Authors: Mercedes Lackey,Rosemary Edghill
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Horror & Ghost Stories, #Westerns
The indignantly baffled look on Gibbons’s face did much to restore Jett’s good humor, even if it did nothing to answer her question. She was about to suggest they go looking for him—she had no intention of leaving Gibbons alone, even if Alsop seemed deserted—when White Fox walked in through the doorway that led to the saloon’s back room.
“There’s no one upstairs,” he said. “All the rooms are empty.”
“Then the whole place is empty,” Gibbons said briskly. “Let’s keep looking.”
The main street of Alsop contained a general store, a dining parlor and boarding house, a feed and grain, a bank, a telegraph and post office, a newspaper office, and a jail. The church was about a mile outside of town, and a few houses—probably owned by the few citizens of Alsop who did not live above or behind their businesses or workplaces—formed a ragged line between the church and the town. Jett had already checked the livery stable, and the church was far enough away that the three of them were in unspoken agreement to save it for last. By the time they’d checked the first few establishments, it was clear there was no one at all in Alsop.
The three of them split up to search more quickly. Jett frowned as she gazed around the general store. When the sun set, Jett intended to be far away from Alsop. What she found almost more unsettling than the complete absence of living things was the fact that nothing else seemed to have been disturbed.
Just walked off and locked everything up behind them when they did.
She’d had to smash the glass pane in the door to get in.
, she thought.
I saw those things come walking out this door last night plain as day.
Maybe the people of Alsop were still here. Hiding. They might not have come out for the noise of Gibbons’s steam-driven whirligig, but …
She drew her pistol and ran out into the street. Pointing its barrel skyward, she pulled the trigger over and over again. Gibbons and White Fox came running at the sound of gunfire, staring at her incredulously.
“Wait,” Jett said urgently, before either of them could speak. The three of them stood in silence for several seconds. And then—faint and distant—they heard the sound of shouting.
The shouting continued, indistinct but vigorous, and they finally traced it to its source—the jail. Jett stepped in front of Gibbons and opened the door, gun drawn.
“Well it’s about time!” the man in the cell said irritably. “Where’s Sheriff Mitchell? He was supposed to give me my breakfast—not to mention my supper!—and let me out of here
The cell’s occupant was unshaven and disheveled, his long silver hair curling down over his shoulders. He wore a frock coat and a brocade vest, though the string tie and starched collar that should have completed the outfit were missing—but even though he looked disreputable, he was clean.
“First things first,” Gibbons said crisply, stepping around Jett and walking up to the door. “Who are you?”
“Finlay Maxwell,” the man answered, drawing himself up proudly. “I have the honor and privilege to be the Town Drunk of this fine metropolis, a position I have held for the last four years. It is a sign of civilization for a society to be able to support truly useless individuals such as I.”
“Don’t seem like there’d be much money in being a drunk,” Jett said quickly. If Gibbons decided to lecture Maxwell on the evils of drink, they’d never get anything out of him.
“Dear sir, I am an
by profession,” Maxwell said haughtily. “A—dare I say it—a celebrated thespian who has performed before the crowned heads of Europe! It was the most trifling misunderstanding about the disposition of the receipts from our highly successful western engagement that caused my theatrical troupe to decamp without me.”
“A trifling misunderstanding, I’m certain,” Gibbons said dryly. “But certainly they didn’t lock you up here when they left.”
“Certainly not, my good woman. I do not scruple to admit that—every now and then—I am forced to rely on Sheriff Mitchell’s kind hospitality. And yesterday was one such occasion. I had barely arisen from my healing slumber in the embrace of the grape when the night was made clangorous with the sound of guns. Naturally, Sheriff Mitchell and his minion, the worthy Deputy
Aldine, sallied forth to deal with the fuss, never to return. And what I saw thereafter I can barely credit.” He paused dramatically.
“Well?” Jett demanded.
“My dear young man, you can hardly expect me to summon the angels of memory in my parched and famished state,” Maxwell said.
Gibbons gave a sharp huff of annoyance and thrust her hand into the pocket of her voluminous pantaloons. She extracted a small silver flask and thrust it toward the bars. Maxwell plucked it from her grasp, deftly unscrewed the cap, and drained it at a single gulp. He sighed with deep satisfaction as he handed it back.
