The sounds of the approaching undead faded as the steel door slammed shut making the darkness absolute. She could hear nothing over her own ragged breathing, until and tearing sound of a match coming to life sparked to her right. The circle of dim fire illuminated the young male face for a moment before it dipped to light a round, half used candle. Another of them, this one no more than in his late teens, lit a second candle.
The small flames sent out just enough light for Sara to be able to see the third youth, the one that had lead her along, walking over to where she stood. “You okay?” he said in a voice sounding more rough that concerned. When she couldn’t bring herself to answer, he went on. “What’s your name?”
“Sara,” she said and the sound of her own voice startled her and she wondered briefly how long it have been since she had spoken.
He nodded. Although his face remained masked in shadow, she could tell he was the biggest of the three. Broad shoulders met strong arms covered with corded muscles. She supposed she might have considered such a man handsome a year ago, but his sight only filled her with terror.
She couldn’t help but contemplate if she might have been better off with the zombies.
He smoothed some of his ragged hair back over his head and said, “I go by, Dane. The guy over near the door is Buzz and the little dude is Davey.”
She might have moved her head. Sara attempted a smile, but doubted it came out looking that way.
Dane went on. “So you have been out there surviving on your own all this time?” As if in answer to his question, the loud mournful moan of a zombie reached their ears.
“I…we, I wasn’t always alone. We ran into some gang, the Rips.” She saw Dane a Buzz share a silent glance. “They shot up some of us and the biters took the rest. I only survived because…” she couldn’t bring herself to finish as the memories of her cowardly actions came flooding back to her. Would things have been different if she had stayed and tried to help them instead of just thinking for herself and running off? Peter had been shot in the leg. She felt twin tears stream down her cheeks. Maybe if she had helped him…
She was jerked back to the present when Dane put his arm around her. She flinched and tried to move away, but he held on. “Don’t worry, you’re okay. Everything cool, you’re safe now.”
She didn’t like the way he held her. “Thanks, but maybe I should just leave. I have some friends out there I need to find,” she lied.
His grip grew tighter. “I thought you said, they were gone. Besides, there’s no way we’re going to let you go back out there. It’s too dangerous.”
She tried to move away again, and couldn’t. “It isn’t up to you to decide what I do.”
The candle light exposed a grin that held no humor. “That’s where you’re wrong. We can make you do whatever the hell we like.”
She tried to struggle harder, but he grabbed her from behind by both arms. Buzz had hurried over and he said, “Help me get her clothes off.” He leaned in and whispered in her ear. “We could have played it cooler, but you knew this was going to happen either way, so you might as well try your best to roll with it.”
She noticed that Davey hadn’t moved to him the others. She pleaded to him with her eyes, but he looked away.
It wasn’t until Buzz pulled at her jeans that she started to scream.
Come back next weekend and discover if Sara can survive the horrors of both the living and the dead as she battles into the second year of the Eternal Aftermath
Sara ran as fast as her legs allowed. She’d been running for as long as she could remember. The soldiers and the police used to protect her. Then her family had tried, but they couldn’t. She was alone. No one could help her, not even herself.
She figured it had to be almost over. Part of her, a big part, just wanted to admit the inevitable and just give up. If the horror had to happen, she would rather just get it over with. If nothing else the burning in her chest and the ache in her legs would be over. If she owned a pistol she probably would have used it on herself, but giving up as she was would mean minutes of horrible agony. She couldn’t face that. She couldn’t imagine letting them eat her. Feeling them biting off pieces of her from everywhere, all while she still lived.
Sara ran by the dull facades of fast food restaurants and strip malls that surrounded grocery stores. Her stomach ached almost as badly as her legs and each former restaurant she passed taunted her. Like a sick slap to the face, they reminded her of what she had once had, things so easy and normal—a whole life just torn away.
She had tried not to look behind her, but when a growl grew louder than the others, she couldn’t help herself. Over two hundred of them lurched and moaned in her wake. Foul rotting things. Many of them were naked and the sun had baked them into roasted, taunt moving death. Teeth clanked as they snapped open and shut and even though she remained a hundred yards ahead of them, filthy fingers reached and grasped for her.
They dogged her steps. Sara should have been able to outrun them, but she had run for so long and food hadn’t passed through her lips in days, but the worst of it remained the water.
Without water she knew she couldn’t last much longer. With each additional step she felt herself shutting down and growing weaker.
They would catch her soon.
