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[Silas Jackson and J.R. Traas are responsible for the “Bag Men” extended universe. All rights reserved. Thanks for reading!]
To our fans, who have been good to us. Si and I love you to death. And beyond…
THE SISTERDALE SIX
A BAG MEN STORY
Around one hundred and thirty years after the turn of the Twentieth Century, when the collective American imagination finally pronounced the dream of “the Frontier” thoroughly dead, the cowboy returned. Of course, the revitalized West was decidedly un-American, because there was no “America” any more. Nonetheless, the cowboy made a comeback.
In winter of 2027, the United States’ Government fired its final shots at the undead hordes, which numbered in the millions by then, before disappearing from the Earth beneath the press of feet and gnash of teeth. It was right around then that nuclear power plants across the nation began to explode, one after the other. With no one left to tend to the mind-bogglingly huge infrastructure, mushroom clouds loomed over most major cities that year.
Thus, what remained in the wake of society was silence. Some fled underground, putting gas masks and chemical suits between themselves and the stir of the dead, toxic air. Most of these men, women, and children succumbed to radiation poisoning. Though not all did — but that’s a story for another day. Some few millions managed to escape the cities of the East and Mideast; people from metropolises like New York, Pittsburgh, and Chicago found themselves on buses with refugees from towns as tiny as Lebanon, New Hampshire, Bar Harbor, Maine, and Ephraim, Wisconsin. All of them headed West, pursuing elusive survival.
Most of them died, too.
Several hundred thousand people lived through the crashing of the horde into the cities of California, though very few towns emerged from those hellish months. Bakersfield and Sacramento demonstrated the two extremes of this dividing line: the latter weathered the storm at the cost of close to ninety-nine percent of its defenders; those in the former were torn apart, down to the last, lonely infant.
Someone looking only at the numbers could maybe claim, “Sacramento was lucky.” True, Sacramento was one of the handful of places on Earth that saw the other end of the great horde’s march. Sacramento would even, in the year 2035, found a Republic modeled upon the old-world, fundamentally American values of liberty, equality, and justice. That nominal democracy would, one day, produce the Bureau of Public Health, the single most effective countermeasure against the ever-evolving plague that would come to be known as the Vox Humana Virus (VHV).
But this is not a story about Sacramento. This is a story about a man who rode in to the sovereign territory of Austin Township one morning in late 2040, proceeding to gun down thirteen citizens of the Tri-Texan Confederacy. (Seven were pronounced DOA; the remaining six succumbed to their wounds over the ensuing days.)
It’s a story about the Austin Rangers’ putting a bounty on that outlaw’s head: five-hundred armor piercing rounds, the most substantial sum of blood money anyone could remember being on offer.
Word was the Confederacy didn’t want anyone getting any funny ideas about who was weak and what to do about that, so the Rangers put the word out that whosoever felt inclined could join up as an auxiliary, an irregular in the army. Just for this one mission. Just until Commander Robinson could get her hands on that vile murderer and personally bear witness to his lynching.
For those who crawled out of the caves, who slunk forth from the Southwestern deserts of a destroyed America, the 2030s and 2040s were years of strife and short-fuses. Gunpowder and steam power made a helluva resurgence, the one necessary for safe, quick transport in a world devoid of working oil refineries, and the other the means to enforce the spreading notion of Law. “Law,” in this case, being a mathematical equation: add all your guns together, multiply by the number of bullets, and divide by the skill of your gunmen. Do the same for the other guy’s side. “Law” lay with the bigger number.
In those days, men and women would sweat, tilling dry, sour earth in the hopes of producing something leafy and edible; people toiled under the heat of an unforgiving sun and the pall of a hanging, brown-gray fallout cloud. Early on, radiation poisoning killed most of the animals, from the rats to the donkeys. Most of the children bit the dust, their parents watching them dwindle until they weren’t anything more than bone-bags with beady, white eyes staring in horror at the ceiling, their thin mouths twisted in the final gasps of starvation. Those left behind in the wake of such tragedy, those who tended to the weedy crops, who built and planned for the future of the townships dotting the wasteland — little more than clusters of shanties, really — had to wonder, “Is our well tainted?”
“Did the corn poison him?”
“Was it something we don’t even know about?”
And so perished, at the end of a long road of prolonged dread, many more. Those who survived even those dry, rough years, entering into a period that was only slightly less dry and rough, wanted — needed something more, something better. There were so few children; it seemed, for a time, that each and every new birth destroyed the mother, the baby, or both. People wanted answers. They wanted someone to blame.
There was no one to blame. The world had ended, but there was no one to blame because everyone had been responsible. And every one of them knew it, deep down. They knew it in that place where you heard speak, each night, the voice that tells you the truest thing you least want to hear about yourself.
When there could be found no “out-group,” no other, to answer for the crime of abolishing civilization, the righteous turned to the next best thing: the creation and fostering of a new order. Thus was born the Tri-Texan Confederacy, a grand alliance between Austin Township, Houston, and La Republica del San Antonio.
Posses formed to deal with roving bandits, eventually consolidating into state-sanctioned militias. A new currency was minted: the Confederate Dollar, usually made of whatever metal was on hand. As an incentive to make safe the new state, bounty hunters were offered rewards in the form of cash or goods in exchange for the bagged heads of the undead. The signs over City Hall in Austin read, Three Dollars for a Bushel of Noggin’s! (A bushel being variably measured as six to eight such trophies.)
Naked institutional sexism experienced a resurgence in some parts, rearing its ugly head in the home as well as in Town Hall meetings. It was the men who politicked and caroused, while the women either numbered among the “good housewives” or the staff of one of several state-run “relief houses” designed to service the members of the militia. The drink flowed in plenty, be it aging bottles of old-world whiskey or vats full of homemade moonshine or bathtub-brewed beer.
With all the motor vehicles rusting on the sides of long stretches of highway, or crushed at the bottom of some ditch (and barely any usable gas, besides), herds of wild horses were tamed, the horse quickly becoming Man’s best friend again. On the back of one of those majestic creatures, so powerful despite the cloud of sickness overhead, a man of true grit could hope to make a name for himself at the end of a six-shooter.
And this drive was exactly what animated the bounty hunters gathered around the watering hole in downtown Austin. This particular Wanted Poster passed from hand to dirty-nailed hand, and the murmur that went with it stank of bourbon and bloody ambition.
And so it was that a few dozen men rode out of Austin on October 4th, 2040, each racing to meet his chosen point on the compass. Scattering, the bounty hunters pursued whatever leads they had, or thought they had, in the pursuit of the young man who was said to have most recently come from New Mexico and who was wanted, dead or alive, by the Austin Rangers, the guardians of the New Frontier.
A Package Store in Dripping Springs, Tri-Texan Confederacy
October 5th, 2040
“I don’t know why I’m here,” Francisco told the crumbling drywall. He turned to the rows of dusty shelves, home only to screwing cockroaches. “You’ve been empty for years now.” To the long-dead refrigerators, he lamented, “I told them that. You don’t believe me? You think I don’t know there ain’t a drop of booze in the whole Confederacy what ain’t controlled by the States, by shitheads like them Rangers?” He raised a hand to whatever the raccoon in the corner was about to retort. “Hey, I don’t need any shit from you, amigo.”
The raccoon wouldn’t shut up, though. All squeakin’ and junk.
Francisco pulled out his baby, his custom FN Five-SeveN, La Papa. A bit jittery, he said, “What? Oh, you got nothing to say, now? That’s so funny, bro.”
The raccoon skittered away.
“Yeah, that’s right, bitch,” he called after it.
A noise — boot on shards of glass — made him jump and spin around to face the exit, pistol at the ready.
“Woah, easy, man,” said the newcomer, a black guy haloed by strong sunlight.
“Who the fuck are you?” said Francisco.
His hands up, the guy said, “I don’t want any trouble. I can leave, right now.”
“I asked you a question.” Francisco narrowed his eyes. “You a Ranger?”
“I’m nobody.” He took a step back.
“You stay where you are, bro, right there.”
“C’mon, man.” The guy reached for the sky and sighed. “Plenty of scavenging to be had for both of us. I can glue my ass to the other side of town. Just lemme go.”
Francisco chuckled. “I don’t know if you noticed, man, but this whole area’s already been cleared out. A long time ago. We’re scouting for scraps, which means this town ain’t big enough for the two of us.”
“Whatever. Then I’ll get up outta here.”
Wiping his dirty forearm across his forehead, smearing the sweat and grime, Francisco said, “Ah-ah, no. How do I know you ain’t got a crew out there? You go out, tell ‘em I’m alone and you come in here and ghost me. No thanks.”
“I’m alone. I promise.”
“You must think I’m the dumbest motherfucker ever born.” Laughing, he continued, “Nah, I have a better idea than me letting you peace out just to trap me in here like an animal: how ‘bout we just sit here for a tight ten, and wait for my pals to get back. Shouldn’t be long at all. Then we’ll decide, as a group, what to do about this tense, little situation. Cool?”
The stranger sucked his teeth. “Guess I got no choice.”
Francisco sniffed. “Glad you can take a hi—”
The man leapt to his right, landing behind a metal fridge that had been ripped from the wall. He shoved it forward, completely shielding himself against the round Francisco pinched off real quick.
The bullet ricocheted and buried itself in the ceiling as the casing tinkled on the dirty white tile floor.
Francisco shook his head. “Now what, estúpido?”
From behind his cover, the man groaned. “Fuck. I got fuckin’ glass in my arm.”
Ready to blast away at the first sign of movement, Francisco shouted, “That’s not so bad, though. In another minute, you’ll have a bullet in your ass, too.”
“You’d better have some disinfectant on you, man, or I’m gonna be real pissed.”
“You really are the stupidest—”
The man’s .44 magnum went off, echoing deafeningly through the small store.
Francisco flinched as glass rained down on him. What the fuck is going on?
He fumbled for purchase as he fell backward, his spine striking the counter top. He slid down, a blinding pain radiating through his chest.
It’s so hard to breathe.
Then he looked up into the eyes of the man who’d shot him, who said, “Should’a let me go, ya backwater twittlefuck.”
Francisco tried to speak, but the only sound that slid from his lips was a wet gurgle.
The man stabbed the barrel of his six-shooter into Francisco’s temple.
There was a flash.
Christopher Troy Myers
A Package Store in Dripping Springs, Tri-Texan Confederacy
October 5th, 2040
Troy backed away from the pooling blood.
When you’d killed as many people as he had, you learned to be cautious. The blood, often enough, was poison. You never know if they’re infected or not.
Don’t get the wrong idea, or anything. Troy wasn’t a murderer. He didn’t enjoy blowing a getaway hole in people’s skulls so their brains could dribble on out.
Take this Mexican, he thought to himself, ogling the limp-as-a-fish, long-haired, bug-eyed corpse. I shot him ‘cause I had to. Maybe the fact that he talked too much made it easier. But it didn’t make it easy, y’know?
Keep telling yourself that, Troy.
Hey, fuck you. I’m only alive because I can make that choice.
That’s true. But don’t you, deep down, maybe, just a little, kinda like it?
When you’d been alone as long as Troy had, you learned to talk to yourself to push away the silence. Keep that shit at arm’s length, or feel it sink into your skin and bleed out your eyes.
He stared at the bloody mess he’d made of the dead man’s head. He could almost hear a voice hissing something, some secret, through the skull-hole.
That saying — dead men tell no tales? Yeah, that’s bullshit. In Troy’s experience, the dead hardly ever shut up.
Yeah, he knew he was crazy. It happened sometime after his eleventh or twelfth birthday, after he’d ridden out of Atlanta on camelback. Long story.
The only light in the store crawled in through the open front doors, bringing with it swirling waves of dust to weave between the shattered glass.
Sandstorm’s coming… Or a stampede.
Troy glanced at the exploded fluorescent light directly above where the now-dead man had been standing only a minute ago. Lucky. That fixture could just as easily not have had a tube in it. Maybe Troy would have found another way to distract his opponent and still won. Maybe not.
Every gunfight was a coin toss, which reminded him…
Snatching a broom from the janitor’s closet, he flicked the dead man’s jacket open with its handle and felt around his pockets, sides, and boots.
Of course you don’t got any peroxide or nothing. Just my fucking luck.
The cuts in his arm weren’t too deep, but even the slightest risk of infection was too much to let slide. With an open wound, no matter how small, common bacteria was the least of your worries. He’d have to do something to remedy the problem. See if I can find some booze or somethin’.
Gunfights were coin tosses. Staving off infection was a coin toss. Hell, getting up in the morning was a coin toss. Over the years, Troy had tossed a fuck-ton of coins and always come out on top or, at least, broken even. If he wanted to pencil today’s deadly game of chance in his win column, he had to stay smart. ‘Cause that’s the thing about stupid people: they tend to not get too lucky too often.
The new food chain crowned the infected (a.k.a. Drunks, Deadeyes, Nibblers, Mr. Stiff, Feckles, Ole Bitey, Captain Zach’s Marching Band…) as king of the jungle. But there were plenty of other dangers out there; hunger, bacterial infection, disease, a nasty fall — just about anything could kill you. And the dumbest were the first to eat it. By default, just about everyone who was still alive was a total fuckin’ badass, these days, which made every scrap Troy got into deadlier than the last.
One of the qualities he most valued in himself was his ability to learn from other’s mistakes. Usually while running away.
So, I’d better get outta here, he thought, making for the door. He paused when a glint from something stuck inside the corpse’s jacket pocket caught his eye. Huh.
Still using the broom handle, he nudged the bulge upward until the object fell out of the pocket and onto the man’s chest. Troy craned his neck, reading, “‘Officer Francisco Madero. El Paso P.D.’” He snorted. “Ex-cop. You kept this useless thing all these years? Like it still mattered at all, to anyone? Tch.”
In his day, before Shit Hit The Fan, Troy had known some really bad cops and he’d known good ones. Today, though, more than a decade after the world ended, there were no cops, good or bad, plain and simple. So, that badge’s only value came from the blend of raw metals used to forge it.
That being said, there were a lot of fools pretending to be the police. Troy had met quite a few of them. But you can’t have police without government. And there is no government now. Hasn’t been for thirteen years.
The Tri-Texan Confederacy? Nah, they weren’t a government. Just a bunch of militias banding together to make stealing from homesteader communities and random survivors that much simpler. More guns is good guns.
