By Kevin Jepson
The mess-hall line is a buzz of excited voices, exclamations of delight, whoops of "Right on!" and "That's what I'm talkin’ about!"
The supply drop has had an unexpected windfall for Pony Express Station 4.
From a cow.
From a cow that was alive not more than a month ago.
Not the shoe leather like jerky from some government stockpile collected in the 80s (back when all we had to worry about was nuclear winter) but thick, fresh, juicy, red beef. Steak that still looks, smells and tastes like we remember steak tasting.
Ahhhh, man! The simple pleasures.
The buzz dies down as everybody tucks in. Soon there is only the clatter of 15 sets of knives, forks, plates and glasses as the Riders and Guardsmen of Pony Express Station 4 enjoy a well earned treat.
I'm back at Station 4 for the first time in six months, and now I'm in the middle of the hall doing my best to keep up. The flavour of this beef is amazing. I don't ever remember it tasting this good...ever. But then, the last time I had a steak was before the Great Panic, back in the far off days of The Way It Used To Be.
When I'm mostly done, I carefully select a nice chunk of red luscious steak, wrap it in my napkin and stuff it into my pocket. Chico will like that.
"Saving that for later?" says Hamilton Frances III, known to us as Hami.
"Nope, saving it for a buddy of mine I'll be seeing in a couple of days."
"That's right, you are continuing your run tomorrow. Isn't this just the most amazing feast! My chef never made anything that tasted this good."
Hami was once one of the richest men in America. He had probably eaten more steak than most of the people in this room had even dreamt about. Now he's chowing down with the rest of us in the back of beyond. It's odd how circumstances can make even simple things like a piece of beef, cooked and prepared like it would have been at any old Sunday BBQ, seem like the greatest gourmet meal.
"So who’s the lucky recipient of that tidbit?" Hami asks.
Another odd thing is that Hami's question is serious. He is not making simple small talk. In the old days, back before the dead started walking, people spent a lot of time actually trying to avoid knowing anything about each other. Even the people next door were studiously ignored. Nowadays we want to know about those around us, we need to know. It's how we keep tabs on each other, how we see that the other is still OK. It is how we have something to remember if they don't come back from a run.
Hami and I are "riders", part of the re-formed "Pony Express". Our job is to hand deliver messages across the length and breadth of what used to be the Mid West States of the good old USA. The pony bit is just for effect. We mostly use "Shanks Mare" these days. Horses freak whenever they get even a whiff that Zack is anywhere within a couple of miles, and in these parts that's everywhere. The roads are clogged with dead vehicles, some loaded with Zack still buckled into the seats. Besides, Zack treats the sound of a motorized vehicle like a house cat does the sound of a can opener. So we hoof it across country trying to move as cautiously as we can, staying out of Zack's reach and trying to make sure the messages get delivered somehow.
"It's for my little buddy Chico," I say.
"Yup. The feistiest little bundle of skin and bones you ever did see. Six pounds if he's an ounce and smart like an old long-service grunt."
I pull out my pics and hand him the one of Chico, sitting all bright eyed and alert, by the door of the Johnsons’ old farmhouse up in the valley beyond Farnsworth.
"Well I'll be... A Chihuahua! And a pure bred one at that, if I am not mistaken," says Hami, staring at the little beige lump with the big ears and shiny eyes. Hami knows his dog breeds. Hami knows a lot of things like that. Comes from moving in big circles in the old days.
"Looks like a nice place. When was the picture taken?"
"I took that picture last fall just before winter."
"No way! There is no place that looks like that anymore, at least not this side of the Rockies."
I hand him a couple of other pictures of the Johnson place. The barn, the house, the shop, the Johnsons themselves. Frank Johnson, a big, weather beaten old farmer in blue jeans and checked shirt and his wife Susan, a plain-looking but elegant-postured lady in a sun-bleached cotton dress.
I watch Hami's expression as he looks at the pics. He looks at each one in detail over and over again. There is a look of childlike wonder on his face. I don't interrupt him. I know what he is seeing, The Way It Used To Be. But these were taken 6 months ago and I would be going there in a couple of days.
