Paddling a canoe was serious work, for the first time in a week Max felt his skin pull tightly around his wound where the bullet had grazed him. The effort was nerve wracking as well, it seemed that every thirty seconds the side of the riverbank they were heading towards lit up briefly with the tell-tale sparks of gunfire. Nothing came their way and they allowed themselves to drift down river a short way. There was supposed to be a boat ramp on the other side, just past the airport. Max couldn't see the airport or a boat ramp, in fact, he couldn't see shit, it was overcast and dark.
“Stewart, do you see anything?”
“The back of your head.” She paused and then said, “No, I don't see shit. I don't think we've come far enough yet.”
“I don't want to miss it.”
“Like I do? I will steer us closer to shore.” Stewart was in the back, she had some experience canoeing so Max was just paddling labor on this trip.
“Okay.” Max answered picking up his paddle and quietly starting to move the canoe across the river.
The river bend slowly straightened out and they saw a break in the trees, there was a parking area with lights over the empty lot. Looking closer, Max saw the lot was not quite empty. “Look! Your car!”
“I see it, I see it! Keep your voice down!”
There was a lone, dim light over the boat launch ramp and the two paddled the aluminum canoe up onto the concrete with a loud scraping sound. Max lifted his leg over the side and stepped out of the canoe, then lifted the front of it and pulled it up further onto land so Stewart could get out.
“Where is Bill?” asked Stewart.
“Dunno, let's go check the car.” The two of them cautiously climbed up away from the river until the car came into sight, it was not parked near any of the utility lights, but was not so far away that it couldn't be seen either. As Max and Stewart went towards it, Stewart suddenly grabbed Max and stopped him.
“Max! Zombies!” Stewart said, pointing to just beyond the car.
Max looked at the car and then concentrated to bring his second sight up, “Oh no! Oh no! Bill!” He pulled his arm away from Stewart and ran towards the car.
“Max!” Stewart whispered loudly after him, “Stop! Think for a minute....”
But her call was in vain as Max ran forward to see if Bill was okay. Jogging up to the car Max saw two zombies standing about fifteen feet away from it. The first one was a man in overalls with a baseball style cap on his head, he had to tip the scales at three hundred pounds and boasted a full beard, one of his arms ended in a skeletal hand that twitched chaotically as he turned to face Max. The other zombie was a young girl, she looked like she was in better shape than the man, but her waist length hair was wet and matted down, as if she had been swimming. Her skin was a pale alabaster and her lips were visibly blue even in the dim light. She did not appear to be wounded in any way and Max, even while rushing in, knew what that meant.
“Kill him dad!” the girl screamed as she flung herself around the back of the car away from Max's rush. She must not have seen Stewart right away because when she did she tried to stop and her feet skidded out from under her on the parking lot gravel, dumping her on her posterior.
“Freeze kid!” Stewart said, “I can put a bullet into your brain from here, don't you doubt it.” Stewart was holding the shotgun and kept it trained on her while the other zombie shambled towards Max.
Max had his pistol out and was getting ready to fire when Stewart's voice stopped him, “Max, don't.” They had both agreed to stay as quiet as possible, in an attempt to go unnoticed by the authorities on this side of the river.
The zombie kept moving towards him at a slow and lumbering pace, Max backed away, moving towards Stewart while he did so he cast his mind's eye out to see if anyone else was nearby. With a gasp of relief he finally noticed Bill's life force coming from inside the car, the man was laying down across the front seat, sleeping!
“Shhhh!” cautioned Stewart, then to the girl she said, “Stop the other zombie or we'll kill you both.”
“You'll kill us anyway!”
“No. Maybe. But we could do that now.”
“You don't want to make any noise! Stop dad!” the fat man ground to a halt, eying Max evilly from where he stood.
“Fuck, but you're a big boy,” said Max quietly looking at the guy.
“What do we do Max?”
“Me? You're the one who stopped me! What were you planning to do?”
“I don't know, I was just making it up as I went along!”
“Let us go!” pleaded the girl.
Stewart shook her head, “We can't do that honey. How many more would you kill?”