The Confederates called their commandeered food and clothing “taxes,” but it wasn’t as if any of the “tax-payers” would be seeing a return. No roads were being maintained, let alone built. There were no hospitals, fire departments, or schools. And, yeah, there were no cops anymore.
A fairly new arrival on the scene, Troy had gotten a crash course in post-Texan hospitality. Bandits he could handle, but it wasn’t bandits who’d robbed him blind. Instead, the Austin Rangers had fleeced him of his duster, a pair of binoculars, half a pound of pig jerky, and his flask. Granted, he’d stolen or looted all that stuff himself, but he’d put a lot of hours into acquiring the goods. And then some fuckwads show up and it’s all gone. Like poof.
If the Austin Rangers were anything more than bottom-feeding, scum-sucking carp, then call Troy the Emperor of China. Their Ponzi scheme of a kingdom was built on smoke and bluster. Though, somehow, they’d convinced themselves and those who’d bought into their fool’s paradise that there could be law in the Badlands. There couldn’t; no matter how many layers of pretty language you dressed your bullshit up in, you were still just a bullshitter.
Yeah, pretend you’ve got order and decency in your Confederacy; tell everyone you’re building something that’ll last. It’s the same story as always: those in power don’t care what they have to do in order to keep it, just so long as they do.
Troy examined the dumb dickhead at his feet, deciding there could be no advantage to carrying that badge around year after year. Nostalgia, that’s all it was. Same with the Confederacy. Everyone knew the old laws were dead, but they couldn’t let go… which explained the arising of organizations like the Rangers— new shirt, new shoes, no substance under the skin.
Troy found himself wondering, as he cocked his head and stared at ex-Officer Madero, whether he had been a decent man, once. Had he always been a trigger-happy wacko? Had the apocalypse changed him? Did he carry that badge with him every day as a form of penance, a reminder of what he’d surrender in exchange for survival?
What had he lost? We’ve all lost something.
Troy shook his head. Well, tough shit, I guess. Better luck in your next life, amigo.
As he got up to leave, he heard voices coming from outside. Aw, holy shit. Waited too long. Rookie-ass mistake.
He climbed over the counter next to the emptied, dusty register, and ducked behind it. Grimacing, he thought to himself, The rookiest of mistakes.
And he held his breath.
At least three men entered the package store, chattering in Spanish. (Troy had picked up a passable amount of Spanish living in Atlanta as a kid. During his years spent roaming the wasteland known as Truth or Consequences — formerly New Mexico — he’d become fluent.)
“Santa Maria, Madre de Dios,” said one of them.
“Son of a bitch. Someone fucking smoked Francisco.”
“Do you have any other keen observations, Alvaro, or are you tapped out now?”
“You better learn some respect, little man.”
“Would you all shut the fuck up, already? Fan out and search the area. The son of a whore who did this might still be here.”
“Yeah, Felix, you wanna join Francisco on the other side? Keep running that dick-sucking little mouth of yours.”
“You would know all about sucking dick, wouldn’t you, Manuel?”
“Shut it, you morons. Search the place. Check the back and the janitor’s closet.”
Five guys, sounds like. Troy was a damn good shot, but fighting against those odds just wasn’t an option. He’d have to resort to — ugh — explaining himself. The worst gamble ever, in his book.
Running out of options really lends you clarity, though. Shiiit.
“Hey, whoever’s out there,” Troy said in English, clutching his .44, just in case, “I think you’re looking for me. I’m the one who killed your boy, but he’s the one who started shit.”
There was a pause.
“You’re one ballsy sonovabitch. You know that, right?” said one of them (Porfirio, was it?), speaking in English now.
“Your man Francisco there threatened me and I responded to that threat. Things got a bit outta hand, I admit. But I wouldn’a had to cap him if he’d let me go.”
They started with the Spanish again.
“Fucker could be lying.”
“Yeah, I agree.”
“Well, sure. But doesn’t that sound like Francisco to you?”
“Right. That culo was always running ahead to take all the best salvage for himself.”
“Not to mention running his mouth.”
“Bro was always pickin’ fights, yeah.”
“Alright, but are we really gonna trust some straight-outta-the-desert nobody who just smoked one of our own? If that’s part of our code, I don’t know who we are anymore.”
“Yeah, sure. Francisco might have been a whining, self-loving bitch, but he was one of us, I guess.”
“So, we know what we’re doing, here.”
Goddammit, Troy thought as he heard the ominous sounds of guns being cocked. Everything I been through… It was all leading up to me getting blasted to bits in some nowhere tequila hole?
He said, in Spanish, “You don’t have to do this. I didn’t want to shoot your friend, and I don’t want to fight you. We can all walk away.”
“Ah, so the rat speaks our language.”
“That how you got Francisco, eh? Tricked him into thinking you were alright and then pow?”
Troy growled, “It didn’t go down like that, I’m tellin’ ya.”
The sound of shoes slapping against the pavement outside put everything on hold.
“Wait. Watch that counter,” said one of the men itching to shred Troy.
A few seconds later, the store door slammed shut.
“Emiliano?” said one of them.
The newcomer audibly panted, saying, “Fuck, man. Runners. Run-ners. A whole herd of ‘em. Coming this way.”
“I dunno, man. I didn’t stop to count ‘em, okay? A lot, got it? Big, big number. I was keeping an eye out in the tower, you know, like I do, and I saw them shambling past the town. I figured, ‘Eh, no big deal.’ They always leave, right? As long as nobody makes no noise or nothing. Well, some goddamn bueno pa nada, cara de burro fired a shot and, like, all at once they turned and started coming this way. Fast. Real fast. The ears on them, though — they can hear shit for miles.”
“How much time do we have?”
“Like three minutes? Fuck if I know.”
A few seconds passed.
“Okay,” said the apparent leader, the one they called Porfirio, in English, “Mr. Person We Don’t Know, seems like we got two choices: continue this standoff and get all our asses bit; or, work together now, survive, and kill each other once we’re clear of this mess. So, what’ll it be?”
Troy sighed. The clarity of being cornered. Works every time. He said, “You got me. I guess I’ll go with Option B. I’m coming out, cool?”
“Yeah, man, cool. Just hurry it up.”
His hands high, gun dangling by the trigger from his middle finger, Troy stood up.
He stared into an afro-bearded face that twisted into a grin. “Black as night, eh? Okay. I’m Pascual and we don’t got time for the rest of the introductions.”
The other five men stared at Troy for a few seconds.
Porifirio, who didn’t look at all like Troy had imagined he would based on his voice, combed his lush, well-coiffed hair back and said, “What’s everyone standing around for? The Runners will sniff us out in minutes. Barricade the goddamn doors and windows.”
“Sorry, but,” Troy couldn’t stop himself from butting in, “we’ll never make it in here. It’s too tight. There’s no stairs. The glass on the front door is busted. We’ll be dead in seconds.”
“Got a better idea?” said one of the others.
“Actually, yeah, I do. The townhouse right across the street. Abandoned. Narrow, good for a choke point. Lots of furniture.”
Porfirio held up a hand, saying, “Got it. Sounds good. Let’s go.”
They wrenched open the package store doors and stepped into the high noon light. Troy immediately started to sweat again.
“There,” he said, pointing to their destination, a few dozen feet away. He ran, and they sprinted after him.
The thunder of footfalls coming from behind, rattling the ground like a stampede, made one of them turn and shout, “Mother of fuck.”
At the beginning of the end, when S.H.T.F. in the U.S., the infected died of fever and came back as shamblers, or Drunks, as they were often called — ‘cause of the way they stumbled around. They were slow and totally braindead, but they could creep up on you because they didn’t make so much as a peep. No lungs meant no breathing. Surprise: all those zombie flicks and comics totally missed the mark. The undead didn’t moan or gasp. They were one hundred percent silent. You’d be the noisy one: your wet screams, your thudding struggles, the sticky-paper tearing noises as the skin peeled from your brittle bones.
After a handful of years, everyone started to sorta get used to zombies as a fact of life. The survivors adjusted to the reality of the new world order, with the Drunks providing just one more danger in a wasteland full of evils. As the years rolled by, however, the infected changed. Not all at once, and not all in the same geographic locations. Like any evolutionary leap, the change came about in different parts of the world and at different times. But, by present day, 2040, everyone with any brains was pretty clear on the issue of Ole Bitey’s evolution: they’d become faster and stronger and tougher; most of them could punch through walls and leap over gaps, climb up ladders and railings, and smell you coming; most importantly, though, they all could run — and if you couldn’t run faster you were done.
The only upside to this dramatic shift in zombie behavior and ability was that you (the prospective victim) could, sometimes, hear the horde coming for you. If you were paying attention, that is. They still didn’t breathe, moan, gasp, shriek, or anything like that, but you could sometimes hear the footsteps of the Runners. Not that hearing was much help when a mob of starved undead twisted their necks, as one, to look at you, just before kicking their legs into high gear to charge at you like a single missile with a million teeth.
Going on thirteen years of the new world order, there were now two apex species on Earth: humanity and the infected. Ultimate dominance would boil down to whichever one evolved more efficiently, and whichever was luckiest.
Given what he’d seen and lived through, Troy held the extremely unpopular opinion that the infected weren’t done changing: the strains of the original Pan Virus continuously transmuted themselves to better carry on the deathly legacy in the form of increasingly superior mindless, chomping murder-machines. The old news media had had no idea how perfect their nickname for the plague would become. The twenty-four-hour networks had dubbed the virus “Hydra”: cut off one head and two more sprouted in its place; fighting this beast only made it stronger.
The “successful” organism is the one that procreates, but the infected didn’t need sex, they just needed bodies. And every time a human fell to their scratches and bites, or any other means of transferring those genocidal microscopic particles, their numbers swelled and the legacy of the Pan Virus lived to see another decade, constantly evolving and adapting because, naturally, the strains that were passed on to the next host were carried by the fastest, strongest, most agile, and most capable of the Drunks. This process is what raised them to new heights, making them Runners. Troy had seen it all unfold before his eyes.
The thing about processes is they’re in process. Always moving. Always unfolding.
In the depths of his soul — his heart, his gut, or whatever you’d call it — his deepest self knew that there were, once again and always, only two ways this grand story of humanity would end: we’re all wiped out by the virus; or, humanity and the virus are wiped out by some cataclysmic, astro-fuckin’-logical event. Either way, we’re done for.
The death of the whole required the death of the individual. So, as far as Troy was concerned, there was only one possible conclusion, coming sooner rather than later: his death. All he could do was delay, delay, delay. Everybody dies, of course, but the last person he knew who’d passed peacefully, in her bed, was his grandmother, Barbara Graham-Myers. He hadn’t thought about Nan in a long time.
To get ripped apart was the way of the world, now. That law applied universally. All Troy could affect, through cunning, ruthlessness, and other means, was the time and place he’d kick the bucket. But death would take him, finally, and painfully. It wouldn’t be like Nan. There’d be no bed for him.
No matter what calamities ravaged humanity and the planet, death would always be there for us. Death, the one constant. There was some comfort in that, wasn’t there?
Enough with the philosophy. He had to focus on the now. And all he was sure of in that moment was that he wasn’t finished with surviving. Not yet. Forgetting about being blindsided by the Austin Rangers last month and nearly being shot up in that package store only a few minutes ago, he hadn’t made it through the 2027 turf wars in Dunwoody, Georgia, the 2028 Battle of Atlanta, his capture by the new KKK, and years of roaming, alone, just to be done in here, in the company of six random guys.
Troy yanked open the ajar door and dashed into the town house, running for the stairs.
“After him,” shouted Porfirio, bringing up the rear.
When the seven of them were in the living room, Emiliano glanced out the window at an angle and said, “They’re coming. Oh my God, they’re coming in fast.”
“Throw the couch on the stairs, you dipshit,” Porfirio yelled at him. Gesturing, he added, “The rest of you, bust those windows and get ready. Remember, you only go for the shot when you know it’s taking one of them down. We can’t afford any waste. Got it?”
Pascual turned to Troy. “You good?”
Troy rolled his eyes. He wanted to say, Worry about your own damn self. Instead, he unholstered his sawed-off shotgun and laid it on the coffee table. “For when they get in,” he said. He lifted a finger. “Not if but when, y’unnerstand?”
Destroying the brain was the only way to merc an undead. Anything else was, at best, only a means of slowing them down for a second or two. So, even taking potshots from the second story windows at the infected milling at ground level would probably be a waste, a misuse of the precious little ammo each man had at his disposal.
“Hey, don’t break those windows. Stop. It’ll only attract them faster. The best bet,” Troy said, assuming his chosen position at the top of the tables-and-couch-barricaded stairs, “is to mow them down as they claw their way up through here.”
“Think I’m an idiot child?” Porfirio checked the barrel of his pistol. “This ain’t our first dance, you know.”
Troy gave a dismissive wave. “Sorry. Forget I mentioned it.” Over his shoulder, he said, “So, just to be clear… you’ll already have thought to yourself, ‘Yeah, we could’ve formed two lines. First line fires, then, when it backs off to reload, the second line steps in. There’s definitely no big advantage to constantly keeping the pressure up on those Runners.’ You’d have thought of that and thrown it out, obviously, ‘cause I ain’t tellin’ you nothing you didn’t already come up with on your own, right?”
Porfirio nodded. “Yeah… right… Actually, I think I’ll reconsider my position.” He told the others, “It’s a good idea, and probably our only real chance, what he just said. Let’s do it.”
Without a word of complaint, they gathered in front of the open door at the top of the staircase. Troy’s breath caught in his chest.
One of the men said, “You know, if we’re quiet, they might just pass us by. Maybe they didn’t see us come in here.”
“Emiliano, they on to us?” said one of the others.
Emiliano, who didn’t seem much older than fourteen or fifteen, dropped his gaze. “Yeah. Yeah, they totally are. We’re done for. Game over, hermanos. Game. Over.”
Porfirio approached the kid, expertly switching out his ruthless leader hat for his trustworthy patriarch one. A well-kempt but weathered, middle aged man, the graying hairs around his ears fed into his projected image of refinement and distinction. The perfect picture of fatherly concern, he clapped a hand onto Emiliano’s shoulder blades. Then the older man grunted. “It’s not over. It won’t be over until you decide it is. Do or die time, Emil. We can make it. I know it.”
