by Jason Pere

A jaundiced moon hung in the sky over the Gettysburg National Military Preserve. Within the confines of the perimeter fence, the terrain shifted from war-torn farmland and countryside feebly attempting to heal from the great war between North and South into a living graveyard of nightmare things and gruesome horrors. Amid the forest of oily black pines, spectral traces of long dead soldiers still clad in tattered uniforms lurked within the shadows. If one listened closely, they could still hear the exchange of rifles, blasts of cannon volleys, and death cries of mortally wounded soldiers from the epic battle that had marked the earth underfoot nearly twenty years ago.

From out of the tall trees, Padre Ernesto de Diáz led a small, but determined, posse of brave men and women. The battle-hardened man of faith paused as the rest of his compatriots joined him in an overgrown field of tall grass. His hesitation stemmed as much from the need to wait for the others to catch up as from the paralyzing fear stopping him like a belly full of buckshot. Beyond the field, a ghostly sliver of moonlight shone faintly on a dilapidated barn. Even as innocuous and broken down as it was, the barn’s sagging roof and rotted planks oozed a silent warning to the Padre. 

“You look like you feel as good about that barn up there as I do,” came the husky sound of Nathan Shane’s voice. The bounty hunter crept up next to Ernesto while resting the palm of his shooting hand on the butt of the Peacemaker holstered at his right hip.

“Always with a joke, eh compadre?” said Ernesto. He raised one of his salt and pepper eyebrows as he quizzically regarded the gunslinger at his side. “It’s not the Castle, and it looks like it’s been forgotten about, but it just doesn’t feel right to me.”

“Agreed. I ain’t one to want to poke around in that mess, but I can’t say I want to pass it by neither. Wouldn’t want to risk offering our backsides up for target practice, you know,” said Nathan.

“Si, mi amigo. Probably nothing, but we should check it all the same,” replied Ernesto. He turned to his other flank as a gentle rush of air signaled the arrival of another posse member moving up to join him.

“Even split up, there are enough of us to approach the barn from all sides. The grass is tall enough that if we stay low we can be on top of it without ever showing ourselves,” said Chuan “Jen” Qí. She whispered, but the quieted volume of her speech suited her lips well. Jen’s soft-spoken words emerged with all the sublime beauty of a butterfly flapping its wings. Her gentle speech contrasted with the sight of her thumbs tucked into a couple of the empty bullet loops on her gun belt. 

“All right. We check it out,” said the Padre. His voice was heavily laden with reluctance but for most people, notes of duress were common additions to their speech these days. He hesitated for only half a breath before waving up the rest of the posse.

As Jen had stated, the tall grass mixed with the dark shroud of night made it easy to advance upon the barn undetected. When the overgrowth finally gave way to a clearing around the rickety barn, it also revealed a pond adjacent to the rotting timber and rusted metal of the structure. Ernesto swallowed hard in an effort to clear the putrid taste of mold and stagnant water from his senses. He battled to keep an accurate clock running in his head, but the pungent stench that filled the air nearly made him lose his count several times. After a full one hundred beats while remaining still in the shadow of the looming barn, the Padre was certain that every one of his companions had taken up their appointed positions surrounding the crumbling ruins. While he waited, he hoped that there was something to break the silence, some kind of sign that there was something waiting to be discovered inside of the barn. The uncertainty of the unknown was as lethal as any rattlesnake’s venom.

“Everyone should be set. When do you want to move?” asked Jen from just behind the Padre’s shoulder. 

“Just a moment longer,” said Ernesto. He hoped that by some kind of heavenly grace he might be granted freedom from the fear pumping through his blood. As he waited beneath the moonlight, the muted snap of wood breaking inside of the barn found his ears. Ernesto immediately regretted his longing for signs of life. He turned his narrow gaze towards Jen. “It’s time and I don’t think we are lucky enough to find this place empty,” he said. He gave a sharp piercing whistle as he stepped out from the safety of the tall grass while drawing and cocking the hammer of his black and ivory Colt.

*** 

In the time it took to down a shot of whiskey, the night had gone from deathly still to total madness. A rotted nightmare of decayed flesh burst forth from the barn’s interior. At least a score of dead men wearing a mix of blue and grey coats lurched out of the barn with enough force to break its failing doors from their frame. The horde of soldiers were in assorted states of decomposition and their dress stained with long dried blood. Shambling forward, the members of the deathless mob made straight for the nearest living target the second they clamped their milky white gaze on anything with a pulse and healthy flesh. The heightened scent of decay mixed with the crack of gunfire had twisted the night into one terrible swirling mass of mayhem.

Nathan Shane fired a shot from his offhand Peacemaker. The bullet whizzed past one of the undead things clad in the tattered remains of a Confederate officer’s uniform. The bounty hunter managed to shred a chunk of rotted skin from his target’s ear, but the thing remained largely unfazed. A second shot from Nathan’s left side weapon found a better mark between the lifeless eyes of the creature and sent it to a true death on the slick soil underfoot. Nathan cocked back the hammer on his freshly fired Peacemaker and took a breath to take a mental inventory of how many rounds he had left before the need to reload. The grim figure of one round in his left gun and two rounds in his right gun prickled the bounty hunter with nervous beads of sweat as two more of the rotted fiends broke off of the main mob and began to press in on him.

“Nathan,” came the voice of Chuan “Jen” Qi. Her usually soft and silky register now sounded as hard as mahogany as she fired a succession of rounds from her auto-revolver. The two things advancing to tear the bounty hunter limb from limb crumpled to the ground. Even in the darkness Jen and Nathan were able to see each other’s grins of mutual appreciation.