She screamed when she looked back away from the mob and saw two dozen more of the horrid zombies blocked her path. She had almost run straight into their curled claws.
She ran to the left and figured it would only be a matter of time before they had her, but she couldn’t bring herself to give up.
She had almost made it into a parking lot when one of the faster undead grabbed a handful of her blonde hair. It pulled back savagely.
She screamed again as the other zombies drew in for a kill.
This would be it. She was done.
Shots rang out, first one and then many.
Her hair was released, but she could only take two steps before her legs gave out and she fell to her knees.
A hand grabbed her arm with rough fingers. She thought it was another zombie until it spoke. “Come on move, we aren’t out of this yet.”
The voice sounded young, but full of power and confidence. She could see that three men had rescued her, they seemed barely older than boys really, but soon she felt herself being dragged along.
The next few minutes stayed a blur as they forced her to run much faster than she had the strength to do. After a frantic series of twists and turns through alleys, they moved behind a dumpster a slammed a door open.
No words were spoken, nor permission given, before she was dragged into the darkness.
Come back next weekend and Discover whether Sara has been rescued or faces a worst fate as she continues into the second year of the Eternal Aftermath
Brown knew something was wrong long before he could see the ranch. Zombies stumbled and lurched in packs of twenty strong and covered the grassy hills of northern Sonita like moving icons of death. They moaned and reached at him on the back of his horse, but he just galloped past.
Trevor called to Brown, but with him carrying Jacob too, there would be no hope of keeping up.
Moonlight took to his speed. His sleek body tore up tuffs of grass as he raced them through the clusters of walking corpses. More undead hobbled to intercept them every hundred yards. The zombies moved into their path, but Moonlight needed no guidance. He well knew they needed to be avoided. He also knew where he headed, home. But unlike his mount, Brown dreaded what he would find.
His worse fears appeared to be confirmed as they rose over the last crest and saw the zombies everywhere around the ranch. All the livestock, all the animals were dead and by the looks of things the feasting had long sense ceased. He galloped Moonlight toward the ranch while shouting words he would never remember. He was only a hundred feet away when he saw the front door leaning open.
“Jesse! Linda!” he screamed even though he knew it was useless. He was too late.
Why had he left them? Luring the large horde away from the ranch had seemed to be the right thing to do, but when those smaller groups met up with them from the south, he should have known. He should have known that more could have come up this way.
Did they not even have time to bar the door? What had happened? Nine people had been left at the ranch. Had they all…
Then he saw her walking out through the front door. Jesse had only one bite he could see. She must have fought hard, but suffered bad luck. Had she holed up as the sickness took her hoping he would return in time? Had it been she or someone else that opened the front door of the ranch house after they turned?
She looked up at him with milky eyes and let out a loud mournful moan.
“Oh God, Jesse…”
As he watched her stumble his way, he heard Moonlight grow nervous as the undead began to surround him.
It was over, why try now? They had worked and struggled so hard to provide something decent. He wanted Linda to live like a girl should. They had tried.
The sounds of gunfire overroad the constant moans. Five of the undead closest to him were cut down. Their rotting grey matter spread over the dry grasslands. “Brown, snap out of it,” Trevor yelled. “What the hell are you doing and then Trevor saw. “Holy damn.”
When Brown made to move to cut down the approaching zombies or flee. Trevor went on. “Come on, let’s get down there. We can fight our way into the ranch and hold them from there.”
“No, I can’t set foot in there. I’m not sure what I’ll ever be able to do again.”
“Oh shit,” Jacob said, from the back of Trevor’s horse.
“But the ranch, our supplies.”
“The dead own them now. I can’t go back there. I never want to see this place again.”
A decayed hand reached for Moonlight. The horse cried out and something snapped within Brown.
He had been all but ready to let the undead tear him apart until he put a pistol into his mouth, but he realized Moonlight didn’t deserve such a fate. He loved his horse and couldn’t let him end up like that. He considered dismounting and letting him run, but knew Moonlight might refuse, so instead he turned and started to trot north.
“Let’s get the hell out of here.”
Trevor followed without comment and even Jacob kept his mouth shut. They headed north and then west into the sunset, but Brown felt like this was anything but a happy ending. Hiding out was over for him. Maybe some people fought back. He would find them and join their war. It was time to take back his world or die trying.
