Thunder and Ashes: Chapter 7

Sic Vis Pacem, Para Bellum

Abraham, Kansas

March 08, 2007

0923 hrs_

FRANCIS SHERMAN STOOD NEAR the border of Abraham, looking out through the chain-link fence as the sun burned the last of the spring fog off of the fields. His hands were clasped behind his back, unconsciously at parade-rest, as he surveyed the surroundings. The night before had been one to remember.

Unfortunately, he doubted half his entourage would have the capacity to remember it once they woke up. Eileen’s husband’s beer would have seen to that.

Sherman’s raid on the bandit headquarters had ended up saving the lives and freedom of eleven women and cost the bandits, at their best estimate, a dozen of their number, not to mention a significant portion of their makeshift fortress.

The people of Abraham were more than overjoyed to hear that news. They’d been taunted and terrorized by the raiders since shortly after the pandemic struck, and five of the rescued women were citizens of the town itself. Further, some of Abraham’s men had been killed when they had defied the raiders abroad. The town was looking for vengeance, and they had found it in Sherman and his soldiers. They had found more than that, though: they had found heroes.

The night before was a virtual whirlwind of celebration. Cheers and rallies in the streets led to Sherman and the rest attending a dinner in their honor, with freshly baked bread and spring vegetables lining the table. They hadn’t eaten so well in months. All of their food had been prepackaged and preserved. Some of the townsfolk had taken up their instruments and an impromptu concert sprung up. The men and women played whatever tunes they knew, and the people of Abraham had danced and eaten and drank more than their normal share over the course of the evening.

Especially drank, Sherman thought. Brewster had picked up where he’d left off, downing pint after pint of Eileen’s bitter brown lager, and the last the General had seen of him, he was dancing with one of the girls of the town, barely managing to stay on his feet. Thomas, in true form, had remained aloof, eating quickly and with purpose, politely declining all offers to dance, and then vanished to seek out a bunk to sack out in for the evening.

Krueger and Denton had spent their evening egging on Brewster and getting the soldier to drink more than he could handle. Sherman had sat close enough to them at the banquet table to overhear them placing bets on the soldier.

“My good knife says he passes out before six pints,” Denton had said, slapping a K-Bar combat knife down on the table.

“I’ll see your knife and raise you a survival compass, complete with waterproof matches, that says he makes it to at least seven,” Krueger had said, adding his items to the table.

“Bet?”

“Bet.”

Sherman had chuckled at the scene. He hadn’t paid enough attention to Brewster afterward to find out who was able to collect and who went home the loser, but he’d had enough on his hands.

The sheriff, Sherman had noticed, was conspicuously absent from the banquet, and as soon as he was politely able, Sherman had excused himself from the celebration and gone off to find the man. He’d failed, and eventually he had turned in, accepting the offer of a bunk at the town mission.

He’d awakened as the sun rose, did his morning calisthenics in the tiny room in the mission house, dressed, and went outside for a long walk. He’d walked down one side of main street, up the other, and around several of the surrounding blocks, thinking over their current situation.

The mechanic, Jose, had been so overjoyed at the return of his daughter that he’d nearly kissed Sherman the night before and had promised that he would keep up his end of the bargain and throw in more to boot. He said it would take around a week to effect the repairs, and in the meantime, the group should relax and rest.

Sherman was just going over the mechanic’s promise when he found himself at the border of Abraham, staring out over the fields at parade rest. The mornings in Abraham were quiet. Nearby, a guard stood in one of the two makeshift towers that protected the only real entrance into Abraham, but the man paid the General no heed. He simply looked out over the same field with a pair of binoculars. Sherman was used to more hustle and bustle in the mornings.

On the road, when the group began to awake, things always happened very fast. Gear had to be packed up, people had to wash (if possible) and change their clothes, and banter would invariably be shooting back and forth like a ping-pong ball at the Chinese championships. Here in Abraham, people woke up at their own pace, in their own homes. It was almost like things were back to normal—if only the ten-foot chain link fence and makeshift guard tower weren’t there to remind Sherman otherwise.

“Good morning!” came a familiar voice from behind the general. He turned to see Sheriff Keaton approaching, a rifle slung over his shoulder.

“Good morning yourself, Sheriff,” Sherman said, shaking the man’s hand. “I have to tell you, your people sure know how to play host.”

“What, that little party last night?” Keaton asked, chuckling. “Not my idea. Sort of an impromptu display of our appreciation, as it were.”

“I noticed you missed it,” Sherman said. “I was looking for you.”

“Sorry,” Keaton replied. “I was out patrolling the borders.”

“Well, the whole thing was very much appreciated,” Sherman said, nodding his approval. “My people really needed something to bring their morale up a bit.”

“Uh-huh,” Keaton said, also nodding in agreement. He seemed to be holding himself back, and Sherman noticed.

“Is there something on your mind, Sheriff?” Sherman asked.

“Well,” Keaton started, then trailed off. “Probably nothing.”

“Nothing’s nothing,” Sherman disagreed. “Come on, what’re you thinking?”

“Well, Sherman, you fellows dealt one hell of a blow to those raiders last night,” Keaton said. “It’ll be months before they feel like the kings of this county again.”

“It was our pleasure, Sheriff,” Sherman said.

“No, it goddamn well wasn’t,” the sheriff snapped, suddenly angry. He caught himself, took a deep breath, and apologized. “I’m sorry about that, Sherman, but let’s face it, it wasn’t your pleasure. You did what you did because you needed Jose’s help with your big truck. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that,” Keaton went on, holding up his hands to forestall protest, “but it wasn’t because you’re our friends, if you follow.”

“I follow,” Sherman said, nodding slowly. He felt somewhat subdued. The sheriff’s remarks were dead-on. “Though I’d like to mention that if things keep going the way they’re going, it won’t be long before we’re doing things to help you truly because it is our pleasure to do so, as friends.”

Sheriff Keaton grinned and nodded. “I wouldn’t be averse to the idea, Sherman. But I have a problem. Or I might have a problem. And, frankly—with no offense meant by this—it’s your fault.”

Sherman took a step back, his eyes widening somewhat. “Our fault? What? What’s the problem?”

Keaton folded his arms across his chest and stepped forward, looking out through the chain link. “You rattled the hornet’s nest, Sherman. Stirred up those raiders. I didn’t tell you this because it didn’t matter to your mission last night, but I know the leader of those scavengers. He’s a real hard case. Locked him up three times for drunk and disorderly. Once for armed robbery. He was just about to come to trial for sexual assault when the pandemic hit. He goes by the name of Herman Lutz. Don’t let the name fool you—the guy’s stone cold. He should have been behind bars permanently years ago. He and his brother George put together this particular group of raiders and let me tell you—from what I know of Lutz, he’ll be out for blood. Revenge. You really bloodied his nose, he’ll want to bloody yours. And between you and him is Abraham. You see my problem now?”

“I’m seeing it,” Sherman said, nodding. “I’m seeing it very clearly.”

“So I’ve got a choice,” Keaton said, sighing heavily. “I can hurry Jose’s repairs up and get you and your compadres out of my town before Herman and George come looking for payback . . .”

“Or?”

“Or I can seal the gates and tell them to fuck off,” Keaton said with a grim smile. “Option number one means selling you guys out, and you really have done us a favor since you’ve been here. I’d feel like an asshole kicking you out of here just to be hunted by those scumbags down the highway a bit.”

“And what’re you thinking about option number two?” Sherman asked.

“If I do that, maybe I lose a lot of friends when they come knocking on the front door,” Keaton said, shaking his head.

“That’s a hell of a choice,” Sherman said. “If it’s any consolation, I’ve had to make tough calls before, too.”

“Oh, right, you’re a ‘general,’ ” Keaton said, chuckling. “Forgive me, but I’m still finding it hard to believe.”

“That’s quite all right, Sheriff,” Sherman said. “You don’t have to believe me. Just know that I’ve been there, and I sympathize. But would you be open to a little advice?”

“My mother raised me to always listen to advice. Whether or not I take it is up to me, she’d always say, but she always told me to listen first,” Keaton said.

“Wise woman. Sheriff, if I were you, I’d draw your battle lines, because from the sound of these scumbags, they’ll never leave you be until you show them why they should leave Abraham far behind—and that’s whether or not you send us packing. Even if we’re out of here tomorrow, I’d say fight these bastards. The next time they try to raid one of your outlying farms, send a vehicle with riflemen out there. Make them pay in blood. They’ll learn. They’ll learn fast.”

“Jesus, that’s cold,” Keaton said softly, gripping the chain of the fence in a white-knuckled grip. “But it also makes sense. George and Herman’ll just keep stirring them up until they own this town or all their men are dead.”

Sherman paused a moment, still standing at parade rest, and cocked an eyebrow. “Wait one second. What were the names of the leaders again? Lutz?”

“That’s right,” nodded Keaton. “Herman and George Lutz. Brothers. Herman’s the older. George came a couple years later.”

