Authors: Keith C. Blackmore
(Mountain Man Book 4)
Keith C. Blackmore
(Mountain Man Book 4)
By Keith C. Blackmore
Copyright 2014 Keith C. Blackmore
Edited by Kelly Reed (Red Adept Editing Services)
Cover by Karri Klawiter
Formatted by Polgarus Studio (
(Mountain Man Book 4)
This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons living or dead, actual events, locales, or organizations is entirely coincidental.
All rights are reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the author.
With special thanks to Mark Crouse, Sean Meadows, SJ Parkinson (mystery writer extraordinaire), and Robert Richter.
At the sound of his name, he turned all the way around, ass tight on his chair, baseball bat across his knees, and leather jacket zipped up despite the moist heat of an Indian summer sun. The black motorcycle helmet he wore, a gift from Adam, once comfortably warm on his head only two days before, felt like a very personal pressure cooker.
“Talbert,” Gus said quietly, digging at his balls.
Talbert’s face screwed up at the display.
“Yeah, that’s right,” Gus rumbled through his lowered visor as he stood. “I’m scratching my
, Talbert. My goddamn
. Whattaya think about that, huh? Man’s gotta right to scratch ’em when he feels like it, right? They itch. I scratch. S’how it works. Fuckin’ lost track of how often I scratched them today. Got something to say about that?”
The two men squared off against each other on the lookout mound. The raised pile of dirt gave a decent view of the harvested corn fields, wheat fields, and fruit orchards surrounding the farm, right up to distant tree lines, where the autumn leaves blazed on the ground like papery ash.
“Whatever,” Talbert muttered. “Listen. Wanna talk to you about something. Figured I come on out, give you a break here.” He smiled thinly and gestured toward the empty fields. “You busy?”
“Yeah, I’m busy. I’m scratching my nuts.”
“Lay off your boys for a fuckin’ minute, then. Give ’em a rest, why don’tcha?”
Sighing, Gus did just that. “There ya go. All done. Whattaya want, Talbert? And talk fast before I dig in again. Something about you makes them itch something fierce.”
As survivors went, Craig Talbert wasn’t the most likeable one in the group, which was Gus’s way of saying the man was a fucking knob. An axe wound to the genitals had more appeal. Plenty of affable folks lived on the farm, but Talbert was the kind to whisper a joke behind your back, not more than ten feet away, and then crank up the enamel flare in a sickly smile of brotherly love if you turned around—only to roll his eyes the very second you turned your back again. Physically, the man had lost a lot of weight, as they all had. His raspy voice got on Gus’s nerves as if he used to smoke four packs a day, and that dapper eyebrow of a moustache was something else. The lip it was attached to just didn’t seem to match it, a dainty whisker that Talbert had a habit of slicking with a wet finger or thumb, trying to coax it to greater thickness. In addition, the man always had a perfect part in his thick black hair, a combed-to-the-side eraser line that stitched his scalp and made Gus think of white centipedes for some reason—the long-ass carnivorous kind that entomologists handled with tongs.
Too bad a person couldn’t pick whom they shared the apocalypse with.
“Been out and about, y’know,” Talbert said with forced nonchalance. “Checkin’ out parts of the valley. Seein’ the sights. Seein’ what’s what.”
“Adam know you been doin’ that?”
“Course he does. Even gave me the thumbs-up. I wouldn’t do anything without flyin’ it past him.”
Gus doubted that, suspecting Talbert and his slicker-than-slug-slime smile could easily ooze on over to the bad side—the
side, where impulse gripped the reins of reality in hard fists and cracked them often, usually in the worst possible way. If Adam and company hadn’t found him first and brought him to the farm, well, Gus had a pretty good idea which direction old Tal might’ve swung.
A patch of tall standing grass fluttered near the edge of a field, like a trout breaching the evening mirror of a lake, immediately drawing Gus’s eye and dividing his attention.
“Yeah, right,” he muttered.
“Hey,” Talbert barked, offended. “I’m fuckin’––whattaya think I am? A fuckin’
Gus leveled a
“What’s that for? Hey,
, I got your back. I got
back! You got mine, right? Right?”
As sunny Jesus was his witness, Gus hated questions like that, especially from people he considered dicks. Decided silence was the best defense.
“Right?” Talbert persisted.
The break in the grass weaved and bobbed like the world’s crankiest Etch A Sketch.
Talbert followed the tilt of Gus’s helmet and asked a less challenging question. “Got something here, Gus? I can go out there and stomp on it for you.”
“I wouldn’t let you scratch my balls.”
.” Talbert snarled right in his face, confrontational and bellowing breath bad enough that it somehow got past the visor. “I’m getting pretty fuckin’ tired of you, bro. Pretty fuckin’ annoyed. If you got somethin’ to say, you just say it. Get that shit off your chest. Hey, never fuckin’
what’s over there.”
Talbert nailed two hard fingers into Gus’s shoulder, forcing him to lock eyes with the dapper douchebag.
“You know what I do out here, right?” Gus asked.
Talbert got right up in Gus’s business then. “Gettin’ the impression you don’t like me, dude.”
Gus flipped up his visor, revealing angry pink scars on a brow shiny with sweat.
“Now, where’d you get that idea? Couldn’t have been from that big goddamn box of nothin’ I gave you on yer birthday. Certainly couldn’t be from our daily exchange of pleasantries on the farm here, or does ‘fuck off’ have a different meaning in your tribe of buddies? Hm? ’Cause if it does, why not, oh, I dunno,
me so there’s no side-assed miscommunication next time? How ’bout it, shit flicker?”
