After what feels like a long break while dealing with the challenges that life provides, I wanted to post the first chapter of the completed sequel to my first novel–Midland. I’ve always loved the characters in the first book and wanted to explore where life would lead them. Enjoy!
Midland: The Last Ride
Like storm-driven waves tormenting a shoreline, the wind’s fierce gusts rattled the wooden shutters, shook the roof, and drove wisps of dust deep inside the bedroom. Inside the house the dust spiraled like an apparition before dissolving in the night air. In the room’s dark, Sam Grace lay awake in her bed, eyes staring at the ceiling, listening but not focusing on the wind. After several hours of trying but failing to find slumber, Sam pushed back her bed covers and sat up, unwilling to remain at rest when both sleep and dreams eluded her. Another gust of wind loudly rattled the window’s shutter, startling her just enough to finally bring her to her feet. Putting on a nightshirt, she quietly closed the bedroom door behind her and went into the parlor. Turning on a lantern bathed the parlor in welcome light. Years before, a fire in the kitchen’s hearth would have been kept burning year round providing dim illumination even during a hot summer night like this evening. Now lanterns and flashlights supplanted this need.
Boy it’s warm, she thought. Ain’t nothing hotter than July on the Mesa!
Briefly sitting on a rocking chair that had been scavenged from their neighbor’s abandoned house neither calmed her mind nor cooled her body. Reluctantly, she stood and fitfully looked about the room for some distraction…any distraction. Something to take her mind off of…it! Examining the scant pictures and drawings on the room’s lone book shelf didn’t help. However, a mirror, newly hung on the parlor’s wall, finally caught her attention. Surrounded by an old pine frame, the mirror’s glass reflected a woman Sam almost didn’t recognize. Her short brown hair she had worn for so long had grown out substantially over the last two years and now fell below her shoulders. While she still wasn’t quite sure that long hair belonged on a working farm, and though it still felt both weird and somewhat silly to fret over her hair’s appearance, she liked appearing more like a girl. Similar to the changes in her hair, her looks had aged in the ensuing years softening her features revealing a face that had matured from boyish to pretty. Funny though, even amongst all these changes, Sam couldn’t see any of it–all she saw was the dirty, unkempt farm girl of years before. Finally, with a slight shake of her head, she turned away.
It’s too hot in here! A little night air ought to fix me up.
Taking the lantern in hand, Sam opened the front door and stepped outside. Just two years ago, the act of going outside at night without a gun in hand would have been unthinkable. However, there had been a lot of changes, both at the farm and in Sam.
Under the cloud-covered night sky, Sam was immediately assaulted by a fierce wind that was only slightly diminished by the courtyard’s high walls. Constructed over the last year, the courtyard’s ten foot high walls provided a secure enclosure, one that not only connected the farm house and barn but also provided a substantial interior space, and of significance, also connected with the two partially built new houses. With the courtyard wall and the new structures, the simple farmhouse was slowly transforming into a compound: something the wealthy would have embraced in the Hamptons or Beverly Hills, had not the zombie apocalypse swept all that away over 12 years before. This compound, though, was not intended for leisure; it was constructed for protection.
The dim light of the lantern illuminated the ash-brown color of the courtyard’s mud stucco walls. As she walked, Sam ran her hand along the interior of the wall feeling the rough surface that now had the consistency of concrete after months of baking in the hot summer sun. It was strong, substantial, and most importantly, it was a solid barrier between the world outside and those loved ones within.
Twenty feet along the wall Sam finally reached the frame and door that led to one of the two new houses, though it would have been a stretch to call this a house–it only had recently completed exterior walls with no roof or interior walls. Although just a shell, she couldn’t help but pause and place a hand against the door. After several seconds with her head bowed down, Sam finally turned away to return inside her house. Just as she reached the door, a quiet voice spoke from above.
“Hey there, girlfriend. What cha’ doin’ up?” Ally Warner sat on the edge of the house’s flat roof top looking down at the older girl.
“Eh, don’t know,” Sam replied. “Um, what’s it you always say–‘Just hangin?’”
Both girls broke into wide smiles at Sam’s attempt to copy the younger girl’s style.
It had been two years and a half years since Ally and her older brother Brandon had escaped the ravaged city of Las Vegas for the protection of the farm, and those years had been good for Ally–she had not only grown but prospered. Over these ensuing years, her cute-young-girl appearance at 13 had developed into the beauty and grace of a woman that appeared much older than 15 years. In addition to her appearance, her maturity had also developed though she still was far from grown-up. In spite of their age difference, over the two preceding years Ally and Sam had grown close. They would often talk, confiding with each other those thoughts truly fit for only a close female friend.
Sam quickly climbed a nearby ladder and stepped onto the roof’s flat surface, but above the protection of the courtyard’s wall, the wind’s fierce gusts threatened to knock her from the feet. However, steadying herself slightly and moving with care, Sam worked her way over to Ally and sat at the roof’s edge.
“Windy, ain’t it?” Sam said.
“Yeah, sure is. I just wish it’d rain and cool it down a little.”
“I wish it would rain too. The crops in our fields are bone dry. Goodness…some rain right now would be heaven sent.”
“So, seriously,” Ally asked. “What ya’ doing up?”
“Couldn’t sleep…couldn’t stay in bed either so I got up. Besides, this wind’s rattlin’ the shutters something fierce.” As if to punctuate her comment, the wind’s gusts suddenly increased making it progressively difficult to either speak or be heard.
“Yeah, I know what you mean. The wind had my tent shaking so much that it woke me up. You know me…I like to wake up early.”
This brought a smile to Sam. “Yeah,” she said as she leaned over and nudged the girl. “Wakin’ with the chickens–that’s you.”
“Is there anything else? I mean, you’ve been kinda quiet lately.”
Sam stared mindlessly into the black of night. “Guess I got a whole lot on my mind.”
A slight bow of the older girl’s head was the only response.
“Pre-wedding jitters are normal, girl. At least that’s what the stories all say. But you know it’s gonna be beautiful. Heck, Cal and Billy must have moved a ton of brush to make the meadow pretty as can be. I think I even saw Brandon stringing flowers the other day. Flowers, can you believe that? Trust me–it’s going to be great!”
“I know. It’s just…well, it’s kinda scary.”
“You…scared? That’ll be the day.”