“As I said, there was a good deal of gunfire,” Maxwell continued. “And more shouting than I cared for. I kept a lookout through my window”—he gestured behind him toward the barred window in the back wall of his cell—“and after about a quarter of an hour, the town was silent. But the revelations of the evening were not complete, for there, passing outside my coign of vantage, came a vast and silent army.”
“What sort of army, Mister Maxwell?” White Fox asked.
“As to that, my dear lad, I cannot fairly say. They all appeared to be sick. Or drunk, and I assure you, ma’am and sirs, the celebrated Finlay Maxwell, Esquire,
is a connoisseur of the inebriated state. Regardless of their condition, I was about to bestir myself to beseech them to relieve my unjust confinement when I saw that a number of them were carrying bodies. And so I decided that ‘
,’ as the Greeks would say, was the better part of virtue. I kept my vigil in silence—and it was just as well I did, for there was one last mystery to unfold.” He paused again.
“You might as well tell us everything now, Mister Maxwell, because I’m out of brandy,” Gibbons said.
“Ah, yes, but you still hold within your gift that pearl beyond price—freedom!” Maxwell said, gesturing toward the wall.
White Fox took down the ring of keys Maxwell had indicated. He moved toward the cell, but Gibbons plucked the keys from his hand before he could open the cell door. “Your ‘mystery,’ if you please, Mister Maxwell,” she said, holding the keys up meaningfully.
“Oh very well,” Maxwell grumbled ungraciously. “I watched the nightmare army depart Alsop, and the stench of the grave was in my nostrils. I knew then that I was in the presence of the Legions of Hell, my own life spared by Divine Providence. And yet, that ghastly army of the dead possessed a living General, for I saw him with my own eyes urging them onward. I know no more.”
“I was right,” Jett said smugly.
“That still doesn’t make them reanimated dead,” Gibbons said stubbornly. “Plague, autohypnosis, drugs—or outright fakery—there’s a perfectly reasonable scientific explanation. I just need to find it.”
“Whatever it is Mister Maxwell saw,” White Fox said with calm certainty, “it has left a trail I can read.” He took the keys back from Gibbons and unlocked the cell. When he swung the door wide, Finlay Maxwell strode through it, glaring at all three of them reproachfully.
“Hectoring a starving man—withholding not mere sustenance, but the very waters of life—I hope you’re properly ashamed of yourselves, the lot of you!” Still grumbling, he made his way to the door of the jail and disappeared up the street.
“Where do you suppose he’s going?” White Fox asked curiously.
“Probably straight to the saloon to drink himself blind,” Jett answered. “Can you really track them?”
“Living or dead, by your own testimony they are corporeal beings,” he answered. “They will leave some trace of their passage that I can follow. It … the trail will be easiest to follow if I start at once. I will return as quickly as I may.”
“You mean ‘we,’ Mister Fox—anyone who’s looking for trouble had best have company doing it. Will you be all right here by yourself?” Jett asked, even though
(since Alsop was currently zombie-free) she knew Gibbons should be perfectly safe.
She knew she ought to mount up and ride away right now. But White Fox had already made it clear he was staying—or at least coming back. She just couldn’t leave him to deal with this by himself. And she’d be lying if she didn’t admit, at least to herself, that he was mighty easy on the eyes. But the same things that made it possible for Jett to masquerade as a boy were the same things that guaranteed someone like White Fox wouldn’t look twice at her, even if he did know her true sex. She was too tall, too skinny, and dark like her Creole great-grandmother. While Gibbons …
Gibbons was small and plump and blond, and those big blue eyes of hers could stop any beau dead in his tracks as quickly as a bullet from one of Jett’s pistols. Quicker.
“I’ve been fending for myself since you cut your milk-teeth, Jett Gallatin,” Gibbons said derisively (and inaccurately). “Just be sure to bring me back one of your zombies … if you actually find one.”
Jett had been about to sigh for “can’t be” and “never happen” when Gibbons’s remark made her exchange a disbelieving glance with White Fox. When she turned to give Gibbons the full force of her incredulous stare, she realized Gibbons hadn’t noticed White Fox’s considerable charms. White Fox might have been Finlay
Maxwell for all the consciousness of him Gibbons displayed.
“Surely—” White Fox began disbelievingly.
