I was riding along, my zombies in front of me and my packhorse trailing behind, when I came to a cut in the narrow road. High banks covered with grass rose up on both sides. The zombies started between the banks, then suddenly I heard gunfire. Someone on top of one of the banks was firing short bursts.
Two zombies fell with headshots but the herd kept going without slowing down, and then the gunfire paused. I released the packhorse, drew my shotgun and spurred my way up the bank. I figured the shooter was reloading, and I wanted to flush him out before he opened up again.
I knew more or less where he would be, based on sound and the angle of fire down to the fallen zombies, but I couldn’t find him. I rode around for a while with no luck, and then I heard a yelp and reined to a stop. My horse was standing on a mound of grass. I thought it must be some kind of animal’s nest, until the mound moved and a voice yelled, “Get off me, ya freakin’ dead-head!”
I pulled my horse back a couple of steps and a man stood up. He was draped in one of those webbed ghillie suits that you weave things into. He’d woven some of the grass from the top of the bank into his, and with the suit covering him and his face smeared with mud it was no wonder I never knew he was there.
He held an M16 in one hand and an empty clip in the other. I waggled my shotgun at him and told him to hand over his weapon. He did.
I put the shotgun back in its scabbard and went to check on my zombies. They had continued walking and I rode to the head of the herd and stopped them. Aside from some new torso damage they were in pretty good shape. They could all walk at least, so I wouldn’t have to put any down. I turned the herd and started it moving back the way we’d come.
I dropped the M16 into some ditch weeds and returned to the scene of the shooting. The man in the ghillie suit had come down off the bank and pulled the two dead zombies to the side of the road. One body was stacked on the other and he was sitting on top of them like he was on a park bench.
“How many’d you get?” the man asked as I got down off my horse. He rubbed an elbow, I supposed from where my horse stepped on him.
“In the skirmish with the enemy. How many’d you bag?”
He was a nutcase, but he was disarmed. I didn’t see any harm in humoring him.
“I got ten.”
“Me too. I guess we showed them, huh?”
He looked down the road and saw my herd approaching. “Uh-oh. I think they’re attacking again.”
“No, those are, uh…those are prisoners. But I’ve already icepicked them, so they’re harmless.”
“Oh, well, that’s okay then.”
He rubbed his elbow some more and said, “The last man I met gave me food. An army travels on its stomach, you know.”
“You’re a soldier?”
“Yessir. Fought in the war.”
It was getting toward noon, so I decided to take a break and treat the man to lunch.
“I think I have some spare rations, but let me secure the prisoners first.”
I grabbed some hobbles and walked down to meet my zombies. I shoved them over to the side of the road and hobbled the ones around the outside of the herd, then I led my horses to the top of one of the banks. They began to graze on the tall grass and I got a can of beans out of a saddlebag. The beans were for the soldier. I wasn’t very hungry and picked out a package of crackers for myself. I opened the beans, put a spoon in the can and walked back down the hill.
The soldier had scooted over on his makeshift bench and was sitting on the chest of the top zombie. It was faceup and he reached out sideways and slapped it in the balls. “Saved you a seat.”
“Uh, no, thanks. I’ll stand.”
I handed him the can of beans and he tore into them like he was starving. I opened my crackers and nibbled. He ate half the beans fast, then he slowed down and I studied him while he savored each bite.
I couldn’t remember the last time I’d run across someone still claiming to be a soldier. The military pretty much fell apart after the zombie war.
“You ever see action?” I asked.
He looked at me and his eyes glazed over. I’d seen veterans go twitchy before, with the traumatic stress thing, and I was glad the man didn’t have his rifle. I waited, expecting anything, and then he began to talk. He droned like a robot. “All I’m required to tell you is my name, rank and serial number. Private John G. Perkins. Serial number…”
His eyes cleared. He blinked and said, “What?”
“I asked what kind of action you’ve seen.”
“Oh, you know…the usual. Pretty routine stuff up until The Battle, then lots of skirmishes.”
I choked on a cracker. John G. Perkins had been in The Battle of the Changing Odds. That was the only actual battle of the zombie war. It took place just outside of Cincinnati, back when communications were still working, and everyone knew about it.
“You were there?” I asked. “At The Battle of the Changing Odds?”
He snorted. “I don’t care for that name. It was just The Battle to us that lived through it.”
From what I’d heard not too many did live through it. The battle began with twenty thousand trained troops facing twenty thousand zombies. The army unloaded on them but there were lots of friendly fire accidents, and lots of troops popped up again as zombies. In five days the odds changed from fifty-fifty to ten-to-one as the dead soldiers came back to life. No one was really sure what the odds were at the end of the fighting or how many made it out alive, but most guesses were that only a dozen or so troops survived.
“The Battle must have been rough,” I said.
“Yessir, it was. They just kept coming and coming.”
“Maybe that’s because you kept killing and killing.”
He was quiet and I wondered if I’d offended him. He sat still for a moment, then he looked at me and his eyes were glazed over again.
“At first we didn’t know what they were doing,” he said. His voice was hollow. “They came back to life and started biting on us, but we were all in the army and thought they must be following orders, so we didn’t respond as fast as we should have. That’s what did us in. I remember Boomer…”
His eyes cleared and he looked around.
“Go on,” I said. “You were telling me about Boomer.”
