Mitch Morrison didn’t hurry as he prepared the meal. Since he just cooked for himself, as he had for that last year, it was a low maintenance affair. He just tried to fix and eat everything as quickly as possible. The only excitement he ever felt was in the knowledge there was something to cook, for quite often there wasn’t.
He was high enough into the mountains that he had decided to risk a fire. The wind whistled through the sandstone boulders that he hoped would hide his small flame. It blew grit into his food, but he remained miles from caring about such things. As he took in a deep breath, he wondered what it was he might still care about.
Night had fallen and covered the hills of the Rincons in its dark embrace. In the distance a coyote let loose a mournful howl. Critters and insects chattered like the world wasn’t crawling with animated corpses. Not that too many of the walkers made it up this far. Between the hard climb and the difficulty finding food, Mitch saw zombies rarely this high up off the desert floor. That didn’t keep him from pitching his hammock ten feet up into the trees. Many a time he was woken up in the middle of the night by the sounds of growling undead reaching for him from below.
He flipped the desert rat over on the grill he’d made from a broken portable heater. He mostly ate little mammals he gathered from his traps these days. He had gotten pretty good at setting them. Rattlesnakes were a treat and with the small stream on the face of the mountain, he figured he might be one of the healthiest people living around Tucson.
“Smells good, pops,” a voice said just three seconds before the barrel of a rifle pointed straight as he head.
Mitch cursed himself for being so careless, but when two more figures joined the first, he realized there wasn’t much he could have done about it anyway.
He took in the three youths. Each looked to be barely more than teens, but they had grown up fast. Dirty scowling faces glared down at him from over tattered layers of mismatching clothing. Two had rifles, the youngest only a pistol. Backpacks and knives hung from them.
The second rifleman rushed forward and grabbed his rat off the grill and then promptly dropped it. “Shit, that’s hot.” He had knife cut his hair short and done a rather poor job of it. His round face’s eyes seemed too small for his head and he stared at Mitch while he blew on his fingers.
“Well, it was on a fire.”
“Watch your lip,” the big one said, while thrusting his rifle into Mitch’s personal space. The guy might had been just old enough to enter a liquor store, if there were still such things, and had the look of someone who thought things through.
“If I’m not mistaken, this is my camp.”
“Yeah, and these are our guns,” pig eyes said.
“Has the honor of the west fallen on such hard times?” Mitch eyed the boy with the pistol as he spoke. He had lowered his gun and just stared at the rat. “Would you like a piece?”
“He won’t get the first piece,” pig eyes said.
“I think it’s my choice who I give my food to.”
The big one moved in a grabbed Mitch by the front of his shirt. “Are you senile or something? The only choice going on around here will be whether we shoot you before or after we look through your gear.” Turning toward pig-eyes, he said. “Rus, start searching this guy’s pack.”
Mitch held up his hands. “You won’t find much. I don’t even own a firearm, much less have bullets.” It wasn’t completely true. Mitch had a few guns stashed in the cliffs, but without bullets there remained no reason to lug the heavy things around.
Rus pulled a fistful of tangled piano wire out of Mitch’s pack. “What the hell is this shit? You strangle zombies or something?”
“No, it’s for making traps, how do you think I got this rat, which is burning by the way.”
The big one let go of him, drew his knife, and then stabbed it into the cooking rat. He took a big bite out of it. Despite the heat, he said, “Doesn’t suck. I’m Brad.”
Rus laughed and said, “Brad the bad,” while upending Mitch’s bag and dumping all prized possessions into the sand. He pocketed things as he rummaged through the pile.
“You met Rus and the skinny guy over there is Eric.”
“Well can you give Eric a bite of that rat, please?”
“Why the fuck should you care?” Rus said, and he found half an energy bar. “Sweet, score.”
“Don’t eat that,” Mitch said and almost stood up, but then thought better of it.
“And why the hell not, old man?”
“Because that’s what I use to bait my traps. I can catch a hundred times that much food with that.”
“Oh really,” Brad said. “Maybe you just figured out a way to survive long enough to see the sunrise, pops.”
“Huh, why?” Rus asked.
Brad took another bite of the rat. “Because come sun up, this old puke is going to teach us all how to set up traps.”
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