“I mean, I can shoot a rattle snake between the eyes at fifty paces, but…I don’t know.”
“What is it? What’re you really feeling?”
“I’m feelin’, well–kinda boxed in. Like this place.”
A furrowed brow and curious look communicated her comprehension. “I don’t think I understand.”
“I love him—and I want to be with him. But…I just keep feeling that there oughta’ be more.” Sam shook her head, the dim light hiding the tears that welled up in her eyes. “You see…Papa used to say: ‘Ya gotta be comfortable in the shoes you’re wearin’.’ Well, my shoes are feelin’ kinda tight.”
“I’m not sure I know what to say. I wish I could help. Give you some…er, advice. I don’t know. What I do know is Brandon loves you more than anything. He’d do anything for you, you know?”
“I know. But…um…well,…I don’t know.”
Her softly spoken response communicated volumes. Both girls, however, avoided further discussion and quiet fell between them as they mindlessly watched the black horizon. Suddenly, a huge flash of lightning in the distance illuminated a far hillside, and for just a second, turned the night sky into day before dark reclaimed its domain.
“Whoa!” Ally exclaimed. “Did you see that?” Before the older girl could reply, the lightning flashed again and again, illuminating select patches of the horizon. With each flash of light, a low rumble of thunder followed.
“The storm’s shifted. See how the wind’s started blowin’ from those hills towards us?” Several more flashes of lightning with accompanying thunder drowned out her next words. Before Sam could speak again the wind gusts suddenly increased this time blowing directly into the two girls face’s whipping their long hair behind them.
“That’s it, I’m outta here.” Ally said. “You coming down?”
“Yeah, I think we oughta’.”
Ally scrambled down the ladder, but as Sam laid her hands on the wooden posts something caught her attention, causing her to whip her head towards the distant horizon. It wasn’t the lightning though it continued to caress the dark horizon with occasional bright flashes. Neither was it the wind’s fierce gusts as they continued unabated. Rather, it was something within the wind—an almost ethereal component of its blustering power. It was a smell. Sam cocked her head as she stared vacantly at the horizon, her mind focused not on her sense of vision but on olfactory.
That smell, she thought. Can’t quite make it out. It smells like….like. Oh, No!
“Fire! There’s a fire out there. You can smell it in the wind.”
Ally had climbed back onto the roof and followed Sam’s lead staring into the distant horizon.
“You sure?”Ally asked, but even as she did the faint smell quickly became an increasingly thick smoke that the wind blew straight towards the girls. As the lantern’s light dimmed amidst the smoke, all question of fire’s presence was clearly answered
“I think we better get everyone up.”
“Why? Are we in danger?”
“Don’t know. But the ridge line’s beginning to glow, and that worries me. That and the winds direction–it’s blowin’ right towards us.” Sam swung her leg over the roof’s edge. “C’mon, let’s go wake everybody!”
* * * *
The next half hour was a flurry of activity as the farm’s occupants were woken from a deep sleep only to be warned of the range fire’s impending danger. Soon after, Betsy Grace, the family matriarch accompanied by her four children–Sam, Billy, Cal, and Katy–all gathered upon the roof. At Sam’s side, as always, was twenty two-year old Brandon–her boyfriend, confident, and constant companion. Rounding out the group was Brandon’s sixteen year old sister Ally. Together, they all gazed into the night towards the eerie orange glow on the horizon. While no flames could be seen, the orange glow coupled with the thick acrid smoke that billowed towards them confirmed that there was a fire in the distance. However, whether the fire was moving towards them or away was the question that occupied the group.
“With the direction this wind is blowin’ from, that fire could be heading this way.” Brandon’s voice cut through the discussion.
“Yep, it’s blowin’ this way for sure.” Sam said.
“If it is,” Betsy Grace asked, “do you think we are at risk here?”
“You got to remember,” Billy interjected, “that there’s that big ‘ol cut between them trees and the far meadow. That’d stop it for sure.”
“Yeah, it might,” Cal replied. “But if it jumped the cut then there’s nothing to keep it from comin’ straight-on to us.”
The identical twins, Billy and Cal, had changed the most over the last two years. As they both neared their fifteenth birthday, their genetic heritage had kicked-in leaving both of them well over six feet two inches tall (and still growing). In addition, both had broad shoulders and strong muscles. Beneath this manly appearance, the boys were still that–children trying to gain both experience and acceptance. In particular, both boys continued to pursue the affections of sixteen year old Ally, and as such, bravado often took precedence over common sense.
“Don’t you worry nuthin’ about it,” Billy said as he looked straight at Ally. “That fire can’t get at us.”
“Are you sure about that?” Brandon asked. “You willing to bet your life,…and everyone else’s?” Brandon nodded toward Ally punctuating his question.
“Wha…ah…” Billy could only stammer in response.
Brandon chuckled to himself as he watched the boy’s bravado fade. Though both of the twins were now taller than him, both deferred to Brandon’s judgment, particularly with Sam standing at his side.
Betsy glanced again at the horizon, and then returned her gaze to her daughter Sam, and then to Brandon. “So,…what do we do?”
“Take a look.” Brandon replied.
Even though it was dark, and with it the ever-present risk of the roaming dead, someone had to go out and Brandon volunteered. It’ll be quick, he claimed. Just out and back on the farm’s one working motorcycle, but that didn’t calm Brandon’s nerves,…or Sam’s. As he readied for the ride, checking the motorcycle’s gasoline and the air in its tires, Sam quietly stood at his side loading a pistol for his belt holster. Brandon could sense her stress, and finally spoke.
“Honey, I’m gonna be all right.”
“I ain’t worried none ‘bout your riding. You’ve got your gun plus I’ll be on the roof with the target rifle.”
“Then what is it? Have I done something to upset you?”
“Nah, you know me–just a moody girl.”
“Hardly,” Brandon replied. He took hold of her hands, clasping her fingers tightly in his hands before drawing her close. Together they shared a long moment gazing into each other’s eyes, as they silently, wordlessly communicated. Unfortunately this moment had to end as outside the fire awaited.
Even above the wind’s relentless howl, the motorcycles roar could be heard as Brandon emerged from the barn into the night air. While the motorcycle had a headlight, its illumination seemed extra dim in the growing smoke. The smoke’s light trace, notable mostly by its smell, had thickened growing deeper until it resembled a deep white coastal fog.
Ugh! This stuff is getting thicker by the minute. Which way to go?
After a second of consideration, he gunned the motorcycle’s throttle and rode into the thickening smoke. Less than thirty seconds later, he was on confronted with another decision—stay on the road or go cross-county? With the road veering towards the right and the thickening smoke coming more from the left he really had no choice. Slowing only slightly, Brandon steered the motorcycle out of the road’s deep ruts and headed out into the field. This time of the year, the crop should have been waist high, easily assuring that any motorcycle would be soon be slowed or stopped. However, the mesa had been in a drought for well over a year leaving the plant growth, what little there was, to wither on the stalk—all dry as a sun-baked bone. The motorcycle sped across the meager crops, heading into the thickening smoke.
Gasping for breath, he stopped the bike and pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, a gift from Sam the previous Christmas, and tied it around face covering his mouth. It’s not great, but it’ll have to do.
The edge of the field had a slight rise that was completely obscured by thick smoke. Amidst the smoke, the illumination from the motorcycle’s headlight soon diminished from several yards to only a few feet. With his limited vision, Brandon slowed the bike’s advance to a crawl. A good thing, too—as he reached the crest of the ridge he was confronted by a wall of flame only a dozen yards below.
The fire was almost upon him. The lightning-bred flames stretched to the right and left as far as he could see. Consuming the range grass that surrounded the farm, the chest-high flames were driven by the relentless flames ever-closer up the ridge’s rise. The flames danced in a hellish ballet of orange and white spires that reached quickly for the clouds before collapsing down to consume the next stock of dried grass blades.
In the seconds that Brandon watched the flames, the wind’s gusts suddenly increased, blowing even more furiously, and fanning the flames ever towards him. The intensity of the fire’s heat coupled with the dense smoke was overwhelming— if terror had a physical form it would be the wall of flames that confronted him.
Riding as fast as he could, Brandon gunned the motorcycle’s throttle and raced across the field, the furrows of each crop row causing the bike to vault into the air only to land hard seconds later. Behind him, the flames gave chase topping the ridge and consuming the meager crops. As the motorcycle sped forward, the gale-force winds soon had the fire mid-field even as Brandon reached the last crop’s last row.
Taking a moment to throw a quick glance over his shoulder, Brandon saw the advancing flames keeping pace only fifty yards. Unfortunately, the quick glance was his undoing—the motorcycle’s front tire caught the edge of a moderate-sized boulder that both punctured the tire and bent the front wheel. Struggling greatly, he finally brought the bike under control slowing its speed as the tire deflated.
“Shit!” Brandon stared at the flat tire, and then glanced back at the fire. No time to fix it. I Gotta move. With a grimace, he let go of the handlebars dropping the bike to the ground. Pulling the neckerchief tighter to his face, Brandon sprinted away from both the motorcycle and the fire and headed back towards the farm.
With lungs burning from his run, ten minutes later Brandon arrived at the house reaching the courtyard’s large wooden door. Even before he could beat on the door, it swung open and Sam stepped out and embraced him, content to have him safely returned.
* * * *
The next ten minutes everyone was in motion. Brandon described the dire situation and everyone sprang to action. Each person had a task but all supporting their single agreed-upon goal–leave the farm as soon as possible. With Brandon’s motorcycle now discarded near advancing flames, and the other broken a year before, all that remained was four-footed transport. The twins readied all six of the farm’s horses—the two that had been with the farm for years plus the four others that had been scavenged from the wilds surrounding the farm. Two of these horses were strapped to the old wagon. Betsy, Ally and Katey loaded as much weapons, food and gear as possible onto the wagon. What was left had to be safely carried on the horses’ saddlebags.
Meanwhile, Sam released the animals from the barn convinced that they needed a fighting chance for survival.
If we had more time, I’d cage all of the chickens up and put ‘em in the wagon, but there just ain’t no time! Shoot…we can take only what we can take. Now what to do with our dogs? Sam pondered, scratching her chin.
She called out for her old blind dachshund. With everything I’ve been through, I sure can’t leave her behind. Sam swatted the cages driving all of the animals into the night, but held onto the lead of the cows and goats. Maybe we can at least pull them along with the wagon. It was feeble hope, but hope nonetheless.
With the wagon and horses readied for the trail, everyone gathered together in front of the house. As the amalgamated family’s matriarch, Betsy Grace spoke first.
“I don’t know what will happen next. I certainly don’t know if the fire will spare our house, but we have no choice here—we have to leave. So…the question is which way to go. Any ideas?”
“Clearly we can’t head north,” Brandon said. “That’s straight towards the fire.”
“How ‘bout the road?” Cal asked. “It goes east-west. We could use it to head east.”
A loud popping sound silenced everyone. In the distance, a large pine tree erupted in flame. The fire was now no more than several hundred yards away and closing.
“Damn,” Billy exclaimed. “That’s one of the trees just on the edge of the near field. That means that the fires already over the road. Ain’t no way we can go to the west now!”
“Okay, that leaves south and east. We’ve got to out run the fire,” Brandon said, “but we can’t get cornered—that would be fatal.”
“Nobody’s better ‘n you two in sniffin’ out trails.” Sam moved close to the boys, even though they now towered over her, and wrapped a loving arm around their shoulders. “You know this here mesa better’n anyone. Lord knows, you two have explored it enough. So…which way?”
Although quiet for a second, both were wordlessly considering the problem, scrubbing their memory for any solutions. Finally, Cal spoke.
“How ‘bout the old mine?”
“Yeah,” Billy replied. “Over on the south side of the mesa–that might do. There is an old cut down by the mine. With a little luck we could get down that way.”
“Maybe hoist the wagon down. Don’t know ‘bout the horses.”
“Okay. Is there any other way?” Brandon asked.
“That’s all I got.” Cal replied.
“Me neither.” Billy added. “I got nuthin’.”
“Then its south,” their mother decided.
“What ‘bout critters?” Katey asked referring to the undead that had occasionally assaulted their farm over the years. Zombies had overtaken their world a dozen years before.
“We ain’t seen none of them for over six months,” Sam noted, “but that don’t mean nothin’. We all just gotta look sharp. Okay?” Katey nodded.
“Let’s saddle up!” Sam said. “Cal, you are on point. Me and Ally will be on the wagon. Billy, you and Katey bring up the rear. Everybody get yur’ weapons. Lock and load…let’s ride.”
