Char and Tony stood across from each other, hidden behind trees. They were still several yards from what they had come to consider as the enemy’s camp. They’d made sure there was no movement for nearly an hour before moving this close.
“Two on watch?” Tony said.
The moonlight helped. The bright orb sat in a cloudless sky. With no street or city lights to interfere, the stars finally had a chance to illuminate the heavens. The billions of stars resembled a blanket of light, were milky, and still, and silent against a Catalina blue sky. “One ahead of the trailer. The other is just behind where the others are asleep.”
“I was worried they’d unhitched the horses. Animals are not going to be well rested having been tethered together like that all night. Idiots,” he said, “that’s not going to help us much. We want to hightail it out of there, and the things are going to be panting and shit. Not good.”
“You should have told them earlier, explained that in order for the horses to rest properly, they need to be unhitched.” Char rolled her eyes.
“You go on ahead. Find the guy out front. I’m going to handle the one back there. We’ll take care of the other four together. It’s not perfect, but I think it’s our best plan right now.”
“I’m good with it.” She had her machete out.
“You be safe. I’m serious.”
Char nodded. “You, too.”
She moved slowly but with purpose. The only sound she heard was her own footfalls and tried to step as quietly as possible, breathing shallow breaths. Tiny plumes escaped her lips and nostrils and then were gone. She went cautiously from tree to tree for cover, knowing the man on horseback was not too far ahead. Forest animals were silent. Her presence a deterrent from their nighttime chatter. Their silence was also a revelation. It warned the enemy that something approached. At a minimum, the man would be on guard, hopefully straining to see into the thicket for the infected and not at all on the lookout for a machete wielding young lady.
The man’s horse was tied to a tree. The man was not there. Char stood still, kept her back pressed against the bark. She looked left and right. The moon and stars helped pierce the darkness. The canopy above still prevented an excess of light from filtering through. Her eyes were well adjusted to the dimness encompassing the forest.
The horse snorted and shook its head, rattling the reins. It sounded like thunder in the silence. She watched the animal, wondering where the rider might be. The terrain was far more rocky in this direction. She stepped up to a boulder, lowered her chest down onto it and tried to see what lay beyond. With still no sign of the man with the assault rifle, she crawled up and over. Her eyes never stopped roaming left and right. He had to be somewhere close by.
Perhaps Tony had been right, and he was somewhere asleep.
She gripped the machete with both hands, held the blade out in front of her and walked toward the horse. She didn’t want to risk getting too close and spooking the animal. While she walked, she hoped Tony was alright. His man was closer to the other four. If there was much of a scuffle, it would alert the sleeping men. The thing about Tony, he would use an arrow and could make the kill silently from fifty yards out. He’d been teaching her how to use the bow, but they just hadn’t yet come across another she could keep.
Char did not think the man would wander far from his horse unless he found a safe place to catch some zzz’s. She stood still and just listened. Her heart pounded inside her chest.
A tree branch snapped.
Char spun around. She saw the butt of the rifle coming at her face and ducked. It caught the side of her head. She went down, not from the blow, but from losing her balance. Her left foot slid on loose stones. Her elbow took the brunt of the fall. Pain shot through her arm. A tingling sensation raced down to her wrist, and then up to her shoulder.
There was no time to coddle the injury.
She rolled to the right, off her arm. It was fast, but not quick enough. The man delivered a kick. His boot caught her on the side and she gasped as her lungs fought to inhale oxygen. She feared at least one rib might have broken. Her hands were empty.
Where was the machete?
The man made no noise. He survived the infected this long by learning to keep quiet, too. It didn’t stop the attack. He kept at her, kicking her in the back and sides over and over. She kept rolling, trying to get out of reach, looking for a chance to get back on her feet. It wasn’t working. The beating was relentless and she knew the pain would overtake her. The last thing she wanted was to lose consciousness. She’d be as good as dead.
He wasn’t a bear. She didn’t think she could do it. Her grunts and cries could not be contained.
“Shut up,” he said. It came out like a snarl. His words a whisper that escaped between bared, clenched teeth, but he’d stopped.
Char stayed on her stomach, knees drawn and arms protectively wrapped around her head. Breathing was difficult. She sucked in air; each breath sent pain radiating through her. There was no means of comfort. She didn’t dare move.
She didn’t dare move, until she was certain she knew how to gain an upper hand.
