The Hunters Trail Part Seven

The Trail home.

Darius slid from the saddle then leaned a shoulder against his horse as he rubbed his lower back while peering down the crumbling road. Old leaves and broken limbs, thick from the years covered the crumbling road that sloped down the mountain where it eventually passed through the ruins of a long dead town.

He took a deep breath of the crisp clean air almost smiling in satisfaction then glanced back at the wagon. He did smile now. Travis was driving the wagon and was deep in conversation with Anne not even aware of how often they touched each others thighs or arms.

Behind the Wagon, was Lee’s cow pulled Van. Izzi sat on the box seated mounted over the old windshield, clutching her teddy bear while talking a mile a minute to Lee who had the determined smile on his face of a man who had no idea what to do. Green rode beside the van on one of Darius’s horses his gaze more often than not on Izzy. The determined, grim look he had worn for so long was finally smoothing as the reality of He and Izzy finaly being safe from the Brotherhood set in.
Noah, who had been wounded at Turner farms, was recovering in the Van.  The good news, such as it was, he would be able to keep his leg. He would have a major limp for the rest of his life, and the other wounds. Like the crippled arm, he was recovering from would pretty much keep him from being able to do a lot of hard work for the rest of his life and in this day and age that was a liability. At least He had his family to help him out which was another bit of good news for him.

The Remaining Fallen, had slotted into the small group pretty easily. Though most of them were not any where close to being real horseman, he thought watching Ray Moore who rode beside the wagon, looking grimly certain he was about to fall to his death. Darius smiled watching the man, who constantly grabbed at the Saddle Horn to stay in the saddle.

Darius’s own wounds were healing up nicely, though he doubted the stiffness in his leg, and shoulder would ever really go away. You are getting older, He reminded himself. Maybe once I make a fortune I can open a Nursing home for retired cowboys, staff it with pretty woman and okay a few men that Kate can pick out for those women who end up living there.

He rode out and drove a few wandering horses back into the herd, then had to race out and cut off two goats that had decided the grass was greener some where else. The Party had lucked into finding the goats three days ago, an even dozen wandering around a field outside of a burned out farm.

Who ever had lived there had died in the fire and not all that long ago from what he could tell. Whether the fire had been set or an accident no one would ever know, all Darius did know was that there had five people, Two adults and three kids who had died in the blaze. Nameless and forgotten, it was sad really but billions had died the same way in the last ten years.

He glanced over at Dalton, who was following him, helping as often as he could while trying to learn everything Darius had to teach. Despite his worries about taking a kid along, especially a kid like Dalton, Darius was glad that he had decided to take him. No matter what handicaps the kid had to deal with, he was a natural in the saddle and picked up most things involving horses and training horses easily.

Dalton loved it so much that Darius almost had to order him out of the saddle each night, in fact Darius was pretty sure if he didn’t Dalton would happily have slept in the saddle.

“ Dalton Keep on eye on them for a few minutes, I’m going to ride ahead and scout.” Darius called out. Dalton who wore a Tshirt, a pair of rugged Jeans, and leather chaps that Lee had made for him, grinned, tilting his slightly oversized cowboy hat back on his head, imitating Darius, then nodded almost jumping excitedly in his saddle.

Darius hid a smiled as he started ahead letting the Nokato stretch its legs a bit. The horse settled into a cantor, quickly leaving the group behind.

The road twisted around the side and down a ridge, piles of old leaves muffling the sounds of hoof falls. Emerging from the trees at the bottom, he found strips of pastures on both sides of the old road, the grass was tall and deep green. The hills to the west were hazy and covered in trees.

Most of the homes were gone, either collapsed or had burned down leaving only blackened beams and scorched foundations. He paused only long enough to leave a blaze mark on the trunk of a tree beside the road.

Two miles later he passed a rusting sign, the only word still half way legible was “Welcome.” The rest was unreadable.

The town was about what he expected, it lay in a narrow strip of land between ridges. It had never had more than a couple of hundred people living here, and after the dead no one was left.

Roofs sagged, porches had collapsed. A trail of debris marked where a mobile home had been destroyed during a storm. The downtown area was nothing more than six buildings and a church, with a few old rusting vehicles scattered around the main street.

The old Church still stood, its doors stood open to the elements. Weathered crates, rotting boxes and piles of moldy rotting fabric that had once been clothing lay scattered around the front of the church.

He brought his horse to a stop eyeing the old military vehicles parked in the center of the street.

Two of them were Trucks, one vehicle looked like one of those special forces Off road vehicles, complete with a big mucking gun on the roof. The rest were Hummer variants and from the look of them they had been here a long while. Green mold was spreading across windshields, tires were rotting. The canvas that covered the truck beds were tattered from years of wind and rain.

He sat there for a long moment studying the scene, then rode slowly forward till he reached the vehicles and dismounted. The doors to the small store that had once held a pharmacy lay on the ground, a chain led from the doors to one of the trucks. The Dollar store was missing its door as well.

It was pretty obvious that who ever had been in those military vehicles had been looking for supplies but what ever had happened to them was going to remain a mystery, he thought as he got out his rifle and stepped into the old store.

What few items remained in the various buildings had been ruined by exposure over the years, in the metal sided building beside the General store, once the town hall and Fire station Darius found a skeletal body on a cot, one bony hand laying atop a once expensive, now some what moldy, leather covered book..

As he took a step towards the cot, a distinctive rattling noise started. Rattlesnake, just great, Darius thought as he looked around the room and spotted a flag pole. It took him only a moment using the pole to pin the Snakes head to the ground and then remove the head with a machete.

He wrapped the snake’s body in cloth and shoved it into the pouch he carried slung at his side. He enjoyed the taste of Rattlesnake personally.

With the Snake dead, he walked over to the Cot and retrieved the book that lay on the corpse. Opening it he discovered it was a diary, written in a neat block script, the first date was, July 2010, so the writer had started keeping his journal as the world was dying around him, Darius thought.

He carried the diary out into the clean sunlight, there was something about these old towns and the their crumbling buildings that he didn’t like. Being inside the old buildings felt like he was surrounded by the ghosts of the dead. it was an uncomfortable feeling to say the least.

He walked over and sat on the hood of the Hum Vee he had tied horse off too and opened the diary. Its pages were water stained, many were brittle breaking apart as he carefully turned each page reading the tragic life and last days of Cody Waters who had died at 35. Newly married, he and his new bride and their new born had been one of the lucky few evacuated in the beginning, that was about the only good thing to have happened for the man.

The evacuation center he had been sent to had been overrun by the end of the first year, Cody and his family had only through luck had gotten out with a small band of National guard, a month later his wife had been killed, then his son had died shortly before the dead had fallen over.

By then Cody was on his own, he had spent a year with a group of survivors living in the ruins of Louisville but raiders had put an end to that group. He had struggled to survive for two years on the move before ending up here and joining the small group of forty survivors who had actually been doing well thanks to farming and a small collection of livestock.

That had lasted only a year, he had broken his leg in a fall and been bed ridden when a virus had swept through the small group killing them off in ones and twos over the course of the summer till only Cody remained. Sick, unable to get around and starving to death he spent his last days and nights listening to the animals fighting over the corpses in the buildings around him.

Jesus, Darius thought reaching the end, poor SOB he thought as he rose and tucked the diary into his saddle bags. The group was in sight now; Dalton was doing a halfway decent job of keeping the herd together. Darius got the Lead line off, swung into his saddle and rejoined them eager to leave this town of the dead behind.

Winter was definitely getting closer, the nights were getting cold and the days were cool. Things on the trail were easier though. With Lovett’s Fallen, there were more than enough people to post a decent watch schedule, allowing every one to get a good nights sleep.

Dalton spent much of his time in camp cleaning and repairing his gear and keeping Izzy company, Izzy for her part was treating Dalton like her older brother. Lee was busying teaching those interested in how to Tan and work leather, as well as teaching Dalton and a couple of the men how to make and use a sling.

Every place they stopped to search had yielded a variety of goods, especially Saddles and other tack that could be salvaged. They had even scored a second wagon, it need work but could still be used. Who ever had built it had based it on the old Conestoga wagons of the 1800’s which made it a pretty large wagon.

Darius With the help of Travis and Dalton had even rounded up seven more horses which gave them a respectable sized herd.

Darius looked up from the fire as Lee sat down beside him. “how soon do you think we will roll across your friends?” Lee asked.

“Can’t really say, but if we keep heading south and west we should run into them or signs telling me where to go.” Darius said as he worked bee’s wax into a set of reins.

Lee nodded slightly, “just curious, me and my group need to be heading home soon.”

“I understand” Darius said not really liking the idea. He and Lee had become good friends and the thought have not having the steady, competent man at his back would take some getting used to.

“Don’t worry, unless something major happens or Noah takes a turn for the worst we can stay with you another week, but after that.” He said shrugging leather fringed shoulders. “We have to head back.”

 

Freddy, Mac to his friends, sat on the porch of the old cabin he had called home since the Summer of the dead almost ten years ago now. lanterns hung along the edge of the roof shedding light for him to see by and at his age he needed a lot of light.

At least, he was still in shape, this kind of lifestyle didn’t allow for getting weak or flabby. His face was weathered these days, his hair though thick was Steel gray. Not even the dignified silver color so popular in movies and novels, but steel gray.
And the only way he could describe his brown eyes as bright would be to shine a light on them.

But aside from the deterioration of his appearance, and the growing list of aches, pains and body parts that worked more or less like they should, he felt pretty good.

“you okay,” Paul, one of his guests asked emerging from inside. Paul rather reminded him of what he had once looked like as a young man, Mac thought, dark hair bleached light by the sun, wide shouldered, narrow waisted, decent looking with a strong jaw. But there was a haunted look in his eyes, like he had seen a lot of pain and death.
But hadn’t every one who had survived the walking dead. Mac suspected that what ever horrors Paul and yes Rachael too, had experienced went beyond the dead.

Sure am” Mac said turning his head to look towards the path that led to the Garden where Rachael was walking slowly leading Abbi towards the cabin. “Pity that little girl aint getting no better.”

Paul nodded, he didn’t dare let the old man know how relieved he was that Abbi hadn’t recovered from striking her head on the tree. Mac would never understand that this was actually an improvement in the girl. No one who hadn’t seen would ever believe the fear that girl had inspired in others or how evil she had been when roused.

Striking her head on the tree had done some serious damage apparently. Since then Abbi hadn’t talked or shown any initiative. She ate when told, followed her mother docilely and could spend hours staring at flowers and wild life.

Personally Paul had a theory that he had not shared with Rachael who had enough to deal with dealing with the guilt for hurting her, psycho, child as well as trying to understand what had happened to herself that night and working through the memories and emotions that had been locked away for so long.

As much as he didn’t believe in the Brotherhoods religion, he did believe, with reservation of course, in He who walks with the dead. Mag..Rachael was not the first or only person during the time of the dead who had seen or dreamed about a shark mouthed bowler hat wearing freak. She was the only person he knew of who had still dreamed of the thing since the dead had fallen over or he had thought she was.

That thing in the hat was He who walks with the Dead, not Kronnen. That was what the Brotherhood worshiped.  What it was, he didn’t know or even how it was possible. But once the dead had walked it made it hard to casually dismiss other things that had been just as impossible. Things like a little girl being used as a puppet by something in a bowler hat, and I think it lost its hold on Abbi there at the end because it no longer controlled Rachael. It was insane really and probably not even close to what had really happened. Maybe it really was brain damage that did this to Abbi, he told himself. Maybe I really didn’t see what I thought I saw there at the last.

