Salem, Wyoming, approximately 50 miles west of Laramie, 18 February 2010, 1100 hours local; Countdown: 1 year, 11 months, 12 days

Jim Collins was silent with shock. It had been over two decades since he discussed Nate West with anyone. Even those he’d considered close friends. Now Mateo Cortez, the Zombie Strike field leader and Jim’s boss, was asking like he’d known about Nate all of this time. Mateo waited impatiently with a look of rage on his face. He had the right. Jim didn’t tell him about things that were important to the team’s safety. Jim never told Mateo about the altar.

“I’m Nate West,” Jim said finally, his voice weak, “Nathaniel James West was the name I was born with, in this town.” He gave Mateo a somber look. “I know what the minion is looking for.” There was a dark silence between the two men. Mateo burned with the rage of betrayal. He wasn’t saying anything because he didn’t trust himself to speak at the moment.

“In that valley is an evil place. The townsfolk avoid it, but they don’t know why. Everyone just stays away for one reason or another,” Jim said, “The real reason they stay away is the altar. It just exudes evil. I don’t know why it’s there or what went on there to create the evil. Maybe it’s been there since God created the earth. I don’t know. What I do know is what the altar can do.” Jim paused as horrific memories danced in his eyes.

“Tell me what it can do, and how you know about it,” Mateo demanded.

“I’ll need to take you back almost thirty years ago,” Jim said, straightening up in his bed, “You need to know everything, not just about the altar.” He took a deep breath and told a story that he hadn’t spoken of in a long time.

Salem, Wyoming, approximately 50 miles west of Laramie, 25 June 1981, 1100 hours local; Countdown: 30 years, 11 months, 12 days

“Nate, I need you here right now!” hollered Thomas West from across the field. Nate looked up from the fence he was mending. Normally if his father yelled at him, it was because Nate did something wrong. This was different. He could hear it in his father’s voice. Nate mounted his horse and galloped across the grassy field to where his father was waiting with the truck. As he neared, Nate’s mind raced as to what could have made his father come out here. The two weren’t on the best of terms at the moment and were staying on opposite parts of the farm anytime they could.

Nate examined his father as he reigned in next to the truck. Thomas West was almost forty, and the years of hard work in the elements showed. Tanned leathery skin and deep creases in his face made Tom look almost ten years older. The thinning brown hair and slight stoop to his normal towering frame added to the appearance. Nate was expecting a somber look, like one would expect upon hearing the news that someone died. Tom’s dark eyes were flashing with anxiety. Something was really wrong.

“Son, have you heard from Jeannie?” Tom asked in a flurry. Nate’s heart dropped. His father only spoke fast when he was forcing the words out. What happened to Jeannie?

“No sir,” Nate answered quickly.

“When was the last time you saw her?” Tom asked. Nate hesitated. His parents weren’t too keen on Jeannie, and even less on Nate’s interest in her. The entire reason the normally close Tom and Nate weren’t speaking to each other was because of her. Still, there wasn’t that normal look in Tom’s eyes when he was trying to catch Nate in some indiscretion. This was an urgent need.

“I saw her last night, in town,” Nate admitted. He expected some anger from his father. Nate was supposed to be staying away from town, and Jeannie. The total lack of anger in his father’s face scared Nate.

“She’s missing,” Tom said with rushed bluntness. “Never came home last night.”

“What do you mean?” Nate demanded, “I dropped her off at her house before coming home!” He knew he was yelling at his father, but he didn’t care. The only thing Nate could see was Jeannie waving good-bye from her front door. What in the hell happened? He needed to get over to her house right now and find out. Tom must have seen it, because those weathered arms shot out and grabbed the horse’s bridle.

“You need to calm down,” Tom said sternly, “Right now, you are the last person to see her. Do you really think Deputy Young won’t try to pin this on you?” The Wests weren’t well-liked by the new sheriff and his cronies. Young in particular seemed to have some grudge against Nate. It was one of the reasons why Nate was supposed to stay away from town. Nate didn’t like it, but his father was right.

“I want you to stay here until I come and get you,” Tom said, climbing into the truck, “Try to see if you can remember anything about last night. Maybe you saw something that’ll help.” Nate nodded as Tom sped away in the truck. For endless moments, Nate’s mind was tormented by horrific images of what could’ve befallen Jeannie. Frustration and anger rocked the young man. He needed to do something, and there was nothing he could do. Or was there?

Nate went back over last night in his mind. Fear and determination cleared away the love-colored haze of the night. It had taken some doing to push the ancient pickup out of the barn to the sloping driveway leading up to the West farm. At least he didn’t have to sneak up to Jeannie’s house. Her parents were quote, refugees from California, and they found Nate’s western mannerisms quaint. That grated a bit on the pride of the sixteen-year-old, but he hid it well. After all, it meant they let him take their daughter out. The two of them went down to the new McDonald’s in town. Most of the high school kids hung out there. Besides, none of the bars were about to draw the new sheriff’s attention by letting underage kids in.

