“Rick, is this the man you found?” Tom said, keeping his eyes on the outsider.
“He is.” Rick said, “I suggest that we bind him before he comes to; this guy moves like a cat.”
Tom pointed to two of the men. They turned him over, putting the outsider on his back. Now Tom good a very good look at this interloper: bald, unnaturally-colored skin all over, lean and fit like a man long-time in the wild, eyes that reminded Tom of top-tier predators and a mount accustomed to eating meat and marrow from the bone- bits of rotting human flesh hung from the corner of the outsider’s mouth.
“Bind him.” Tom said, “Anything that feeds on zeds like zeds eat people ain’t anything I want running free around me or mine.”
Rick nodded at the two men next to the outsider and tossed them a chain.
“Tom,” Rick said, “I’d chain him to the pole for now, and I’d hurry. I’m thinking that this one’s got more than guts and a damn thick skin going for him; I’m expecting him to come around real soon.”
Tom nodded his agreement; he thought it reasonable that anything that hunts zombies for food wouldn’t be human himself. The two men detailed to bind the outsider quickly bound him hand-and-foot, gagged him with a scrap of leather and dragged him away to chain him up to the thick stone pole that Tom used as a flagpole.
“You men get checked out and then go clean up.” Tom said as he turned to Rick, “Rick, you come with me.”
Rick grunted his assent and followed Tom through the porch and into the house, where they passed Tom’s wife and daughter going out the door with medical supplies and water buckets. Tom stopped them.
“Sally,” Tom said, looking at his daughter, “you go in and get one of your brothers to carry the buckets. You stay close to your mother; she’s not to be carrying more than the baby in her belly.”
Jane sighed, but Tom cut her off; “No backtalk. Do what you’re told.”
Resigned, Jane waited for Sally to come back with one of the boys and together they went to see to the men while Tom and Rick settled in the living room.
“What happened, Rick?”
“We’d reached halfway in our patrol, having found a few zeds in some of the pits we dug earlier and gunned them down along the way. We came upon another spot where we dug some pits, and from a distance one of them clearly had something in it. When we got closer, we found that a zed not only fell into it, but also got out again.”
“Is that what set you on the weirdo?”
Rick nodded affirmatively.
“He killed the zed, dragged it out and hauled it away?”
Rick nodded again.
“Does this answer your question about what’s been messing with zed patterns?”
“I’m certain that this is the answer.” Rick said, “He’s shadowed zed packs, culled from them and fed off them.”
“I see.” Tom said, “Ever since the world went to Hell, I’d been expecting more than living out ‘Night of the Living Dead’.”
“What do you make of him, Tom?”
“That skin color ain’t paint. No one’s born with that color, and no one can tan their way to it.”
“You think that he’s diseased?”
“No. I think that he’s some kind of mutant. He’s about as old as we are, which means that he was—at the least—in high school when the shit hit the fan. Something happened to him right when it all went down, something that made him go feral like that.”
“The men aren’t going to want him around.” Rick said.
“I don’t either.” Tom said, reaching for his pipe, “But I do want to keep him around long enough to determine if he’s any trouble for us.”
“You think that he might?”
“That depends.” Tom said, packing his pipe.
“You mean if he’s doing more than just hunting and eating zeds?”
“That’s part of it.” Tom said, lighting his pipe off a lit candle, “You said that you couldn’t take him without every man going at him at once?”
Rick rubbed his own bruised shoulder. “Yeah, I did. He’s fast, mean and tough. He fought like he’d scrapped frequently for years, a real street-fighter. No guns, but he had a hatchet and a knife and he sure knew how to use them. We had to entangle him first before we dog-piled him and beat him down.”
Tom took a long, slow drag off the pipe as he gazed out a window, watching the women—now aided by all of his little boys—tend to the men’s wounds, taking in their soiled clothes and drawing baths.
“Rick, it seems to me that you men got lucky.”
Rick joined his brother at the window as Tom let a smooth flow of tobacco smoke flow from his lips.
“Between one man’s bolo and another man’s taser, we closed quickly and got within his reach to grapple him and beat him down. Those tricks won’t work on him again, Tom. Count on it.”
* * * * *
The men gathered about the farm’s well, dragging large tubs into place and preparing the ground for a handful of fires. Jane and Sally tended to the men’s wounds while Jane’s young sons move around the men, taking their soiled clothes and drawing baths.
“You men look like you fought a bear.” Jane said.
One of the men, an older man whose white hair seemed premature, turned about to look at the woman of the house- much to Sally’s annoyance in her attempts to check the man’s bruises.
“Mrs. Jones, you saw that queer-looking man that we dragged back here, right?”
Jane nodded. Another man, younger by a generation, now joined the conversation.
“That zed-eater acted more like a beast than a man!”
Several of the men grumbled in agreement.
“If I didn’t know better, I’d say that Tom and Rick were trying to get us killed.” The younger man said, “That monster clearly killed the zed that we tracked, and we caught him literally red-handed eating the corpse.”
The older man nodded. “I don’t see what Rick wants with it. We should’ve blown that thing to bits and burned the bits to ash, like we do to zeds.”
“That thing ain’t human!” another man said, “Why are we keeping it around?”