Troy felt sorry for the kid. Being so young, he would never have seen (or, at least, wouldn’t remember) the world as it existed before S.H.T.F. And, now, he was probably going to die, horribly, destroying the possibility that he’d ever live through better days.
Brow crinkled, Troy thought back to his own childhood. What was it that Mr. Larson had always said? Right: Them’s the breaks. One of his favorite expressions.
A few days after ten-year-old Troy had bashed in the skull of the thing that was no longer his mother, Mr. Larson had come after him, too. Mr. Larson had already been dead for some time.
Maybe not remembering the old world wasn’t such a bad thing. Being born after the collapse had its pros and cons, like any other situation. Maybe, on some level, Troy wished he could’ve been born after society imploded, so he wouldn’t have had to walk through it for so long, alone. And, for all Troy knew, the look Emiliano gave him now suggested the kid envied him those extra few years he’d been alive. So, once again Troy reminded himself that there was no use in contextualizing or comparing his own life and times to that of another in this way. Not right now. In the end, he and Emiliano were both going to die, today, the same way — or one would live, or they both would (very unlikely). Nothing else, no other considerations, ultimately mattered.
“Why aren’t they here, yet?” whispered Pascual.
“Anxious to die?” said the guy next to him. He reached over to Troy, offering his hand. “Since we have a sec, I’m Alvaro, by the way. You’ve met half of us. As for the rest: that’s Manuel, and Felix. Pardon my abrasiveness, but who the hell are you, exactly?”
“Call me Troy. I’m not from around here.”
Alvaro smirked. “I noticed, yeah. Anyway, glad we’re all acquainted now, just in time for our blaze of glory moment.”
“Sweet,” said Felix flatly.
“Quiet,” said Porfirio.
There came the shuffling of dozens or hundreds of feet, scuffing shoes or bare toenails over the asphalt and concrete. Broken glass tinkled and empty cans clanked as they were trod upon or kicked aside. And then, through that narrow and dark passageway leading down into the street, Troy beheld the first pale and rotting visage. Then there was another, and another. Almost as one, they swiveled toward the open doorway, lunging silently through the portal and clomping onto the stairs.
Emiliano’s pistol shook in his white-knuckled grip.
“Wait for it,” shouted Porfirio, digging his fingers into the kid’s shoulder. “Not until they’re real, real close.”
After the first few dozen Drunks Troy had wiped out, he’d learned to not see their faces. Anything that gave them individuality, like tattoos, earrings, watches, wallet-photos, he avoided focusing on. Thinking of the infected as anything other than diseased animals was a burden; that kind of soft-hearted, dain-bramaged thinking could only get you into trouble. The kind you didn’t get yourself out of.
The undead thrust their way up the stairs, tumbling over one another, kicking, clawing, gnashing their teeth. To Troy, they were nothing but a pair of flailing arms with a set of snappers attached. Yellow-gray chompers and purple-brown fingernails, and that’s all.
Nothing like human.
He fired his first shot, which bored through the eye of the front-most Runner. Its body was quickly swept aside and away by the fumbling fingers and swinging heels of the rest of the horde as each of the infected was funneled into that hallway.
Someone else, maybe Felix, took out the second one. Manuel got the third. Alvaro the fourth and fifth.
The barricade shifted. A wooden chair spun from where it had been precariously balanced, one of its legs cracking the skull of a Runner as it went. The couch slid downward, knocking a couple of infected to their knees or backs. Those behind, however, were not deterred. They climbed the fallen undead as if they were rungs in a staircase themselves.
Troy and the others fired with more abandon and less precision now. Most of the bullets hit home, though, given how conveniently lined up their targets were. Each of the seven men had spent the better part of his life in a battle for survival; with every new day, they stepped onto the proving grounds again — by now they were pretty good at performing under pressure.
Sleep and the chance to try again tomorrow were the only rewards for the victorious.
After about three minutes of blasting and watching the bodies get crushed under the feet of yet more Runners, Troy shouted, “I’m running low.”
Alvaro’s next shot burst a Runner’s head like a tomato. “Emiliano, get the machetes out of the bag. Do it.”
Machetes? thought Troy. He went more for the blunt variety of melee weapons, himself, but you know what they say about beggars, huh?
“Emil, please tell me we’re almost done,” said Porfirio, as he squeezed the trigger. His gun made that audible and stomach-squeezing click, click noise. “Fuck.”
Returning from the window with a bundle of razor-sharp, oiled machetes, Emiliano said, “They’re still coming. They’re still coming.”
“I’m out,” said Felix.
“Three shots left,” said Manuel.
Troy fired his last bullet right between the eyes of the Runner who’d managed to pass over the couch. Its body and the one that fell on top of it in a spray of gore were both draped over the furniture now, blocking off the stairway for those scrabbling up behind.
“Looks like we have a few seconds, brothers,” said Porfirio.
“We got any more junk to throw down there?” said Alvaro.
Pascual was already lobbing the coffee table into the gap.
“Alright, back away,” said Porfirio.
“Hug the wall. Form a line,” Troy shouted.
They drew their blades. The seventh one (presumably having belonged to Francisco) was offered, handle first, to Troy.
“Cover up, boys,” Manuel reminded them.
All of them wore long sleeves and gloves. They tied bandanas around their mouths and noses and donned aviator or tortoiseshell sunglasses, or lab safety glasses. Lastly, they pulled up the hoods of their sweaters.
Troy was similarly outfitted, the idea being to lessen, as much as possible, the risk of exposure to infected tissue and fluids. The undead didn’t even have to bite you; any kind of blood-to-skin contact was, much more often than not, a death sentence.
A rumble emanated from the stairway: wooden legs scraping over wooden steps, felt upholstery dragging across drywall. The couch was being shaken loose. White-green fingers poked around the corner, then came the milky, unfocused eyes and soundlessly screaming, brown-stained mouths.
“Don’t let ‘em get behind you, or we’re fucked,” said Alvaro.
The fore-Runner sprinted up to them and Alvaro, with a horizontal swipe, cleaved the top of its head clean off. He ducked away as he did, covering his face with the sleeve of his hoodie.
A pair of infected rushed over and were hacked apart just as quickly. But as Pascual and Emiliano pulled free their machetes, a group of undead had collected at the top of the stairs, almost as if they’d locked ranks. Like they’d witnessed what had happened to the previous three and were considering how to proceed. Like they were adapting, somehow. Troy shook the thought from his mind as he clutched the machete in one hand and his length of iron pipe in the other. No. I’m just imagining shit. And it doesn’t matter. Even if they are learning, all that’s important is that I survive this fight. They’re not makin’ a meal outta me.
He roared as a Runner set its eyes on him and leapt forward. Burying the machete in its skull, he grunted when couldn’t pull the weapon free. See? This is why I don’t fuck with bladed weapons. Releasing the machete and two-handing his pipe, he swung a homerun, bashing in the face of another dead-eyed biter.
When a few more of the infected had fallen to the ground, Troy and the gang of six pushed off of the wall, forming a tight circle. The Runners came from all sides, now, and sometimes a half-dozen at a time. Troy never stopped swinging. He lost count of how many heads he busted. Eventually, his thick boots rested on top of a bunch of re-dead corpses, which is how he figured he and the guys had disposed of a lot already.
And they just kept coming.
Troy hadn’t had to deal with this many of them since Albuquerque. And that time, he’d barely escaped. Also, he hadn’t been cornered then, not like he was today.
Then the defensive circle broke, and everyone was screaming, scattering to the corners of the living room.
A Runner right on his ass, Troy vaulted for the window where the coffee table had been. His sawed-off was just sitting there, propped up against the full wall window. Rolling, he grabbed the shotgun, flipped onto his back and fired. The Runner’s head — what was left of it — cracked backward and it crumpled.
Troy got up and put the second shell through the skull of a Runner as it crouched, its back to him, mid-swipe. Alvaro gave him the briefest, smallest nod of gratitude.
Putting his pipe to work again, Troy went to town, panting into his bandana as beads of condensation formed on his goggles. His last swing passed right through the mushy skull of a decaying zombie, burying the pipe deep in the drywall.
And, suddenly, there were no more Runners left standing.
Troy hovered over the bloody corpse at his feet, fingers twitching. He let out a long sigh before tearing his weapon out of the hole in the wall.
After a mad, celebratory guffaw, the men walked around, clubbing and hacking at the heads of any infected still squirming.
When it was over, Emiliano patted himself down, saying, “Holy shit, man. I’m alive. We’re all alive.”
True. By pure chance, or some miracle, all seven men had made it through the onslaught. But no guarantees they’d keep chugging along much past today. There never was.
Felix gave voice to Troy’s gloomy realism: “Anybody scratched? Bitten?”
Except for Troy, each of them, shaking his head, scanned the room to catch the reaction of his friends.
Porfirio said, “You know the drill. Buddy system. Can’t do it here, though. Might be more of them out there.”
He’s right, Troy thought. Then he remembered the late Officer Francisco. But what are they gonna do about me?
As if on cue, all eyes were on him.
Ex-Lawman Madero had eaten it only about twenty minutes ago, and his murderer now stood, isolated, among his sworn avengers. Even with all the ammo cartridges and shells spent, Troy was surrounded by machetes. Thin ice. Fuckin’ string-thin.
Unconsciously, he raised his hands.
“What are you doing?” said Alvaro, his words somewhat muffled by the bandana covering his face.
Troy kept his mouth shut. Anything and everything he might say, at this point, could only dig him deeper into the shaft of shit he now occupied.
Porfirio said, “Alvaro, let me. Alright, my brothers, we’re at a crossroads, here, and we need to make a crucial decision before we do anything else. I’ll make my case first and then everyone can chime in with a thoughtful rebuttal. Here’s what I think: Troy can definitely hold his own. We all saw that much. It explains how he was able to best Francisco, who, we all know, is a shoot-first type of guy. Sorry, I mean was. Anyway, it’s my thinking that, in this world, actions, beliefs, and even values can and must change on a dime. Dogma isn’t welcome here. Survival isn’t a question of what is right or wrong, but what works. And I tell you now that Troy should be one of us. Because, knowing Francisco, he probably was happy to stir up some bad business. And because this man, Troy, bled with us today. Nothing’s more expensive than blood.” Porfirio quirked an eyebrow. “There, I said my piece.”
“We do only got his word on what happened in that booze bin.” Manuel wiped the blade of his machete against the wall, leaving an uneven streak of crimson. “How do we know that’s the truth?”
“We don’t,” said Alvaro, fiddling with the holster of his pistol. “But we did know Francisco. Remember those two girls, the prison guards up at Fort Worth, what he did to them? When they’d already surrendered?”
Nobody had an answer to that, apparently.
Troy wasn’t about to get his hopes up about his chances of leaving this townhouse alive. He never entertained a hope. If he ever did, he might as well sit down, cry into a tissue, and blow his own goddamn brains out. But he waited, and he listened.
Felix said, “Porfirio is right. This ain’t about Troy, or even Francisco. It’s about us, the group. We have to think hard about how we’re gonna keep on going tomorrow. So, I say Troy’s in. I trust him. Fuck, I even like him, just a little, based on what I’ve seen so far. We can watch him in shifts, if ya want, but now you know where my head’s at.”
“I’m still with Felix and Porfirio,” said Alvaro.
“One more for a majority,” said Porfirio.
Emiliano’s hand shot up. “Me!”
Pascual went, “Pffft. You ain’t old enough to vote,” and everyone laughed as Emiliano sagged. Pascual added, “But I agree. And I say we stop jerking off in this hole. I don’t wanna be around these stinking fly-traps no more.”
“You know how it is, man,” Porfirio told Manuel, “if any one of us has an objection, we listen to you.”
Manuel shrugged. “No objections.”
Emiliano pumped his fist. “Fuck yeah! Back at full strength! That means we’re The Mexican Seven again!”
“You and the boss is the only Mexicans here, idiota,” said Felix.
“Seven is a better number than six,” said Alvaro, stepping over the undead that littered the floor. “But can we come up with nicknames and braid each other’s hair later? Far away from here?”
“Yeah, let’s go,” said Porfirio, following behind. “And no group hugs, either, until we get this toxic sludge off of us.”
Troy looked around at all of them, dressed like they were headed into a blizzard to protect themselves from the blood and brain matter. He said, “Aren’t you gonna ask me if I’m game to join your little tree-house boy’s club?”
Alvaro turned around. “Fair point. Well? Are you?”
They don’t seem too broken up about their friend, the guy I shot dead like half an hour ago. Then again, he did seem like a useless dick.
Troy shrugged. “Yeah, fuck it. Why not?”
The only way down the staircase, its hallway practically stuffed with corpses and splintered chairs, was to thrust that couch forward like a battering ram. It took three of them but, in the end, they tore through the bulbous, puss-filled bodies of the disabled infected. As he listened to the cracks and pops, Troy wasn’t always sure if it was a chair or spine snapping under the force of their push and the weight of the couch.
They shoved the piece of furniture out the front door and into the street and each wiped their machetes and pipe off on its felt upholstery. The metal weapons glinted in the sun as Porfirio — the “boss,” apparently — got his bearings.
“That way,” he said, pointing south.
“We’re not gonna bury Francisco?” said Emiliano, as the group passed by the package store.
Alvaro shook his head. “That’d just be inviting infection. We’ve done enough of that today, already. We have to think of ourselves first.”
Felix said, “Can’t hurt the dead no more.”
Troy followed in silence. They let him trail a few steps behind. None of them seemed worried about him literally stabbing them in the back. They’re either retarded or they see someone in me they can trust. Of course, he wasn’t planning to crack in their skulls. For one thing, they outnumbered him, so it wouldn’t do him much good. Not unless he had a getaway plan. For another, he had, for a while, been getting just a bit sick of wandering alone. He couldn’t recall when he’d started talking to himself, but a few months ago he’d taken to answering, which wasn’t a strong indicator of mental balance. He had to adapt, or his own madness would kill him as surely as any zombie would.
Change: the only method of survival that worked. Change: the only seasoning that gave life a palatable flavor.
Yup. Time for a change, he thought, staring at their hooded heads that bobbed as they walked. He looked to Alvaro, who’d vouched for him first of all, who’d made it a point to exchange names before their presumed imminent deaths.