“Just enough to get my dad back. Then we would stop. I just want someone...I couldn't find my mom or brother, I just need someone.”
“Handcuff them to one of the light poles?” suggested Max.
“She is probably strong enough to break a set of cuffs. We know what they can do.”
“Well, what the hell Stewart? Should we send them back across the river?” to the girl he said, “My buddy there, the one you were going to eat, he says the military is all over on this side of the river, how long do you think you could last here before they found you?” as if to punctuate his point a long stream of automatic gunfire rang out to the north of them.
The girl started crying, “I don't have anyone. I just want him back. I know...I know he will get smarter if he just....”
“Eats someone. Yeah, we know.” Stewart seemed to reach a decision then, a cold look came into her eyes, “Okay, get up, we'll send you back across the river.”
“Stewart? Are you sure?” asked Max, with some hesitation in his voice.
“You want me to take care of it or not? I've decided, you check on Bill. Honey get your dad over here and get in front of me, I will walk you back to our canoe, at least you won't have to swim across again.”
Max watched as Stewart marched the two in front of her, shotgun held at her shoulder and aimed at the girl. He shook his head, not believing what he was seeing, then approached the car. Bill was sound asleep in the driver's seat. Knocking on the window startled the man, who reached for his rifle before seeing it was Max.
“Sleeping?” Max asked as his friend rolled down the window, which also released a wonderful smell of cooked food.
“Well, I figured you guys would be awhile, where is Jane?” A shotgun blast sounded from the boat ramp, followed by another shot a split second later. Max didn't answer his friend, but took off running for the ramp. Bill started the car and drove it down to the boat launch, where the headlights illuminated Stewart. Max had arrived before Bill had pulled the car around and was talking with Stewart. Bill saw two bodies down by the canoe, both of them looked dead, killed by shotgun blasts at short range.. He could hear Stewart talking to Max, her face was set in a firm, uncompromising line.
“It had to be done.”
“But you told them...you told her you wouldn't!”
“You wanted me to let them go?”
“No! I....fuck. It wasn't her fault she was like that.”
“I shot her first, she didn't even know what happened, her old man barely turned around to get his. I couldn't let them go and kill someone else Max. I did what had to be done. It could be me, but it just wasn't that hard of a decision. Hey, Bill! Cut the lights man, you're blinding us down here!”
Bill turned the headlights off, leaving the running lights on, he put the car into reverse and backed up until he could turn sideways to drive out of the park. Max and Stewart came up and she stood by the driver's door expectantly. Through the open window Bill said, “Let me drive, I know where we are going.”
“Okay, pop the back door so Max can get in. I am at least riding shotgun.” Stewart pulled a couple of shells out of her pocket and reloaded her gun.
After getting into the car Max and Stewart were quiet, the silence was starting to grow when Bill finally asked, “Do I want to know what that was about?”
“No.” Max and Stewart answered together.
“Oh-kay then.” Bill drawled slowly, “So how was the crossing? You have any other trouble?”
“No, we made it okay, there was a lot of gunfire, but no one shot at us,” answered Max.
“You two okay?”
“Max is being a pansy, but yeah, I think we will be fine. You're okay aren't you Max?” asked Stewart.
Max let out a long sigh and said, “You know, yeah, I am okay. It is a new world out here that means new rules. I guess I am not thinking clearly is all.”
“Probably buddy, you've run ragged all the way from Colorado I can see having a hard time adjusting to things, nothing to be worried about.”
“Yeah, too much has happened too quickly. I will get there, don't you worry. Stewart?”
“I am okay, it just took me by surprise is all. I can see it. In fact, I wish I were as strong as you. Like I said, I will get there.”
“Good, I am glad you two buried the hatchet, we got a couple hours on the road to get to Osceola and fighting the whole way would be bad.”
“You think the kids will still be there?” asked Max
“Probably, I mean you gotta figure the train didn't just run past all those other towns on the way there, they probably stopped at every po-dunk station along the way to load up more people. We might even beat it to the station. Even if we don't, we can find out where they took the kids.” said Bill.
"What about John? Did you find him?"