“Maybe Tom and Rick want to know what it knows.” Jane said
The younger man scoffed. “It’s a beast, woman! Even if it talks like a man, it ain’t a man. It neither looks or acts like a man; it eats the dead, moves like a lion and fights like a tiger- and that ain’t natural at all.”
“There ain’t nothing out there anymore worth knowing.” The older man said, “We’re on our own here, and probably the only people left in the world now. Fifteen years gone and no one else comes our way? No, we’re all that’s left of Mankind. Everything else is a zed or worse.”
Sally shook her head, and the men rolled their eyes at her.
“Don’t be stupid, girl.” one of them said, “It’s not like this farm is that hard to find. We were an easy one hour drive from the city. Your father was not someone that no one ever heard from; he was a pillar of the community, and known state-wide due to his involvement in politics and society, as was his father—your grand-father—before him. Hell, this farm was your grand-father’s farm before the world went to shit; ask your mother- she watched as your grand-father’s shambling corpse lurched towards us, just as we leveled our guns and blew him away.”
Sally looked over at Jane, who nodded in confirmation.
“They haven’t told you a damned thing, have they?” the younger man said, “No wonder you’re not much better than a child at damn near anything. Whichever one of us gets you for a wife will have a hell of a time fixing you.”
“What makes you think that Sally would marry any of you?” Jane said.
“One way or another, Mrs., Jones,” the older man said, “one of us will take your daughter for a wife and he will get to work on siring our own brood of children.”
Another said, “Your husband knows this. That’s why he entertained many offers from us; he knows that we’re all he’s got to work with.”
“Don’t I get a-“
As one, the men turned on Sally and said, bellowing, “NO!”
The older man returned his look to Jane, pointing at her. “You don’t get one either. Now that we’ve got things are back to the way that they should’ve been all along, there ain’t no way that we—or our sons—will let society deviate from the way that God intended ever again.”
Just then, another of the men—who stayed out of the discussion and instead focused on making sure that the fires and water were ready for bathing, banged a brand against the rim of one of the tubs.
“The fires are ready and the water is just right. Let’s get on with it.”
Without shame, a few of the men disrobed and stepped into the tubs. Jane and Sally handed the naked men some soap and brushes, then stepped away.
“Get used to it, girl.” The older man said, waiting his turn, “You’re going to see it a lot, especially when you’re with your husband and sons.”
Sally turned away from the men, and looked at her mother; Jane saw her daughter’s distraught demeanor in the girl’s face, and then looked up at the gathered men.
“Sally and I are going back inside now.” Jane said, “We’ve got to get the evening meal ready; if you need anything, call for the boys.”
Without comment, the men waived Jane and Sally off; the women hurried inside and into the kitchen, where they began gathering ingredients and implements, before Sally turned to her mother.
Sally again looked at her mother, silently imploring her, when Tom walked into the room.
“Dad!” she said, “Did you see what happened?”
Tom nodded affirmatively.
“But Dad, I don’t like any of them!”
“Didn’t you hear them, Sally?” Rick said as he entered the room, “You don’t have a say.”
“But it’s my life!” she said.
“You heard them.” Tom said, “You’re the only young woman left.”
“Tom,” Jane said, “you don’t know that.”
“I don’t?” Tom said, “We’ve kept watching posts all this time, and we’ve kept the radio going all this time. We’ve never seen any other survivors, and we’ve never heard from any other survivors- not in all of our 15 years.”
“We’re it, Jane.” Rick said, “Sally’s the only girl after you. None of the other women and girls made it; they’re all either dead or zeds now.”
“That doesn’t make it some kind of retribution from God.” Jane said, “Yet you’ve done nothing to break them of that myth, Tom.”
Rick sighed. “Tom’s tried, Jane. So have I. The problem is that everything we’ve seen and heard validates their beliefs, and we didn’t have anyway to prove otherwise.”
Jane and Sally looked at each other, then at Tom and Rick.
“Is that why you have that strange man brought here alive?” Jane said.
“He’s the first thing we’ve encountered that wasn’t a zed.” Rick said, “Tom and I agreed that we had to take the gamble and bring him in for questioning.”
“You’ve seen it, Jane.” Tom said, “The older men aren’t happy with us; they and their sons are the shit-stirrers. They’ve got a lot of stroke with the rest of the men, and a lot of that is due to the way we deal with you and Sally.”
“If they got their way, they’d be passing both you around like party favors whenever they didn’t need something cleaned or cooked.” Rick said.
“So,” Sally said, “you’re hoping that this stranger can somehow convince the men that there are others still out there somewhere?”
Rick and Tom nodded.
“Not only that,” Jane said, “but you’re also hoping that he can tell us about groups that work like how things were before and are doing just fine, right?”
Again, they nodded.
The women looked out the window at the big pole, where the outsider remained both bound and unconscious. Tom moved next to Sally and placed a hand gently on her shoulder.
“A father that doesn’t want the best for his daughter is no father at all.” he said, “I don’t think that any of the men are good for you. I really want there to be another option.”
“Do you think he’s that option, Dad?”
“No,” he said, “but I think that without him you’ll never find it.”