Troy smiled. How bad could these stooges be, anyway?
They’d hidden their horses in a nearby parking deck off of Main Street in this rundown town of Dripping Springs, tying the reins to some metal stakes around one of those machines people had used to pay for their tickets, once upon a time. The ones with the big white ‘P’ in a blue circle.
What a morning. Damn. Seven men, seven horses — Troy was the new seventh in this band of merry men. You really never did know how each day was going to shake up.
“Got a change of clothes in here for ya,” said Pascual, tapping the saddlebags on the unattended horse.
As Troy approached the animal, Alvaro said, “Her name is Bienvenida.”
“‘Welcome,’ huh? That’s too cute,” said Troy, grinning despite himself.
All of them stripped as quickly as they could manage without touching any of the browning splotches on their clothes. As they did, Troy thought he caught Alvaro checking him out once, if only for a second. Nah. Eh, but he was probably imagining things.
He unbuttoned the saddlebag’s flap and withdrew a bundle of clothes: jeans, flannel shirt, hoodie. Hot for the desert, and nothing fancy, but they’d do the job of protecting him from the elements and zombie-spray.
Alvaro passed him a small, aluminum tube. “Expired disinfectant,” he said. “Found it at the pharmacy. Hope it does something for ya.”
“For your arm,” said Alvaro.
“Uh, thanks,” Troy said as the other man returned to his horse.
Porfirio came up to him, then. “How’s the fit?”
“A bit snug at the crotch,” Troy answered as he smeared some of the cream on the glass-nicked skin on his arm.
The boss-man laughed.
As he adjusted his collar, Troy asked, “Where we headed to?”
“Before I say, I’ll warn you that where we’re going lives family, okay? We’re trusting you, now, but we will kill you, immediately and awfully, if you even sneeze the wrong way. Understood?” When Troy nodded, Porfirio continued, “Good. To answer your question, it’s time to bring home what little we found today. It’s never enough, but it’ll have to do, because none of us wants to be caught in Ranger territory after dark. So we go back to base, back to Sisterdale.”
Christopher Troy Myers
October 5th, 2040
Once the town of Dripping Springs lay well behind them, they checked each other for bite wounds and scratch marks.
No one found anything.
“Well, that’s a relief,” said Manuel.
“Woohoo. Live to die another day,” said Pascual.
Troy had wrapped the fresh bandana they’d given him around his crew-cut head like a dew rag. He didn’t have a hat, like they did, to shield his skin from the fierce afternoon sun. He’d have to remedy that problem, sometime soon.
They traveled along lonely country roads, shaded by ash and acacia trees. It was a long ride, sixty miles or so, but Bienvenida’s gait was smooth and the conversation passed the time.
“You might be wondering,” Alvaro started, pausing to click his tongue at his horse, “why we go out so far from where we live. Two reasons: don’t shit where you eat; and, it’s slim pickin’s everywhere, but especially close to home.”
Bobbing in the saddle — cut him some slack, it’d been a minute since this Metro Atlanta boy had last exercised his equestrian skills — Troy said, “Why do you live way out there, then? Why not work out of a spot closer to where the goods are at?”
“Familia.” Alvaro crossed himself. “God protect our grandparents, parents, brothers, and sisters, because we’ve done the best we can to keep them safe.”
Troy nodded along. What could he say to that, anyway? He’d lost everyone he’d ever been naive enough to give a good goddamn about.
“So where you from?” said Alvaro.
“Georgia. Near Atlanta.”
“Damn, man. The East Coast? That was crazy messed up.”
Troy gazed straight ahead. “It was crazy everywhere.”
Alvaro’s chuckle was as soft as the sigh of the wind on Troy’s face. “Okay, Mister Tall, Dark, and Brooding. If you’re not interested in talking about yourself, I’ll start by telling you about the maniacs you tossed your hat into the ring with. Felix and Manuel,” Alvaro pointed them both out, even though Troy knew their names by now, “worked the line at that fast food joint — uh, wassit called again? Riiight: Chick’n You Out. Hah! That was over in El Paso. The snot-nosed, bright-eyed kid, Emil, was only a baby when it all went down, so he wasn’t far into his career yet. Though his father, supposedly, worked as a server in this ‘artisanal kosher pizza joint,’ so Emil says. ‘Papa Jonas,’ I think he said? Anyway, Francisco was a cop, also in El Paso. But you already knew that. Porfirio, now… Porfirio was, according to him, a U.S. Congressman. It explains the haircut and the way he talks, know what I’m sayin’?. But who knows if that’s true. I never voted for him, at least.” Alvaro coughed into his sleeve. “He won’t ever talk details. Could be full of it, but he does seem the type for politics. So we let it slide. Personally, I don’t think people should get shit on for reinventing themselves.”
“What about you?” said Troy. “Where you from?”
“Ah. Yeah.” Alvaro scratched his scalp. “Me and Pascual were fifteen, in technical school — like a career placement program, with him going for nurse practitioner and me ramping up to being a programmer — when that fat, useless, pinche marica come mierda was ‘elected’ President. That was 2017, wasn’t it?”
“Couldn’t tell ya. I’d have been crawling around in diapers.”
“Fuckin’ spring chickens all around me.” Alvaro smiled. “I’m not gonna get into the whole fiasco, but we were thrown in jail at Fort Worth because we joined a political protest movement. Went to a few rallies. I admit, part of my motivation was getting laid, but I really did believe in the ideals.”
“Sure,” said Troy, turning away, hiding his grin.
“Hmm. Believe it or not, my friend.” Alvaro’s face suddenly went dark, like someone had unscrewed the light bulbs of his eyes. “There was no trial. That’s not how shit worked by that point, not for Latinos and Latinas. We learned that much the hard way. We were in prison for eight years. When we got out, there was a new president, but nothing had changed. People would tell us, ‘At least you weren’t deported.’ Unbelievable! That kinda ignorance — I’d always tell ‘em, ‘Deported to where, motherfucker? I’m from Pasadena!’” He waved a lazy hand. “Nobody gave a shit, though, one way or another. And then—” he mimed a mushroom cloud.
“Jeezus, man,” said Troy.
“Yeah,” said Alvaro.
They rode in silence for a long while.
A few hours later, Pascual turned to Emiliano and said, “Could you stop twisting and fidgeting in your saddle every two seconds? You’re freakin’ me out.”
Swiveling again, the kid cleared his throat and said, “Who’s that?” while pointing back the way they’d come. “Looks like a rider.”
“You sure it ain’t a mirage?” said Manuel.
Troy gazed over his shoulder and squinted, feeling the creak in his stiff spine. From this far away, it was hard to tell what he was looking at.
“Real or not, I don’t wanna meet him. Let’s keep it moving,” said Porfirio.
“Yeah, don’t know about you all, but I had enough action for one day,” said Felix.
About thirty minutes after Emiliano’s observation, Porfirio pulled back on the reins until his horse fell in stride with Troy’s.
The boss said, “He’s still there.”
“Seems that way,” said Troy.
Porfirio rolled his shoulders until something popped. He said, “Manuel, it’s your turn.”
From up ahead, Manuel groaned. “It can’t be, already.”
“Ah-ah. We don’t fuck with the rotation.” Porfirio clicked his tongue and his mount picked up speed. “You wanna fuck with the rotation, eh?”
Manuel said, “No. I got this. Be right back.” And he fell behind as everyone else circled around him.
At the head of the pack again, Porfirio said, “Nobody look back. We go on, like nothing’s off.”
But Troy did look back, twice: once, about three minutes later, to witness Manuel flop onto his stomach in the dust of the road, playing dead; and, three minutes after that, just in time to catch the rider stooping down to inspect the “dead man.”
Manuel shot up and kicked the legs out from under the other man, who fell onto his face. Cracking the guy’s skull against the asphalt, Manuel grabbed a loose chunk of the black stuff and bludgeoned his victim’s face in with it.
When he’d caught up with the rest of the gang again, clutching the reins of the horse he just stole, Manuel beamed.
“What’s with the shit-eating grin?” said Alvaro.
“It’s ‘cause o’ all this sweet loot I picked up from our stalker friend. Check it out: guns, ammo, knives, a duster, hat… Oh, and this Headhunter Certificate signed by the Deputy Mayor of Austin Township.”
Porfirio said, “A bounty hunter?”
Manuel tore up the page. “Probably. I mean, a thief wouldn’t have kept this. Carrying one that don’t belong to you is as good as a first-class, non-stop flight to hell.”
“What was he doing way out here?”
Troy said nothing.
“Fuckin’ pendejo… Well, it’s done now. And we got a bit back for what we gave today.”
“Bullets for bullets, Troy for Francisco.”
“Fair trade overall, you ask me,” said Alvaro.
Christopher Troy Myers
October 5th, 2040
The setting sun ahead of him, Troy shielded his eyes from the auburn, crimson, and gold glare with his forearm.
Crumpled mailboxes lay along the side of the road, their poles bent and rusted. Many of the fence posts bordering long-abandoned ranches had snapped in half, leaving tangles of razor wire. The grass came up to a man’s shoulders, most places. There was no one around, except for the seven, to perceive this land of neglect.
Porfirio tugged on the reins, guiding his mount to the right. Everyone followed suit.
Troy read the sign overhead: Sisterdale Cemetery.
As it turned out, Sisterdale was a small cluster of log cabins built between the graves and mausoleums of centuries of dead.
“We like to be close to our ancestors,” said Pascual.
You put up a fence against the undead, while literally building your homes on top of rotting corpses. Troy didn’t have the energy to dwell on the irony. At least the fence was in good repair, unlike all the others he’d seen on the way.
A long dirt path wove between the tomb stones, with a creek running parallel to it and wild blackgum trees on either side, branches clinging to their final orange leaves.
Emiliano was the first one off his horse. He sprinted for the old man who’d poked his head out of one of the log cabins facing the road and hugged him close.
Emil wasn’t the youngest here, by far, Troy discovered. A gaggle of ten-ish-year-olds sprung out of their hiding places in bales of hay, behind stacks of firewood, and from under leaf beds. They clapped and danced behind the line of horses as it proceeded to the heart of Sisterdale, the site of a ring of stones encircling a thick blanket of ash.
They have a lot of bonfires here. Had one recently, Troy observed.
Alvaro twisted in his saddle to tell him, “Pascual’s father is kinda like the mayor. You’ll meet him in a minute.”
“Cool,” Troy said. Didn’t know I’d be walking into this kinda deal. He’d assumed it’d be just the seven of them. Not that there was automatically anything wrong with the situation. He didn’t hate kids, or anything. Well, he didn’t exactly like kids either, but that wasn’t the kids’ fault. He’d never figured out how to be one, anyway, and being around them only served to remind him of that fact.
Healthy progression through the phases of your life could get dicey when, most of the time, there wasn’t a single good role model within a hundred square miles of your hidey hole. Travel long enough alone and you start to resent everybody, most of all yourself.
Troy found himself a secluded patch, behind one of the cabins, and sat down with his back to the wall. Away from the noisiness of the children playing, the excited chatter of mothers, sisters, and wives, the general hustle and bustle of community, he started to hyperventilate.
He thought he was having a heart attack, but the fit subsided after a minute. Still, the hand he brought to his face came away wet with tears.
What’s happening to me? But he knew the answer to that question.
I been alone fifty-one percent of my life. Totally alone. Every time I talk to someone or they sling words at me longer than five minutes, it’s a situation. So far, it always ends in me standing over them, barrel smokin’, wishing to myself — from the itty bittiest bit of me— that they’d got me first.
The kids were laughing. Playing a game like tag.
I’m not the kinda guy you want anywhere near your kids or your town.
Troy’s thoughts focused on the bounty hunter from a few hours ago.
Me staying here would be a really dumb idea.
He got up to leave, quietly, without a fuss, but was intercepted by a two-legged fossil wearing a saintly grin on his face. Pascual stood right behind the bicentennial man, saying, “Troy, this is my Papa, Clemente. Papa, meet Troy. He wanted to meet you first, before anyone else. Mayoral privilege.” The son winked. “Always exploiting the perks of his position.”
Clemente rasped, “I hear you helped our sons today, that they wouldn’t have made it without you. My sincere thanks, young man.”
And, just like that, Troy was roped in. As he stared into the squinty eyes of that shaky, ancient wine cork of a man, Troy understood that this was where he’d have to make a go of starting fresh. He had no way out and he knew it.
For better or worse, this was home, now.
“Good to meet you, sir.” He held out his hand and the venerable, wrinkly mayor took it, his own bird-boned appendage offering a surprisingly firm grip. “My name’s Chris Myers, but everyone calls me Troy.”
That night, by the fire, Troy turned to Alvaro and, without preamble, said, “I was eleven or twelve when they drafted me into the Atlanta Militia. I fought gangs and worse. Every day I feared for my life, but I got fed and clothed, at least. Then the KKK captured me and beat me and worked everyone around me to death. Tried to do it to me, too. But I got that Kelleher fuck in the end. And I never looked back. I never stopped running.”
Alvaro whistled and just kept on whittling a piece of wood with his knife.
Wisps of ash, flaring red, floated between them.
Eventually, he said, “Sucks.”
Troy said, “Yeah.”
The most important guideline in the unwritten survivor’s manual was this: never ask for more details; just listen. People will tell you when they’re ready, if they ever are.
After a while, he asked, “Mayor Clemente, he’s not actually in charge of anything, is he?”
Alvaro chuckled. “Are you suggesting an eighty-nine-year-old arthritic with memory problems is somehow unfit to be the unilateral decision-maker for this town?”
Troy gave him a blank stare.
“Just messin’ with you, man. Porfirio’s the real boss. We just want everyone to feel like they belong. Like even Clemente has a valuable function, here. It keeps him going, even though I’m sure he knows we’re only playing along. Not to say that he never says anything useful. It’s just, well… The world we live in put the strongest on top again. And the elderly, the young, they need help to make it through the day, or they… won’t. They just won’t.” Alvaro shook his head. “Abandoning them to the desert, to the Runners, to being stripped naked, robbed or eaten… Me, Porfirio, the others, we weren’t willing to let ourselves forget what’s most important.”
Troy’s mind wandered, pushing through the question: How many?
How many lives had he ended?
