"Holy shit. Check this out, John!"
"Dan, what are you… oh man, we hit pay dirt! Clive, come see this!"
Roman rolled his eyes. "Remember the rules? We have to be quiet when we're out." He gently paced over to where John, Dan, and now Clive had gathered. The other members of the group, Conner and Beth, joined them. Most of them were too focused on their findings to be cautious, much to Roman's dismay. "Conner, keep a lookout, would you?" Obeying without a word, Conner brought the rifle up and scanned the area all around for the slightest movement or noise that could give away any threats. He had good ears, and it would take a professional to get the drop on them with a soldier like Conner on watch. You could never be too careful these days, and Roman hadn't survived this long just to take a bullet because the rest of the group decided that fish were more important than perimeter security.
The rest, however, felt differently. "You guys think that there are any more around? It's been forever since I've had fresh fish," Beth exclaimed. Roman snapped at them again.
"I didn't realize Clive and I had joined up with a bunch of kindergartners," he spat, and pushed his way to the middle of the group. "When I say quiet, I mean quiet! Someone had to have put these here, and they might just be coming back for them." He gave the newly discovered fish traps a long look. It had been days since anyone in the group had eaten more than bits of foliage, so everyone had become a little excited at the thought of actual food. Their supplies had run out over a week ago, and they had subsisted on what little they could find in the forest, and water from the river. Even he had to admit that the thought of actual food was nearly too much to stave off. But that was no goddamn excuse to let their guard down. Not in his group. He began barking orders, determined to keep these people alive despite themselves.
"Conner, you and Clive take the rifles and establish a perimeter," he said, pointing each of them to where he wanted them to begin. Clive would cross the river completely, and take up a position just inside the forest on the other side. Conner would stay on this side, and take up his own position in the trees nearer to their current immediate area. "Dan, Beth, I want you two to cross over to that sandbar in the middle of the river and see if there's any more traps. John, as our professional outdoorsman, I want you to take care of those fish. We need something to eat, and I don't trust anyone to get those fish in one piece as much as you. I'll stay here and watch your back. Everyone got it?" They all nodded, Beth and Dan giving the fish trap one last, hungry glance before they began crossing over to the sandbar.
They had been following the river since they had come to the forest, relying on John to try to catch some food for them. He had convinced them that the river had to lead somewhere, and as their expert on all things outdoors, they had taken his word. They hadn't found much of anything. Well, I think we know why, now. He guessed that the traps had been catching what little fish had been travelling the stream, and that none had made it far enough downriver to be caught by his new group. Just as well, really. Those crude fishing poles John had constructed looked more like twigs with bits of twine attached to the ends than anything sturdy.
As Conner stepped silently into the trees nearby, shouting that he was going to observe a small, makeshift trail he'd found, Roman's thoughts drifted back to his old group, and how it had seemed to fall apart so quickly. Clive had been the only one he found after that fiasco with those raiders, after their second attack had taken Joyce. Their walls had been overrun before they knew what had happened, with a dozen screaming killers howling for their blood. The attack had come only a day or so after he had caught Stephanie stealing supplies from them, and he had been taking inventory when the first shots rang out. He had barely escaped through the fence in back, tearing away a few loose boards that he hadn't noticed, and began running as fast as he could once clear. After nearly a day of travel, the sobering reality hit him: he was alone. Shel and Becca were missing, and Boyd had been killed as well. A week later, he reunited with Clive by chance, and after that, they encountered their new group.
It was an okay collection of survivors, the most valuable of whom were Conner and John. Conner was ex-National Guard, who had deserted in the second week of the outbreak. His weapon skills had proven to be quite the commodity in the following year, getting them out of a couple of situations where precision and marksmanship were needed. John had spent most of his life before the apocalypse outdoors on camping trips, or hiking excursions. He liked to joke that his every day commute was over a mountain. His knowledge of survival is what had taken the group so far in the first place. Who knew that there were so many types of edible leaves in your average forest? Beth and Dan, however, hadn't proved to be as useful as John and Conner. Beth was attending law school when the dead began to walk, and Dan had been a down on his luck clerk who was just about to lose his job. He hadn't been planning to cut either of them loose, but their past vocations didn't exactly give them much experience for this sort of situation. They made up for their lack of experience with positive attitudes, though. They were good people, which by itself was reason enough to keep them around.
He himself had, as he'd told his new group on numerous occasions, had been a member of a band. That didn't lend itself very well to survival, but he'd adapted well enough for-
"HEY! Stop!" What the hell? That's Clive. Roman shifted his gaze to the opposite shore, and the tree line where Clive was, noticing that the others had also stopped what they were doing, looking around as well. The area was completely silent, aside from the fading echo of Clive's challenge. What could have set him off? Walkers? Survivors? Shit, what if it's those guys who attacked the pit stop? Anything was possible. The entire world learned that lesson the hard way about two years back.