Talbert’s face set with anger, his black eyes darting up, down, and to the sides in their sockets as he examined Gus’s hairless face. Gus had scorched pretty much all the hair follicles around his brow, cheeks, and parts of his chin a year and seven or eight long months before, when he’d unsuccessfully tried to kill himself. His once-mighty beard grew only in patchy clumps.
For a split second, Gus thought Talbert was going to take a swing at him. But then, without warning, the guy backed away and smiled, as quick and easy as that. Gus marveled in disbelief at the man, wondering if he thought a change of tact might defuse the tension.
“Not yer fuckin’ bro.”
“Call me dude one more time, and I’m gonna kick my cowboy boot up your ass.”
,” Talbert suddenly laughed, smiling as though they were old buddies, which was freaky raised to infinity. “Hey, look, I just came out here to talk, okay? Not fight. Jesus, man.”
and less pissin’
Talbert took another step back, hands holding his hips. “Okay. Okay. Found a house farther on down the valley. Just before you get to Digby. Almost missed it, really. It was off the map and hidin’ behind a thicket of trees. Sorta like this place except, well, with a longer road that goes past some apple orchards. Big fuckin’ house. A goddamn
, to tell the truth. Anita Little’s from down around there. I talked to her last night. Says that it was owned by a guy named Mortimer, who was the owner of some website for hooking up lonely Christian singles. Sold it for a fortune and became a recluse. Me and my crew are going to head on down there and check it out. Figured you’d want to be in on it.”
A puzzled Gus shook his head. “Why the hell you want to go there?”
Talbert’s face darkened. “I just said to check it out.”
“You mean loot the place.”
“Yeah, okay, fuck it, loot the place. You want in or not?”
“I don’t understand why you’re heading all the way to Digby to loot some mansion. Waste of gas to go down there.”
“Not much left in the towns. Not after you took a match to Annapolis.”
Gus sighed, loathing the memories of the drunken fire crusade he had carried out upon the city—not because of what he did but because of what he put down. Or
he put down.
“We got everything we need right here, where it’s relatively safe,” Gus said. “No need to go to Digby.”
“Look,” Talbert pointed a finger at the far-off trees. “Me and Sheldon, Mike, and Benny are headin’ down there today. Leavin’ within the hour. Get there early afternoon. Check it out, camp overnight if we find anything, and come back in the morning. You in or not?”
A dark shape oozed from the edge of the cornfield, filling the bordering ditch like an enormous worm. Gus felt his stomach clench, not from fear but just from annoyance. The thing barely moved there, seemingly mystified with the puzzle of the trench. One arm reached up as if it were doing a painful backstroke before dropping out of sight.
Gus took a better grip on his bat.
Talbert looked in the direction of the ditch. A smile slashed across his face upon spotting the gimp.
“Crawler at two o’clock,” he said.
Nearly four years after the zombie apocalypse and the resurrected horrors that hungered for living flesh, an end was in sight. The deadheads passed through three stages of unlife in the new world, going from freshly deceased runner to the gimp that staggered about on decomposing feet and limbs to, finally, the crawler, a zombie whose unending shuffling had sanded down the soles of whatever they wore, right to the blue-gray flesh of their feet. It didn’t end there as they kept on walking, grating away each layer of flesh, rubbing themselves out right down to the bone and leaving a trail of shredded skin and muscle tissue, until balance failed and gravity sucked the creature down to the earth. Then they pulled themselves along with a wormy locomotion, wearing away their undersides, eroding the chest, belly, arms, and legs.
Right up until nothing remained of its ruined musculature and the gimp stopped in its own streak of fleshy rags and streamers.
These days, the world beyond the farm didn’t interest Gus, who had no desire to return to the scorched husk of Annapolis or any of the smaller towns. But he’d heard stories of how Talbert and his boys ventured forth on scouting or supply missions. He heard about what they saw, how bleached and bloated corpses covered streets, sidewalks, parking lots, and front lawns—unmoving until they detected the living, whereupon they writhed in place like sun-baked snakes nailed to the ground, ripping themselves apart at times, starving for a bite of whatever was handy.
Talbert had spoken––boasted, really––about how he danced upon whole skulls, breaking them underneath boot heels. As much as Gus hated the animated dead, however much the sight of them sickened him, there was also an underlying guitar-string twang of pity. They’d been people once—probably had families—and no one deserved the morbid ending of a gimp when assholes like Talbert came along. Talbert
in killing the undead, had fun doing it. Though Gus couldn’t express his exact feelings on the matter, he knew it was morally wrong and psychologically fucked up, which brought him full circle back to his suspicions about Talbert in the first place. If the man got off on killing the dead, could he do the same to the living? What stopped him?
, Gus concluded.
He scanned the fields, already harvested for the oncoming winter, their bounty being prepared and stored away by the other members of the community. Their tiny colony lived off the land like in the old days, in the breadbasket of the Annapolis Valley, subsisting upon grown vegetables, fruits, and berries. Toss in some farm animals that had survived the apocalypse, a little wild-game hunting, and you had the solution to the problem Gus had faced when he lived on the mountain––just how
one survive in a world without supermarkets and processed food? Especially when it all expires?
You go back to the very basics.
Seeing nothing else amiss along the farm’s borders, Gus ignored Talbert and marched along the road to the outlying ditch. Talbert followed on his tail, yakking, but Gus wasn’t listening. He only had eyes for that rotten shell of a once-person, seeing how the depth of the ditch buckled the dead thing’s spine backward in a yoga stretch. One arm flapped weakly, festooned with rancid holes that might have been bites. The putrefying gray-black head rocked against the ditch’s side, disturbing the dirt. The gimp’s mouth opened, displaying wormy gums worn down to the bone.