavy round shattered his hand. Tossing his weapon away the man fled.
Connor ran at the Hunters hiding spot firing wildly. He didn’t care about wasted ammo, he only cared about killing the Hunter before the Hunter could kill him. The sound of gunfire and shouting men echoed off the ridges.
One-moment things were going Conners way; the next Rafe Carson was falling with some kind of small axe buried in his chest, an almost comical look of surprise on his face.
Bean screamed as two arrows punched into his stomach, Arrows, where in the hell did they come from, Conner wondered as he slid to a stop. He stood there for less than a heart beat, but long enough to see that kid Travis emerge from the woods along the ridge line, and fire that damn huge pistol. A woman dressed in, a fringed leather dress with a drawn bow was right behind the kid and not ten feet behind where the Hunter was hiding, a man dressed in fringed leathers, like he was in some western movie, rose into view holding a pistol in each hand.
Conner turned and ran hunched over, as the gun fire behind him trickled off to nothing.
It was close to sunset, as Possum walked around the scene of the fight. His thin lips were drawn even thinner as he saw the bodies of men he had known well. He had never particularly liked them, but he had known them.
He could never actually explain to any one, how reading sign, gave you a good idea of how a target thought, but just looking where the Hunter had come off his horse, you could see the man hadn’t panic’d. he had taken the time to bind his wounds, then waited and killed two men using a shotgun and a pistol. Before moving to get something out of the grass , a weapon probably.
It looked like he lain there for a little bit, then there was the second exchange of gun fire before the hunter had crawled to another spot to lay his own ambush. After the fight some one had gathered up every spent shell casing they could find. He wondered if they had a way to reload the cases or just had a use for the brass.
“They had him pinned here” Possum said pointing to the depression and its churned up bloody ground. “he was wounded, maybe even badly.” The foot prints around where the Hunter had lain showed two people, one a adult male and one child. The adults prints were deeper leaving the area so he must have carried the Hunter out.
“some one showed up and carried the Hunter out,” He said as followed the tracks for the second time to the edge of the woods, where the man and child had been joined by a woman, whose prints were smaller and another man or young boy, probably Travis judging by the boot soles and size of the print. “The kid made friends then probably went looking for the Hunter and heard the shoot out and came running.” Possum had heard the fight himself, sound traveled weirdly up here, but getting here had been rough and taken to much time, it had been long over by the time he arrived.
“Looks like Conner and two others where wounded and escaped. They ran east to that Ridge.” He said with out looking back.
“Should we go find them?”
“No, let that asshole and his buddies die up there. Travis and his friends are going to be on the look out now for ambushes thanks to Conner.” And now I have to kill the kid which really pisses me off, he didn’t add. “Lets find a place to camp for the night. I doubt the Hunter and his new friends are going far.” He added and I have to figure out what to do about this. There was no telling if the strangers would stay with Travis and the Hunter, but could they be also be friends of his.
The Hunter mentioned to people in Porters town, he was on his way to meet up with some friends, could this be them. face it how many strangers just up and help total strangers these days. He nodded to himself, it was most likely these were friends of the Hunters and that was going to make things more difficult. What if there were even more of them at their camp.
He was going to have to scout, and to with the distances involved he was going to send one of his mean back to Porters to ask Dutch for more men to help with an assault now. Which also meant he was going to have to use blaze marks for the Re-enforcements to follow him with and probably a Rendezvous point to use if all else failed.
With a that decision made, Possum got down to business, studying the tracks again, committing them to memory so he could easily identify them later.
“oh shit”Darius moaned as he opened his eyes then closed them rapidly. The light was dim but it felt like knives stabbing into his eyes and the sudden flare of pain and massive headache were no better.
He lay there a minute, gathering his thoughts. I am still alive, and not tied up, he realized as he lifted a hand then dropped it quickly as pain raced his shoulder along his nerve endings like fire on spilled gasoline. Feels like ten fingers and ten toes, along with a nose.. so far so good. He told himself as he worked the digits in question then touched his face with his opposite hand attached to the arm that wasn’t attached to a shot up shoulder.