Less than five minutes later everyone was either on horseback or in the wagon. Even though the wagon was piled high, there were many items that just couldn’t be taken with them—there just wasn’t enough room. They took with them only critical items for the trail–food, bedding, cooking gear, and of course, weapons. Hard-learned experience had taught them to not stray far from sturdy walls without the means to protect themselves.
Of course, critical items for the family always included the farm’s three dogs. Two were large mixed breed dogs—‘mutts’ as the children’s father had often said. The remaining dog was Sam’s longtime faithful companion Bailey—the blind dachshund that had accompanied her in her fateful trip to Las Vegas years before. Collectively, the dog’s ability to detect the scent of the living dead, often long before they were heard or seen was a critical safety advantage for the family.
Even as they loaded the wagon and horse’s saddlebags, in the ensuing time since Brandon’s return, the wind-blown fire had raced towards the farm, advancing tens of yards with each minute. As it approached, to all of them the fire appeared as a great wall of orange. While wind born, it was both hungry and relentless leaping from row to row of their meager crops and consuming them in a crackling inferno. Amidst the orange and white light fields of corn, beans and other crops were destroyed–months of hard labor gone in a mere seconds of the flame’s fiery crackle. With no time left, it was time to depart.
“Everybody all set?” Brandon asked from his horse.
“We are,” Katey replied with a snort. “Are you?”
Of all the Grace family members, eleven year old Katey was the most difficult. If fact, she had become progressively more distant to Brandon—particularly as his and Sam’s love had grown. Much to his concern, she now seemed to have palpable disdain for Brandon. A kind of prepubescent hatred, he often thought, but one he had to suffer through with dignity.
“Yeah, I’m good,” Brandon replied. “Thanks for asking.”
“How ‘bout you?” Cal asked as he glanced over to Sam.
“I think you know,” she shot back. “I was born ready. Let’s go!”
The procession left the farm at its best speed—a slow trot. Even as they left the courtyard of the farm, none could help but cast a look over their shoulder at what they all had worked so hard to protect. None were sure if they’d ever see it again. Even though it wasn’t much to look at, it was their home and as such, it was going to be missed.
The group headed east riding first toward the advancing flames. Even though they all held flashlights or lanterns, the meager light didn’t do much to overcome the smoke’s haze. At times the smoke was so thick and hung close to the ground such that they couldn’t see more than ten feet ahead. The lights played off of the smoke creating strange ghostly shapes adding even more tension to their departure. However, the fire wouldn’t wait and they pressed on.
For the next ten minute they headed east until Cal finally turned the party to the south onto a barely discernible trail. The trail was so slight that only experience and ability found its trace. It was a good thing they found it, too, as just as they proceeded south not more than a hundred yards ahead the flames had crossed the road making it all but impassible.
Heading to the south now, the road became increasingly worse making progress difficult—particularly for the wagon. It rocked and bumped, jarring Sam and Ally on their wooden seat. Not comfortable, but that was far from their main concern. For one thing, the branches from the pinon pine trees that crowded the trail reached in under the wind’s torment and ripped at their skin. Even more than the claustrophobic dark or the painful, biting branches, it was the shadows that surrounded the trail that were so disconcerting. These shadows provided a gloom that could hide walking death.
Over the last six months there had hardly been any zombie attacks. While in the years before there had been multiple, often intense and dramatic attacks by the undead, the last year had seen these attacks diminish by the month. In fact, over the last half-year encounters with the dead had lessoned each month with none occurring in the last two months. Maybe we got ‘em beat, they had all privately wondered. However, reality suggested that almost endless dead still existed in this world, only waiting to find a way onto their mesa—searching to discover trail that would lead right to their home. Death would always there, they knew, waiting with eternal patience for food to approach.
After riding for another fifteen minutes in the thick brush, the branches suddenly retreated to a large clearing. As each rider’s lights panned across the clearing, more of the shadows relented revealing a scrub-brush choked pad. Amidst the bone-dry brown weeds, old pieces of mining history remained including a wooden hoist that towered over a mineshaft. Approaching closer, the riders could see the inky black opening of the shaft.
“I didn’t even know this place was here,” Ally commented to Sam as the wagon jerked and shook while slowly approaching the shaft.
“Ain’t none of us is supposed to come here. It’s too dangerous—no place to mess around in.” Sam gestured towards the head frame and shaft. “That big ol’ hole over there–it’s a mine shaft. Don’t right know how far it goes, but it looks purty deep.” For a second, a far-away look took over Sam’s eyes as she was lost remembrance of her own journey into the mine, but that was long ago.
The riders with the wagon close behind picked their way through the old mine’s pad, skirting decayed wooden barrels, tailing piles, and discarded iron fittings. Rounding the skeletal wooden beams and posts of an old wooden structure–possibly the miner’s camp house—the party suddenly found the edge of the mesa.
“Whoa,” Cal hollered to the party. “Everybody hold up.” Just before him lay a black expanse cloaked by the fire’s thick smoke. Panning his flashlight ahead as he rode, Cal saw the dirt’s brown suddenly give way as they reached a cliff’s edge. Only his horse handling skills allowed Cal to arrest the forward motion and stop the steed from plummeting over the edge.
With her wagon’s horses idled, Sam vaulted from the wagon and went to Cal’s side. The cliff’s edge was daunting—they couldn’t see the bottom of the cliff even with their flashlight’s beams. Plus, the wind-born smoke from the fire was thickening making visibility even worse.
Dang, I forgot how far that drop off was, Sam thought. Musta be a couple of hundred feet, I ‘spec. Glancing over her shoulder towards the fire, all she could see was thick smoke billowing towards them. Thick and acrid, the smoke was already causing their eyes to water. More concerning, as the smoke coated the inside of everyone’s lungs, they were all beginning to cough and choking was bound to follow.
“So, is it safe to stay here?” Ally asked as the group all gathered by the cliff’s edge.
“Not really, dear,” Grace answered.
“Nah. This ‘ol mine’s pad ain’t much bigger than our farm yard,” Billy said.
Cal cut in. “Yeah, it’ll burn right through here.”
“That was what I was gonna say!”
“Maybe if you talked quicker ‘stead of louder.”
“C’mon guys, focus.” Brandon interjected.