Thank you for reading Cowboys, Dust, and Death. I hope you enjoyed sharing Brown’s tragic path into the second year of the Eternal Aftermath
Come back next weekend for a new hero’s journey into the second year of the Eternal Aftermath
Enough old construction sites had dumped abandoned supplies into the desert that Brown discovered an old steel bar. He mounted his horse and took it with him to the back of the cinder block wall that surrounded the housing complex the biker gang had taken over.
It remained only a few hours after sunrise and Brown hoped the bikers behaved like most of their ilk and stayed in bed. As the relentless desert sun cooked his Stetson part of him didn’t blame them for having late nights, which would keep them out of Arizona’s deadly heat.
More concerning was the horde that slowly marched toward his back. Instead of the mountains taking its toll, if anything the horde had grown as it met up with more undead migrating north from Mexico. It marched a thousand strong as least and could have been two or three times that number.
He tied his mount, Moonlight, to a palo verde tree, grabbed his sledge hammer in one hand, the steel pole in the other, and hurried to the wall. He circled around and got to a place a two hundred yards from his horse, but closer to where the horde emerged from the foothills.
He cast a final glance over his shoulder as the horrid odor of decaying flesh rotting in the sun reached his nostrils. They stumbled over the rocks and uneven ground, these human monsters made flesh. Bones poked through tattered skin and black wounds covered more parts of their bodies than the clothes they wore.
He wished, he really wished, he had enough bullets to sit on a high cliff and take them out of their misery to the very last one, but he wasn’t near being so equipped, better to have his two enemies kill each other.
Perhaps leading the undead into the compound was a questionable act. With so few breathers left, they should be uniting against a common foe, but if these bikers had been so cruel to wipe out the elderly who had occupied this complex, than he had no doubts what they might do to the girls back at the ranch and Brown would anything to protect them.
He placed the steel bar between two cinder blocks where a crack had already separated them. Sweat formed on his forehead and behind him he could hear the zombies drawing near.
The bar entered further than he thought it might, but it also created more noise than he would have liked. Not one to hesitate, Brown hit the steel bar again and again. It burst through the other side. Moving to the side, he threw his weight against the bar. At first nothing happened and he had to fight away his panic.
Muscles strained and sweat poured into his eyes. He tried harder. A growl escaped his lips as he gave it everything he had. The upper half of the wall fell away with a crash.
He realized at once that it wouldn’t be enough. He needed to take down the lower three feet of wall that remained.
He heard shouts from within the complex and the moaning behind him grew far too close. He ignored them both and drove the pole straight down through one of the exposed cinder blocks. He pulled at the remaining walls. It didn’t give, so he jammed the bar forward.
More yells echoed up from the compound and he could hear the shuffling of clumsy feet as they tore through the desert floor just yards behind him. He pulled the bar back and then jammed it forward again. The top two cinder blocks cracked and then broke apart. He moved the bar two feet to the right and started the process again.
Forward, back, forward, back.
Shots rang out and powder broke away as a bullet hit the wall to his left. Another disturbed the dry dirt before him.
He grit his teeth and a cinder block broke away as he slammed the bar back. At least my friends and the girls will be safe, he thought to himself, but then jerked at the first set of hands clawed at his back.
With a yell, he dove over what remained of the wall. Bullets buzzed around, him and several hit the zombies and their bodies jerked in a foul dance of death. Reaching up, he grabbed the steel bar and pulled it back in toward him. With a crash, the rest of the cinder blocks in the break fell away and the undead came pouring in.
The shouting behind him increased into a frenzy as the zombies entered the complex, but Brown was on his feet and running. Two filthy, dark bearded bikers had drawn in closer to him and appeared to be more set on revenge than holding back the horde. Brown drew his pistol and dropped to one knee as more shouts ripped by him like angry hornets.
He held his breath and hit one in the center of his chest. The other kept firing until Brown’s third shot got lucky and took the man in the eye. He stood up just in time to feel fingers grabbing at his head. They came away with his hat.
A female zombie clutched it in her hands.
“No one touches my Stetson.” He said and blew off her head at point blank range. His left hand grabbed the hat before it hit the ground and he tossed it back on his head as he turned to run.
The undead lurched after him and bullets continued to crash into the cinder blocks as he passed, but he made it to the wall near where Moonlight had been tied. It scared him to see how close a few dozen zombies were to his mount, but he leapt the wall as a fury of bullets came his way.
He freed Moonlight and hopped onto the saddle and with a whoop, he galloped away from the conflict as the horde flooded into the biker complex by the hundred.