He slowly opened his eyes to slits, and saw he was inside something metal that had boxes stacked along the wall he could see. It took him a moment to realize he was looking at the inside of a cargo van. Turning his head a little he could see sunlight slipping through the thin spots and chips of two painted window set into the rear van doors.
He tried to remember getting here, but all that he remembered was the sound of gunfire and hot pokers slamming into him there at the end.
Somewhere behind him there was the creak of old leather, he tried to sit up so he could turn and look, but gave up, his limbs were too stiff and the pain was too great. “Your safe now” a woman’s voice, soft as silk and gentle as a breeze. when did you get so poetic, he asked himself.
“just lay there and let me go get the others” she said. Then there was the sound of a door opening then closing.
He woke again as the rear doors opened, he hadn’t even felt himself falling back to sleep. The sunlight was dazzling; he closed his eyes tight then slowly opened them to slits again trying to let his eyes adjust.
“You are one tough guy,” Travis said as he climbed into the Van and sat beside Darius.
“what happened?” Darius asked. it was painful to speak and his voice was barely a whisper. If he was surprised at seeing Travis it didn’t show.
“You got the crap shot out of you, is what happened. You almost died twice but Anna and Lee saved you.” Travis replied.
“who?” Darius asked keeping his questions to single words would be less painful than trying to use a whole sentence.
“well they came across the camp and stayed for a few days, they wanted to talk to you about a deal. When you didn’t show up, I offered them a deal to come along and help find you.”
“idiot” Darius got out. They could have killed Travis and taken everything. The kid should have known better.
“Don’t worry I didn’t sell off all the horses or anything and if they hadn’t come along, you would be dead right now. So thank me later.” Travis said defensively.
“here let me take a look at his wounds” A man said as he climbed into the van.
From Darius position, he looked, medium height, with a bushy beard. He was better fed than most people and looked fit. His clothes though were not off the rack of any store Darius had ever seen, except maybe a costume shop or a souvenir stand.
He wore a fringed buckskin coat with horn buttons, currently open revealing the thin leather shirt underneath; his buckskin pants were tucked into old style knee army riding boots. Around his waist, really riding on his hips, was a western style gunbelt the holsters tied down, and all of it looked hand made.
“Bet you feel like crap” The man said as he placed a strong callused hand on Darius undamaged shoulder and held him gently in place as he checked the bandages over Darius wounds for blood or discolored discharge. “you lost some blood which was worrisome. The good and bad news is the bullets went in your side, glanced off your ribs and punched back out, good news, breaking the ribs in the process, bad news. You don’t have a concussion from the head wound, good news, it slid along your skull but did no damage that I can see. Probably left a hell of a headache. Your might lose some flexibility in your shoulder. Your Thigh wound is fine, the bullet didn’t hit the bone, more good news but your going to end up with some stiffness from that one too. And the one that hit the inside of your thigh, grazed the skin of your inner thigh and missed anything you probably want to keep. Which I point out is really good news”
“your a Doctor” Darius made himself ask.
“No, but I did sleep in a Holiday Inn express, and I read a first aid book once.” the man replied with a laugh. He picked up a bottle and held it to Darius mouth letting him take small sips while he talked. “Seriously though between us, Anna and I knew enough to save your butt. we were worried there might have been internal damage we knew nothing about and you might die anyway, but you’ve hung on for a week and gotten stronger every day, so it all looks good at this point.’
“Time flies when your unconscious. You woke up several times during the week, you were out of it, but we got a little food and water in you each time.” the man told Darius as he peeled back a cloth bandage and checked the wound underneath. “ I am Lee, Lee boyden by the way.” The man said covering the wound again then sat back on his heels and gazed at Darius. “and you are Darius Zane McAlister, the Infamous Hunter and now Cowboy entrepreneur.” He winked at Darius. “Travis told us, I gather he didn’t know much of your story till he met us or he might have been a little less free with telling strangers who you are.”
“how did you know” Darius asked, curious but not really caring. if they meant him harm they would have just left him to die.
