“I guess to some people that’s what I am.”
“Do you do this kind of stuff?”
“What do you think?” Tom asked, but Benny was already shaking his head. Tom queried, “What do you even know about bounty hunters?”
“They kill zombies,” Benny said, then flinched as he saw the looks of distaste on the faces of Brother David and the two women. “Well … they do! That’s what bounty hunters are there for. They go out here into the Rot and Ruin, and they hunt the, um, you know … the living dead.”
“Why?” asked Tom.
“Who pays them?” asked Brother David.
“People in town. People in other towns,” said Benny. “I heard the government pays them sometimes. Mostly for clearing out zoms on trade routes and stuff life that.”
“Who’d you hear that from?” asked Tom.
Brother David turned a questioning face to Tom, who said, “Charlie Pink-eye.”
The faces of the monk and the two women fell into sickness. Brother David closed his eyes and shook his head slowly from side to side.
“What’s wrong?” asked Benny.
“You can stay to dinner,” Brother David said stiffly, eyes still closed. “God requires mercy and sharing from all of His children. But … once you’ve eaten, I’d like you to leave.”
Tom put his hand on the monk’s shoulder. “We’re moving on now.”
The redhead stepped toward Tom. “It was a lovely day until you came.”
“You should get out of here,” said the younger woman.
“No,” said Brother David sharply, then repeated it more gently. “No, Sarah,” he said to the redhead. “No, Shanti,” he said to the black teenager. “Tom’s our friend, and we’re being rude.” He opened his eyes, and Benny thought that the man now looked seventy. “I’m sorry, Tom. Please forgive the sisters, and please forgive me for—”
“No,” said Tom. “It’s okay. Sarah’s right. It was a lovely day, and saying that man’s name here was wrong of me. I apologize to you, to her, to Sister Shanti, and to Old Roger. This is Benny’s first time out here in the Ruin. He met … that man … and had heard a lot of stories. Stories of hunting out here. He’s a boy, and he doesn’t understand. I brought him out here to let him know how things are. How things fall out.” He paused. “I haven’t taken him to Sunset Hollow yet. You understand?”
The three Children of God studied him for a while, and then one by one they nodded.
“What’s Sunset Hollow?” Benny asked, but Tom didn’t answer.
“And I thank you for your offer of a meal,” said Tom, “but we’ve got miles to go, and I think Benny’s going to have a lot of questions to ask. Some of them are better asked elsewhere.”
Sister Sarah reached up and touched Tom’s face. “I’m sorry for my words.”
Sister Shanti touched his chest. “Me too.”
“You’ve got nothing to be sorry about,” Tom said.
The women smiled at him and caressed his cheek. Shanti turned and placed her hands on either side of Benny’s face. “May God protect your heart out here in the world.” With that she kissed him on the forehead and walked away. Sister Sarah smiled at the brothers and followed Shanti.
Benny turned to Tom. “Did I miss something?”
“Probably,” said Tom. “Come on, kiddo. Let’s roll.”
Brother David shifted to stand in Tom’s path. “Brother,” he said. “I’ll ask once and then be done with it.”
“Are you sure about what you’re doing?”
“Sure? No. But I’m set on doing it.” He fished in his pocket and brought out three vials of cadaverine. “Here, Brother. May it help you in your work.”
Brother David nodded his thanks. “God go with you and before you and within you.”
They shook hands, and Tom stepped back onto the dirt road. Benny, however, lingered for a moment longer.
“Look … mister,” he began slowly, “I don’t know what I said or did that was wrong, but I’m sorry, you know? Tom brought me out here, and he’s a bit crazy, and I don’t know what …” He trailed off. There was no road map in his head to guide him through this conversation.
Brother David offered his hand and gave him the same blessing he bestowed upon Tom.
“Yeah,” said Benny. “You too. Okay?”
He hurried to catch up to Tom, who was fifty yards down the road. When he looked back the monk was standing by the rusting gas pump. Brother David lifted his hand, but whether it was some kind of blessing or a gesture of farewell, Benny didn’t know. Either way it creeped him out.
WHEN THEY WERE FAR DOWN THE ROAD, BENNY ASKED, “WHAT WAS THAT all about? Why’d that guy get so jacked about me mentioning Charlie?”
“Not everyone thinks Charlie’s ‘the man,’ kiddo.”
Tom laughed. “God! The day I’m jealous of someone like Charlie Pink-eye is the day I’ll cover myself in steak sauce and walk out into a crowd of the living dead.”
“Hilarious,” said Benny sourly. “What’s with all that Children of God, Children of Lazarus stuff? What are they doing out here?”
“Brother David and his group are all over the Ruin. I’ve met travelers who’ve seen them as far east as Pennsylvania. Even all the way down to Mexico City. I first saw them about a year after the Fall. A whole bunch of them heading across the country in an old school bus pulled by horses, with Scripture passages painted all over it. Not sure how they got started or who chose the name. Even Brother David doesn’t know. To him it’s like they always were.”
“Is he nuts?”
“I think the expression used to be ‘touched by God.’”
“So that would be a yes.”
“If he’s nuts, then at least his heart’s in the right place. The Children don’t believe in violence of any kind.”
“But they’re okay with you, even though you kill zoms?”
Tom shook his head. “No, they don’t like what I do. But they accept my explanation for why I do it, and Brother David and a few others have seen how I do it. They don’t approve, but they don’t condemn me for it. They think I’m misguided but well-intentioned.”
“And Charlie? What do they think of him? Can’t be anything good.”
“They believe Charlie Pink-eye to be an evil man. Him and his jackass buddy, the Motor City Hammer. Bunch of others. Most of the bounty hunters, in fact, and I can’t fault the Children for those beliefs.”
