Wasteland marshals, p.1
Wasteland Marshals, page 1
Gail Z. Martin
Larry N. Martin
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“I miss pizza.” Shane Collins looked up at the broken neon sign for the abandoned pizza restaurant with a sigh.
“The world practically ends, and you miss pizza?” Lucas Maddox echoed.
“Among other things,” Shane replied. The mom-and-pop roadside motel they planned to squat in for the night sat across a crumbling highway from the old pizzeria, sparking memories and a pang of loss.
“Yeah, lots of other things,” Lucas replied, as he finished checking out the empty motel lobby to assure no unwelcome surprises awaited them. Three years after a clusterfuck of epic proportions had effectively stopped the twenty-first century cold in its tracks, ruins like the old motel had become reminders of what had been.
“Hey, it’s got a solid roof, the walls are cement block, and we can bring the horses into the utility shed overnight. We’ve done with worse,” Shane pointed out.
Which was true, Shane thought. As partners in the US Marshals, they had spent many nights holed up in mid-price hotels safeguarding witnesses. Before that, in the Army, they’d survived miserable missions in bombed-out villages. The comfortable suburban childhood they’d shared as friends since elementary school was another relic of a world that no longer existed.
The two men were a study in contrasts, though they were both thirty-five and within a half inch of the same six-foot-two height. Shane was blond, with what Lucas always joked was an All-American cowboy look. Lucas had dark hair and eyes, rocking more of a bad boy vibe. That had made it easy when the job demanded playing good cop/bad cop.
“And the floor’s tile. I never thought cheap motel carpet could get any worse—but it did,” Lucas replied. A few years without heat or cooling turned most hotel guest rooms into breeding grounds for mold and wild animals. They had learned the hard way that the motel office usually made a better shelter—tile floor, less furniture, and good visibility. And in some cases, like tonight, a real fireplace.
Lucas had already poked and prodded at the flue until he felt sure that they could light a fire relatively safely. After a cold ride from their last waystation, he seemed positively giddy about the possibility.
“I brought in our bedrolls and saddlebags,” Lucas said as he rose from where he knelt next to the 1970s-style hearth, dusting the soot off his hands. “There’s some grass next to the parking lot that looks safe for the horses to eat. You want to take the horses over to graze, and then down to the pond, while I go looking for firewood?”
“Yeah, and I’ll bring up a bucket of water to boil. Warm food would be a nice change.”
He headed out to the gravel parking lot, where they had tied Lucas’s black stallion and his own roan gelding. They had named them “Shadow” and “Red” respectively, unimaginative but functional, although they had long joked about more colorful names from the fantasy novels and games they liked, more along the lines of Sleipnir or Shadowfax. Shane had argued that both of those names took entirely too long to say, though the thought still made him smile.
“Come on you two. Let’s get you fed and watered before it’s full dark.” Shane led their mounts over to the grass that stretched down to a small pond, then stood guard as they began to eat.
Three years ago, the idea of trading in their black SUV for a pair of horses would have prompted plenty of cowboy jokes and incredulous chuckles. Shane ran a hand along Red’s side affectionately. He’d grown fond of both horses, although he’d probably always miss heat, air conditioning, and the protection from the elements he’d once taken for granted in the confines of a vehicle.
The pond was part of a small park. Its gazebo and playground looked to be in good shape, though the area was as deserted as the motel. Gazing at the green space gave Shane a peaceful feeling, something difficult to come by these days. He let himself enjoy the view, then frowned as he strained to make out music so distant that he couldn’t be certain whether he had heard it or merely imagined the song. Shane looked all around but saw no one in sight. It seemed odd, but it wasn’t the first time he’d had something like that happen. Shane chalked it up to his imagination and turned his focus back to the horses.
Lucas’s shout broke Shane from his thoughts.
“Come on,” he told the horses, tugging at their reins. He didn’t dare leave them unprotected and loose, but Lucas needed his help. The horses came with him reluctantly, and he ran as fast as he could with them in tow, sending them into the relative protection of the shed he and Lucas had scouted earlier. He closed the door behind them and headed toward where the shouts had sounded.
He came around the corner, his crossbow drawn. Lucas was down, fighting for his life against a huge black dog. Only it wasn’t a normal dog, Shane knew as he tried to get a clear shot where he could hit the attacker and not Lucas. A grim only looked like a large, ugly dog, the size of a sow with black, matted fur, bat-like ears, and red eyes. It was really a revenant, a supernatural creature, and so nothing but iron or silver would do the job.
Shane squeezed the trigger, sending a silver-coated arrow into the monster’s front shoulder, hoping like hell Lucas didn’t manage to move into the shot. The creature reared back and howled in pain, turning its glowing red eyes on Shane. Blood covered its sharp teeth and powerful, wide jaw, and Shane feared he was already too late. The grim’s hesitation gave Shane the time he needed to reload, and this time, the crossbow bolt caught the grim between the eyes. The creature toppled over, covering Lucas in gore.
