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The End: Chapter 4
February 1st. I place an X on the day on my little calendar. Behind me, Solo (as I have taken to calling him) is finishing his breakfast. I wait until he has licked the dish clean then we go up the stairs to the crows nest together, as is our regular morning routine now. It's been six months since the massacre of his pack by the marauders and Solo has grown rapidly, as has his trust in me.
With winter now in full swing, we spend most of our time in the station. Snow blankets the ground, in some places drifted as deep as six feet. I am happy for Solo's company, and he appears to enjoy mine as well. There has still been no sign of other survivors, but with Solo at least I am not alone. Two hoards of infected have passed through, both coming from the the woods, as if driven this way from somewhere. I discover the they are slowed by the snow and cold, dispatching them easily from a rooftop with my crossbow.
Up in the nest, Solo lays at my feet, happily chewing a deer antler I'd saved from a buck I'd taken during the summer months. I sip hot instant coffee, watching the sun rise lazily in the steely winter sky.
"Well, buddy...what'll we do today?"
He lifts his head and eyes me curiously, I smile and stroke his fur, scratching behind his half-ear. As the sun climbs higher, it breaks through the clouds and beams down on the snow, making it sparkle. The town is so beautiful and peaceful, I could almost forget the horrors that exist outside. I decide today is the day I will start bringing Solo with me on patrol of the town and surrounding woods. In better weather I made the trip daily but in the face of the ferocious northern winter, it is impossible to keep a path clear in the deep snow and some days it is impossible to leave the station at all.
Up until now, I have only taken him walking on the snow-covered beach, hesitant to stray too far from the station with him. In the case of something unexpected happening, I couldn't risk putting him in harm's way. Now, however, he has more than doubled in size and I am confidant he can defend himself and will now leave my side. The cub has proven to be a fast learner, quickly picking up on simple commands like sit, stay, and get home. On our beach walks, he anticipates my every move, freezes in his tracks when I stop, alerts me to foreign sounds he hears before I do, and on the one occasion we came across a small group of the infected, he glues himself to my sde and knew to be silent and attract no attention. I spite of my confidence in him, I have fashioned a harness out of rope to which I attach a long leash I'd found in one of the empty houses.
I gear up, tie the loose end of the leash around my waist and the other to Solo's harness. We head out, first to the beach where Solo is comfortable. After a slow jog down the frozen shoreline, we move up the hill leading into the trees. Solo hesitates, looking back in the direction of the station. I tug gently on the leash.
"Come on, big guy. Not going home just yet." I tell him.
He cocks his head at the word "home" but moves forward with me once he realizes we are not going back just yet. We follow the perimeter trail I've marked with bits of bright red cloth shredded from on old sheet, keeping far away from the old den site. We circle around the town in the cover of the forest, finally coming to the only road leading into town. The snow there is undisturbed, but Solo is restless as I stand looking over the town from the hilltop. I stow my binoculars and we continue on, Solo anxiously leading the way back to the station. We make our way slowly through the thigh-deep snow. Freezing rain the night before has formed a crust of ice, thick enough for Solo to pass over the snow easily, but not quite thick enough to support my weight. Solo is patient with me, though, careful to never pull me off balance.
A half mile from the station, I pause to rest. Solo sits down in the snow with me, playfully tugging at the leash connecting us. All is quiet around us, so quiet I can actually hear the snow falling around us. As I close my eyes and listen, revelling in the peace of the moment, Solo's demeanor changes suddenly. He stands stiff-legged, bristling, his eyes lively and focused on something behind us. Then I hear it. Something tearing through the forest, something large and heavy, making a terrible racket as it crashes through the trees and the ice-crusted snow.
A large black bear comes out of the woods, clearly frightened and taking no notice of us. I puzzle over the sight of the animals. It should be deep in hibernation,warm and sleeping in a den somewhere, tucked away from winter's vengeful cold. Then I see the shock of red on the snow behind him, a trail left by the multiple arrows lodged in his side. I am up in an instant. Whoever has been bold enough to rouse a 200 pound bear from his winter slumber, would not be one to allow their quarry to escape. I can tell by Solo's growing anxiety that he can already hear the pursuers. I don't wait for my own inferior hearing to confirm it. I trust in my companion and we head for the nearest building; an old restaurant which lies in the opposite direction of the fleeing bear. We wait behind the building, both listening intently. I hear faint voices; two men but they fade away, following the bear's trail.
When I'm sure the way is clear, Solo and I cover the remaining distance to the station, but I don't dare go directly there. Instead, I take him to the hotel, not wanting to leave a trail to our front door. From The second floor, I can see the main road and the station. I watch the men trudging through the snow, the bear ahead and losing speed. Both men's faces are covered, bundles in scarves and ski masks against the cold. The larger of the two takes aim with his bow. It is simple in it's make, a single string composite, but it shoots straight and strong. Another arrow lodges in the bear, this time in it's neck, and it falters. The men rush forward as best they can in the snow and I watch as the smaller one leaps upon the fallen beast, cutting it's throat in one quick, efficient motion. He then sets to work at once cleaning the carcass, anxiously looking over his shoulder as if he can feel me watching him. The other man kneels at the bear's head, stroking it's fur gently, murmuring something to himself. He looks up to the sky, still speaking. Though I can't make out the words, I recognize the act as a prayer of thanks to the animals for his sacrifice. Solo whines softly next t me and paws at my boots. He has only been inside the hotel once and doesn't like it here. I absently rest my hand on his head and continue watching the strangers. These two are no marauders and certainly not infected. Neither would be watching their backs like this and the way they carefully wrapped the meat and placed it in their packs, both the beastly marauders would have not treated the carcass with such respect. Most marauders also take no caution of the noise of gunfire, but these two had been especially careful, using only a bow and blade instead of bullets.
"We may just have something here, boy." I tell Solo.
He cocks his head questioningly, then looks in the direction of the station, whining, urging me homeward. I make a decision. If the men aren't marauders and they arent infected, they could be potential allies, although the possibility remains that they will just as soon kill me for any supplies I might have.
"Best to catch them head on." I say as much to myself as so Solo.
We leave the hotel, Solo never straying more than a few inches from my side. I take a moment to unload my crossbow at the station, taking up one of the M4 carbine rifles I'd recovered from the marauders who'd killed Solo's family. I check to make sure it's loaded, it is, as is my holstered 9mm. I take Solo's harness off, wanting to make sure he can run and escape if need be. Crossing directly through town on the main road, I try to suppress my nerves. I rarely take this route as it offers little cover, but it is the most direct route and the men cannot see me from where they are butchering the carcass. It takes only a few minutes, with the buildings lining the street the snow has not drifted as high here. Solo does not move with his usual puppyish bounce but with the a fluid, stealthy gait of a borne hunter.
When I pause at the corner of the last building between us and the intruders, Solo freezes in his tracks, eyes ahead but his half-ear cocked toward me, awaiting my next move.
I look through the scope of my rifle and get the men, still hard at work on the bear carcass, in my sights. Looking down at Solo, I pat his head gently.
"Stay." I tell him, softly but sternly.
He emits a low whine of protest but sits where he is. It was the first and most important thing I'd taught him and he knows it well. I advance on the men quickly, head on, rifle raised. They see me just as I yell "Hands up!"
They both know they won't load their bows before I can fire on them and apparently have no firearms within reach. They get to their feet, hands on their heads. When I'm within a few feet of them, I stop, the business end of my rifle trained on them.
"No need to shoot us, friend." One of them says from behind his ski mask. "Plenty of meat here for us to share."
I am wary, but something about the voice disarms me.
I couldn't leave Gabe in his condition, he had multiple head wounds, a dislocated shoulder, and potentially broken ribs. We decide to stay the night in the truck's cab. The next morning I would help him find a working vehicle and then we would part ways. I didn't sleep that night, my mind reeling from the day's events. I kept watch all night as Gabriel slept deeply and in the early morning hours we set out to find him transportation. It proved more complicated than I thought, apparently the deranged cannibal family had gone to great lengths to disable any vehicles on the road nearby in order to funnel travellers toward them. Finally, late that afternoon, we found an old Chevy farm truck. The keys are in the ignition and when I turn them, the engine roars to life. Gabriel's batter face broke into smile at the sound.
"Finally." He breathed.
I got out and loaded the supplies I'd packed for him from my own stash, then turned to wish Gabe farewell. Over the roar of the truck, we never heard the impending danger. We'd let our guard down in the excitement of good fortune and the result was a group of infected who must have been nearby, lurking in the trees all alonge. Now they'd been drawn to us by the sound of the truck. Gabe does not need to look behind him to know what's there, they are close enough now he can hear the snarls and moans. He shoves me into the truck and gets in behind me, pulling my bag in after him. Putting the truck in gear, he slams his foot on the gas. The engine growls but the truck goes nowhere.
"Fuck!!" He screams, beating the steering wheel. "I can fix it, but I need some time..." He bangs on the wheel again.
Without a word, Gabe is out and under the hood, but the ghouls are closing fast. Knowing I'd stupidly propped my rifle against the far side of the truck, and I don't have the ammo at hand to take them all anyway. All I could think is 'there is no time'. I jumped out after him, faced the forty or so undead and began shouting and waving my arms to get their attention. They moved rapidly toward me and, catching a glimpse of Gabe's horrified expression, I ran into the trees.
I could hear the ragged panting of the horde behind me and I desperately began to think of a way to lose them. I ran as fast as my legs would carry me, gained a good lead, then veered sharply to my left. I paused to tear a piece of my tshirt off and tied it to a tree branch to mark my way then take off again. I made more turns to try to confuse them but they gained speed as they grew both ravenous and furious with the chase. Finally I caught a break when I came to a small but steep ravine. Knowing the undead do not navigate uneven terrain well, I plunged down the steep hill, catching hold of the smaller trees on my way down to control my descent. Upon reaching the bottom, I used the last of my strength to bolt up the other side. This gave me the advantage I'd needed and I watched a moment from the other side as they tumbled down after me. I bolted away a few yards out of their sight and climb the nearest pine tree sturdy enough to hold my weight.
The smaller of the men, really only slightly short than his companion, pulls his ski mask away from his face, revealing a grizzled gray beard, longish gray-black hair and hawk-like golden-brown eyes, sharp but kind.
"My god." He says, recognizing my voice.
I tear away the scarf from my own face, drop my rifle and run to the first familiar face I've seen in nearly two years. Noah embraces me, reminding me at once of my father and, for some reason, Santa Claus.
"You made it!" he cries, squeezing me tightly. "I had a notion you would." He holds me at arm's length and neither of us can stop smiling and I simply can't find the words to express my joy.
I hardly notice the man behind him and for a moment can only stare at Noah dumbly, so overcome am I with the sight of a friendly face. Finally, I regain my senses.
"Noah! I can't believe you're here! How did you get here? The road, how was it? Did you see many marauders?" I fire off questions, giving him no time to answer them.
As the words poiur out of me, my voice feels strange. There was little need for words between Solo and myself and before that I had no one. This is the most I have spoken in a very long time. Noah's weathered face smiles even wider.
"It's good to see you too, dearie. We have much to talk about." He pauses, turning to his companion, who has gone back to wrapping and packing the remaining meat. "Now, we can carry the bulk of this in one trip, if you can tote the hide for me." He gestures to the rolled-up bear skin that he has neatly removed from the carcass and set aside.
"Will do." I answer promptly, then nod toward the other man. "Your son?"
Noah beams, clearly both proud and thrilled to have his son alive and well and with him.
"Yes. But we will have time for introductions later." He tells me, loading up his pack.
As they prepare to move, I whistle shrilly, calling Solo. He comes counding across the snow, slowing to a cautious stalk as he nears us, eyes riveted on NOah and his son, ears cocked toward me, awaiting instructions regarding these interlopers. Noah and his son stand in awe as I go to Solo and scratch behind his half-ear.
"It's okay." I tell him encouragingly. "Noah, meet Solo."
Back inside the warm ranger station, I direct Noah and his son to the garage where my meat is packed in snow. Noah whistles, impressed at the comfortable, well stocked sanctuary I have established. We stash the meat and return to the cozy inner rooms. Solo, still unsure of the newcomers, has retreated to his old hiding place under the kitchen table, growling quietly.
As Noah and his son remove their winter gear, I receive yet shock. The face revealed when the younger man removes his mask is much like his fathers, except the beard and hair are jet black, the eyes are piercing blue, and although the last time I saw it, the features were battered and broken, I recognize it at once. Gabriel stands before me, smiling mischieviously.
"Hello again." He says before Noah can make the introductions.
I hug him fiercely without a word and after a moment, Noah clears his throat.
"Okay...so you two know each other?"
I turn to him, again overcome with joy and unable to find my words.
"Pop', this is her, the one who found me in that truck."
"You don't say..." Noah marvels, smiling warmly at me. "That's a hell of a way to repay a favor... I owe you thanks, my dear, for saving my boy."
"You owe me nothing." I tell him, shaking my head. "Like you said, just repaying the favor."
Gabriel interjects; "Well now that we're all acquainted again...can we eat?" He rubs his hands together over the woodstove and for the first time I notice how sallow their faces look, how hungry they must be.
An hour later, we are all fed and warmed, contentedly sitting around the stove. Even Solo, having feasted on venison with warm gravy, is curled up comfortably at my feet.
"So..." Noah broaches the silence, lighting his pipe. "You'e made quite the comfortable little nest here, missy. I imagine it was quite a bit of work securing all of this. You've done very well. Did you have much trouble on the way?"
"No more than expected. Took a good while, and then another few months getting things secured around here. Hunting and fishing are great in the summer, as you can see." I gesture toward the garage. "A lot of time chopping wood, and of course the last few months I've had Solo here." I scratch his ears and he grunts affectionately, opening one golden eye to look up at me.
"How is it that you came across him...That is a wolf, isn't it?" Gabriel asks.
"I shared this area with his pack, we hunted the same grounds..." I pause, remembering that horrible day at the den. "Marauders came across their den and slaughtered them all. I heard the shots from the station but by the time I got there, it was too late..." I recall the details to them, Noah and Gabe listening quietly to Solo's tragic story. I detest thinking of that day and change the subject.
"How about you two? How was your trip?"
"Long." They say in unison
Noah continues; "The major cities are lost. Those things travel in packs, and when they're well fed, they're damn fast. The marauders, though, they're the worst. And they're everywhere... as quick to eat a man as the infected but with cognitive thought..." He puffs his pipe thoughtfully, shaking his head.
"Well...I hate to be an old codger, but I'm beat." He says, tapping his pipe out in the ash bucket near the stove. I fetch extra blankets from the bunks in the back bedrooms and they settle in on the overstuffed couches. Noah is asleep as soon as his head hits the pillow, but Gabriel lies awake long after I've made my own bed in the creaky old La-Z-Boy , his hands folded over his broad chest as he stares up at the ceiling. Noah's snores rumble a soft, steady rhythm and I breathe a deep, contented sigh, feeling an ease I haven't felt in a very long time. Solo and I are not alone anymore.