“Oh, hell,” Sherman said, posture stiffening. A hand wiped across his forehead as a sudden sweat broke out on his brow.

“What is it?” Keaton asked.

Sherman thought back to the firefight on the bridge, flashes of it playing out in his memory. Taking cover behind the open door. Trucks blocking their escape. And a man named George demanding they surrender.

“Keaton, could you describe these two for me?” Sherman asked.

“What, physically? Sure. I know them by heart. Herman Lutz is a big fellow, about six feet, two hundred pounds. Thinning brown hair. Large nose. Bit jowly. Starting to get a stomach. George Lutz was thinner, about the same height, maybe thirty pounds lighter. Longer brown hair. Same exact nose, no jowls. More of a square-jawed type, George,” Keaton said, rambling off the physical characteristics of the felons purely from memory. He was a small-town cop, and they tended to file away their repeat offenders in their heads rather than their filing cabinets.

“Damn,” Sherman said, shaking his head. The description of George Lutz was nearly a perfect match to the features of the man that Krueger had killed on the bridge during the firefight.

“What is it?”

“Sheriff, I think we’ve already killed George Lutz,” Sherman said. He went on to explain again about the ambush on the bridge and the man who demanded they pay a tribute to pass. He told the sheriff how one of the other men had called the leader “George” and that, plus the fact that he was out in front, had made him Krueger’s number-one target. “If he is this Herman Lutz’s brother, he’s lying facedown in a ditch about ten miles west of here.”

Keaton swore and kicked the chain link fence, yelling a curse at the sky.

“I don’t know if Herman’s heard about this yet or not, but I’m betting he has. He’s going to be pissed as all hell!” Keaton said, rambling off a litany of curses that would have made a sailor blush. “He’ll be coming for blood.”

“Well, then,” Sherman said. “I suppose we’ve only just begun to fight. I’m sorry, Keaton. Sorry I brought this down on your town.”

The sheriff was silent for a long while, leaning against the fence and staring at the ground. He gave the fence a final shove and spun to face Sherman, a range of emotions playing across his face. He calmed himself, took a deep breath, and spoke.

“It was coming whether or not you’d stumbled on us, Sherman,” he said. “You were right. These are the kind of people who won’t quit. Something needs to be done. You just provided the catalyst, that’s all. We’ll have to get ready. I just pray to God we make it through the storm.”

1234 hrs_

Keaton had called a town meeting. The mayor, an aging man named Nathan York, had been contacted and advised of the situation. Sherman got the distinct impression that the while the mayor was technically in charge, he was acting as little more than a figurehead. Sheriff Keaton had shown initiative and intelligence in the short time Sherman had known him, and that led him to believe that the sheriff was the true leader of the little town of survivors.

The town gathered slowly as word of mouth summoned the citizens from their homes to the freshly plowed field in front of the town hall. Sherman sat on the stairs of the old building next to the sheriff, watching the people gather. There were hundreds of them, most with families, and all looked apprehensive. According to the sheriff, the last town meeting had been called to decide to build the fence and quarantine the town in the early days of the pandemic. The citizenry was probably worried this new meeting also boded poorly for them.

If only they knew, Sherman thought.

Sherman spotted some of his group on the edge of the growing crowd, and excused himself from the Sheriff to go meet them. Mbutu, Ron, Katie, and Rebecca stood off to one side. They were watching the crowd with vested interest, and Sherman could see them muttering back and forth to one another as they watched.

“Good morning,” Sherman said as he approached, raising a hand in greeting.

“Early afternoon, actually,” Rebecca replied, smiling at Sherman.

“What’s with the party?” Ron asked, leaning heavily on his crutch—a real crutch now, not a makeshift one. He had received permission from the town’s registered nurse to help himself to one from the town clinic. “Did someone die?”

“No,” Sherman said, heaving a breath. “At least, not yet.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Katie asked, eyeing the general warily.

“I think it means we’re going to war,” Sherman said. “Spent the morning talking with the sheriff. Remember that guy named George who was leading the raiders we fought on the road? The one Krueger blasted?”

The assembled group nodded as one, and Sherman pressed on.

“Turns out he was the brother of the leader of this particular gang of scavengers and looters. The sheriff has files on both of them as thick as dictionaries. Real scum-of-the-earth types. Keaton figures we’ve got a day, maybe two, before what’s left of the raiders come to pay us a visit, and they won’t be looking for tribute. They’ll want heads.”

Rebecca groaned. “Oh, no. Not more of this. I have to get to the clinic. Maybe there’s something I can do there to help prepare.”

She took off at a jog without bothering to say good-bye, moving fast and with a sense of purpose.

The remainder of the group looked subdued. From the party the night before to the sudden announcement of incoming war, the mood was shifting too rapidly for them to feel comfortable. They shuffled from foot to foot, exchanging unsettled glances.

“Relax,” Sherman said, noticing their ill ease. “The sheriff’s already decided that the town’s going to meet these bastards head-on. If they want blood, they’ll get it, but it’ll be their own.”

“I hope you’re right, Frank,” Ron said, favoring his uninjured leg. “Last time I faced these guys, they took some of my blood. I hope the sheriff doesn’t think his hands won’t get dirty.”

“Give him more credit than that, Ron,” Sherman said. “Keaton’s a smart man. He knows people will die in this fight, when it comes. He’s ready to accept that. If nothing’s done about these raiders, they’ll just keep coming and coming.”

“That is true enough,” Mbutu said, speaking for the first time. “They are bullies. Bullies only understand violence and strength. If you show one you are stronger, he will never bother you again.”

“Exactly,” Sherman said, nodding at Mbutu. “So I’m hoping they come here full of piss and vinegar looking for a stand-up fight. That way we’ll be able to use a quick show of force to convince them to head somewhere else.”

“What’s the alternative?” Katie asked.

“The alternative is that this Herman fellow might be smarter than he seems,” Sherman said. “If that’s the case, we might need to get creative. I’m hoping the town will help on that end.”

“Afternoon!” came a greeting from behind the little group. Sherman and the rest turned to see Jack and Mitsui approaching. Between them was Brewster, moaning and leaning heavily on the two men. Denton brought up the rear with Krueger.

“Brewster!” Sherman said, feeling a smile crease his face, “You’re alive.”

Brewster moaned in response and tried in vain to raise his head. “It doesn’t feel that way, sir.”

“Who won the bet?” Sherman asked, turning to Krueger and Denton.

“Krueger,” Denton grumbled, jerking a thumb in the soldier’s direction. “Brewster made it to eight pints before he threw up and passed out.”

“I threw up?” a groggy Brewster asked. “Did I throw up on anyone?”

“No, it was in the grass—don’t worry about it,” Denton hurriedly reassured him. “And on the sidewalk on the way back to the mission house. And in the mission house bathroom.”

“And in a bucket in your room about three in the A.M.,” Krueger finished up, chuckling. “You know what you need to learn, Brewster? Limits. Moderation.”

“Moderation is for pussies,” Brewster slurred, looking dizzy.

“All right, all right, enough for now,” Sherman said. He raised one finger and spun it in a circular motion. “Gather up, group. We’ve got a few announcements to listen to that concern all of us.”

“What’s going on?” Brewster asked.

“Be quiet,” Denton reprimanded. “You’ll make your headache worse if you talk.”

“Won’t talk, then,” Brewster added.

“Good boy.”

Nearly all of the town had gathered on the field in front of the town hall by then, and the murmur of conversation was drowning out the normal afternoon sounds of the birds and breezes. Finally, after what seemed like a quarter hour or more, the mayor of Abraham stood up on the stairs to the town hall and raised his arms for silence. One by one, the conversations dropped off until a quiet calm fell over the assemblage.

“People of Abraham,” Mayor York began, “We are once more presented with a problem that may threaten our very survival. I’m asking all of you to do as we did months ago, and pitch in, do your parts. Do that, and we’ll all pull through this trial as we pulled through the pandemic. Sheriff Keaton will explain more.”

Mayor York yielded the floor to the sheriff, who took his place at the top of the stairs amid renewed murmurs from the crowd.

“All right, people, here’s the situation,” Keaton said, raising his voice to a commanding level. The mumbled conversations halted and all eyes turned to the man addressing them. “As you know, our recent guests dealt one hell of a blow to the raiders living in the old distribution center last night.”

A resounding cheer went up among those assembled, and continued for several seconds until Keaton waved his hands for silence.

“Unfortunately, that’s also our problem. We’ve confirmed that George Lutz was one of the raiders who was killed,” Keaton said. “As some of you may be aware, George Lutz is the younger brother of the raiders’ leader, Herman Lutz. Less of you may be aware of the fact that Herman isn’t the type to let this kind of thing go without an answer. I guarantee you, even now he’s getting ready to strike back at us, and we’re going to have to be ready.”

A voice rose up out of the crowd.