What sounded like a loud clap of thunder pierced the silence of the river, and there was a startled yell from just inside the tree line on the opposite shore. Clive came stumbling out, clutching his chest with his left hand, and groaning. Then all hell broke loose.
Conner sprinted out of the woods, rifle held high, searching for threats. He kneeled next to Roman and pointed his rifle across the water as another bang, and then another and another sounded from the far bank. They saw Clive stand upright, rifle aimed back into the trees, and fire. He chambered another round, but the group saw his head snap back violently, and he fell backward. His body rolled into the river, and vanished underneath the current, taking the rifle with him.
John leaped up from the trap, pulling his Beretta from its holster, and began firing across the river into the trees. Dashing for a nearby rock, he stumbled and fell, blood pooling on the ground from a wound in his shoulder. Roman drew his own sidearm, a Glock, and stood with Conner as they both stared out over the river. Then they came.
Four sprinted out from the cover of the forest on the opposite end of the river, and both groups fired at once. Roman saw one of the attackers fall, blood pouring from a bullet hole in his head, and lay still, face down in the water. Dan and Beth both pulled their weapons, Beth a pistol, and Dan a knife, and dropped to the ground, keeping themselves as low as they could. Dan began visually inspecting their flanks for any other attackers while Beth returned fire, and a sharp howl of agony was heard from one of their attackers. Dan, exchanging words with Beth, rose up and made his best attempt to sprint back to Roman and Conner as she covered him. Roman, seeing the plan, grabbed Connor's shoulder and fought to be heard over the gunfire. "Cover him! He's exposed out there!" Giving a slight nod, Conner began firing rapidly over the water, and Roman himself joined in, sending as many bullets over the water as he could to make sure his people got back to him. In front of him, and to the left, Roman saw Dan go down. He fought to keep his head above the water, blood spurting from the back of his leg and coloring the stream a liquid red. He had just managed to right himself, preparing once more to run, when another bullet whizzed at him, entering the back of his head and exiting neatly out his left eye. The body simply went limp, surrendering to the river and beginning to float downstream.
Roman glanced up at Beth, who was staring at Dan's body drifting away, mouth agape in terror. "Beth, stay there! I'm coming for you!" He began checking the ammo left in his clip. Out? Shit, I don't have too many more reloads, he thought, as he slid another clip in, and turned back to Conner. The shooting had died down now, the lull in the firefight giving him the opportunity he needed to advance. "When I give the word," he whispered, "You keep them pinned down, alright? I'm going for Beth," he stated, pulling back the slide with an audible click as he stared intently ahead. "On three." But before he could start counting, Conner peered over Roman's shoulder, eyes wide with a fear he had never known before. Roman caught a glimpse of what it was as he locate what had captivated Conner, but instinct took over as soon as he saw the bandit across the river dash completely from cover.
They both dove for the ground as what seemed like a wall of lead flew over the river from the newly emerged bandit, the claps of thunder repeating endlessly, one after the other in rapid succession. "They've got an automatic! Heads down people, heads DOWN!" Conner pushed himself up, momentarily ignoring his leader, and took a shot from a kneeling position. Then another. Roman crawled forward to the river, trying to get to the sandbar, but a round ricocheted off the ground and went inches over his head. If he stood up to run, he'd be cut in half by that assault rifle. Beth was trapped.
He turned as quickly as he could while in his prone position, and scampered back toward Conner, who was still firing his rifle at the bandits. Swiftly turning back to the firefight as he settled into his new farther back position, Roman's heart skipped a beat. Five more bandits had emerged from the trees, and were now advancing across the river to the sandbar, while the remaining two covered them, the assault rifle barking rapid fire death over every inch of the battlefield. In a line, stretching at least twenty feet wide, they advanced swiftly, making for the sandbar, and a better position on Roman and Conner. But there was no cover on the sandbar: only Beth, frantically attempting to clear away as much soil as she could to get lower and be less of a target. If they got that far, she was done for. At this point, it looked like they all were.
Conner took yet another shot, and one of the bandits crossing the river stopped dead in his tracks. He clutched at his chest as Roman brought his pistol up and fired in unison with Conner. Their rounds sent the stationary attacker flying backward on impact, and he twitched in the dirt, slowly going still as his comrades advanced, oblivious or uncaring of his plight.
Before he could select another target, John's voiced broke through the din of the gunfire. "Beth! No! Behind you! TURN AROUND!" Roman followed his friend's gaze, John pointing frantically all the while, as he saw what was happening. From Beth's left, making its way undetected over the deafening cacophony of the shootout toward her was a walker. It must have waded through the shallow parts of the river once the shooting started. Or had it been lying under the water all along? Can they do that? "Cover me! I'm going for her!"