“Travelers mostly, starting a few years a back, people began moving through our territory. The friendly ones we shared food with and exchanged news. The Hunter who tracked a warlord for a couple of thousand miles leaving bodies along the way and killing said warlord in the old US Senate is one of those stories people love to spread. “
“Not True” Darius said shaking his head. “Colorado to DC, started off with others, and some one else killed him.” He said.
“you realize thats crossing a little more than half the old US,” Lee stated giving Darius a patented your being intentionally obstinate look. “ Something like 1800 miles or so if you started around Denver or Boulder and all that while the undead were eating anything that moved. It’s a Hell of a story, even if only half of its true.”
“Sounds more exciting than it was” Darius said trying to sit up. Lee helped him up, while Travis piled bags and a couple of old pillows behind Darius so the wounded man could lean on them. Lee eyed his guest for a moment then shrugged, “ we can talk about it later, right now you need to relax back here while we get back on the road, before your fan club catches up with us again.”
“You have gas for this thing” Darius asked. then rubbed his throat. It hurt like hell to talk but now that his mind was fully engaged, he had a thousand questions.
“no we have Cows to move this thing.” Lee said with a wide smile. “they aren’t fast, but they get us going.”
“and don’t worry about your horse, I found him and brought him back and got back all but two of the herd you had gathered.” Travis broke in. The kid looked proud of himself and He should be. tracking the horses down and getting them back to where ever they were now had to have taken some work.
“good job, pick three of them out for your share.” Darius said taking the bottle of water that Lee held out.
As he sipped, Lee climbed out of the back of the van and Left Travis and Darius alone.
“exactly what did you trade him and for what exactly?” Darius asked after a minute.
“Not much really. He wanted two horses, and some help. in exchange if we can provide the leather, he will make tack for all the horses we have and was willing to help find you.”
“Help, for what and why are you being vague?” Darius asked his throat and mouth no longer feeling dust dry and cracked.
“they are looking for some facility they heard about, its supposed to have power and all sorts of stuff.”
“and nothing!” Travis stated his eyes darting towards the front of the Van where the girl was sitting.
Aah so it’s the girl, Darius thought. “tell me what happened all of it, I cant remember what happened once they got close and opened up on me.”
“well since you were over due, we went looking for you. Would have missed you too, if we hadn’t heard the gunfire. You were about three miles or so away from us, by the time we got there, they were on top of you shooting at almost point blank range. “ he paused and looked at Darius with respect.
“You were bleeding heavily when we showed up, but you were still fighting. I shot at least one guy, Anna put one day with her bow, while Lee killed two, one he killed by throwing an axe at him.” Travis didn’t say how cool that had been, but Darius heard it in his voice. “ By then you had dragged the last guy down and was strangling him You passed out before he died, I guess you had already shot him a couple of times before that cause he bled out of some really big holes. Any way three of them got away. We didn’t waste any bullets on them. I still think we should have though.”
Darius shook his head slowly, his headache, such a poor word to describe the incredible pounding in his skull, kept any additional movements to a bare minimum. Here he had been whining about the things he had done and this kid, who should be dating and sneaking drinks was calmly discussing killing scum bags like it was no big deal.
We are not who we were, none of us. Darius thought.
“thanks Travis, I appreciate it.” Darius said then smiled as the kid retrieved Darius’s kit and weapons and laid them beside his bedroll.
“Lee thought it was a good idea not leave weapons with in reach till you were fully awake and knew where you were and what was going on.” Travis explained.
“Probably a wise move” Darius agreed. “you might as well go do some work, I will try to sleep a little more.”
Travis started for the Door of the van then stopped looking back at Darius. “your going after them aren’t you?”
“Every one of them” Darius agreed. “just as soon as I can.”
Every morning for the next three days, Darius lay in the van recovering as the small group moved locations each day. As slow as they traveled and the tracks they had to be leaving, Dutchs crew would have no trouble following them
On the fourth day, they remained in place to give the horses and cows time to rest and graze. Darius finally feeling well enough to get out of the van, climbed slowly out of the van, still dressed in just his blood stained jean, he didn’t even have boots on. He would need help getting those on till he had healed some more.
