It was something that Daryl Dixon had come to value a whole lot more since the dead started walking. He wasn’t much of a people person, preferring his own company if he was given the choice, but now survival demanded that he live within the heart of a group of strangers, and it was suffocating. There was always someone talking, asking him questions he didn’t wanna answer, or issuing orders he didn’t wanna follow. Merle didn’t take none of their shit, telling them exactly what he would or would not do, but Daryl knew that they needed these people, useless as some of them might be. If Merle got them kicked out of the camp, he doubted either of them would last long, so he kept his head down and got on with it, biting his tongue and letting the inane chatter fade into the background.
The only respite he got was when he went out hunting. Sometimes his brother would tag along, but they never caught much when that happened. Somehow, Merle was still dropping pills on a semi-regular basis, and they made him loud and raucous, scaring away any prey before Daryl could take aim. So, he’d gotten into the habit of slipping away at first light, his crossbow slung over his shoulder and his knife at his waist, venturing into the forest and letting the silence wash over him. He was at home here, surrounded by nature, letting the tracks that cut through the undergrowth and the sounds of the river and the wildlife guide his way. Sure, he came across biters, but out here they tended to be on their own, and he was confident now that he could take down one without too much trouble. Things were vicious but they were slow and dumb as shit. It was only in a crowd that they were a real threat, and most of them were still stumbling round Atlanta, attracting more and more of them to the city with their deafening groans and leaving the surrounding countryside relatively safe for now.
Speak of the devil… A mangled corpse padded towards him, its jaws gnashing, a mass of bloody intestines drooping from the gaping hole in its gut. For a moment, Daryl recoiled, but then he heard his brother’s voice in his ear, as if he was standing beside him. What? You gonna hurl, little brother? Shit, I seen worse than that in juvie. You gotta toughen up. He steeled himself, eyeing the approaching threat with his crossbow raised to his shoulder, waiting for the right moment to strike. You had to get them in the brain, he knew that now, else they’d just keep coming at you. He centred the biter in his sights, taking a deep breath before letting loose a bolt, feeling a smug satisfaction when it buried itself deep in the walker’s skull. It dropped, and he gave it a cursory kick as he retrieved his ammo, pulling it free with a sick squelching sound and wiping it on his trouser leg. Yeah, he could deal with this new world and the horror that came with it. It was about adapting, surviving, and he’d been doing that all his life.
A scuffling noise to his right caught his attention, and he glanced up to see the rear end of a young buck as it bolted through the trees. He knew it must be the one he’d been tracking for the last few hours, and could tell just from its backside that it’d feed the whole camp for a couple of days if they rationed it. Damn biter had distracted him just long enough that the deer had caught his scent and gotten spooked. He took off after it, moving as quickly as he could given the need to be quiet, staying low to the ground, his eyes reading the indentations in the bushes like a map, leading him towards his kill.
The animal’s path took him downhill, closer to the water, and he trailed the river for a mile or so, following the prints it had left in the mud. The dip in the terrain sheltered him from the slight breeze that was ghosting through the trees, stopping his scent from spreading, keeping his presence a secret, at least for the time being. He was in his element now, moving through the undergrowth like a cat, light on his feet, stealthy and spry. It was at times like this that he felt a hell of a lot younger than his forty-odd years, though he knew the ache in his bones that evening would remind him of his age. He’d pay for the long hike when he settled down to sleep, always did.
The tracks curved upwards, away from the river, and still he followed, climbing up the tree-studded slope and cutting across the foot-worn path, plunging into the deeper foliage, stepping carefully over the exposed roots hidden beneath the greenery, his eyes scanning the ground for the snapped stems and broken leaves that told of wildlife passing through. The trail took him to the edge of a clearing, and his breath caught in his throat when he saw the motionless figure of a deer in the centre, its back dappled with shadows as the sun climbed higher in the sky, the heat beating down on the Daryl’s head so that beads of sweat formed on his brow. He lifted his bow, focusing it on the creature’s bulk, inhaling deeply as his finger twitched on the trigger. The buck was alert, its ears twitching, its nose pointed into the breeze. A shot rang out, and the animal crumpled, hitting the ground with a muffled thud.
‘Shit!’ Daryl couldn’t contain his outburst as he strode towards his prey, his eyes flashing with anger. ‘What the hell?’
Two men appeared from the bushes across the open ground, their rifles raised as they stepped cautiously from their hiding spot, watching as the redneck bent to inspect the kill.
‘Ya blew it all to hell! I’ve been trackin’ that damn buck all freakin’ day!’
‘Well, it was us that dropped it, brother,’ the older of the two men spoke, rubbing his hand over his greying beard. ‘So, I don’t see how the state of it is your concern.’ His voice was soft but firm, with the hint of a Latino accent, and Daryl bristled at his words.
‘Nah, ya’ve gotta be kiddin’ me. S’my deer, and I ain’t yer brother, ya hear?’
‘Hey, you need to calm down.’ His comrade, the younger of the two, a skinny guy with a shaved head and tribal tattoos on his arms, spoke up, fidgeting nervously with his weapon as Daryl stared him down. ‘Fair’s fair, man. It’s our bullet, it’s our kill.’
‘Do you have people?’ The first one asked, and Daryl narrowed his eyes as he considered how to answer the question.
‘What’s it to you?’
‘Well, that’s a lotta deer for one person. Maybe we can come to an arrangement.’
‘I’m Carlos.’ The skinny one threw in. ‘This is Felipe. We’ve got a camp, ‘bout a twenty minute walk from here.’
‘You got a name, brother?’ Felipe was watching the archer intently, his rifle trained on his chest, wary of the temperamental stranger.
‘Okay, Daryl. How about we head back to camp and butcher this thing, divide it up. Maybe everyone can go home happy today, huh?’
In all honestly, he couldn’t see another way out of this. He was outnumbered and outgunned, and hell if he was just gonna walk away from the buck he’d hunted down and write the day off as wasted. So, he found himself nodding.
‘Fine. Get that damn thing out my face though.’ He stepped forward, reaching out to push the muzzle of the older man’s rifle to the side, gritting his teeth as he waited to be challenged, but no challenge came.
‘Just a precaution, brother, I’m sure you can understand that.’ He ran his hand through his hair, silver rings glinting against the dark waves. ‘You can never be too careful these days.’ He nodded to Carlos, who also lowered his weapon, and the men stood, caught in an uneasy truce.
‘Carlos.’ Felipe, obviously the leader, nodded his head towards the subject of their conflict, and the young man bent to hoist it onto his shoulder, grimacing when blood dripped down his arm. Daryl had to hand it to him, he had more muscle than he’d first thought. Subconsciously, he was calculating his chances if things took a turn for the violent, but he wasn’t stupid. He’d take a hell of a beating even if he did manage to get the upper hand. Better to play this out, see where it took him. ‘Let’s go home.’
Carlos led the way, whilst his elder fell into step at Daryl’s side. Fantastic. Guess he wanted to talk then.
‘So, you never said whether you had people waiting on you. You got a camp somewhere round here?’
Daryl shrugged, chewing on his thumbnail, determined not to give anything away until he knew who these people were. He hadn’t exactly gelled with his group, but he wasn’t about to turn them over to a bunch of psychos either. Plus, his brother was back there. Nah, they weren’t gonna get anything out of him until he knew what he was dealing with.
‘A man of few words, huh, brother? That’s okay. Our Carlos is the same. Too much of the dope, ain’t that right, Carlo? Smoked it for years. That stuff messes with your head. You smoke?’
He pulled a packet of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, offering one to Daryl, who accepted begrudgingly, pulling out his own lighter. ‘Thanks.’
‘Way I see it,’ Felipe continued. ‘At least tobacco kills the body before it kills the mind, am I right? Not many pleasures left in this life now. No coffee, no baseball, no Sopranos. All I got left is nicotine. That, and sex, but it’s hard to find the privacy or the time these days, huh?’
Every statement he made was phrased as a question, trying to goad Daryl into conversation, but he’d underestimated the younger Dixon’s stubborn nature. He remained silent, refusing to be drawn into saying anything that might reveal something about him or his group, and before long, they were breaking through the treeline into an open field where a smattering of tents were pitched behind a scant barbed-wire fence.
‘Right this way, brother.’ Carlos had split off from them, rounding the enclosure to the back with the deer still slung over his shoulder, whilst Felipe guided Daryl to a makeshift gate guarded by a tall, bald-headed man, with a shotgun clasped in his hands. ‘Don’t worry. Carlos is gonna strip that buck down away from the camp, make sure the scent of the blood doesn’t draw in any unwanted guests. He’ll be back soon with your share of the meat. We’re good, honest people here.’
Daryl nodded, allowing himself to be herded inside, where a small group had gathered at the sound of the hunters’ return. A slender woman, with long, dark hair, streaked through with gold, stepped forwards to embrace the leader, planting a kiss on his cheek.
‘Hey, mama.’ He greeted her softly, stroking her hair back from her face. ‘Told you I’d come home safe, huh?’ He turned back to Daryl. ‘My wife, Rose. If you’d like to join us for dinner, she’ll cook that venison up into a stew like you wouldn’t believe.’ He went on, without giving Daryl a chance to respond to the invitation. ‘You see, we have women here, children, too. It’s getting hard to keep everyone fed and watered, y’know. We’re happy on rations, but the kids, they’re still growing.’
‘I get it.’ Daryl’s eyes scanned over the group, noting the distrust in their faces, the fear in the children’s eyes as they hid behind the legs of their parents. ‘I ain’t tryn’a take no food outta no-one’s mouths, alright? Just wanna get what’s mine ‘n’ I’ll be on my way.’
‘Understood, brother.’ Felipe held a hand to his forehead, shielding his eyes as he studied the people stood before him. ‘Might as well get yourself cleaned up while you’re here, huh? I’ll get Y/N to show you around, get you some water. Where is she, Rose?’
‘She went to fill the bottles at the lake. She should be back by now.’
‘Y/N!’ Felipe’s voice was loud and authoritative, echoing through the camp, and a part of Daryl wanted to tell him to shut the hell up. Didn’t he know the damn undead were drawn in by the noise? But then a woman appeared, a backpack stuffed with water bottles slung over one shoulder, and his mind went blank of everything but the dark eyes that widened in shock as she saw him standing there. Nah. There was no way in hell that the Y/N Felipe had summoned was his Y/N. And yet, she was dropping the bag to the floor with a crunch of crumpled plastic and moving towards him with her arms outstretched.
‘Daryl? Shit, no way. Daryl freakin’ Dixon!’