Robert was moving fast. The horses made them so much more efficient. It wasn’t purely the speed boost, they also carried the gear, meaning the soldiers were much, much less tired.
They covered miles, occasionally running into a zombie, and once a living human. An old man who lived in a tar shack in the woods. They ignored him and he ignored them. He was so remote that they weren’t even sure he knew the zombie apocalypse had happened.
As the weeks passed the landscape turned. The green started to fade to brown and orange, the grass died, became straw. The weather was still nice, until it wasn’t. They got caught outside in a major storm, they couldn’t get the big tents set up because of the high wind. Every time they tried the tent fabric was pulled out of their hands. In the end, they had to huddle together, horses around them, in the minimal cover provided by some trees.
The next morning the men were demoralized. Robert was frozen through, although the day did warm up quickly. Their clothes were soaked, and a couple of the men had developed coughs. A lesson in when they should stop.
Mona was quiet these days. She seemed tired. Robert was okay with that, he wasn’t looking for conversation from her. She didn’t have a whole lot to say at the best of times, and these weren’t the best of times. So long as she was willing to go along with what he was doing he didn’t really give a shit.
One of the soldiers, a guy named Steve, fell into a coughing fit two days after the storm and ended up collapsing off his horse. Robert stopped the group. As much as he needed to catch up to Jasper and the other traitors he couldn’t have his men dying on horseback. They set up camp and started trying to treat the sick men. In another couple of days, it was half of them. The first one died that night. They put a spike through his skull. After that, they tied the sick up. Their numbers were too low, and he didn’t have medicine for them. Nothing to do but keep them dry and warm and hope.
In the end, they lost three. Robert wasn’t sure what it was, maybe pneumonia, hell, maybe TB for all he knew. Tom was one of the three, so their medical capability was minimal. Robert wondered why he didn’t care, but that was something he’d become used to, so he didn’t give it a whole lot of thought. Ironically Steve, the first one to fall, also managed to recover and was riding with them. He was weak though and needed frequent breaks. It felt like they were losing all the time they had managed to gain with the horses.
They hit the ocean a few days later. The north shore of the mainland. It was desolate. They started heading west, hugging the coast.
One of the horses died. Robert had been riding hard for days and one night when he stopped one of the horses just lay down, dead. Robert looked at the horses and realized that he could see their ribs, all of them. The men were ragged and thin, Mona looked like one of the corpses. All of them had dark circles under their eyes and hollowed out cheeks. It was a combination of exhaustion, dehydration, and starvation. His drive told him to keep going, but the pragmatic side of him said that they would need to find food, maybe rest for a few days. He thought they were somewhere around the New Brunswick border. There was a small wooden house, dilapidated even before things fell apart. Now it was barely more than a shell. The door was slightly ajar. Robert walked in, baton in hand. There was a zombie, an old man, probably a hermit from the look of the place. He smashed it in the head with his baton over and over again. Finally, its skull collapsed. “All clear,” Robert called out to the men. They came inside. Mona followed, timid and meek.
The place was a mess. There was a stench to any space that had held a zombie for any length of time, but this place was worse than that. It was obvious that the former owner was a hoarder. Robert started tidying as soon as he got the men inside. It wouldn’t do. That kind of disorder would negatively affect discipline. If they were going to stay there for a few days they would need to get it straightened up.
He worked for seven hours straight, his energy never flagging. There was a large store of canned food, mostly home preserves. The place was in rough shape, and there were some bizarre finds among the piles of detritus, including at least one dead cat. It appeared to have been dead for a long time, years probably.
He got the place sorted though, even uncovered a real bed for him and Mona to share. The men made do with the sagging sofa or a patch of floor. It was better than they had had for a very long time. Real walls, windows that closed. The door was swollen, so it didn’t quite shut, but they pushed and then pushed more, and in the end it almost closed. They used chord to make sure it was held shut.
There was a large patch of grass for the horses and not another house in sight, they hadn’t passed one in days either.
Robert wasn’t certain exactly where they were. Somewhere in the backwoods between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. He had a map, but it was hard to reconcile the landscape he encountered with the one on the map. Not that he wasn’t experienced at navigation, but having to avoid population at every turn meant that they missed a lot of landmarks. He had learned, through bitter experience, that the main roads were usually not worth it. They had tried sticking to the highway for a while but kept having to lose zombie clusters. These back roads sometimes had signs, other times not so much. All of them were in terrible condition.
Robert settled in to rest and recover. The men were grateful for the respite, and it was clear this place hadn’t had electricity before the apocalypse, so not much had changed for it. There was a tub, a well that used a bucket to haul water, a wood stove, and an outhouse. On the second day, Robert cleaned the tub and then boiled water so he could have a hot bath. It was a luxury beyond belief. He invited Mona to join him.
The men and the horses started to look better after three days. He gave them two more. The horses were more the impetus than the men. After that, they had exhausted all the food in the house, probably a winters worth for the original owner. They got on the move again, heading north.
Robert hit the bridge to PEI late in the day. It was a cold day, with clear blue skies. The few clouds were light, high wisps. The air smelled crisp and clear, the way only a fall day can. The bridge was barricaded with a bunch of vehicles, far too many to clear. Somebody had tried to fortify it, successfully from the look of things. It was going to require them to climb to get across, not something the horses were going to be able to do. Robert set up camp under the bridge putting off the decision as to what to do with the horses as long as possible.
There was a nature trail with a little visitors centre right next to them. Nothing much, just a small building with a gift shop and some displays. It had several vending machines that were untouched. Robert decided that the vending machines were free now, so he smashed in their front panels.
Most of the stuff was stale, but the pop was cold at least. Nothing worse than warm pop.
Robert set a watch on the approach to the bridge. Jasper had to come this way. Robert still wanted to punish him. The men had been disrespectful ever since Jasper left, clearly, they didn’t respect his authority fully with Jasper still running around defiant. It was worth waiting a little bit before making the crossing. He also sent a man to scout the bridge itself. It was a full days journey across, and the same coming back.
They hunkered in to wait for something else to happen.
The scout on the bridge finally came back. “The bridge is clear past the barricade, no zombies, no people. Somebody set it up pretty good though.”
“How so? What can we use?”
“There’s a kind of fort in the middle. Two rows of cars, more stacked on top, a bus with a wood stove in the middle of them. Looks like it’s meant for a garrison, but nobody there now. Far end’s blocked too.”
Robert decided that the bridge was an even better ambush point. It would give Jasper nowhere to run. He killed the horses, slitting their throats, wouldn’t do to let anyone else get them, and he started across. The climb over the initial barrier was impossible for a zombie, but fairly easy for a human.
The journey to the centre took longer than anticipated. It started raining after they had been on the bridge for an hour, and it kept raining most of the time they were travelling. The winds picked up as well, and there was no place to get out of it. By the time they reached the barricade it was full night and all of them were freezing. Mona collapsed just shy of their destination and Robert carried her the last little bit.
They set up for the wait. The men built a small fire in the wood stove that was in the bus. The windows were covered in blankets, and some enterprising soul had actually set up a mass heater. The thing wasn’t the warmest in the world, but so long as your butt was on the bench it was reasonably comfortable, and it was dry. Mona came to after a bit and Robert made sure she had some warm tea, one of the only things they had to drink other than water.