"How is this possible? It's like you have found Shangri-La or something!"
"Yeah, kinda. It sort of felt like that when I first found the Johnsons in their valley up beyond Farnsworth."
Hami stands up and everyone in the room looks in his direction. Hami is tall and his aristocratic bearing is noticeable even in his faded fatigues.
"Are you up for telling us a tale for dessert?" he asks, in a slightly louder than necessary voice, knowing damn well it's now too late to say no.
I grin and say, "Only if someone can find me some real coffee to go with it."
"Looks like we are in luck," says Jake, the old supply sergeant, from the back. "There was some of that in the drop too."
So I'm stuck.
"Bring me a mug, black and real strong, and I'll see what I can do."
Organized chaos ensues as the tables are dragged aside and chairs ringed around me. The riders settling in for another tale, the guardsmen eagerly waiting to hear about "out there" and the two new guys sitting nervously on their chairs not sure what to expect. Someone puts a steaming, heavy mug of delicious-smelling, black java into my hands, aromatic steam wafting up like it used to do in the old TV ads.
Maybe it is the great food we have just eaten, or maybe it is the look on Hami's face when he looks at those pictures, but I figure I should tell them the whole story. Give them all a chance to add the Johnsons and little Chico to the collective memory. Perhaps telling the story will act like a kind of talisman, to protect it, to make sure that it still exists, this little slice of The Way It Used To Be.
The trees were a blaze of color, the color only an autumn hardwood forest can show.
No wind, clear, bright blue sky, fresh, crisp air. Not even the omnipresent stink of rotting flesh to disturb my enjoyment of that beautiful fall day.
I was making a run to Pony Express Station 5. Three days North as the crows fly, more like five as a rider does it, with all the deeking and dodging one has to do. Zack controls most of this area. His cold grey hands have strangled and dismembered nearly every village and town between here and Station 5. The roads are a great maze of dead vehicles, many with Zack lurking in their shadowy depths just waiting to grab you as you try to go by.
So it's the byways and backwoods trails that I had to take to move North.
I'd seen no sign of Zack for two days. There were even birds singing in the trees! That and the lack of the smell of carrion had almost made me think I was just out for a fall ramble to see the colors.
I crossed the river below Farnsworth, on a nice little covered bridge actually. It's one of the few bridges that hadn't been blown up in a vain attempt to stop Zack from shambling his way across the whole state and into every town. Farnsworth was one of the first towns to be abandoned, on purpose, during the Great Panic. The reasoning was that if the people moved out then there was no one there to attract Zack. It worked. The town had escaped most of the destruction its neighbors had suffered. This also made it a very comfortable place for me to rest up on a run.
Farnsworth isn't a big place, maybe two streets, a couple of blocks long, three churches and a couple of stores and a gas station. I don't think it even had a police station or courthouse. I always wondered what the people thought as they drove away, heading someplace, to what they thought was safety. Since nobody has ever come back, and it's been more than two years since they left, they may never have gotten anywhere "safe". They may still be out on the roads somewhere, part of that massive jigsaw puzzle of stalled, dead vehicles, strapped in their seats waiting to grab anything that moves.
After a quick check of town, to make sure nothing had changed much, or moved in, since I was there last, I picked up some canned goods from the store shelves. Then I headed across the street to my "Farnsworth Digs", the attic of what the mailbox proclaimed was the house of Dr. Samual Pekins M.D. I liked the Doc's house because the attic had a furnished suite in it. The only access was through one of those hidden stairways that folds up into the ceiling.
Zack proof, that.
This was my third run North and my second stop in Farnsworth so I was feeling pretty cocky. I figured I knew my new neighborhood pretty well. I guess that's why I was surprised by what happened just as the late autumn sun began to set.
I was enjoying the way the sunset lit up the buildings, casting that lovely golden glow over the street and sidewalks, when out of the corner of my eye I saw movement up near the corner, at the end of the street. I moved back into the room a bit, to make sure I wasn't visible, and waited. As I looked out I saw three human forms stumbling along the road. It was Zack! Shambling along, very purposefully. Occasionally they would turn and cross paths almost like they were weaving some kind of macabre knotwork pattern in the dust.
