We had been walking for about an hour and hadn’t seen a sign of any other survivors. The countryside was eerily silent, even the birds having abandoned the area or were too afraid to make any sound. I was pretty sure they were just gone. The wind blew steadily in our faces as we moved eastward, providing the only environmental noise other than our boots on the asphalt.
Gabbert was jumpy as hell at first, constantly looking around and over his shoulder with his rifle held high and tight to his chest. I had to remind him several times to keep his finger off the trigger and along the receiver of the weapon. Now, after a few miles in the hot afternoon sun, he was tiring. His eyes were only on the road directly in front of him and he’d let the rifle hang down his back on its sling. I’d made him move it to the side so it was at least readily accessible if he needed to fight.
The terrain around us was almost perfectly flat as we closed in on the river. We crossed the occasional small lake, but the pavement didn’t even change elevation, just continued on concrete pilings that stuck up out of the water. Far to the south I could see what looked like a cluster of small businesses, and toyed with the idea of checking them for a vehicle. I don’t mind walking, but I needed to be covering a lot of ground quickly, not plodding along at four miles an hour.
Making my decision, I motioned for Gabbert to follow me. Clear of another lake, we climbed over the guardrail on the edge of the shoulder and down a dirt embankment to the field below. It may have been a rice paddy at one time, but now it was just chest high grass and weeds. Ahead, maybe a mile away, I could just make out the top of the sign for one of the businesses and assumed it was a truck stop. There had been an exit a quarter of a mile back, but I hadn’t paid any attention to the signs that let travelers know what services were available if they got off the freeway.
We hadn’t gone far, maybe a couple of hundred yards, when my little sixth sense started tickling the hair on my arms and running up and down my back on tiny mouse feet. Without breaking stride I casually looked around, then checked over each shoulder, but didn’t see anything. The feeling didn’t go away and I came to a stop, holding a hand out to halt Gabbert.
“What’s wr -,” he started to ask, slamming his mouth shut when I glared at him and held a finger to my lips.
Rifle now up to my shoulder, I started a slow, 360-degree scan. The wind was blowing harder with strong gusts, and the vegetation in the field moved constantly in waves. Several times I paused in my scan, thinking I’d spotted something, but it was just a larger weed or bush that wasn’t moving in tandem with the surrounding grass. I paused; a full circle completed without finding anything, and was preparing to start a second scan when Sergeant Gabbert screamed.
He was a dozen feet behind and to my left, and was already vanishing into the tall grass by the time I swung my rifle around in his direction. Before I could even take a step, his scream was cut off as the vegetation surrounding the area where he’d disappeared starting shaking violently. What the fuck?
I moved towards the spot, but didn’t make it before I caught motion out of the corner of my eye. Not one to normally shoot without knowing what I was shooting at, I spun and fired six fast rounds at the location where I’d seen movement. The grass shook in a way that wasn’t from the wind, then a faint grunting sounded briefly. Not detecting any more movement, I turned to face where I’d last seen Gabbert. The grass was shaking, independent of the strong wind, and I could hear more grunting sounds. I wanted to put some rounds into the area, but if Gabbert wasn’t already dead, I might finish him off.
Taking a step, I froze when the grunting stopped. There was a rustle in the grass and a bush shook as whatever it was started coming in my direction. Back pedaling, I focused in on the wake I could see in the waving foliage and started firing in burst mode. Nine rounds expended, my blood ran cold when there was a squealing scream, then it changed direction and moved swiftly away from me. I tracked the movement of its passing, and it was moving fast. A lot faster than I can run.
Moving forward again, I kept a close eye out for any more danger as I looked for Gabbert. I found him easily, and he was dead. Vacant eyes stared at the sky. The grass was pressed down under what was left of his body. Scanning the area again for movement, I didn’t see anything, but that didn’t make me feel any better. Glancing down at him in between scans of the immediate area I could see damage to his right leg, abdomen and throat. His lower leg was slashed open to the bone. His abdomen also ripped open, intestines spilling out onto the ground, and most of his throat was torn out.
Fuck me! What can do that to a full grown man in just a few seconds? At first I thought it had to be an infected, but dismissed that. The infected only had the teeth and nails they were born with. A human, no matter how enraged, simply cannot inflict that kind of damage on another with bare hands. Besides, even the smart infected scream once they start attacking, and I hadn’t heard a sound until after I had put some rounds into whatever it was. I wanted to go check the spot where I’d fired on the first movement, but the little voice in the back of my head was screaming at me to get out of that field as fast as I could.