His mother, after she turned. His uncle, and cousins, after they turned. Troy had been ten.
The Klan, directly and indirectly. The final count was a bit murky; Drunks had done a lot of the work. But Troy had been responsible.
Since then? In thirteen years? Thugs, thieves, drifters, murderers, racists, slavers, evangelists… How many? Thirty? Fifty?
Alvaro snapped his fingers in front of Troy’s face. “Hey. Don’t go off in your head. You’ve been doing enough of that, I think.”
“What do you mean?” Troy asked.
“I can see it in your eyes. You been alone a long time. I can’t speak for the others, but I’ll try not to drown you in pointless conversation. In return, you gotta do me a favor.”
“You gotta try to remember that you don’t need to be alone anymore, if you don’t wanna be. You got that, Troy?” Alvaro gazed at the coiling flames. “Look, I don’t know what you did before we came across you. And I know the way you joined the gang is, uh, awkward. But we’re all gonna have to let that go, yeah? Because tomorrow we gotta get up and do it all again. We gotta go out there and hunt and scavenge and kill to survive.” He reached over and clasped Troy’s wrist. “All that shit you had to go through and do to get here, maybe it’s time to let it go.” He scooted away, sliding down onto his back. Dragging his blanket over his face, he added, “La familia: the only thing that’s important. Now and ever.”
Troy sighed and rubbed his face with a calloused palm. He stared at Alvaro, who was already snoring.
There was the chorus of crickets and the crackle and pop of burning logs. There was a pervading stillness enhanced by the soft breaths of those resting around the bonfire.
Ever since he could remember, Troy had slept, alone, in trees, or in third-floor, corner offices, or in bathroom stalls. And, always, he’d heard some combination of rustling, shuffling, crying, screaming, shooting, pleading, or, worse, he’d heard nothing at all — but not tonight. So far, the only rustling he’d heard were the branches in the wind; the only shuffling, legs and arms against canvas tents or blankets. No crying, no screaming, no shooting or pleading.
And this silence was, to him, totally different than the silence of the undead. There was no dread in this place, in Sisterdale. This could be, it seemed, a good place for him.
He leaned back and fell asleep to the Morse Code of the fireflies.
Christopher Troy Myers
November 16th, 2040
The sun hadn’t yet risen when Troy snapped awake from the nightmare he’d been having:
Alvaro remained sound asleep. He could sleep through a bugle blown right in his ear.
With care, Troy wriggled his way out of Al’s embrace and rolled over the edge of the bed. A tangle of sheets slid down with him. Tugging his heel free, he found his pants hanging on their hook. Pants and shirt on, he wandered outside, breathing deep of the crisp, early morning air.
Predictably, Mayor Clemente trembled in his rocking chair, sipping whatever weird liquid he kept in that rusted thermos of his. He’d probably already been there for a couple of hours. The man never slept.
He waved to Troy. Troy waved back.
The young rooster, whom Troy had named Peckerwood (…‘cause he’s such a cock), crowed to greet the new day.
Define “peace”: young girls giggling as they foraged berries and herbs, their faces transformed into masks of pure stoicism when they fished; friendly soccer matches, refereed by Felix; fresh eggs, every morning, from the chicken coop; laughter and drinking games by the nightly bonfires; the way Alvaro called Troy “imbécil” every five seconds but made it sound like the highest compliment he had ever received.
For the first time in years, Troy didn’t have a gun at his hip, or tucked into his boot, or hidden in a backpack or the folds of his sleeve. And it had been days since he’d last panicked about feeling so naked. Today, he felt like the majority of the parts that made up his life added up to a positive number. For once. It was almost as if he was happy, sort of, and that things were working out.
That’s exactly what made him so sure that everything was horrible and wrong.
He’d read about imposter syndrome, once, when holed up in a library for a month while a herd of Drunks milled in and around the parking lot. From what he remembered of the article, he felt reasonably confident that’s what he was experiencing right now. Imposter syndrome. I don’t belong here. I’m a liar and a fraud. I don’t deserve any of this.
But I really am a cheat and a thug.
None of those fleeting moments of peace belonged to him. They couldn’t be his, and he knew it. There was no denying it. Still, Troy felt that, in return for everything he’d been through, he might just be owed something. And, if the universe wasn’t inclined to grant him this one favor — Let me stay here, just for a while — then he’d have to take what he’d earned.
Yeah, so I’m a thief. The whole world is filled with ‘em.
Nobody had ever done Troy any favors; he’d always had to work extra hard to claim a fair day’s wages. Rather than feel sorry for himself, he’d come to acknowledge that the rules had changed. Post apocalypse, the self-interested had inherited the Earth. And there was nothing you could do about it except make damn sure that you got yours, too.
I know I’m stealing, here, hanging on for dear life to something that ain’t never been mine to have. But fuck it: in the end, we’re all livin’ on stolen time, anyhow.
An amused smile on his lips, Troy crossed his arms as Javier sprinted over to him. The boy was out of breath, but he said, “Señor Troy, you gonna play ball with me today?”
“What do I always tell you, Javier?”
Javier snorted. “I know, I know. ‘Axe me again tomorrow.’”
“You’ll get me one of these days,” said Troy, rubbing his chin.
“Yeah, yeah.” And the kid ran off to wait for his friends to wake up. Same as every other day.
Nah, really. Troy thought. You probably will, kid.
He lay down in the dirt underneath the tree whose branches curled above the house he slept in. The home he was literally and figuratively building, here, in Sisterdale.
Christopher Troy Myers
The Banks of Delaware Creek, Eight Miles North of Sisterdale
November 19th, 2040
The sky was an eggshell blue. The waters of the creek lapped gently at the bank on which Troy sat, beneath the lattice of shade cast by the bare branches of a Texas Persimmon.
He was fishing. Well, trying to.
You didn’t get many fish anymore, these days. More than you’d have seen ten years ago, but still. With all the fallout — the ash-wash that had spread across cities, suburbs, and rural communities, radiating outward from the irradiated wreckage of power plants — thousands of animal species had been swept from the face of the Earth. But Troy had a day off today, and he’d never learned or been taught how to fish. He figured now was as good a time as any to teach himself a new skill.
At least, that’s what he told himself. He’d almost convinced himself of it, too.
As a cool breeze slipped across his brow and under his arms, he took a long, satisfying breath.
For the past two minutes or so, he’d been listening to the rustling of leaves, snapping of twigs, and obnoxiously loud breathing. The noises came from behind him, to the right and to the left, letting him know that at least two men were spying on him, sizing him up, waiting to make a move. They were holding their breath now; they wouldn’t be waiting much longer.
Troy needed a break from sitting around, anyway. He got up and stretched his arms over his head, groaning as he did.
At his back, a crash and a curse came from one side of the tree line and a set of uneven, bumbling steps from the other.
“Hold it right, there, fella.” It was a young enough guy speaking. Probably in his thirties. “We got you surrounded.” Then he hissed, “Shee-yit, Jerry, get your bee-hind up here, pronto.”
More rustling, snapping of twigs — like someone was rolling around, struggling to get to his feet. Finally, a second, out of breath voice chimed in with, “You just stay frosty, there, my dark friend, and ain’t nothin’ untoward gonna happen to ya.”
His hands up, Troy chuckled.
“What’s so funny?” said the first guy.
Troy shook his head. “Nah, nothin’. Just laughin’ at myself, I guess.”
“Turn around,” said the other guy. “Real slow-like.”
Complying, Troy rotated until he faced his ambushers. Each carried a shiny, well-oiled Colt Anaconda complete with a smooth, dark green grip. Both men were gingers, all freckled and shit, with bushy red, brush-bristle hair on their heads. Their hats hung from strings looped around their necks. They wore leather vests over yellowing shirts, greenish sweat-stains marking their chests and ‘pits. Their boots must once have been ridiculously fancy, but the red and silver designs and stitching had faded with time and use.
Troy now knew what kind of “men” he was dealing with.
The first guy whistled. “So this is the mass murderer, huh?”
“You are Troy Myers, ain’t ya?” said the second.
“Yeah, I’m Troy Myers, alright.”
The second guy turned to the first. “I’ll be darned, Nate, he don’t look like a psycho killer. He don’t look all that tough.”
Nate snapped, “Stay focused, Jerry. Lawd have mercy, boy.”
Troy said, “You know me, but I don’t know you.”
Sun-burnt cheeks and chapped lips twisting into a smirk, Jerry said, “I’m Jeremiah and that’s my brother, Nathaniel. But people know us as the world-famous King Brothers.”
“No shit?” said Troy. “That’s tight.”
Nate sighed. “Jerry, what did I say about need-to-know basis?” To Troy he said, “We’re bounty hunters. All you need to know.”
Troy said, “Today is pretty lucky, as far as unlucky days go. Never would’a thought I’d be brought to justice by famous bounty hunters.”
Nate’s eyes narrowed. “How are you so calm right now? You’re prob’ly gonna be lynched.”
“Oh, I’m not calm. Not one bit,” Troy lied.
“Yeah, well, anyway — um, we’re here to bring you in, Myers. Your days o’ terrorizin’ the Confederacy are ancient history.”
“Dayum. You sure got me,” said Troy, letting his hands drop just a little.
“We sure did,” said Jerry, beaming.
“Better call the rest of your posse, now, do this up right,” said Troy.
Jerry chuckled. “Posse? Naw, it’s jus’ us.”
Nate’s head jerked towards his younger brother. He barked, “Dammit, Jerr—”
In one quick jerk, Troy’s fingers curled around the grip of his .44, raised it, and pulled the trigger, firing from the hip. The bullet tore off Nate King’s jaw. Troy’s free hand slapped back the hammer of his revolver, and he put two holes in Jerry’s torso before the guy had time to stutter his way through another word. Nate, gurgling in the dirt, gaped at his killer before his eyes rolled back. Troy turned away and took a moment to execute Jerry, the younger King. Then he came back for Nate, who clawed at the foaming mess that was his mouth, and Troy put one in his forehead.
He loaded five fresh shots into his .44 and holstered it. Collecting his fishing rod and empty bait box, he considered tossing the brothers into the Delaware. They’d probably just add to the pollution, though. The vultures can have ‘em. A meal fit for a king.
Chortling at his own joke, he traced his steps back to Bienvenida and saddled up.
Sure, he hadn’t had any luck reeling in any fish that day, but he was content with his particular catch.
The implications of this little altercation were dire. Bounty hunters, out for my blood. And they surely ain’t the only ones. The King Brothers would bother him no more, but how many more pawns had Austin paid off to come after him?
He shook the thoughts out of his head. One day at a time, that was the secret. That mentality is what had gotten him through all the challenges he’d faced since being orphaned by the apocalypse.
Gotta remember everything. All those hard days. All the lessons. This wasn’t the first time hired thugs had come after him, and it wouldn’t be the last. He could take it. He always had. One day at a time.
Didn’t he have a right to try to make something of himself, now? Wasn’t he allowed to just live? Sisterdale, the gang, Alvaro, all the best parts of his life — that’s what dipshits like the Kings wanted to take from him.
And, you know what? Austin fucking started it. Troy had been riding through the wasteland, minding his own business — as always — and they’d come looking to get a piece.
But I don’t fuckin’ share.
If the lords of Austin wanted to play The Man, then they’d have to deal with political protest as a part of daily life. And people like Troy would show them, soon enough, that anarchy had a lot more leverage since America bought the farm.
He, however, didn’t want any part in that fight, anymore. He’d be happy staying out of the feather-ruffling game. He’d never been into politics, of course; he’d always just shot who needed to be shot. In his experience, people building settlements usually fell into that category, because you can’t lay a foundation on virgin land. Every patch of ground has bodies occupying it. And bones, Troy had learned long ago, make the best mortar for ambitious men.
No, he didn’t want any part in any war, now. He wouldn’t have minded living out however many days he had left in peace, in Sisterdale. But he’d fucking ice any yahoos who tried to snatch that dream from him.
He’d be even more defiant if he wasn’t so afraid. Death? Nah, death had nothing on him. What kept him up at night was the fear of losing Porfirio, Emiliano, Felix, Manuel, Pascual, and Alvaro. What pressed down on his shoulders was the thought that he might never play that soccer game with Javier, even though he’d promised the kid that he would like a million times. Troy was afraid of nothing quite as much as the thought that he might betray the confidence and trust of Clemente, the grandpa mayor of the little cemetery town.
I can’t stay. It’s not right. Not with all the assclowns in Texas coming down on me.
He kicked Bienvenida into a gallop, reveling in the strong blasts of wind as he cut across wild country. He sucked in every molecule of the world around him as he felt, to the fullest, this new feeling: freedom.
Then he exhaled, abandoning the childish dream of attaining happiness in this life.
He’d work up the nerve to turn his back on all of them who’d taken him in and shared with him food and shelter. It didn’t matter if they couldn’t understand; he’d do it for their own good. The only gift he had left to give was his departure. Above all, he wouldn’t allow himself to endanger them. Not a single one.
I’ll take a day or two. Think of what to say, what not to say. Then… I’ll leave.
Christopher Troy Myers
Badlands, About 5 Miles Outside Sisterdale
November 22nd, 2040
When they came, they came on horseback and with guns. They came with decrees and newly written law books and edicts. They came sanctimoniously, officiously, claiming Sisterdale was under the purview of their state. “Austin Township,” they proclaimed, “owns the very land you stand on.”
When they came, Troy wasn’t ready for them.
On the day the Austin Rangers swarmed into Sisterdale, they held up Wanted Posters. Only someone infirm or blind as a bat could have failed to recognize the face depicted.
On scavenging duty, Troy and Alvaro had gone out early in the morning. They were three quarters of the way home, at dusk, when they crossed paths with a disheveled, bruised, and parched Emiliano.
After the kid had knocked back a few mouthfuls of water from Troy’s canteen, he stuttered through the message he’d risked his life to deliver: “They want you, Troy. You. They’re after you.”
Emil plucked the crumpled sheet from his belt and handed it over to Troy, who scratched his coarse, chin-strap beard and thought to himself, Man, pic looks nothing like me. They didn’t do me justice at all.
Alvaro snatched the poster out of his hands, tearing it, leaving about a third of the paper in Troy’s fist. What he had managed to get ahold of was enough to get the gist.