“He’s got maybe twenty men with him! We have seven hundred! We’re an army! Let him come!”

A renewed cheer went up from the crowd, and this time, Sheriff Keaton had to wave his arms for twice as long before the people would fall silent.

“He may be outnumbered, and even outgunned, but what he has are vehicles, mobility, and intelligence,” Keaton said. “Herman Lutz might be a criminal, but he’s not a stupid criminal. We’re in a static location. We can’t get up and move. We’ll have to watch for attacks from any angle, any location, at any time. They might try and come at night, or at dawn. We can’t let our guard down. I’ve already doubled the watches along the town borders. However, that means my deputies are going to be strained to their limits. They’ll be dog tired by tomorrow morning. I’m asking for volunteer deputies to help with the guard duties. More than that, I’m looking for volunteers to help build up our defenses. Last night, our new friends showed us how easy it is for three people to break into a facility defended exactly as our town is and wreak all kinds of holy hell on it. We can’t let that happen to us.”

“So what’re we doing?” came a shouted question from the crowd.

“To start with, anyone of able body and mind who wants to volunteer as a deputy, meet me after this discussion. Secondly, anyone who’s able to dig a trench or fill a sandbag should meet with Mayor York. We’re going to start reinforcing our walls and defenses.”

Suddenly the meeting was interrupted as one of the Sheriff’s deputies came pulling up alongside the town hall in one of Abraham’s off-roading Jeeps, squealing his brakes. He dove out of the driver’s side door and bolted toward the sheriff. Everything about his movements and expression screamed emergency.

Sheriff Keaton ran down the stairs to meet the man halfway and the two had a hurried, quiet meeting. When it was over, the deputy nodded, spun on his heel and ran straight back for his Jeep, tearing off down the streets in the direction of the main guard towers and entrance. Sheriff Keaton jogged back up to the top of the stairs to address the town.

“People of Abraham!” he shouted, quelling the murmurs that had sprung up during the interruption. “It seems we don’t have that time to prepare I was hoping for. Wes in the guard tower out front says he’s spotted a mass on the move coming this direction from the north. He says it looks like infected, numbering in the dozens. We’re going to need riflemen—if you’ve served on the front line before, grab your weapon and meet us at the main gates. That is all.”

Sheriff Keaton ran down the stairs of the town hall, past Sherman and the Mayor and the assembled civilians, and headed off full-tilt in the direction of the gates.

“I suppose that means we should help,” Sherman said, arms folded across his chest.

“Time to play hero again,” Krueger said.

“I don’t know if I can handle a rifle right now,” Brewster protested.

“Very well,” Sherman said, quirking an eyebrow at Brewster. “Jack, Mitsui, let him drop where he’s standing. Both of you get your weapons from the Sheriff’s armory and meet us at the front gates, too.”

The two men grinned, let go of Brewster, and headed off after the sheriff. Brewster hovered in place a moment, knees buckling. His face turned a light shade of green at the sudden movement, and he let himself collapse to the ground, one hand clutched over his mouth and the other held over his stomach.

“Maybe that’ll teach you moderation,” Denton chided, looking down at the soldier.

“Fuck you,” Brewster said, and immediately regretted it, fighting back a retch.

“Come on, let’s go,” Sherman said to the remaining members of the group. “I’m sure every rifle will be welcome.”

1302 hrs_

Sherman climbed the last rung of the ladder that led up to one of the makeshift guard towers of Abraham. In the small space on top, he was met by Sheriff Keaton, Mayor York and a deputy with a hunting rifle and a large pair of binoculars set up on a tripod.

“Sherman,” Keaton greeted, shaking Frank’s hand. “Good to see you managed to join us. This is Mayor York, and Deputy Willis.”

“You can call me Wes,” said the deputy, shaking Sherman’s hand in greeting.

“What’s the SitRep?” Sherman asked, looking out across the flat fields.

“Well, you can just start seeing it with the naked eye now,” said Wes, pointing north. Sherman squinted in the direction the man was indicating, and made out a wide line of figures heading in their direction. “Take a look through the binoculars. It’s quite a sight. Didn’t give these raiders enough points for ingenuity, that’s for sure.”

Sherman took up a place behind the binoculars. He swiveled them on their tripod and looked through the lenses. Up close, the sight was enough to turn even a strong stomach. A quick estimate told him he was looking at between forty and fifty figures, and all of them were sprinters. Their bloody, ruined clothing and hateful expressions told him they were definitely infected, and the fact that they were running gave away the rest. Sherman refocused the binoculars, zooming them out somewhat, and saw two men dressed in hunting clothes, rifles strapped to their backs, riding dirt bikes a good hundred meters in front of the small horde.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” Sherman whispered as he stared through the lenses. As he watched, the men on the dirt bikes revved their engines, heading straight for Abraham. Behind them, the horde changed direction to follow them, arms outstretched. Sherman could almost imagine their roars of protest each time their prey picked up and moved further away from them.

“You may indeed,” Keaton replied. “It is kind of ingenious, like Wes said. They’re using bikers to lead the infected right to us.”

Sherman remembered Thomas’ report of their action at the distribution facility the night before. The sergeant had mentioned that the raiders had two huge cages filled to the brim with infected just outside their main gates. Thomas and Krueger had guessed the infected were meant to serve as deterrents to possible attackers, but now Sherman saw that the raiders had been saving them up for an actual offensive purpose.

“They’re using carriers as shock troops,” Sherman said, voice awed somewhat. “They’re going to actually use the infected to soften us up before they attack.”

“Smart puppy, Herman Lutz,” Keaton said. “Oh, but that’s not the worst of it. Refocus behind the sprinters—a good half-mile back.”

Sherman did as he was asked, jostled the binoculars until they focused in, and grimaced.

Well behind the mob of sprinters was a second mob, just as large, made up entirely of shamblers. Two waves, then, one hitting at full speed and another hitting at a slow walk perhaps an hour later.

Sherman stood and let the binoculars rest. He folded his arms and walked over to the edge of the tower, staring off in the direction of the incoming carriers. A thoughtful expression was etched across his features.

“What’re you thinking about, Sherman?” Keaton asked, watching the general carefully.

“I’m not sure,” Sherman replied. “Just a bit of a feeling.”

“Well, let’s hear it,” Keaton said. “No secrets here.”

“I’m thinking you’re right about this Herman guy,” Sherman said. “He’s smarter than people give him credit for. Here’s this horde of infected coming right down your front door, and leading them here are two men on bikes. Two. Where are the rest of his people?”

“Sitting back and waiting for us to get softened up by the infected,” Deputy Willis volunteered. “Just like you said.”

“The more I think about it the more it doesn’t sit right in my gut,” Sherman said. He rubbed his chin. “Have you given any orders to your people yet about these infected?”

“Sure have,” Keaton said. “We’ve been on it since it was reported. All the deputies and volunteers are being armed right now and they’ll be reporting here to the main gates to hold off the infected once they arrive.”

“All of them?” Sherman repeated, looking intently at the sheriff.

“Every single able-bodied—” the sheriff began, then cut himself off, jaw dropping open as he saw what Sherman was getting at. “Wes, radio.”

“Huh?” asked the deputy, busy peering through the binoculars once more.

“Radio! Give me your damn radio!” Keaton repeated.

The deputy handed over the device and went back to watching the oncoming enemy force. Keaton held the radio up to his mouth and clicked the transmit button.

“Defense detail, come in. Defense detail, come in. Sheriff Keaton here, over,” Keaton spoke into the radio. A response came back almost immediately.

“We’re here, Sheriff. Just arming the last of them now, and—”

“Cancel that deployment order I gave you,” Keaton said. “Send half the men to the main gates. Send the other half to the back side of town. Tell them to take good cover and stay hidden.”

Sherman smiled. Keaton had a military man’s mind. He’d thought of the same thing as Sherman: that the infected were a diversion.

“Come again, Sheriff? We’re splitting our forces?” came the reply over the radio.

“Hell yes, we are, and get to it! Tell the men you send to the backside of town to watch for an attempt at incursion. They’ll be trying to get in quietly,” Keaton said. “Double-time it down there. Out.”

Keaton clicked the radio set off and handed it back to Wes, then turned to Sherman.

“Was that what you were thinking?” Keaton asked.

“To the letter,” Sherman said. Mayor York and Deputy Willis looked back and forth at one another, shrugging. They hadn’t followed. Sherman leaned on the edge of the guard tower and nodded in the direction of the approaching infected, explaining.

“I’m thinking this is a diversion,” Sherman said. “Send out all the infected they’ve rounded up over the past couple of months straight to Abraham’s front door, and send them right across these open fields, where we’ll be sure to see them coming, with plenty of time to mobilize. We bring all our men here to defend against the carriers, and while we’re doing that, the raiders slip in the back door and go to work on the town. At least, that’s my hunch.”

“What happens if you’re wrong?” York asked, raising his eyebrows.