Benny said nothing. He still thought Charlie Matthias was cool as all hell.
“So … these Children, what do they actually do?”
“They tend to the dead. If they find a town, they’ll go through the houses and look for photos of the people who lived there, and then they try and round them up if they’re still wandering around the town. They put them in their houses, seal doors, write some prayers on the walls, and then move on. Most of them keep moving. Brother David’s been here for a year or so, but I expect he’ll move on too.”
“Charlie said that he rounds up zoms, too. He told us about a place in the mountains where he has a couple hundred of them staked out. He said it was one of the ways he and the Hammer were making the Ruin a safer place.”
“Uh-huh,” Tom said sourly. “The traders call it the Hungry Forest. I think Charlie cooked up that name. Very dramatic. But it’s not the same as what the Children do. Charlie rounds up zoms and ties them to trees, so that he can find them more easily when he gets a bounty job.”
“That sounds smart.”
“I never said Charlie wasn’t smart. He’s very smart, but he’s also very twisted and dangerous, and his motives are not exactly admirable. He also does a lot of bulk work—cleaning out small towns and such for the traders. That doesn’t make the people in town happy, because it confuses the issue of identification when you wipe out a whole town of zoms, but salvaging for stuff is more important. We’ve become an agricultural society. No one’s made much of an effort to restart industry, and people seem to think that we can salvage forever for almost everything we need. It’s like in the old days, when people drilled for oil for cars and factories without making much of an effort to find renewable sources for energy. It’s a pillage-and-plunder mentality, and it makes us scavengers. That’s not the best place to be on the food chain. Charlie’s happy with it, though, because a cleanup job is big money.” He looked back over his shoulder in the direction they’d come. “The Children, on the other hand … They may be crazy and they may be misguided, but they do what they believe is the right thing.”
“How do they round up zoms? Especially in a town full of them?”
“They wear carpet coats, and they know the tricks of moving quietly and using cadaverine to mask their living smells. Sometimes one or another of the Children will come to town to buy some, but more often guys like me bring some out to them.”
“Don’t they ever get attacked?”
Tom nodded. “All the time, sad to say. I know of at least fifty dead in this part of the country who used to be Children. I’d quiet them, but Brother David won’t let me. And I’ve even heard stories that some of the Children give themselves to the dead.”
Benny stared at him. “Why?”
“Brother David says that some of the Children believe that the dead are the meek who were meant to inherit the earth, and that all things under heaven are there to sustain them. They think that allowing the dead to feed on them is fulfilling God’s will.”
“That’s stupid,” Benny said.
“It is what it is. I think a lot of the Children are people who didn’t survive the Fall. Oh, sure, their bodies did, but I think some fundamental part of them was broken by what happened. I was there, I can relate.”
“You’re not crazy.”
“I have my moments, kiddo, believe me.”
Benny gave him a strange look. Then he smiled. “I think that redheaded woman, Sister Sarah, has the hots for you. As disgusting a concept as that seems.”
Tom shook his head. “Too young for me. Though … I thought she looked a bit like Nix. What do you think?”
“I think you should shove that right up your—”
And that’s when they heard the gunshots.
WHEN THE FIRST SHOT CRACKED THROUGH THE AIR, BENNY DROPPED to a crouch, but Tom stood straight and looked away to the northeast. When Tom heard the second shot, he turned his head slightly more to the north.
“Handgun,” he said. “Heavy caliber. Three miles.”
Benny looked up at him through the arms he’d wrapped over his head. “Bullets can go three miles, can’t they?”
“Not usually,” said Tom. “Even so, they aren’t shooting at us.”
Benny straightened cautiously. “You can tell? How?”
“Echoes,” he said. “Those bullets didn’t travel far. They’re shooting at something close and hitting it.”
“Um … it’s cool that you know that. A little freaky, but cool.”
“Yeah, this whole thing is about me showing you how cool I am.”
“Oh. Sarcasm,” said Benny dryly. “I get it.”
“Shut up,” replied Tom with a grin.
“No, you shut up.”
They smiled at each other for the first time all day.
“C’mon,” said Tom, “let’s go see what they’re shooting at.” He set off in the direction of the gunshot echoes.
Benny stood watching him for a moment. “Wait … we’re going toward the shooting?”
Benny shook his head and followed as quickly as he could. Tom picked up the pace, and Benny, his stomach full of beans and the hated jerky, kept up. They followed a stream down to the lowlands, but Benny noticed that Tom never went closer than a thousand yards to the running water of Coldwater Creek. He asked Tom about this.
Tom asked, “Can you hear the water?”
Benny strained to hear. “No.”
“There’s your answer. Flowing water is constant noise. It masks other sounds, which means it isn’t safe unless you’re traveling on it in a fast canoe, and this water isn’t deep enough for that. We’ll only go near it to cross it or to fill our canteens. Otherwise, quiet is better for listening. Always remember that if we can hear something, then it can probably hear us. And if we can’t hear something, then it might still be able to hear us, and we won’t know about it until it’s too late.”
However, as they followed the gunshot echoes, their path angled toward the stream. Tom stopped for a moment and then shook his head in disapproval. “Not bright,” he said, but didn’t explain his comment. They ran on.
As they moved, Benny practiced being quiet. It was harder than he thought, and for a while it sounded—to his ears—as if he was making a terrible racket. Twigs broke like firecrackers under his feet, his breath sounded like a wheezing dragon, the legs of his jeans whisked together like a crosscut saw. Tom told him to focus on quieting one thing at a time.
“Don’t try to learn too many skills at once. Take a new skill and learn it by using it. Go from there.”