“Where did you come from? Wha. . .are you a girl?”
She heard it then. It was in his voice. He went from angry to something else. The slur of his words was not lost on her. The excitement in his second question was telling. The man’s beard was thick and black. It was the only clear feature she could make out in the darkness. The rest of his face was cast in shadow.
“I said, where did you come from?”
She whimpered. A small cry slipped out. Her head throbbed. The butt of the assault rifle broke skin. Warm blood spilled from the gash, a pungent odor of copper filled her nose. The scent trapped in the tight space; her head on the earth, her arms around her head.
“Who else is with you?”
The longsword was useless with no way to unsheathe it from her curled-up position on the ground. The knife on her hip was the best choice. It was a serrated ten-inch blade, but she couldn’t reach for it, not with it strapped on the same side where the man was who stood looming over her.
“I’m not here to play games.” It was back. The lust in his tone of voice. It filled her ears and sparked her memory. Mexico had been a horrible country. The uninfected far worse than the walking dead. No mistaking that both were hungry for flesh.
Char learned quickly to best avoid getting into sticky situations —when possible.
“Maybe you need to be taught a lesson?”
At least one rib had to be broken. She knew if she tried to move, to straighten out, her insides would violently protest.
She heard his belt buckle jingle loose.
A foot pressed against her side.
She cried out in pain.
He rolled her over.
She kept her knees up to her chest. Blood and tears mixed on her face.
“You need to shut up,” he said. She couldn’t see his face. The available light was above and behind him and he was merely a shadow before her. His breathing was fast, labored. He was working himself up, eager.
She bit her lip. “Sorry.”
“That’s better,” he said. The man dropped to his knees. He grabbed her legs and pulled them apart.
She offered no resistance other than a timid cry and turned her head to the side.
When he climbed on top of her, Char did not hesitate.
When she’d been kicked over onto her back, her hand unstrapped the knife. She had it in her hand.
She punched the knife deep into his side and dragged it up to his first rib.
He fell off her. The blade protruded from under his arm. He writhed, kicking his legs.
Char forced herself up onto her knees, pushed herself up onto one, and then stood. The man screamed.
Standing felt better than being balled up on the ground.
Breathing was not any easier.
The man continued screaming, rolling back and forth, covering himself in blood and dirt. “I’m going to die.”
Char ignored her pain as she took a few steps and stood over the man. She raised her foot in the air and brought the heel down on his skull. “You need to be quiet,” she said.
This was not a good person.
She was not a murderer.
He had planned to rape her, she had no doubt. He would have killed her after, or worse, kept her around, just barely alive but useful for days, and then killed her. Either way, he’d of taken her life.
She looked around, but the thicket and darkness that surrounded them made it hard to find her machete. There wasn’t time to search, not with him making so much noise.
Her mind spun as her brain was pumped full of endorphins. She knew her pulse was fast. She thought about drawing her sword, but instead, forced herself to kneel down next to him. He couldn’t keep still.
Being that he was alive, he was still a threat.
She wouldn’t let her guard down.
Not around this one.
Char pried his hand off the knife with one hand, and grabbed onto the handle with the other. There was a wet sloshing sound when she yanked out the blade, and the man let out a curdling cry that pierced her ears. She thought she smelled the contents of food in various stages of digestion emitted from the long, wide wound, and nearly vomited.
In one fluid motion, she reached across his chest and slid the blade across his throat.
That stopped the cry, mid-scream.
He lay still, finally.
A moonbeam shown on his face. Blood filled and gurgled out of the corners of his mouth. He attempted to cough, to breathe, and to hang onto life. His eyes were locked on her. Rapid blinking ensued as the life behind the retina slowly clouded over, leaving a vacant look in his expression.
The blood still oozed from his neck.
It bubbled inside his mouth.
She watched him until she was certain he was dead.
It was when she smelled urine and feces that she knew it was safe to get up.
Char went back to the horse. It snorted, as giant eyes strained to watch her every movement. Like her, the animal did not trust people. She unbuckled the belt on the belly of the horse. She didn’t want to leave him tied to a tree. The man’s death cries gave away their location. He would become an instant meal for not just potential infected, but also dangerous wildlife in the area. The mountains were filled with black bear, mountain lions, coyotes, and wolves. She removed the nylon halter and head collar as she pet his nose and whispered into his ear that everything would be okay.