Come back next weekend for the climax of Brown’s journey into the second year of the Eternal Aftermath
Brown fled the new cluster of zombies to the east, just as the original horde began to flow down the mountain at them from the north. He felt pleased to see several of the northern group lose their footing and tumble down the steep hills breaking arms and legs. Many became unable to rise, but considering his current predicament, it would take more than such things to raise his spirits,
Before he had reached Trevor, the old man, and their mounts, he already heard gunfire echoing through the dark forest. More undead littered his path as he rushed to reach the others. He found some cover before they spotted him and paused just long enough to load his pistol.
Letting his rifle ride in his left hand, he used his pistol to take down the walking dead that blocked his path as he rushed to join the others. Heads jerked back and grey gore splattered the boulders as he dodged through the low lying trees and wait-a-minute brushes.
“Bout time you showed up,” Jacob called to him from the darkness. “I need more bullets, you damn hick.”
“Don’t we all,” Brown called out as he used his last two shots to clear a path to his allies. He leapt over a log and came to a stop and let the others hold them off for a moment while he caught his breath.
The undead didn’t give him long.
Brown drew a box of pistol rounds out of his saddle bag and shoved them into Jacob’s hand. “Reload.”
He looked around and saw that some small sliver of luck had found them and the way to the west wasn’t crawling with flesh eaters…at least not yet.
He loaded his last magazine into his pistol and tossed his rifle to Trevor. “I want both of you to load everything you got, but also keep leading the horses west. Only use the guns if they block you from going west.” He drew his sledge hammer from off his mount. “I got your backs, now go!”
Brown tucked his gun into his belt. Zombies lurched at him from the east. The main horde hadn’t reached the valley yet, which remained the only thing that gave them a chance. As a dozen grimy hands reached for him, he got busy with his sledge.
Fingers snapped and faces broke in half. He whirled and shot his hammer in every direction. He cleared an area and soon over ten corpses would move no more, but a new wave stumbled in and it would be one he couldn’t escape from.
He turned and run. This time he didn’t bother drawing his pistol, he focused more on evading any that attempted to block his path. Ducking and weaving through both the trees and zombies, he jogged after his friends. A horrid figure with half of its face eaten away moved to grab him. He swung his sledge two handed and the monster’s head burst like a rotten melon filled with slime. Some of the putrid mess splashed his face and he gasped in disgust.
Wiping it away, he found a new determination and with a growl, he smashed a female zombie into the dirt and kept running.
* * *
Sunrise found them ahead of the horde and looking down at the walled compound that held the large biker gang Jacob had told them about. The walls of the compound were a good six feet high and hundreds of zombies patrolled its perimeter. However, Brown noticed most of them remained concentrated on the western side where the bikers must enter and exit from.
Jacob spoke to him from behind Trevor, where they both still rode on the tired horse. “So what are we doing now? We gots clear of that horde, what do you want to do, stick around here long enough to make sure them bikers see us? They’s ten times more deadly than a pack of flesh munchers.”
“I agree with you. That’s why I don’t want them to come looking for food and supplies when they get more desperate. The only thing that’s kept our ranch safe from them this long is the mountain range, but if they have bikes that won’t last forever.”
“What you fixing to do?” Trevor asked.
Brown looked back their way as he fixed his Stetson. “I mean to lure that horde behind us right into this compound and let these two forces eliminate each other.”
“Holy hell in a handbag,’ Jacob started. “I knew both of you were crazy.”
Brown cracked a small smile and looked back to the east when the faint sound of the first zombies emerging from the foothills silenced the morning cries of the desert birds.
Come back next weekend to see if Brown and his allies can survive the Eternal Aftermath
As the first zombies made it past the avalanche, Jacob said, “Well whatever you twice damned cowboys want to do, you have better figure it out, right quick.”
Brown and Trevor shared a look, but Brown spoke first. “We’d better put some distance between us and that horde.”
“To’won’t be easy with dem horses,” Jacob said, as he moved to lead the way. “Wez about to hit cliff country.”
“Any way we could skirt the rougher cliffs, hopefully toward the north?”
“Can’t say there is.” Jacob started. “Might be able to cut south, but that would dump us right into the biker’s back yard.”
“Or take us closer to Mexico,” Brown added, “which is where this horde came from in the first place.”
“Well what the hell are we going to do?” Trevor asked his voice rising. As he spoke, the first undead passed through the narrow canyon and drew into sight.
