It started out as sporadic reports of people going crazy and biting other people but most people laughed it off nervously. By the time the reports were confirmed by the news stations, most everyone was starting to panic. The stores were being emptied of bottled water, preserves, and canned goods by those with common sense while others only saw the advantage of a bigger TV screen. Worthless to most since the TV stations stopped broadcasting and the utilities shut down the electric grid. The army and national guard moved in as refuge camps were set up to house people fleeing from the overpopulated cities, and soon even those places were no longer safe because human nature was to protect the ones they loved - even after they were bit.
"Don't take a bite to make someone turn," Vin murmured, seeing J.D's eyes widen in shock. "Just dying's enough."
The Boston kid had joined them after deciding not to head on to the refuge camp outside San Francisco and Buck had taken him under his wing, treating him like a little brother after J.D managed to bring down a zombie about to take a chunk out of Buck's neck. It was lucky he'd already learned a valuable lesson out near the cemetery when Chris stopped him from wasting bullets.
"You don't shoot nobody in the back," Chris had ground out vehemently. "Only head shots take them down."
An ex-preacher, a paramedic, and a grifter rounded out the group now protecting the small town that sat close to the Mexican border and at least twenty miles from any other town. The seclusion was an advantage, especially as the railway had taken a turn away from the town back in the 1870s so they hadn't seen refugees pouring in like they had at Eagle's Bend and Landon until the trains stopped running. Instead Josiah and Nathan had organized the able-bodied to help build a high stockade to turn the town into a fortress. They had a roster to guard the single gate, though the duty mainly fell upon Vin, Chris, and the other five men in return for hospitality - food and a warm place to sleep.
Vin smiled when JD saw Casey Wells struggling with water pumped from the deep well and clambered down to give her a hand. The girl had lost both parents at the beginning of the outbreak. They'd had their misgivings and sent Casey out of the city to stay with her Aunt Nettie just to be on the safe side, but hadn't wanted to leave their small business to looters. By the time they realized the world was going to hell it was too late for them to escape Atlanta, and the last word received by Nettie before all communication stopped was from her brother telling her Casey's mother had been bit.
Vin turned his attention back to the open land, frowning when he caught movement in the distance. He picked up the scope from his rifle and peered through it, grimacing when he saw the tattered figure staggering along. The temptation to replace the scope and line up a head shot was pretty strong and he had the skills needed for the job, but they'd learned some months back that it was better to avoid loud sounds like gunshots unless absolutely necessary. They didn't need another herd of rotters overhearing the sound and heading in their direction. Last time it was about a hundred of them battering at the walls and it had cost them a few good people when the weight of numbers had brought down a small section, by now a single herd could figure in the hundreds or thousands; swelled with the dead from Tucson, Phoenix, or even further afield.
He watched it over the next hour as it stumbled closer, finally deciding to deal with it once it had come close enough but Chris pressed a hand against his shoulder.
"I'll deal with it."
Vin watched Chris's back as they moved forward, seeing how the rotter grew more animated when it smelled them. It stumbled towards Chris, arms reaching out and its jaw clacking as if practising for that bite through living flesh. Chris was fast, moving under those arms and jamming a long blade under its slowly rotting chin and straight up into its brain. He let it fall permanently dead to the ground and quickly patted down the bloodied, tattered clothing, finding a wallet. The image on the Arizona driver's license was a pleasant, normal man from just north of Tucson.
"I'll give this to Josiah," Vin stated, taking it from Chris, knowing Josiah would add the name to the prayer list that coming Sunday.
"He ain't been dead that long. Two weeks, a month maybe," Chris noted.
"Yeah. Can't see any bite marks, but that looks like a gunshot wound... and he ain't been walking that long neither," Vin remarked, indicating towards the shoes that would have fallen to pieces in a few months out here.
Another thing they'd learned the hard way was to fear the living perhaps more than the dead. People were getting desperate for supplies and were willing to kill for whatever they could take from others. It was a harsh new world, like rolling back the clock 170 years to the lawlessness of the Old West. All that stood between the people of this town and the murderers and rotters were seven good men.
They headed back in, and from that night onward Chris doubled the guards.