His wagon was and the Van were parked on opposites sides of a large fire pit an eight inch tall metal ring encircled the pit. The Van was a banged up Econoline that had been modified with a falling tree and a double yoke for the cows. The Drivers box had been mounted over the windshield. On the side of the Vehicle, faded with the years, and barely legible was the legend “Forest and Sons, Home improvement”
A rough hewn plank table had been set up beside his wagon where a slender woman wearing a buckskin dress was cleaning fish. Her dark hair hung down past her shoulders. She was, what his mother would have called a classic beauty. Girl next door, in my book, stunning in an all natural way.
His eyes lingered on her shapely hips for a moment. Hips that the dress seemed almost designed to showcase.
Tearing his eyes away he looked towards the fire where a muscular Kid wearing a baseball cap and overalls was cleaning a rifle and a dark haired guy in jeans and a old faded black Tshirt was sewing two pieces of leather together. The kid looked up and saw Darius who stared in surprise. That was no kid, he thought.
“Yes I am a midget, yes I am hung like a horse, no I am not gay, yes I am married to a hot woman.” The midget, smiled and jerked his thumb at the other man. “to his sister actually.”
“to my utter shame” The man said with a deep laugh as he sat aside what he had been working on and rose to his feet holding out a callused hand. “you can call me Noah, and the little man over there with the big attitude is Adam.. and that’s Anna.” He said pointing to the woman.
“Darius” He said shaking hands with Noah who had a firm grip. “Adam” Darius said inclining his head, enjoying the absence of the headache.
“what your to good to reach down and shake my hand?” Adam said rising to his feet but the humorous glint in his eyes took any sting out of his words. He slung the rifle across his back having to adjust it so that the barrel didn’t drag the ground as he stepped up to Darius and held out a hand.
“I’m wounded remember, you were ten feet away and bending over hurts.” Darius replied.
“note my restraint. So many jokes I could have used based on that comment” Adam said glancing at Noah who shook his head and laughed. Darius, gave a quick smile and shook Adams hand. Adam stepped back, placing his small rough hands on his hips and eyeing Darius from head to toe for a moment.
“so you’re the Hunter, we heard about.” Adam said after a moment. “I just pictured you being shorter.”
Noah snorted a laugh, as he sat down and went back to work. It was apparent these people had been friends for a long time and seeing them acting so relaxed and casual told him why Travis had trusted them so quickly. This time it seems to have been a smart move, but who knows what tomorrow will bring.
“Sorry to disappoint.” Darius said, feeling uncomfortable as Adam studied the scars that adorned Darius shirtless torso.
“you’ve been through some real shit haven’t you?” Adam asked gently his teasing tone abruptly gone as his eyes once more took in Darius scars.
“Yes,” Darius said. He had earned every one of those scars, some for good reasons, some for being stupid and every step of the way he could have just given up and moved on and stopped collecting them. “but every one that survived the dead has their scars and their ghosts, you just cant see most of them”
“that’s pretty much true, and some of those ghosts were a lot more active than others” Adam agreed sounding cryptic. “well I have a few more chores to do, Lee is down at the creek with Travis watering the animals, just head down that path.” Adam said pointing to a path just outside of the camp that led into the woods.
Darius thanked him and walked into the woods. he moved slow, there was still quite a bit of pain but nothing like when he had first woken up. But moving slow gave him time to think and soak in the woods around him.
It was cool here under the trees and he could hear the splash and gurgle of the distant creek. He paused after thirty to lean against an old gnarled tree and let the pain fade a little before he moved on. Is this what you want, is this what you really missed. Being half dead and in pain.
No its not, but its not like the alternative would be better, it was truly a kill or be killed moment and Yes I feel so damned alive at the moment. Everything seemed so vivid, the gold of the sunlight, the green of the tree,s the smell of earth and loam. The rough bark at his back was a incredible variety of textures against his skin.
He was tired of fighting himself, tired of doubt and tired of being tired. He started forward again and soon found himself down at the creek, half the horses were in the creek drinking, while the other half grazed on the opposite bank amongst the willows and Mountain laurel. Two shaggy look cows with wicked horns were grazing nearby, while Lee watched over them.
Travis who was bathing downstream of the horses, looked up and waved. “about time you got a bath, you really need one” He called out.
Darius hadn’t really thought about it till now, he smelled of old sour sweat, blood and filth. His nose wrinkled and a stab of embarrassment hit him. He turned to look at Lee who grinned.
“sorry didn’t want to kick you while you were down and tell you how bad you stunk.” Lee said with a friendly grin and a shrug. “Weve all been there a time or two since the world ended.”
“Didn’t bring any clean clothes with me, or soap and towels.”
“I got soap” Travis said holding up a white brick. “its like sandpaper but it gets you clean.”
The thought of a bath suddenly sounded so good, that Darius only nodded and stripped off his jeans. They were ruined and probably needed to be burned. He limped into the creek, favoring his side.
Travis was sitting in a large round hole about three and a half feet deep that the rushing creek had carved out of the native Rock, A natural bath tub if he had ever seen one. The water was ice cold but he didn’t care.
He sank down into the water, and sighed with pleasure as the water seemed to suck away the tension that filled his body. He leaned back against the rock, and relaxed. Barely even noticing the how rough the stone the natural tub felt against his bare flesh.
“your looking better” Travis said after giving Darius a few minutes to enjoy the water. He held out the soap to Darius, who took it and began to lather up.
“Feeling better too, Probably can sit a saddle in another couple of days.”
“you’re an idiot if you do” Travis replied.
“I’m your huckleberry” Darius said then laughed.
“Your what?” Travis asked puzzled.
“never mind, it’s a line from a movie. One of the best movies ever made.” Darius said as he looked towards the bank and saw Lee was gone.
“I don’t really remember any movies I saw.” Travis commented. “I was pretty young when the dead came back.”
the Lye soap was Rough, Darius thought, but it beat using sand and pebbles. Not by much but it was a step up. He was a bit embarrassed that Travis had to help him scrub his back. with his injuries he just couldn’t reach around like before.
By the time he was finished Lee had returned and brought some of Darius clothing from the Wagon, along with a strap, a small mirror, a straight razor and soap to shave with.
Finished shaving, Darius dressed slowly, thankful he didn’t need help with that. Oh it hurt and he almost asked twice, but in the end he did it himself.
“So what exactly are we supposed to be helping you with?” Darius asked Lee.
“Its something that might benefit you too, assuming the stories are true” Lee replied as he scratched at his beard, while gazing towards the north east, where a low mountain loomed over the trees. “ a few years ago, people started coming through our area. You know how that goes, most kept moving heading for some place called the Zone that they had heard about. Others hung around for a while helping us out so they could stock up on some food and supplies before moving on. And of course the trouble makers.”
Darius nodded, he had seen that in several of the places he had traveled while working for the Zone. Most of the survivors were looking for places with large numbers of people unable to take living with ten other people in a place that once housed thousands or even millions.
“well starting four years ago, we started hearing stories about a place out here with power. Most say it’s a government facility. What ever it is, sixty people in four years have seen the lights or claimed to have explored the place. So with things mostly settled and under control back home, we decided to check it out. If there is power then who knows what might be hidden away there.”
Darius was silent for a moment, one of the things that had made Sullivan island and now the zone possible had been coming across a list of secret government facilities that had been part of the Government Doomsday plan. The supplies they had recovered, ranged from foot and ammunition, to tools, fuel and Communications equipment. They were still busy locating and opening the remaining facilities in the Former Eastern States.
So it was possible at least, but He and Jared had talked quite a bit and Jared had never mentioned a facility on the list in Kentucky or Tennessee.
And it was almost a given with the Zones thriving Colony on Ft. Campbell, the Legion settlement and Base in Nashville along with the Knoxville settlement and the Camp Stone base that they would have already secured such a facility. If they knew about it, Darius corrected. It could have been a Research place, some FEMA location left off official lists. It could be where they kept all the UFO’s they found. He chuckled at the last thought, drawing questioning look from Lee.
“sorry was just thinking about all the old conspiracy theories.” Darius replied. “DO you even know where the place is at?”
“it took a couple of years but yeah, I think I know exactly where its at.” Lee said. “I have a map we can look it over at Dinner time.”
