Claire stretched, shifting her weight in her saddle. "Well, Shelly, Jed sent us out for three horses and we end up with five. I think we can head back today." She took a deep drink from her weathered canteen. "I'm glad Jed has us do this scouting thing every quarter now instead of once a month. The best thing is we haven't seen any zombies - or smelled them," she laughed.
"What I smell is me after four days without a decent bath," Shelly replied. She patted her horse's neck, staring into the distance. "I'm happy there aren't as many of the rotting rovers as there used to be, so we don't need to worry about our livestock as much." She stood up in her stirrups, catching a glimpse of something sparkling in the distance. "But I think we might be a little premature," she said. Shelly turned her bay mare toward the south and walked her across the wide field. "I'll be glad to get back home and take a proper shower, that's for sure." She shook her long black hair loose, retying it with a red bandanna before putting her hat back on. "Don't you want to go home, Chula?" she asked her horse. The mare whinnied agreement.
Claire grinned, her straight white teeth contrasting with her ebony features. Her wavy black hair hung to her shoulders, her cowboy hat firmly on her head as she trotted next to her friend. "I know what you mean, girl. A hot shower and soft bed would be welcome about now."
Shelly laughed, a low, tinkling sound echoed by the sparkle of her brown eyes. "You're thinking of August again, aren't you, you crazy Amazon?"
Claire sighed, pulling close to Shelly and swatting at her with her hat. "The big guy doesn't seem interested in me."
Shelly laughed. "You need to try harder, Claire. He's interested. You can see it in his eyes."
Claire's face clouded over. "There's more behind that big man's eyes than interest, Shelly. He has some deep secrets, or I'll eat my hat." She patted her horse's side and whispered in her ear. The horse shook her head and snorted.
"You have some secrets of your own. Don't think I can't tell." Shelly stopped Chula and pointed toward the thing shining in the grass. "Look suspicious to you?"
Claire's horse shuddered and Claire put her warm hand against the black mare's neck. The horse flicked her ears at an errant fly. "Hush, Kiya," Claire whispered. "It's all right." Claire's hand shot forward and snatched the fly from the air, casually crushing it and wiping her fingers on her dirty jeans. "I hate flies, too," she muttered.
She dismounted and pulled a long, smooth blade from a scabbard attached to the back of her saddle, leaving Kiya ground-tied. Walking forward, Claire pushed the tall grass aside with her blade. Disturbed flies swarmed into the still air and Claire backed away, an ancient curse erupting from her.
Shelly's horse moved close to Kiya, stopping a dozen feet from Claire. "So what is it, chica?" She asked.
Claire returned to Kiya and mounted, sliding her sword into the scabbard, her mouth set in a grim line across her face. "Shiny belt buckle. Really dead zombie," she said. "Can't tell what kind of zombie, though." They moved the horses away from the smell of rotting flesh. "We'll have to follow their tracks. Jed will want to know how many there are."
Shelly groaned and her shoulders drooped. "Well, this will keep us out here, won't it?"
Claire shrugged. "A few more days won't hurt us." She looked at the small herd they gathered, peacefully grazing in the long grass. "The horses should be all right until we get back." They rode south.
Less than an hour later, they scared away coyotes pulling parts from a second dead zombie.
Shelly pointed at what was left of the rotting corpse. "No signs of a struggle, so this one dropped, like the first one. Not a persistent zombie, then."
"Might have been running with some Persistents, though," Claire replied. "It can happen if they aren't too old." She looked at the coyotes. "Good thing the virus doesn't spread to scavengers."
"No kidding. I don't get it," Shelly said. "We're miles from any people. Why do the Zs always seem to come from the north, that's what I want to know."
"At some point Jed will have to check into that, I suppose," said Claire, nudging Kiya forward to follow the trail. "They picked up speed here," she said.
Shelly looked into the distance. "Hey, that's Highway 160 ahead of us. I didn't realize we were so close to the road."
They heard the loud crack of a gunshot ahead. The women looked at each other and galloped their horses toward the sound.