All I know is that I will never, ever tell Rachael. Maybe some day Abbi will come back as a normal kid with no memory of what had happened to her. I hope so at any rate for Rachaels sake and maybe then we can go looking for Izzy if any one can keep her safe it’s Lovett and his Fallen.

But in the here and now, she was recovering he thought looking at her standing there with the sunlight falling around her. She looked healthier and even younger than she had. The gaily printed sun dress she wore reminded him of better times in a different world.

Falling in love with her so long ago, might not have made any sense. But it was nothing he regretted and the smile she gave him made it all worthwhile.
“Candy” Mac said holding out a sucker from his personal stash as Rachael led the Slack jawed abbi onto the porch. He unwrapped the sucker and placed it in the girls hand. Then gave her a gap toothed smile, as she lifted the sucker to her mouth, the blank expression on her face never changing. Her cloudy dead eyes held no spark of intelligence but Mac had gotten used to the creepy gaze and didn’t let it bother him.

“Guess you folks will be leaving soon.” He said suddenly.

“Got to Mac, You know people are looking for us” Paul said. “Been here too long, to be honest we’ve been lucky that they haven’t stumbled across us yet.” As far as Mac knew, they were fleeing from the friends of Rachael’s abusive ex husband. Which was more or less true.

“hate to see you go, but to be honest I’m a bit long in the tooth to be getting into shoot outs and knife fights.”

“I wish we could too” Rachael said as she guided Abbi to a seat. “we owe you a lot Mac.”

“naw, been my pleasure. I love kids, and beautiful women. Paul there was at least okay for a game of chess or conversation.”

“at least I had something to offer” Paul said dryly.

“all joking aside, you had a lot to offer this old man. You’ve been a good friend in the short time you’ve been here.” Mac said, wiping his eyes with an age spotted hand.

Paul smiled as he sat down in the chair beside Mac. “So you were going to tell me the story about searching for a lost pirate treasure back in the sixties.” He said steering the conversation away to safer emotional topics for Mac’s sake.

“I was, and I promise to keep my lies to a minimum. Though the story isn’t half as fun when I tell the unvarnished truth version.” Mac grinned as Paul laughed. “well it all started with my meeting Jane Russell, she was a star and a pin up model, anyway there I was…” he began.

 

Thompkinsville KY.

The day had started well; the group had stumbled across a acre sized patch of strawberry plants, as well as a sizeable number of onion and potato’s. they had taken as much as they could gather in two hours then got back on the road.

Passing through another small town that the wild was reclaiming they had found, several compound and Recurve bows and plenty of arrows, two saddles, and a number of carpentry hand tools in what they guessed had been a pawn shop. What ever it had been it had been a treasure trove for them.

Around noon, Darius had ridden ahead to scout out the approaches to Tompkinsville Kentucky. If their plan held, they would head south afterwards and be close to the original rendezvous site Darius had originally been bound for.

He finished his sweep of the outlying area and with time on his hands, he made an error, a rather big one. Instead of turning back and rejoining the Caravan he decided to ride into the old town and take a look around.

The old town of almost three thousand was in better shape than many places, but that wasn’t saying a lot. There were still a large number of collapsing homes, fallen roofs and burned out shells. But far more of the town was intact that he could see as he rode to the edge of town.

There were still puddles of rainwater from a brief storm that had blown through last night but the streets were relatively clear of leaves and debris. In front of an old insurance agency a sapling was growing up through a crack in a sidewalk

Weeds sprouted through cracks in the street, some of the old vehicles were covered in vines that had escaped a flowerbed at some point in the past.

As he drew close to the very center of the old town, he spotted a Thrift store that looked intact. As he rode towards the store, his mind was busy looking for threats. That was the only thing that saved his life.

Two sets of wet foot prints, led into the store. The strides were long, like they had been running. there was no way wet prints could last more than a few minutes in this heat and that meant one of two things and he was betting on the second one. Ambush, he thought as wheeled his horse around.

His horse turned sharply, the sudden movement saved his life as an arrow slashed through the space he would have been in if he hadn’t turned. a second struck the Nokato, who gave a shrill equine scream of pain and rage. Darius was only half prepared for the Horses response as it reared then lunged forward. Off balance he grabbed at his rifle then kicked out of the stirrups and threw himself at the ground.

He hit the street with a grunt of pain, then rolled towards an abandoned vehicle to use it to cover himself. An arrow sliced through his jeans cutting a thin line in his flesh, that was far more bloody than debilitating.

Reaching the old car he got to his feet and snapped off a shot at the roof top where he saw the archer. The man, thin and dressed in ragged clothes looked almost feral, fell out of sight, Darius wasn’t sure that he had hit him or not.

One man he could deal with, but seven men dressed much like the first were racing out of the old thrift shop and heading his way. he fumbled a pipe bomb out of the bag he carried on his belt then sat aside his rifle to light the thing.

He popped up and flung the bomb over the vehicle ducking down as it landed in the center of the group of men. The explosion didn’t kill all of them but the three that lived would die in a hour or so from their injuries.

More archers appeared on several other roofs, bracketing him and arrows began to fall uncomfortable close again.

He looked around the side of the vehicle and spotted a better position a little further down the street. Firing his rifle at the archer who had a better field of fire on his postion, Darius lunged to his feet and raced to the next bit of cover as the archer ducked.

Hunkering down behind a wreck, he lit another pipe bomb and tossed it up and on to the roof across the street.

The explosion sent one-man pin wheeling off the roof to crash heavily to the street, dead before he struck asphalt. Darius was already moving, firing on the run. Between the shock of the explosions, gunfire and smoke their aim was off. But that wasn’t going to last much longer and when they get their crap together I am going to be a pin cushion. . He dove into a roll and came up behind a rusted US government Mailbox, huddling behind for safety as the arrows fell around him. He dug another pipe bomb and a lighter out of his bag.

I am really getting to old for this crap. Striking a flame he lit the fuse then tossed it over the box and towards the broken window where the archer was shooting from. He was up and running, or fast limping really, before it hit the ground.

The shock wave from the explosion shattered the few remaining windows with in forty feet and set his ears ringing. The explosion and the resulting smoke allowed Darius to slip into a narrow alley between a burned out pharmacy and a Christian bookstore.

He could hear the bandits shouting to each other over the ringing in his ears. He pulled out his next to last pipe bomb, lit the fuse and rolled it out into the street then drew a pistol and headed the other way.

As he entered the next street over, the pipe bomb exploded. That should slow the bandits down for a minute or two, he thought as he studied the street. with the exception of the one alley that cut the street in half, the buildings were wall to wall.

a typical quaint turn of the century downtown area. some had once had awnings overhanging the cracked sidewalks. Here and there were over turned wrought iron and wood benches that flanked decorative planters. He had no real idea how many of the ambushers there might be, which meant that some of them could be in any building on this street just waiting to shoot him.

He didn’t have a lot of time so he would have to find a place to hide instead of just running. Using the rusting abandoned vehicles along the street as cover. He cautiously worked his way down the street using every bit of cover he could find to an old store where he ducked through the doorway into the shadowy interior.

It wasn’t a large building; none of the business’s in the old downtown were, no more than 20×40, filled with rows of empty shelves. Trash and leaves, blown in through the open door over the years, covered almost half of the old tile floor. He paused there in the doorway to set up a booby trap using the last pipe bomb then as quick and silently as possible he made his way to the back of the store searching for a stock room where there should be a delivery door.

The door he found was half open and what was inside more a stock closet than a store room. It was cloaked in shadows but he could see metal rungs mounted on the back wall. A ladder leads somewhere he thought, as he stepped inside and climbed up to find a hatch.
“You see him?” someone called out.

“no, he’s got to be hiding in one of the old stores.” Another man answered.

“Be careful he might have more bombs or something.” The first man called out.
the Good news is Lee and the others should be here in another twenty minutes so that’s how long I have to survive. Bad news I am not likely to last another twenty minutes, unless there are a lot less Bandits than I think there are. He thought as he worked to open the slide bolts that secured the hatch. The first one finally slid back with a gravely noise, but the second one was being stubborn.

Minutes ticked by as the sounds of things being knocked over and glass breaking from what ever building the bandits were searching reached him they were coming closer.

why in the hell are people this damn stupid, he asked himself. He resisted the urge to beat on the slide bolt with his pistol out of frustration and kept working at it. finally it gave way sliding roughly back. He pushed and with a metallic grinding noise the hatch opened and then a bar of sunlight spilled down into the stock area.

Darius rushed up and rolled out onto the roof only to find himself staring up at a rifle leveled at his face.

 

“I thought I heard something from over there” Some one down on the street called out. It sounded like they were at the building next door.

“me too” another man added.

“Check it out” the first man said.

 

Shit, Darius swore silently as he saw the woman with long blond hair and wearing a ball cap holding the rifle.

“not a word” She hissed, Darius nodded and slowly holstered his pistol. Another woman, With dark hair and built like a triathlete moved up behind him and pushed the hatch shut then quietly gathered up some loose bricks and other things and placed them on top of the hatch.
The blond was around five eight he guessed, petite yet sturdy. She wore a pair of baggy brown work pants and a faded blue tank top. A green and yellow John Deere ball cap covered the top of her thick dark blond hair. Warily she motioned him away from the hatch. Darius nodded and slid to the side, slowly so as not to alarm her.

He was pretty sure that she and her friend were hiding from the Bandits to, so she wasn’t going to shoot him just yet and give away their hiding place.

He said nothing, just crouched there looking around the roof. Most of the roofing panels had begun to peel back revealing the old gravel and tar roofing material, there were a few vents spaced along the middle of the roof. Two old back packs and several bags were stacked against an old A/C unit.

“don’t get near the front” Darius whispered. “I left a bomb there.” He said seeing the Dark haired woman crawling towards the front of the building, probably to see where the bandits were..

The blond glared at him, then waved the other woman away from the facade. It was just in time too, Darius thought as the pipe bomb went off shaking the building and sending nails, trash and other debris shrieking through the air down below, cutting down any one with in twenty feet of the device. Part of the façade cracked then crashed down into the street below. Darius smiled grimly at the shrieks of pain and anger that followed

 

“I aint going in there.” A man called out. “might be more of those things waiting for us.”

“It probably killed him too. Now get moving.”

“screw you Bart, I aint going in there. we already lost half the crew no way that guy has enough stuff to make this worth it.”

 

Darius was more than tempted to move to the front and start shooting despite the woman pointing a gun at him. But Lee and the others will be here soon, He told himself, and every minute I can buy lets them get that much closer and the minute I start shooting those idiots down there will know exactly where I am at.

On the other hand if they have to hunt for me, that will take time and then if they do find me, us I guess, they will have to find a way up here and that will take more time. All that time should be enough for Lee and the others to get here. that was the smart thing to do, he told himself ignoring the angry glare the blond was giving him. the Stink eye, he thought and almost chuckled at the absurdity of the thought.
Bart was furious, He knew that their quarry was wounded and losing blood. He had to be after the ambush. It didn’t seem like his quarry was wounded though. Tuck had sworn the man was limping at on point.  Wounded or not the man was dangerous, the question Bart, well all his people faced was a simple one, to keep after him or let him go.

Greed won out, if they could take the man down, Bart would end up with his weapons and ammo and that was no little thing. If we can take him out with out getting killed in the process. Life used to be so simple, he reflected. His once handsome face twisted into a grimace of distaste.

