Kit froze at the sound, heart in his throat. The gait was shambling, crunching thorns underfoot. Kit unslung his rifle. His breath fogged in the mist of the forest.
He'd shoot. This time he'd do it, he'd kill a zombie no matter what.
Beside him, his burly, trained-with-military-precision dog wailed and ran.
"Damn you, Beggar!"
Kit lit out after him, hellfire terror burning in his chest.
Beggar glanced back, the grenade and whiskey flask tied to his harness clattering wildly. He tucked his tail when the sleeping bag lashed to his back tumbled loose, and ran faster.
Kit trampled the bag, shouting, "Bod! BOD!"
He heard undergrowth crackling again, to his right, and Bodkin crashed out of a stand of elderberry with a snarl. Snags of leaves were caught in the coat of razors and rusted nails driven through the harness over his shoulders and chest.
The giant dog sucked air in a wrathful sound.
Kit, choking on terror, steeled himself and turned.
A man dressed in jeans and T-shirt, carrying a backpack, waved. "Hey there!"
Kit blinked in disbelief. He suddenly had to pee, bad as a racehorse.
Bodkin snarled, and the man's grin disappeared, replaced by shock. He stepped back, throwing an astonished arm up as Bodkin rushed him.
"Aus," Kit managed to croak.
Bodkin stopped so hard his legs tore four furrows in the earth. He flung himself away from the stranger, back to Kit, to the heel position where he rumbled warning.
The man, relieved, grinned at Kit. "I guess I spooked ya, huh? Sorry about that."
Anger wiped away Kit's fear. "What the hell's the matter with you?" he flared. "I coulda shot you, you goddamn idiot!"
"Sorry 'bout that," the man said. "I was just on my way home. Guess I was so excited about what I found I wasn't payin' much attention. You thought I was a zombie; one of them coulda got me if it weren't for you. You saved my life!"
Kit stared at the stranger. The man was sweating, but clean. Neither his clothes nor the lines on his face carried the lean, harassed look of most survivors. He was cheerful, almost neat, right down to the cuffs of his long sleeves and hiker's backpack.
Kit was instantly suspicious. "You're welcome."
"I'm Dale. Dale McKinney."
"Nice to meet you, Kit. Mind if I shake your hand?" Dale stepped forward with an open, honest grin that made Kit's heart ache. "The least I owe someone who saved my life is a handshake."
"No, thanks," Kit said. Bodkin would rip off a hand before Kit would be forced to shake one.
Dale grinned. "Tell you what. Why don't I show you what I found?" He slipped his backpack off, dropping to one knee to unzip the bag. He tilted it open. "See? Bandages, sterile tools, morphine, antibiotics, couple of bags of saline and some IV tubes. Found a little crisis clinic out in the middle of nowhere loaded with stuff. This'll save lives!"
Kit frowned. "Whose lives?"
Dale shrugged. "Anyone's lives. I'm part of the Community near here."
"Bunch of survivors who banded together. We take care of each other."
Hope beat in Kit's chest for a few moments, hawk-wild and fierce. He stifled it; hope made you stupid. He succeeded in keeping his voice steady. "That right?"
"Sure," Dale said. His eyes softened with concern. "You could come, if you want. Our doors are open to everyone. Little kid like you
you shouldn't be out here on your own like this. It's a miracle you survived this long, praise Jesus."
Kit scowled at him. "I ain't no kid."
"Well, if you do decide to come, let me give you this." Dale pulled a book out his backpack and held it out to Kit. "It'll get you in good with Father Yew."
Kit took the book. It had a rabbit on the cover. "Father Yew?"
"Our leader. Great man, Father Yew is. Great man!"
"Not if he's a preacher," Kit said flatly.
Dale nodded without seeming to hear him. "He likes books. Wants us to preserve who we were. Everyone else wants to tear each other apart, act like animals, but Father Yew
Kit stowed away the book. "Maybe I'll come with."
Dale coughed, a deep, phlegmy sound, as he eased his backpack onto his shoulders. "Good. I bet you can use a hot shower and a good meal, huh?"
"Ya'll got hot water?"
"For new additions." Dale grinned at him.
Kit fell into step with him, Bodkin trailing behind.
"You show Father Yew that book, he'll give you a steak dinner." Dale smiled at Kit, then coughed again.
Kit stepped away. "You ain't sick, are you?"
"Nah," Dale said. "Just allergies. It's the cedar up here. Drives me nuts when it gets wet like this."
Up ahead, Kit saw Beggar. The dog's head hung low, and sighting Kit, he keened.
"Beggar, you fat bastard, c'mere," Kit said.
Beggar wailed and did not move.
Kit pitched a rock at the dog in disgust.
"Hey, easy," Dale said in surprise. "He don't deserve that."
"He's just bein' spineless," Kit said scornfully. "He gets spooked, he shakes like jelly for hours."
They passed the dog. Beggar trailed them through the mist, occasionally keening.