“Then we have to drive off all these carriers and an entire attacking raider force at fifty percent capacity,” Sherman said. “Even if I’m wrong, we can recall the men sent to the other side of town within a few minutes. I don’t think we’re risking too much, and it might save us if I’m right.”

“I see,” York said, nodding slowly. “That makes sense, I suppose.”

“Now we just have to wait and see what happens,” Keaton added. “Let’s hope our boys shoot straight and true today.”

1345 hrs_

Once again, the battle lines were drawn. Along the western edge of Abraham, a slapdash layer of sandbags provided minimal cover for riflemen strung out along the fenceline. An eighteen-wheeler had been driven forward to fully block the roadway, and the wooden barriers had been lowered. Three riflemen were stationed in each tower, and more had lined up behind the eighteen-wheeler, laying behind semicircular bunkers made of sandbags.

Across town was the second element of the defense force. Denton and Krueger found themselves among the platoon’s-worth of men who responded to the call to reinforce the rear of Abraham, as were Jack and Mitsui. Here, things looked and felt less battle-ready. No sandbags had been brought forth for cover, and the volunteer deputies and civilian soldiers instead took cover behind yard fences, parked cars, trees and landscaping, all carefully watching the fence and the thin forest beyond for enemy activity. Conversation, what little there was of it, was subdued.

Near the main gates, the revving of the dirt bike’s engines grew louder as the carrier-wranglers drew ever closer. In the guard tower, Deputy Willis adjusted the range on the scope of his rifle, drawing a bead on one of the bikers as he accelerated across the field. His finger tightened on the trigger, but a hand on his shoulder stopped him. Sheriff Keaton looked down at the man and shook his head.

“Wait,” he said. “Let them get a little closer first.”

The bikers sped across the field until they were nearly in front of the main gates themselves. They skidded to a stop, kicking up small clouds of dirt. One of them turned and lifted the visor of his helmet so the defenders could see his face.

“Enjoy the company,” taunted the man. “Lutz says you people have it com—”

“All right, he’s close enough now,” Keaton said, tapping Willis on the shoulder.

Wes fired, and the taunting biker was blown backwards off his vehicle. He shuddered once, tried to lift himself off of the ground, and then lay still. The bike tipped over on its side, engine still idling. The remaining biker flipped off the defenders and gunned his engine, accelerating sharply. He got on the main road and vanished within moments.

The sprinters, unaware of the verbal exchange, charged onward. They caught up to the body of the heckler and surrounded it in moments, hunching over it and tearing at the man’s flesh, biting and scratching. Willis swallowed back bile as he watched.

“All right, men,” Keaton said, looking left and right at his defensive line. “Careful shots, now. Drop ’em.”

Rifle fire began to ring out along the fenceline as shooters picked their targets and squeezed their triggers. Several of the feasting carriers jerked and spasmed, falling to the ground. A dozen or so still approaching the scene shifted their attention from the downed biker to the riflemen along the fenceline, and turned almost as one, sprinting straight for the chain link. The riflemen in turn shifted their fire. Sprays of bright red arterial blood flew up from the backs of the oncoming carriers as rifle ammunition tore through them. Here and there a carrier dropped permanently, skulls split open by headshots. Most went down with wounds to the chest or legs.

Several of the carriers reached the fences, threw themselves against the metal and tried to rip their way through. The fences easily held up to their attempts. The riflemen on the other side had an easy time dealing with these carriers, aiming at point-blank range and dropping them with shots to the head.

Meanwhile, the two-dozen or so that had surrounded the downed biker were rapidly losing interest. The corpse of the man was thoroughly ravaged, and they began to cast about for new prey. The second biker had long since vanished down the road, and the only remaining targets were the defenders of Abraham. The sprinters turned their attention to them, roaring and running full-tilt toward the fences.

Suddenly the riflemen found not half a dozen angry infected tearing at their defenses, but nearly three dozen. Rifle shots rang out with more frequency, and the shaking of the fence increased in intensity. The steel wire holding the chain link to its posts creaked ominously.

“Put them down! Gun for the ones on the fenceline!” Keaton ordered, shouting down from the guard tower. Carriers grasping the fence were riddled with bullets. One by one, they dropped free, falling on their backs in the grass. Some twitched out of residual reflex actions. Others lay still, bullet wounds in their heads.

Thomas was in his element, bandaged arm and all, holding aloft his pistol and jogging up and down the line, shouting encouraging comments or yelling obscenities at the less adept marksmen. Every now and then, he would halt in place, take aim, and put a round through a carrier hanging on the fence.

The sudden fury of the combined assault on the section of fence near the gate was taking its toll. One by one, the steel loops used to hold the fence securely to its posts began to spring free with loud pings. The upper corner of the fence sagged free, and the riflemen redoubled their efforts.

Keaton leaned out over the guard tower to shout instructions.

“Forget the heads for now! Just gun ’em down! Get ‘em on the ground! We’ll clean up after! Don’t let that fence fall!” Keaton shouted. He knew that if the fence went down and they left a gap in their defenses, the second mob of shamblers would have an easy access point into the town. With their force split down the middle, they would be hard pressed to kill them all safely.

The townsfolk and deputies shifted their fire, taking easy chest shots. Bloodspray filled the air beyond the fence as carrier after carrier fell to the ground. The gunfire began to slacken after a minute as the number of carriers decreased. Soon, only a handful remained, still roaring in fury and pulling on the fence with fevered intensity. They were put down one by one until not a single sprinter remained on its feet.

The riflemen looked back and forth at one another, then broke out into nervous laughter. They’d beaten back the attackers.

“Knock it off!” Keaton yelled suddenly from the guard tower, and the laughter died out. “We’re not even halfway done yet! Five men with pistols, meet me at the main gate!”

Keaton descended the ladder that led from the tower with sure-handed swiftness, sliding down the last few rungs and spinning on his heels. He drew his weapon, checked the chamber, and nodded to himself. He looked around for his volunteers.

Thomas was the closest and the first. He wouldn’t have had it any other way. Deputy Willis tried to follow the sheriff, but Keaton turned and pointed him back up into the guard tower, explaining that they needed his hands on a rifle and a vantage point. Keaton and Thomas were joined instead by three of Keaton’s deputies, all wielding pistols. Their rifles were slung across their backs.

“All right, guys, you know the drill,” Keaton said. “We go out there, moving fast, put a bullet into the head of any one of those bodies that doesn’t already have one, and then get back behind the defensive line. Ready?”

The men nodded their assent, and Thomas grumbled something about always being ready.

“Let’s move,” Keaton ordered, ducking under the eighteen-wheeler that was blocking the road and coming up on the other side with his weapon at the ready. He shouted up to Willis in the guard tower. “Keep us covered, Wes! Let us know if we’re going to have company!”

“I hear you!

The five volunteers ran around the towers to the scene of the battle. The grass was a rust brown, stained with blood, and the fence hung loose in two places. Bodies lay scattered in the field here and there, some twisted into unnatural positions, having fallen hard and broken their own limbs.

“Let’s go to work,” Keaton said.

The detail got down to the dirty, unenviable job of finishing off the sprinters. Thomas took his time, unhurriedly walking from body to body, inspecting the skulls, and firing once into their foreheads if he couldn’t locate a head wound.

The deputies worked on the fenceline. Staccato bursts of pistol-fire rang out as they finished off the bodies laying there, one after another. Keaton roamed farthest afield, checking the bodies that had been killed before they’d gotten near the defenders. He knelt next to one, turned the head to inspect it, and grimaced. He stood, took aim, and fired a round through the body’s temple.

“You never get used to it,” he said, loudly enough for Thomas to overhear him several meters away.

Thomas finished off another sprinter before replying. “Get used to what? Killing the infected? Gotta disagree. I’m damn well used to it.”

“No, I mean finishing off the sprinters before they get back up,” Keaton replied, checking another body. This one had an existing head wound, and he left it behind for the carrion crows. “I get the feeling like I’m desecrating a body. You know, there used to be respect for you when you died.”

“Can’t be helped,” was Thomas’ terse reply. He toed a corpse, then fired a shot through the body’s eyesocket. “Either this or do it again when they’re up and about.”

“It’s just that they look almost normal when they’re dead like this,” Keaton replied as he ambled over toward another body. “Then they—whoa!”

The body he had been walking toward suddenly snapped its eyes open and began to sit up, movements slow and awkward. The Sheriff looked over at Thomas.

“Well, they do that,” Keaton said, pointing at the newly re-born shambler. “Unsettling fuckers.”

Keaton’s next shot took the new shambler between the eyes. The creature sat up in place for a moment, blood trickling down the middle of its forehead, then slumped backwards again to lay in almost the exact position it had been in before reanimation.

“Nice shot,” Thomas grumbled. “Next time, do it before the damn thing gets back up.”

Keaton chuckled by way of reply, and the pair rejoined the three deputies who were finishing off the bodies at the fenceline.