“We sure can’t stay here,” Sam said. “You know this area, so where do we go?”
Cal spoke up. “We travel along the cliff’s edge…head east some. Some hills are up yonder. Those’ll be our best chance fur’ getting down.”
Over the next half-hour they rode along the cliff, carefully picking their way through scrub brush. At times the make shift trail seemed almost impassible to the wagon, but under Sam’s careful hand they made it through. Just beyond a large boulder, as the pinon pine trees once again crowded the make-shift trail, the smoke thickness increased several fold limiting their vision to no more than a dozen yards ahead.
“Man this stuff is thick,” Ally gasped through a fit of coughs.
“Yeah,” Sam replied. “It’s worse than a dust storm.” She glanced over at Brandon as he rode alongside the wagon. “How are you doin?”
“Ah, I’m okay, but this smoke is killing my throat and lungs.” He coughed several times as if to punctuate his comment. “Are you okay, sweetheart?”
“You know me—always right as rain.”
They briefly locked eyes: a tender, soulful moment. “You know I love you, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I think you might-a mentioned it a time or two.” Sam smiled.
“And…and?” Brandon playfully fished.
“Yeah, me too.” She replied with a quick smile.
Even after several years together, Sam still found it difficult to verbalize her affection. It wasn’t that she didn’t love Brandon—that immersive feeling, their deep emotional connection had been there since the beginning. Heart and soul, she was completely committed to Brandon, however she just couldn’t easily say ‘I love you.’ However, of late she had found it progressively more difficult to express her feelings—whether it be a smile or a tender caress. This growing restraint flummoxed her more than she could explain.
A bark from one of the dog’s silenced the conversation. Riding on the seat of the wagon, Bailey was now on her feet. With her nose facing forward, the dog emitted a fierce, yipping howl. All of them knew what that reaction meant–the presence of the undead. Unfortunately, while the bark warned of a zombie’s presence, it could also draw the undead to them, so Ally acted quickly to quiet the dog. Nearby, all eyes searched the smoke-shrouded pine trees for some indication of the dead.
“You see anything?” Billy asked his brother.
“Nah, I got nuthin’,” Cal replied. “But just in case…” He drew his pistol, and as he did the others followed suit.
Ally’s scream pierced the night. Through the thick smoke a decayed hand had reached out grabbed hold of the girl. As she fought to get herself free, a bloated decayed face emerged and pulled Ally from the wagon’s seat. The girl flew from the wagon and landed on the ground with the dead man close behind. Even in the dim light of the wagon’s lanterns, Ally could see the yellow empty, soulless eyes of the zombie. The monster reached toward her sensing its meal was at hand. Just before the decayed outstretched hands made contact, a black shape lunged forward and collided with the zombie.
“Get away from her!” Cal launched his body in a vicious tackle that knocked the zombie from atop the girl. Cal’s size and strength was formidable giving him the advantage. With a grunt he heaved the creature several feet away. Even as he landed, Cal drew his knife blade and readied to finish the beast, but before he could a thunderous rapport echoed around him. The zombie collapsed to the ground, its head cleaved almost in two by the bullet from Billy’s 32-caliber pistol.
Even as Cal returned to his feet, chaos enveloped the group. Through the thick smoke a dozen slow moving figures emerged. With jerking steps, both tentative in motion but with deadly purpose, the dead advanced. Descending on the group, the creatures reached for their prey. Before dead hands could make contact gunfire erupted–each of the riders had drawn their weapons and fired. With each round one of the advancing dead dropped to the ground—immobile and now truly dead. As the fired, their gun’s smoke further obscured the dim light their flashlights and lanterns added.
“Everyone okay?” Brandon hollered as the gunfire stopped. “Sam—you okay?”
“Yep, I’m good,” Sam replied. The others were queried, and all checked in as all right.
“The smoke is getting thicker the same direction these things came from. My gut tells me that we should head the other direction.” Betsy Grace gestured back the way they had come. “I could be wrong, but I think we ought to turn around.”
“I learned long ago to trust your instincts,” Sam replied. “All right everyone—lets head back towards the mine. Billy, I reckon that you and Cal must have some other ideas, so now’s the time. You gotta help us out of this.”
The party quickly turned around and returned to the mine’s overgrown pad. To their dismay, as they approached the fire’s smoke was now even thicker. Even worse, the orange glow of the fire now near at hand, had turned the dense smoke into a colorful and deadly assault on their senses. Eyes watered, lungs ached, and their mouths were dry. They were running out of options to get away.
“Dang, we’re cornered!” Cal exclaimed. “And there ain’t no place to go.”
“C’mon guys,” Brandon asked. “There’s got to be something.”
The horses were getting antsy from the fire’s advancing flames. While each rider fought for control, it was becoming progressively more difficult. Guiding his horse to the right, Brandon soon reached the cliff at the pad’s edge. Even with the bright illumination of his flashlight, it was impossible to see all the way to the bottom. Even as he gazed towards the bottom, Sam pulled the wagon alongside and was quickly joined by the rest of the party.
“Looks like a straight plunge all the way down,” Brandon said. “Do you know how far to the bottom?”
“I reckon it’s maybe three hundred feet or so,” Cal commented. “I remember the cliff bein’ purty smooth, but it don’t matter cuz’ there ain’t no way down.”
“They had to have some way of getting stuff up here,” Sam said. “You know–equipment to work the mine. That there road we came in on was nothin’ more than a trail. Even overgrown with brush, it couldn’t have been their main way in. So…there’s gotta be another way.”
“There’s the mine’s head frame and hoist,” Billy pointed out.
“That ain’t no good,” Cal said. “The shaft’s way over there.”
“What about that there other one? You know–the one down the cliff’s edge.”
“The other one?” Sam asked. “There’s another hoist? I sure don’t ‘member that. Show me.”
Riding in silence the party carefully hugged the cliff’s edge. For several long minutes nothing could be seen but the high desert’s scrub brush that surrounded the trail. Finally, a dark shape slowly emerged from the smoke.
“See Sam,” Billy crowed. “I told ya so. Here ‘tis.”
Large and formless at first, as they approached the shape coalesced until the lanterns and flashlights finally revealed a wooden structure that towered twenty feet overhead. Resembling a two large ‘A’s connected by a thick wooden crossbeam, the structure was situated next to the cliff’s edge.