Brown looked up at the towering mountains that blocked out half the night sky to the west and north. “We can’t go back the way we came. We’re going to have to go south. We don’t have a choice.”
“Shit-dandy. If I knew today was gonna be this exciting I wouldduh wore my new suit.” Brown doubted Jacob had ever worn a suit in his life, but he let the little man led them on through the rocky cliffs and gullies.
For the first time in hours, the small party started to descend in elevation. Brown and Trevor still lead their horses, but after a rough section, they dropped into a forested area where things grew more level. The going remained slow in the darkness, but some of the worry over the horses becoming hurt lessoned
A small stream divided the valley they had entered. The pair had just started to guide their mounts through the shallow water when Trevor’s horse struggled against him. The men smelled the foul odor a moment later.
“They’s here,” Jacob said, and Brown knew at once what the old man meant.
And then they came. At least twenty of them stumbled out from the trees and boulders. Rags hung from them and battered feet disregarded the sharp rocks as they lunged their way. As the zombies hands pushed through the thorns of the wait-a-minute bushes, their throats opened and the air filled with their growls. Even in the darkness, Brown guessed they were Mexicans, or at least had been while they lived.
Jacob confirmed his thoughts with a shout. “Goddamn wet back zombies. It was bad enough while they were alive, but we ain’t got no border guards now.” As he spoke he backed up until he drew level with the cowboys. “I hope you boys can handle yerselves, cuz I ain’t got no guns.”
As one, both men drew their rifles from off their horses. Brown also drew an extra revolver and tossed it to Jacob. “It only has six shots, but I hate to see a man unarmed these days.”
Having said his piece, Brown focused on this rifle work. Heads exploded with waves of gore. The blasting of gunfire echoed through the canyons, while smoke started to obscure their vision.
Snarling faces came at them through the smoke and darkness. The horses screamed as Brown’s arms jerked left and right as he put down zombie after zombie. Between the trees, darkness, and the increasing obfuscation of the smoke, he couldn’t be sure if more arrived behind the first group, but he had no choice but to fight on or risk his mounts.
Jacob yelled when one appeared in front of him and he shot it in the face at almost blank range.
A zombie came from their right and charged at Trevor. Before he could bring the gun around, it closed. He got the rifle up between them, but the man-monster grabbed the length of it and fought with him. Brown blew the head off of two more, but then the rifle clicked empty. He moved to the side and kicked the zombie that had Trevor’s rifle in the chest. It went stumbling onto its back but took Trever’s rifle with it.
“Son of a bitch,” Brown growled as more came pouring out of the underbrush. “Trevor, take the horses and just go. Jacob, cover him.”
“I only have three shots left.”
“Then use them damn wisely!”
No more arguing came and Trevor and Jacob hurried to take the horses west.
Brown drew his pistol and emptied it as quickly as he could into those closest to him. He had wanted to grab Trevor’s rifle, but when another dozen came pouring at him, he gave up that goal.
After stuffing his pistol into his belt, he kicked one zombie into two more and then used the butt of his rifle to smash another in the face. He backpedaled a few feet and the half-moon appeared from behind a lingering cloud, he saw that at least forty zombies lurched at him through the forest.
Setting his jaw, Brown turned and hurried to catch up to the others. Before he reached them he heard sounds to the north. The other horde had caught up to them. They were in trouble, some serious trouble indeed.
Come back next weekend to see if Brown and his allies can survive the Eternal Aftermath
The sounds of a thousand undead followed them as they entered the rocky break between the cliffs. Some of the gnashing sounded close while others created a horrid background canopy of marching death as the monsters struggled up the steep slopes the cowboys had so recently passed. Mixed with this, the tumbling sounds also reached their ears when the frequent stumbles of the lurching dead sent them rolling down the rocking cliffs into their uncaring brethren.
Once the cowboys had passed through the front of the passage with their horses, the old man’s voice reached them from out of the darkness. “Stay here. I mean it. Stay here.”
Enough moonlight reached them for Brown to see the look of dismay covering Trevor’s face. Soon that look became replaced with one of concern as the first zombie entered the break between the cliffs.
“We should keep moving,” his friend said.
“The old man told us to stay here. We don’t know our way around. Who knows what type of traps he might have set up?” As a second, third, and then fourth zombie entered the break, Brown began to doubt his own words.
Shaking his head, Brown drew his pistol. He took aim, but before he opened fire a loud smashing sound echoed through the mountains as a series of boulders tumbled down the cliffs and not only smashed the lead zombies into a foul smelling paste, but went a long way in blocking off the passage they had just entered.