Now if this had been a horror movie I would have ignored it and gone stumbling around until something equally horrible happened to me. But this wasn’t, and I like to think I’m at least a little smarter than film characters, so I started backing toward the pavement. Rifle up and constantly scanning I moved carefully, expecting to have my legs slashed out from under me at any moment.
The wind continued to pick up, tossing the grass around like the surface of the ocean in a strong storm. If there was still anything moving in the field other than me, it had the perfect cover. I’d never spot a disturbance in the grass in time to defend myself. Glancing over my shoulder, I noted I was just under 200 yards away from clear ground where I could see and effectively fight whatever this was. Walking backwards, I did a quick magazine change.
Wading through chest deep grass when there’s something, or several somethings, that are most likely stalking you is not my idea of a pleasant stroll. I tried to watch in every direction at once. Continually the wind would ruffle the top of the field and for a brief instant I would think I was seeing the wake of an approaching threat. But nothing attacked, and the ground finally started rising as the grass and weeds thinned out. My instinct as I moved into a more open area was to dash for the road, but there was no way in hell I was going to turn my back on the field.
Finally at the guardrail, I swung a leg over without taking my eyes off the grass. Back on the asphalt, I calmed my breathing, rifle up and scanning across the large field. Whatever had attacked and killed Gabbert was either gone, or being completely masked by the undulating surface of the grass. Shaking off the creeping feeling that was resting on my shoulders, I flicked my eyes up to the business that had been my destination.
There was a reasonable chance I could acquire a vehicle there, but I wasn’t about to try crossing the field again. That meant a quarter of a mile backtrack to the exit. Glancing to my left, east, I looked for any sign of habitation. Nothing for as far as I could see, which was a good distance in this terrain.
Decision made, I stepped off to the west and headed for the exit. I kept the rifle up and ready as I moved, not relaxing until I had made it back out over the waters of the small lake I’d crossed earlier. Continually checking behind me I was moving slower than I liked, but when a predator is in the area, possibly stalking and waiting to strike, speed over caution is rarely the right way to go.
I reached the exit without incident, tempted to cut across a narrow arm of the field, but rethinking that idea and sticking to the pavement. The exit cut through a corner of the field, the pavement half the width of the main freeway that I had been walking on. There were narrow, gravel shoulders on each side, the tall grass pushing right up to the edge. It was even taller here, nearly to the top of my head, and it felt like I was walking in a tunnel.
Only a dozen yards down the exit road, I paused and surveyed my surroundings. Standing in the middle of the road there was maybe ten feet of clearance to either side, then the thick edge of the field started. Ten feet is nothing. I could cross that in less than a second. Depending on what the predators hiding in the field were, they might even be able to leap all the way from hiding to where I was standing.
Ahead of me, the road stretched out perfectly straight for what I guessed to be a half of a mile, and I could make out two large structures. From where I stood they appeared to be a truck stop and a cheap motel that probably catered to long haul truckers. I could also see the sun glinting brightly off of several vehicles parked around the buildings. But was the risk of running the gauntlet of the field worth it to maybe find an operable vehicle?
Eyes scanning up and down each side of the road as I weighed my options, I tried to come up with what kind of animal I might be facing. Unfortunately I didn’t know this part of the country well enough to even make a guess. Whatever it was had to be big and powerful to have killed Gabbert as swiftly as it had, and there just weren’t that many large predators in North America that I could think of that were capable. A bear? Panther? No, those didn’t fit. His leg has been taken out from under him first, then his stomach torn open and throat slashed as he lay on the ground. This was something built low.
Giving up on trying to figure out what it was, I decided I didn’t really have a better option than to proceed and find a vehicle. Stepping off I moved deeper into the canyon of tall grass, eyes constantly scanning, rifle up and swiveling back and forth in sync with my eyes. The wind was still ripping through, creating a loud sighing sound and rustling all of the vegetation in the fields. It was causing so much noise I wasn’t able to depend on my hearing to alert me to an impending attack. Frequent checks of my rear were consistently negative, but I also knew that without constant attention something could emerge from the weeds and bring me down from behind before I knew it was there.
I had covered half the distance to the truck stop when movement to the front brought me to a stop. As I watched, three low, hulking figures trotted out of the grass and onto the road no more than thirty yards away. They had massive shoulders and necks and long bodies, nearly five feet, with narrow hips and were covered in a dense coat of black, wiry fur. Their heads were cruelly shaped and held well below their front shoulders. Gleaming, razor sharp tusks, several inches long, jutted up from their lower jaws and each animal had to weigh at least 300 pounds. Razorback hogs. Oh shit!