We saw him coming from a long way off. He was carrying a torch, crude and obviously improvised while he was in the nearby town. He was limping heavily, dragging a huge bundle of something wrapped in one of those cheap blue tarps you used to be able to find at Walmart. His armor was shredded, which wasn't surprising since he'd removed the heavier bits to more quickly move about.
Behind him maybe a hundred feet, were a dozen zombies. They were clearly following him, but the few times we saw him stop on the plain heading toward us, the undead mimicked him. That's strange behavior, as most of you would know. Usually the only thing besides the vomit of a very specific zombie or ammonia that will stop zombies in their tracks is a large fire. Say the size of a car. Certainly the guttering torch Mason held in front of him wasn't enough to slow one zombie, much less stop twelve of them.
We made our way to him when he got within the last forty yards. We'd have gone to help sooner, but Mason was the one who established most of our safety procedures, and that was one of them. Never go farther from base to provide support than you can run at a dead sprint without stopping. I'm pretty sure we'd have ignored that rule if the zombies on his tail had been more aggressive, but they seemed to treat him with...I'd almost call it deference.
Will gave Mason a shoulder to lean on as Steve and I hauled the tarp and its contents back to the truck. Mason is a big guy, and in great shape, but I don't know how he was pulling that thing along at all, much less with one arm. Steve and I nearly gave ourselves hernias.
Mason waved off Will when they got within twenty feet of the truck. Tired as he was, the big guy turned and faced the oncoming zombies, torch in one hand and heavy knife in the other. Again, the undead stopped, this time about fifty feet away. They just stood there staring at him, motionless as only the dead can be.
Mason watched them for a minute, then turned to the team. He told us to start working on getting the truck out, that he'd watch for attacks. When Will asked him about the curious zombies watching us, Mason just shook his head.
He said, "They're not stupid enough to attack me again."
Thoughts began to percolate through my head. Zombies, no matter how smart, are still base creatures. If one of them in a group knew we were there, then the rest did. All of them would be coming for us. That meant that the twelve were the only ones left of a horde of more than fifty. Had Mason killed all the rest?
If so, I could see how the surviving undead might see him as a threat equal to fire, one of the most primal fears inscribed in the deep, dark parts of our brains.
We got to work, and it didn't take very long. Mason had found some long tracks clearly taken from the back of a truck, the kind you use to load a car onto a trailer. Four of them together wedged under the tires, just long enough to reach the lip of the small depression it was stuck in. It took a few tries, but we managed to get the damn thing out. Then we used the truck's winch to haul the trailer up, using the tracks to make it go a little smoother.
All through this, the zombies waited. They might have edged forward a bit, but Mason didn't seem worried. It took a little time to get everything ready to go, but when Will hopped into the cab and shouted for Mason to join us, the big guy just sighed and threw the torch to the ground. He started unbuckling his armor. He was remarkably efficient at it, so quick that most of us only got over our confusion enough to throw half-formed questions asking him what he was doing before he got his chest plate off and we saw the injuries.
He'd done something to the damage on his left side to close the wounds. Becky guessed super glue. It was messy and obviously infected badly. The flesh around the gouges and tears, themselves barely held together and gaping in places, was dark. Parts were black.
Zombies are riddled with bacteria. Even their claws can cause serious infection very quickly.
He kept removing his gear, finally stripping down to just his boxers. He'd left everything in a neat pile on top of his chest plate, which he motioned to without looking away from the watching zombies. We could see other wounds, including what must have been six or seven bites, a few of them with chunks of flesh missing.
Still facing away, he told us to leave. And here's where things got strange.
We didn't argue. We didn't plead with him. We didn't promise stupidly that he would be alright. He knew just as the rest of the team did that his long term survival chances had finally reached zero. He might have made it days, maybe even weeks with a constitution as hardy as his. But Mason knew that to do so would be to risk the mission. He'd chew through our medical supplies like fire in a dry field, and in the end...
In the end, we'd have to put him down.
So Mason chose his own terms. Steve wordlessly picked up the bundle of armor and clothes, on top of which was the heavy combat knife Mason had carried with him through his military service and beyond. Steve tried to offer it back to him, but Mason smiled and told him to keep it.
We asked him what he was going to do. He pointed to the dozen zombies, and said three words.
"Fight the enemy."
He bent down and picked up a rock, tossing it between his hands a few times to get a feel. He started to walk away, but turned for a moment and flashed me a grin I'll never forget. It was full of brightness and light, the face of a happy warrior who could see the final battle ahead of him. He met my eyes, and I could see laugh lines around his. How had I never noticed them before?
"The date I had with Jane wasn't a date at all," He said. "I kept meaning to tell you. I'm gay."
Then he laughed, and ran with a rolling, uneven gait toward the undead. I saw him strike down two of them in as many seconds before Will distracted me by screaming for me to get in the truck.
As we escaped the sands that froze us by night and scorched us by day, so did he escape a world, a life, that had surely been full of pain and difficulty. He was a brave man, in ways great and small, obvious and subtle. That was how he lived.
And that was how Mason died.