Authors: Mercedes Lackey,Rosemary Edghill
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Horror & Ghost Stories, #Westerns
And then every horse outside the saloon—even Nightingale—screamed in fear.
The batwing doors swung inward, and a wind as cold as the breeze from an icehouse—too cold for the season—poured into the bar. Even through the cold, Jett could smell a stink like a New Orleans cemetery at high summer. The bar’s customers began to curse and complain, but before they could really get going, a horde of … unholy things … shambled in through the open doors. They were wearing everything from dirt-caked Sunday suits to the ragged tatters of denim overalls. They’d been people once. Now they were dead half-rotted bodies with white-filmed, sightless eyes. Some bore the marks of bullet holes or knife wounds. Some had the grotesque stretched and broken necks of hanged men. Some had been gnawed by varmints. They were all carrying weapons—pickaxes, spades, pitchforks, and even clubs.
Jett clutched her gun butts, though she wondered if the rosary she wore around her neck might be more use. There was a horrified silence in the saloon as its customers realized what had just come through the door, a thump as the barkeep dropped whatever he’d been holding, and then a boom as he whipped his
shotgun up from under the bar and fired both barrels. It blew an arm off one of the creatures and knocked another to the ground. But the first didn’t seem to notice the missing limb, and the second merely got up again with a fresh gaping crater in its chest.
As if that had been a signal, every living man was on his feet and shooting into the mob of the undead. The saloon filled with the thunder and lightning of gunplay and the smell of gunsmoke, but the barrage had no visible effect.
The zombies kept coming.
The stink of gunpowder mixed with the stench of rotting corpses. Some of the shooters reloaded to fire again, while some had flung aside their useless guns and were looking wildly for any other sort of weapon. The barkeep vanished behind the bar again, and came back up with a fire axe. One of the brighter rannies got the notion to pick up a chair and smash it into the face of one of the things, and then all hell was out for noon. Jett heard a sickening crunch as a living man went down beneath a corpse’s club.
Jett still hadn’t drawn her own weapons. Her retreat had placed her on the opposite side of the saloon from everyone else, but if she’d had any hopes the living could win this donnybrook, they were dashed within seconds. More and more shambling corpses were shoving their way into the saloon, and while the door on
the back wall probably led to the street, it was at the far end of the room and she couldn’t get to it. As she backed all the way down to the end of the bar, she saw one of the dead grab the axe from the barkeep’s hands. His screams were mercifully brief.
The locals were surrounded, outnumbered, and out of bullets. The situation was hopeless. For the moment, the zombies were concentrating on the men attacking them, and if she didn’t want to make this place her last stand, Jett had one chance and seconds in which to take it. She took a deep breath and jammed her Stetson on tight, then made a running dive for the saloon window, ducking her head into her shoulder to save her face from the glass. She hit the window with a splintering crash of wood and glass and turned her dive into a somersault over the plank walk.
She tumbled out into the street and rolled to her feet. The cow-ponies had all fled—the hitching rail was empty, except for a few trailing pieces of broken reins. She couldn’t see Nightingale anywhere. She heard screaming, and as she looked frantically around, she saw movement in the street. The street was full of the things—a dozen she could see, maybe more she couldn’t. They hadn’t just attacked the saloon. They’d attacked the whole town at once and from the sound of things, nobody else was having better luck than the men in the saloon had.
Worse, the shattering window had drawn the zombies’ attention.
She groaned in despair as she backed slowly away from the milling corpses. She would have made a run for the church, but they were between her and it.
Maybe I can outrun them
, she thought desperately. Cowboy boots weren’t meant for walking, let alone running, but just now Jett was powerfully motivated.
A flicker of light behind her caught her attention. She risked a glance toward it, and saw one of the storefronts was on fire.
, she thought inanely. In the firelight, she could see figures heading for the street. From their shuffling gait, she knew what they were.
She was surrounded now. Fear nailed her feet to the ground.
As the undead moved closer, she crossed herself quickly, breathed a prayer—and thrust two fingers into her mouth and whistled shrilly. If she hadn’t removed her gloves as she’d walked into the saloon, she would have died here. But she and Nightingale were much more than horse and rider. They were partners. And because of that, he didn’t flee when ordinary horses bolted in panic—and he came to her rescue when even a human partner would have thought twice.