Done skimming the text, Alvaro looked at Troy, his expression hard to read. “Says here you killed thirteen people.”
That they know of, Troy thought. Aloud, he said, “It was all self-defense. I ain’t about getting ‘taxed’ by collectors. They picked me clean one too many times. Make that three too many times. And when they kept proudly callin’ themselves ‘Confederates,’ I got — you know — a little upset.”
“So you, what — up and ghosted all of ‘em?”
“I warned ‘em first. Gave a little history lesson. Not as effective as hoped.” Troy puffed out his chest. He scoffed. “Like you never killed nobody.”
“That’s not what I’m sayin’. Look, I got no love for Austin but this is my family we’re talking about. And, from where I’m standing, it seems like you’re the one who brought the law down on us.”
Troy took a breath. “I didn’t — I wouldn’t ha — I’m sorry, alright?”
Alvaro frowned. “Yeah, well, sorry ain’t gonna get us outta this shit. I got no use for your ‘sorries.’”
Troy cradled his face in his palms. Goddammit. A month and some change. Really? That’s all I get for peace outta this life?
Troy looked up.
Alvaro locked eyes with him, grabbing his shoulder. “I don’t need your ‘sorry.’ I need your help.”
A shotgun blast of emotions punched through Troy’s mental armor. In no particular order, he thought:
Only the strong survive.
But there’s strength in numbers.
I can’t bring a storm of shit down on these people, these good people.
But he wants me to stay.
No one had ever asked him to stay.
I don’t know what to do.
He cracked half a grin, mostly out of sheer confusion. All he managed to say was, “You still want me around? After everything you learned about me?”
“Troy, do me a favor.” Alvaro grabbed his shoulder. “Shut the fuck up.”
Troy dropped his hand on Alvaro’s forearm.
What can you even say to that, except ‘okay’?”
On the last leg of the journey back to Sisterdale, with bats circling overhead, Troy said, “I’m gonna turn myself in.”
Alvaro and Emil, riding alongside him on that abandoned, two-lane road, ignored him. They’d definitely heard him, because he rode on Bienvenida right between them. The bitches.
Alvaro said, “What we up against?”
Emil answered, “I think it’s twenty, at least. Maybe a couple more.”
“Yeah. They got carbine rifles. And a bunch of dynamite.”
“TNT? Cristo.” Alvaro said, remembering to cross himself.
His voice croaking, Emil said, “They’re holding the town hostage. A ‘precaution,’ that’s what their boss called it.”
“And who the hell does he think he is?”
“It’s a she. Commander Robinson is what her men called her.”
Troy interrupted: “I’m turning myself in. No way we’re trading lead with twenty armed soldiers. Not for me, we ain’t.”
Alvaro said, “Sorry, but this ain’t your call.”
“How’s it not my call?”
“‘Cause in families, we do everything for the good of all. We take votes. And since everyone else ain’t here, Emil and I have to speak for them.”
Troy snorted. “Don’t I get a vote, too?”
“You’re one of us, so of course you do. Let’s do it, then. All in favor of Troy turning himself in?”
Troy raised his hand.
Alvaro let the crickets chirp for effect. “Now, all in favor of us not getting pushed around by some self-important puta and her bitch brigade?”
He and Emil punched the air.
Alvaro said, “That’s done, then. Troy, I know you ain’t been with us but a month or so, but you’re one of us. Simple. You been outvoted, son.” His eyes narrowed. “But that gives me an idea. Emil, where they keepin’ everyone?”
“Around the bonfire pit. Tied up, most of ‘em.”
“And the explosives?”
“Sorta stacked next to ‘em.”
Alvaro grumbled. “Never mind, then. Fuck. That’s smart. Anybody trying to start anything could blow the whole town up, and kill most of us at the same time.” He stared into the night for a minute. “New plan: Troy, you’re going to turn yourself in.”
Christopher Troy Myers
November 22nd, 2040
Once they crossed the bridge over the dry, cracked bed of Sister Creek, Troy, Alvaro, and Emiliano tied their horses to some trees and walked the last half-mile. They didn’t want to draw any attention to their return. At least, they couldn’t let the Rangers know that three men, instead of only one, were coming home tonight.
The Rangers would be guarding the entrance, Emiliano warned, which is why the trio split up before that point.
Emiliano waited a few paces away as Troy told Alvaro, “Listen, if this doesn’t work out, if it all goes to shit, I just wanted to tell you — it’s been good.”
Alvaro rapped the fingers of his right hand against the knuckles of his left. “That all you got for me, all you got to say?” Shaking his head, he added, “We’re gonna have to work on your emotional repression issues, so don’t go dyin’ on me yet, heard?”
Troy chuckled. “Heard. Same to you.”
“See you on the other side.”
They parted ways, Alvaro heading off with Emiliano to hop the iron fence. Troy, meanwhile, ambled toward the front gate.
I could just run away. There’s nothing saying I can’t get outta this. Nobody’s seen me yet.
But that thought was about as serious as a knock-knock joke.
Yeah, right. In his heart, he knew he’d made the decision to stick by these people, no matter what, when he first rode back with them to Sisterdale. As he scratched the inside of his nostril with the tip of his thumb, he discovered that Alvaro’s words from an hour ago, touching as they were, only added a bucketful of water to an already overflowing tub.
These people need me. I’m needed.
This new chapter in my life’s been a long time comin’.
Reaching for the sky, he crossed the threshold, stepping onto the parched grasses of the converted cemetery, while simultaneously leaving behind a life of self-reliant wandering, of alternating bitter cold and blazing heat.
Troy was a new man, tonight. He was ready, willing even, to submit to a life of compromise, to become a part of a community. Finally.
A carbine rifle’s hammer clicked into position, and a barely pubescent voice called, “Halt.”
‘Halt?’ Troy thought. We LARPing now? He said, “Troy Myers. Here to surrender.”
“Um, okay.” The Ranger, whose uniform had to be two sizes too big for his scrawny chest and arms, advanced, rifle squarely aimed at Troy’s gut. This child-soldier looked even younger than Emil, if that was even possible. “Yeah? Um, come with me, then.”
He turned his back on Troy, who said, “Wouldn’t it be better if I walked in front?”
The Boy Wonder stopped mid-step, as if a shock had surged through his entire body. He spun around, twitching.
Troy said, “Take it easy, kid. We’re doin’ this peaceful-like.”
The kid squinted. “You ain’t gonna try anything, are ya?”
“You plannin’ to talk me to death, or can we go ahead and turn my ass over to your C.O.?”
“G-get in f-front, then,” said the Ranger.
Rustling through the dead leaves, Troy walked ahead of Captain Underpants.
He couldn’t help but feel pity. Being handed responsibility and a killing tool when you ain’t even through puberty.
When Troy was just about eleven, they’d given him an AK and a helmet and thrown him in with a patrol group, one of many fighting for the streets of Atlanta. Governor Torres’ army had been in the business of shielding “liberty” with kids’ bodies. Troy, a starving boy, had been in it for the room and board.
Maybe it was empathy that made him ask, after half a minute had passed, “What’s your name?”
“Jaden. Jaden Walker.”
“This your first tour of duty?”
There was a pause. Troy kept walking.
“How could you tell?” Jaden asked.
‘Cause you carry yourself like you just come outta diapers, and you ain’t holding that gun right. “Hunch,” he said out loud.
“I’m not supposed to be talkin’ to you,” said Jaden.
“Yeah. You’re a bad man.”
“Ain’t we all.”
“I’m not. Not bad.”
“Give it time,” said Troy.
They wove along the path between the gravestones, slipping into the shadows cast by log cabins and tall pavilions. Ahead, Troy saw a pair of torches. That must be where their boss is. Everywhere else lay shrouded in the gloom of a moonless night.
Every one of the denizens of Sisterdale, old and young, frail and strong, huddled together in the ashes of last night’s bonfire. When Troy came near, he met most of their eyes, willing them to understand, somehow, that everything was going to be okay.
Then Jaden jabbed the barrel of his rifle between Troy’s shoulder blades, shoving him in front of three Rangers leaning against the stone wall of a tomb. Two of them, men, wore blank, sheep-like expressions. The third, in between them, was hard to describe at first glance. A woman in her mid-thirties, her scrubbed face, washed hair, clean and shapely fingernails — everything about her, really — spoke of an overly pampered fat cat’s daughter. How anyone could look like that living in the near-constant dustbowl that was the Badlands was beyond Troy. Then he saw her eyes (had she used charcoal and ash for eyeliner and eyeshadow?). Her eyes told a totally different story than every other visible trait; they were clear windows in a flesh and bone cell built to contain a ravenous ghost consumed by calculating impatience.
“Oh-Em-Gee. Just look what the cat dragged in.” She rose from the steps of the mausoleum, where she’d been sitting, tying her blonde hair into a tight, scalp-tearing ponytail. As Troy approached, he noticed the torchlight bounced off of a few gray hairs at her temples and the bronze badge of office uniform pinned to the breast of her uniform. Her ear-to-ear smile, set beneath her pale, button nose, was absolutely dazzling in the most nauseating way possible as she said, “Troy Myers, Mr. Infamous and Scary himself. I’ve only been looking for you for, like, forever. You’ve been a real troublemaker, y’know?”
Troy didn’t feel the need to reply.
Her arms akimbo, the woman gave him an appraising look. “Do you know who I am? I’m Commander Courtney Robinson of the Austin Rangers. I report directly to the General slash Mayor of Austin Township slash leader of our well-regulated militia of patriots. You’re under arrest for a whole bunch of stuff I’m too bored to list off, right now.” Like a Broadway ingénue performing her heart out so that even the back row got their money’s worth, she made a show of yawning, stuck her butt out, and leaned in for a wink. “Why, your rap sheet’s so long, you could hang yourself with it.” Giggling at her own joke, she clapped her hands and flashed another brilliant smile. “With that out of the way, I guess we can get going.”
Troy breathed a sigh, half relief and half despair. It’s not gonna work. The plan’s gonna fail. Just take me away from here, from all these kids and grandparents.
Robinson snapped her fingers. “Oh, wait. There is that teeny-tiny, itsy-bitsy, pesky, li’l issue of reading everyone here their rights.”
“Everyone?” said Troy.
“Duh. You’re not the only one in over your head, Troy. Everyone here’s done something awful. In connection with you, but also on their own. Theft, assault, rustling official Austin cattle and other livestock… Like, the list goes on and on. But, personally, I care much more about these next ones.” She held up a roll of paper, unrolled it, and read: “Number one: harboring a fugitive of the law. (It should really say ‘mass murderer,’ but who’s counting? Oh, wait, we are. Ha, ha, ha!) Number two: refusing to pay mandated taxes. (How awful and selfish can y’all be?) Number three: Impeding officers of the law in the execution of their duties. (Basically, that means y’all wouldn’t tell us Troy was here and when he was coming back.) Number four: resisting arrest. (A few of y’all got, like, just a li’l bit too cute with me.) All that being said, y’all have the right to do exactly as we tell you.” She handed the paper off to the Ranger at her right, adding, “Be thankful we’re not charging anyone with, like, aiding and abetting a known, violent criminal. ‘Cause it certainly looks like that’s what happened here. And I am not happy about that. Not at all.” She curled a pair of loose strands of her hair behind her ears. “So, here’s the deal. We’re taking ya’ll with us to Austin, where anyone who cooperates will be registered as a tax-paying citizen, reeducated, and integrated into a working society. Neat, huh? Now, you’ll have to be kept separate from the rest of the people on account of y’all being, basically, like, animals and stuff. But, once the paperwork and junk’s been processed, y’all will finally be able to live in peace. Won’t that be just great?” She turned her head and barked, “Moore, Taylor, secure the prisoner. The rest of y’all, get these people on their feet and lined up. We’re heading back to base.”
The Rangers cheered. Troy could only look on dumbly as two men bound him at the wrists and hoisted him into the saddle of a chestnut-colored horse. He didn’t know enough about equestrian-ish stuff to identify the breed, or whatever.
Helpless, he cast one last glance back at the people of Sisterdale, who’d been corralled into three lines behind the horses. Toward the middle of the crowd waited Alvaro. His face was blank.
Unsure what to think, Troy stared back. You can’t go through with it. Not now.
Robinson, mounted herself, addressed the crowd, telling them, “Very soon the rest of y’all’s crimes will be handled. Nobody’s escaping punishment for assisting this horrible, horrible man. But, my boss told me to let y’all know, if y’all are good until we get back to the Capitol for processing, well… we might just have, like, bigger fish to fry than nailing y’all to a cross. ‘Kay?” To her men, she shouted, “Let’s move out.”
They put stuttering, terrified Jaden at the reins of Troy’s horse. For the life of him, Troy couldn’t figure out why they’d done that. A quick survey of the Rangers told him that Jaden was the scrawniest of them all. Maybe not by much, but still. Then it hit Troy: They figure if I try anything it’ll be to grab whoever’s riding with me. Kid’s expendable. If the prisoner tried to escape, or take a hostage in the process, they’d have all their able-bodied soldiers ready to start blasting from all angles. Just a little added insurance, despite there being just about fifty souls Troy had come to care for more than anything serving as collateral.
Robinson’s too clever, Troy thought. Sees the fight in me. Go down hard and fast. Blaze of glory of the last Atlantan. That’s my style. However, she underestimated his sense of responsibility: the people of Sisterdale would be caught in the crossfire. That consideration outweighed even his will to survive.
As he chuckled, deliriously, about how much “The Last Atlantan” sounded like a so-bad-it’s-good classic sci-fi movie, Alvaro managed to slink up to Troy’s side and whisper, “It ain’t over yet.”
How Alvaro had gotten to be such a sneaky son of a bitch was beyond Troy, as was what the hell he was talking about.
I dunno. Looks pretty over to me. Plan has to be called off. Has to be.
One of the Rangers mounted beside Robinson sounded his bugle, distracting Troy from considering what Alvaro had meant.
The grand procession — fifty captured civilians and thirty Rangers — began to movee out.
As he bobbed with every shift of the horse’s ass-muscles, Troy thought, One thing I know for sure: they ain’t gonna keep me in no cell. Or hang me. I’ll die on my own terms, on my own two feet. I’ll beat my fuckin’ brains in against iron bars if that’s what it takes.