I need one of them to find out how they tick, Mister Fox!” She regarded both of them stubbornly. “Do you or do you not want this mystery solved? Well? I am the only person here with the scientific training to discover how these so-called ‘zombies’ came to be. If they exist at all!” she added with a snort.
“They do. You just wait and see,” Jett said, more cheerfully than the subject probably called for.
The trail the marauders had left was easy for White Fox to follow. He was not willing to say, even within his own thoughts, whether they were living or dead—but without Jett as a witness to the attack, Alsop would have been just one more deserted settlement like Glory Rest. He would have arrived this morning to find an uninhabited town, and there would be one more mystery to add to … far too many others.
He’d intended to backtrail Alsop’s destroyers alone, but he was forced to admit having Jett accompany him only made sense. If they found what they were seeking—living enemy or dead—she could return to Alsop and
telegraph for help while he kept an eye on them, following them further if needful. And her company was not as onerous as he’d feared. She didn’t talk when there was nothing to talk about, and though she was far from an expert tracker, she knew enough to stay out of his way and let him work without interference.
If I had not had her account and Mister Maxwell’s to go by, I would not have thought to follow this trail
, he thought.
And by evening, wind and dust would have wiped away all trace of those who passed this way.
Even now, he was not entirely certain whether the wagon whose passage he could detect had traveled with the marauders or had simply passed by some hours before them. Whichever it was, he could find no trace of the animals that should have drawn it, and that was more puzzling still. Until he’d made Gibbons’s acquaintance, he could not have imagined a wagon that could move without horses. Surely there could not be
of them …?
“Smoke,” Jett said, speaking for the first time in several hours.
White Fox glanced up from where he knelt in the dust. She pointed. There was nothing to see but heat-haze and sagebrush, but the wind was blowing toward them, and once he withdrew his attention from the ground, he realized he smelled it as well. The scent was so faint most would have missed it entirely.
“You came from this direction, did you not?” he asked.
“Sure did. But I was making for Alsop, hoping to get there before dark. Wind was blowing the other direction, too,” Jett answered.
“Perhaps whoever lit that fire will have information about the attack,” White Fox said, swinging up onto Deerfoot’s back again.
“P’raps. And perhaps they know more’n they should,” Jett said distrustfully.
White Fox dismounted several times to check the trail, but whoever—
—they were following had taken a path as straight as a crow’s flight once they’d left Alsop. It was not long before the trail crossed a well-used pathway and vanished. The pathway was rutted with wagon wheels and scarred with hoofprints, but it was too hard-packed to hold any lighter impression, and he could find no trace of the trail on the far side.
“I think they turned down this trail,” he said quietly.
“Ranch road,” Jett said, thinking aloud. “Don’t know as I credit Mister Maxwell’s tale of some ranahan giving them orders, but this is the closest spread to Alsop …”
“If they merely came to kill, why carry off the bodies of the townspeople?” White Fox asked.
Jett nodded. “And if the fella givin’ ’em their marching orders is from around here, here is where he’d be
from. And if not, then no reason this place wasn’t attacked, too. I’m thinking it wouldn’t be a bad idea to get a look around before we go riding in.”
They crossed the road, looking for someplace where they could see without being seen. Less than half an hour later they found a stand of scrub pines. They didn’t give much cover, but it was the best they could find.
The ranch in the distance looked utterly ordinary at first glance. Main house, bunkhouse, corrals, storage sheds, a windmill to bring water up from the grudging earth. But even a few minutes of observation showed White Fox that this ranch wasn’t entirely ordinary. In addition to the buildings any ranch would possess—both of adobe and of timber weathered to gray by the elements—there were several whose tin roofs gleamed as bright as silver in the sun, and their walls were of new timber.
“Never saw a bunkhouse that big in my life,” Jett whispered, pointing toward one of the new buildings. “Don’t see any people, either.” Despite that, she seemed content to remain where she was, watching for signs of life. A few minutes later her patience was rewarded. A woman in a calico dress and poke bonnet stepped from the doorway of the main house and walked toward the windmill, a tin bucket in each hand. She set them
down at the foot of the pitcher pump and began working the arm. The creak and thump carried clearly in the quiet. When both buckets were full, the woman called back to the house, and a younger female came running across the yard to join her. Each of them picked up one bucket, and they began to walk carefully back the way they’d come.