Even so, he was almost too late.
In the distance, she heard a stallion’s wild scream
of challenge. Nightingale was coming. All she had to do was stay alive until he got here. She gazed around herself wildly, searching for anything she could use as a weapon. She spotted a Winchester leaning against a wall—it would serve as a club if nothing else—but before she could dash across the street to get it, she saw more zombies coming out of the doorway beside it. There was nowhere she could run and nothing to fight with. They were going to kill her, and Nightingale would die trying to save her, and—who would search, for Philip once she was dead?
Fear gave way to fury, igniting a fire in her that burned away everything else. “Come on, you useless Bluebellies!” she shouted. “Come on, if you want a fight!” The nearest zombie was only a few feet away now. She ran toward it and punched it as hard as she could—then yelped in disgust and jumped back as dead, halfrotten flesh slid beneath her blow. Her punch had torn the corpse’s face half off. It didn’t stun the zombie, but it knocked it backward. It fell into the two directly behind it, and all three went down, but there were more than enough to take their places. One of them raised its arm and swung it at her as if the arm were a club. Its forearm caught her on the side of the head and knocked her sprawling.
The corpses closed in.
She struggled to her knees, only to be felled by
another blow. They weren’t fast or nimble, but they were impossibly strong, and nothing she did could hurt them. If any of them had possessed a weapon—a club, a stick, a length of wood—she wouldn’t have survived the next few minutes. But the ones in the street were obviously the ones who hadn’t had weapons, and the ones who’d come to join them had dropped—or lost—theirs. She scrabbled backward on heels and elbows, dragging out one of her Colts as she did. When the nearest zombie reached for her, she held the pistol out at arm’s length and pulled the trigger. Her arm flew up with the recoil; a Peacemaker had a kick like an angry mule. She’d seen what happened in the saloon: bullets hadn’t stopped them, but the impact knocked down whatever it hit. Her attacker spun away into the advancing mob.
She tried to get to her feet—to keep moving—to run—but she was outnumbered. Dead flesh pummeled her, dead fingers clawed at her face, her neck, her clothes. Soon one of them would hit her hard enough to snap her neck or knock her out. Soon the ones with weapons would arrive.
Rescue arrived first.
She didn’t see Nightingale until he burst through the zombie mob and stood over her protectively. The stallion was covered with foam, his eyes white-rimmed in terror. But he’d come for her. She reached up, dazed
by the blows she’d taken, to claw at the stirrup-leather and use it to drag herself to her feet. She was almost knocked sprawling again when he reared to strike out at the nearest enemy, but she clung to him, clawing her way upward into the saddle, using her gun butt to pull herself up because she was clutching it too tightly to let go, even if she’d wanted to. The moment he felt her weight settle, Nightingale bounded forward. She felt cold dead hands grab her legs, her saddle, anything they could reach, and she battered at them with her gun butt until their hands were so ruined they could no longer grip.
Then Nightingale was through them. She finally got her feet into the stirrups as he galloped blindly into the night. It took her both hands to get her pistol back into its holster.
Only then did she let herself realize what had just happened.
* * *
Ten miles outside Alsop, a stream the locals called “Burnt Crick” cut across the Staked Plain. In summer it was no more than a dry streambed, but winter rains turned it into a broad torrent fast enough and deep enough to drown unwary cattle, and in spring it still filled most of its bed. Cottonwood trees lined both banks. Beneath their shelter sat a wagon.
On the far side of the stream a young man stood beside his brown-and-white paint mare gazing across the creek, just as he had for the last hour. The two of them were concealed from view by the trees and scrub. The young man wore fringed buckskin breeches and moccasins, a cavalry hat without hat-cords or creased crown, and a blue Army coat. He’d arrived at Burnt Creek in late afternoon only to find his favorite camping spot already occupied. He had business in Alsop, but by the time he got there it would be dark, and he didn’t want to try to find a bed in the town. He should have ridden on, but something about the wagon held his attention. It was a Burton wagon, the same kind the traveling drummers sold their snake-oil tonics from, but instead of being brightly painted, it bore a sober coat of whitewash. That wasn’t enough to draw his scrutiny, but the fact there was no wagon tongue to hitch the horses to
. In fact, there were no horses in sight to hitch to the wagon even if there’d been a way to do it.