“Sheriff!” came Deputy Willis’ call from the tower above.

Keaton looked up. “Yeah?”

“Those shamblers are getting to be pretty close,” Wes said.

He stretched out a hand and pointed, and Keaton turned to look. The second mob, made up entirely of shamblers, had been lagging behind their faster cousins by a wide margin. Now, they were catching up. Keaton estimated they were three hundred, maybe three hundred and fifty feet away. They still had a minute or two before they would be close enough to do any damage.

“Are these bodies taken care of?” Keaton asked, whirling on a deputy.

“Yeah, Sheriff, we pegged all of ‘em,” said the deputy.

“You’re sure? Every one?”

“Every last one. They’re dead for good.”

“All right.” Keaton nodded his approval. “Back inside the fences, all of you. Hurry!”

The five exterminators ran back around the guard towers and ducked under the eighteen wheeler once more. When Keaton came up on the defended side, he froze. In front of him was General Sherman holding a pistol and blocking his way.

“What’s up, Sherman?” Keaton asked, eyeing the pistol and, for the most fleeting of moments, wondering if this was a coup attempt.

“What’s up is your feet,” Sherman said. “Take a look.”

Keaton, Thomas, and the three volunteer deputies simultaneously looked down at their shoes. Their footwear was coated in the shed blood of the carriers. Specks of it had landed on their pants and one of them even had a bit of spatter on his shirt.

“That blood is hot,” Sherman went on. “It’s infected, and unless you five deal with it properly, you’ll be infected, too.”

Keaton felt his own blood turn to ice. Sherman was right. He hadn’t even thought about that when he’d had the men and Thomas go out into the field to exterminate the carriers. “Damn it. What do we do?”

Sherman looked over his shoulder at the town’s main street, with its storefronts and supply houses. “Got any place that sells bleach?”

“Yeah, the hardware store and the market, both,” Keaton said, still looking down at his feet with wide eyes. Next to him, one of the deputies was stepping gingerly from foot to foot as if trying to minimize his contact with the bloodied footwear.

“Get some. A couple gallons. And a bucket. Oh, and a hose,” Sherman said. “We’ll need all of that. Going to have to decontaminate you all.”

“Sheriff!” came Wes’ cry from the guard tower. “The shamblers are getting right up on us!”

“Damn, damn, damn,” Keaton cursed. He felt like he should be up in the tower helping guide the defenders, but he knew he had to take care of the infected blood first.

“I’ve got this,” Sherman said, clapping Keaton on the shoulder. “You make sure you get a nice bleach scrub-down. Hose yourself off afterwards, then get back on the line.”

“All right, Sherman. I’m trusting you on this one,” Keaton said, nodding.

“Give ‘em hell, sir,” Thomas added, following Keaton as he led the way to the supply store.

————————

Across town, Jack and Krueger sat behind their cover—a three foot tall, long brick wall that divided one house’s lot from its neighbor’s—and they were feeling very left out.

They’d heard the shots echoing across the town and figured that the main attack was underway at the town’s entrance. They tried to call on the radio to get a SitRep, but the men over there were either too busy firing to answer or hadn’t heard the radio call at all.

“This is useless,” Jack moaned, leaning his head back against the brick wall. “We could be over there doing some good, but instead, they’ve got us on rear guard duty. Do you know who gets rear guard duty? The inept guy who never gets anything done right.”

“Inept? Look, I’m no Narcissus, but I’m a damn good shot. They could be using me over there right now,” Krueger complained. He shook his head in frustration.

Across the narrow street, taking cover behind a row of boxwoods, Mbutu and Denton disagreed, and let them know it.

“I’m just glad I’m not being shot at,” Denton stage-whispered across the street. “Or being looked at like lunch, for that matter.”

“I agree with Mr. Denton,” Mbutu said, nodding slowly. “It is better to avoid the fighting if we can. I do not mind being at the ‘rear of the line,’ as you call it.”

“But we’re useless here,” Jack countered. “Just a bunch of civvies taking up space—”

The conversation suddenly cut off as a loud rustle and snap of a branch from the direction of the woods caught their attention.

The line of defenders shifted nervously, their equipment making the barest of rattles as it clinked off of belts and buttons.

Krueger peered around the edge of the brick wall, eyes darting left and right as he tried to identify the source of the unexplained noise. He saw a grouping of shrubs rustle near the border of the town. He held up a restraining hand for the defenders to see.

“What is—” Jack started to ask.

Krueger cut him off. “Don’t know. Might be a deer. Might not. Hold on.”

The shrubs rustled again, and out of them appeared a man dressed from head to toe in woodland camouflage, wielding an AK-47. He waved his hand, and behind him, the forest rustled and snapped as more men appeared from behind trees and out of gullies. They were all armed, and all were moving as quietly as they could manage.

Krueger narrowed his eyes. This was why they’d been sent to guard the rear. Sherman must have suspected such an attack. They weren’t the inept and the inexperienced. They were suddenly the vanguard.

Krueger picked up his radio and prayed that there was someone left at the main gates to hear his transmission.

“Krueger here, on station at the rear of the town. We have enemy contact, repeat, we have enemy contact. Do we engage or observe, over?”

He waited a moment. Only static answered him. He picked up the radio to repeat the request when a burst of static came over the radio and Sherman’s voice came through, quiet but clear.

“Engage. Out.”

Krueger nodded to himself, flicked the safety to his rifle off, and took aim. He looked left and right at the defenders and pantomimed shooting with his thumb and forefinger. Silent replies filtered in—a nod here, a thumbs-up there—and weapons were readied.

The first of the raiders reached the fence and knelt, pulling a pair of wire cutters from his pocket. Krueger swallowed as he watched the man work, flashing back to the night before when he had been the one cutting his way through a chain link fence on his way to mete out death and destruction. There hadn’t been a sniper watching him then. His good luck.

As for the man he was staring at through his sights, well, Lady Luck just wasn’t with him, it seemed. Krueger took the first shot of the engagement, killing the man with the wire cutters with a well-aimed round through the throat.

Gunfire immediately erupted from both sides. Defenders revealed themselves, popping up from behind their cover or leaning around the sides of trees and houses, and attackers rushed out of the treeline, weapons blazing.

Bullets tore into the brick wall, and bits and chunks of brick and cement sprayed up into Jack’s face as he fired. He grunted in pain, dropping back down behind the wall and holding his hands to his eyes.

“I can’t see! I can’t see!” he cried out.

“Just stay down!” Krueger shouted above the gunfire. He took careful aim at an enemy rifleman who was lying next to a tree and sent a bullet through the man’s head. The enemy jerked as the round hit him, then lay still.

Mbutu and Denton were taking turns rising up from behind the line of boxwoods, putting loads of ammunition downrange. They weren’t hitting much, but they were causing the enemy to keep their heads down. The rest of the defenders were full of fighting spirit as well, having overcome the initial shock of contact. Rounds rained down on both sides.

A sudden metallic clang rang out and Denton dropped his rifle with a curse, shaking his hands in pain. A bullet had struck the weapon dead-on, shattering the chamber and shocking Denton’s hands into numbness. He tried to fight off the pins-and-needles feeling as he fumbled for his backup pistol.

One of the attackers was hit at the top of the forested rise. He screamed, clutching at his shoulder, and spun to the ground. When he hit, he rolled, bouncing off of rocks and tree trunks until he came to a stop next to the chain link fence.

A defender took a bullet to the face when he jumped up from behind his cover to lay down fire. The back of his skull exploded outward and the man slumped forward over the wall, arms hanging limply.

Krueger saw the man die out of the corner of his eye and murmured a string of expletives, narrowing his eyes and sighting in on the nearest attacker, a man trying to set up an M-249 at the edge of a drainage ditch. Krueger fired, and the man fell over the weapon. “That’ll teach you.”

Machinegun fire suddenly erupted from the treeline, peppering the brick wall with dozens of rounds in rapid succession. The defenders lined up there dove for cover, huddling behind the bricks as powderized concrete filled the air around them.

“Machine guns!” Denton yelled. “The motherfuckers have machine guns!”

“I fucking noticed!” Krueger crowed over the gunfire. “Where’s it coming from?”

“I see it!” Mbutu cried out. “Behind the tall tree!”

Krueger braved the fusillade and leaned back out from behind his cover, staring through his scope. When he put his eye to the magnifying lens, it was as if the battle narrowed down to just what he could see framed there. The sound, the chaos, all of it evaporated. There was no world. There was no battle. There was only Krueger, his crosshairs, and whatever they happened to fall upon.

Krueger scanned the treeline, letting the crosshairs drift over riflemen and pistoleers, searching for the machine-gunner. He found him exactly where Mbutu had said, perched at the top of the rise half-hidden behind the base of a towering oak. He was busy firing another M-249. Krueger sighted in, steadied his breathing, and fired. The round nearly missed, flying just a bit too high. Instead of hitting dead-on, the bullet tore off the top of the man’s skull, spraying brain matter and bone fragments into the air behind him. The machine-gun fire ceased at once.