Years ago, he had been a regular guy working as a car detailer then the world had ended, destroying his dreams of going to college and eventually opening his own restaurant. Now, well if this kept up, he and his people would be either naked in a few years or wearing animal skins to go with the archaic weapons they were already using.
It wasn’t the life he wanted, but it was what he had.

I really wished I had just stayed in bed with my wives, even if all four of them are pregnant it would have been far more entertaining not to mention safer than being out here with bombs going off and some bad ass shooting the crap out of my people.

And where in the hell did this guy get so much ammunition and the stuff to make bombs?. Pickings had been slim around here for two years, Bart and his crew knew that for a fact, they had traveled as far out as sixty miles looking for supplies or victims with supplies.

Now this guy comes rolling in armed to the teeth with bombs and guns, riding a horse no less like some old time guy out of a movie. He waited for a full three minutes to see if the stranger opened fire then deciding that it might be safe rose to his feet and got his remaining men and women moving towards the store front, where smoke still hung in the air over the bodies of four of his men.

 

Travis, leading Darius’s horse rode into the town followed by Six other men The sound of the explosions had warned them of danger and the rising smoke gave them a good idea where Darius must be. He grinned to himself, in a way it was funny that he had gotten to know Darius so well, that it wasn’t surprising to assume where there was fighting there would be Darius.

They hadn’t really needed the explosions to tell them that something had happened, Darius’s horse, wounded and returning with out him, had done that.

Not wanting to waste time, they had left the wagons to lumber along and galloped down the road hoping that they were not to late. They had been just ten minutes out of the town when they had heard an explosion towards the center of town.

They rode into town, eyes sweeping their surrounding for threats. “Up there” Johnny Bell one of Lovett’s former men said loudly as he lifted his rifle.

Travis had only enough time to see a skinny man in rags, standing in a window aiming a bow at him. Travis ducked to one side in the saddle just as Bell sent a three round burst through the window of the small apartment building the attacker fell back out of sight. .

Weldon Miller rode up and tossed one of his four grenades into the window and grinned as the explosion blew out the remaining glass.

 

“What the hell?” Bart snarled as he stood in the middle of the old store and heard gun fire and yet another explosion some place close by. “that bastard never came in here. He put that bomb there then scooted off to hide some where else.” I hate this man. “outside, he aint here” Bart snapped at the people who followed him the sudden fear of another booby trap waiting for him in the old store almost overwhelming.

“This guy is like a special forces commando or something.” Clyde phelps whispered. Or we are just to stupid to handle him, Bart thought angrily.

 

“who is that” The blond asked looking towards the north where the sounds of fighting had come from.

“my friends!” Darius replied as he started towards the front of the old store, waiting to be shot in the back. Taking it as a good sign that she didn’t shoot him.  He crouched down below the broken section of the facade and reloaded his rifle. Still alive he thought glancing back at the woman who looked undecided. He peeked over the broken brick work and looked down.

The Bandits or what ever they were, were spreading out across the street. Half of them looked ready to bolt, if they were smart they would be already running he thought as he heard the sound of galloping horses.

Well lets just help you make the decision, Darius told himself as he lifted his rifle and placed his sights between the shoulder blades of a man who had finger bones dangling from his belt.

There were times he wanted to feel pity for the men he killed, wished there was another way. But when some one is trying to kill him for no reason that he knew of, then they deserved what they got.  Which didn’t keep him from wishing he didn’t have to.
He fired, the roar from the big gun echoing off the buildings around him, and the man below pitched forward as the 45-70 slug punched through him. Darius shifted his aim even as the other bandits down below began to scatter looking for cover. He put down a woman carrying an axe then a man with a bow.

Suddenly the blond was beside him with a rifle in her hand. She fired twice, putting down a man. Darius targeted another bandit but missed this time. the remaining bandits were scattering and the sight of seven men on horseback, armed to the teeth thundering around the corner and heading towards them lent wings to their heels as they fled the scene.

The blonde fired again, then again and another man stumbled then fell heavily to the street and lay still.
Paige didn’t know what to think as she watched the Horsemen vanish down the street as they chased off the men that she and Diana had been hiding from.. Its too late to kill him now, she thought with a glance at the man beside her, his friends know we are up here.

She stood there watching silently as all but one of the horsemen rode past pursuing the bandits. The one who remained came to a stop in front of the store and waved up at the man beside her. He was a teen-ager she realized, a heavily armed, grim faced teen.

Travis came to a stop in front of the old store, while the others rode after the escaping killers. He gazed up at Darius who waved back at him, then turned his gaze to look at the woman who stood beside Darius then shook his head a half smile on his face. “thanks for showing up when you did” Darius called down.

“Next times don’t head off alone.” Travis replied. “whose your Friend?”

“I’ll try to remember that.” Darius said with a harsh laugh then turned to the blond who took a step back from him. He was all to aware of the other armed woman behind him. “Thanks for not killing me. I’m Darius”

“You don’t know how close you came” she said with a frown then shook her head slowly. Now what?” The blond asked. “do We surrender to your friends so we can be raped.”

“I was thinking you start with introducing yourselves, I offer you some food and then you can go on about your business. We really aren’t all that partial to raping women.”

“Why’s that are you all gay?” she said sarcastically.

“in the sense of happy and care free, not most of the time because people are always shooting at me or threatening me. As in sleeping with men? As far as I know of I’m straight and so are the men riding with me but rape just aint our thing.”

“Easy to say.” She stated angrily.

“I’m Darius Zane McAlister” Darius said ignoring her comment then extended a callused hand. “Rancher, cowboy, and debonair. At least I am working on two of the three.”

She glared at him for a long moment, then took a deep breath “Paige Martin.” She said she didn’t take his hand.

“nice to meet you Paige.” Darius said. “If you don’t mind I will be going now and you and your friend can get back to doing what ever it is you want.”

“Well Paige, let me point out that you saved me. If you want I will just climb on down and leave you and your friend to your own devices.” Darius said heading towards the hatch.

“Wait!” Paige called out as she slung her own rifle. “You know how things are in the world today. Trust…”

“is hard to come by, yeah I know that one. The choice is yours.” Darius said as he uncovered the hatch and pulled it open. “Thanks for saving my sorry butt.” He said then climbed down into the store.
Leave it to you to find a woman and get shot at.” Travis said as Darius stepped out into the street.

“We just shared a roof,” Darius said as he walked up to his horse and studied the arrow wound. Some one, probably Lee had treated it and done a good job at it he thought. He smiled and stroked the horses head then fed it a piece of dried apple. “I would even say she saved me. After all she didn’t shoot me when she could have.”

“Saved you” Travis said then laughed.

Darius cocked his head and gazed at the teen ager for a moment. “Might as well do a sweep and make sure they are gone before The wagons roll through.” He said as he and Travis looked up at the roof. “we will swing back by here when we are finished and see if they have changed their minds. Unless of course they decide to shoot us.”

“Shoot us?” Travis said as Darius started down the street.

“Paige, the blond is a mite testy” Darius said. “can’t blame her really.”
Paige watched the two men ride off down the street, half relieved and half upset at herself for not going with them.

“so are we going to go with them?” Diana asked. Paige stopped pacing the roof for a moment then pulled off the Old John Deere Ball cap and brushed a lock of blond hair back. pulling the cap back on she shook her head. “They just left.”

“Paige..” Diana said then stopped and shook her head. “We should have stayed where we were at and not gotten involved.”

Paige nodded slowly in agreement; they had been on the roof of the building overlooking the alley when Darius had made his mad dash down the alley to escape. She and Diana had been hiding on the roofs for the last two days to avoid the bandits.

She really had no idea why she had decided to follow along the roof as the stranger made his way down the street or even less of an idea of why she had decided to remove the stuff that had been piled on the hatch and help the man escape the trap he had put himself in. of course he didn’t know that either.

“you like him” Diana said suddenly. Paige glared at her but there was no real heat behind it. they had been best friends since before the dead had risen.

“No, I mean he is kind of handsome but No I don’t like him. I don’t even know him.” She protested angrily. “Besides you didn’t see his face as he shot them. Cold, blank not a bit of emotion in him.

“six years and I saw some emotion in his face every time he looked at you.” Diana said. “and he is built.” Paige flushed but shook her head. She did manage to ignore the mental image of Darius’s face that rose in her mind and she tried valiantly not to remember how thick his arms and legs were or how nice his …… I am not going there.

“The man is probably a rapist.”

“Probably, that’s why he rode off.”

“We are armed.” Paige pointed out. Diana nodded again then rolled her eyes.

“Lets look at things realistically, the man is part of a larger group, a group that has horses, ammunition and food to spare, if you noticed he did mention a free meal. We on the other hand only have each other and we are almost out of food.

He is nice looking, not my type but still nice looking and he has food.” Diana pointed out.

“Do you really think he is just going to plop food down in front of us with no strings.”

“at this point, I am tired of being scared and hungry every day. If a couple of them want to do a little boot knocking in exchange I might seriously consider it.”

Paige’s cute oval face twisted in surprise at that. “you wouldn’t”

“I wouldn’t have ten years ago, or even last year. But today I am at least willing to think about it. its better than being raped and killed.”

“they might do that anyway.”

“Food Paige, food. A large group means protection. How many people have we met in the last six years, not many and yes half of them were perverts and nut cases. But not all of them were. I am willing to take a chance here.”

“I’m not”

“Paige” Diana said softly as she reached out and laid a hand on Paige’s shoulder. “at some point we are going to have to try and trust some one. We can’t just keep hiding from every one we see “

“I know that, its..” She fell silent and looked away. Since Josh had died, she hadn’t felt able to trust any one but Diana and she was scared to start trying now.

“We have to Honey, we don’t have much of a choice unless we want to starve to death out here and die alone.” Paige didn’t say a word, but did begin to gather up her things.

Paige, her stomach churning with apprehension of what was going to happen to her and Diana, had started down the road trying to catch up to Darius only to run across the two men twenty minutes later as they came riding back.

Darius had dismounted, leading his horse he had walked beside them talking about where he had been and what he had seen. How much of that had been the truth Paige didn’t know, but she suspected quite a bit of it was exaggerated at best. But if were true, the Zone he talked about was as close to her old life as was possible these days.

He hadn’t commented on her change of mind like many would have and instead of flirting or dropping unsubtle hints about what he really wanted, he was incredibly polite as well. in fact… her thoughts chopped off as they rounded a corner and she saw the herd of horses, goats, two wagons and a cow drawn van waiting in the street.

A little girl was chasing a large muscled, bearded man around one of the wagons squealing in delight. Another woman sat on the drivers bench of the larger wagon, reins in hand and ready to get moving.
Darius smiled and introduced her and Diana to the small group, Seeing Anna and how relaxed she was, Paige began to relax a little her self. Not much but a little it was still to be seen if she could trust any one in this group. especially Mr. Cowboy with the cold storm gray eyes.
I do like the girl Anne, Paige thought half an hour later and the midget Adam. He was about the rudest, irreverent person she had ever met and she was sure that most of it was an act.

Anne was just explaining how she and her friends had come to travel with Darius when a Rider approached the stopped caravan. She watched silently as he rode up and stopped in front of Darius.
“Darius, we have them trapped in an old motel on the edge of town and it seems they want to surrender.” Bell said looking down at Darius as his horses shifted its weight from hoof to hoof as if fidgeting.

“Surrender? What in the hell are we supposed to do with them if they surrender?” Darius asked caught totally off balance by the unexpected offer.