As they got closer I could hear the low moan that Zack makes when he sees something of interest, not the loud howl they make when they find a human, but more like the wind in the telephone wires.
One of the three was missing its foot and would often drag behind by several paces. Then the oddest thing would happen: the two ghouls in front would suddenly turn towards each other and go back to the laggard. Then they would all turn and head along the street towards where I was hiding.
A ghoul will call his fellow ghouls with that howl they make, but otherwise they never seem to take notice of each other at all. So this was very odd indeed.
I watched the trio of Undead doing their shambling/stumble/dance as they came down the street in the twilight. I kept trying to figure out what the hell was going on. I had never seen or heard of Zack doing anything as weird as that. Then I saw it, a quick moving blur, weaving around their feet just outside of their reach. Something was controlling these ghouls. What's more it was making sure the lame one didn't get left behind.
As they passed by my spot in the attic of Doctor Pekins house, I could finally see that the blur was actually a little dog with big ears. It was tiny, almost like a toy of some sort. This little guy charged around, skittering about the dragging feet of the three ghouls, always just beyond their grasping hands. He didn't bark or make any sound. It was amazing to watch. There was no doubt in my mind that this little dog was in control. He wasn't being chased by the ghouls, he was herding them.
Dogs have a serious hate for Zack. Most untrained dogs will howl and bark at any infected person and will even attack them given half a chance. They will also attack Zack once he re-animates. Unfortunately for dogs, the flesh of Zack is toxic and, if they manage to tear off a chunk and swallow it, they will sicken and die.
In the early days of the outbreak many rural families, who otherwise might have escaped simply because of their isolation from large infected populations, died because their farm dogs attacked Zack as he dragged and shuffled onto their land. When these loyal canine guardians started to lose the fight they ran home, drawing Zack along in their wake.
Now, as I watched, a dog that could sit happily on a dinner plate was playing tag with three ghouls.
As darkness fell, the trio of walking dead and the little dog disappeared around the bend at the other end of the street and soon I couldn't even hear the moan anymore. I sat in the darkness for a while waiting to see if anything else happened.
One thing for sure, if Zack was in the neighborhood, I was going to have to be way more careful. The open fields to the North of Farnsworth could be a deathtrap, so I'd have to stick to the woods and head up along the ridge and maybe even go into the valley beyond.
In the morning, I opened a can of peaches and was pleasantly surprised to find them still edible, so long after their best-before date. As I sat enjoying the taste of The Way It Used To Be, I kept a good lookout on the street below. There was no sign of Zack. It was as if I had imagined the ghouls in their weaving shambling dance. Then I saw the little dog heading back the way he had come. He was trotting along as if there was nothing to worry about, right down the middle of the road, his little feet moving with that kind of high-step prancing that they do. He eventually disappeared around the bend where I had first seen Zack stumbling in the twilit dust.
I waited and watched for a while, but no ghouls followed, so the little guy had lost them somewhere. Zack is relentless and will keep trying to reach whatever he has targeted almost indefinitely. They'll even walk right into bogs and rivers or over cliffs. I've heard of trained dogs, in the military, being used to lead large groups of ghouls off the tops of buildings. Like a mass of giant lemmings, they just keep right on walking off the edge. Had this little guy lost them in a blind alley or something? At least he had been leading them away from the direction I was heading.
Still... Ghouls are a bit like cockroaches, where there's one there's more. So I made sure I had everything ready to make a quick move. I got out my map and made sure I had at least two routes clearly in mind to be able to change course fast. The last thing I wanted was to have a pack of howling ghouls dogging my steps.
It was another beautiful, crisp fall day, with the promise of a warm afternoon to come, as I headed out towards the woods on the edge of Farnsworth. Knowing Zack was nearby kind of took the fun out of it a bit, but by noon the birds were singing again so I figured I was probably OK. Most animals will clam up tight when Zack is around. That's one of the things we look for when on a run. A sudden silence is a BAD sign.
I headed up the ridge and followed it North, being careful to stay below the crest so as not to be silhouetted against the sky. It was tough going. Even though the woods were pretty open, the ground was rocky. There were lots of loose boulders that could slip and clatter down the hill if one wasn't careful.