The two men stared at the blockade as a cloud of dust enveloped the area. The first zombie hadn’t been hit and Brown put a bullet through its head, while Trevor calmed down the horses.
“Well, you coming, you half brain dead bastards?” The old man said from the darkness clinging to the narrow pass ahead of them. “That won’t hold them shitheads off for long.”
The cowboys exchanged another look and Brown allowed himself a half grin. “Might as well do what our benefactor says.”
“Benefactor, huh. Think you’re pretty fancy with them cleaned clothes and horses. I had a horse once. I ate him last winter.” The bobbing white haired mop came into view ahead of them as they moved higher into the range. “Your horses look pretty tasty. Hope one doesn’t break a leg. That would be a real shame.”
Brown grew more serious. “You can insult me all you like, mister, but when you even hint at threatening my horse, we’ll have an issue.”
“Keep your caps on, lowlander. I’m the best chance yer horse has got.” He turned to face them after they had made it another hundred yards. “My name’s Jacob, by the damn by.” After the two men introduced themselves he went on. “I don’t suppose you have a few hundred rounds with you or anything helpful like that?”
“Can’t say we do and we’d rather not use it all if we had,” Brown answered.
The old timer picked at his teeth with his finger for a moment and then said, “Well can I inquire to what genius inspired plan you two were hatching?”
“I think we had the idea of taking them living dead over the range, dumping them on the west side of the Santa Ritas and then riding our horses home.”
Jacob chuckled and it wasn’t a friendly laugh. “Oh my, oh my. I can see a few things wrong with that there plan. Besides the bears, mountain lions, and jaguars just waiting for the opportunity to dine on some fresh horse flesh, them and the damn steer cliffs you somehow think you can get yer horses over, you have no idea what’s on the west side of this range do you?”
Brown looked Trevor’s way and the man shrugged.
“He he, right after this double-damned apocalypse started, some huge ass biker gang road down to the Golden Valley retirement community. Besides being ruthless evil bastards, you can’t really knock their idea. Hundreds of well stocked homes with only old ladies and half crippled men to protect them. Many of the neighborhoods are walled in too.”
“Those bikers moved in and never left. They been living off the corpse of the old world out there ever since. You head down the west face, you’ll come up right into their back yard. I’m sure they is getting hungry by now. They sure as hell will want to eat yer horses. Hell, you’d be lucky if they don’t want to eat you.”
“Son of a bitch,” Trevor swore.
“Son of a bitch is right,’ Jacob agreed and it was about then that a closer moaning could be heard as the first zombies began to make their way over the avalanche.
Come back next weekend to see if Brown and his allies can survive the Eternal Aftermath
The voice called out at them from the darkness. Brown couldn’t spot its source, but figured it came from somewhere amongst the rocky cliffs that rose to their right.
“I live up here for a whole damn year. I suffer and eke out an existence with almost nothing and you goddamn cowboys lead a whole damn army of flesh eaters right to my doorstep. I should blow your heads off right now!”
“If they don’t know where we are, his yelling is gonna draw them straight toward us,” Trevor hissed.
“Now hold on,” Brown started. “We meant no harm. We have women and children to protect. We’re trying to build a life too. We had no idea we were heading in your direction.”
“Don’t think I don’t know who you are,” the voice called out again. “I’ve seen you down there. Laughing. Riding your horses. Eating well, not a bloody care in the world.”
“Then why didn’t you ever approach us?” Brown asked. “We would have taken you in. We have food to share and can use the extra help.”
The moaning of a hundred throats drew nearer and Trevor spoke up. “I’m not sure this is the time for hand shaking and promises. If we don’t keep going, we’re going lose the horses to these freaks.”
“You ain’t going anywhere but to an early grave, if I don’t say so.”
“I know you don’t want to just shoot us down in cold blood.” Brown made a statement, not a question.
“Maybe if I do, they’ll think they found their quarry and leave me the hell alone.”
“Damn it we got no time for this.” Trevor shouted. “Here they come!”
Before Brown could react, both the horses snorted and pranced with the whites of their eyes showing.
Trevor drew his pistol and began to shoot into the ranks of the closest walking dead. His horse reared and tried to pull away from. This forced him to cease his shooting and grab the reins with both hands.
Brown drew his rifle off his saddle while trying to keep his mount calm. “Listen either cut us down now or help, because I’m not going to risk our horses for a bunch of hot air.”