“Don’t ask me this is your party” Bell said with a tired grin. “All I know is a pregnant woman carrying a white flag came out to talk and that’s what she offered.”

Darius walked over to his horse and mounted up, “guess we are all going then, since we don’t have enough people guard the caravan against a sneak attack while we are away.”

Bart stared out the window at the wagons and the cow drawn van that were coming to a stop just down the street. He glanced at Tonya, who had carried the white flag out. “Looks like they believed you.” He said surprised that the Cowboy and his people would even consider the idea, unless of course they were just playing games to amuse themselves before killing every one in the old Motel 8.

“They should I was being honest,” she said with a look that promised dire consequences if he had anything else planned.

“Trust me, after whats happened today I have no intention of getting these people any angrier than they already are.” He stated and that was the truth. More than half of the men of his little group were dead, and the only silver lining to that was less mouths to feed, so what food they had would go further.

“Be careful, please” Charlotte, his third wife said then kissed him on the cheek.

He refused to let how nervous he was show as he walked to the door picked up the broom stick with the dirty white sheet. Taking a deep breath, he opened the door and stepped out.

Every leaden step towards the waiting horsemen was torture, he kept waiting for that cowboy hat wearing bastard to shoot him down. But the man just sat on his horse, his rifle pointed skyward.
He came to a stop ten feet from the horseman, his stomach roiling with fear as he gazed up at the hard faced cowboy.
“My men tell me you want to surrender” Darius said eyeing the filthy, brown haired, rail thin man in rags before him.

“We have women and children inside.”

“Maybe you should have thought of them before you attacked me.” Darius said coldly.

“I…” Bart said then fell silent. He had no intention of arguing about his motives, their attack on this man was not for food, at least not completely but for the weapons, ammo and gear he had carried. silence lingered between them.

Darius felt a slight stir of pity for the man before him, he didn’t believe the man was a angel and that his attack had been out of desperation but at the same time, desperation had been a driving factor. This town like many near a group of survivors had been picked clean over the last ten years. Clothing from the old world was starting to rot and fall part, medicines that remained had gone bad and eating any canned food found in the ruins was more likely to kill you than to help.

“My name is Darius Zane McAlister let me say I’m not real inclined to be nice after you tried to kill me.” Darius said. “and I have no clue what to do with you if you surrendered to me.”

Bart felt the world crash down around him, not that he hadn’t expected this man to refuse. Hell I wouldn’t have accepted the offer either. but honestly Tonya was right we had to try it for the kids sake if nothing else. I knew something like this would happen one day, well I figured we would just end up all being killed. The Cowboy was silent for a moment gazing at Bart with those cold gray eyes.

“But I might have an option for you” Darius said finally. “I shouldn’t even extend a little trust not after you ambushed me. But some of my other friends, ones we are not here. Ones who have military vehicles, fuel, weapons and more ammo than they could use in few decades would appreciate me offering. The only catch is, if you break your word, they will roll in here and end it”

“What is the option” Bart forced himself to ask, not daring to hope.

“if you send a couple of your people to Nashville to talk with Cal Simms and negotiate with the zone for help. I will leave you some of our goats, and a little food to help.”

“The Zone?” Bart asked, he had never heard of such a place. But he had barely been more than sixty miles from town in the last decade either.

“It’s a pretty organized group along the east coast and up into Nashville. They have power, vehicles, food, aircraft, radios and are trying to rebuild and organize every group of survivors that wants in.”

“what’s the catch?” Bart asked not even sure if he believed a word of it.

“They expect any one joining them to live under the US constitution for starters and eventually re establish the United States. But if you stop ambushing people, and work with them. They will do everything they can to get food in here and help you set up farms and other things to get you back on your feet.” Darius said watching the other mans reaction. It wasn’t hard to read the emotions, Darius had seen the same reaction several times over the last few years. Hope and disbelief, the thought of any one living with even a small piece, like electricity, of the old world was more of a fantasy in their experience. But the thought of it existing was a siren’s call.
It was hard to look around the dead town you lived in and believe that others out there had power and were still driving vehicles and had food to eat and jobs to go to.

“if I say yes, how do you know we will do it.”

“I don’t, but the way I see it is this, if you say yes and are lying you and your women and kids are going to slowly starve to death assuming the next ambush you set off doesn’t get you all killed or you take the chance I am telling the truth and you and your people might find yourselves with clothing, food and heat before the winters out.” Darius said. “go back and talk to your people see what they think.” Darius invited.

“and if we say no.”

“then we leave, and if you try to attack us again we kill you and you get no food and no help.” Darius said then leaned down. “I really would like not to have to kill any more people than I have to, don’t force me into adding you and yours to the list and it’s a damn long list already.” He said with a sincerity that surprised Bart. The man really means it, as hard as it was to believe. Bart nodded then turned and headed back to the old motel.
Paige was just as surprised as Bart, though she didn’t know it. She didn’t trust Darius, couldn’t trust him. But in all the years since the dead rose and fell, she had never seen or heard a man give his enemy a choice in living and dying much less give them some kind of hope that there might be help out there for them. She slowly lowered her rifle, which she had little ammo for anyway.

“still worried about being raped?” Diana asked her.

“They are men aren’t they” Paige shot back.

“yes, especially the one in the fringed leathers. A mans man” Diana said with a smile.

“Really? We have no clue who these people are or what they will end up doing to us.” Paige said sharply.

“I know what I hope he does to me” Diana said with a exaggerated leer.

Paige started to get really angry, then shook her head realizing that Diana was twitting her. Though she didn’t doubt that Diana liked the guy. I will not let down my guard around these people, especially that one. Darius.

“Honey, you know I’m kidding. Well at least mostly. I do think he is handsome at any rate. But like we discussed, we are down to two options, and this is the only one that offers us a chance to live and if they turn out to be scum bags, we can always steal some food and slip away in the middle of the night.” Diana said in a low voice then pointed towards the motel. “looks like they made their decision.” She said as the skinny bandit leader reappeared.
They made camp that evening in an old drive in theatre, off the Cordell Hull highway.
Paige had been impressed with how quickly the group got a camp set up. once a good sized fire was burning Lee, who dressed like some frontiersman out of an old movie got to cooking. The smell of roasting goat and chicken hung in the air like ambrosia.

The group was on alert for another attack by the bandits who accepted the offer Darius had given them. But no strangers word was really trusted these days. So as happy as they had been about the surrender, every one in the caravan knew just how far that word could be trusted.

Darius spent two hours working with new horses, breaking them as he called it though, his methods were anything but cruel, she thought after having watched with interest. She had owned horse’s herself before the dead, but had never actually broken them in.

Diana stayed close by, more to keep on eye on her than because she was worried about the men in this group. how she could be so unconcerned was beyond Paige.

“Want to help?” Darius asked as he finished working a strong willed stallion.

“I know nothing about training a horse,” She replied. She really didn’t want to spend time around him if she could help it.

“Now’s the perfect time to learn.” Darius said as Travis led a Roan Mare up for Darius to work next.

“We have nothing better to do Paige” Diana said innocently. Damn her, Paige thought angrily.

She frowned at Diane, it wasn’t like she was going to be able to catch any horses herself to train, and she was damn sure not going to spread her legs for this man or any other to get one. But Diana was right it would pass the time.

“Here,” Darius said with out waiting for an answer and passing her the horses lead line. “now all you have to do….” he launched into an explanation. Before she knew it half an hour had passed and Darius was selecting another horse. The sun was low on the horizon painting the sky in strokes of Orange and gold.
Darius stepped back watching Paige work the horse, this one was already pretty well trained and gave her no trouble. But his attention kept drifting as he found himself studying her face and figure.

She was slender and sturdy, with slightly wide hips and average bust size. Her thick blond hair fell down to her shoulders in a loose pony tail. She moved with more determination than grace. She had an oval face with delicate rose colored lips and hazel eyes. There was a hint of sweet, gentleness to her face, but the years since the dead had risen had buried it under worry, fear and grim determination to survive.

If she had approached survival with the same spirit she was showing working a horse, he wasn’t surprised she had made it this far.

As the last rays of sunlight slipped below the horizon, he smiled at her as he stepped forward to take the horse. “you did good. If you hang around for a while you will end up being able to train any horse you come across.”

She gave him almost angry look before shrugging. “Not that I’m likely to be able to catch a horse to train one.” She said with another small shrug.

“I might be able to set you and your friend up, before you leave.”

She stopped dead and glared at him. “if you think I am going to screw you for a horse forget it.”

“Paige” Diana who had been watching,said in warning.

“Actually I was thinking about you helping out around here as payment for setting you up with a kit and offering you a stake in the sale’s.” Darius stated.

Anger flickered like lightening in his Gray eyes then the frown smoothed and vanished like foam on surf and he smiled at her. “I can understand your not trusting us, but do us all a favor and don’t make any accusations or assumptions unless they are deserved.”

Embarrassed, she looked away for a moment to gather her composure. “Sorry, its.. well as a woman men have made that kind of offer before to me. And I am just not interested in selling myself.”

“I understand,” Darius said and something about his tone convinced her he wasn’t just saying it to placate her. “Your welcome to travel with us for as long as you want and leave when you’re ready. Just help out with the chores and keeping watch and we are all good.” She nodded and as he turned away she remembered to thank him.
“She’s not going to be easy getting close to” Lee said a little later as he sat beside Darius to eat dinner around the camp fire.

“I’m not trying to get close to her” Darius pointed out as he poked his spoon around in his bowl not really hungry.

“Not exactly what I meant, but now that you mention it, I think she is as close to your type as they come.” Lee said with a grin as Darius glared at him Lee began to eat.

“what type is that.” Darius asked gruffly minutes later.

“Look at her, She’s a farm girl, she’s tough and with the curves and home town looks to look good in a dress.” Lee said as he scooped up a spoonful of goat stew.

“Don’t start” Darius warned him.

“not even trying” Lee said with a grin then went back to eating.

It was sunrise when Paul and Rachel left Macs cabin with their meager possessions, Mac had shared what food he could and given Abbi a rag doll. They followed the trail down to the road and started east. They had no real destination, neither knew what might lay ahead, but they both knew that there were probably men looking for them.

Abbi, holding her mothers hand followed docile along and the guilt that Rachael felt for being the cause of the girls brain damage was only allayed by the fact that her daughter was closer to sane now than she had been. She still had no idea how much of what she had experienced that night had been just a product of her mind. for that matter she really wondered how much of her memories of that bowler hat wearing thing were real, if any of course. Kronnen had dedicated himself to breaking her and keeping her broken as a toy, something to be used, abused, and above all compliant.

She was far from over it, but for the first time in almost a decade she knew who she was and was dealing with the damage as best she could and with Paul by her side and Abbi, to take care of she felt hope that she could overcome it. Assuming they could escape the Brotherhood.

The real question they faced was where to go.

“first thing is I think we need to find a state or national park where there might be canoes or boats and then take a river” Paul said when she brought up the subject half an hour later. “put as much distance as we can between us and this area. They can’t track us on a river.”

“but go where” She pressed.

“East, all the way to Sullivan Island where Jared Stones people are. All we really have to do is reach Knoxville which is part of the zone and I bet we can get a ride all the way to the coast.. No way in hell the Brotherhood will follow us there. Stone and his people are as much a boogy man to the Brotherhood as the Hunter.”

“will they let us in, I mean considering who Abbi’s father is, and her eye’s…”

“We don’t tell them, as far as they will know you’re my wife and she is my daughter, who got hurt in an accident. That is if you don’t mind.”

