Augustus, Maine, USA
[I enter the doors of Beckwith Hospital in this idyllic small town, trying to regain a sense of its pre-war serenity. I have come to visit Nathan Beckwith, the namesake of the hospital and a member of the fabled "Wandering Warriors" during the plague years. Their contribution to the morale of those behind the Rockies during the war was immeasurable, and I have come to find the truth behind the legend.]
Heroes? Really? That's total bullshit. We were just a group of people trying to survive in No-Man's Land, you know? Whatever they said about us, whatever stories they made up, was a complete and total lie. We weren't supermen, or saints, just people. Being supermen would have helped though.
How many of there were you?
Shit man, maybe 30 of us? That's in the beginning though. We came from all over the country, Midwest, New England, South, you name it. We'd all seen and fought Zack at one point, otherwise we wouldn't have been part of the group. One guy, we called him Cowboy because of his choice of weapons and that funny way of talking he had, was from Iowa. A kid actually, he was barely 18 when Yonkers went down. I was from Maine, and fled west right before the Panic began. Our leader though, he was from Chicago. A genuine badass. He was there when Chicago was overrun and made it out single-handedly. If it weren't for him, none of us would've made it.
Howdid you become a member of the group? Was there any initiation?
Yeah, there was initiation all right. You had to have seen Zack up close, and you had to be able to handle yourself. Contribute to the group, you know? We all had a few under our belts though, so there wasn't any need to worry about that. As for how I joined?
I was in one of the Midwest refugee centers during Yonkers. Everyone there was glued to the TV, myself included, waiting to see the army kick those shits back to hell. [Chuckles]. So after we saw the rout, everyone went into panic mode. There was nearly a damn riot, and a bunch of people just left heading west. They said They were going to the mountains before Zack caught up with us. I should have gone with them.
When they did finally reach us, everything was chaos. I slipped away while they were feeding on the other refugees. I wandered for a bit, and nearly starved to death at least five times over. I hadn't caught the "scavenge" mentality yet. One night I woke up with a knife at my throat and a guy staring me in the eyes. That's how I met Shawn, our leader.
What was Shawn like?
Weird. When I knew him, he never smiled and was always staring off into space. He always had this weird, unhappy look on his face. I didn't bring it up again after he told me about Chicago. In the middle of it, he lost his only two friends to the virus, having to put one down himself. That really hit him hard.
He was one of those guys preparing for the end of the world before it happened. He had guns, food, everything. All of it back in the city. Isn't that just a bitch? Out of his entire doomsday supply shack, he only managed to get a gun and a weeks' worth of canned food. He tried to rob me, but when he realized we were in the same boat he just walked off. I followed him, convinced him not to slice me open, and that's how it started. Survivors just wandering around, looking for food, shelter, anything that would drag our lives out just a minute longer. Soon enough, we found more people, and more after that.
Cowboy, that redneck fuck, was one of the first. We found him and Joanna going north, with barely two cans of food and a weapon between them. We took them in, and felt safe enough to raid houses and small farms then. Soon enough we found the jackpot. An old couple on a farm had stocked enough canned goods up to feed an army for a month. In the barn we found a group of survivors, led by a guy named Alex. Alex was a big dude, muscles in his arms but not so much in his brain, catch? [I nod.]
That's when we stocked up. We figured we had enough to make it north, even on foot, but Shawn wouldn't have it. His reasoning was that if everyone was going north, the undead would be on their heels and we would run right into them.
If you weren't going north, then what was your plan? Wander around and scavenge everything you needed?
Yes. We found a few more survivors, but the only ones who stood out were Jordan and Ethan. Ethan came from Texas and got stuck going north when he ran out of supplies, and Jordan didn't talk about himself that much. Within a month, we had 30 people, armed to the teeth with sharp objects and a few guns. We never used the guns though, unless we had to. It was always the in-close silent kills when we had a choice.
How did you find enough food to feed 30 people through scavenging?
Luck? I don't know. There were plenty of cars filled to the brim with food and water, camping gear, and survival equipment. So many people just gave up on the road West and ended it. Of course we had to be careful raiding vehicles because of the zombified people inside. It was one of the creepiest things in my life. Seeing a face with half the skin torn away and an eye handing out of the socket banging on a window, making muffled moans trying to get at your flesh. And then being told to open the door and waste that thing with knife? Fuck that. But I did it, every time. Shawn's philosophy was that if you couldn't pull your own weight, others shouldn't have to. I got to be good at it even.
What was your main job?
Runner. We always split into 3-4 groups when scavenging, so it was nice to have a guy who could run fast back and forth. I was a messenger boy. Running was the only thing that kept me away from them at times, if there were too many to take out with a baseball bat or a hatchet. I loved to run though, because it made me feel so much better than them. They couldn't catch me, they'd always be left in the dust. I even saved some lives by making it to groups before a horde of zombies stumbled into them from behind.
Cowboy was the point man. When we were traveling he was always in front of the line, being a native to the Midwest. Unbelievably, he was the only one with a lighter on him through the whole ordeal. It was useful for clearing dark houses and basements. The only flashlights we ever found were to broken to be used, or had no juice. And we couldn't take around useless things with us, even if we might find batteries at the next stop, or had a feeling we would need it later. Shawn's rules. He said that the less we carried, the faster we'd go. The faster we went, the easier it would be to outrun the dead. I can't count the number of times climbing a fence, or jumping over debris saved my skin. They couldn't climb the fences, or jump the piles of debris. In time they could go through them, but after that time was on my side, not theirs.
How long were you stranded east of the mountains? Was every day a fight for survival?
Yeah. We encountered Zack on a daily basis, and dealt with him. Some days, when we were only traveling it would be three or four. Others, when we were clearing out houses and [shudders] edges of towns, we would find twenty, maybe even up to one-hundred a day! Those days were when we were extremely careful, but every time we did it, and without so much as a scratch. You know why?
Because you could think.
Exactly! We used our brains, our speed, everything we had but they didn't! Hell, we even cleared a whole town once! It was small, maybe sixty to seventy people, but damn it was tough! Those were the only times we used firearms. One shot to the head and down they go. We didn't clear up the bodies afterward, only moved them out of the way. Shawn kept saying that if we settled down, we would get complacent. If we got complacent, we would get sloppy, and if we got sloppy we would die. So we always kept on the move.
Why did everyone follow Shawn? Why didn't anyone just decide to stay in a cleared out town?
Some did, but most listened to him because he had taken us so far. By the time we cleared out that town, we had been doing this for months, at least. We took everything we needed, weapons, food, and the like from the towns and left. Things got so much easier when we found the truck. Goddamnit, we even named her because she made our life so much easier! Lucy kept going on gas we found, which wasn't much, to gas we siphoned from abandoned cars. We went a bit slower because of the increased zombie activity. That engine drew them from miles around it seemed! They never came in hordes, only two to seven at a time. They made for the truck while some of us came up from behind and carved their skulls open. Piece of cake.
What happened when you finally made contact with the survivors behind the Rockies?
We…I…this interview is over. [Nathan calls for a nurse, who helps him out of the bed he is laying in. She gently places him into his wheelchair and they proceed to show me out.] I'm sorry sir, but that's something I hope we take to our graves. Like I said, we weren't heroes. I lost so much because of that. On top of the zombies taking my family, my life, my humanity…[he trails off for a few moments]. I lost my damn legs too. [he gestures to the stumps where his legs used to be, one slightly longer than the other]. If you really want to find out, the others might tell you. And if you see Cowboy, tell him to use the painkillers first next time, okay?
[Nathan Beckwith is the founder of the "Mercy Helpers" charity group, which tends to those with severe mental trauma amputees who survived the virus. The group's headquarters is located in his old home town of Augustus, Maine, and employs and treats people from across the world.]