“The fog is finally lifting.” said Bill. This earned him a sharp look from Stewart.
“So?” she replied, the anger in her voice cut through the hazy air like a knife.
“So we should have an easier time following their tracks now. I think we should go back to where Ruben says it started and try and pick up some actual tracks from there. All this walking in circles hasn’t done us any good.”
“That old man. Why the fuck are we hauling a senior citizen out here with us anyway?”
“Stop. Not just as your friend, but as your commanding office. It was not Ruben’s fault. Max had his gun out the window, he got pulled out. Ruben and Javier did the best they could.”
“I don’t blame them. An old guy and a kid? No, I blame you. You know how Max is, he hesitates. That isn’t good in a fight. You are the one who put the three of them in that truck together.”
“I’ll take that blame.” Bill said.
“You don’t sound remorseful enough for me.” Stewart said tightly.
She turn on him angrily, “What do you mean by that? I thought you were friends? Best of buds, the way Max made it sound.”
“He isn’t dead.”
“How do you figure that?”
Bill gestured around them, “The suns up, the fog is burning off. Notice anything else?”
“There’s no fucking zombies.”
“Exactly. They took him and they want something from us. Otherwise they would have kept attacking.” The two of them marched back to the center of the campground. Bill spoke into his radio, “Ruben, Javier, meet us back at the trucks.”
“Affirmative.” Came Ruben’s voice.
“And, Stewart, don’t you go treating Ruben bad. Honestly he has been more helpful than you might know. He’s from my town and I’m going to have to live with him after all this is over. So are you. If you and Max hook up.”
They trudged the rest of the way to the trucks in silence and waited a few minutes for Javier and Ruben to appear.
“Nothing.” Javier said, before Ruben could speak. “No zombies, not even by the gate where you guys were fighting them. Other than Max being gone and that one there,” he pointed at the body Ruben had found along with Max’s rifle, “you wouldn’t know this place had been crawling in zombies a few hours ago.”
“So, sir, what do we do now?” asked Ruben, not quite meeting Bill’s eyes.
“Knock it off Ruben, we don’t blame you. As Stewart has already told me, it was my fault. What do we do? I’m open to ideas.”
“There’s a first.” Stewart chided softly.
“They promoted me, someone had to be in charge. You think I take that lightly?”
“Well, you didn’t have to use your authority out here where no one else is around. I think we should have more collaboration, instead of orders.”
“Point taken. Now collaborate. What does everyone think we should do?”
“Find Max. One way or the other.” said Ruben.
“Find Max.” Javier agreed, “I wouldn’t want to be left out here, even if I was…one of them.”
“We don’t really have any choice but to find him. Without him what can we do? Unless one of you figured out how to see zombies and track their overlord?”
Bill shook his head, “No. But I am glad just turning tail and running didn’t make the list of things we could do. Because that is an option.” The other three just shook their heads.
Bill cleared his throat and continued, “Good. I wouldn’t want to be left out there either. Okay with the sun coming up, let’s see if we can find any tracks.”
“Wait Bill, you might as well explain your theory to these two, see if that changes anything.” said Stewart.
“What theory?” asked Ruben.
“That they took Max.” Bill said, “It only makes sense. They came in, surrounded us and immediately stopped attacking when they had snatched one of us. They even carried off their…dead again. Why would they do that?”
“In wars they do it to deny the enemy a sense of accomplishment and to hide their number of casualties.” Ruben said.
“But why now? It’s not like we are reporting our progress to anyone. But why the grab and dash? I think they have him and they want something from us. I think if we wait here, they will come back to us with an offer.”
“So you want us to wait?” asked Javier
“No. I want us to try and track them down first. Find Max if we can ourselves. I could be wrong. But if we can’t I vote for staying here the rest of the day.”
“We should leave someone with the trucks, in case they come back.” Ruben said.
“No. No splitting up.” Bill shook his head as he said it.
“I disagree, I can stay here, I’ll sit in the diesel, keep watch and radio you if anything changes. You can high tail it back here and bail me out. Plus you can move faster without a senior citizen along.” This last was said with a meaningful glance at Stewart, who blushed.
“Fuck, I didn’t mean that. And you were a quarter mile away, no way you heard me from that far.”
“I heard what I heard. What deary? You think that you are the only one to get something from killing the dead?”
“What zombies have you killed?” Stewart shot back.
“I cleaned up your mess with that woman in Chicago.”
“She wasn’t dead!”
“She moved like it!” Ruben said.
“Whoa! Stop for a minute! Ruben, are you saying you heard me and Stewart talking this morning when we couldn’t even see you?” Bill asked.
Ruben nodded, still glaring at Stewart.
“That’s…awesome! How far can you hear things?”