She continued walking silently, yes she needed him and she had feelings for him. But was dedicating herself to him after years of no life, no identity the right thing to do. After all he did for me, who else would ever care so much to risk their lives to save a woman on the edge of madness from a living hell.

“No I don’t mind” She said coming to a stop and facing him. she touched him lightly on the cheek and gave him a trembling smile. “I’m still learning who I am and if your wiling to stick it out with me.”

“Of course I am Rachael, I’ve loved you since the first time I saw you. I should have killed Kronnen at the start for what he was doing to you, but… “

“I know, you don’t have to explain. There was something about him. something that drove men and some women into a dark place and scared the hell out of those who might have opposed him. Maybe there was some kind of magic, or evil force at work. Maybe that’s just how things works when the world collapses around us.
But you don’t ever have to explain why and how with me. We were both victims in our own way and I pray its over for us and my daughters.” She said then leaned forward and gently kissed him on the lips. It was all she could do for now, but it was enough for the man who loved her.

When she pulled back, Paul slipped an arm around her waist and held her still. “you know last night Mac said something along those lines. He said he had a dream about the this whole mess with the dead and all and that in his dream he was sitting and talking with his dead wife who told him, that it wasn’t quite over and that it wouldn’t end till two men touched by the dark and the light met beside the sea. He thought it was going to happen soon. To be honest I just want to get back to something almost normal, no more weird dreams, no more chaos or idiots like the brotherhood. Just live as normal a life as we can make with nothing more mysterious happening than guessing what Santa left under our Christmas tree.”

“I doubt any one celebrates Christmas any more,” She said softly.

“they do in the Zone or so I’ve heard. That little bit of news sent Toffler up a wall.” Paul said. “no matter what I promise you that our first Christmas where ever we end up, we will do a tree, decorations and what ever else I can manage.” He pulled her close kissed her on the cheek then, with regret, released her. “we need to get moving Rachael, its going to be a long hard trip and I am looking forward to having a home with you.” They started walking again and Rachael knew hope again and it was a glorious feeling after a decade of Darkness.
“wake up,. we have work to do” Darius said just after sunrise as he stood outside the tent that Lee had set up the night before.

Darius cocked his head to one side hearing two voices in the tent and one was definitely female. A moment later Diana emerged from the tent and gave him a dazzling smile. She ran a hand over her clothes straightening them. “good morning” She said as she headed for the tent that had been set up for Her and Paige.

“morning” Darius replied sticking to the safe response. Lee emerged a moment later wearing nothing but a pair of leather boxer briefs that laced up the sides..

“you know before this moment and mostly because of that underwear, I really thought you were gay.” Darius said.

“Asshole” Lee muttered then grinned. “honestly I went to bed alone last night, she was the one that crawled into my tent and took shameful advantage of me.”

“oh you look completely distraught over the whole thing.” Darius stated lifting an eyebrow in doubt..

“I am, Oh I am.”

“anyway get dressed, we need to get things rolling and get back on the road. Dalton is already eager to get on the trail. So once he and Travis finish working some of the horses he is going to pestering us to get the lead out.”

“You just had to be a bleeding heart didn’t you. The Hunter Scourge of the Backwoods, and Defender, father figure and big brother to orphans, the handicapped and lonely house pets.”

“a week before you head back huh.” Darius said turning on his heel and walking away. Lee grinned at his friends back.

“just wait till the mandatory enema’s start and then you will be glad to see me go.” He called out.

Over the next three days, Paige continued to work with the Darius and the others with the horses. She was it turned out a quick learner. She had actually loosened up some in those three days. Something Darius was wiling to credit, Izzy, Anne and Adam for.

Adam had spent a lot of time playing his court jester routine, though it was more subdued these days. the Battle at Turner farm and Noahs injuries had really hit him hard. Darius had no doubt that he would recover in time either.

Lee took almost as much time to needle Darius out of hearing of Paige of course, about the budding attraction that apparently every one but Darius and probably Paige saw.

Through Adam he had learned Paiges story he had learned she had lost her husband to the dead, a child to a disease and the farm she had struggled to keep going after the dead had finally died before she put boots on asphalt with her best friend. They had started traveling at first with the goal of locating seed stocks, equipment and supplies to get her farm going again. But things had been rough and six years later she was still on the road, wiser, more cynical and despite being raped once was no victim.

Adam as it turned out was good at drawing information out of people, note to self watch what you tell him or there will be even more stories about yourself you don’t want to hear, he told himself for the thousandth time.
Now as he watched her worked he noticed once more, how gentle she was when working with the horses. She smiled a lot too, especially when Dalton with all the enthusiasm and lack of subtleness of a male teenager, flirted with her. That was the woman she used to be and should have been, but the coming of the dead had killed the world that had allowed her that luxury. He felt the old anger rise but pushed it down and out of sight.

She was a pretty woman, he decided again, just the right amount of perfection and flaws and when she smiled and the shadows left her Hazel eyes she was beautiful. And what about Beka, remember her, the woman you think you love.

He still had no answers for himself, He and Beka had been on and off again during their time in the zone. But if he didn’t give it a serious chance, he would never know if it was meant to be.

He stepped forward at last, it was almost time to get moving. Seeing him out of the corner of her eye, the smile faded and the shadows returned, her eyes dimming like the sun behind clouds. You are getting entirely too poetic lately.

“we need to get packed up, we’re moving out in a short bit” He said. She nodded curtly as she ruffled Daltons hair. the boy blushed at the attention his eyes full of adoration.

“Dalton finish working the Roan for her” Darius said. Paige started heading to the wagons to help, but Darius stopped her with a touch on the forearm. He ignored the dangerous flash of anger in her eyes. “I wanted to tell you, that your doing great with the horses and I want you to keep the Roan.” He said. “Lee restored a saddle for you and has the tack ready. so if you want to ride when we leave here this morning its ready for you.” He gave her a crooked grin then headed back to camp before she could find her voice and say something.

“He’s a good guy. All cowboys are” Dalton said with a grin as she stood there watching Darius walk away. Dalton held the roans lead out to Paige.

“Some are bad guys” Paige said contraily.

“Not him, He is a hero just ask any one.” Dalton replied. The kid has a serious case of hero worship where Darius is concerned she thought, which didn’t say good things for her continued doubts about him and the hostility that came over her almost every time she was near him.

Of course she had heard a few stories from Adam about Darius or the legendary Hunter. She had pretty much discounted it as so much BS and of course she had heard about the Fight with some group of raiders at a place called Turners farm, but Darius had only played a minor role in all of that from what she had heard.

She started to explain to Dalton how one day he would be old enough to understand that there were no real hero’s that they had dark secrets and flaws like any other man once the masks were ripped away. But seeing the puppy eyed look of adoration in the eyes of the mentally challenged kid she just couldn’t make her self say something that would hurt him. Besides despite the feelings of hostility she felt every time Darius was close to her, it was blindingly obvious he cared about Dalton.

You are a screwed up mess, she told herself.

The storm swept in fast, a furious crash of rolling thunder and gusting winds. Rain slashed down in a blinding curtain, painfully striking bare flesh. The Temperature plummeted.

Darius swore as he hauled his duster out of his saddle bags and pulled it on. His horse danced under him, no happier than its rider about the sudden turn in weather.

“Keep the herd together” He shouted, hoping the others heard him. Thankfully Travis was on a horse today instead of driving the wagon and leaped in immediately to keep the herd together and moving down the road.

Some of the fallen raced up to help, while two of their men and Paige worked to keep the goats together.

The caravan continued its crawl up the hill and the storm only grew worse, the winds whipping the trees from side to side. Lightening flickered and flashed in blinding strobes, striking trees on the hill side. The Thunder was almost deafening and it took a lot of work to keep the horses from bolting in terror.
Water raced down the hill, channeled by wash outs and blockages till it spilled across the road in its journey to reach the flatlands 600 feet below. Anne grimly held on to the reins as she concentrated on keep the wagon moving. Trying to pretend she didn’t feel the occasional slip as the water pushed the wagon towards the side of the road.

Behind her the van pulled by cows lumbered on, as it hit the deepest and swiftest part of the run off, the sudden weight of the van and the force of the water broke a section of asphalt free. Immediately it shifted and water fumed up and under the van lifting it slightly. that was all that was need for the water to push the van towards the side of the road. the cows strained against weight, but couldn’t stop it. The Van slid off the road and crashed broadside into the trees.
Lee was thrown clear, striking a tree then hitting the ground and rolling down the hillside for twenty feet before coming to a stop, rushing water foaming around him.

“Keep with the herd,” Darius told Travis then turned his horse and rode back to the Van. It was dinged up, but nothing that couldn’t be fixed. He saw, the Rear doors had sprung open, but Noah was still inside, laying in the hammock that had been installed to keep him safe and above the cargo stacked on the floor of the van.

Darius looked down the hillside and finally spotted Lee, clinging to a log to keep the water from washing him even further down the hill. “Hang on” He shouted as he grabbed his rope. There was no way Lee could climb up against the force of the water, and no way any one else could get down to him till the rain stopped and the run off ended.

He cast the end of the rope but with all the trees in the way, he got no where near Lee. Damn it, he swore silently. If I wait till the storm passes, there’s a good chance lee might get swept down the hill and hurt or killed and if I try to get to him on foot I risk being seriously injured or killed he thought as he pulled the rope back and cast it again.

Paige seeing what Darius was doing left the goats and rode up beside him. “Give me the end of the rope,” She said holding out a hand. “I can reach him and you can pull us both up.”

“its too risky” Darius shouted over the weather.

“So is letting Lee hang there. Give me the rope, I can do this” She yelled back as thunder crashed around them.

She was right, He knew that. He had the skill and the best trained horse to get both paige and lee back up here. He didn’t like it, but it was honestly the best and only real option at the moment. “Be damn careful” He called out. She took the end of the rope and wrapped it around her waist then looped it over a shoulder before she slid from the saddle into the cold rushing water that had risen to mid shin. She staggered against her horse then stepped clear of her horse.

The water slammed into her and she fell. No, Darius realized she had purposely dropped onto the seat of her pants and was letting the water carry her down the hill using her hands and feet to make it a semi controlled fall down the hill.

Reaching Lee, Paige grabbed a hold of the fallen tree then twisted around to get her back against it. water splashed her in the face, half blinding her. “You shouldn’t have risked it” Lee shouted then coughed as he got a mouthful of water.

Paige strugged to get the rope off, with the tree at her back she was safe from being swept away. It took longer than she had thought to get the rope off then make a quick harness to hold them both together but finally, half blind from the rain and water splashing her in the face she got it done. “Now this is kinky” Lee coughed out.

“Shut up, perv” She said, almost laughing. She waved at Darius.

With his end of the rope secured to his saddle horn, Darius got the Nokato to slowly step back, the rope drew taught and Lee and Paige started up. in moments Lee and Paige had managed to get to their feet and staggered through the surging water as they were pulled up and to the road and out of the worst of the run off.

Exhausted Lee sat on a rock, flexing his fingers while trying to ignore the chill that had set in. Paige joined him a moment later. “as stupid as that was to do, thank you” Lee said.

“your welcome.” She replied. She was just as exhausted and cold as Lee and wanted nothing more than to get out of this storm. Darius appeared out of the rain, sliding from the saddle his duster flapping around his legs. “Lets get you two into some shelter.” He said. “you first Lee.”