Eventually I came across a track leading up from the valley where Farnsworth was, crossing the ridge and dropping into the valley on the other side. The track had been a road once, many years before, but was now just a wide trail through the woods. I stopped and checked my map but it wasn't shown. The track dropped into the valley heading North so I figured it was worth a shot to follow. It had to be better than stumbling along the ridgeline.
I walked along the track as it dropped down towards the valley bottom. The woods on this side of the valley were much thicker, with rich undergrowth now all reds and golds. It would have been tough going if there hadn't been a track. Once down into the bottom lands the track turned and followed along beside the creek that burbled and chirped as it ran down the valley.
After a couple of miles, the track headed into a clearing at the base of the valley. There had been a coalmine there, but all that remained was some rotten timber framing around the black mouth of a tunnel. The track, now only a faint trail through the trees, headed further up the valley.
I paused at the edge of the clearing and listened. The creek burbled, the leaves rustled and - lo and behold! - the birds were still singing. Must have been a rest stop on their migration South or something but it certainly was a welcome sound.
I followed the trail along for maybe a half hour or so when suddenly I caught a strange odor on the wind. It was wood smoke! Not the acrid smell of burning wooden buildings but the sweet smell of a campfire or wood stove. I quickened my pace and finally the trail ended at the edge of a small field cleared from the woods.
Now, I hear tell there are some kinds of visions that people have when under extreme stress, where they see what they want to see: heaven, lost loves, archangels, whatever. I couldn't believe it, for there in front of me on the other side of the clearing, was something I had never thought to see again in this life: a small farmstead complete with a red-sided barn, a neat-looking old farm house with a white picket fence, and a couple of small outbuildings. The wood smoke was coming from the chimney of the farmhouse.
I had to shake my head to make sure I wasn't seeing things. I actually wondered if the peaches I'd eaten for breakfast had been toxic somehow. But there it was, a chunk of The Way It Used To Be right there only a few miles from Farnsworth.
"Nice, isn't it?" a voice said.
Shit! I jumped like I'd been stuck with a needle.
"Sorry, didn't mean to scare you."
As I spun around towards the voice, I saw a man sitting on a stump beside the trail. He was an older guy in faded blue jeans and an old checked shirt. His eyes were blue and his skin was weather-beaten and wrinkled from long hours in the sun. He was wearing an old faded baseball cap with a less faded patch on the front, where the team's patch used to be.
He stood up and offered me his hand. "Frank, Frank Johnson."
He was a whole head taller than me. I took his hand. His grip was powerful and steady, and I introduced myself. I had so many questions I wanted to ask that I was a bit tongue-tied.
He looked me over for a second and then said, "You hungry? Wife's made a berry pie. Should be cool enough to eat about now."
I nodded and he headed off across the field towards the farmhouse with the long steady strides of someone who walked everywhere. I followed along, still not really sure I wasn't seeing things because of a case of bad peach poisoning. Maybe I was dreaming?
"What's happening outside these days? Haven't seen anyone for a couple of years now. Did they ever move back into Farnsworth?"
So he knew that Farnsworth had been abandoned, which meant he knew about the undead, so I wasn't dreaming.
In my dreams there would be no walking dead.
I told him that Farnsworth was still empty and that most of the country was still full of Zack.
"Zack?" He looked puzzled.
I told him that's what we called the undead.
"Ah, heard about them. John left a note on the store door in Farnsworth when they left. Found it when I went down there for a new sawblade last year."
Farnsworth had been abandoned for nearly a year already when he went there, and he hadn't gone there since apparently. I wondered if it was possible to be that self sufficient and not go crazy.
As we reached the little gate in the fence, I looked into the yard towards the front step and saw a big old hound dog lounging in the late afternoon sun. He raised his head, gave me the eye a bit, and then seeing Frank, gave a low woof and put his head back down on his paws. Beside him, curled in a little beige lump, was the same dog that had been leading the ghouls in their merry dance down the street of Farnsworth! He leapt up and ran over to Frank, jumping, spinning and yapping like a little dervish.
