They were arguing once again so of course no one saw the cow that had wandered out into the road until they were almost on top of it. They were crisscrossing the southern half of Manitowoc by this time and still had seen no sign of their quarry. There had been a few heat signatures, the larger ones they checked out, but anything smaller than a child they ignored. They had wasted a lot of time investigating feral dogs, raccoons and even a small black bear (which led to a rather hasty retreat).
The cow really had no business out wandering the streets. At this hour most self respecting cattle were asleep, huddled together for warmth and protection. So its sudden appearance in the road was totally unexpected. James was driving and yelling back over his shoulder to Allison as she manned the roof turret. Dee was trying to get some sleep on one of the two bunks in back. The cow materialized on the road and James panicked. He jerked the wheel hard to the right and the Volvo veered off the pavement, bounced through a ditch and across some railroad tracks before coming to a halt deep in a small pond that had formed between the tracks . Dee was thrown out of the bunk and was lucky enough to land on Allison's and James' packs rather than the ammo boxes. Allison heaved up hard against the inner rim of the gun turret hard enough to leave a technicolor band of bruises just under her left breast.
Alisson climbed out through the turret and slowly slid down the side of the Volvo realizing even as she did that it was a mistake. She was now waist deep in ice cold water, well not entirely. The mud was knee deep. She tried to climb back up but could not get her feet out of it. Bo and Duke had already launched themselves from the truck and were shaking themselves dry on the muddy bank of the muddy little pond. Dee emerged from the side door cursing ferociously. Muddy water was already flooding the interior as the Volvo sank deeper into the muck. She grabbed Allison by the arm and hauled her back into the vehicle. Her boots were left behind never to be seen again. The began arguing as soon as Allison was aboard.
They both realized at the same time something was wrong. Dee flew out of the truck and standing on the step bar opened the driver's door. James was still in the driver's seat, his thin frame crumpled over the steering wheel. At first Dee feared the worst, but she found a good strong pulse and he was still breathing.
Between her and Allison they were able to get him out of the Volvo and over to muddy ground. He was a little banged up but Dee didn't think he had any serious injuries. At least she hoped that he did not.
They hauled what gear they could out of the Volvo and set up camp.
"Now what the hell happened?" she asked and was surprised when James answered.
"Damn cow in the friggin' road!" he croaked out, shaking his head and wincing as if his brains were in danger of rattling out.
"A cow? Allison take Bo and Duke and check it out."
"But ... it's just a cow," she protested, not wanting to leave the warmth of the small tent they had set up.
"Are you that dim, you've gone out on dozens of hunts with Mr. Parsons and and have not picked up even the basic?!" She closed her eyes and took a few deep cleansing breaths to damp down the exasperation. "Domestic cattle don't survive separated from their herd unless ... "
"Unless they are infected." Allison finished, embarrassed at having to be reminded of something so basic. The wraiths would leave them alone until they popped and ordinary predators wouldn't touch them because they just didn't smell right. She exited the tent and called to the dogs standing watch just outside the feeble light of the fire they had built.
"Find the stinky wraith boys!" she ordered. The dogs sniffed about for a few moments, picked up a scent and headed out across the road with Allison close behind them. A few moments later gunfire echoed through the dead city. A total of seven shots rang out. Allison returned shortly afterwards. Dee had already waded out to the Volvo and retrieved one of the five gallon gas cans. The gas contained in the can had long since turned into turpentine but it was not going to be used as engine fuel. Allison took the can and headed back out. Bo stayed with Dee and Allison took Duke with her.
Half an hour later the glow of a bonfire could be seen to the east. It was really too damp to worry much about the fire spreading out of control.
Allison fed as much brush and dead wood into it as she could find. She knew she did not have to completely incinerate the cow, she just had to make sure that the remains got hot enough to kill off any embryos she missed. The smell was foul and she was positive that her clothes were going to smell like burned and rotting meat forever. Maybe she could find some replacements here in town. She was already going to have to replace her boots. She missed those boots. The moccasins she was wearing now would not be sturdy enough. And besides, without the extra two inches the boots gave her she felt really short.
The cold morning air carried the clacking sound of her sister banging away at their father's old typewriter. The sound carried with it a wave of nostalgia. The typing would go on for a few minutes, there would be a pause as she imagined her sister pausing so check her surroundings and make sure there were now nasties sneaking up on their camp. Not that Bo would let any get near without alerting her.
She was exhausted by the time she headed back to camp and the sun was already coming up.
She had checked in regularly with Dee and her older sister had nagged at her each time, but the relief she saw in her eyes when she finally walked back into camp told her that she had been worrying over her like a mother hen the whole time. She suddenly felt guilty for all the grief their impulsive actions had caused.
The old woman lifted the cast iron pot onto the old wood stove and threw a couple more pieces of wood in the fire. She stirred last nights stew one more time before heading up the stairs to the tower. Last nights supper would make a good early breakfast. It had been another sleepless night.
The lighthouse was a bit isolated, the only access without using a boat was the narrow breakwater that extended from the lighthouse 200 yards to the northeast to the man-made wetlands at the north of the harbor. The beasties would not cross it, particularly when the tide was up and the breakwater was just barely above water.
But it had its drawbacks too. It could get cold awful cold if she let the fire burn too low and there was nothing to break the wind when a storm was blowing.
The lighthouse was quite sturdy. The original lighthouse had been built on a sturdy steel frame, not even enclosed on the bottom half, but later a structure had been built around the main steel supports, the bottom half of which was concrete while the top half was steel with steel shutters over the windows. When she had found it, it had long been locked up by the Coast Guard, deemed obsolete and unneeded. But it suit her purposes quite well. Of course the light itself was long gone, leaving the tower empty. But there were no ships coming in to warn. The last ship to enter the harbor had been a derelict freighter that drifted in about six years ago. It had run aground on the southern breakwater. It was still there. The storm that had brought it in had battered it against the stone and concrete without mercy and it sank. The prow was still visible above the water.
She unscrewed the cap from her thermos and poured herself a cup of coffee before picking up the infrared binoculars she had picked up at a from a display at an Army recruiting office a few years ago. She looked out over the town scanning north to south. There were a few heat signatures out there. Mostly deer she suspected, but a few bulkier masses. Not a lot of activity yet, no like there would be come summer. She suddenly saw a flare of heat coming from the tracks down by the old bottling plant. The binoculars were good but it was over half a mile away. A smaller form separated out from the blaze of the fire. A person by the looks of it. He or she moved off a bit from the fire and then back several times apparently feeding the fire. A smaller heat source bounded back and forth. A dog to be certain. It had been a long time since she had talked to another living soul. She was aware of a settlement to the north, she had heard their radio broadcasts. But she had never been what you would call a "people person".
Maybe she would pay them a visit. She finished her coffee and made way once again down the stairs.
© 2010 R. Keith McBride
p.s. sorry about the title for this chapter. it was late and i was tired.