Paige watched as Darius almost effortlessly lifted Lee up into his saddle. Some what surprised by the mans strength. Darius swung up behind Lee, and rode up the road to the waiting wagon.

Returning, he climbed down beside her and started to help her up then stopped. She almost snapped at him, about how she could help herself, but that would have been unfair. He wasn’t trying to help because she was a weak woman, but because he knew how hard a struggle it had been getting to Lee then getting back up the hill, not to mention the strength sapping cold wind and wet clothing. She took his hand and nodded, then suddenly found herself cradled in his arms.

His chest was solid and, despite the duster, warm, hot almost, she thought as he lifted her up to his saddle. The moment she was in the saddle he climbed up behind her and took the reins. She felt a rush of sensations as they rode to the wagon, and did her dead level best to ignore them.

The storm lasted an hour before dying off, soon even the dark clouds were breaking up allowing beams of sunlight to break through dappling the forest with golden light.

Lee in clean dry clothes, stood looking at the Van. Hands hooked in his belt as he studied the damage. “The frame may have bent” He said. “Sure as hell the Tongue is bent, if we were back at Turner Farm I know I can fix it. But out here, not a chance.”

Darius frowned slightly. Losing the van was a huge blow for Lee and the combined group, since it allowed them to carry a large amount of supplies. With out the can they were left with two choices, find a way to haul it or leave it all here.

“We got Noah moved to My wagon” Darius said. “so that’s good, but there is no way both wagons can carry all this stuff.”

“guess we leave it then” Lee said heavily. The supplies were priceless and they both knew it.

“Maybe we don’t have too.” Paige said as she, Diana, Travis and Green joined them. “there are farms all over this area, one of them should have a wagon, or a trailer we can modify, or maybe the tools and parts we need to fix this.”

“that could take a while” Darius pointed out. “but its an option.” He said before Paige could bristle.

“Don’t we need a welder or something,” Green asked.

“that and a generator would be ideal, but no with the right parts and tools we can do it with out a welder.” Lee replied. He was willing to take the chance they might be able to locate something to help them.

“All right then lets get that van pulled back on the road. then we can post some guards, set up a camp and send out a scouting party.” Darius said then glanced at Lee “You realize this is going to kill your plans to leave in a couple of days right.” Darius asked

“Yeah, but we have to have a way to carry Noah, and heading home with out all the supplies we came for would be only be slightly worse than not returning at all.” Lee said.
It took over an hour to get the van moved, discovering that the frame was more or less intact.

By the time they got a camp set up on the road, and organized a scouting party it was late afternoon. Scouting at night had its risks but Darius was willing to accept them since they really had no choice and he didn’t want to waste time.

“Looks like this is going to be fun” Lee said tilting his head towards the wagons, where Paige was climbing into the saddle of the Roan.

Darius looked towards then shrugged. The scouting/scavenging team was small, Travis, Adam, Fox Greer, Lee and Himself, He had no real objection to Paige coming along especially not after what she had done earlier. Assuming she could keep from trying to rip his head off.

“ready” He asked her when she rode up prepared to argue with him about including her.

“when you are.” She said almost normally. Not for the first time he wondered why she got so angry when having to deal with him.

“then lets go.” He announced with an easy smile.
By nightfall they had discovered and search three small farms along the ridgeline, finding only small amount of supplies that might help them. the fourth farm was at the base of the mountain or 1000 ft high hill, nestled in a wide bottom carved by a creek in the distant past. Clouds had begun to pile up on the horizon around sunset and driven by a strong wind were spreading across the night sky blotting out the stars.

They approached the house that loomed up out of the darkness then swung around the side towards the darker shape of what looked like a Barn.

Darius dismounted and rifle in hand approached the barn, followed by Lee and Travis. Locating the door, he pulled it open wincing at the squeal of tortured metal from the corroded hinges. He waited only long enough for Lee to get a small oil lantern lit, then stepped inside.

Bingo, he told himself as he looked around. It took only ten minutes to sweep and clear the barn once he was satisfied that it was clear they decided to make camp inside the barn to wait out the storm that was rolling in.

It was an old barn with gaps between the old cedar boards, but with tarps strung up along three walls, then one over the top they had a fairly warm and dry place to sleep.

Huddled around the small fire under the Tarp, they listened to the storm roll over them. the wind gusted through the cracks shaking the tarps. The leaks from the roof of the barn steadily tapped on the overhead tarp. The noise barely noticed over the crackling of the small fire and the quiet conversation of the scout team.

Lee was busying looking over the old parts and equipment that had been the barn, “some of this might work.” He said after a little while. “but We should keep looking tomorrow.”

“pick what you think will work, and we can send a wagon out to pick up the stuff we find.” Darius commented.

“wish you had brought your guitar.” Travis said a minute later. He was trying hard not to think about Anne, but her absence was gnawing at him.

“Playing music and scouting do not exactly go together” Darius said with a lopsided grin.

“sing something then,” Adam said. “you don’t have a bad voice and it will break the monotony.”

“anything to pass the time” Greer said with a laugh. He was one of the healthier of the Fallen. Slender yet muscled, with salt and pepper hair and lately an easy smile.

Darius thought about it for a moment then began to sing. “ Wild bill was a wild one, but he loved a pretty young woman…..” it was a song he had heard Jared sing more than once for his wife. He might not have the same level of passion invested in the song, but he came close.
Paige sat quietly in the back of the shelter, listening in surprise as Darius song. She had to admit that not only did he have a great voice, but he hit the right amount of emotion and she found herself wiping at her eyes as she thought of Josh and how he had been brutally ripped from her life.

I wish, god I wish things had been different, she thought as the emotional scab over her pain was ripped away. refusing to let any one see her cry, she rose to her feet and excused her self to use the bathroom.

Darius had launched into another song, that every one else knew and as the small group belted out the song, she slipped out into the storm and stood there looking up into the rain, watching the lightening flicker,her tears washed away by the cold rain.

She had no idea how long she had stood there, but finally the emotional outburst was ebbing and she took a shuddering breath and realized that some one was standing off to one side.

In a flash of lightening she saw the it was Darius, a rifle in his hands, his hat pulled low over his eyes as he stood guard over her. He said nothing, and for that she was thankful she didn’t want to explain and was certain she didn’t need to, that Darius had guessed what had driven her out into the storm.

“you ready to get inside,” He asked his voice gentle.” Your soaked and I bet your freezing.”

She nodded slowly, “Sorry” she said as she stepped past him and opened the door.

“No problem” He replied as he followed her inside.

the group was making small talk, and none of them acted concerned or even curious about what she had been doing. Darius shrugged off his duster and hung it on a nail, then sat down beside Travis. “it’s a mess out there but the storm is breaking” He commented as he’d had no other reason to be outside.
Paige changed into dry clothes behind a hanging tarp then crawled into her bed roll. Darius at the others urging began to sing another ballad. She fell asleep with his surprisingly melodic deep voice following her into dream land.
Lee said nothing as he noted Darius covertly studying the sleeping womans face as he sang, Whether he knows it or not, the man is attracted to her. He smiled as he settled back to listen to Darius sing. Lee personally couldn’t sing all that well, at least according to other people. Unless he was in the shower, then he was a rock star.
It took two more days, but finally they located everything needed to repair the Van, and had even discovered a smallish horse drawn two wheeled cart that could carry two people and a small amount of supplies. It took less work to restore the cart than to repair the van so when the finally set out again almost a week after the wreck they were up a cart and the weather was definitely getting colder.

Paige was also less snippy any time Darius was around, and Lee found it amusing that both of them would spend time covertly watching each other when they thought no one was paying attention.

Travis was less amused than puzzled, but after asking Anne about it and getting lectured for half an hour on how complicated things could be, he decided that opening his mouth was not an option.

Darius had even managed to convince Lee to continue on, eventually promising his friend that once they linked up with Darius’s friends they would drive them and their supplies back to their home.

Four days later, as they were crossing over the old state line heading towards Moss Tennessee, the sound of a motor could be heard in the distance.

Paige like every one but Darius stood there staring as a Motorcycle rolled up to their camp. Smoke streamed from its muffler, and the engine looked oversized and oddly shaped, but regardless of that it was a running motor.

The bike stopped and the rider dismounted pulling off his helmet to reveal a dark haired man in his mid thirties. He had the dark complexion of a greek or maybe Italian and the moment he saw Darius he smiled widely. He walked with a limp, Paige noticed and one arm seemed to move stiffly.

“Good to see you again Logan” Darius said stepping up and shaking the other mans hand.

“There are going to be a lot of people happy to see you to Darius.” Logan replied. “I ran across Quentin a month ago and have been looking for you since then.”

“I got a little diverted.” Darius said leading Logan into the camp.

“I’d say,”Logan said looking at the wagons, the cart and the van. “you were supposed to be traveling alone, or so I was told.”

“Started that way, Brought Travis there” Darius said gesturing towards the teen ager. “into the job in a place called Porters Town. That’s where I got the wagon too. Spent time rounding up horses and then….” Darius laid out the whole story as they sat around the fire.the rest of the group gathered around all wanting to ask questions but some how remaining silent. “…and here we are with a lot to show for it.”

“Coffee, you say. Fresh Coffee. You know that Jared and probably Ori will move heaven to make a deal for fresh Coffee.”

“Not Ori, he likes the stuff. But its Banana nut bread that rocks his world.” Darius said with a laugh. The tension and fear of the last month and a half receding now that he could see the light at the end of the tunnel.

“True enough” Logan agreed grinning.

“how far away are They?” Darius asked.

“by vehicle not more than a few hours, by wagon and cow, several days:” Logan said as accepted a cup of fresh brewed coffee. He fell silent as he drank half of it before continuing. “If you want to wait here, I can ride back to the area where they are searching for you. Once I get close I can use a radio and tell them I found you, then lead them back here. It will probably be tomorrow, maybe the day after before we can get back here. Depends on how long it takes me to find them.”

“That sounds like a hell of a plan, and tell Quint to have a couple of empty flat bed trailers and some extra gas for a side trip, I promised a friend a ride home with all of his supplies.”

It turned out to be three days, three llong days of constant questions from his traveling companions and rising excitement. By noon on the third day, the sound of motors could be heard echoing off the hills around them.

Paige like the others gathered near the road beside the camp and found herself crying as a line of vehicles, many pulling horse trailers appeared.

They were old vehicles of course, covered in dings and dents, the paint faded. Some had lost a window or two, but they still ran and that was more than just simply amazing to Paige.

She stood there unsure what to do as a dusty black ford four door dually came to a stop and the largest man she had ever seen stepped out. As soon as the man spotted Darius he raced over and swept the Cowboy into a bear hug.

“Damn son, your sister was threatening to kill if didn’t find you soon.” The man said with a laugh and playful squeeze.

“if you don’t let me go, your going to have to explain how you squeezed me to death and you know Kate she will kill you.” Darius said with a huge smile.

“not this time” Quint said with a wide grin as he let Darius go. “seeing as how I am the father of her unborn child and all.”

“like that’s going to make a… your what?” Darius asked stunned.

“father as in, I impregnated her and if you need an explanation of how that works I can give it to you but you wont like it.”

“what is that “ Dalton asked, laughter rippled through the adults.

“I…Well damn” Darius said sounding flustered. “Congratulations.”

Other men and women were exiting vehicles and like every one else but Darius and apparently Travis, she was amazed at the number of people, there were even five dogs.

One of the dogs, about the size of a small pony raced up to Darius who knelt in front of the happy dog and petted it briskly laughing as the dog wildly licked his face.

