Joel heard the moans just before the wind wafted the familiar smell of death through the trees. He froze, listening for the shuffling footsteps he dreaded, then, hearing nothing, moved uphill, off the road. He waited, concealed under the hanging branches of a pine, watching.
Nothing moved on the road below him, but he could still hear the faint moaning. It came from the direction he was headed. He had to check it out, but he knew what lay behind him at the off-ramp. He hadn't really believed it when he'd first heard the rumors a few days ago, The dead coming back to life ... who would? He'd figured it must be some exaggeration, just part of the mass hysteria over the latest flu.
Until he'd seen it for himself...
He cut off that line of thought. He might just be able to slip past the ones up ahead. The trees grew fairly close together on the hill above the road. If they retained the same instincts as most live people, they wouldn't look up. Hand tightening on the crowbar, Joel moved silently to the next tree. This one stood a little higher on the mountainside. He repeated this action for the next ten minutes, with a pause between each quiet movement to listen. They were making plenty of noise, along with the moans, there was a muffled pounding. During one of the pauses, a flash of sunlight off metal caught his eye. A red SUV was upside-down, wrapped around a tree on the far side of the road. The impact had sprung the doors open, and blood trails led up the slope to the blacktop.
That accounted for their presence, but why the moans and thumping? He looked for the next tree, but to get to it he would have to cross a near vertical ridge of outcropping granite. It climbed the mountain as far as he could make out, but seemed lower, and less shear farther downhill. Joel stayed low, keeping a clump of bushes between himself and the road while he moved, then hunkered down behind the ridge. The moans and pounding seemed to come from just the other side of the outcropping rocks.
Joel dug into his 72-hour kit, pulled out a mirror, and taped it to his crowbar. He crept noiselessly until he caught another flash of metal on the far side of the road. He lifted the mirror until he could see the guardrail, then twisted it back and forth, scanning the road. An open topped jeep lay crumpled on the far side. A long smear of paint on the guardrail and skid marks on the road showed its path to where it stood, silent. A body lay in the road, head smashed, probably by the SUV.
The dead gathered around a sedan that had smashed into the cliff almost directly under Joel's vantage point. It was a good twenty feet below him, nearly straight down. They banged on the windows, moaning. They wanted in, and paid no attention to their surroundings. There must be someone inside, or they'd be wandering around. He might just be able to help whoever was trapped. With a sinking feeling in his stomach, Joel hefted a lump of granite and stood, preparing to throw it across the road. He knew how big a risk he was taking, and hesitated. There were nine of them below, but they were slow, some of them crippled by broken bones.
One of them, dressed in jeans and a faded BDU jacket forced another out of his way and pounded on the rear driver's side window in frustration. Bloodstains on the tattered jacket showed where he'd been bitten. Joel, stopped himself in mid-throw, as a new sound came to him. A baby, crying, scared.
That changed everything.
He crouched down and studied the car closer. The windshield was cracked, nearly shattered. Blood stained the inside. He could just make out long blonde hair on the driver. She, he assumed it was a she, didn't move. Probably there was enough damage that the driver wouldn't rise. He hoped that was the case. Quietly he stripped the mirror off his crowbar and stuffed it back in his bag. Carefully judging the distance, he hurled the rock down at the head of the zombie that had been pushed farthest from the car. With luck the others wouldn't notice it fall.
He ducked back before the sound came to him, and scooped up another piece of granite. The moans were unchanged, so he took the risk, looking over the edge. The creature, a slightly built woman in jeans, was down, unmoving. He selected a man in a ball cap and threw, ducking again. He knew without looking that he'd missed this time, but the persistent moans and pounding made him hope he could pull it off.
Using a two hand grip he lifted a large chunk of granite and hurled it. He momentarily lost his balance and teetered while the rock smashed his target's head. Emboldened by his success, he took out two more before it happened.
While moving into a new vantage point, his foot slipped on the lichen covered surface and a trickle of gravel rattled down the mountainside. One of the five remaining zombies followed the trickle with its blank eyes and moaned excitedly when it saw him. Abandoning its efforts to break into the sedan, instead it started crawling up the slope towards him. The others noticed, and except for the one wearing the BDU jacket, followed its example.
They weren't very good climbers, but by the time he had a rock ready, he could see they probably would make it eventually, despite their slipping and sliding down the slope, there were plenty of handholds on the moss covered mountainside. Fortunately, eventually was longer than he needed. He dispatched the last of the four long before it reached the halfway point.
The fifth, the one that had been on the other side of the car was gone. A chill rand down his back, and he whirled, snatching up his crowbar. Its moans came to him from downhill. It forced its way through the brush that lined the edge of the road, and practically shrieked when it saw him. Joel ran uphill, scooping up his bag and heading for a clump of young pines. He'd seen them try to do things they'd done in life, but nothing that looked like real thinking. Could it have flanked him on instinct? Some remnant of military training that lived on in its dead brain?