Having said his piece, Brown took aim and took down the leading four zombies in quick succession, but he knew there were nearly another thousand where those came from. The only thing they had going for them remained that the severe climb up the side of the rugged mountain had caused the horde to become spaced out so that only the first two dozen or so undead had drawn close.
“Son of a bitch,” the older man shouted before taking his own turn at blasting away at the heads of the marching zombies. Rotting grey matter sprayed over boulders and cactus. Limp bodies rolled and tumbled down the rocky slope.
The two cowboys joined in until they had cleared away enough of the undead to buy themselves a couple of minutes.
When the smoke of their firearms cleared, Brown turned to see a grizzled grey bearded man standing not too far off. His clothes looked like little more than rags tied together and every inch of him was filthy enough to make a zombie looked well groomed. “I’m probably going to regret this for the rest of my now severely shortened life, but come on and follow me and get your asses moving. We won’t have much time.”
Brown and Trevor shared a look and then followed the old man into the rocky canyon.
Come back next weekend to see if Brown and his allies can survive the Eternal Aftermath
Brown took one last look at the growing horde of roaming undead to the east and turned his horse toward the west. The sun had just dipped behind the Santa Rita mountain range and he took in a tight breath as he guided his horse up the rocky slope.
It quickly became apparent that the ground was getting too dangerous for a man to stay in the saddle and when the sun set it would just grow worse. Turning to Trevor, he said, “We had better walk the horses from here on out. We can’t risk them getting hurt for multiple reasons.”
Trevor nodded and as he dismounted, he added, “I hear you. I would never want anything to happen to ol’ Smoke, but besides that, we may need their speed to make it back in one piece,” he paused as he looked over his shoulder at the moaning zombies, “and not seven hundred.”
As the light began to fail, the going became harder. Loose stones tumbled under both the horse and human feet. Wait-a-minute bushes and clumps of cactus forced them to alter their path often. The incline also began to take their breath away forcing them to waste time with small breaks every five minutes or so.
Looking back, Brown saw that the terrain took its toll on the walking dead too. Many zombies tripped and fell. Their bodies would roll backwards taking several others down with them, but the rest would plod on. But even those that fell would return to their feet and continue the chase. Where a normal person would be nursing wounds after such a tumble, the zombies would only be delayed. He was pleased to see that some suffered broken legs and other injuries that would take them out of the deadly race, but he also realized that it would also mean that they’d have to go back and put them down later… if they were able to make it to a later.
After cresting another rugged hill, Trevor said, “Should we consider making thing tougher for them. Perhaps an avalanche or two would take some out and slow more down.”
“Might not be the worst idea, but I would like to get them higher in the mountains and further away from our ranch. I also don’t want to lose our lead of them.”
“I hear you,” Trevor said. “You would think with how slow they usually are that we’d be whopping their asses up these hills, but they never need to stop.” He looked back the way they came. “I think they might be gaining on us boss.”
“Yeah, unfortunately I think you’re right.”
They set themselves to quicken their pace. Forty more minutes passed before the shadows of darkness had finished claiming the land. Branches reached for them as if the zombies had somehow found a way to cut them off. Pits of blackness formed under trees and beside the looming cliffs of stone. Trying to press through the imagined dangers, he hurried them along.
When they reached the crest of the next range, they paused to catch their breath and assess how well they did staying ahead of the growing horde. Again Brown found they had mixed success. The mass of zombies had splint into a strange dichotomy as they lumbered after them. Many had fallen behind and struggled up the slope, so that what was once a cluster of hundreds had spread out into different groups of various numbers that covered a space that could have been as large as a mile between the fastest undead and the slowest. The bad news remained that the zombies van guard still seemed to be gaining on their position. Some of them were as close as a few hundred yards.
“I’m almost tempted to swat these horses on the rump and have them find their way back.”
Even in the darkness, he saw Trevor flash him a harsh look.
“But I still won’t. I’d refuse to let there be even a small chance of them being cornered and attacked. Besides at this rate, we may end up on the western side of the range and might need their help getting back.”
Trevor nodded, but didn’t waste breath on a comment and soon the pair took up their journey once more.
They might have gained some ground on the undead, but then they came to a series of cliffs that would have been impossible for the horses to cross and were forced to backtrack. This took them dangerously close to the moving zombies. The horses snorted as the foul odor of death crept through the forest. Brown found it unnerving to be hearing more than seeing them progress closer. Random snaps and moans echoed through the darkness and it became almost impossible to determine how close they were.