But it was the shapely, dusky skinned women who joined Darius and His friend that drew her attention. It was blindingly obvious from their body language, that this was the BEKA, she had heard about.

Shorter, with bigger breasts, too big in Paiges opinion, but that observation was just a spurt of envy she was sure. And she has longer legs than I have, Paige decided, classic good looks too. No wonder he likes her.

As the two hugged, she was surprised to see a slight stand offishness between them. oh they liked it other, that was obvious.  But there was something else between them. her gaze shifted to the man who had come up behind Beka and Paige knew immediately what that something else was. For a moment she felt stir of pity for Darius.

“its good to see you again” Darius said as he and Beka separated. He was happy about it too, but the wave of emotions he had expected at the sight of her hadn’t happened.

“I’m glad your alive, we were starting to worry. Your long overdue” She said with a smile.

“ran into things, you know how it is” Darius said as he looked and saw Wayne Talbott behind Beka.  She was as pretty as he remembered, but something was different or maybe what he was looking for had never really been there. Sure parts of him rejoiced at the sight of her. Memories of long nights in bed while the surf rolled in flowed through his mind.

He didn’t need any one to tell him, that what he had hoped for wasn’t going to happen now. It never would have either. oh he had wanted it, but outside of friendship and the closeness of sharing danger the connection he had wanted to believe might be there wasn’t.

He would always care for her, that would never change so he spared her from having to say what she had to say. “Hey Wayne,” Darius said stepping to one side to reach past Beka, extending his hand.

Wayne knew instantly what Darius was doing and looked relieved that there wasn’t going to be a scene. They shook then Wayne slipped his arm around Beka’s shoulders. Good Man, Darius thought half amazed at how little it bothered him.

“Glad to see you made it back. Especially since I laid some heavy bets on you making it back to us.” Wayne said as relief and gratitude filled Beka’s dark eyes.

“Still organizing betting pools” Darius laughed. “I’m like a bad penny, I keep showing up.” and with that all the tension between them slipped away.

“now that we have the Greeting’s portion of the day out of the way, I guess its time we got down to some real business” Quentin said turning serious. Beka nodded and waved at someone waiting for the line of vehicles.

“whats going on” Darius asked feeling a sudden apprehension as a group of men approached from the waiting vehicles. he drew in a sharp breath as he recognized Two of them. “Brad Robard and Possum, but how?” He asked.

“it’s the reason we took longer getting here.” Quentin said. “I know some of what’s happened to you thanks to Possum there, and I think its time you dealt with the rest of it.”

“Hunter” Possum said by way of greeting. He looked worried, Darius thought as he studied the other men with Possum. He didn’t know them but could guess who one of them was.

“Brad, Nice to see you again.” Darius said keeping the surprise he felt hidden away.

“Darius, I’m happy to see you made it through some one elses stupidity mostly intact.” Brad said with a grim smile. “which is what brings all of us here today. I would like you to meet Dutch, Dutch this is Darius McAlister, the hunter.” Brad said. Dutch, a compact man with short cut brown hair and pale blue eyes stepped forward. If he looked a little nervous meeting his personal boogey man it barely showed. His clothes were old of course, but neat and well kept.

Darius took the callused hand and shook once, ignoring the inner voice that urged him to just shoot Dutch and his people down. New leaf, he reminded himself especially with Izzy and Dalton back there watching.

“Your shorter than I imagined.” Dutch said. “after what you did to the Warlords people and the stories that just keep spreading, I would have expected you to be ten foot tall and pick your teeth with a riffle barrel.”

Dutch wasn’t what Darius had expected either truth to tell, He kept himself neat, dressed well especially compared to most of his men.

“So people keep telling me.” Darius said letting himself sound somewhat amused. “May I ask what your doing here, I assume its important since My Brother in law brought you here and Brad came with you.” That Brad was not a fan of Dutch was common knowledge in Porters town so Dutch must have had a really convincing and argument to get Brad to come along.

“I want to tell you that as far as I am concerned that I and my people have no grudge against you and will not attempt to harm you, your friends, family or your homes.” Dutch said trying to gauge Darius’s emotions.

“I see two things wrong with that” Darius said calmly as he lifted a finger. “one, you sent possum to kill me and Two, Connors little ambush say’s you cant speak for all of your people.”

Dutch contemplated the utterly terrified Connor for a moment, half tempted to kick the idiot in the side of the head and keep kicking till he was brain dead. “True enough, then I will only say that as long as I am in Charge that I will not order, ask for, or condone an attack on you, your friends, family or homes and if I become aware of such a threat I will act to stop it or get warning to you.  Dealing with Connors ambush is the reason I brough him with me” Dutch said jerking a thumb at Connor who stood between two other men.

“you seem to be dodging the first point” Darius said , he sounded casual but only a real fool would have seen the hard dangerous light that flickered in his gray eyes as he looked at Connor and believe for a minute that He was that calm and relaxed.

“I did order Possum to kill you, Face it Hunter All of us who served Kronnen see you as a threat. You come riding into town out of no where, what did you think me and mine would think was going on or  worry about what you would do when you found out who we were.
I can only say that I knew when I gave that order to possum he would do his best to follow it, but I also knew if he decided that I was wrong he would do what ever he believed was right.” Dutch smiled suddenly. “I trust possum because he has never had a problem telling me I am not as Brilliant as I thought I was and after possum told me about what went on at that farm, I completely agree with his decision.

So tell me that if you had been in my place that you wouldn’t have done the exact same thing.”

Darius grunted softly “Your right I probably would have found a way to deal with you. That said where do we go from here.”

“that is where Brad comes in” Dutch said turning his head to look at Brad who actually smiled. “I had already started out to find you and see if I could put a stop to a war between us, when I had a brain storm.” He said with some little humor and ignored Possums soft laughter. “ So I sent a couple of my men back with message to Brad, who took it to the town council. They liked it and sent brad and their response back to me.”

“and that would be?” Darius asked more curious than he wanted to show. He knew Brad did not like Dutch or his people so what ever Dutchs idea was, it had to have been convincing to get Brad to go along with it.

“Consider me an ambassador of Porters Town, or referee for you two” Brad said with a grin. “there have been a few changes since you left Porters Town. Change number one I am now officially the Sheriff and temporary Mayor by popular vote. Change Two, is that Dutch has been appointed Captain of the Porters Town militia whose members are drawn both from his … group and from the town. That was his idea by the way.

Porters town wants to set up a contract with you to provide forty horses with in the next three months, with an additional number of horses supplied next year as well.

along with supplying some one to train our people in working with horses and riding as well as supplying all gear that will be needed to mount both sheriffs deputies, militia and post riders, or the pony express if your into history. All of which was Dutchs idea as well”

“I take it all that’s dependent on if I agree not to go after Dutch and his people” Darius said thoughtfully. With the Horses that Quentin had rounded up and what I have rounded up, we can easily meet the initial number, saddles and tack will be harder, but I bet I can work a deal with Lee who can supply the equipment.

Travis is the logical person to send back to train who ever porters town picks for the job, and he can bring extra horses to sell to those farmers who wanted horses when I was there. I wonder if the zones rail line runs anywhere close to Porters town, not that it matters at the moment.

“I might agree to that if you will agree to build a small compound that My people can use as a stable and corral, it will need a barn, a shelter to hold wagons, bunk houses and at least one larger structure that can be used as offices. Close to the center of Town would be good, but if not there then out by the farmers Market.”

“why?” Dutch asked.

“Because there is a market for horses in and around Porters town, and there will be caravans forming at some point hauling goods and supplies in and out of Porters town I plan on being in on the ground floor seeing as how my people will be the only ones supplying horses for the foreseeable future.

Once other people are trained in horse handling I am pretty sure they will be going out to catch horses to sell. Which means trading goods and running a place for traders to say will end up being the better choice of business in the long run” He paused thinking about it. “I also think I might be able to find a few people who can teach some of your people on things like curing and working leather, smithing and a few other odds and ends and they will need a place to stay along with my riders, merchants and their guards.”

“I think that can be arraigned,” Brad said. “anything else.”

“yeah, but I think we can work out those details later.” Darius said as he turned his attention back to Dutch. “if you give me your word and do what you said, then you do not have to worry about me or mine deciding to pay you a visit . Kronnen’s dead, his army is shattered and my friends and family are safe, all I want is to be left alone to ranch and get on with life” Darius said as he stuck out his hand once more. Dutch studied him for a moment, then smiled as he shook.

“it’s a deal, the only thing I need to know before I close this discussion is what do you want me to do with Connor.”

Darius looked thoughtful, thumbs hooked around his belt buckle as he gazed coldly at Connor. He stepped towards Connor and leaned close to the other mans ear. No one but Connor heard what he said, but no one watching could miss seeing the color drain out of Connors face or the fear that shown in his eyes as he nodded jerkily.

Darius rose again and smiled. “you don’t have to kill him, I think we have an understanding. Beyond not killing him what you do to him is up to you.” Darius said as he turned and headed back towards his camp whistling for the Dog.

Lee watched the discussion from a distance, having no real interest in getting involved in Darius’s problems or in peace talks in general. It was kind of disappointing really he thought half an hour later as the two men shook hands. He had expected at least a full scale brawl, or a spanking at the minimum. Not to men who parted with smiles.

Leave it to Darius, one minute a trail of carnage, the next he is spreading sunshine and light everywhere he goes. What is wrong with being consistent, he silently complained.

The truth is I am impressed that Darius didn’t go all deliverance on Dutch. He might hate killing, but if something violates the rules he lives by he has no problem showing some one like Dutch the very pointed and usually fatal error of their ways.
it was too late in the day to head out, so the camp was expanded. A party was in full swing by dinner time and Paige found herself sitting on an old stone beside the road that had J.W. 1992 carved on it. She idly wondered if J.W. had survived the Undead. She doubted it.

hearing some one behind her she turned and saw Lee dim light. In the distance, she could hear a Guitar and a fiddle being played. “your missing the party” Lee said coming to stand beside her looking at the sunset.

“Don’t really feel like a party” She replied not really wanting company.

“Did you know that half of those vehicles out there run off of wood or steam.” He said completely out of the blue. “No really, and that Darius and his people are planning on building a whole town from scratch.”

“No, I didn’t” she replied wondering what if anything that had to do with the price of tea in china. “how” she asked, suddenly curious how a vehicle could run on wood.

He explained briefly as he lowered himself to sit beside the rock. “I have never heard of that before “ she said when he finished.

“Its been around for a long time, it was pretty big during WWII, but after that people got all of full of themselves and had to have Gas, using wood or steam was too old fashioned I guess.” Lee said.

For a moment they sat there in silence, then he cleared his throat. “I am going to say this, you don’t have to respond either. You like Darius, its as plain to the rest of us as the nose on your face. Well its plain to every one but Darius at any rate. Why you keep him at a distance I don’t know. And I can tell you that he likes you too, though like you he hasn’t really thought it through, since he was wrapped up in the whole Beka thing.

Take it from me, Do not wait to long and do not waste one moment of the time you’ve been given.” He said as he rose to his feet again. “I like you paige, you’re a good woman. even if you never make a move on Darius be his friend because he is one hell of man.” He leaned down and to her surprise kissed her on the forehead then walked back to the camp.

She sat there finally facing herself. when she had first met Darius, she had distrusted him with good reason because he was a stranger an unknown. But after that, he had gone out of his way to be kind to her, to help her and she had resisted the feelings she felt growing in side of her as she spent more and more time with him, learning what he had to teach and working with his horses.