The defenders, noting the sudden decrease in incoming fire, resumed their attack, popping up to send rounds off at the attackers and dropping back down to reload or take cover when rounds came their way.

“Is this the kind of fun you were hoping for?!” Denton shouted across the street.

Jack, still clutching at his eyes, answered back: “Everything except the pain part, yeah!”

————————

Across town, the main gates were once again under attack. The shamblers had reached the town and were on their final approach toward the half-ruined fence. Already rifle shots were ringing out, but these came only from the best marksmen the town had. They didn’t have infinite ammo, and, though the shamblers were slower than their cousins, only a precise head shot would drop them. Anything else was a waste of ammunition.

General Sherman was solidly in charge, barking orders that the townsfolk, perfect strangers to him a mere twenty-four hours previously, followed without question. His commanding presence allowed the townsfolk to work as a mostly cohesive unit, responding to threats as they appeared.

“You there!” Sherman shouted from one of the guard towers. He was gesturing wildly at one of the riflemen in the opposite tower. “Drop that shambler in the red shirt! Yes, that one! He’s breaking off from the main group, and we don’t want him circling around to give us grief later! Willis, concentrate on the ones heading for the damaged fence section!”

Below, volunteers were busy shoring up the damaged fence. They’d taken spools of wire and were busily cutting them into lengths, then re-tying the chain link fence to the posts that held it upright. One man wielded an acetylene torch, melting the hurried wiring together. The repairs were slapdash, but they looked to be effective. As the first shamblers came within arm’s reach of the fenceline, Sherman belted out more orders.

“Repair crews, back away from that fence! Any of you with pistols, up front! Drop those shamblers!”

The men and women with the spools of wire hurriedly moved away from the combat zone. The welder snapped off his torch and raised his facemask, giving Sherman a wave. Sherman realized it was Jose, the mechanic, and gave the man a curt nod of recognition before turning back to survey the battlefield. About a dozen and a half of the shamblers had moved en masse toward the weakened section of the chainlink fence, stepping over the bodies of their sprinter cousins, and began to pull and push on the mesh once more.

Defenders stepped up to the line, firing pistols into the mass of shamblers. Three of the infected dropped backward immediately, bullet wounds in their heads. Others were near misses, with sprays of brackish, coagulated blood flying out of torn throats or shoulders. In the field, another shambler went down after a neat shot by Deputy Willis.

“Keep firing on those shamblers by the fence!” Sherman shouted down. “Keep it up!”

The defenders were willing, but not entirely able. None were trained marksmen, and most of them unconsciously took steps backward from the fenceline, driven away by the stench and appearance of the decaying shamblers. Their pistol shots were going wild, and although another shambler dropped dead, the remainder stayed on their feet, absorbing near misses and not reacting at all to the sound of rounds whizzing by their ears. The pulling and pushing on the fence intensified, and the makeshift welds began to snap, one after the other.

“Damn it, put those shamblers down!” Sherman screamed, watching as the fence began to come loose. He yanked free his own weapon and fired down into the mass of undead. One of his bullets struck home, punching through the top of a carrier’s skull and exiting from under the creature’s chin. It fell to its knees and slumped against the fence.

With a rending screech, the last of the makeshift welds popped free and the entire section of chainlink fence came crashing inward. Defenders backpedaled as the fence toppled toward them. Even so, three were caught underneath as the fence hit the ground. They tried to pull themselves free, but the weight of the shamblers stepping through the breach onto the chainlink kept them pinned. The shamblers slowed as they advanced and fell to their knees around the pinned defenders, reaching through the links to grab at them. The screams of the trapped men and women were heart-wrenching.

“Get back in there!” Sherman shouted, pointing at the swiftly retreating townsfolk. “Fill in that hole! Don’t let them wander loose! Cut them down, damn it!”

It was no use. The townsfolk had seen their line breached, their friends trapped and devoured, and had cut and run for the safety of their own homes. Sherman’s pistoleers had abandoned their line. He breathed a curse.

“Willis!” Sherman said, spinning in place to face the deputy, who was still taking careful potshots at shamblers on approach in the field below.

“Yeah?”

“Shift your fire! We need to kill the ones that’ve breached the line or they’ll wander off into town and then we’ll have a real hunt on our hands!” Sherman punctuated the order by unloading the remainder of his clip into the carriers below, to little effect.

Deputy Willis shouldered Sherman out of the way, rested his rifle on the edge of the tower, and began firing into the shamblers. His more accurate shooting had the immediate effect of dropping the lead shambler, who was just making its way into a nearby yard. The remainder of the shamblers that had breached the line numbered around eight, and Sherman didn’t want a single one to get lost in the streets of Abraham.

————————

Halfway down main street, Sheriff Keaton and Thomas were busily decontaminating themselves. They’d dragged a metal trough into the street and had filled it halfway with water and copious amounts of bleach. The fumes rising up off the concoction made their eyes water and mouths itch.

“All right, I guess I’m first,” Keaton said. He took a deep breath, held it, and jumped into the two-foot deep pool of bleach. He hurriedly splashed the mixture on his arms and legs, leaving his bloodstained shoes on to absorb as much of the virus-killing bleach as possible. Just as fast, he jumped back out. Already his bare arms and neck were turning red from exposure to the bleach—they had poured gallons of the stuff into the water. They hadn’t been sure how much would have been enough, and it was always better to err on the side of caution.

“Come on, come on,” Keaton said, raising his arms above his head. “Wash it off! Wash it off! The damn stuff burns!”

Thomas was happy to oblige. He held in his hands a well-fed garden hose with a spray nozzle on the end. The old sergeant almost seemed to grin with sadistic pleasure as he twisted the nozzle, sending a spray of icy-cold water all over the sheriff. Keaton took it like a man, gritting his teeth and turning in a slow circle as Thomas hosed him down. When the sergeant had finished, the sheriff stood, sopping wet in the middle of the road, all traces of infected blood gone from his person. He was shivering, and looked miserable. Thomas looked over the shoulder of the sheriff to the three deputies who were all waiting their turns.

“All right, who’s next?” Thomas asked.

The deputies looked at the miserable sheriff, over to the enthusiastic Sergeant Major with the garden hose in his hand, down to the trough of bleach, and back at one another. They seemed unwilling to go through the same process their leader had.

“It’s either this or I get to shoot you as an infected,” Thomas added, his malicious grin fading into a deadly serious expression.

Two of the deputies immediately jumped into the trough, fighting over which one of them would get to wash themselves off first.

In the distance, shots echoed from the rear of town. Keaton, who had taken a seat on the curb and was trying to warm himself up by vigorously rubbing his arms, leapt to his feet. He stared off in the direction of the gunfire.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” he whispered. “Sherman was right. There’s an attack coming from behind!”

“Give it three minutes, Sheriff, and we’ll all be back in fighting shape,” Thomas said, opening up the hose on the two newly decontaminated deputies. They grimaced and held up their hands against the blast of freezing water.

Keaton picked up his rifle, impatiently pacing back and forth behind Thomas. He wanted to get back to the conflict as soon as possible.

More shots rang out—this time coming from the direction of the main gates.

“God damn it!” Keaton yelled. “Now we’ve got a fight on two fronts at once!”

“Sherman’s at the gates, Sheriff,” Thomas reminded him. “He’ll keep things under control.”

“Ah, fuck this waiting!” Keaton snarled. He took off at a flat-out run toward the main gates, praying that the fighting at the rear of the town would go well enough without reinforcements. The sheriff’s feet pounded pavement, and a million and one grisly situations played out in his head. In one version, he saw his town overrun by the carriers, his friends and neighbors among their ranks, wandering the streets in a mindless search for prey. In another, he saw the raiders standing over the bodies of himself and his friends, burning the town, looting and pillaging. None of the fantasies ended well.

Keaton could see the tops of the guard towers as he neared the main gates, and passed a pair of townsfolk running in the opposite direction, still clutching their weapons. Keaton skidded to a halt, turning to yell after them.

“Hey! Hey! Where are you going? What the fuck do you think you’re doing? Get back on the line!” Keaton’s orders were all in vain; the townsfolk had seen enough and were in a full retreat. Nothing he said even slowed them down. He cursed, turned, and resumed his run. Only a block separated him from the fighting.

Keaton came sprinting around the corner and nearly collided with a shambler, only a few feet in front of him. It was a nasty specimen. The lower half of its jaw had been torn off and its chest was cratered and pockmarked with bullet holes, exposing decaying organs and fragments of ribcage. Keaton recoiled, fighting back his gag reflex as the thing’s stench washed over him. He recovered himself, raised his rifle, and fired a shot that punched a hole neatly through the shambler’s left eye socket. As it fell, the rest of the battlefield was revealed to Keaton, and the sight wasn’t a good one.