The party quickly dismounted to look at the structure. On closer examination, the A-frame’s spires actually jutted over the cliff’s edge. At its wooden apex a huge iron pulley hung from the beam. Like a large dark snake dangling over its prey, a cable was strung over the pulley overhead a dark cable descended from the pulley. As it neared the ground in front of them it connected to a hook on top of a wooden platform.
“Yep, it’s a hoist,” Brandon said.
“How would you know what a hoist is?” Katie asked.
“Because I know a lot of things,” Brandon replied.
Walking onto the platform, it seemed strong and substantial—not weakened from either time or the elements. Like a smaller version of the hoist’s A-frame, the platform had thick wooden posts that rose seven feet above until they connected with a single stout cross beam. With the cable’s hook attached to the center of the beam, the platform was designed to lift supplies up to the mine from the valley floor below.
“Hmmm–this looks like it could hold all of us. Maybe it could even hold the horses—one at a time, that is.”
While Brandon examined the platform, Sam followed the other end of cable away from the cliff’s edge into the scrub brush and tall weeds. Finally approaching the ground, the cable was wound into a gray coil on the ground. Rough to the touch, the cable was clearly not rope.
Some sort of metal, it is, Sam thought. Ain’t never seen the like but it feels strong enough. Hmmm—I wonder what they used to lower it down that cliff?
She panned her flashlight’s beam across the ground but it revealed nothing—no winch, motor or other mechanical means of pulling the cable. Further search was fruitless finding only progressively more tall brush the farther she got from the cliff’s edge. With a grimace, she clenched her lips tight and turned to study the cable, pulley and head frame. It was a problem needing a solution and after several seconds it came to her. With it in hand, Sam found her mother and Brandon and described her plan.
Nearby all the others had dismounted. The thickening smoke billowed around them obscuring faces and features causing everyone to cough with increasing frequency. Bill and Cal looked about attempting to arrive at their own solution.
“Shouldn’t we be riding on?” Cal asked.
“Just where’d you think we should go?” Billy replied. “You know there ain’t much north a here–nothin’ but trees and the ridge.”
“What about heading back?” Katie said. She stared intently through the trees her mind imagining her farmhouse home a handful of few miles away. “The fire might have burned itself out.”
“You stupid…or just thick?” Cal chortled.
“I think she’s both!” Billy replied. “Just look ‘round.” Billy swung his arm in an exaggerated gesture. “The stuff’s getting thicker by the second. The fire’s closing in on us.”
Before Katie could respond, their mother spoke: “That’s enough–you as well, Katie. Sam has a plan that we’re going to follow, so listen up.”
“See here,” Sam said. “We’re gonna use that hoist tower just like them ‘ol miners did. I figure they used to use it to lower things down the cliff face. Since we ain’t got no winch, we’re just going have to…to…”
“Improvise,” Brandon helped.
“Um…yeah. So we’ll use the team horses to provide the power. We’ll hook up their harness to that cable and then tie it off onto the platform. We’ll do the same thing, but with our horses. With the platform all fixed and ready and the cable played out and secured to the horses’ harness, we’ll slowly back the horses towards the cliff. If it works like I figure we should be able to lower all of us—including our horses—down to the valley.”
“You sure it’ll be safe?” Ally asked.
“Sam and I stepped off the distance,” Brandon said. “It should be enough cable. Plus the platform is good and solid.”
“Hey, what ‘bout the team horses? How’re we gonna get ‘em down?” Cal had found the hole in her logic.
“Um, I ain’t got that one figured out yet, but we’re out of options and runnin’ out of time. I mean, take a gander back over there.” She nodded towards the fire and their only response was a collective gasp—it had reached the edge of the clearing. “So…that’s the tale, so let’s get on it. Billy, you’re with me. Cal—you help Brandon rig up the platform—and you make sure that the cable is secured tight as can be.”
“What ‘bout me?” Ally asked.
“Why don’t you and Katie help me unload the wagon?” Betsy smiled warmly at the girls and went quickly to their tasks.
Ten minutes later their plan was ready for action. With the team horses secured, platform and cable ready, all that was required was the first volunteer to descend. Knowing he needed to, Brandon stepped forward but it wasn’t without trepidation.
I hope to heaven this works. Brandon thought. If it don’t… at least it’ll be a quick trip to the bottom.
Just to be safe, Brandon decided to ride down without much other weight on the platform. After all, he needed to know if the cable’s length was adequate and the platform rugged enough to hold substantive weight. Regardless, he knew it was very risky. If one of many things went wrong, death would quickly come. Of course, equally worrisome was the potential for an unwelcome and endlessly hungry reception waiting below. Finally, the platform was secured, and the horses harnessed and ready.
“You got everything you need?” Sam asked.
“Almost–got my guns to secure things down below. I just need one more thing.”
“What? Another flashlight—a lantern?”
“Nah, something more important–a kiss from the one I love.”
“Ugh—I’m gonna be sick,” Katie grimaced and looked away.
“Yur’ just gonna have to suffer,” Sam quipped as she gave Brandon a quick kiss and hug. “You be careful, ‘kay?”
“Will do, boss. Will do.”
The trip down the cliff was harrowing—almost terrifying. Even with the light from his two lanterns, the surrounding dark seemed to press in on platform creating a growing claustrophobic feeling. Adding to his discomfort, the platform twisted and swung as it descended. As the platform creaked and groaned, Brandon hung onto a post while it was lowered into the dark.
After several long minutes, the lantern’s light finally revealed the approaching ground. Not willing to trust to fate, Brandon shouldered his rifle placing his finger next to, but not on, the trigger. As the last few feet of the descent transpired, he quickly scanned the surrounding terrain for any of the undead. However, luck was with him—no zombies appeared! Of course, that didn’t mean that walking dead weren’t nearby just ready to shuffle into the light with slow moving homicidal intent. Constant vigilance was a necessity.
Back at the cliff’s top, the slack in the cable told Sam that the platform had reached the bottom. With Billy holding the team horses, she quickly peered over cliff’s edge hoping to catch a glimpse of her man but to no avail—the cliff’s bottom was obscured in the lanterns dim light. A loud popping sound caused Sam to turn around.
Oh no! The fire’s almost here!