Nate remembered hanging out with Jeannie’s friends mainly. Nate knew them from school, but he hadn’t hung around them until he started dating Jeannie. They were the small town’s rich kids, and they tended to stick together. There had been some awkwardness in the beginning, but now he got along pretty well with most of them. Especially Chris Roberts. He was the boyfriend of Jeannie’s best friend, as well as the town’s star athlete, son of the bank president, and all-around super guy. Nate thought he’d hate Chris, but the two became fast friends after discovering shared passions for fast cars, pretty women, and shooting. It had been a pretty regular night. The only interesting thing was some tense moments when Nate introduced Chris to his old friend Alan. Nate’s mind froze. Alan. Everything fell into place. Nate looked across the grassy plain to the hills. The hills that surrounded the valley where Death’s Grove lay. Nate thought it was strange Alan was back in Salem. Nate’s mind lit up with sudden realization. Nate kicked his horse into a gallop back to the house. His mind raced back four years prior, when three twelve-year-old boys ventured into that valley. Only two came out, and they had been forever changed by what happened. If Alan was trying to recreate what happened, Nate was going to need help. And some guns. And ammo. Lots of ammo.

Flashing lights caught Nate’s attention. Deputies were up at the main house. Nate quietly snuck into the barn. His grandpa’s M1 carbine and Colt .45 were stored there. So was Deputy Young. Young still looked like the brute of a linebacker he’d been in high school. The brown uniform of the sheriff’s office stretched to contain the deputy’s frame. Young matched Nate’s height, but easily had fifty pounds on the teen. A malevolent grin cracked Young’s square face as he saw Nate. He didn’t say anything. He had the young cowboy right where he wanted him. He seemed to savor the moment.

A cold calmness came over Nate. He didn’t have time for this. Young took a step towards the still mounted Nate with a hungry glint in his eye. Nate made a snap decision and charged like a knight of old. Young’s eyes went wide with incomprehension. The kid was attacking him? He never saw Nate’s kick. Nate’s nemesis dropped in a heap. Nate didn’t take time to gloat. He collected the weapons and ammo before starting up his pickup truck and racing out of the barn. He didn’t even slow down until he brought the truck to a screeching halt in front of Chris’s house. If Nate was right, he was going to need help. Chris came out onto the porch with a shocked look on his face.

“What are you doing here?” Chris asked, “The cops are looking for you.” Chris took a step back as he saw the pistol holstered at Nate’s side and the rifle in the gun rack.

“Don’t have time Chris,” Nate said as he bounded up to the house. “We need to go get Jeannie.” Chris gave Nate a hard stare. Heartbeats passed in silence. Nate was scared Chris wouldn’t trust him. But Chris was the only one Nate could trust. Chris’s hard stare changed into a look of determination.

“I’ll get my rifle,” Chris said, before sprinting back into the house.

In less than twenty minutes, the truck was bouncing along a dirt road that led up into the hills surrounding the valley. Chris tried to hide his fear as the two boys neared the forbidden place. Chris thought his fear was because of all the old folk stories surrounding the valley and the forest in it. Nate knew better. He felt the familiar waves of evil energy as they neared the valley. Through his own uneasiness, Nate felt hope. The energy was weak. There was still time. The two teens left the truck at the top of the hill. Nate led his friend down a trail. This would be the same trail Nate would use thirty years later to lead a group of Army soldiers against a zombie outbreak. The two teens stopped at the edge of the forest. Nate turned to his friend.

“Remember that guy Alan you met last night?” Nate asked. Chris nodded, but was confused by the question. “He’s got Jeannie. There’s an old altar in the forest. That’s where he has her. You’re going to grab Jeannie and get her back to the truck. No matter what you see or what happens, you get her back to the truck.”

“What are you going to do?” Chris said, shocked by the sudden change in Nate.

“I’m going to deal with Alan,” Nate answered. Chris swallowed nervously. Nate’s grim tone frightened Chris. The two teens gripped their weapons and entered the forest. Nate felt the dark energy strengthen as the two crossed the invisible threshold.

“Nate, how do you know what’s happening?” Chris asked.

“This isn’t the first time Alan and I have been here,” Nate said guardedly. Painful memories swirled in his head.

“Was that when Jesse Parker died?” Chris asked. Small towns never forgot when its children died tragically. Jesse had been used for years as lesson on why no one went into the valley.

“Yeah,” Nate answered, feeling a pain he long thought buried.

“So why did Alan kidnap Jeannie?” Chris asked. “What is he doing here?”

“When Jesse died, some weird stuff happened,” Nate answered brusquely, “It screwed Alan up. It’s why his family left town afterward. Now, he’s trying to get the weird started back up.” Nate stopped and turned to face his friend.

“You don’t worry about any of that,” Nate said in a voice that sounded much older than his sixteen years, “You are here to get Jeannie and get out. Don’t wait for me and don’t stop until both of you get back to the truck. Do you understand?” Chris nodded. Nate wasn’t sure if Chris really understood, but he’d have to trust his friend. Time was running short.