Roman didn't even have time to give him an incredulous expression as John vaulted up, one hand on his wound, the other gripping his pistol, firing as he made his way through the chaos. Unable to protest, Roman let loose a barrage of nine millimeter slugs at the hostile group, slowing their advance as they dropped down to avoid his fire. Just as John reached Beth, their assailants rose up, almost as one, and opened fire. Conner cried out as Roman heard a soft fwip fwip noise that could only be bullets passing through flesh.
Rushing to him, Roman caught him right before he fell. A bullet had torn through his friend's neck, stripping away most of the skin on the left side. He tried to speak, but all that came out were choked gasps. He gripped Roman's sleeve tightly as he drowned in his own blood, much of it spilling from his body and drenching Roman's hands. The second shot had gone into his stomach and Conner's other hand covered it in a vain effort to halt the blood flow. Roman bit his lower lip, unable to do anything but watch. His comrade's eyes rolled back in his head, followed a second later by the hand gripping Roman's jacket going limp and falling away.
Wasting no time, Roman snatched up Conner's rifle. He ducked low as more bullets zipped through air inches above his head, and rummaged through Conner's pockets for spare ammunition. Grabbing as many of the loose bullets as he could, he began loading as many as he could into his new weapon. He shoved the two spares into his pocket, determined to use them before this was over.
Lying down once more, he sighted down the barrel. The advancing bandits had reached the sandbar now, and were taking up positions. Beth was still over there, as was John, who was now grappling with the walker while lying down next to the rushing water. No easy task, killing one of those things while both of you were on the ground, unable to stand up for fear of being shot. He was losing. There was no time to think about that, however, as a cold certainty suddenly burned itself into his mind: he was going to die here. The realization, contrary to what he had thought it would feel like, was somewhat soothing. He had no illusions of survival; no frantic instincts dictating that he flee. Just the determination to go down swinging.
Things suddenly became clear for him. The bullets snapping by within inches of his body no longer worried him, and the thought of the undead sneaking up from behind hardly caused him to blink. He tuned everything out, focusing on the only thing that mattered right now: killing as many of these assholes as he could before they got him. In another situation, he might have reflected on how true his brother's words had been over a decade ago, before the world went to hell. That however he'd die, it would be young and with a fight. That he was too stubborn to accept anything else.
This situation was different. There was no time for remembering the words of those that were long dead. He took a shot at one of the bandits sprinting up the right side of the sandbar, and the man spun halfway around from the impact of the bullet. Roman imagined a pained expression on his target's face as he fired again, this time the bullet passing through the man's back, impacting him a few inches away from a small, pink backpack that he had been wearing. Not exactly the most intimidating thing he'd seen in the last two years, but he doubted that anything would have phased him with his newfound clarity and focus. One more shot, and the dirty-haired man was on the ground, lying on his side, still.
Bringing the rifle around, he selected his next target and squeezed the trigger. He had been aiming at one of the bandits on the sandbar, one who had finally spied Beth and John lying next to the river, John still struggling with the walker... Roman's shot went through the man's palm, causing him to drop his weapon. The wounded shooter clutched his hand against his chest as it began to spasm and spew blood, giving Roman a death glare as he cursed at himself for not putting the man down. Chambering another round, he prepared to fire again when a blinding, hot pain lanced through his side. He began to lose feeling in his body, the adrenaline slowly giving way to an icy numbness. Quizzically looking down at the hole in his jacket, leaking blood, his legs gave out from under him. The world faded to black amid the sounds of gunfire and shouting. Before the darkness overtook him completely, he felt the impact of his face in the dirt, and let out a deep breath as he slipped into merciful oblivion.
A distant, muffled blam! seemed to split his pounding head open, and the darkness receded slowly as his eyes wrenched themselves open. He was on his chest, still face down in the dirt on the side of the river, chest burning in agony. His breathing was labored, coming in slow, difficult gasps. He heard the noise again, closer, clearer now, and gave a low moan.
"Survivor! Over here, this one's alive!" Shit. Almost instantly, a set of hands grabbed him and pulled him up. The sudden movement caused shockwaves of pain to spread out over his body from his wound. The ground he had been laying on was sticky with blood, some of it already drying on his once pristine leather jacket. The person who had hold of him gave him a shove forward, but he managed to catch himself before his face hit the dirt again. He tried to catch his breath, and then attempted to stand. He was nearly halfway before the hands landed on his shoulders again, gripping them like a vice. Then they gave another forceful shove, sending Roman to his knees. Through the pain, he tried to see his surroundings, hear the muffled voices that seemed so far away. The voice that had identified him as a survivor of the massacre spoke up first, slowly coming into focus.
