“He changed the pattern that time,” Jacob said. “Did you hear that?”
“Why’d he do that?”
Taylor shook his head. “Don’t know. Signaling somebody maybe. No way one man could work a herd that big. He’s probably got some wingmen.”
The zombies coursed through the intersection like a black river. Their collective moaning sent up a wall of noise that sent a chill over Jacob’s skin. He’d heard stories from the First Days about people locked up in their attics while the dead filled the streets below, how the noise was so loud they were sometimes forced to go days at a time without sleeping, how it could drive a man so far over the edge he’d put his gun in his mouth. He looked back at the others in their group and saw several with their hands clapped over their ears. Jacob couldn’t blame them. He’d only been in the presence of that horrible moaning for a few minutes and already he felt jittery and sick with adrenaline and fear.
Then some of the undead tried to wander away from the main road. He stiffened. For a second Jacob thought he might have guessed wrong about them sticking with the main herd, but then a dog came sprinting into view. It stopped in front of the small pack of wanderers and barked furiously. It moved closer to the main herd and barked again.
The wanderers dutifully turned around and gave chase.
“I can’t believe that,” Jacob said. “Why in the world would they be herding them?”
“Maybe to keep ’em away from wherever that rider’s from. He’s like a diversion, you know?”
Taylor turned back to the herd, his mouth working slowly, like he was trying to keep count. It took nearly an hour and a half for the main group to pass, and even after that stragglers came along in progressively smaller packs.
They watched another few minutes, but when no more came into view, they went back to the others.
“Well?” Kelly asked. “What’d you see?”
“The biggest herd I’ve seen,” Jacob said.
Jacob looked at Taylor and shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“Half a million,” Taylor said. “Maybe more.”
“That’s impossible,” Kelly said. “How could there be that many?”
“I remember working crowd control at the Razorback games. We’d load sixty thousand people into that stadium in less than thirty minutes. I know what a crowd that size looks like. The herd I just saw was easily twenty times that number.”
“That’s not all, though,” Jacob said. He told her about the rider with the whistle and the dogs. “It looked like he was guiding them north, out of town.”
“That’s the direction we were supposed to go.”
“Yeah,” Jacob said.
He glanced at Taylor. The sheriff reached into his shirt pocket and took out a matchstick. He jammed it into the corner of his mouth and chewed on it while he thought.
“So what do we do?” Nick asked. “We can’t very well head north again. Not with all those zombies going that way.”
“I think we should go home,” said Bree. She looked guiltily around the group, and then lowered her head. She seemed near tears. Frank guided his horse next to hers and held out a hand for her.
“Jacob,” Nick said. “What do we do?”
Jacob climbed up on his horse, but didn’t answer right away. If he was honest with himself he had absolutely no idea what to do. Nick was right. They couldn’t very well head north, not now, not with that herd moving that way. And they couldn’t head home, as Bree suggested. So far they’d seen strange ships in the sky and zombie-eating birds and cowboys wrangling more zombies than they thought were left in the world, but they couldn’t explain any of it. They had questions, lots of questions, and so far absolutely no answers.
“I say we find a place to hold up for a while,” Taylor said. “One of these houses maybe. Or one of the buildings back in town. We can spend a day or two here. That’ll put some distance between us and that herd and give us a chance to rest the horses.”
Jacob looked around the group and saw nearly everybody nodding in agreement.
“All right then,” he said. “Nick, you got any ideas?”
Nick took the map from his pack and studied it for a long moment. Finally, he pointed west. “If we follow this street that way it meets up with Kings Highway. We can take that south to Malone and head west from there. We should be able to find something there.”
“I don’t know,” Nick said. “A hotel, maybe. Maybe a business with a closed in lot where we can graze the horses.”
“Okay.” Jacob looked around, and as nobody else had anything to say, he made his decision. “Okay, we’ll do that.”
“Let’s move out single file, and keep it quiet. Hand signals only until we get somewhere safer than here. Max, you want to take point?”
“Yes, sir, boss.”
“Eli, bring up the rear.”