"No." The curt reply was all Max needed to hear to make him drop the subject.
They settled down for the long drive, with Bill offering them some food he had picked up along the way. They wanted to decline, but then found out the smell in the car was from a bucket of fried chicken the military guys had given him after he made the river crossing. While they were eating, he got them up to speed on what he had been through.
“Getting across the bridge was a piece of cake, the military had it cleared. There were bodies by the hundreds on the sides of the road, but the soldiers had a snowplow and whenever the road had filled with bodies they just plowed them off to the sides. The road was pockmarked with bullet holes from the cannon on the helicopter, but it wasn't so bad. It smelled like death and rotted bodies, but you know, I am used to that. No one recognized me when I passed through and I didn't know any of them. They gave me directions on where to go to park the car for the night, but after I made it through the physical inspection I just headed south of the airport like we agreed. I found the park and boat ramp that we talked about this afternoon and pretty much just waited until you got there. I think I ate as much chicken as I left you two, so don't save any for me.”
Max and Stewart finished the chicken off in record time, having something other than candy or granola bars was a treat for them. Less than an hour later they came to the main east-west highway that ran through Iowa, interstate eighty. There was a checkpoint set up there, manned by a couple young, nervous looking soldiers. Bill rolled down his window as they drove up.
“Evening. Is the road clear through to Des Moines?” he asked one of the youths.
“Uh, yeah, but you aren't supposed to be driving at night. What are you doing out here?”
“Oh, some soldier guy, I don't know the ranks too well, a Lieutenant maybe? He told me to come this way to get to Des Moines. I am supposed to get there tonight. He told me I might get stopped and to let you guys look us over if you wanted to.”
The young man nervously looked at his friend, there was not an officer or superior in sight. He took out a flashlight and looked each of them over. They did not offer to get out of the car, but sat there waiting. Finally, the young man said, “You're supposed to go to Des Moines?”
“And a lieutenant told you to?”
“I guess; He seemed like someone important anyway. He said we have to go to a processing center or something that got set up there for refugees.”
“You guys see any zombies?”
“Not since Sioux City, no. We came over the bridge there. They cleared us to get into Iowa, told us to go to the processing center in Des Moines. What will they do with us there? The officer wasn't too clear on that.”
“Uh, I don't know. Not sure. I was just told no one should be on the road tonight, except the military.”
“Whoa, you think they will put us into the military there?”
“I don't know, I...uh..”
“Christ! I knew it Jim! They are just going to draft us up there, put us in units instead of just letting us keep killing zombies on our own!” Max nodded and scowled, playing the role of 'Jim.'
“I didn't say that.”
“What about her? Is my woman going to be drafted too?”
“I don't know...”
“Well, shit that just takes all, we were perfectly content to fight from here, right now. We don't need any special training to kill zombies! You hear me? Are there other soldiers down this way?”
“If you follow the road into Council Bluffs, yes sir. But I don't know what is out east.”
“I better just go see those guys in Council Bluffs then, we don't need to go all the way to Des Moines for processing, no matter what some captain said.”
The boy nodded and swallowed. “Maybe you should just do what you were told, just to be safe?”
“You sure? I don't think we need training.”
“There is other stuff involved, how to use the equipment, and the guns are bigger too. They pack quite a punch.”
“Shotguns? Or rifles?” Bill asked.
“Rifles mostly, some of them are old M-16s, but they work and the bullets take down the zombies real good.”
“If you are sure....”
“Yeah, yes sir, they work very well.”
“All right I guess we will do it your way then. But I better get a good rifle out of it. What is your name sir?” Bill asked.
“Clay Berber. That is Jake over there.”
“Okay, I will tell them I want to be hooked up with you guys when I see them, 'cause you had the sense to keep me on the right path. Thanks Mister Berber!”
“No problem have a good trip Sir!”
“I will and I will be back!”
With that Bill drove passed the two boys and took the highway east towards Des Moines.
“That was....I don't know. I mean I don't know what to say.” said Max.
“They were young, scared and used to people telling them what to do. Kids do what you want about ninety-seven percent of the time if you make them think they came up with the idea to begin with.”