Possum sat on a rock gazing out over the narrow valley as he ate a piece of overcooked squirrel. He could see the glint of light off of metal through the trees where the Hunters camp had been set up on the North side of an old pasture just under the tree line.
In another ten minutes it would be Dark in the valley, he thought lifting his eyes to take in the brilliantly colored sunset of Deep blues, purple, red and Gold limed the horizon behind the Ridges and hills.
Three more days and his reinforcements should be arriving, of course if the Hunters group packed up and moved again as they had been doing for the last week, he could add two more days to his reinforcements arrivals.
At least they were moving about 20 miles a day, slower than before the new arrivals had joined the hunter. The difference had to be the cows that were pulling the Van. His mouth watered as he thought about how many steaks he could get out of those cows. Steak, god I haven’t eaten a Steak in years.
At least they were sticking to the old roads, and a few times he had caught up and been up and been able to watch the group through binoculars. At least three times he had seen a man dressed like a trapper or something from a movie, stop the wagon train at a crossroads where he would study a map then give directions. Moments later the Wagon Train was on the move again.
They were heading somewhere specific, and Possum really hoped that it wasn’t to link up with even more people or this whole thing was going to be bust.
He finished up the squirrel and wiped his sticky fingers on his boots watching as the deep shadow of night crept across the hills and ridges, sweeping across the Narrow valley even as a riot of colors blazed on the horizon then faded from the world leaving a single bright star glowing on the horizon. And…. What the hell was that, Possum thought as he fumbled out his binoculars.
It was getting close to nightfall when Lee, rose from the log he had been sitting on and motioned to Darius and the others. “Come on I want to show you something” He said. “hopefully it will answer any questions you still have about our search.”
Darius and the others rose and followed Lee out of the camp and into the field of flowers and wild grass. He could smell blooming night Jasmine, and honeysuckle as well as damp earth as Lee pointed to the Northwest.
Darius had tried to get Lee to talk more about his quest since before dinner, but Lee had brushed him off with “In a little while.” To the point that Darius had begun to suspect it was all Bullshit and that Lee had some thing else in mind that he didn’t want to talk about.
But now as he looked in the direction that Lee was pointing and the fire in the sky to the west vanished abruptly as the Sun went down. He knew that Lee was not only being honest but that he was on the right track.
There on the flanks of a shadowy mounting, dim with distance was the glow of electric lights. The casual whispered conversations around him died off not one by one but as sudden as flicking a switch. Now Lee’s delays all day made sense, this was what he had been waiting for.
Out of the entire group he was probably the only one who had experienced electric lights, and on a regular basis, since the dead had wiped out the world. Well Travis had seen them too at the Diner in Porters Town, Darius amended silently.
He could almost feel the surge of emotions that tore at the small group as they gazed, silently at what amounted to the Holy Grail of the survivors. Hope, loss, nostalgia, and more. He knew they were all picturing in their minds the riches and luxuries that they hoped waited up there. Hot showers, Air conditioning, old Movies, maybe men and women who lived and worked there like the world had never died.
“That’s were we are going” Lee had said into the silence unable to hide his excitement. “Now we know its real and not just a story.”
Possum lifted the Binoculars to his eyes, hands shaking and pointed them towards the distant mountain that loomed against the dark sky. At the moment he couldn’t have explained the jumble of emotions that raced through him. He wasn’t even ashamed of the single tear, of overwhelming excitement, that slid down his weathered cheek. .
He could see lights, he lowered the binoculars and wiped at his eyes then looked again, but the sight remained. There was no detail it was to dark and to far away. but the lights remained, they were too clear and bright to be anything but artificial.
That is where the Hunter and his friends are going. He thought, trying not to let the emotions the sight of the lights generated get the better of him. It has to be and I am heading there tomorrow morning. If it turns out the Hunter isn’t really heading there, picking up his trail later will be easy. But depending on what we find there, we could be set for life and I know Dutch would agree securing that place is a higher priority than killing the Hunter. Who will come to us sooner or later anyway.
In the Darkness, the lights on the mountain continued to glow. A Beacon of the Old world and possibly a symbol of Hope for the future.