This week we lost a great friend, who’s battle with cancer came on suddenly and took his life… but Larry ‘Stew’ Stewart will never be missed, and I’d like to think even now he’s up in Heaven teaching the angels the proper techniques to use a crossbow. He was a huge fan of the Dying Days zombie series and came out with his wife Gerri (and, of course, Orion) in support of me at book signings. I was lucky enough to meet him through author Tim Baker, and I’m glad I did. Alas, not five minutes after completing this tale I received the word he’d gotten his final orders.
Dying Days: Stew
Orion stood at attention next to Larry “Stew” Stewart, waiting for the signal. There were three zombies in the Cracker Barrel parking lot, all wandering aimlessly. He had a clear shot at two of them but the other was behind the façade and the closest to the front doors. The zombie was stumbling through the ornate wooden rocking chairs for sale.
Stew bent down slightly, feeling his knees shake. His lower back, still giving him fits thanks to a war wound as a gunner in a humvee, popped loud enough he thought the zombies would hear him. “On my count, Orion. I need you to distract the last one. But first…” Stew drew his crossbow and pulled two bolts from his shoulder bag.
With precision aim he took out the first two zombies with perfect bull’s-eye hits to the forehead, dropping them both. He turned to his faithful companion, Orion, and nodded. “Go.”
Orion ran across the parking lot in silence, stopping a few feet from the zombie until the undead noticed the dog. Orion danced backwards as the zombie approached.
The crossbow bolt took it right in the left eye and it fell to its knees before planting face-first into the pavement.
“Here you go,” Stew said and pulled the last liver treat from his jacket pocket, tossing it to Orion. “We make a great team.”
The Cracker Barrel was dark inside, but Stew was always prepared. You didn’t survive this long in such a harsh climate using a cane and with a bad back and two bad knees unless you knew what you were doing. He pulled a small flashlight from his gear and took a tentative step inside. He had his Taurus Circuit Judge rifle-barrel shotgun with .410 gauge 3-inch magnum shotshells at the ready, and his 4510 Taurus Public Defender revolver was loose in his side holster. He didn’t want to alert any zombies in the area to his presence, but he would use his firepower if need be.
He used the light to methodically scan the ruins of the Cracker Barrel, noticing the faint footprints in the gathering dust. Someone had been here and recently.
Stew put a hand up for Orion. He didn’t want the dog to go running inside blindly and get bit or get shot by the living. It was safer to keep him back until he was needed. And Stew hoped it didn’t get to that. He had another bolt ready to go in his crossbow.
Once he got inside he kept the flashlight aimed at the dirty floor, and knew there were at least three sets of recent prints in the building. The retail store side was trashed, with broken clothing racks on the floor and the shelves barren and cracked, tables rotting and covered in a layer of dust. The front windows had been blown in at some point and a pile of leaves, tree branches and dirt were under the windows.
Orion gave a short, low growl.
Stew turned and fired his crossbow, striking the zombie in the face. Her dirty blonde hair, straggly and falling out, came off the top of her head as her bloated corpse hit the ground with a loud thud.
He turned as fast as his injuries would allow, scanning the restaurant for more threats. Confident he was alone for the moment, he bent and rubbed Orion’s side. “Good job, once again.” Stew wished he had more treats or some hot dogs. Orion loved hot dogs.
The thump from the kitchen brought another bolt to the crossbow and Stew was sliding quietly across the dirty floor without a sound. He kept Orion back with a simple hand command. He didn’t want to find a hundred zombies inside and have Orion charge into the fight. And Orion would to protect Stew.
Stew was glad there were no doors leading into the kitchen. From his vantage point he could see only darkness. He put the crossbow into his left hand and slowly raised the flashlight, the beam cutting through a destroyed server station just inside the door, its light gleaming off the stainless steel counters. Before he swept the beam to either side he saw the movement.
The flashlight was put between his teeth and he took the shot with the crossbow, slamming the lead zombie through the nose and pushing it back into the three behind it.
His Public Defender was pulled, and he planted his good leg and began shooting the zombies one at a time as they stumbled out of the kitchen. He didn’t want to announce his position, but he didn’t have a choice.
The first three went down and he had a pause as the next one tried to step over his comrades and fell to the floor, kicking up dust. Stew noticed all of them were heavily armed, although they had no brains to use the weapons.
Stew caught the movement to his left as more zombies came from around the other kitchen door, rifles and ammo belts around their shoulders and backs. He took careful aim so he didn’t hit a weapon, and started putting them down.
He switched to the Circuit Judge and blew holes in them, taking a large chunk of the wall as well. None of the zombies got close to him, falling well short of the fireplace between the openings.
Another three zombies came from the left and two more from the right and Stew kept his focus, spraying back and forth until there was nothing moving. Dust and smoke stung his eyes but he didn’t so much as blink, because he was too busy listening for the scraping of a shoe or any movement. Satisfied after two minutes of keeping still, he finally entered the kitchen, leading with the Circuit Judge and his flashlight. Once he was sure the Cracker Barrel was secure, he’d go back and strip the enemy of their weapons.
There was a lone zombie crawling on the floor at him, its legs severed from the knees. Stew put it out of its misery with a shot to the head.
At one point some or all of these zombies had been alive, because the office was packed with boxes of food and gallons of water, and the kitchen counters were covered with so much ammo and weapons Stew wanted to cry. “We hit paydirt,” he whispered to Orion. “The only thing missing is some hot dogs for you.”
Stew smiled at his good fortune, and went about securing the dining room windows and main doors, setting traps in the parking lot, and inventorying his massive supply of guns, ammo and food.
If he didn’t find a pack of hot dogs in one of the ice chests, he’d have to keep on his journey, but at least he had a solid home base for his new missions.
Stew smiled and pet Orion.