“Still, I am impressed too. What will you do if you meet an old veteran?” asked Stewart.
“Tell him...well hell if I know. We'll deal with that if we get to it.”
“That doesn't give me warm tingly feelings,” said Stewart.
“Well, Jane I know from experience that the checkpoints have been set up at the exits to the highway, chances are we won't run into another checkpoint until we change highways again.”
“We didn't exit here.” Max pointed out.
“We did, sort of, you just weren't paying attention. We exited highway 29 for the bypass, highway 680. We might have another checkpoint when we get on highway eighty, maybe. I guess we should be planning for that too. If you come up with a way to handle it better let me know.”
The three of them thought for a while and decided to just let Bill handle it the best way he could, hopefully his gift of fast talking would see them through a few more checkpoints. Their worries were in vain, there was no checkpoint to get onto highway eighty, nor was there one to get onto highway 35 south to Osceola an hour and a half later either.
By the time they pulled off at Osceola it was about ten o'clock. There was a checkpoint there, but Bill just asked the one older solder how to get to the train station and the man waved him through, saying, “Just stay on highway 34 and follow the signs. Ain't no one there.” The man didn't even ask why they were going that way.
Bill followed the directions and they found the train station with no problem. It was deserted.
“You feeling anything Max?” asked Stewart.
“No, I meant do you 'see' anything with your zombie sense?”
“Oh.” Max concentrated a little, “Huh there are too many people here, I can't see any zombies. Just human, living people, I mean.”
“Anyone moving around?”
“No, and no one near here either, no one at the station. Do you think that is the train?” Max asked, gesturing at the train sitting in front of them on the tracks, the engine was pulled up ahead of the main building and many of the cars were strung out behind the other side of it to the west.
“How many trains do you think they have?”
Max nodded, then said, “Fuck. That one is empty.”
“Well, folks it won't hurt to get out and walk about a little,” said Bill.
The three of them hopped out of the car and walked up onto the platform, looking for some evidence that this was the train Max's kids had been on.
“What do you think they did with the others?” asked Max to Stewart.
Stewart shrugged noncommittally, “How should I know? They probably left them in the cell in O'Neill.”
“Nothing here,” said Bill. “I thought maybe there would be a monitor or something, like an airport, where we could see arrivals and stuff.”
“How do we find out where they took the kids?” Max asked.
They looked around and saw a bank of pay phones, Max went up to them and picked on up. “I got a dial tone!”
“Let me call Trisha,” said Bill.
“Yeah, you do that, I will try Nick's cell phone.”
The two men tried calling their loved ones, Max's call did not go through, not even to voice mail. Bill's however was picked up on the second ring.
“Hello?” came his wife's voice.
“Oh God! Trisha! It's me, Bill!”
“Yeah. I am okay. Are you okay?”
“Bill?” her voice sounded numb.
“Yes, Bill! Are you okay?”
“Bill!” then away from the receiver she shouted, “It's your dad! He isn't dead! He is alive! Bill? Bill where are you? Are you okay?” in the background Bill could hear the voices of the children screaming and crying.
“I am fine, I am in Osceola. Are you okay?”
“We are fine, they sent John home with the news that you were missing and presumed dead.”
“John is there? Oh my....I don't...I thought he was dead!” Bill said, tears trailing down his cheeks.
“No he is fine, not a scratch on him.”
“Don't tell anyone where I am, just wait for me to get home.”
“You are in Osceola? What are you doing there?”
“We just got here, we were looking for Max's kids.”
“Nick and Jessica? They are here with me I went and picked them up from Vet's stadium this afternoon when they called me. How did you know...”
“I found Max! Or rather he found me by the side of the road, up in Sioux City.”
“Yeah, we got across the river and Max said they told him they were putting his kids on a train, so we drove down to the train station here, but there isn't anyone here.”
“No, they bussed the kids up to Vet's, as a staging area. You said the train is still there?”
“Yeah. I am looking right at it.”
“Huh, Nick must have been wrong, he said they were going to send it back to Nebraska for more people.”
“Maybe they didn't want to travel at night?”
“I picked the kids up around two o'clock, there would have been plenty of time to get back there with it. He must have been wrong is all, it is no big deal Bill. Tell me what happened to you?”
“I...Trish, I better not, I better just get home as quick as I can. I couldn't use a cell phone to call you, I tried to let you know I was okay.”
“I don't care Bill, I don't care, just as long as you are okay now.”
“I can be home in an hour.”
“Then come home. We will all be waiting for you.”
“Let me give you the number on my cell phone, just in case, okay?”
“Sure, Trudy get me a pen and paper.”
Bill waited until he wife was ready then read the number off of his cell phone to her over the radio, for good measure he read his wife Max and Stewart's numbers as well. “I don't know if it will do any good, but at least you might be able to get a hold of us. Okay hon, I am going to let you go. I will see you real soon.”
“I love you Bill and...be careful!”
“I will be. I love you too.” Bill hung the phone up. And looked up at his two companions who were staring at him waiting for the news. Behind them, Bill saw a man approaching with a military rifle. Bill nodded to the middle aged guy who then slung his rifle up over his shoulder. His nodded alerted Stewart and Max, who both turned to watch the man approach them.
“Evening,” the man said, he was wearing a full set of fatigues and Bill noted that he was a Sergeant, “What are you folks doing here?”
“My kids were supposed to be on that train.” Max said.
“If they were, you missed them by about eight hours, they bussed them up to Des Moines. They will be okay, they took them to Vet's Stadium, about the middle of the city, anyone can tell you how to get there if you ask.”
“Thanks!” Max said.
“No problem, how come you weren't on the train?”
“I got held up by some medical guys for the physical. I was madder than hell that they did that, sent my kids on ahead, so I got to find them now.”
“You'll find them at Vet's, I am sure they are okay.”
“I just got off the phone with my wife, she said something about them sending the train back to Nebraska?” Bill asked.
The man shook his head, “No sir, that train ain't going nowhere. There is a big hubbub up around Lincoln now some massive group of zombies moving towards us, so they grounded the train here. Of course, this was after they fueled it up and got it ready to go. The engineers are staying over at the high school in the shelter there. The military impressed them into service and there are some wild ideas going around about putting some guns on the train and sending it back to Lincoln to blow the living hell outta the zombies. I can't say I mind that at all. You folks see any zombies?”
“Sarg we saw a few in Sioux City, came over the bridge there.”
The old soldier's eyebrows went up a notch. “Hm, you don't say huh?”
“Yeah, we did okay, killed a few ourselves and left the rest for the military to mop up.”
“You in the military...uh, I didn't get your name?”
“Jim,” said Bill, holding out his hand. “Nah, I never was in the military.”
Max saw the suspicion on the older man's face and asked, “How long have you been in? And I am Max, by the way, what is your name?”
“Clyde Dartman. Pleased to meet you Max. I retired from the military did my twenty-five years and moved into high school sanitation.”
“High school sanitation?” Max asked perplexed.
“I'm a janitor up at the school here, they put a uniform back on me right quick when this happened, put me in charge of the train station, keeping the riff-raff out of here.”
“We aren't riff-raff sarg,” said Bill. Making Max wince.
“Hm, yes, well that remains to be seen. Sioux City is awful far north for someone whose kids were on this train. I believe that part of your story.”
“What, well, yeah that is true, we couldn't help where we crossed though,” said Max.
Clyde looked Max over in the florescent lighting on the train platform, then nodded. “You know I believe you Max, I believe your name is Max and lady I believe everything you've said too.”
“I haven't said a damn thing.” Stewart said.
“I know, and I believe that more than I believe every other word out of 'Jim' here,” said Clyde hitching his thumb at Bill.
Bill started to protest, but Max cut him off, “Let it go Bill. So Clyde what do we do now?”
“He was in the military, not for long he hasn't got the old timer's look, I bet he was pressed into one of the new units they are shipping out everywhere. No civilian reads ranks 'Jim,' what are you, some sort of deserter?”