"I think he's the only one left, boss," the man said. He sounded like an older man, and his voice had a casualness about it that disturbed Roman more than he thought it would. It was as if this was the norm. "I was just taking care of some lurkers that were coming in when I heard him. A second voice, younger but just as calm, responded.
"Right. Those two on the sandbar? The woman, and the man with the glasses? What about them?" Beth… John…
"Boss, you lit them up, remember? Damn near blew'em across the river with your AK," he said, motioning to the man's assault rifle. "We layed'em out next to each other so we could go through their pockets easier."
Normally, a revelation like that would have hit Roman like… well, like being shot. But having actually been shot earlier had dulled his senses just enough so that he made the connection in his mind without actually feeling it. He'd be joining them soon enough, anyway. The second man, Boss, spoke again.
"Of course I remember. I meant 'Did you make sure that they won't come back and decide to chew my ass off while we're questioning their friend here?'" he grumbled, clearly annoyed. "Whatever. It doesn't matter now. Just keep an eye on them."
"Uh…" the first bandit stammered, searching for words, "How many, um, did we… lose?"
"Right. Well, we lost four, maybe five of ours. Victor took a few hits near the end, and since he lost Winston a couple of days ago, Carver's got some reorganizing to do after he hears about this mess." There was a pause as he mulled over the group's next actions. Finally, he turned back to the first bandit, the one who had identified Roman as a survivor. "We leave the bodies. Theirs and ours. Don't waste ammo on the dead. Not even our own. Take the others and fan out, look for more of them hiding in the trees nearby. I'll take care of our new pal," he said, dark enthusiasm drenching his words, "and we'll bug out once I'm done."
"Got it, Johnny." Roman heard the older man run off, leaving him alone with the second voice. Johnny. His name is Johnny.
The second man, Johnny, the leader, finally acknowledged Roman, peering down at the wounded man with a look of contempt. But at the same time, he displayed a nearly feral expression of delight like that of a predator that had caught its prey. Roman tried to remain defiant while the man snarled his question. He had a patch area of dark hair on his chin, and boasted a head of hair in badly need of cutting under his cap. The cap's rough and worn texture complemented that of his dark jacket.
"Where are your friends?" Johnny asked. Roman glared at him, attempting to put as much venom in his voice as he could. Instead, he barely managed to rasp out the answer in a choked, pained, fit of coughing.
"They're dead. All- AUGH -of them," he managed, blood dripping out of his mouth. "Like that guy… said, I'm the- UGH –last…" It felt as if he were drowning. Was he hit in the lung? What did these killers want with him? They'd already wiped out his group. Who were they looking for? What were they going to do to him when they finished?
He wasn't the smartest person he'd ever known, but inside he knew what was coming. The interrogator brought his fist around hard, very nearly putting it through Roman's face. It felt like his jaw was broken, but he couldn't be sure. Unable to feel very much of anything at all now, beyond the cold that was steadily spreading through his body, all he could do was guess at this point. He struggled to right himself, unsteadily holding himself as high as he could while on his knees. Johnny towered above him, arms at his sides, voice booming. "We KNOW that they're in the area. Those fish traps in the river? Ours. They stole them from us." Roman just shook his head as the man began rattling off names. "Carlos? Pete? Rebecca? None of these names are ringing any bells?" Scowling, determined to remain defiant to the end, he spit at Johnny's feet. It tasted like copper in his mouth, and came out red. His tormentor just gave him a casual shrug.
"Have it your way, chief. Carver never said anything to us about prisoners anyway." Roman narrowed his eyes as Johnny picked Roman's Glock up off the ground from a few feet away, then turned back to his captive. He leveled the gun so that it was inches away from Roman's face, and despite the danger, Roman couldn't stop himself from trying to catch a glimpse of the bullet as it lay in the dark chamber. Death was close. Waiting for him to take that final step into the endless abyss that awaited him.
It was coming back to him now, rushing through his mind like the river through the rocks and the reeds. His former life. Beers with friends, practicing new songs in Richard's garage. Sitting back on the couch with his brother and plucking at his guitar, fine tuning his talents as much as he was the instrument. Riding down the highway at night, full speed on his Harley, wind whipping by at blinding speeds as he blazed a trail down the lonely Georgia highways with the rest of his band on the way to their next gig. It was hard to imagine that that had once been his life. He wasn't even sure if the memories had been real. They belonged to someone who that had died long ago, their life ended as surely as his was about to be.
The man spoke once more. "Last chance, friend. You sure you don't know anyone hiding out in these parts?"
Roman was cold. So cold. It had spread over his entire chest, and was working its way through his limbs, an icy emptiness. As his life ebbed away, seeping out through the hole in his side, he managed two final words. "Fuck…you…" Staring down the barrel, he heard a loud BANG, and saw a brief flash before the darkness embraced him once again, more swiftly this time. And, at last, eternally.