After a few hundred yards, the forest opened into a clearing roughly a hundred feet in diameter. The ground was covered with a thick carpet of wild grasses. The whole area with its green grass dotted with the colorful blooms of wild flowers and surrounded by mighty evergreens should have been the very picture of a peaceful nature scene. The black stone table surrounded by sun-bleached bones destroyed any peacefulness. The teens stopped at the edge of the clearing. The sickening waves of energy were stronger. Jeannie was lying on top of the altar. Nate couldn’t help but notice she was completely naked. His mind briefly seized up with the conflict between youthful hormones and rage at what was happening to his girlfriend. Finally, Nate tore his eyes from Jeannie to Alan.

Alan’s tall and lanky frame was hidden under an oversized brown robe. It looked like the kind Obi-Wan Kenobi wore. Nate’s one-time friend was methodically circling the altar. He was chanting something, but his tone was too low for Nate to understand the words. Alan swung a large knife in his right hand. With every step, the blade came closer to Jeannie. With every word, the dark energy became stronger. The bones surrounding the altar rattled.

Memories swarmed Nate’s mind. Of Jesse jumping up and down on the altar to prove it didn’t scare him. Of Jesse slipping and cracking his head open on the edge of the table. That’s when all the bad stuff happened. When the dead came up out of the ground. Nate should have been terrified. Instead, Nate found a calm strength to pull his friend’s body from the altar and sprint away from the creatures. He should have seen that Alan wasn’t scared either. He was fascinated. Maybe Nate should’ve just left him.

Nate snapped back to the present as Alan’s knife came within a whisker of Jeannie. Nate looked over at Chris. The teen was shaking with fear, but he hadn’t run away. Nate calmly took the rifle out of his friend’s hands. It was time to act.

“Chris, go get her,” Nate said quietly. Chris didn’t hesitate. Chris demonstrated exactly how good of an athlete he was as he launched himself into the clearing. His speed was amazing. Nate waited half a second before chasing after his friend. The sudden noise startled Alan. He whirled to face them, his robes billowing out with the movement. His face was twisted into a mask of rage and evil.

Chris crossed the fifty feet to the altar before Alan could react to the two teens’ appearance. Alan snarled and swung the knife at Chris as he reached the altar. Chris ducked the wild blow before diving for Jeannie’s still form. Alan howled in triumph as he brought the knife up for an overhead stab. He didn’t see Nate’s fist.

Nate hammered Alan in the side. The blow lifted Alan off the ground and threw him away from the altar. Nate loomed over Alan with pistol in hand. He brought the weapon up. The mechanical click of the safety coming off cracked loudly through the clearing. Nate’s finger lay on the trigger. He could put a round into Alan’s head and end the insanity. It made so much sense. Alan looked up Nate and grinned, like this was what Alan wanted. Nate froze. Alan was insane, but he wasn’t stupid. If he wanted Nate to kill him, there was a very bad reason why.

“Alan, I’m not going to kill you,” Nate said, clicking the safety up and lowering the pistol.

“Oh, don’t feel bad buddy,” Alan said in a soothing voice as he rose shakily to his feet, “I’m going to kill you. Either of us dies here, I still win.” His cackle was a slimy, evil thing. It should have frightened Nate, but it didn’t. It just made him angry. The clearing rocked with two barks of gunfire. Alan crumpled to ground as his knees were disintegrated by the pair of .45 caliber bullets. Nate ignored Alan’s screaming. Nate bound Alan’s hands with strips cut from Alan’s robes. Alan pitifully lunged at Nate. Nate responded by punching Alan in the head. Alan’s jaw shattered and several teeth were now on the grassy ground, but Alan was still screaming and fighting. Nate was annoyed. That always worked on TV. Nate tussled with Alan before hoisting the injured teen onto his shoulder. Alan went limp. Nate felt a moment’s panic. Was Alan dead? No, he was breathing. Just unconscious. Nate thanked God for small mercies, and began hauling his one-time friend out of Death’s Grove.

Salem, Wyoming, approximately 50 miles west of Laramie, 18 February 2010, 1230 hours local; Countdown: 1 year, 11 months, 12 days

Jim fell silent. There was more to tell Mateo. It didn’t have to do with the altar directly, but it affected the team, especially if they stayed in town. Some of it started that day, but it was hard to find the words to begin telling that story. After grappling for a few moments, Jim took a deep breath to continue. He was stopped cold by the thundering wave of evil energy that roiled through the town.

“Dear God, what was that?” Mateo asked, looking suddenly sick.

“Matt, help me up,” Jim said as he began to lift himself out of the hospital bed, “We need to get to the Army.”

“Hold on Jim, I know that’s not all,” Mateo said putting a hand over Jim’s chest. It didn’t take much effort. Jim glared at his team leader.

“That’s going to have to wait Matt,” Jim snarled, “What we just felt was energy from the altar. The only way we could have felt it all the way here is if someone managed to get it out of the valley.”

[Zombie Strike Part 4 Chapter 29]