They managed to get the horses up a three foot stone cliff that would be difficult for the undead and the pair took a quick break in order to catch their breath. “Once we make it up to the top of this crest,” Brown began, “We’ll hold up there for a while and try your plan of started to waste them with rocks and avalanches.”
“You’ll do no such thing,” an angry voice called out to them. “You bastards brought these flesh bags right to my doorstep and you’ll take them somewhere else or I’ll put a bullet right between your eyes.”
Come back next weekend for the next episode of Brown’s dangerous journey into the second year of the Eternal Aftermath.
Getting the rest of the camp to agree to their plan wasn’t the easiest thing they had ever done. Laura spoke up against Brown leading the horde of zombies away from the ranch with only Trevor there to help him if things badly, but Brown had refused to take more people, because he already felt there wouldn’t be enough left back at the house to protect the place if something went wrong. In the end both Laura and little Petty had tears in their eyes as the two cowboys rode their horses west.
They had only made it a hundred yards before Trevor cracked a half smile and said, “Isn’t the cowboy supposed to ride into the sunset at the end of the story?”
Brown felt more serious and his response reflected his attitude. “Let’s hope they were wrong about it. I’d much rather not be playing hide and seen with these dead bastards in the dark, but sometimes we don’t have a choice in such matters.”
“Never seems to bother them, though, does it? Doesn’t make sense either. You’d think with their rotting eyes, they wouldn’t be able to see a thing.”
“Nothing much makes sense anymore.” Something in his tone let Trevor know that the conversation was over and it had become time to get to work, Brown could only hope that his plan would be successful.
They road north-west for a while giving the horde of five hundred undead a wide birth, but he know they had to hurry, not only were they fighting against time to use what little sunlight remained, but they also needed to be able to distract the undead before they moved into an area where they might be able to spy the ranch house.
The horse’s hoofs clicked under them as they reached the foothills of the Santa Rita Mountains. The wind shifted and they got a dose of the foulness the walking dead brought with them.
Brown drew his pistol as he took in the mass of undead below him. “We’re going to have to get their attention now. We can’t afford to let them get closer to the ranch.”
“I’d prefer to get a little higher into these foothills first,” Trevor said.
“I’d prefer to be relaxing with my feet kicked up with an ice cold beer, but I think this world has forgotten to honor such things.”
Trevor only nodded and then drew his pistol as well. Seconds later the men had fired two shots into the air.
“Strange how hard most of life is, but how easily some things can work,” Brown said, as the mass of zombies moved toward them like a colony of ants following their queen.
“Yeah, but now comes the hard part,” Trevor countered.
“Indeed, but nothing to do but get things started.” Brown put away his pistol and then drew his rifle. He shot down three of them, just to make sure he kept their attentions and then led the way deeper into the foothills.
At once the going became harder. Between the loose rocks and the growing number of trees, the horses stayed hard pressed to make progress up the slopes. They crossed over a few ridges and moved through larger groups of trees. Soon the vegetation grew thick enough that they lost sight of the zombies moving behind them, but when the wind shifted directions, Brown could hear their moans.
“They sound closer than they should be,” Trevor said.
“That’s what I was thinking.” Brown pointed ahead. “See that hill? It looks clear near the top. We should be able to get a better view from up there.”
Without another wasted word, Brown led them to the top of the hill. They dismounted and got out their field glasses. Trevor looked down, while Brown gave the horses some water.
“Oh holy hell!” he exclaimed.
“What is it?”
Handing him the binoculars, Trevor said, “You had better just look for yourself.”
Brown did and drew in a breath when he saw the scene that unfolded below him. The first think he realized was that their pace through the foothills was too slow for the undead were gaining ground on him, but that wasn’t what dismayed him the most. He could see the main group he had spied earlier, which had already moved into the lower trees, but other smaller groups of zombies littered the plains just before the foothills.
“With all those small groups, there must be close to a thousand of those buggers out there,” Trevor said.
“Doesn’t matter how many there are as long as they all follow us up into the mountains.”
“True, but it might make it a lot harder for us make it back to the ranch.”
Brown lowered the binoculars and met his friend’s gaze. “You might be right about that.” As he spoke those words a greater darkness gripped the lands as the last rays of light disappeared behind the mountain range.
Come back next weekend for the next episode of Brown’s dangerous journey into the second year of the Eternal Aftermath.