“Lucas!” Shane rushed forward, alert in case the grim had not hunted alone. Usually, they were solitary creatures, but nothing worked the way it used to, and Shane had learned the hard way not to take chances.
Lucas groaned, trapped beneath the body of the dead beast. Shane slung his crossbow over his shoulder on its strap and hefted the grim off of his partner. He couldn’t tell how much of the blood was the grim’s and how much was Lucas’s.
“Got…shoulder,” Lucas moaned.
Shane knelt beside him, triaging the wound. Lucas’s shirt and jacket were ripped and bloody where the grim had sunk its teeth into the meat of his upper arm, and a swipe of the creature’s claws had opened a set of gashes across his chest.
That’s bad, Shane thought. He fought down panic and thought quickly, then shimmied out of his own coat long enough to strip off his flannel shirt and rip it into pieces. Shane wadded up one section to stanch the flow of blood from the bite, then tied the wad in place with what had been a sleeve. He did the same for the chest wound.
“How bad?” Lucas managed.
“More than I can stitch up,” Shane said. “We need to get you help.”
“Not far to Green Farm.” Lucas hated admitting pain, so the fact that he was panting gave Shane an idea of just how bad it was.
“Yeah. Far enough,” Shane muttered. “Gonna have to get you to the farm. I’ll get the bags, then we need to go.”
He pulled Lucas to his feet as gently as he could and pretended he didn’t see the tightness in his partner’s face or hear the moan he bit back. Shane had a thinner, narrower build, while Lucas had always been more muscular. That made hauling his injured buddy all the harder, since Shane swore Lucas weighed a ton although, in reality, they were
“I’ll be back,” Shane said as he eased Lucas into a plastic chair in the lobby. He grabbed their bedrolls and saddlebags, then went to the garage to fetch the horses, all the while expecting another grim to show up to finish the hunt.
Shane got the horses ready and then led them back, hoping Lucas remained conscious. When he returned to the lobby, his friend was pale and shaky, but still awake.
“Okay, you’ve got to stay with me,” Shane cautioned. “Probably gonna hurt like hell. I’ll drag this chair out beside Shadow, and then help you climb from the chair to the saddle.”
“Fuck off,” Lucas said, but the weakness in his voice took the heat from his comment. “I can get on my horse.”
“Falling would be bad. And you’re in no condition to make decisions.” Shane ignored Lucas’s bravado, feeling vindicated when Lucas could barely keep his legs under him for the short distance between the lobby and the horses. Shane dragged the plastic chair along with them, then steadied Lucas and half-lifted him as he stepped up and swung his leg over the saddle.
“Do I need to tie you on?” It wouldn’t be the first time they had ridden with one of them hurt.
“No. Just…fuck it hurts. Don’t take the long way.”
Shane hoped he had kept his worry out of his expression, but Lucas knew him too well to be fooled if he hadn’t already figured out the danger for himself.
He fastened Shadow’s reins to his own saddle, so Lucas only had to worry about keeping himself in the saddle. Not for the first time, he missed the convenience of GPS and the efficiency of ambulances and emergency rooms. Hell, even a hospital would be an improvement, he thought. But they were out in the country on the outskirts of Mercer, Pennsylvania, and the small rural hospitals had shut down long ago as the power failed and supplies ran out.
He came to a crossroads and debated which way to go. Both led to Green Farm, but Shane couldn’t afford to find out that a damaged bridge or other obstacle blocked their path. Lucas still bled steadily from his injuries, and even the best care Shane might find in time would fall short of a trauma center.
It wasn’t until he’d already made his decision, trusting his gut, and started down the road that Shane realized he’d followed the path where the faint song in his mind sang the loudest.
Green Farm lived up to its name. Before, it had been a cluster of Amish farms with a pie and produce stand along the state highway that ran along one side of the land. Now, it remained a farm, but it had also become an enclave, a sanctuary for those who needed somewhere to go when the world ended and were willing to adapt. The same old school ways that had often made the Amish the butt of jokes had been what ultimately saved them and held out hope that society could rebuild.
The palisade fence at Green Farm was new. It appeared to stretch around the perimeter of the enclave, and Shane guessed it had been built to protect the residents from creatures like the grim—and humans who were arguably worse.
“US Marshals Collins and Maddox, and my partner is bleeding, so we need to come in now,” Shane snapped when two bearded young men in the plain clothing of the sect called down to him from a watchtower at the locked gates.
The two men exchanged a glance, then one ran to open the gate. Shane rode in, sparing a worried look behind him. Lucas had fallen silent soon after they had started on the road, and his ashen color and drawn expression made Shane even more worried than he had been before. In the old days, any emergency room probably could have handled the wounds. But that was Before. Now, resources were scarce to non-existent, or hellishly difficult to find if they hadn’t vanished. This was the best he could do. Lucas wouldn’t make it to the next depot.
“I’ll run ahead and tell Doc you’re coming,” the second guard said, and took off toward where Shane vaguely remembered the doctor’s house and office were located.