“Oh…Boomer. He was in the foxhole with me. It was just the two of us, and it was quiet, so he said he was going out to recon. That was at sunset. He came back after sunrise the next morning and I saw he was walking kind of funny, but I never thought he’d turned into one of…”
He couldn’t go on. He cleared his throat, took a bite of beans and chewed. After he swallowed he picked up the story again.
“He came back to the foxhole and started trying to bite me. I didn’t think anything about it at first because we used to kid around all the time, so I kept kicking him away and he kept coming back, and then the Sarge came up over the edge of the hole. He had a mechanical larynx, and when he saw what was going on he told me to stand away with that screechy voice of his. Then he put a bullet through Boomer’s head and I…I thought he’d gone nuts. The Sarge, that is. So I shot him. I put a burst through his heart.”
He finished his beans and dropped the empty can to the ground.
“So what happened then?” I asked.
“Oh, well, he laid there all day, and about sunset he sat up and let out a screech through his larynx. He was a pretty tough old guy, and I thought maybe his heart wound wasn’t as bad as it looked and he just shook it off after getting some sleep. And his screech…it sounded like he was yelling ‘Forward,’ so I jumped up and moved.”
“You moved forward?”
“Yessir. Towards the enemy lines. And the Sarge was on my tail, screeching, and we got the other men pretty stirred up when we ran past their foxholes. Especially the officers. They were gung ho and spoiling for a fight, so they ordered their men to join the charge and that was our last big move against the enemy.”
“The Charge of the Night Brigade,” I said.
“Well, it wasn’t really brigade size. Just those of us left over from the week of fighting.”
The Charge of the Night Brigade was famous for its use of tactics. The experts on TV told us the army had figured out by then that the zombies moved a lot slower at night, so they made their final assault at dusk.
Perkins said, “The sun had set and it was getting dark, and they weren’t moving around much, except when we set off flares. We were all shooting every which way, and I know I shot at least two live ones, and that still bothers me. What I should have done was kill the Sarge. I mean, the second time. I hate to say it, but I should have killed him in the foxhole. I should have killed the Sarge.”
He shook his head, remembering, and then he wiped his spoon on his ghillie suit and tossed it to me. I put it in a pocket.
“So what happened to you?” I asked. “How’d you get out?”
“I just ran until I was through them. Must’ve been a mile’s worth of zombies. I shot up all my ammo, and after that I kept running forward because I couldn’t have found my way back to the foxhole if I’d wanted to. And pretty soon I was past the zombies and that’s that.”
I hadn’t been paying attention to the horses. They’d wandered down from the hill, and the packhorse began to nibble on Perkins’ suit. He stood up. “Well, I guess it’s time to get on with it. Should I take care of the dead-heads now, sir?” He meant my herd.
“No, that’s okay. I will.”
“I don’t mind. Where’s my rifle?”
I turned and looked down the road, wondering if I should go and get the gun from where I left it in the weeds, and when I turned back to face Perkins again he was pulling a sidearm from under his ghillie suit. A 9mm semi-auto. He pointed it at me.
“I guess I’ll have to use this.”
There’s no feeling worse than letting someone get the drop on you, unless it’s letting a crazy person get the drop. The situation was especially bad with Perkins because he’d already drawn and was holding a pistol in his gun hand, while I held a package of crackers in mine. I thought about going for my gun anyway, but he would’ve been able to squeeze off a round before I cleared leather, so I couldn’t have been in a worse position. Or so I was thinking when Perkins’ eyes glazed over and he said, “One to the head, just like you taught me, Sarge.”
That was a tense moment. I stared at Perkins and he was staring at…no telling what. And then I saw his body language change, the way it does just before a man opens fire. I decided I had nothing to lose. I dropped my crackers and was just laying my hand on my pistol, when Perkins swung his gun toward the herd and squeezed the trigger. The firing pin clicked.
“Damn,” he said. “I guess I’m out of ammo.” He looked at me and said, “Sorry, sir. I guess you’ll have to do it.”
I relaxed. “Sure, Perkins. I’ll take care of it. You carry on.”
He looked at the pistol in his hand, then looked up and down the road, and then he looked at me. “I hate to have to report this, sir, but I mislaid my rifle.”
“I think I saw it somewhere down the road there.” I pointed in the direction away from where I’d left the gun. I figured he wouldn’t stop searching until he found it, and I wanted to be well out of range in case he had another clip of ammo hidden under his suit.
He started to move in the direction I’d pointed, but then I thought of something and told him to wait. He stopped and looked at me.
“You know, you could do a lot to set history straight, Perkins. I mean, there are a bunch of mistaken ideas about The Battle of the Changing Odds and The Charge of the Night Brigade, and you could put things right.”
“Sure. Just go to a town with a library that’s still open and tell the librarian what you told me about the battle. They’ll make sure it gets recorded.”
“Oh, I don’t know if I could do that.”
“Sure you could. Just tell it to them like you told me. Start with what happened to Boomer.”
He looked at me and asked, “Boomer? Who’s that?”
So much for history.
I pointed down the road again, in the direction away from the rifle, and he walked away kicking his empty bean can.
This and “Limey and the Bear” are two extracts from Mikes book:
The Living, the Dead, and the Double-Dead
Which is available here on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Living-Dead-Double-dead-ebook/dp/B005V5DOD4/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1318544548&sr=1-1
and on Barnes and Noble: