By the time they were close to where they thought the gunshots were being fired, Benny was moving more quietly and found that he enjoyed the challenge. It was like playing ghost tag with Chong and Morgie.
Tom stopped and cocked his head to listen. He put a finger to his lips and gestured for Benny to remain still. They were in a field of tall grass, which led to a dense stand of birch trees. From beyond the trees they could hear the sound of men laughing and shouting, and the occasional hollow crack of a pistol shot.
“Stay here,” Tom whispered, and then he moved as quick and quiet as a sudden breeze, vanishing into the tall grass. Benny lost track of him almost at once. More gunshots popped in the dry air.
A full minute passed, and Benny felt a burning constriction in his chest and realized that he was holding his breath. He let it out and gulped in another.
Where was Tom?
Another minute. More laughter and shouts. A few scattered gunshots. A third minute. A fourth.
Then something large and dark moved quickly toward him through the tall grass.
“Tom!” Benny almost screamed the name, but Tom shushed him. His brother stepped close and bent to whisper.
“Benny, listen to me. On the other side of those trees is something you need to see. If you’re going to understand how things really are, you need to see.”
“What is it?”
“Bounty hunters. Three of them. I’ve seen these three before, but never this close to town. I want you to come with me. Very quietly. I want you to watch, but don’t say or do anything.”
“This will be ugly. Are you ready?”
“Yes or no? We can head northeast and continue on our way. Or we can go home.”
Benny shook his head. “No … I’m ready.”
Tom smiled and squeezed his arm. “If things get serious, I want you to run and hide. Understand?”
“Yes,” Benny said, but the word was like a thorn caught in his throat. Running and hiding. Was that the only strategy Tom knew?
“Good. Now, follow me. When I move, you move. When I stop, you stop. Step only where I step. Got it? Good.”
Tom led the way through the tall grass, moving slowly, shifting his position in time with the fluctuations of the wind. When Benny realized this, it became easier to match his brother’s movement, step for step. They entered the trees, and Benny could more easily hear the laughter of the three men. They sounded drunk. Then he heard the whinny of a horse.
The trees thinned, and Tom hunkered down and pulled Benny down with him. The scene before them was something out of a nightmare. Even as Benny took it in, a part of his mind was whispering to him that he would never forget what he was seeing. He could feel every detail being burned into his brain.
Beyond the trees was a clearing bordered on two sides by switchbacks of the deep stream. The stream vanished around a sheer sandstone cliff that rose thirty feet above the treeline and reappeared on the opposite side of the clearing. Only a narrow dirt path led from the trees in which the Imura brothers crouched to the spit of land framed by stream and cliff. It was a natural clearing that gave the men a clear view of the approaches on all sides. A wagon with two big horses stood in the shade thrown by the birch trees. The back of the wagon was piled high with zombies that squirmed and writhed in a hopeless attempt to flee or attack. Hopeless, because beside the wagon was a growing pile of severed arms and legs. The zombies in the wagon were limbless cripples.
A dozen other zombies milled by the sandstone wall of the cliff, and every time one of them would lumber after one of the men, it was driven back by a vicious kick. It was clear to Benny that two of the men knew some kind of martial art, because they used elaborate jumping and spinning kicks. The more dynamic the kick, the more the others laughed and applauded. As Benny listened, he realized that as one stepped up to confront a zombie, the other two men would name a kick. The men shouted bets to one another and then rated the kicks for points. The two kick fighters took turns while the third man kept score by drawing numbers in the dirt with a stick.
The zombies had little hope of any effective attack. They were clustered on a narrow and almost water-locked section of the clearing. Far worse than that, each and every one of them was blind. Their eye sockets were oozing masses of torn flesh and almost colorless blood. Benny looked at the zombies on the wagon and saw that they were all blind as well.
He gagged, but clamped a hand to his mouth to keep the sound from escaping.
The standing zombies were all battered hulks, barely able to stay on their feet, and it was clear that this game had been going on for a while. Benny knew the zombies were already dead, that they couldn’t feel pain or know humiliation, but what he saw seared a mark on his soul.
“That one’s ’bout totally messed up!” yelled a dark-skinned man with an eye patch. “Load him up.”
The man who apparently didn’t know the fancy kicks picked up a sword with a heavy, curved blade. Benny had seen pictures of one in the book The Arabian Nights. A scimitar.
“Okay,” said the swordsman, “what’re the numbers?”
“Denny did his in four cuts in three point one seconds,” said Eye-patch.
“Oh, hell … I got that beat. Time me.”
Eye-patch dug a stopwatch out of his pocket. “Ready … Steady … Go!”
The swordsman rushed toward the closest zombie—a teenage boy who looked like he’d been about Benny’s age when he died. The blade swept upward in a glittering line that sheared through the zombie’s right arm at the shoulder, and then he checked his swing and sliced down to take the other arm. Instantly he pivoted and swung the sword laterally and chopped through both legs, an inch below the groin. The zombie toppled to the ground, and one leg, against all odds, remained upright.
The three men burst out laughing.
“Time!” yelled Eye-patch, and read the stopwatch. “Holy crap, Stosh. That’s two point nine-nine seconds!”
“And three cuts!” shouted Stosh. “I did it in three cuts!”
They howled with laughter, and the third man, Denny, squatted down, wrapped his burly arms around the limbless zombie’s torso, picked it up with a grunt, and carried it over to the wagon. Eye-patch tossed him the limbs—one-two-three-four—and Denny added them to the pile.
The kicking game started up again. Stosh drew a pistol and shot one of the remaining zombies in the chest. The bullet did no harm, but the creature turned toward the impact and began lumbering in that direction. Denny yelled, “Jump-spinning back kick!”
And Eye-patch leaped into the air, twisted, and drove a savage kick into the zombie’s stomach, knocking it backward into the others. They all fell, and the men laughed and handed around a bottle while the zombies clambered awkwardly to their feet.
Tom leaned close to Benny and whispered, “Time to go.”
He moved away, but Benny caught up to him and grabbed his sleeve. “What the hell are you doing? Where are you going?”
“Away from these clowns,” said Tom.
“You have to do something!”
Tom turned to face him. “What is it you expect me to do?”
“Stop them!” Benny said in an urgent whisper.
“Because they’re … because …,” Benny sputtered.
“You want me to save the zombies, Benny? Is that it?”
Benny, caught in the fires of his own frustration, glared at him.
“They’re bounty hunters, Benny,” said Tom. “They get a bounty on every zombie they kill. Want to know why they don’t just cut the heads off? Because they have to prove that it was they who killed the zombies and that they didn’t just collect heads from someone else’s kill. So they bring the torsos back to town and do the killing in front of a bounty judge, who then pays them a half day’s rations for every kill. Looks like they have enough there for each of them to get almost five full days’ rations.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Keep your voice down,” Tom hissed. “And, yes, you do believe me. I can see it in your eyes. The game these guys are playing—that’s ugly, right? It got you so upset that you wanted me to step in and do something. Am I right?”
Benny said nothing. His fists were balled into knuckly knots at his sides.
“Well, as bad as that is … I’ve seen worse. A whole lot worse. I’m talking pit fights where they put some dumb-ass kid—maybe someone your age—in a hole dug in the ground and then push in a zom. If the kid’s lucky, maybe they’ll give him a knife or a sharpened stick or a baseball bat. Sometimes the kid wins, sometimes he doesn’t, but the oddsmakers haul in a fortune either way. And where do the kids come from? They volunteer for it.”
“That’s bull. …”
“No, it’s not. If I wasn’t around, and you lived with Aunt Cathy when she was sick with the cancer, what would you have done? How much would you have risked to make sure she got enough food and medicine?”
Benny shook his head, but Tom’s face was stone.
“Are you going to tell me that you wouldn’t take a shot at winning maybe a month’s worth of rations—or a whole box of meds—for ninety seconds in a zom pit?”
“That doesn’t happen.”
“I’ve never heard about anything like that.”
Tom snorted. “If you did something like that … would you tell anyone? Would you even tell Chong and Morgie?”
Benny didn’t answer.
Tom pointed. “I can go back there and maybe stop those guys. Maybe even do it without killing them or getting killed myself, but what good would it do? You think they’re the only ones doing this sort of thing? This is the great Rot and Ruin, Benny. There’s no law out here, not since First Night. Killing zoms is what people do out here.”
“That’s not killing them! It’s sick. …”
“Yes, it is,” Tom said softly. “Yes, it is, and I can’t tell you how relieved and happy I am to hear you say it. To know that you believe it.”
There were more shouts and laughter from behind them. And another gunshot.
“I can stop them if you want me to. But it won’t stop what’s happening out here.”
Tears burned in Benny’s eyes, and he punched Tom hard in the chest. “But you do this stuff! You kill zombies.”
Tom grabbed Benny and pulled him close. Benny struggled, but Tom pulled his brother to his chest and held him. “No,” he whispered. “No. Come on. … I’ll show you what I do.”
He released Benny, placed a gentle hand on his brother’s back, and guided him back through the trees to the tall grass.
They didn’t speak for several miles. Benny kept looking back, but even he didn’t know if he was checking to see if they were being followed or looking with regret that they’d done nothing about what was happening. His jaw ached from clenching.
They reached the crest of the hill that separated the field of tall grass from an upslope that wound around the base of a huge mountain. There was a road there, a two-lane blacktop that was cracked and choked with weeds. The road spun off toward a chain of mountains that marched into the distance and vanished into heat haze far to the southeast. There were old bones among the weeds, and Benny kept stopping to look at them.
“I don’t want to do this anymore,” said Benny.
Tom kept walking.
“I don’t want to do what you do. Not if it means doing … that sort of stuff.”
“I already told you. I don’t do that sort of stuff.”
“But you’re around it. You see it. It’s part of your life.” Benny kicked a rock and sent it skittering off the road and into the grass. Crows scolded him as they leaped into the air, leaving behind a rabbit carcass on which they’d been feeding.
Tom stopped and looked back. “If we turn back now, you’ll only know part of the truth.”
“I don’t care about the truth.”
“Too late for that now, Benny. You’ve seen some of it. If you don’t see the rest, it’ll leave you—”
“Leave me what? Unbalanced? You can stick that Zen crap up your—”
Benny bent and snatched up a shinbone that had been polished white by scavengers and weather. He threw it at Tom, who sidestepped to let it pass.
“Screw you and your truth and all of this stuff!” screamed Benny. “You’re just like those guys back there! You come out here, all noble and wise and with all that bull, but you’re no different. You’re a killer. Everyone in town says so!”
Tom stalked over to him and grabbed a fistful of Benny’s shirt and lifted him to his toes. “Shut up!” he said with a snarl. “You just shut your damn mouth!”
Benny was shocked into silence.
“You don’t know who I am or what I am.” Tom shook Benny hard enough to rattle his teeth. “You don’t know what I’ve done. You don’t know the things I’ve had to do to keep you safe. To keep us safe. You don’t know what I—”
He broke off and flung Benny away from him. Benny staggered backward and fell hard on his butt, legs splayed among the weeds and old bones. His eyes bugged with shock, and Tom stood above him, different expressions warring on his face. Anger, shock at his own actions, burning frustration. Even love.
Benny got to his feet and dusted off his pants. Once more he looked back the way they’d come and then stepped up to Tom, staring up at his big brother with an expression that was equally mixed and conflicted.