Dr. David Preston was waiting on his porch when Shane and Lucas rode up. He and the guard came forward to help Shane get Lucas out of the saddle without falling. Lucas looked far too pale, and his skin felt cold.
“Got ambushed by a grim,” Shane said as the three men carried Lucas inside. “I shot it, and Lucas did his best to fight it off, but there’s a bite and some gashes. He’s lost a lot of blood.”
“Do you know his blood type?”
Shane rattled off the information. “And as it happens, we’re the same type, so I can donate if you need me to.” That had come in handy more than once over the years, in the Army as well as during their time as Marshals.
“Good to know. Let’s see how it goes. Let’s get him onto my table and see about cleaning the wounds. Those creatures’ bites go sour easily. That’s never been a good thing—but it’s worse now.”
Shane knew what Doc Preston meant. Antibiotics were scarce, and what might still be manufactured on a small, local scale could no longer be distributed like before. That put a premium on folk cures and old knowledge, as well as those whose medical knowledge combined with some healing magic.
“I’ll take care of your horses,” the guard volunteered, “if you want to get what you need from your packs.” Shane thanked the man and grabbed a few essentials after the three of them got Lucas settled.
“Eat something,” Preston said. “There’s food in the kitchen. You’ll need it if we have to do a transfusion. I’ll yell if I need you.”
Darkness had fallen on the ride to Green Farm. The whole way there, Shane feared that at any moment, a pack of grims—or something worse—would come lunging from the shadows and finish them both. In truth, he’d been expecting that for years, even Before. They’d come close so many times, in Afghanistan, and then as Marshals. Sooner or later, the time would come when fate decided it had been cheated long enough.
“But it will not be this day,” Shane muttered to himself, quoting one of his favorite movies.
He tried to ignore the pang he always felt when he remembered. Watching those movies had grown much more difficult, and he might not see some ever again. In the old days, he and Lucas often passed the time in the car dueling nerd quotes, trying to out-geek the other. Their shared love of comics, video games, and superheroes had drawn them together in grade school and provided a life-long bond. Now it was bittersweet, an unspoken effort not to forget details from a world that had radically, permanently, changed.
The Amish had never relied on modern conveniences like electricity in their homes—although they did make a pragmatic exception for their barns and carpentry shops. That meant that their transition in the aftermath went far more smoothly. Shane made his way around Preston’s kitchen by lantern light, hungry enough to be content with cheese and slices of thick, homemade bread with butter.
The door to Preston’s office remained shut, and Shane tried to take it as a good sign that he hadn’t been summoned. He pulled a dog-eared book from his pack, but he was too worried to read and too exhausted to pace. He stared at the book and realized that it was one of Lucas’s fantasy novels. Shane tended toward sci-fi, but books were scarce, and he and Lucas always traded when they did find a stash of books in an abandoned house or not-completely-looted store.
He whistled to pass the time, cycling through as many of his classic rock favorites as he could remember. Shane rarely bothered to know the words. Lucas sang, another way they kept boredom at bay during all the long stake-outs and dreary car rides. Now, even whistling didn’t quell his nervousness.
The wind-up clock on the mantle told him two hours had elapsed by the time Dr. Preston finally opened the door. Shane sprang to his feet. “Do you need me? Does Lucas need blood?”
Preston walked out, wearing a blood-spattered cloth apron. “He’s going to be okay. You’re welcome to go see him, but he’s still under. Didn’t need blood after all. Would have done a transfusion if we didn’t have a choice, but I prefer not to if we can help it.”
Shane felt himself relax for t
Preston shrugged. “You’re Marshals. We appreciate what you do for all of us. The folks here may not venture out much beyond our borders, but we do try to keep up with what goes on in the world.”
Shane sighed. “You might want to rethink that, Doc. What goes on out there ain’t so great.”
“Was it ever?”
Shane’s laugh was harsh. “A damned sight better than it is now, pardon my language.”
“I’ve said worse when I tripped over something in the barn,” Preston replied with a conspiratorial smile. “As for how it was Before—it’s different for us. Our folks can’t mourn what was never theirs. And yet, they would never wish what’s happened on anyone.”
“Maybe you had the right idea all along,” Shane said with a sigh. “Keep it simple. Your folks still knew how to get by when everything went wrong.” He paused. “Except…I didn’t think the Amish went to school long enough to become a doctor.”
Preston chuckled. “I didn’t start out Amish. When the Events happened, I figured they had the most stable community, and I offered my services, in exchange for converting. They probably wouldn’t have taken me up on it Before, but…well, things are different now.”
“That’s an understatement.”
“If you feel up to it, you and I could get Lucas into a bed and off my surgical table,” Preston offered. “I’ve got a guest room for him, and I can make up the couch for you.”
“I’d be grateful,” Shane said, and now that the crisis was over, he felt exhaustion in every muscle. “And I’m willing to work for our room and board while he recovers. Wouldn’t be the first time I’ve mucked out the barn.”
Preston chuckled. “I’ll take you up on that—tomorrow. Let’s get you two settled before you fall over and I end up with two patients instead of one.”
by Gail Z. Martin have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes