He never would have guessed that something as simple and basic as a highway could be so… ominous. Stalled cars littered one lane, while wreckage and debris were scatted across the other. Dale Horvath silently cursed himself for not thinking of sending someone out ahead to scout for possible obstructions earlier, before forcing the RV and the other cars belonging to the group's caravan onto the cluttered highway. They could've sent someone up ahead, just to make sure the pathway was clear; but they hadn't, because Atlanta and the CDC building they were heading for was only a few miles away, and they had assumed they could make it in by nightfall. They had assumed, and that's why they were trapped out here now, spending the night with the group all crammed into their cars and his RV, trying to ignore the fact that they were stranded in the middle of a deserted highway with the walking dead all around them.
Rick Grimes… he'd told Dale it was his fault. He too had made the assumption that the roads would be as clear as they were when he'd led the stranded group members out of the city. When they'd found all those streets absolutely jammed with walkers, he'd scorned himself until Grimes' wife Lori, and his partner Shane, had snapped him out of it. Told him it wasn't his fault. He was a good man, that Rick Grimes – Dale could already see how the group looked up to him. A new face meant a new hope for salvation, and he could really only pray that Grimes lived up to their expectations. He'd already started making the tough calls: taking the group out to the CDC, leaving Jim behind after being bitten.
Handcuffing Merle Dixon to a rooftop on Atlanta and giving the man reason to saw his own hand off.
He didn't blame Rick for doing that – from what he'd seen of the oldest Dixon brother, he was a pain in the ass and nothing more – but it had been a grave decision. Especially if one considered the repercussions hammering against Merle's younger brother, Daryl. And that seemed to be all anyone could consider, because while Merle had done nothing but lounge around camp and toss around vulgar language, Daryl had gone out into the woods and hunted for the group of strangers he'd hardly known. They'd tried thanking the young redneck who was in his late twenties; yet Daryl Dixon seemed to share his brother's pariah instincts, shying away from conversation and flinching back from physical contact. Not to mention he seemed to carry on his brother's profane choice of words most of the time.
Dale shifted in his seat, trying to force his fifty-something-year-old body into a comfortable position perched in a lawn chair on the roof of his beloved RV. The shotgun he used leaned lazily by his side, and he kept his binoculars balanced on his lap as he scanned the immediate surroundings for any signs of danger. It was a crescent moon, and thus the night was unnervingly dark, the stars dull and the lightning bugs scattered all around. The breeze was comforting, however; a warm, caressing zephyr that relaxed some of his nerves. He leant back in the chair, sighing and scratching at his white/gray whiskers.
It was the fact that the darkness was so engulfing, so complete, that made seeing a light flash below so startling. He sat up immediately, muscles already tense and now ready to spring, prepared to make a run for the RV's ladder or to call out a warning. He relaxed a bit when he noticed the light was simply coming from a member of the group, their flashlight bouncing off random car mirrors as they moved around the street below. Still, the knowledge was a bit unsettling – it was one o'clock in the morning, and he was the only one on watch at this hour. He peered down over the lip of the vehicle's edge, and watched a man's figure stride towards the edge of the highway, over where the woods began. It only took a quick observation of the man's swinging pace, not to mention the sleeveless shirt and crossbow slung over one shoulder, for Dale to identify the person.
"Daryl Dixon," he muttered, eyebrows swiftly traveling north as he grabbed his binoculars. He peered through the lenses, watching the younger man disappear into the forest's borders. When he was out of sight, Dale lowered the lenses, frowning, because last he'd heard was that Daryl was camping out in one of the abandoned cars; and to go disappearing into the woods in the middle of the night all alone had certainly not been mentioned. Not that Daryl was the perfect candidate for conversation. Now standing on his RV's roof, he waited several minutes to see if maybe the youngest Dixon brother had simply gone to relieve himself; and when nearly ten minutes stretched by, he grabbed his rifle and headed for the ladder.
His footsteps were silent against the damp grass and leaves as he noiselessly slipped around trees and bushes, years of experience as a hunter making him blend effortlessly into his surroundings. Daryl Dixon kept his flashlight aimed at the ground – no need to be sending the Bat symbol out to alert any walkers – and used his ears and other senses to help him drift deeper and deeper into the thin forestry, knowing well enough to not rely solely on his eyes. He counted his paces, making sure not to stray too far away; it wasn't that he couldn't handle himself out here, because he could, but if something went wrong back at the group he'd have to go back and help them. Well, not that he had to – those people sure as hell hadn't given a damn towards Merle, and why should he be any different in their eyes – but there were kids. Little boy, little girl. Couldn't let the undead be getting to them, now could he? He didn't like people, sure, but he wasn't a freakin' monster.
Though, from the looks of the people back at the camp had thrown him, they sure thought different. He knew what they assumed. Cussing, no manners, no education redneck asshole, and his even bigger asshole brother. That's what Daryl had read on their faces the first time he and Merle had shown up at their little camp near the quarry; and why should things have changed now? That Rick Grimes had left Merle up on a rooftop to die, and he'd only found his big brother's severed hand when he'd gone back to look for him. Ass, he thought, sending mental rants towards Merle, wherever he was. All ya had to do was sit tight, ya dumbass. I went back for you. Did ya think I wouldn't? Well, I did; and guess what I found? Yer fucking hand. So now you're out there bleeding out somewhere, and I'm stuck here with a bunch of annoying, scrutinizing pansies who'll probably use me as bait for the walkers next chance they get. He paused in his stride to kick a large rock into the darkness ahead. He heard it thump against a dead tree trunk. Thanks for leaving me again, ya fucking asshat.
He heard another thump up ahead – which was strange, since he'd already heard the rock land – and he stopped dead in his tracks, listening. Another thump, and the sound of twigs breaking under sudden weight filled his ears. Slowly, he crouched down a bit as he swung his crossbow off of his shoulders, shining his light straight ahead; and he stumbled back several steps, eyes widening as the cold white illumination revealed over a dozen walkers all stumbling forward, only 'bout ten feet away.
He barely registered someone shouting out his name as he shot his arrow dead center into the nearest corpse's forehead.
Dale, not exactly being in his prime years, was out of breath by the time he managed to locate and then reach Daryl's location. Panting hard, he fumbled to cock the safety off the shotgun as he noticed fourteen or so walkers slowly surrounding the younger man, who was picking them off slowly with his crossbow. Too slow. And there was no way he had enough arrows for all of them. Finally getting the gun all prepped, Dale aimed at a nearby thing that had once been a woman, and to hell with the noise as he fired. Brain matter went flying up as the rotting body fell, and Daryl spun around in shock at the sudden noise, a look of incredulous disbelief splattered all over his face. "The hell you doin' here, old man?!" he called over as he returned his attention to the walkers.
"I was going to ask you the same thing," Dale countered, unafraid of the fierce temper engraved in the other man's words as he shot his firearm again. Now, his ears were ringing with the echoes of the gun and the loud, ravenous groans of the dead – he sensed one sneaking up a bit too close to his shoulder and spun around, grunting as he bashed the thing's skull in with the shotgun. "What were you thinking, coming out here all on your own?" he questioned Daryl once his victimized walker stopped moving.
"Are ya shittin' me?" was the scoffing reply, followed by a snort as he stabbed a nearby walker with his arrow, kicking the thing's legs out from under it as he did so. "I don' need no babysitter, old timer. Ya should back the hell up 'fore ya get hurt! I got this!"
Dale watched a walker nearly bite a chunk out of the young archer's ankle before he blew a hole through its cranium. "Right, you've got this."
Obviously, Daryl wasn't pleased with sarcasm coming from anyone but him, because he shot his rescuer a venomous glare before turning back to fighting off three of the creatures that seemed to come from all directions.
Several more shots echoed through the air, but they were less fierce than Dale's shotgun. The older man turned to see Rick Grimes, Shane Walsh, and T-Dog (seemed no one knew what that man's real name was) come crashing through the woods, their pistols raised and already downing walkers as they moved in. Rick made his way to Dale's side, firing off three more rounds. "What's going on out here?" he inquired, not diverting any attention to actually look at the other man. "What happened?"
Dale didn't really manage an answer; he was too busy watched Daryl and Shane kick in a walker's skull with their boots, crushing the soggy bone into nothing but a thick, black soup. He swallowed bile and turned away.
With the extra ammo, the small horde was almost instantly cleared out. The woods once again returned to their dreary silence; though the scenery was less serene, with guts and gore splattered all about. Quiet slowly returned to its original, thick volume, broken only by deep breathing from the men and a few crickets.
Shane, first to recover from the violence as usual, immediately turned to Dale for answers. "What just happened out here?" he panted, running a hand through thick locks of jet black hair, mouth slightly agape as he waited impatiently for a reply. "Well?"
Strangely, Daryl was the one who offered an answer. The archer was gathering back up his arrows, and shifting his weight from one foot to the other uncomfortably as he stared holes into the ground near his feet. "Went ta take a piss, found some undead perverts nearby," he stated dryly, kicking a limp corpse to enunciate his words.
Shane immediately spun around on his heels and walked over to the other man, ignoring how Rick moved forward as well. "You came this deep out into the woods to take a leak?" he asked, disbelief etched in his features. "There's a friggin RV ten feet from where you were."
"Yeah, sure," he sniffed, glaring at the former deputy. "Get me creepin' around the old timer's camper with all 'em girls tucked away inside sleepin'… sure, like ya would've taken that any better."
It was Rick Grimes, the annoyingly saintly newcomer to the group, that stepped in as he tended to do often nowadays, planting himself firmly between his best friend and Daryl Dixon. "I think this can all wait 'till tomorrow to be discussed, when the surroundings are a bit less… threatening," he suggested, tucking his pistol back into its holster. "How's 'bout we all just head back and we can talk this out in the mornin'." His tone seemed to say that this wasn't just a suggestion; course. The guy was a damn sheriff, used to giving the orders. Daryl glared at him good and hard, adrenaline still not quite down yet. He spit at the ground, the saliva landing an inch from Rick's boots. "Yeah, ya'll, let's do whateva tha damn pig says."
The words were muttered, but Shane still took several lumbering steps forward, jumping to his old partner's defense. Rick stuck his arm out, holding his friend back, and kept a blank expression as he faced Daryl. "Is there something you want to say to me, Daryl?" he asked slowly, voice low and drawn out as if he were talking to some wild animal.
And hell, he was just so tired of people treating like he was a mad dog that he lunged thrust both hands forward, knocking smooth-talking Rick Grimes backwards so that he nearly fell flat on his back. "Hells yeah I have a problem! You handcuffed my brother to a fuckin' roof and left 'im there ta die!" He shoved his way past a moving Shane and T-Dog and stood right up to Grimes, sneering. "I'm sick of you parasitic bastards and bitches thinkin' ya can all walk right over me and my brother, like we' white trash! You pigs think ya can just go on and kill my brother, and then waltz back to my face saying he deserved it?!" He ignored the little whisper in his mind that told him "yes, Merle did deserve it", and instead kept his focus glued to Rick Grimes' stunned expression. He looked taken off guard, speechless. Good. "Back in tha day, ya'll wouldn't have left a rabid dog to die like that! And Merle was no damn dog, he was my brother!"
Behind him, he suddenly heard a loud, too familiar groan; and within seconds, he'd raised his crossbow, and with an angry "Shut the fuck up!", he pulled the trigger and nailed the walker to a nearby tree.
Afterwards, the woods got too quiet. No one spoke, Shane had stopped trying to tackle him to the ground, Rick was still standing in his slumped position blinking dumbly, T-Dog was watching the whole thing with intense eyes, and Dale… Dale had his lips pursed, but he wasn't angry. No. Daryl had not once ever seen that man with a temper, and the fact that even now that he'd shoved Rick Grimes and nearly attracted a whole herd of flesh eating monsters to their location, that Dale was still not glaring at him with disgust or contempt unnerved him. The elder looked almost… sympathetic. Understanding.
It was that look that he couldn't stand, and he suddenly just wanted to get out of there, not caring 'bout his arrow still stuck in that damn walker. Huffing, he swung around, snarling and marching back towards the highway. "The hell with all ya motherless cocksuckers," he spat out, storming away into the shadows; and leaving four men left standing in the woods, minds buzzing, totally at a loss for words.