Discovering that despite the stories she had heard around the camp fire about the Hunter, almost always told when Darius was some where else, that under the hard gruff exterior he was a gentle man, kind, which was more than most people could say these days. He might be a killer, but few people in todays world could say they hadn’t killed.
Like Darius who had clung to a dream  Beka , she had clung to her love for Josh. Josh had been her shield against the harsh new life she found herself stuck in.  No matter how bad things had gotten, she had taken comfort in knowing that he had loved her and she had refused to let go. To let go of that love, to move on and admit that she liked someone else was like a betrayal to Josh and his sacrifice to save her and their child and there was the final pain she had avoided facing, the final obstacle that had kept her from wanting to face the truth of her growing attraction to Darius.

Josh was only part of it, the other part was fear of getting pregnant again and risk giving birth to another child who could be ripped from her like Bryan had been. She had chained herself to a lonely life denying herself a future because of death and loss. She hadn’t really lived life since her losses, just wandered through the days relying on her friendship with Diana to see her through.

So what do I do now that I finally see, She asked her self.

 

The next few days were like a miracle to the small band that had traveled with Darius, the wagons were loaded onto flat bed trailers, the horses into horse trailers for the trip.
Porters Town was their first stop, and the people there so full of excitement at seeing running vehicles threw a party that lasted till well into the night.

From all appearances Dutch was serious about his deal with the town and Darius and it even looked like the majority of his people backed him. how that would all shake out in the end Darius didn’t know but he suspected a few of Dutches people would head out on their own seeking more like minded violent groups to join. But it looked like it would be a very small number.
The trip to Lees place took little time, the difference between twenty miles a day, or forty miles an hour. There was another party thrown and if it wasn’t exactly happy it still a celebration of the return of Lee and the others. When they pulled out two days later Anne went with them. Determined to stay by Travis’s side.

Paige had continued to work with the horses and continued to keep a wall up between her and Darius anytime they were together. But the hostility had faded.

She sat watching out the truck window as their destination loomed just ahead. She knew that half of Darius group were already there and had been working on setting up their new town.

Now as they rolled out of the woods she saw it. where there had once been only an old courthouse on a bluff over the Mississippi river, over looking the empty lots and streets of what had been a town, campers, RV’s and even three newly erected buildings now stood. People were cutting firewood, planning boards, leveling trailers and a group of thirty were working on the frame of yet another new building.
She stared, she couldn’t help it. At no time during her wandering around had she ever seen people actually working, beyond scavenging.  She had tried to, and for a little while she had kept her and Joshes farm running, before raiders had swept in stolen her food, raped her and burned the place to the ground. Diana who had been gone at the time of the raid had dragged her out of the ruin of her barn and nursed her back to health.

That wasn’t the least of the surprises, not by a long shot. she sat there stunned as she saw, just up river from the old steel railroad bridge, a paddle wheeled river boat, smoke curled lazily from the twin smoke stacks, tied up to a newly constructed Dock. Men were offloading the cargo and stacking it on a rough built platform.

“I almost don’t believe this” Diana said as the truck they were riding in came to a stop.

The driver of the truck she rode in,  a forty something year old Hispanic male with dark hair and matching eyes, turned in his seat and grinned at her. “Believe it, we’ve planned this for the last six years and if you think this is something wait till the Trains from the Zone start coming.”

Trains?  Could it really be, she asked herself. Before she could ask the driver he had climbed out of the truck.

Paige opened the door and stepped out, not sure what to do, All work had ceased and the people swarmed the convoy greeting friends and loved ones.

People swirled around her, more people than she had seen since the dead rose. Just the sight of so many people working to rebuild their lives hit her hard, but it was the sight of he kids who rushed to hug their long delayed parents that broke through the emotional dam she had built over the years. A release of all the fear that had lain pent up in her heart melted away with the tears of joy that streamed down her face.

 

 

Darius sat on the dock, booted foot dangling over the side gazing out over the slow moving river, the first winter wind whipped across the river chilling him. This was a far cry from the flat open lands he had grown up on, but he liked it.

Over the last week he had been scouting out areas out side of the growing town for a place to build his ranch on finally yesterday he had found the perfect spot. Come spring time he would start building, a bunk house, pens and a good sized barn first. Later he would build the home he wanted. He was in no real rush on that side of things.

Back in town the celebration was in full swing, he could hear the music down here. a lot to celebrate, he thought. The Zones work crew had arrived to repair the train tracks up to the bridge. the first train that would connect Thebes to the east coast would be arriving by Christmas according to the repair crew.  But above and beyond that little miracle, the town had held its first elections and now had a town council and Quentin as Mayor.

His sister, heavily pregnant was both thrilled and upset at being the mayors wife. Darius chuckled quietly. The town was still in some shock that he had refused to run for office and refused the offer to make him either the Sheriff or Marshal.

“mind if I join you?” Darius half turned to see Paige standing there watching him.

“drag up a board” Darius invited. “it’s a free dock, or so I’m told.”

She sat down beside him, still keeping a distance between them. “can I ask you something?”

“you can ask me anything, my answering will depend on the question” he joked.

“why didn’t you want to become the Mayor, or even Sheriff here.”

He sat silently for a moment then sighed. “ I spent years leading these folks,” He said then paused for a moment gathering his thoughts then continued. “It’s time for some one else to lead them. The dead are gone, Kronnen’s army is smashed and scattered. Most of them are not a threat any longer and I am tired all I want at this point is to try and build a life for myself.”

“so your giving up being the Hunter?” She asked quietly.

“Can’t give up who you are.” He said. There was an edge of regret to his tone she noted. “It took me a while to figure that out. I thought that I was two people for a long while, the Darius who grew up in the old world and the Hunter who was born in the new one. Found out I was both people.” he smiled with out humor as he gazed out over the water. “in a way its useful being a legend, I’ve discovered it can be used to do other things than kill and scare people.” He turned his head to look at her again. “I’m pretty sure that’s not the reason you came down here?”

“this is a town of new beginnings, that’s what your brother in law said during his acceptance speech.” She said seriously looking into his eyes. Gauging his reaction. “For the first time since, well you know, I want to take a chance at a new beginning.” She said her voice soft and hesitant. “I don’t know if it will work out, but I want to try and….” She fell silent as he leaned in and kissed her gently. For a moment she resisted, but then she returned his kiss.

Darius regretfully pulled away, surprised at his own actions. To hell with it, admit it you like her idiot, the voice in his mind sounded a lot like Lee. You’ve wasted enough time pining after women you knew it wouldn’t work out with, because there was something missing. But She’s different isn’t she, you know there’s something worth while in this woman. She’s every bit of your equal.

He surrendered to the voice, “I don’t know if this is going to work, You will probably go back to hating me in a week. But I am willing if you are.”

“What in the hell makes you think I was wanting a new beginning with you?” She demanded.

“well, the kiss, I mean… “ he said stumbling over his words and starting to blush.
That was something that probably wouldn’t end up in any of the Legends of the Hunter, she thought with some little humor.

“I was talking about you, but let me actually say it next time.” She said and before he could respond she kissed him again. “and don’t expect me to jump in bed with you tonight.”

“Never crossed my mind” he said with a laugh. “I’m not easy Lady.” He said then continued. “besides I’m thinking you might be worth waiting for.”

She smiled and kissed him again, this time lingering over the moment savoring it, wanting it to last as long as possible.

Later as he sat there with her back against his chest, his arms around her, he realized that It had taken a long while but his life up to this point had finally reached the Trails end.  A new trail lay open before him and the view looked damn good.  He found he was pretty eager to travel where ever the new path led.

 
Sullivan Island. June 2020

It had been a long trip to get here, a dangerous one as well. But they were finally here, Rachael thought as she and paul stood there gazing out over the ocean. The soft soothing sounds of the surf almost hypnotic.

The island was still recovering from the Sudden death of Jared Stone a short while back, killed in combat fighting a man many claimed to have been Kronnen’s assassin. She wasn’t sure if he had been or not and she didn’t care. He was dead, the remants of Kronnen’s army he had led were dead and she was here safe at last.

She and Paul had met with the new arrivals center and had even been allowed to pick their new home. From what had been said, that was probably going to stop by the end of the year. the number of still standing and empty homes was getting smaller by the month.

She smiled as Paul took her free hand and gently squeezed. “A Christmas tree, with lights.” He said with a grin. “In our New home.”

Home, a word with so much meaning and emotion behind it. A word that she had never expected to use again. But she was finally home against all the odds. She turned to Abbi, and stared. Abbi who had been standing beside her, was kneeling in the sand and running her hand through the surf as it washed up. It wasn’t much really, but it was far more than her daughter had done with out being led for months. Maybe this place was special, she thought with a smile.
The story as you can guess didn’t end there.

Darius and Paige eventually married, and rarely left each others side for the next thirty years. No one was less surprised than Lee at the bond that developed between them, they were lovers, equals and the best of friends. They adopted Dalton and then had four kids of their own. Dalton proudly took the name McAlister and continued ranching and working with horses till his death at the age of fifty-five.

Travis worked with Darius for years, his herd growing with his experience. He did become a wealthy man, and with Anne as his wife saw much of the new country as they traveled rounding up wild horses and selling at various markers around the country.

Green adopted Izzy, who really had six fathers since the last of the Fallen were fiercely loyal to her and loved her as their own. The Threat of the Brotherhood coming after her remained remote but the Fallen and their friends remained vigilant. Izzy and Dalton remained the best of friends for the rest of their lives.

Lee eventually moved to Thebes to be close to Diana. They never officially married, but six kids and thirty one years later they were still together.

What was left of Toffler band of the Brotherhood, were never seen again East of the Mississippi again, but the Pathfinders that crossed the river to explore further west heard persistent rumors of the Brotherhood, always on the move west always seeking new followers.

Thebes, was rebuilt just as they had planned and grew in importance thanks to the train line and as a River port. By the time of Darius’s death the town had grown to four thousand people and was considered a vital part of the New United States.

Over the years, as contact was established with new communities, the stories of the Hunter grew, it seemed that more than half of the newly contacted towns, had legends of a man they called the Hunter who rode into town one day and pushed out raiders and other bad guys. Sometimes as the stories went, he rescued children, other times saving virgin daughters or kidnapped wives.

Darius, who denied the vast majority of the stories, joked before his death that if one believed all the stories, he had slept in more places than George Washington and had traversed the entire country, five times during the years of the dead killing off Kronnen’s men and saving people while shouting hi ho silver and shooting silver bullets.

When he did pass on, people from all over the new United States made the trip for his funeral including the son of Jared Stone and Ori McBride who was a legend himself.

Paige the love of his life outlived him by only five years and spent every day of those five years, rain or shine, cold or warm, going to his grave once a day where she talked with him about her day.

On her death, she was buried beside him on their ranch and carved into the tombstone was “He was more than a legend, he was my love.”
.

7 thoughts on “The Hunters Trail Part Seven

  1. All good things come to an end. Awesome story, Great ending. Looking forward to the next journey if there is one. Hope you and yours are doing well.

    Like

    • Thanks Rob glad you liked it. I am trying to make sure there is a next journey but its some what out of my hands considering the situation.

      Thanks for reading and currently we are okay.

      Like

    • Thanks Bob, glad you enjoyed it and your more than welcome.

      I really wanted to wrap it up, so if something happened later there was no hanging story. But I did leave room for more stories if life allows me time to write.

      Like

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