I’m stayin’ in control of who I am and how I die.
Christopher Troy Myers
Somewhere Along Route 473
November 22nd, 2040
Troy couldn’t tell how far they’d traveled. (His best guess was about nine miles.) All he could think about was the cruelty shown to the elderly, the children, shuffling alongside their haggard mothers and fathers, or sons and daughters, and how long they’d been walking, in the dark, on an empty stomach. This torture was inhuman. It wasn’t right.
Troy’s beef with Austin had officially transcended the strictly personal.
The order filtered down from Robinson that the first rest-stop of the night wouldn’t come for another two miles yet. Meanwhile, the prisoner convoy’s progress was, at best, painfully slow. The Sisterdalians were exhausted. The Rangers, collectively, couldn’t give less of a shit if they tried.
Troy distracted himself by doing his utmost to scare the bejesus out of Jaden, who already seemed just about ready to piss himself a small lake: “Why we movin’ around in the dark like a bunch’a retards?”
Jaden stayed focused on the road, but he asked, “What do you mean, convict?”
“I ain’t been convicted yet. Unless your law system up in Austin’s that much different from how it used to be before Shit Hit The Fan. And, boy, you wanna live past tomorrow, you best pull ya head out ya ass and take heed. Only ig’nant assholes think traveling the road by night’s anything but suicide.” The kid didn’t answer, so Troy continued with, “No natural light, you gotta have torches, right? That attracts all sorts o’ shit. Give ya some examples, since you don’t seem too imaginative: wild animals, Runners, and randoms.”
“Randoms?” Jaden croaked.
“People. Unfriendly people.”
His voice grew quiet as he said, “Well, we had to round up the criminals, didn’t we?”
Troy shrugged. “Your Commander Robinson could’a picked a better time to hold an entire town hostage.”
“Don’t question the Commander,” Jaden said, but his assertion sounded more like a question.
“Ya gotta understand, kid, I’m about as interested in what happens to you as I am about what’s happening on the dark side of the moon right now. So, the reason I’m tellin’ you all this is ‘cause I went thirteen years avoiding getting bit. And, tonight, any lonesome Nibbler could just stumble on out here and take a chunk outta my ass.”
“Yeah? Maybe you should’a thought of that before you ran around killin’ innocent bystanders. You brought this on yourself, prisoner,” said Jaden.
“Aw, shit.” Troy laughed. “You’re hopeless.” Serious again, he added, “Ain’t no ‘innocents’ left alive, Ranger Jaden Walker.”
The people of Sisterdale trailed just behind Troy, a group of five Rangers guarding the rear. Of the thirty riders, Jaden found himself at roughly the center of the single-file line. Now, some commotion rippled its way back to Troy, carried from mouth to ear in hushed tones.
Something had caught the attention of Commander Robinson and her right-hand man.
Troy couldn’t hear anything of what was being said up front, but, after another several seconds, he caught a glimpse of orange-red flames in the distance, blazing in the dark.
From the head of the column, Robinson yelled, “Turn around! Turn! Turn!”
A crack in the night: a gunshot — then another. One of the Rangers in front of Troy screamed.
Muzzle flares flashed like semaphore lights from between the leafless trees.
Before the Rangers could act on their commander’s order, another jagged streak of flame tore across the road fifty feet back in the direction they’d come from, trapping them. No way out. Unless they chose to charge into the trees on either side, which would only make them nice, fat targets for the invisible gunmen.
The shots never came from the same spot twice, throwing the Rangers into disarray as they blindly returned fire. So far, luck was not on their side.
The next logical step to take would be to either blow Troy’s brains out, or use him as leverage. But he wasn’t about to let either case occur.
Sorry, kid, he thought to himself, as he kicked his right leg over the saddle. Having about a hundred pounds on the teenager, who was clearly psychologically shaken and physically off-balance, Troy threw him off the horse with ease.
Jaden hollered as he tensed and fell. When he hit the concrete, his cry was cut short, punctuated by a sharp snap.
Troy scowled — I fuckin’ think I broke the rug rat’s neck — as he slid forward in the saddle and was about to kick the heels of his boots into the horse’s ribs. What he saw made paralyzed him.
Commander Robinson had dismounted, unholstered her pistol, and taken a hostage. Just a kid.
Javier, Troy thought, the bile boiling up into his mouth.
Her immaculate nails drew pin-pricks’ worth of blood from the boy’s neck. Her other hand struck him across the back of his skull with the butt of her gun.
The piping hot mist of rage enveloping Troy, it took him a few seconds to realize Robinson was shouting: “But I told the Mayor — I told him y’all wouldn’t listen. Y’all aren’t ready for what Austin has to offer. And y’all have put my men in danger.” She tightened her grip on Javier’s throat. “I can’t have that.”
Javier had been stunned by the blow to his head. He hung in her clutches like a doll, toes scratching over the dirt.
The prisoners were pleading: “Let the boy go, let the boy go.” In English, in Spanish, in fear, in hate, in love, in no language at all, they begged Robinson to spare the children.
Children were a blessing. So few children had made it out of infancy since Shit Hit The Fan. More than that, though, Javier was a worthwhile and blessed human life, full of idiosyncrasies, longings, promise. And Robinson now threatened all of that. By merely curling her index finger around that trigger and squeezing, she could put an end to everything Javier would learn, do, and be.
The gunfire from the shadows of the trees had ceased.
“You men, whoever you are, y’all come out now,” said Robinson, her eyes wide. “Y’all surrender now and, I swear, I’ll spare the prisoners. I’ll just execute you and call it a day.”
Some tense moments slipped by during which Troy fully appreciated how helpless he was to save Javier’s future.
Troy held his breath.
Then, from the gloom of very early morning, and into the soft glow emanating from the walls of fire, stepped Felix and Porfirio. Troy’s head darted to the left and, from that side, came Manuel and Pascual. All four of them carried an antique, refurbished bolt-action rifle.
“Drop your guns,” said Robinson, spinning in circles in an attempt to face both directions at once.
It was Porfirio who shouted, “Hermanos, it’s over. Let’s do what she says.”
Under the intense gaze of all of his parents, siblings, nieces, nephews, and friends, he threw down his rifle. Even though the balance of power had swung wildly back in their favor, the Rangers looked about ready to shit bricks, every last one of them. Maybe they understood that it wasn’t over until the last gun was seized, that these men would die defending their family.
It did appear as though Porfirio’s gang was about to surrender unconditionally…
They stopped, however, when they heard the frantic wail that ripped through the three long columns of bound Sisterdalians. The gunshot that followed that high-pitched, keening shriek caused Robinson and her young hostage to jump.
And then there was a second shot, a crack that echoed into the depths of the fading night.
And Javier’s body slumped, slipping from Robinson’s trembling grasp.
Before he became consciously aware of what he was doing, Troy (his wrists still tied behind his back) leapt from the horse he’d commandeered from the still unmoving Jaden Walker. He hurled himself, all of himself, at Robinson, body-slamming her so that they both tumbled to the ground.
Robinson screamed in Troy’s face, “Kill them! Kill them all!”
He screamed back at her, spattering her with spittle, thinking, I will, not understanding or not caring that that order hadn’t been meant for him.
On top of her, he landed a pair of head-butts backed by all the weight he could throw into them. The first blow caught her on the eye; the second, her nose. A satisfying crunch followed. But Troy’s rage was far from sated.
One of the Rangers blew three short notes with his bugle, then, but Troy didn’t concern himself with whatever message had been broadcast.
He might have gone for another couple strikes, but two pairs of arms looped around his neck and waist, tearing him away from Robinson, whose eyelid had already begun to swell and purple. Hopping to her feet, she swept the back of her knuckles under her nostrils, wincing as she did. The back of her hand came away bloody.
She pointed her pistol at Troy, the effect of her triumphant smile somewhat diluted by the gore now pouring down her lips, chin, and neck.
But she missed her chance to end his life. A pale and black-veined arm draped over her collarbones, pulling her backward. She spun in place to face what turned out to be a Runner.
And Troy figured out what must have happened before — he gagged — Javier’s brains had been emptied out onto the crumbling asphalt: attracted to the lights of the fire-walls, the noisy chatter of the Rangers, and the crack of the gunshots, a pack of nearby Runners had torn through the brush toward the prisoner convoy.
They were here, among the old and the young.
Troy ducked and crouch-ran away from the center of the disintegrating line.
People scattered. The Rangers fired their carbine rifles at anything that moved. One of them took aim at Troy, who, on pure instinct, flopped to his stomach and rolled. The shot never came, though. By the time Troy looked up, the Ranger had been pulled to the ground. The Runners clawed at him, raking his flesh, spilling their deathly essence into the bloody furrows they made.
Troy didn’t know what to do. Every way he turned, the voices of the people he loved and their enemies greeted him. The screams came from all around.
But then someone cut the ropes lashing his wrists, freeing him. Alvaro spun him around and handed him a gun, a 9mm. Bit dusty, but it would do.
One Ranger he drilled through the neck as the man struggled to hold a Runner at bay. Twisting just a second too late, the next Ranger caught one in the ear. Dead before he hit the dirt.
The wide open maw of a Runner swung into view, the creature’s curled fingers taking a swipe at Troy from the edge of his peripheral vision. Cringing, he spun away, just as half of the creature’s head ripped off. Behind the crumpling corpse stood Emiliano, quivering but still upright.
His expression broke Troy’s fucking heart. Troy turned around to see what he was seeing:
The Sisterdalians, though unarmed and bound, had swarmed the Rangers, piling on top of them. That had worked for all of seventy seconds. The kow-kow-kow of automatic weapons — the Devil’s typewriter — sounded in the night.
Robinson, meanwhile, had retreated to her horse and unlashed a bundle of old but horrifyingly serviceable AR-15s. She and those men of hers who’d not been crowded by Sisterdalians now unloaded their clips into those tired, sick, starving people.
It was a massacre the scope of which Troy hadn’t seen since Atlanta. And it took just a few seconds, just a handful of seconds, for the Rangers to riddle their targets with bullets.
The young and able-bodied fell; the gray-haired and bony fell; the small and mousy fell; the big-eyed children fell.
Some did escape, or seemed to; at any rate, they limped off into the darkness, those half-dozen. Everyone else lay still.
But Troy was still standing.
I can’t be the only one again, he thought. Then he remembered Emil, who was at his side, alive.
And then he saw Manuel and Pascual stand up.
And then he saw Felix clamber to his feet, pushing off of his knees.
And then he choked on the tears as Alvaro stood, too… but Alvaro wept over the body of Porfirio.
Porfirio didn’t get up again.
In the space of a half-breath, Troy noted the steep and sudden decline in the Rangers’ numbers. Their frantic spray-and-pray tactic had yielded results, but a bunch of their comrades had been dropped as a result. There were maybe seven of them left.
Suddenly, every barrel of every gun, be it AR-15 or humble 9mm, was aimed at a member of the opposing team in this last death match. For a second, maybe two, only glances — not bullets — were exchanged.
Then they all, all at once, let the lead fly.
Troy emptied his cartridge, jerking the sights of his handgun to square with either Robinson or one of the two assholes on either side of her. He had eyes only for them; he took in nothing of what happened around him.
When you’re about to die, or think you are, Troy discovered at the tender age of ten or eleven, you focus on stupid, intangible bullshit. All the pointless moments and images that should, by no means, etch themselves into your memory for the rest of your very short life. He didn’t relive, for example, the last time he saw his childhood best friend, Chen, or when he met that stray calico cat who followed him home. Nah, it was all perfect recall of the smell of saltwater and the feeling on dewy grass between his naked toes. If there was such a thing as a Beyond, he didn’t want to face it like some unwashed hippie fuck thinking, The sun is rising. But he had no control over the whirling imagery his mind threw before him, slide after slide.
The sun was rising, and a mist rose with it, the result of the coagulating moisture of body heat being shed from the several dozen corpses littering the earth, and the night-cooled earth.
Smoke wafted from the discharged guns in every hand of those fighting for their lives on that lonely highway.
Troy’s side and shoulder stung, but he ignored the pain, gritting his teeth to pass through it and come out the other end. He was waiting for what would happen next.
And what happened next was this: all of the Rangers fell, most of them dead, some of them dying.
And Felix kneeled, clutching the meat of his left forearm with his right hand, hissing, “Ssshit.”
“Anyone else hit?” said Alvaro.
Of the surviving six, no one said a word.
Emiliano loaded another bullet into the chamber of his gun and let the bolt slide back into place. He walked around the area, exploding the heads of any Runners or Rangers left alive.
All the Rangers were, in this way, killed by him or by Alvaro or Manuel, who took to emulating their young friend.
All the Rangers, that is, except for one.
Christopher Troy Myers
Somewhere Along Route 473
November 23rd, 2040
They formed a semi-circle in front of Courtney Robinson, Commander of the Austin Rangers, who rested on top of the two men who’d shielded her with their bodies. Until they were torn apart, at last, by shotgun shell shrapnel and .308 caliber bullets.
Robinson, too, was bruised and broken. Where Troy’s head-butts had landed, her eyelid had swollen shut and her ruptured nose was coated in a crimson smear.
He didn’t feel an ounce of pity. For once.
Sisterdale — everyone was dead. Almost everyone.
Alvaro spoke first. “You killed our families. All of them. Every—” Something in his voice snapped. Fuming, he fell silent.
Pascual said, “You came for us, to our homes. Knocked down our doors and threw our women into the street like dogs.”
Felix said, “No honor.” He spat. “Bitch.”
“I got fifty reasons you need to eat it,” said Manuel, the tears flowing from his eyes.
Emiliano stepped forward. “You shot Porfirio.”
“It wasn’t supposed to end this way,” rasped Commander Robinson, the edges of her mouth bloody, as she clutched the gushing wound in her stomach. “I was, like, so beautiful and popular and loved by everyone. I even graduated with a 3.1 GPA from UT. Majored in Nutrition. My mentor… David Wolfe and I were gonna change the world. Really wanted to make a difference, help people.” She hacked up a mouthful of blood. “Ugh. Look at me, now. I don’t deserve this. I, like, always gave blood and worked for Habitat for Humanity. Fuck. Shit.” Her eyes glazed over. “Preston Scott was such a perv. I never should have gone with him, pity-fucked him. What a loser. Wasted my… best years, ugh, ah. I wish I had some, like, fro-yo, though, y’know? Fuck, who do I have to blow to get some — some — a Jagerpiranha?” Her good eye still open, her chin dropped, body folding at the ribcage. “All that time… on trash. I, like, threw away my youth and shit. For nothing. And now, now—”
“After all that’s happened, I can’t be the one to do it. Not alone,” said Felix.