Joel scrambled under the pines, ran uphill a bit more, then cut left jumping into a draw that he'd passed only minutes before. He crouched in the shadow of a pine and tried to control his breathing. He heard it thrashing in the pine branches, then only silence. When he couldn't hear it anymore, he used the mirror to watch it make its way uphill, moving in the same direction he'd been headed when it last saw him.
He waited until it was out of sight, moved up into a crouch, and crept downhill as silently as he could. Nothing moved on the road. Encouraged, he walked as quick as he could, minimizing the sound of his well broken in combat boots on the road, until he had the wrecks in sight.
The jeep was obviously empty, and while he couldn't see anyone in the SUV, he would hear if anything tried to climb up through the crushed vegetation to reach the road. The sedan was another matter. The trunk had popped open, and blocked his view to the interior.
He figured the accident was caused by the SUV trying to pass the Jeep. Car dodges the SUV, hits the cliff, and the SUV slams the Jeep into the guardrail, then ... A muffled sob from the sedan interrupted his thoughts.
Giving each of the bodies an extra whack in the head, he made his way to the drivers' side. The windows were smeared with mud, blood and an unrecognizable slime, but he could make out a small blond boy in a car seat who reached for the driver and cried. The driver was either dead or unconscious; her head had hit the windshield when she crashed, leaving a bloodstained star of broken glass. There was a bigger boy in the front with her, held upright by the seatbelt, head dangling.
Cautiously, he tried the back door, and on finding it locked, the front as well. There was still no movement on the road, and no sound but the crying of the baby and the wind in the pines. The noise he made shattering the glass was drowned out by a cry of terror from the baby.
Joel set the crowbar on the roof of the sedan, and checked the blonde woman for a pulse. She was dead, and had been long enough to grow cold. The older boy looked to be six or even eight, and when his head moved, Joel thought he might be alive, but the lifeless eyes and snapping jaw told him otherwise. The poor kid's neck must have snapped when they hit. But the baby was definitely alive. Also squirmy, soaking wet and stinking.
He freed the kid from the restraints, and pulled him, No her, from the car. It was the earrings that gave it away. She quieted some after he picked her up, and clung as he tried to comfort her. "Hey lil' one, I bet you're thirsty." She snatched at his water bottle when she saw it, and a partial set of teeth showed when she opened her mouth to drink. While she guzzled the last of his water, he spotted a diaper bag between the front seats. Inside, he found the essentials and a faded blue onesy.
Changing her was a noisy, awkward business, no telling how long she'd been sitting in it. Cleaning the bleeding sores made him wince and her howl. He finished, doing up the snaps then reaching for her. She grabbed his hands, pulling herself up, the strands of hair that weren't matted down wisped around her head like a fuzzy golden halo. Joel lifted the tiny girl, marveling at how light she was. She watched him curiously with china blue eyes. Her tiny fingers reached out to his face, shy but unafraid, and tugged at his week's growth of whiskers.
He gently pulled her hand away. "What's your name girl?" He didn't expect an answer.
She pointed to her chest, "Me Tye-Tye, Me bi' duirl." He almost dropped her as she leaned backwards, reaching for the car. "Mama seep, Am-Am seep."
Joel's eyes filled with water, and he held her tight, his cheek touching the top of her head. "That's right, mama's asleep."
He carried her around to the back of the car, wanting to check for anything he could use, and not wanting to put her down, or leave her loose in the car with what was left of her brother. A stroller, perfect. He could put her in that and not worry about her wandering off while he checked out the cars. He reached for it and heard her say very distinctly, "Bad Guy."
Then she screamed as a roar of primal hunger sounded behind him.
Joel froze, only for a second, or half a second. It felt like an eternity as his stunned mind tried to figure out what to do with the girl, and remember where he'd put his crowbar. However long it was, it was enough to the creature to close most of the gap before Joel turned around. He barely had enough time to bring up his right arm to hold the dead man off. It was the one in the BDU top, the fat one. When it hit him, he fell backwards into the trunk, hitting his head hard on the lid. Stars flashed in his vision, and when he recovered from the impact, his elbow was planted firmly in the things neck and the baby was screaming in his ear.
The fetid breath of the fat man made him want to puke, but he grit his teeth, grabbed the BDU jacket, and rolled in the direction the zombie was pushing, dropping the baby on top of the stroller as he fell. He landed on top, pulled his empty .45 from its holster and started hammering at the thing's skull with the butt while it clawed futilely at his insulated leather jacket.
Finally, with a thunk and a spray of goo, he broke its head open and instead of trying to pull him closer, it only twitched. He got off it, and kicked until it stopped, no sense in taking chances. Wiping his hands and weapon clean on the tail of its BDU shirt, he scanned for more. He didn't see anything, and heard nothing but the baby whimpers and the rustle of the trees against each other.
Under the stroller was a box of food, mostly crackers and dry cereal, but much better than the nothing he'd had all day. The girl, heedless of the zombies, struggled to open a box of cookies. He reached to open it, and thought better of it, looking at his hands. People bitten by them turned, could any bodily fluid do it? He shuddered and grabbed a gallon plastic container of gas from the trunk. If anything could kill whatever it was, scrubbing his hands with gas should do the trick. Once clean, he opened the cookies for her and left her siting next to the stroller inside the open trunk.
Joel put on his gloves, picked up his crowbar from the roof of the car, and searched the bodies scattered around. The fat man had a shoulder holster, but no weapon or even ammo. One of the dead men had half a brick of .22LR in a jacket pocket, and another, the woman he'd hit with the first rock, had a butt-pack with three bottles of water and a pouch of dehydrated apples. It all went into his bag. By the time he got back to the girl, she was asleep, a half eaten cookie in each hand. He unfolded the stroller, wrapped her in a grass stained blanket and laid her in it. The food from the box went into the net underneath, as did half a bag of diapers.
She slept peacefully, dry and full for the first time in more than a day as Joel checked out the car. The diaper bag was a no-brainer. He hesitated momentarily over the filthy clothes she'd been wearing, but he hadn't found any others so he triple bagged them in plastic shopping bags hoping he could wash them later. It could get really cold in the mountains at night. He hesitated, and then hoping someone would do the same for him, used the crowbar on the boy. It was awkward, and took him three tries in the cramped space.
No one on the road, and she was still sleeping. Her mother had a revolver, he swung it open, and read the cartridges, .38. Only two of the primers were undented. No ammo in the glove box either, and no purse in sight, but the car was registered to a Melissa Corbett. He took the paperwork so the girl would at least have something to identify her.
Feeling more confident now that he had something more than a crowbar, he checked the body in the middle of the road. His hopes soared when he saw the pump shotgun, but the barrel was bent, and the action didn't work. But now he had couple dozen twelve-gauge shells in his bag and hoped he'd find something to use them in. The other vehicles were farther down the road, back the way he'd come. Not wanting to leave the baby alone, he hung the diaper-bag on the stroller and headed for the Jeep.
They wouldn't be driving away, that was for sure. The puddle of oil under the sedan and the location of the SUV made it obvious they couldn't be used, but he'd had hopes for the Jeep. After all it was upright, and had scraped to a stop along the guardrail. It looked fine from the back, and from the side, but the right front wheel had caught on something and was bent out at thirty or forty degrees. He got down to look at the suspension, and recoiled in fear, cursing as a dead hand brushed his sleeve. One of them was trapped upside down between the Jeep and the guardrail. Once his breathing was under control, he took another look from farther away, then climbed into the jeep, leaned over the rail, past the zombie's wiggling foot, and hit it in the back of the head. The wiggling stopped.
Jackpot! The back of the Jeep was littered with junk but there were a half dozen M-16 magazines mixed in. and he'd seen ... Joel climbed down over the guardrail, and found what he hoped. He had to cut the sling to get it off the man, but the much battered AR-15 was a welcome sight. Instinctively he dropped the magazine and cleared the weapon. The round in the chamber pinged off the dash, and fell on the rubberized floorboard with a muffled thunk. The fancy sight was shattered, the butt-stock scraped up, and one of the hand-guards was cracked, but the barrel seemed straight even if it was filthy. The function check went flawlessly, but that didn't prove anything with a weapon as ill maintained as this one. There was actually rust on the barrel. Still, it was better than nothing. The magazine was half empty, but he picked up the round from the floor, loaded it in and seated the magazine in the well.
The magazines on in the back proved to be empty, and a search turned up only a single stripper clip, some well used brass, and some dented rounds that indicated the weapon had a tendency to jam. But they all did that if you didn't clean them. There was no food, no water, one can of beer, and half a canteen of some vile smelling ethanol. Well, probably ethanol.
The glove box held a welcome shape, but the cardboard box of .45 ACP held only three rounds. Joel used them to load his own M1911 and checked under the Jeep. The tie-rod was bent, if he had a blowtorch and some wrenches he could straighten it out, but without either, the Jeep wasn't going to take them anywhere.
On the road not thirty yards from the Jeep, he found the fat man's pistol, a five shot .45 revolver. Each chamber held an empty cartridge. It was old, but in good condition. He put it under the stroller, it might be good for something later, but no sense carrying it. He hid the stroller under a tree, and made his way down to the SUV. He found half a loaf of stale bread, two gallons of spoiled milk, and three suitcases of womens clothes. The bread and a stack of t-shirts went back up the hill with him.