"So how far's this Community?"
"Fair ways. Won't reach it 'til this evenin'. I'll introduce you to Father Yew. Great man, Father Yew is. Great man!"
Kit wasn't sure what he was heading into with so many strangers all at once. But that was what the dogs were for. Not for zombies: for people.
"He exorcises the sick, you know," Dale said. "Cures 'em."
"Bullshit," Kit said.
"No, it's true! He lays hands, heals folk. He's done it before."
"Well, then, he's a good liar," Kit said.
Dale shook his head solemnly. "Father Yew ain't like that. He's special. A real healer. He'll yell at me, for goin' out so far. But it'll be worth it. It will. We can send a team back out for the rest of the supplies in that clinic. I couldn't bring everything back. But we need it. We need it real bad."
Kit felt a surge of guilt. This man wasn't dangerous. He was brave, risking himself for others. He wasn't like Kit's own father, an able bodied ex-Marine who had holed himself up in the middle of nowhere and laughed when he heard about people dying in droves. Dale cared about others, and perhaps most amazing of all, carried hope.
Kit wanted to like him.
He wondered if the Community could give him hope, too.
Behind them, Beggar keened.
Dale coughed, sniffed, and said, "Whew, my head's poundin' in this air."
Realization crashed into Kit.
The sound Beggar made was the sound he made when he scented walkers.
The last time Beggar had encountered a walker, he'd flat out ran.
The long sleeves. The coughing. Fever. Dale's babbling conversation.
"Oh, shit," Kit hissed, boneless with horror.
"What's that?" Dale looked back at him.
Kit raised his rifle to his shoulder. This time, his hands weren't shaking.
Dale's eyes widened. "Kid?"
"Kneel," Kit said, trying to keep his voice from shaking.
Dale cut his eyes, chuckling, "What are you doin'-?"
"I said kneel!" Kit said. "Right now!"
As Bodkin snarled, Dale wobbled to his knees, holding up his hands. "You're a good kid," he said. "You don't wanna hurt me."
"Show me your arms," Kit said.
"I said show me!"
Dale's face was pale now. With shaking hands, he pulled up his left sleeve. His arm was bare, healthy.
"Now the other," Kit said. "And damn it, don't make me repeat myself!"
Dale obeyed. Tears welled up in his eyes as his right sleeve fell away from a blood-soaked bandage on his upper arm. The wrap had fallen away, revealing a semi-circle of bruised punctures made by an inhuman mouth.
"You're bit," Kit said.
"Mistake," Dale said. Kit hated seeing his lips quiver. "The clinic was out too far, I-I guess, and it was hunting
I got it off. I'll be all right. I'll be all right!"
"No," Kit said. "There's stuff in their bite. Bugs. They're in you."
"Father Yew'll get 'em out," Dale said. "He's a great man! He'll heal me!"
Incredulous, Kit said, "No."
"He'll do it!" Dale sobbed. "He'll save me. I'm a good man, too."
A sort of sick dizziness invaded Kit. He wanted to die, he wanted to be the one on the ground infected, because that would be better than being here, facing this. His stomach kicked, and he choked back bile three times. "Take off your backpack."
"No," Dale moaned. Kit saw his eyes were turning pale, milky.
"I said take it off right the fuck now, godDAMN you!"
Dale's face was a rictus of grief as the breath clawed loose of him. He sobbed, and his hands shook as he took off the backpack and tossed it away. "You're a good boy," he blubbered. "You're a good boy, you don't want to do this. You're no murderer."
"It ain't murder if you're already dead!" Kit flared.
"You can't do this," Dale said. "You can't judge me. You're not God!"
"Don't believe in God," Kit said. For the moment, it was true.
Dale rocked back and forth. "Don't do this. Please don't kill me. Please."
"I'll take it back," Kit said. "I'll make sure it gets to the Community."
"Please don't do this, you can't do this to me you little shit!"
The rifle crashed.
Dale's head snapped back in an arc that spattered itself onto the ground in a blood-black streak.
The echoes rolled around like a pebble in a box as Kit lowered his rifle. He heaved, for breath, then dropped everything and to run behind an oak. He coughed up bile, as Bodkin growled.
"Bod," he gasped. "Don't you dare!"
The dog backed off obediently from the corpse, glaring at him.
Beggar padded out of the mist. Shaking, uttering half-noises that were dithering nonsense or half-prayer, he didn't know which, Kit untied the flask. He poured some onto Dale. It would help the fire burn.
He piled some dry wood onto the body, and set it on fire.
The flame licked into life with a puff and a roar.
"Jesus," Kit said. Then he began to cry.
He knelt and clutched his head as the flames rose higher. Beggar stood beside him to lick his tears away.
Kit clutched the dog around the neck. "I'll get 'em home," he whispered, his voice cracking. "I'll get 'em home."
An hour later saw him on the road, carrying the extra backpack over his shoulder.
Heading for the Community.