“The truth son. I am a reasonable man, as long as people aren't pissing on me.” warned Clyde.
“Yeah sarg, I was in a new unit, I was shipped west and was serving up in Sioux City." Bill seemed to sag a little, then squared his shoulders and said, " I got cut off from my unit and found Max and his friend on the west side of the river. We came across and I am helping them find their kids.”
Clyde nodded, “Sounds closer to the truth than farther from it. Go on, tell me how you two got separated from your kids.”
“My kids.” Max said, “We met up a couple weeks ago in Colorado, she is a cop and has been helping me get to Bill here, we were friends before and it was just dumb luck that I ran into him in Nebraska. The kids and I got separated in O'Neill, Nebraska. They got bussed south to catch the train, we got sent west on account of us being cut up a bit. We weren't bit! And we aren't infected either. I just want to find my kids.”
“They probably are at the old stadium in Des Moines.”
“They aren't,” said Bill, “My wife picked them up this afternoon, they are at my house.”
“My understanding is things are pretty bad out on the lines. They need every man to keep the zombies out of Iowa. I know it is just as bad down towards Kansas City as it is up north, so you should have gone back to your unit.”
“And I will, but I have to help my friend first.”
“There is no helping friends, there is only with your unit or 'Absent without leave.' Guess which you are right now? What rank were you?”
“You're lucky then, they will just bust you down to private, put a rifle in your hands and send you back out.”
“It doesn't have to be that way.” Bill said.
“I am cutting you some slack. These two can go, they should go get his kids. And I know they probably didn't pass the physical either, but I am willing to look the other way for them. You though, well I never had much use for deserters.”
“I am just helping a friend out!” said Bill, visibly angry. “Besides the army left me to rot on the wrong side of the river before the bridge blew up!”
Clyde raised one hand and nodded, “All right, all right, no need to get upset, you tried something and you got caught. I can see being called a deserter bothers you. You don't want to think of yourself that way do you? This is good, it means there is hope for you yet. I am a reasonable man, so I have a reasonable proposition for you.”
“What is it?” Bill asked suspiciously.
“You led your friends here out of a sense of obligation and now that they are here you feel you need to get back to the fighting to save us all, so you reported to me and I will arrange for transportation back to your unit.”
Bill hesitated and Clyde shook his head, “You won't get busted not in these times, and you won't get a better offer either.”
“We could tie you up and run.” Said Stewart menacingly.
Clyde just smiled and held out his hands, “Go ahead, I won't fight you on it. But unless you kill me I will spill the beans about everything. How many kids do you think got picked up at Vets? How many children knew people in Iowa? I'd bet not many. So I might spend a few hours uncomfortable but they would find 'Jim' heres wife pretty darn quick.”
“We could take you with us. Toss you in the trunk.” Stewart offered, as much to Clyde as to Bill and Max.
Bill shook his head, “No, he'd make noise at the first roadblock. We won't kill him either, we aren't cold blooded enough. He's right. Clyde you are right; I should be getting back to my unit. I have done what I needed to do, I found my friend's kids, and let my wife know I am not dead and now, well now I guess I better get back to my men.”
“See? He might not have the look of an old soldier about him, but I can recognize a military spirit when I see one. He is the type who just needed to be reminded of his responsibilities. Now where do you hang your hat 'Bill.'”
“Bill Carson,” said Bill extending his hand to Clyde again. The older man shook it and then Bill said, “I am up outside of Perry.”
“Perry? Ugh, a lot of Mexicans up there, if I remember. That's right off highway 141.”
“Yes, it goes right through there.” Bill said, he chose not to remark on the 'Mexicans' comment, his experience with immigrants was that they tended to work harder for less money and with fewer complaints than people who had won the birth lottery by being born in America.
“I might be wrong, but I am pretty sure if you stayed on highway 141 it will take you to highway 29 that comes into the south side of Sioux City. I will give you until noon tomorrow, then I will call up there after your unit and make sure you got back okay. That gives you a few hours with your wife and family, which is more than I have to do. Don't let me down sergeant.”
Bill looked at Clyde for a minute then said, “I won't sergeant, I promise.”