A section of fence had been ripped free, and Keaton saw the bloodied remains of several of his volunteers trapped under the wire mesh. Shamblers seemed to be everywhere, but the objective part of Keaton recognized that there were actually less than a dozen. It was just that the dozen were spread out over an ever-widening area. Some were wandering down a side street, presumably going after defenders that had abandoned the line. Still more were clustered around the bases of the guard towers, reaching up toward the defenders within.

Those were being dealt with.

Sherman was leaning over the edge of the tower, firing straight down at the shamblers around the base of his tower. Every third or fourth round would find its mark, and a shambler would slump against the steel of the tower and slide to the ground, leaving behind bloody smears. Willis was firing after the shamblers that had broken away from the main gate area. His accuracy at long range left a little to be desired. Keaton turned to watch the effects of the man’s shooting, and saw a round ricochet off the concrete near the foot of a shambler, and saw another punch a hole through a carrier’s back. Neither did much to slow or stop the attacking infected.

The men in the other guard tower were busy with their own shamblers, finding it awkward to aim straight down with their longbarreled rifles, but neither position was in great danger. The infected had never been great climbers.

The sheriff looked out into the field and ground his teeth together. Another half-dozen or so shamblers were steadily approaching across the field, heading straight for the breach in the fence. He made a decision.

“Wes!” he yelled. The deputy in the guard tower didn’t hear the call over the sound of the gunfire, so Keaton called again. “Wes, damn it!”

The deputy looked up from his scope, noticed the sheriff, and waved. “Keaton! We’ve got problems!”

“I fucking noticed! Take out the ones in the field! Don’t let anymore of the bastards into town! I’m going after the stragglers!”

With that, Keaton snapped up his rifle and turned, running down the side street where he’d seen the group of shamblers. In the guard tower, Willis shifted his position once more, taking aim at the approaching undead reinforcements.

“This is for Mike,” Wes said, referencing one of the dead defenders trapped beneath the fallen fence. He fired, blowing the back of a shambler’s skull off. “And this is for Tina.” Another shot, another kill. Willis paused to reload, scowling at the undead in the field. He’d killed six of them so far, and the rest of the defenders had probably knocked off another dozen or two, but that still left a full dozen up and wandering.

Keaton tore down the side street, past the modest houses of Abraham with their green yards and pruned shrubs, until finally he caught sight of them, just making a turn onto another road. They were definitely locked onto prey. Keaton was out to make sure they didn’t reach it.

“Hey! Hey!” Keaton yelled as loud as he could manage, waving his arms and rifle over his head as he ran. “Over here!”

Two of the shamblers halted and awkwardly turned, eyes falling on the rapidly-approaching Sheriff. They opened their mouths and moaned, signaling the rest of their group. The remainder of the shamblers slowed to a stop and turned as well, in their stiff, jerky way to face their newfound prey.

“That’s right!” Keaton yelled, slowing to a jog. “Right here! I’m lunch today!”

Keaton stopped and knelt, pulling his rifle in close to his shoulder. He sighted in as the shamblers began to work their way back towards him, and fired. His bullet took down the lead shambler. It fell into a line of tall, flowering plants and was lost to sight except for its feet, which jutted out onto the cement of the sidewalk.

Keaton grinned behind his sights, worked the bolt of his rifle to chamber another round, and fired a second time. This bullet went slightly awry, punching a hole through the jaw of a shambler and exploding out the back of the thing’s neck. It collapsed in a heap. Its body was still, but the head still moved from left to right, snapping what remained of its teeth in exasperation. The round must have severed its spinal cord.

The rest of the shamblers, four in all, were closing on the Sheriff. That was fine with him. A closer range meant his shots would be easier. He racked another round into the chamber, drew a bead on the nearest shambler and pulled the trigger.

Click.

Keaton felt his eyes widen. The light click of the firing pin hitting nothing but an empty chamber rang out louder than any of the shots he’d taken so far today. He’d forgotten to reload in his haste to get back to the fighting.

“Shit, shit, shit,” he cursed. He dropped his rifle and began rapidly patting himself down, feeling for extra rounds. He knew he’d stashed some on his person somewhere. The shamblers drew ever closer as he searched. Keaton patted down his last pocket, finding nothing—then he remembered. He’d taken off all his gear—ammunition, radio, equipment belt—before jumping into the bleach-filled trough. “All right, not good.”

Keaton grabbed up his rifle and backed away from the shamblers, putting some distance between himself and his would-be slayers.

“All right, Keaton, this isn’t as bad as it looks,” he said to himself. “You’re unarmed, but you’re smart and they’re slow. Just keep thinking.”

As Keaton wracked his brain for a plan, he kept backing away from the shamblers. They followed him mindlessly, moaning out loud with frustration—the distance between them and their prey never seemed to decrease. Keaton noticed this, and allowed himself a quick grin.

“That’s the spirit, Sheriff,” he told himself. “Just keep them coming.”

Keaton continued his slow retreat, leading the errant shamblers back to the scene of the battle at the main gates, foot by tedious foot.

————————

At the rear of the town, the fight was turning against the attackers. The defenders of Abraham had better cover, and the attackers had been surprised by the sudden, ferocious defense. The attacking machine-gunners had been killed, depriving the raiders of their heaviest armaments.

The defenders weren’t coming out of the fight unscathed, however. Even as Krueger drilled another enemy rifleman from behind the brick wall, a defender wailed as she caught a round in the stomach and collapsed to the grass, clutching at the wound. Jack, who had managed to clear the bits of debris from his eyes well enough to see, crawled over to the woman to try and help. By the time he reached her and rolled her over, she was dead, staring up at him with fixed and dilated pupils.

The attackers were yelling something back and forth between themselves. Krueger tried to hear what they were saying, but the words were lost in the chatter of gunfire. They seemed to be orders of some kind.

Krueger saw one of the men pointing at the fenceline and shouting back up the hill to a man who was well-covered behind a row of jutting limestone. Krueger took a shot at the man shouting up the hill, but missed, and the raider dove for cover of his own. Krueger cursed and chambered another round, this time shifting his aim to the man hiding behind the limestone outcropping—only to find the man had moved.

“Where, oh, where could you have gone, you little bastard?” Krueger whispered as he peered through his scope. Suddenly, the man rose up from behind the outcropping, winding up in a classic pitcher’s stance. Krueger grinned and fired, the round taking the man directly through the chest. It was an instant kill—but before the man dropped, he completed his pitch. An oblong object arced through the air, landed just on the inside of the chainlink fence, and rolled to a halt against it. Krueger’s eyes widened.

“Everyone down!” he screamed, ducking behind the wall. “Grenade!”

Before he could even finish his warning, the explosive went off with a concussive blast, shredding the fence and embedding shrapnel in the brick wall Krueger was hunched behind. A defender screamed as he took shrapnel to the chest, collapsing on his back in the grass. He clutched at the bit of metal protruding from his ribcage.

The grenade was probably meant to land behind the brick wall and take out the line of defenders there, Krueger realized, but his shot had taken away some of the man’s momentum. Still, the explosive hadn’t been rendered entirely ineffective. The end result was a section of fence that had been blown outward, warped by the blast, and shredded in several places by shrapnel.

The attackers took up a yell, charging the breach and firing their weapons full-auto.

Most of the defenders were still hunched behind cover, ears ringing from the grenade blast. Denton and Mbutu, close enough to Krueger to have heard his warning, had covered their ears and were quick to recover. They sprayed the breach in the fenceline with rifle and pistol fire, dropping two of the charging attackers. One lay wounded, crying out in pain and rolling around on the ground.

The rest reached the fenceline and started pouring through. Krueger looked through his scope and realized he couldn’t count the number of attackers flooding the fence. There had to have been fifteen, maybe twenty, at least.

“Fire! Fire!” Krueger cried out, abandoning his scope. He aimed in the direction of the breach and let fly round after round, trying to suppress the charge. Other defenders joined in, rising up from behind the wall and opening up on the raiders.

Attackers fell left and right, riddled with rounds as they tried to funnel themselves through their entry point. Those that made it took cover behind trees and even a fire hydrant, returning fire. Defenders went down as the raiders fired.

Krueger’s rifle clicked empty and he swore. He’d used up all the .30–06 rounds he’d taken from the sheriff’s station. He left his rifle where it lay, drawing his pistol instead. He flicked the safety off and popped up from behind the brick wall, firing a trio of shots at the raiders.

Krueger didn’t stop to see if any of them hit, and dropped back down to relative safety. Return fire kicked up debris and brick dust floated over the wall, making Krueger’s eyes itch. His mouth felt dry as a bone.

The raiders were now spread out on the inside of the fence, hunkered down behind cover of their own. Krueger’s mind raced, and he let his infantry training take over.