The tree line at the edge of the mine had erupted in flame. Yellow and orange spires raced up the dry pines consuming one tree and then the next. As the flames reached small pockets of fresh sap in the trees, the sap would explode in a loud ‘pop’ that echoed across the mine. The trees twisted and shook as the superheated air coursed around, over and through them. The inferno’s result was a violent ballet as the trees surrendered their deep green into the grey and black of ash and charcoal.
“Mama, Katie, Ally! Time to go.”
Sam rushed the horses forward to lift the platform back up to the cliff’s top. Moving as quickly as they all could, Katie and Ally climbed onto the platform but this time leading one of their horses. It was a risk, they all knew. Could the platform hold their combined weight? There was only one way to find out.
Even with their combined strength, the team horses strained to lift the platform’s additional weight. Motivation was required, so Sam cajoled and prompted them along using both a gentle hand and voice—no whips or ropes here. Experience had shown her that compassion was a much better motivator than pain. With her gentle words augmenting her own straining muscles the horses slowly lifted the platform.
“Ally, Katie—does it seem purty solid?”
“Yeah Sam,” Ally shouted. “I think we’re good.”
With that assurance, Cal swung the platform over the cliff’s edge and descended into blackness. To Ally and Katie’s advantage, the horse’s weight on the platform substantially reduced its twists and turns during the descent. Of course, this still didn’t make it any less harrowing. After several minutes the platform finally safely reached the ground.
With the cable entirely played out, Sam glanced back at the fire and was quickly reminded of their increasingly dire condition. Having consumed the trees, the flames had advanced onto the scrub brush of the pad. In the time it had taken for the platform to reach the bottom, the fire had rushed forward leaving less than a hundred yards between the flames and them.
After several long minutes the platform returned ready for its next load. After a short argument between the brothers that ended only after their mother intervened, Billy prevailed and Cal climbed onto the platform. Leading Sam’s white horse, Cal got on, motioned to his sister, and the descent began again.
As Sam guided the horses to back towards the cliff, her mother chose to walk alongside. Whether it was a protective maternal instinct or just the normal desire to be with others when confronted with danger didn’t matter–Betsy Grace had an overwhelming need to be near her first born daughter. Even though the reason, the inner motivation was unclear, ultimately it didn’t matter. After all, the fire’s thick smoke could conceal hidden and hungry dead. So, with rifle in hand she walked and talked with her daughter, only interrupted by occasional coughs from the thick smoke.
“How much time do you think we have?” her mother asked.
“Don’t right know. Ten minutes—maybe fifteen. The winds keep shiftin’ and that’s givin’ us a break—least for now.”
“If the winds shift toward the cliff, well…?
“Maybe only a few minutes.”
“Well, let’s hope that God’s hand intervenes and gives us that time.”
Quiet fell between mother and daughter as they walked alongside the horses. Finally, the cable went slack signaling the platform’s arrival on the floor below.
“Billy, you’re up! Git your horse and whatever supplies you can carry. The platform will be back up top in a shake or two.”
After protesting that his masculinity dictated he should go last, Billy finally acquiesced and readied himself for his descent. With the platform back on top, Billy first threw his saddle bags on and then led his horse on the platform. He signaled to his sister he was ready.
“Hang on—here you go.” Far from the cliff’s edge, Sam once again backed the horses and lowered the platform. It was a good thing too as the fire was no more than thirty feet from Sam, her mother and the horses. The fire roared towards them as fierce, overwhelming heat radiated from flames. The superheated air billowed forward charring the tumble weeds that covered the pad. As the surface temperature of the plants soared, they each finally succumbed to the flames.
“So, honey…what’s your plan?” Betsy asked.
“How do you plan to get down?” Betsy glanced over at her daughter but girl’s features were stoic. “You and I both know that you can’t get down without the horses and they need someone to lead them.” Still the girl’s features remained unreadable. “So, what’s the plan?”
“I’m workin’ on it, Sam said.” For some time she had been hoping to get some sort of inspiration on what to do next, but nothing was coming to mind. Time, she knew, was running out.
“Well, why don’t you let me take this next turn? You go on and ride down. Be with that young man of yours.”
Sam smiled. She expected that sooner or later her mother would make a self-sacrificial offer.
She’s everything I want to be. Strong, smart, and always knows what to do. Except this time, o’course. I can’t let her do it–Katie and the boys need her.
“Thanks mama,” Sam finally replied. “I think I got an idea that’ll work out all right.”
Slack on the cable told them that the platform had reached the bottom again. Reversing the direction of the horses she again led them away from cliff edge hauling the platform back to the top. The fire’s advance now presented her with a direct problem—leading the team of horses forward would bring them all quickly into the fire’s inferno. All she could do was lead them slightly to the left toward the only area of the mine’s pad that was not consumed in flame.
“I’m going to head that-a-way,” Sam told her mother. “When that platform gets up you jump on it right quick. I’ll lower you down and then follow.”
Before she could turn to lead the horses away, her mother caught her arm. “I am constantly amazed what a strong, beautiful woman you’ve become. You father would be proud of you, and I know I am. You get these horses turned around and get down with us. Okay?”
“Yes Mama. I’ll be quick as…I’ll be quick. This smoke is getting real thick. Fire a gunshot so I’ll know platforms up.” With a half-smile, Sam turned away and led the horses away.
Acrid and thick, the smoke filled all of Sam’s vision. With everything else obscured, the bright orange of the nearby flames provided the only real landmark. That was all she needed. With the flames to both her right and left, she walked the horses forward, gasping for breath amidst the black thick smoke. Each step was progressive agony—her lungs burned and eyes watered. While her body wanted to stop, a combination of force of will and dogged determination prevailed and so she continued to press forward.
Bang, the sound of a gunshot rang out. There–the platform has gotta be up. I’ll give Mama a couple of shakes to get on and then lower ‘er down.
The waiting was anguish. Thick rasping coughs exploded from her lungs as they fought for air while her eyes narrowed almost to slits. After only thirty seconds she backed the horses towards the cliff hoping her mother was safe and secure on the platform. With footfall after footfall the horses plodded towards a cliff that Sam could no longer see. Only sheer luck prevented a fatal tumble over the cliff—amidst a coughing spell she glanced at the cable and saw that it was slack. Just then, a gust of wind momentarily parted the smoke revealing the cliff’s edge only a few yards ahead.
Whew, that was close!
Sam stopped the horses’ advance. Their work done, she lovingly stroked their slick mane as she removed their harness and leads. “I wish I coulda’ gotten you safe to the bottom. But at least I ain’t gonna leave you all strapped up. You try and get in front of the fire. Just stay away from it and keep runnin’.” She leaned in and gave the neck of each horse caring hug. “I hope God rides with ya.”
Finally free of their weight of their burden the horses stomped and tromped but didn’t move. More forceful motivation was necessary. “Now, Git!” Sam swatted each horse firmly on its hindquarter and with a loud neigh they took off galloping at high speed along the cliff’s edge.
“What to do now?” Sam said to no one but herself. The fire was now less than twenty yards away and advancing fast. In minutes it would be upon her consuming the wooden hoist and all that surrounded. Escape in any direction other than the cliff was just about impossible. Paralyzed with indecision Sam could only stare at the flames as it continued to advance.
“Ah, c’mon. Not now!”
A loud moan to her right finally snapped her from paralysis. A group of dead, all partially on fire, stumbled towards her. Even aflame, the six of them still sensed her presence and were intent on one final meal. Even as the fire slowly consumed his clothes and aged skin, the zombie lunged towards Sam. While side-stepping the creature, she couldn’t find an escape route. Ducking to the left, she avoided another dead man’s outstretched hand and retreated behind the hoist’s thick wooden posts. Unfortunately, the post was no respite as the flames were now only ten yards away and would soon consume the wooden hoist. She was cornered!
Sam glanced to the right and then to her left looking for a path to escape, but both fire and the dead surrounded. Emerging from the smoke and flame, a dead man’s hand grabbed hold of her shirt. Gnarled and decayed, with bone peeking through large gashes in the skin, the creature clutched at her. Twisting her torso, Sam broke free of its deadly embrace. As it moaned and began its advance again, she kicked the thing leaving it to land comically on its rear. However, even as she escaped this one creature, five more continued their approach and would be within reach in seconds.
Darn it,…only one thing left to do.
Grabbing hold of the hoist’s post, she began to climb. After advancing only a few feet, a skeletal hand took hold of her pant leg. Even before she could shake it loose, a second hand grabbed her. Panic set it leaving her to twist and shake her legs, violently trying to free it from the tight grip. With one last kick her leg was freed and she scrambled farther up the post until completely out of reach.
Safe for the moment, Sam stopped her climb–she needed her hands free. Perilously holding on to the post with only her leg’s strength, Sam reached into her back pocket and pulled out and put on her well-worn leather gloves. Looking down at her pursuers, the zombies now completely on fire still stared up towards her unwilling to give up their pursuit. However, more concerning than the dead were the flames–one of the hoist’s posts had now caught fire.
Oh no! I gotta move.
Climbing as quickly as she could, Sam reached the hoist’s top. Scrambling across the cross beam she reached the large pulley and the steel cable—the same one that descended in the dark to the platform still sitting on the valley’s floor far below. Grabbing hold of it, she shimmied out while wrapping her legs firmly around the tiny cable. It was unnerving to Sam—the sheer distance of the drop, and knowing that any mistake would be fatal. Making it even more difficult, the cable had a light coating of grease. Even though the grease was covered with caked dirt, as Sam clutched the cable her fingers would break through the thin crust to the slick surface below. It was touch and go with each movement–her hands slid down the cable even as she struggled to maintain her grip. Finally, Sam clenched her teeth and began her descent.
Handhold after handhold she climbed down the cable. Away from the fire’s light, she was soon immersed in the pitch black of the night. After the constant orange illumination of the fire, this complete blackness was unnerving. Sam girded her fears and continued the descent.
Minutes passed with excruciating slowness as Sam worked her way down the cable. Tired muscles pared with aching lungs made each movement a slow-moving hell. With grim determination she fought through the pain, continuing her descent.
After ten minutes Sam had to stop. Although she was still over a hundred feet above the ground she had only one option–wrapping her legs firmly around cable. Though precarious, she was able to finally give her arms some needed relief. As she rested, a bright light suddenly appeared and in a second her whole surroundings were illuminated–the long cable and even the cliff face ten feet away were suddenly exposed. Glancing up toward the light, its horrifying origin was revealed—the flaming body of zombie. As the dead man plummeted passed her, it briefly made eye contact and even extended a flaming hand and then it was gone–continuing its fall into darkness.
Whoa! I hope everyone below is lookin’ out. Wait—I can help.
Quickly drawing her pistol from its hip holster, she fired one shot into the distance. She didn’t want to kill the creature. Rather, the shot was a warning to those below. It was a good thing she did, as in short order five more flaming dead plummeted passed her descending towards the valley floor below.
As the last zombie plummeted passed, Sam’s eye caught site of something truly unexpected and equally horrifying—the cable above her was on fire! In the inferno above, even the small amount of grease on cable had caught flame. Climbing down the cable, the fire was following Sam’s descent and risking overtaking her position.
“Ah, c’mon! Ain’t we had enough?”
With this new danger at hand, Sam returned to her climb but with added haste. Where she had methodically lowered herself using well-timed actions of hands and feet, the advancing flame now required a different approach. Gripping the cable tightly she increased the pace of her descent at times actually sliding down sections of the cable only to arrest her fall at the last second. It was a terrifying chase with the flames slowly gaining the advantage.
As she fought to make her way down, the growing lantern light below slowly illuminated the faces of her loved ones. Curiously, only then did her fear creep forward–being so close and yet so far. Once more Sam dug deep focusing her mind and steeling her grip.
Just a little bit more. Just a little bit more. C’mon Sam, you can finish this.
One hundred feet became fifty and then twenty five. With ten feet left, a smiling Brandon gestured for her to let go and drop into his ready arms. Interestingly, she had to will her fingers to uncurl. Finally, she released her grip and dropped down.
“Hi there,” Brandon said with a smile and gleam in his eye that only true love produces. “I was wondering when you’d drop in.”
“Ugh,…jokes. Is that all you’ve got?”
“Nah,” he replied followed by warmest embrace they’d had in years. Long and lingering, it wordlessly conveyed the depth of their feelings. After several seconds, Brandon set her down on the ground. “You okay?”
“I’ve been better. In fact, I’m plum tuckered out. No doubt ‘bout it–this has been one long night. One I’ll remember as much as I’d like to forget.”