Sharp twigs dug into the toughened skin of their feet. Every step appeared to be an uphill battle. The fear of encountering an undead loomed around every turn. Each tree, which once provided shade and relief from the hot Georgia sun, now served the tenacious population of undead.
Frances trudged forward at a respectable pace, especially with Clara now hoisted onto her back. They had escaped the malicious group three moons ago, stopping twice merely for water at a small creek. Granola bars were always eaten in motion.
Frances mind was occupied with various questions. Is there enough space between us? Is Clara hungry or thirsty? Where are we headed? Am I weak? What if I have to fight off multiple undead? What's waiting behind that large tree? The answers to these questions plagued her mind and served as just another burden she needed to fight off. She stopped short at the sudden sound of rustling leaves.
Frances slowly removed her left hand from Clara's thin wrist and felt the cool handle of her knife. She acknowledged her luck to have stumbled across it, Joe had drunkenly abandoned it while tormenting a fellow female survivor and Frances had slipped it into her belt loop in their quiet escape. Bringing her hand back to Clara, she calmly loosened the little girl's grip around her neck. She then brought her hands to provide support under the child's thighs. She hoped her hands would remain there, and she would have no reason to reach for the knife again.
Today would mark the group's sixth day on the Greene's farm. Carl was still recovering from his gunshot wound, Sophia was still missing, and T-Dog was also on the mend. Even the Greene family had lost one of their own. Daryl couldn't help but think of all the damage inflicted in the past few days.
Never one to sit around, Daryl rose early and prepared for his day. After pouring over various maps provided by Dale and Hershel, the route he had decided to follow settled along a small creek. Perhaps the girl had gone to water. Surely she would be thirsty.
Daryl threw a button down shirt over his sleeveless undershirt and headed out of his tent. The air was crisp in the morning. Dew stuck to everything, covering the earth with a shiny gleam. Squinting into the rising sun, Daryl's thoughts drifted to his big brother.
Rick's group was large. It was armed. They had multiple eyes watching at all times. It didn't make Daryl feel completely safe, but his situation seemed safer than Merle's. Sure being on your own could be easier, especially for someone as fine-tuned to nature and the elements as Daryl, but with only one hand and an army of walkers Daryl figured the chances of Merle's survival were slightly negated.
Shuffling in the grass brought Daryl's mind to the present. Immediately he turned, fingers wrapped tightly around his buck knife.
"Whoa, good morning," spoke Rick. "Just wanted to double check todays plans and make sure you were all set to head out."
Officer Rick Grimes, the family man with a heart of southern gold. Daryl overlooked the man. His stubble was quickly forming a dark black beard tinged with grey. His cold wet eyes washed into the pale spread of his face. The man looked broken. His son was broken in just as many pieces as his marriage. The whole damn group was broken. It sure showed on that long face.
"Headed out early, gotta get that girl back here. Thinkin' of checking that house again." Daryl replied quickly.
"Yeah, Carl's sure missing her. She's the only one his age." Rick's words died off at the end of the sentence. Rick turned to the Greene house, and then scanned over the make-shift camp. "We're all missing her…"
Daryl nodded slightly. "Headed out to the creek again. Gonna follow it down stream, it runs parallel to the highway. At a point it bares north-west, which would be her left. Thinking she may have gone that way. You said something about keeping left to her. Maybe that's the only word that stuck." Daryl reminded.
Rick remained unresponsive for a minute. Without waiting Daryl walked over to Merle's bike. He removed a pistol and a case of extra rounds from a small compartment, tucking them into his deep pants pocket. He turned back in time to meet Rick's sorry eyes. Daryl scoffed and headed over to his crossbow, swiftly heaving it over his shoulder and checking his shoe laces and buck knife.
"Be safe Daryl," Rick suddenly spoke. "And look hard for her. I owe it to Carol."
"Christ, she's gonna be fine. I'm gonna find her by the creek. She'll be scared, hungry, and tired as hell and when we get back she won't look no worse than you. Now go handle the group. Check the perimeter. I got this on my own."
With that the bow hunter stalked off into the thick woods, leaving behind all the broken.