The Burton’s only occupant seemed to be a young blond female in an outlandish costume—loose blue serge trousers gathered at the ankle, a short dress of the same stuff, and a poke bonnet hanging down her back by its ribbons. If he needed any further proof beyond her costume to tell him the girl was from somewhere far away, the poke provided it. No woman in
the Territory, from sodbuster to townie to rancher, would uncover her head while the sun was above the horizon.
If her team had run off before he got there, it didn’t seem to worry her. He’d watched as she lit her fire, and she seemed to be perfectly comfortable out here all by herself. The tin coffeepot she set out was commonplace enough, as were the iron griddle and cookpot. The one held flatbread and the other held beans. Soon enough the aroma of coffee and beans drifted across the stream, and she was piecing out flatbread to bake on the griddle. But despite her obvious competence, his concern only grew. The only thing she had to defend herself with was a Remington coach gun, and even though it was within easy reach, there were plenty of dangers out here for a man, never mind a lone female.
The sun was already on the horizon.
You should ride on if you want to make camp while there’s light left
, he told himself, but somehow he couldn’t make himself mount up and head out.
You surely don’t mean to leave her all alone out here
, he scolded himself.
Perhaps she doesn’t know there’s a town so near.
He could go and tell her. He could bring her with him to Alsop—Deerfoot could carry double—and take his chances there. She could rent a buckboard from the livery stable, and tomorrow Sheriff Mitchell could
ride back here with her and help her look for her missing horses.
It seemed like the best plan. He lifted himself onto Deerfoot’s back and sent her toward the stream with a nudge of his knee.
* * *
Honoria Verity Providentia Gibbons looked up at the sound of splashing and reached for her firearm. A handsome pinto mare was crossing the stream. Gibbons wasn’t a very good shot, but that was why she carried a coach gun. With a coach gun, you didn’t have to be good—you only had to be willing to pull the trigger. At first Gibbons didn’t think the mare wore either saddle or bridle, but then she realized she was tacked out Indian-style, with a blanket for a saddle and only a single braided leather cord for a bridle. Most observers would see the horse, the rider’s darkly tanned skin, and think,
but the rider was no Native—even from here Gibbons could see his hair was wavy, and a few shades lighter than his skin.
Well, that’s interesting. I wonder if he’s an Army Scout?
She watched the horse and rider approach with curiosity tempered with wariness.
“Hello, the camp,” the man called when his mount reached the bank.
“Hello, stranger,” she replied, setting down her gun and waving to him to approach. “Welcome. I have coffee—” She broke off to rescue the flatbread before it scorched, wrapping her hand in the end of her rather bedraggled shawl to pull the griddle away from the fire. “And bread and beans,” she finished rather breathlessly. “You’re welcome to share them.”
“That’s kind of you, ma’am,” he replied. He signaled to his mare to halt and slid easily off her back. She followed him as a dog would as he walked toward the campfire.
No matter his appearance, he has lived some time among the Natives
, Gibbons thought.
No one accustomed to wearing boots walks toe-heel instead of heel-toe, in boots or out of them.
“Honoria Gibbons,” she said, extending her hand. “But you must call me ‘Gibbons,’ as my friends do. Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mister …” She paused expectantly.
“Wapeshk Wakoshe,” he replied, shaking her hand gingerly. “But I think it will be simpler if you call me White Fox.”
She narrowed her eyes a bit in concentration. To her pleasure she recognized the language-group—Algonquin—and his pronunciation gave her the dialect. “Your accent is
I think?” she
said. “But you are far from home for a Red Earth man, Mister Fox,” she added, for the westernmost of the Sac and Fox tribes lived in the new state of Nebraska.
She smiled when she saw his pupils dilate a little. It was the only sign of his surprise.
Raised among them from childhood, I think, and not some frontiersman who has merely lived as their guest.
Most people would miss the subtle clues she’d noticed, but Honoria Gibbons took no small amount of pride in the fact she was not “most people.”