He turned so his back was to the brick wall and looked left and right at the remaining defenders. None of them were military; none of them would understand what needed to be done. He was about to start grabbing random volunteers for his plan when he noticed four figures rapidly approaching down the main road, running full-tilt toward the fighting. Krueger squinted at them, and let fly a bark of laughter.

“Thomas!” he yelled, waving his hand above his head. “Thomas! Over here!”

The sergeant major and the three deputies, all still soaking wet from their decontamination, had chosen to run for the rear of the town and reinforce the lines there. Thomas spotted Krueger hunkered down behind a two-foot brick wall, waving his hand at him. Thomas made for the sniper, running hunched over to present as small a target as he could manage. Bullets from the raiders sought out the deputies and himself, and the whizz of near misses made the old sergeant involuntarily flinch. He made it to the brick wall, falling hard against it. The deputies dove for cover nearby as well, and began firing at the raiders.

“It’s no good, Sergeant!” Krueger yelled over the gunfire to Thomas. “They’re well behind cover, and so are we! It’s a slugging match! We need to flank these fuckers and put some fire on them from a better position!”

Thomas poked his head up over the brick wall, eyes flicking left and right, quickly taking in the tactical situation. He dropped back down after only a moment and nodded. “Fourteen of them, all with assault rifles on the inside of the fence. Two more outside the fence with scoped rifles.”

Krueger’s eyebrows raised. That was quite an assessment for a three-second recon.

“I agree, Krueger,” Thomas went on. “We’re going to need to drive them out from behind their cover.”

“Wish we still had one of those tear gas grenades,” Krueger said, reloading his pistol.

“Wishes are like assholes,” Thomas grumbled. “Everyone’s got one and most of them are shitty. Krueger, you’re on me. Deputies!”

The three men that had accompanied him looked over.

“You’re with us! The rest of you, keep firing on these bastards! Defend!”

Thomas leapt up, sprinting away from the firing line. He was headed for the nearest house. Krueger and the deputies jumped up and followed as closely as they could manage. Thomas swung around the corner of the house and ran along the side, making for the back yard. Krueger was right behind him. Two of the three deputies made it. The third was hit by a raider’s bullet right before he made the turn, and collapsed soundlessly, face-first, onto the lawn.

Thomas ran through the backyard, circling around the house. When he came to the other corner, he halted, kneeling behind a white fence with thick green vines entangling it. Krueger and the remaining deputies caught up and knelt beside Thomas.

Thomas looked up over the fence. Down the road about twenty meters away he could see the engagement continuing, but from this angle, he had a clear view of the raiders as they lay or stood behind their cover of choice.

“All right, listen up and listen good,” Thomas grumbled, turning to face his small squad. “There aren’t many of us, so we’ll have to make this count. You know the rebel yell?”

“Hoo-ah, Sarge,” Krueger said, readying his pistol. The deputies nodded in reply.

“Good. That’s what we’re going to give ‘em. That and every last damn round we have in our weapons. We’re not here to kill them all, we’re here to drive them out of their cover so our guys down the street can finish ‘em off!”

Thomas checked his own weapon, took a deep breath, and set himself in a runner’s stance.

“Ready?” he asked.

The three men with him nodded.

“All right. Good luck. Go! Go! Go!”

The four men leapt the short fence and ran straight across the street, screaming at the top of their lungs a battle cry that made the sprinters’ roar seem muted in comparison. They opened up on the raiders’ positions, firing as fast as they could pull their triggers. The rounds skipped off cement, embedded themselves in tree trunks and kicked up chunks of dirt, doing little real damage.

From the raider’s perspective things looked a mite different. Suddenly they were being assaulted from the side by several men, screaming like banshees and raining down fire on them. One or two of the raiders remained calm, trying to pick off the new targets, but the rest panicked, shifting their positions to try and avoid the bullets that Thomas, Krueger, and the deputies were sending their way. They succeeded in avoiding being shot by the flanking squad—and in the process, moved directly into the other defenders’ line of fire.

Thomas and Krueger finished their run, stopping with their backs to a thick oak tree, and reloaded their pistols. The deputies followed suit, and all four once again appeared out in the open, screaming at the top of their lungs and advancing on the raiders, firing nonstop.

Mbutu and Denton rallied the defenders, seeing that the raiders were being pushed out of their position.

“Come on!” Denton yelled, waving an arm over his head. “Let’s finish the bastards!”

The rallying cry was taken up all across the line, and defenders whooped and yelled, emptying their magazines into the attackers.

Raiders fell one after the other. Blood ran like red streams over the curb and down the gutters. Within minutes, the attacking force had been butchered nearly to the last man. Only a few remaining wounded were left, and those were in no position to fight.

Thomas and Krueger walked up on the raider’s position, the two deputies trailing closely behind, and inspected the carnage. The other defenders rose up from behind their cover and wandered out to see the effect of their fighting efforts.

Krueger kicked a rifle away from one of the wounded raiders, a tall, heavyset man who was clutching a stomach wound and gritting his teeth.

“You pissant motherfuckers,” he growled, wincing against the pain. “I’ll kill you all, I’ll kill you—”

Krueger kicked the man lightly in the stomach, right where the bullet had entered, and the man howled, doubling over.

“That’s enough out of you, asshole,” Krueger said, taking aim at the man’s head.

Thomas put a steadying hand on Krueger’s arm. “Don’t. Betting Sherman and Keaton wouldn’t mind a prisoner or two.”

————————

At the main gates, the tide of the battle had turned as well. Sherman and the men in the towers had succeeded in killing the shamblers that had remained inside the fenceline, and were now finishing off the few that were still wandering in the field outside. Infected corpses were everywhere.

The largest pile lay at the breach in the fenceline, stacked three or four thick in places. Most of those had been the sprinters from the initial attack. More lay scattered here and there inside the fence, slumped against a vehicle or facedown in a gutter. Several more were piled up at the base of the ladders leading up into the guard towers. Not a one had been spared.

It was relatively quiet now that most of the gunfire had slackened off, and Sherman was overseeing the sharpshooters as they took out the remaining shamblers.

“Lead him just a bit to the left, there, Wes,” Sherman said, leaning over the shoulder of the deputy with the rifle. “Remember to breathe . . . and squeeze the trigger.”

Wes fired, and halfway across the field, the shambler jerked and fell.

“Nice shot!” Sherman commended, slapping Wes on the back.

Deputy Willis looked up from behind his scope, eyebrows raised. “Damn, that must’ve been two hundred meters, easy.”

“Hell yes,” Sherman agreed. “Only a couple more left, now. Same drill. Take ‘em down.”

Wes put his eye to the scope and was about to fire again when Sheriff Keaton’s voice rang out in the street below.

“Hello, the towers!” Keaton yelled. “I’ve brought back some old friends! Think you could give me a hand with them?”

Sherman and Wes turned as one to see Keaton striding boldly back toward the main gates. Not more than twenty feet behind him were the four remaining shamblers that had managed to wander off into town. The Sheriff seemed unconcerned with their presence, even though their arms were stretched out toward him and their disturbing moans were incessant.

“Well, that’s one way to lead a horse to water,” Sherman said, grinning. “Why didn’t you just finish them yourself, Keaton?”

The sheriff held up his empty rifle one-handed and grinned. “Stupid me—forgot to bring along extra ammo. Not that it mattered. These smelly bastards haven’t stopped following me once I caught up with them. They’re like retarded dogs, or something.”

“Walk ‘em over to the towers,” Sherman said. “I’ll toss you my pistol.”

Behind Sherman, Deputy Willis fired, and across the field another shambler fell. “Thanks for the shooting tips, Sherman. I’m really starting to get the hang of this thing, now.”

Keaton moved over to the guard tower Sherman occupied, taking care to avoid the puddles of infected blood and decaying bodies of shamblers that littered the area. When he was close enough, Sherman threw down his pistol. Keaton caught it deftly, one-handed, and checked the chamber. He turned to face his macabre followers, flicked the safety off, and dispatched all four, one after the other, in quick succession. Keaton flicked the safety back on, turned, and threw the pistol back up to Sherman, who caught and holstered the weapon.

“That’s that,” Keaton said, grinning. “Takes care of the infected problem. Any word from the rear line?”

Sherman started to reply, but held off a moment as Wes took another shot at a distant shambler. When the blast from the shot had faded, Sherman spoke up.

“Just got a radio report in,” Sherman said. “They held off an attack by the raiders. The infected were a diversion, like we thought.”

“Well, hell yes,” Keaton said, his smile widening. “Did any get away?”

“They think a few might have bugged out before the fighting ended,” Sherman said. “They took two prisoners, though. They’re bringing them to the clinic to be treated for their wounds, then taking them over to your station.”

Keaton nodded to himself, folding his arms across his chest. All around him was death, destruction, and chaos, but the adrenaline of battle was already fading from his head. The people of Abraham—with a little help from their visitors—had won the day and saved their town.

There was only one part of victory that left a sour taste in Keaton’s mouth.

The cleanup would be a bitch.


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