Frances couldn't tell if the ground was wet, or if that wetness between her toes was blood from her mangled feet. She furrowed her brow, angry she had ever decided to join the men's group. She was frustrated at herself for being so trusting. She could never forgive herself for subjecting Clara to extra horrors. Her angry thoughts dispelled at the sound of running water. The distinct sound of shallow water bubbling forcefully over rocks and fallen tree limbs brought a small smile to her face. It was coming from her right. Her pace halted for a second. The thought of ice old water, clear and sparkling and gifting relief to her pained and exhausted organs was almost too much to handle.
"We got a new direction, chickie. Tell me, are you thirsty?"
Clara's only response was simply to dig her chin deeper into the cavity of her neck.
"We'll take another quick break," Frances spoke softly. "Do you think you can walk on your own until the next one?"
The small girl's chin chiseled again, this time up and down into the air, signaling her approval.
"Thank you sweetie," Frances relented. "You are so strong. We have just a bit further until we can really rest. We just need to make certain we are safe this time."
Frances hoped the six year old would buy her pathetic façade of potential safety. The twenty-eight year old knew neither would ever be truly safe again, not with the undead. Not with the men still out there.
Suddenly Clara began to cry. Stooping down to the child's level, Frances began to stroke her dirty long hair.
"C'mon chickie, it will be alright. We have water now and some food left. We will find some shelter and I promise you will get a good night's sleep."
"I'm thinking about Mommy," Clara whimpered.
"She's at peace Clara," Frances squeezed her tight to her chest. "I promise you things will get better."
"I'm tired," Clara whined. "Can I sleep soon?"
Frances bit her lip. She honestly didn't know. Were they far enough away? Is the group currently hunting them down? Should they sleep on the ground, here at the creek?
The fright in Clara's eyes forced a difficult answer. "Yes," Frances' head hung low, suddenly heavy with much exhaustion. "You can sleep right here in my lap. I just need to see you drink a lot of water first."
Soon the two collapsed close together at the bed of the creek. Frances examined her feet, dipping them slowly in the rushing cold water to rinse the seemingly permanent debris marks. She also took note of their overall condition. Clara's feet had been spared much of the journey, and were therefore left intact. However, her body had become increasingly frail and light weight since this all started. Frances noticed these same affects in her own body. She needed to build muscle, for protection. She tried not to cry while slowly keeping silent watch under the dawning sun.
Daryl had been following the creek for hours. It had been mostly a straight path, veering slightly when faced with enormous old trees or boulders. He had even managed to start a healthy string of squirrels, which could be cooked later and served as dinner to the group.
Daryl calculated that he was about ten miles from the Greene farm, and five from the abandoned house he believed Sophia had been hiding in a day earlier. He had not re-examined the house and was busy contemplating the worth of backtracking to check that off this day's new search.
Tugging gently at the string of squirrel, Daryl wondered why he hadn't seen much fauna during this past mile. Natural worry settled in. Perhaps walkers were in the area, and the lack of potential dinner served as a warning. But then Daryl heard something, the shriek of a young girl. Without hesitation, Daryl took off, crossbow leading the way toward the sickening sound.
Breaking around a curve in the river Daryl found himself in an interesting situation. The back of one individual and the terrified faces of two others greeted him. He stopped short, ducking behind overgrow flora. His brain worked overtime to analyze the situation.
The crying appeared to be from a kid who was standing in the creek. She was shorter and much thinner than Sophia and Carl. Her long blond hair was filthy. The same could be said about her shirt and shorts. The other female was in a worse position. She appeared to be trapped under a man. Daryl cocked his head to see if it was a walker or living person.
"No! Stop," screamed the woman. "Get off of me! Leave us alone!"
Although Daryl could only see the male's back, his words confirmed his evil actions.
"You thought you were walking on easy street," sneered the man. "You honestly thought no one noticed you and that brat sneak off? After we fed you and protected you against those lame brains? If you wanna leave, sure I'll leave you here. But I'm gonna teach you how to say thank you first." The man moved over her thin body. More screams erupted from the helpless woman.
Daryl worried for her, he also worried that walkers would hear the noise and be headed their way now. He had a group to feed, and girl to find, and even a brother still out there. He couldn't let this sick mess threaten his life too.
Stepping forward Daryl launched a bolt directly into the ass of the man in question. The piercing arrow was quickly followed by a strong hand yanking the aggressive guy off of the struggling woman.
"What in the hell do you think you're doin'?" Daryl asked the unnerved man. "Mind explainin' this shit to me?"