As he shielded his eyes from the blinding light rising up beyond the horizon, the reality hit the rancher like a shockwave before the blast. This was it- the end. Everything’s over, everything has started again. His raised hand itched. Something needed doing, and quickly.
The basement, was his first thought. Cement and cinderblocks kept out radiation, right? There’s food down there, too. Cans of soup on the shelves. Jugs of polar water. The 16-gauge that had been Uncle Bob’s.
But then a new thought chilled him: Forget the radiation, worry about the others. Situations like this, folk turn on each other. They act like animals. Gotta find something to brace the door… they’ll be coming.
Holding everything he could carry, the rancher stumbled down the worn steps. Radio, flashlight, batteries, blankets… don’t forget anything. Bolt the door behind you, pound a few six-inchers into a two-by-four piece of pine, hold that sucker shut against whatever’s coming. Head down the steps into the dark. Wait it out…
Wait it out…
It was fourteen days later and the smell of his own stink was enough to drive him crazy. The radio had turned all to static after the second day, and the cheap generic flashlight batteries punked out a few days after that. Then the water had begun to taste like metal in his mouth. The redness in his hand had gotten worse, too- lots worse. The pain alone was enough to make the rancher want to scream. But it was the itching, the damn itching, that make him want to swallow the barrel of Uncle Bob’s scattergun.
Nothing to be done about it, the rancher told himself. You can die in a hole in the ground or you can go up for a good look at the end of the world.
So he went up. It was afternoon, as best he could tell—but it was a helluva lot darker than he’d expected. And quiet. Dead quiet. The screen door on the porch sounded too loud as it swung on rusty hinges, then banged back into place. The house was still there, barn and tractor too. Everything looked the same, but different… he reckoned it was the light. Normal sunlight bounced off things, made them sparkle. This half-light, it seemed to sink in, get sucked up- making everything seem all dim and wrong.
The rancher searched the silent void around him for some sound, some sign that it wasn’t just him left. Anything. A long moment passed, and then– there it was: a pounding. Hooves. The horses. They’re still alive?
From the rear pasture, they were coming in. They must’ve heard him. They were probably starving and looking for food. Finally the rancher saw Old Chattanooga, the lead mare, round the corner of the barn. The rest followed: a blur of black and grey bodies, brown flanks and white blazes, whipping manes and long swishing tails. More than a dozen of them.
Here they come, he thought happily. But then something warned him, like a rancher’s sixth sense.
They ain’t right.
Even from where he stood, he could see the horses all had a bad look in their eyes- a look like he’d never seen in a horse before. Wide and red and full of fear and wrath. Now he could see their skin was foaming, like they’d been run all night. Thick mucus drooled out of their panting mouths, and they gnashed their great big flat teeth, chomping at the air as they raced towards him. He knew something was dreadfully wrong.
The flash. It’s done something to ’em.
The animals were coming right at him at a full gallop, their eyes fixed. Fifteen hands tall, most of them- and coming quick. Crazy in the eyes, gone mad from the flash. Killers now. The rancher looked back behind him. It was no good. He’d wandered too far from the house. No way he could outrun them before they caught up.
After all, to die like this, under the hooves of your own horses, driven insane by the end of the world.
His hand itched.