Ruben sighed, “I know where you are going with this, but it doesn’t work like that. It’s not controllable like Stewart’s ‘Speedy Gonzales’ ability or Max seeing the dead everywhere with some ‘third eye’. It’s more like I kind of wonder about something, then I can hear it. This morning me and Javier were walking the edge of the woods and I wondered where you were, then, I could hear you, and knew which direction you were from where I was. But as soon as I realized I wasn’t day dreaming it went away.”
Stewart snorted, “Sounds like you got some sort of zombie powered hearing aid. That’s fitting old man.”
Ruben blinked and looked away, “Could be. But maybe it will be useful. I’ll take what I can get.”
“Well…okay. You can stay at the trucks, the three of us will find the tracks and follow them if we can. But Ruben if you so much as even think there is something coming, you let us know right away. Trust your gut.”
“I will. They already got three hours on you.” Ruben said.
“Alright, we’re going. Everyone make sure you have water and something to eat. Let’s go.” Bill said.
“Yessir!” was Stewart’s smart comeback, which earned her a reproachful glance from Bill.
Stewart turned back to Ruben and asked, “So, can’t you just ‘wonder’ where Max is and point us in the right direction?”
The old man shook his head, “No.”
“Fuck all good that does us then.”
“Sorry lady, but my ability didn’t come with a set of instructions like yours apparently did. I’m learning it as I go.”
“Ruben…just get in the truck. We’ll go find him. Honk if anything comes up.” Bill said.
Ruben nodded and climbed into the truck, where he locked the doors and settled back to wait.
The other three walked over to the corpse sitting a few feet away from the truck and started circling it, looking for an indication of which way their friend had been carried away. Ruben eased himself into the truck and hit the door lock button on the remote. He hated lying to Bill like that; the man was a decent enough fellow, but some secrets needed to stay that way.
“Stewart, you see anything?” Bill asked a few moments after they had circled the body again.
“No. The day light helps, Bill, but we walked all over this place. If I had to guess though, and I do, I would say they dragged him a few feet, then boosted him up and carried him.” Stewart pointed to some scuff marks in the mix of dirt and pea gravel, “See? This mess ends about here. Then we just have a couple of clear foot prints heading off that way.”
“Not much of a guess then.” Javier said.
“They could have circled around. We’ll just make for the trees straight that way and see if we find anything.” Responded Stewart.
“Fine.” Bill agreed.
The three headed away from the body towards the tree line where Stewart had pointed. When they got to the edge of the woods they found a well beaten path leading down through the trees. Stewart squatted and looked at it.
“Boot prints, probably from this morning. Looks like they came up and back this way. See how the prints overlap each other?”
“Yeah, I got it.” Bill said, knowing he could have seen the same thing as Stewart, had he looked.
“I’ll keep my eyes on the trail, you two watch, in case they left someone for us.”
“Why would they do that?” asked Javier.
“She means, ‘In case they left someone to ambush us.’” Bill clarified.
“Oh. Got it.” Javier glanced about warily.
“I doubt they would have sat here waiting for us for three hours.”
Stewart laughed, “Why not? They are dead, they have all the time in the world. Still, I bet you are right Bill. Let’s go.”
Stewart took off at a brisk pace down the path. After only a few minutes it ended on the banks of a creek. She bent down and looked on the muddy banks. As she rose she shook her head.
“Nothing, they must have gone off the trail somewhere and I didn’t notice. Let’s go back and see if we can pick them up. Everyone keep their eyes open for anything, bent twigs, foot prints, that sort of thing. I will watch the path and see if I can figure out where they left it.” Stewart said.
They proceeded up the path more slowly and close to halfway up Stewart halted and pointed at the path, “Here. This is where they got on the path this morning, but I don’t see any return tracks, so they went off somewhere between here and the park.”
“This is slower than I was hoping for.” Bill said, eyeing the woods around them.
“What can we do? Unless you have some sort of ‘Max radar’, we are stuck doing this the slow way.”
The three followed a scared trail through the woods until the sun was high over-head. Stewart stopped them as they trudged along another deer path. Her sudden stop caused the men behind her to come up short, but not quite bump into her.
“What is it?” Bill asked.
“Look up there.” Stewart said, pointed to their left.
“Yeah? It looks like a clearing.”
Stewart trudged up the steep hillside, when she got there she turned back around and said, “Shit.”
“What?” asked Javier and Bill at the same time.
“Come on up, see for yourselves.”
The two men carefully climbed the slope and saw that they were actually on the edge of a paved roadway.
“A road? So? We know we’re…” Bill stopped when Stewart raised her hand and pointed behind him along the roadway.
Bill turned around and softly swore under his breath. Stewart was pointing at a sign that said, “RVs, Cabins, Camping!” and had a huge red arrow underneath it. The same sign that they had followed the night before to drive into the campground.
“We’ve hiked all morning and the campground is right there?” asked Javier with disbelief.
“Let’s go back.” Stewart said, heading off down the road.
“We can’t leave him!”
“Bill, we can’t find him either. We’ve hiked around for two hours and we’re five minutes away from the truck. They led us in a circle.”
Grumbling, Bill fell into line behind her, Javier took up the rear. The young man kept glancing back behind them, as if still disbelieving that they had come such a short distance.
The trio walked into the campground and saw the two trucks parked where they had left them. Ruben was not in the cab, when Stewart saw this she sped up into a jog that left the others behind. Her gun came up and she started eyeing the area around the trucks.
Stewart pulled to a stop when she saw Ruben at the back of the diesel; he was looking at the bomb. For a moment Stewart thought he was talking to it, but he waved and smiled at her.
“What’s up Ruben. You gave me a scare when I didn’t see you in the truck.”
“I had to water the horses. I decided to check on the bomb when I got back, because, like a darned fool, I left it there instead of taking it with me or locking it in the cab.”
“We walked in circles. I’m not a good bloodhound.”
“I am sorry to hear that. What are we going to do now?”
Bill and Javier walked up and both grabbed fresh water bottles out of the cooler in the pickup bed. The cooler didn’t have any ice in, so the water was warm, but fresh.
“I don’t know what to do. I thought, maybe when we were gone, someone would come along and drop Max off. Or at least contact us to tell us what they wanted. This feels more like a kidnapping than a bunch of zombies out for a snack.” Bill said.
“You were hoping they would contact us, you mean.” Ruben said, “Look I’m just going to throw this out there, so don’t be mad. What if he’s dead?”
“No!” Stewart and Bill said simultaneously.
Raising his hands before him, Ruben said, “It has to be said. How long are we going to sit here before we move on? Another few hours? A few days? Another week? A month? C’mon Bill, how long will it be?”
“I don’t know…I can’t…”
“Well, they pinned the bars on you, so you have to decide, even if you listen to us first. If I am going to die fighting zombies, I’d rather do it in Iowa defending my town, not where ever the hell we are now.”
“So we give up the mission entirely?” Stewart asked.
“Max was the mission. Without our hunting dog we can’t find the animal, can we?” Ruben countered.
No one said anything to that right away.
Finally Bill shrugged his shoulders and turned away. He brushed his arm across his face and then spoke without looking at the others. “I’m still going to Florida. Max knew he was in Florida. How hard can it be to find him? He’s their leader.”
Stewart said, “I’m with you.”
“Well I think that’s horseshit and you two know it. No Max, no leader, this bomb is big, but it’s not like we can plant it in the middle of the state and it’ll wipe all the bad guys out. I think the military could use it in some other manner, to help shore up the state’s defenses.” As he spoke Ruben’s old, weathered hand stroked the backpack containing the bomb.
“You said it Ruben, I’ve got the bars. I’m going. You and Javier can take the other truck and head north if you want to. I’ll head south and try and find this guy. If you cut the head of the snake off, the body dies. I think we’ll do more good taking this leader out than killing a few thousand zombies near Iowa.”
“What about your family?” Ruben countered.
“This is for my family.” Bill said firmly, “So they have a better chance. I knew this was probably a one way trip. I would’ve thought you had figured that out too.”
“But it doesn’t have to be.” Persisted Ruben, “We can turn now and head for home. We don’t have to throw our lives away like….”
“Max?” suggested Stewart.
Ruben’s response was a slight nod.
“First, we don’t know that he is dead. Second, if he is, he died trying to do the right thing. Third, we were air lifted halfway across the country, do you really think the four of us have such a good chance to make it back to Iowa anyway?” Ruben conceded the point by shaking his head slightly, “We’re closer to our original goal than home now, even if we don’t have much of a chance.”
Bill looked at Javier, “What do you want to do?”
The young man smiled, “I’m with you Bill. You and Ruben.”
“That doesn’t help much.” Bill said wryly, “But is it good to know you like us both.”
“You think the old man would leave you?” Javier shook his head, “He’ll go with you, he’s just trying to make you decide and do it. Don’t you get it?”
In a flash Bill did understand that. They had already spent more time than they would have if, say, Ruben had been taken. So now it was time to shit or get off the pot. “I guess it’s shitting time then.” He said softly.
“You got that right. I can’t tell you how sorry I am about Max, he was a good guy and we needed him. He would have made our job easier, but wishing he was still here isn’t going to change anything.”
“I got it. Stewart, do you want to drive the diesel? I’ll take the Ford. Javier you ride shotgun with me, Ruben you and that bomb you’re so fond of can ride with Stewart.” Inside Bill was wondering how he went from determined to find his friend to leaving him behind, ‘Fucking old man, there is something up with you, something you aren’t telling us, isn’t there?’
Without another look around the four of them got into the trucks and drove out of the campgrounds.