The younger man still looked rattled from nearly getting killed back at the hospital, but he rallied and nodded.
They took the horses out at a walking pace, careful to stay close to the houses where they had trees to cover them. Kings Hwy had figured large on the map, but it was little more than a two-lane suburban street, littered with debris and choked with tall grass, as was most of Sikeston. The tree cover had been dense on the other street, but it thinned out dramatically here, affording very little cover. Jacob, feeling dangerously exposed, ordered the group to split in two and move as close as possible to the rotting houses on either side of the street. He let Max take one column, while he took point on the other, Taylor, Kelly, Barry, and their journalist, Andy Dawson, coming up behind him.
The afternoon had grown hot, and pollen and dirt stuck to his sweaty skin and clumped in his eyes and in his nostrils. The street was quiet, no wind to whistle through the empty buildings, but the silence didn’t hold. Two brown dogs trotted into the street about fifty yards ahead of them, their heads bent down, eyes narrowed on the Arbella riders. The dogs uttered a series of stuttering growls that quickly turned into furious barking.
“Shit,” Taylor muttered.
He raised his rifle and Jacob nodded. It would have to be done. They couldn’t let the dogs go on making that noise.
But then something whizzed by Jacob’s ear, struck the corner of the house next to him with a wet thud, and blasted off a big piece into the grass beyond. Three more shots popped next to him, like somebody breaking sticks, and only then did Jacob realize they were being fired on.
But the shots weren’t accurate. He couldn’t even tell where they were coming from.
Jacob had been in plenty of scrapes. He’d even had some combat training after graduating school, back when he thought salvage was going to be his life’s work, but he’d never actually taken live fire before. Now he was in the middle of it, and the only thing he could think was: Huh, so this is how it feels.
Then another round struck the house next to him, punching a huge hole in the wall, and Barry let out a groan loud enough to be heard across the street. Jacob turned around angrily, ready to berate the man, but stopped short when he saw the piece of wood sticking out of Barry’s cheek. Seeing all that blood cleared his head in a hurry. Jacob remembered his training and knew a man on horseback made a huge target. They needed to find cover, and fast.
Meanwhile, Barry was turning pale. He had slumped over in his saddle and looked close to falling to the ground. Jacob turned his horse and came up alongside Barry. He grabbed the injured man’s reins. Kelly was beside him, trying to help him, but she had no idea what her husband needed. She only saw his distress.
“I’ve got him,” Jacob said. “We have to get off this street.”
“Where?” She turned toward the whooping and the screaming. “Jacob, what are they doing?”
“Over here,” Taylor said. He was about ten yards away, near the gap between two houses, his rifle leveled at the chaos in the street. “Come on, move!”
Taylor was about to turn the corner when they heard more screaming from across the street.
Gunshots, pistol fire from the sound of it, came seconds later.
Three riders, men dressed in jeans and long-sleeve denim shirts and floppy cowboy hats, came tearing out of a gap in the houses. They drove their horses right through the other Arbella column, sending Max and Nick and the others scattering in half a dozen directions at once.
Complete chaos followed. The riders fired as they charged, but they weren’t trying to hit anybody. They were shooting into the air, and to Jacob they looked more like a bunch of drunken ranch hands out for a joyride than an organized cavalry. But they were brutally efficient at what they were doing, and soon, Nick and the others broke in panic.
More riders, a dozen at least, came up from behind, yelling and shooting like the first three. A man in a red T-shirt and black baseball cap seemed to be the leader. He motioned for the riders to fan out, which they did, yelling and firing their guns like madmen.
Jacob wrestled with Barry’s horse, but the shooting and the yelling had spooked it badly and it fought against the reins. Then the horse turned on him suddenly, pushing his own horse sideways so that he was facing the middle of the street. Owen, the anthropologist, had tried to make a break for it. He spurred his horse and the animal took off at a full gallop down the street. But Owen was not a great rider, and his pursuers looked like they’d been born on horseback. They caught him easily, circled him, and yelled for him to dismount.
Owen was clearly terrified. Jacob could see that. His face was a twisted grimace of fear and confusion. He spun his horse around in mad circles, but he was blocked at every turn.
“Get off your horse,” the man in the red shirt demanded.
One of the other riders, a kid of about eighteen, darted forward and grabbed Owen by his coat.
“He said, ‘Get off!’ ”
The next instant Owen tumbled from his horse, landing painfully on his back.
The younger rider slid down from his horse with a rope in his hands.
Owen didn’t give him a chance to use it though. He jumped to his feet and ran screaming down the street.
“You better get back here!” the guy in the red shirt said.
The young man with the rope started to chase after Owen, but the other one told him to stop. “Just shoot him,” he said. “That one’s too old anyway.”
Another man raised a rifle, leveled at Owen’s back, and dropped him with a single well-aimed shot.
“No!” Jacob yelled.
A few of the riders turned his way. The man in the red shirt pushed the brim of his ball cap up with his thumb. He was a stern, leathery-faced man in his early thirties, big and tough looking. He motioned for two of his henchmen to move on Jacob and the men peeled off to try and flank them.
“Jacob, this way!” Taylor yelled. “Bring him. Hurry!”
Jacob grabbed Barry’s reins and this time was able to bring the horse under control. He motioned for Kelly and Andy to go ahead and he followed after them.
Meanwhile, Taylor provided cover for them. He fired his suppressed rifle and one of the men trying to flank them went down to his knees and folded over into the long grass. Taylor fired again, hitting the younger man who’d shot Owen. The kid went down screaming.
Jacob and the others got around the side of the house as fast as they could, but it was slow moving with Barry. He rocked like a drunk in the saddle, his groans of pain audible even over all the shooting and yelling back in the street.
“Hurry!” Taylor yelled back at them.
“What about the—”
But Jacob cut himself short. Taylor’s head had snapped back. The rifle slid from his hands and he sagged forward.
“No!” Jacob said.
He handed Barry off to Kelly and Andy and rushed to Taylor’s side. He grabbed the sheriff’s arm and held him up, but Taylor’s neck had gone slack and his head lolled on his shoulders. He’d been shot in the mouth. The bullet had ripped part of the man’s cheek and exploded his teeth like dice tossed down his throat. He tried to speak, but only managed a gargling sound that soon turned into coughs.
“Sheriff Taylor,” Jacob said. “Stay with me, sir. Stay with me. Can you hear me, sir?”
But he couldn’t. Not anymore. Even as Jacob talked to him, pleaded with him to fight, the light faded out of the man’s eyes and he went blank.
“No!” Jacob said. “Sheriff Taylor, no!”
A man crashed his horse into Jacob, grabbing him hard by the shirt collar.
“Get off that horse,” he said, and tried to pull Jacob out of the saddle.
Jacob grabbed the man’s arm and shoved him hard. But the man wouldn’t let go. He reached over with his other hand and pulled Jacob down even as the man’s horse backed up. Jacob was yanked right out of the saddle and thrown to the ground.
He quickly rolled to one side to avoid getting trampled by the horses, but when he tried to run around the man to get back on his own horse, he got the heel of the rider’s boot in his face.
His vision turned purple and he couldn’t stand up.
He’d never been hit so hard in his life.
From the ground he saw the rider charge Kelly and the others. He knocked Barry from his horse with ease, and then wheeled on Kelly. She slapped at him when he tried to put his hands on her, but he dismounted her in seconds.
When he turned on Andy he flinched. The journalist had a pistol in his hand. He was trying to aim it at his attacker, but his hand was shaking uncontrollably. The fear on his face was horrible to behold. The other man yelled, “Fuck!” and pulled a pistol of his own from inside his shirt. The two men fired as one and both went down.
Jacob saw his chance and took it. He climbed to his feet, grabbed Barry, and told Kelly they had to move.
“Where?” she asked.
“That way,” he said, and gestured toward an overgrown lot that contained row upon row of concrete walls. He ducked a shoulder under Barry and took his weight. To Kelly he said, “Go that way. We’ll try to hide.”