“Me neither,” Alvaro added.
“It’s gonna have to be all of us,” Manuel finished, choking on the words.
The five native survivors of the Sisterdale massacre raised their weapons.
Troy stood to the side and let them have their this. It was theirs, and theirs alone. It was right.
“Three,” said Pascual.
“Two,” said Alvaro.
“One,” said Emiliano.
The echo of the five simultaneous shots sent the vultures, the restive bats, and the beetles and rats flying and scurrying away.
After that, the final moments of dawn’s first light washed over them.
Then they were bathed in the full glory of the rising sun, the rays cutting through the mist and trees.
Alvaro was the first to speak: “We have nothing left to live for.” He clenched his fists, bowing his head. When he lifted his gaze again, his expression was the face of the mountain: immutable, impassive, made of stone. And he said, “Nothing but the total destruction of anyone who had anything to do with tonight.”
“We can’t stop.” Pascual cleared his throat and hawked a dusty glob onto the ground. “Not until Austin Township is a fucking ghost town. Just like Sisterdale.”
“Porfirio is dead,” said Emiliano, falling to his knees. “Everyone we know is just gone.”
Manuel shook his head. “Not everyone.”
Felix clapped a hand to Emil’s shoulder and then grimaced at the pain the gesture caused him. “We’re still here. There’s no resting for us. Hard as it is, la lucha’s only just started.”
Alvaro nodded. “They live on in us. All of them. We carry them with us.” He crossed his arms. “We’ll give them the blood they’re owed.”
Troy fell onto his ass, unable to stand any longer. He shouted, “This is all my fault! I did this shit. The Rangers would never’ve come here if it wasn’t for me.”
“All due respect, Troy, shut up,” said Felix, letting slip a weak grin which disappeared as quickly as it came.
Manuel shrugged. “You tangled with them. They came for revenge.”
Pascual pointed to Robinson’s slack-jawed corpse. “That’s right. They came for you, one of us. That’s the same as coming after all of us. And now they’re gonna find out they woke six fucking lions when they tore apart our Sisterdale.”
Alvaro placed a hand on Troy’s scalp, saying, “You think you owe us something. You don’t. We were never running a charity. We never gave anything you didn’t pay back. But if you feel the need to do us one more solid, make it this: lead us.”
Troy’s mouth hung open. “What? You high?”
“Never been more sober than now. God dammit.” Alvaro crossed himself. “And I know you feel me, imbécil. It’s like this: only the strong survive. Porfirio happened to be the strongest and smartest of us all. But he’s gone. And that leaves us with you.”
Troy didn’t know what to say.
Alvaro fixed his gaze on him. “You been wandering, alone, your whole life. What you need is family. What we need is someone with the smarts to help us kill everyone we hate. The war could take years, but a war is what we’re asking for. We’ll do it without you, but we’d rather have you with us; you’re the best man for the job.”
“I ain’t organized like that. I know how to survive, but to fight a town, an army?” Troy chopped the air as if he were breaking that ridiculous idea in half.
“We just gotta apply enough pressure to get the cracks started. Nature and the law of the new world will take care of the rest. That’s the way it’s been for more than ten years, and that’s the way it’s gonna stay forever.” Alvaro wiped the mixture of dirt and sweat from his brow, leaving a brown-gray streak across his forehead. “If you feel anything at all after what’s happened to us, you’ll take charge of this gang. For Porfirio. For Sisterdale. For me, and your four other friends. We’re with you, to the end. We ask only that you help us fight. End what Robinson started.”
Troy sniffed. Acting counter to every single instinct that kept him alive up to this point in time, he said, “Well, shit. Of course I’m gonna fight with you.” He paused. “But it’s still only the six of us. Gonna take some serious pressure to bust up Austin’s operations enough to make it hurt.”
“We got time,” said Felix.
“Six lifetimes,” added Manuel.
Troy nodded. Nothing else needed to be said.
Still seated, he flicked his head toward the woods to his left. “The horses.”
“They ain’t far,” said Pascual. “I’ll go get ‘em. Manuel, could you stop being such a lazy bitch and come give me hand?”
Manuel grumbled but complied. “The shots probably made ‘em skittish, but they’ll come back. They always come back to Papa Manny.”
I believe it, Troy thought. Horses must’ve grown mighty used to the sounds of human war by now.
“Alvaro,” said Troy. He grunted when a spasm stabbed its way up from his gut to his gullet. “Come here.”
“Everything alright?” said Alvaro. He squinted at Troy. “Looks like one of those caps gave you a, wassitcalled?, a flesh wound on your shoulder.”
Head swimming, Troy ignored him. “First,” he said, “we’re gonna need some gear. More guns, ammo. Maybe some bombs, or the materials to build ‘em.”
“Oh, hey, you know who has crates full of that shit lyin’ around?” said Alvaro.
They all smiled the joyless smiles of those irreparably divorced from the law.
“The dynamite they left in Sisterdale!” said Emiliano.
“Time to go to work,” said Troy. He cocked his head as another wave of pain washed over him. “Know what? Hold up on that.” He fell onto his back with a thud.
Alvaro’s face switched to one hundred percent pure concern. “Cristo. Troy, can you get up?”
Troy didn’t hear the next part of what he said.
“I think I been shot,” said Troy as he lifted his arm to reveal a swelling patch of blood on his shirt.
And he passed out.
Christopher Troy Myers
November 27th, 2040
Strong enough to move about again, Troy had insisted on attending the improvised ceremony of sorts. A sending off of Sisterdale, that’s what they’d voted on, as a group.
Troy might have been elected boss-man, but there were some decisions you just didn’t make unilaterally.
“It’s better that we do it. Do it now, ourselves,” said Manuel.
“It’s better this way, yeah,” said Felix.
“This way, no one’ll ruin this place,” said Emil, placing a bundle of dynamite at the base of the last mausoleum. “It’ll stay like it was in memory. Just like it was. Just for us.”
From a safe distance, far, far away, the gang watched the town of Sisterdale, built upon the dilapidated ruins and decomposing corpses of the old world, explode. Before their very eyes, a ball of fire careened between the stones, and the force burst the tombs. Their stone bits mingled with the cascades of dirt, dust, and powdered bone.
On the morning when their old lives had ended, Alvaro had tended to the bodies of the recently dead. Dousing them in home-brewed moonshine and using his second-to-last match, he gave them all the best tribute he could: a mass funeral pyre. The vultures and coyotes, Runners and looters wouldn’t get to them that way. The Sisterdalians, loved until the end, would pass into the next world uncorrupted after death.
It was something, Troy admitted. Not nearly enough. But something.
He never heard or found any evidence of what had happened to the few who’d escaped the Rangers’ clutches and fled into the darkness…
Unsurprisingly, several days after getting shot, his gut still ached. Luckily, Pascual had been training to be a nurse before being thrown in jail and he still remembered enough tricks to patch Troy up.
Also, the bullet had exited cleanly, missing Troy’s vital organs. Sweet.
But, yeah, it still hurt. Just not as much as everything else did.
Alvaro took his hand. Troy gave it a squeeze.
The fires blazed, crawling up the trees, now.
The six of them watched the pillar of smoke rise from the wreckage of home, looking on until they could stand the sight no longer.
Christopher Troy Myers
The Spread-Eagle, Austin Township, Tri-Texan Confederacy
January 21st, 2041
The Spread-Eagle, on paper, was a motel. But you could rent — you were encouraged to rent the rooms by the hour. Hint-hint.
Aside from this most popular set of wonderful services, usually administered by drugged up teenyboppers, the motel also boasted a reasonably well-stocked bar (ask for the “Bounty Hunter’s Bag” from the back — much better shit). Most important of all, however, was the bulletin board nailed onto the wall beside the decent-enough-bar. On this corkboard, the Austin Government had posted its updated Ten Most Wanted.
Recently, a ruckus had been raised due to the fact that six of those spots had been claimed by members of the same gang of outlaws. Worse, those thugs were totally new to the scene. Nobody had any idea who the hell they were. All anyone could be sure of was that these guys hated Austin with a fiery, apocalyptic fury. Word was, their attacks were targeted, ruthless, and quick. They hit like a hammer.
And, in this dank and dingy crap hole, amid the teetering drunkards and their two-dollar, Double-A whores, Troy nursed his beer in the wake of two shots of strong whiskey.
The barman kept throwing him the same dirty look, but Troy’s “I don’t give a fuck” expression chased the old sausage-nose away every time. Him and the yellow liver spots on his cheeks.
The better to fully enjoy the upcoming moment, Troy chugged the remainder of his tankard of beer once he saw the crowd gathering around the bulletin board. Same time as always. Like clockwork. Like these lowlife bounty hunters wake up at three o’clock in the afternoon, take their dumps, fuck their unwillingly bought hos, and land, beer in hand, right in front of the job listings. Perfectly synchronized. And what do they see when they get there? The same job that had been giving them the shit-eye for two months.
Troy chuckled from his corner.
He’d read this particular poster enough times to have it memorized, or just about. He still thought the Wanted Poster artist should be fired; Looks nothing like me, he thought.
At any rate, he could paraphrase the sheet like a boss:
In November of A.D. 2041, the peaceful town of Sisterdale was destroyed by bandits, its population of around fifty souls butchered by these bloody rogues. Who could believe that only six men could be capable of such carnage? But believe it you must, for these violent criminals are still out there. They roam the wasteland, robbing from the poor, slaughtering the innocent.
Your Government has responded by issuing the following bounty, good in perpetuity, and backed by the gold reserves of the State:
- 1,500 armor piercing rounds (or equivalent value) to the man or men who apprehend, DEAD OR ALIVE, one TROY MYERS, leader of the murderous and vile Sisterdale Six
- An additional 500 armor piercing rounds (or equivalent) to the man or men who apprehend, DEAD OR ALIVE, any members of the villain’s gang
- 50 Confederate Dollars* to anyone with information leading to the successful capture of the Sisterdale Six
- Contact the Office of the Justice of the Peace or the Sheriff’s Office for more information, detailed rap sheets, and last known whereabouts
*redeemable at any Accredited Place of Business (APB) in the Tri-Texan territories of Austin, San Antonio, and Houston
Your Government demands that you, as a responsible citizen, respect and obey any and all commands issued by law enforcement personnel. Your Government requires that you share with said personnel any and all knowledge you have concerning this and any future matters considered crucial to homeland security. Failure to do so may result in punishments which may include significant fines, repossession of Government-issued lands and property, imprisonment, and, in some extreme cases, Court-Ordered execution. Your Government thanks you for your cooperation.
God bless you, God bless the Confederacy, and God bless Austin Township, the New America!
Troy smirked. God bless this, and god bless that… Tch. It’s going to get much darker before the dawn, boys.
A quote sprang to his mind, then — from his cousin Robert’s favorite movie. Used to run around saying it, over and over. How’d it go again?
“I am the devil, and I’m here to do the devil’s work.” Troy smiled. That’s some cold shit, but it applies. You cast us out of your circle, you spit on us as we try to eke out a livin’. You kill our families. And now you’re punishing us ‘cause we wanna share the wealth of our suffering with you?
Approaching the bar, he looked around the room, sizing up the scum gathered in this tavern. The real reason he was there: reconnaissance, a necessary part of the grand strategy. Well, so far, he wasn’t impressed. Bunch’a mouth-breathin’ hillbillies, every last one.
“Yo,” he shouted over the noise of excited voices and the pounding of bed frames upstairs rattling the walls and the rafters, “another beer, you hear me?”
Ever mindful of his manners, Troy set his black derby hat down on the counter. The barman turned away, face frozen in a scowl.
Then one of the bounty hunters tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Hey, bud, that Myers feller kinda looks like you, don’t he?”
Troy chuckled and said, “Think so?”
A beer was set in front of him. He covered it with his hand as the ceiling rattled again and a line of dirt fell straight down. Then he drank the yellowy, watered down piss that passed for booze, here.
After a few minutes ticked by, he leaned in to whisper conspiratorially to the bounty hunter, “Y’know, I might have a lead on the Sisterdale Six.”
The mercenary choked on his drink. Coughing, he said, “No shit?”
“No shit.” Troy winked. “I’ll deal you in, so long as you bring some extra muscle to the fight.”
“Really? You’d do that for me? I don’t even know you, feller.”
“Hey, we’re all in this together, partner. What’s mine is yours. And these dudes seem mighty dangerous from what I heard. I’m lookin’ to get paid, not merc’d, know what I’m sayin’?”
The bounty hunter nodded, wiping the beer foam from his moustache. “I heard that.” Almost shaking with anticipation, he added, “So, what’s the scoop?”
And Troy gave the man detailed directions to the place where he, and whoever he brought with him, would be ambushed by the Sisterdale Six, robbed blind, and thrown, naked, into the desert. Where they’d have nothing but their wits to guide them back to town. In other words, these bounty hunters were about to be royally boned.
The best part was, the only one who suspected Troy was the barman, and he hated everybody and his job equally. He didn’t care who bought the drinks or screwed the girls, just so long as they did. That gave Troy and his gang enough leeway to skim off the top when they needed to… restock.
The next planned target was the supply chain between Austin and Houston. Stretched out between those two hubs of civilization was a whole lot of nothing, giving the Six ample opportunity to take advantage, next week, of the caravan passing through some real rough territory.
Sisterdale Six territory.
But, first: deal with this moron.
As Troy stared into the glassy eyes and ruddy, stupid face of the bounty hunter busily chatting him up, he thought, Yeah, we run this shit. We’re gods of the Badlands.
Damn it feels good to be an outlaw.
As of the publishing of this post, Volumes 1-6 of the Bag Men series are available on Amazon Kindle:
- Bag Men (Volume I)
- Bag Men: Waste (Volume II)
- Bag Men: Trinity (Volume III)
- Bag Men: Vanguard (Volume IV)
- Bag Men: Radioactive (Volume V)
- Bag Men: Origin (Volume VI)