"OK, Chico, OK. Settle down there, boy." Frank reached down to try to pat the little dog's head, which stood only about as high as Frank's boot top but was leaping up as high as his knees.
I was standing there staring down at little Chico. Frank, smiling, looked over at me and said, "This little guy is something, huh? He has so much energy it makes me tired just watchin' him."
I stammered something about having seen Chico in Farnsworth the day before.
"Yep, coulda been. He disappears every now and then for a day or so. Just trotted back in this morning, had a big feed out of old Burt's dish and curled up in the sun."
"Susan, hon, we have a guest! That pie cool enough to eat yet?" Frank opened the screen door and ushered me into the front parlor. It was weird, like an episode of Little House on the Prairie or something.
Susan Johnson was a typical hardworking farm wife. Plain, I suppose, but showing ruddy good health in the deft movements of her strong hands. She greeted me cheerily and proceeded to lay out a veritable feast on the little table: berry pie, coffee, whipped cream (meaning at least one cow somewhere) and, wonder of wonder, some fresh baked berry muffins.
I must have looked stunned cause Frank just laughed and patted me on the back.
"Sit down, Son. You look like ya haven't seen real food in years."
I admitted that was pretty close to the truth. Between mouthfuls of pie and swigs of coffee, we talked about the world as it was outside their valley. Frank and Susan Johnson never quailed at my stories of the destruction and horror that the walking dead had caused. They asked serious, straightforward questions and accepted even the most gruesome and hopeless answers with a stoicism bred of long years on the land.
I asked them about how they had managed to avoid Zack.
"Not really sure about that, but thank the Lord we have been spared so far."
I asked if they had ever had any Zack in the valley and they said no, they had never seen them.
"The note I found posted on the store door in Farnsworth had warned about them and I found some articles in the papers on the counter. We were quite worried for a few months there, but since we never saw any sign of them, we figured we might as well just keep on keepin' on, as they say."
I told them that dogs really hate Zack and that Burt and Chico could be a danger if any ghouls ever stumbled into their valley.
"Well, old Burt can't move very far anymore and Chico takes off on his own for days anyway, so we're probably fine on that front."
I then told them what I had seen Chico doing.
For the first time Frank looked surprised at something I had said.
"Little Chico herding the walking dead? Good lord. Maybe that's what he's been up to when he takes off."
I asked him how often that happens.
"Oh every month or so in the summer, never in the winter. Which is just as well, as he doesn't have a lot of flesh on his bones or much fur to keep warm with. He spends the winter curled up with the barn cats or on the mat by the fire with old Burt. Never knew where he came from. Just showed up two years ago and made himself all comfy. Called him 'Chico' cause it sounded right.
"He was so little I feared he would die out in the woods, the first time he took off. Maybe get grabbed by an owl or fox. But he came back like nothing happened and curled up by the fire.
"Funny thing though, just before he lights out sometimes, the birds have stopped singing and old Burt gets kinda grumpy and woofs and harumphs around the fence in the yard. Do you think that means maybe some of the Undead are nearby?"
I said I thought that was very likely.
I look out at the ring of riders and guards, some looking at my pics with that same expression of wonder that Hami had, others watching me like I've just told them about some secret weapon or something.
"So... Little Chico was how the Johnsons had escaped the walking dead. This little dog was single-handedly leading Zack away from their valley. Anytime a ghoul got close he would go and head them off, just like I saw him doing in the street of Farnsworth.
"Where he was leading them I still don't know. Maybe there was an old mine shaft or something that he led them into. No doubt about it, little Chico was a real hero, all six pounds of him. He was keeping that tiny piece of The Way It Used To Be safe all by himself.
"It was very difficult to keep moving North on my run, leaving such a sanctuary behind. I took pictures to record it. I admit I actually thought briefly that the pictures would turn out blank when they got developed.
"Now, when I head back that way tomorrow, I'm taking a chunk of this fine steak along for Chico. So he can keep right on running his race with the dead. If, God willing, he is still winning that race, then that little Shangri-La will still be there too, up in the valley beyond Farnsworth.
"Wish me, and little Chico, luck huh."