The bounty hunter moved to the side of his latest savior. “Figure there ain’t anymore coming, we got through at least half of them,” he said to Jen. He gave a quick recount of the number of standing vs fallen dead and felt secure in his assessment. He sent the last two rounds of his strong side Peacemaker into the head and throat of a former union cavalryman who still had the broken blade of a saber jutting out from his gut. 

“We need to end this fast and move. I’m sure everyone in the preserve has heard this noise by now,” said Jen. She whirled and ran to support some of the other members of the posse who were on the cusp of being overrun by the monstrous attackers.

“Yes ma’am,” responded Nathan as he followed close behind Jen and covered her back. He hoped that his one remaining chambered round would suffice to keep himself alive as he opened the loading port of his right hand weapon and started ejecting spent casings. 

The group of undead soldiers had been reduced down to single digits after several minutes of intense gunfire. The capable heroes from the west had managed to battle their lifeless foes without suffering any losses of their own. The skirmish seemed like it was on the edge of conclusion when a haunting malevolent energy filled the air. 

The scent of blood was the first thing that Nathan detected. A rich smell that carried a potent heat that differed from the crusty spray spilled from the mob from the barn. His nose led him to the aroma’s source. Horrified, he saw the pond starting to bubble and roil. After a few terrified heartbeats of anticipation, a ghostly mist began to coalesce up from the murky water and pond scum. 

The mist was not anything of the natural world. It spun and wafted with spectral trails of red and dark ashen streaks. Sinister vapors moved like a slithering serpent among the clash between living and dead. The most ghastly quality of all was neither the sight nor scent of the mist, but the harrowing screams emanating from within its core. Sounds more gut wrenching than the death cries of a man being burned to death poured out from the mist. It hung within the pitched battle for one quick breath and then with bullet like speed it flew straight at Chuan “Jen” Qí.

“Watch out!” cried Nathan as the screaming mist enveloped his compatriot. He suffered one long helpless heartbeat as he watched the red and black tendrils swirl around Jen. Nathan wanted to aid her in some fashion, but he was at a total loss for how to do so. His moment of uselessness ended as a sound even more terrible emerged as Jen began to laugh and cackle in an unsettlingly deranged fashion.

Jen spun and looked upon the bounty hunter with grossly bloodshot eyes. Amid her maniacal laughter, she sprayed globs of frothy spittle like a mad dog. A moment of pure electricity passed between Jen and Nathan before she raised her gun and aimed it square at the bounty hunter’s chest.

Nathan felt the cold hand of death brush his cheek as he stared down his friend turned foe. He sensed the world closing in around him and forcing him into the impossible choice of her or him. He hesitated for one moment too long and just when he found the grit to draw down on Jen and perform the awful deed that needed to be done, the sickly woman shifted her aim and fired a shot. 

The report of the auto revolver round blasted past Nathan Shane’s ear, followed by Padre Ernesto de Diáz’ pained grunts and an anguished plea to heaven. Nathan looked over his shoulder just long enough to see the other man gripping his bicep and trying to stem the flow of blood from a fresh bullet wound. The whir of Jen’s auto-revolver powering up brought the bounty hunter’s focus back to the nearby threat. 

In the heat of the moment, Nathan became a creature of instinct. His feet moved faster than he thought possible as he tackled Jen and drove her to the ground. She bit and scratched at him like some kind of feral beast. He had managed to control her weapon but that was about as far as his plan of action had taken him. Nathan felt the heat of danger begin to choke him as the dregs of the undead mob began to move in for the kill. He wondered if a life of near misses and narrow escapes was finally about to catch up with him. The bounty hunter waited for his life to flash in front of his eyes, but instead of an instant theater of past history, he felt the earth tremble with the unmistakable shake of hoofbeats. Nathan looked up just in time to see half a troop of union cavalrymen burst from the tall grass around the barn.

“Fire!” came the sound of a seasoned fighting man’s voice. Colt Single Action Armys and Winchester Repeaters responded in a deafening roar as they unleashed hot lead and hellfire upon the remaining undead foe.

The screaming red mist that had entwined itself during the battle withdrew and returned to the depths of the pond as the last of the undead soldiers died for a second time. All was still and the atmosphere had returned to an otherwise pleasantly warm spring evening. Nathan Shane felt resistance leave his hands and he looked down to find the gentle gaze of Chuan “Jen” Qi meeting his own. Her soft eyes were the one moment of peace the bounty hunter was able to salvage from the past few moments of insanity.

“I didn’t want to…” said Jen. Her eyes welled with regret as she spoke and her voice threatened to crack.

“I know,” responded Nathan. In truth, he did not know exactly what had just afflicted the woman but he knew that offering her the comfort of empathy was the right move for the moment. He spared a quick glance to the Padre, who was nursing the bullet wound on his arm and muttering a mix of prayers and profanity to himself. “It’s ok, the Padre is going to be alright,” he continued. Slowly he rose to his feet and helped Jen to hers. All the while, he warily scanned the patrol of cavalry who had kept their weapons trained on the posse from Tombstone. As he steadied himself, he noticed moonlight glinting off the leader’s paired silver birds of a full Colonel of the United States cavalry .

Once more, the cavalry’s leader barked a command. But this time, he addressed the motley posse. “All right folks, guns down and hands up.”

*** 

Colonel Woodson Geppert looked over the ragtag band of trespassers with a hardened eye. He cleared his throat and spoke with an equally hard edge in his voice. “You are trespassing on United States government property. Officially speaking—and these are actual regulations—any non-Agency personnel found within or exiting Gettysburg Military Preserve are to be shot on sight. No exceptions! Can any of you provide some reason I shouldn’t have you all shot right now?”

“Lo siento mucho. I am Padre Ernesto de Diáz and this undertaking is my doing. I am ready to make my peace con Dios. Any punishment should be on me and me alone. I should say that we come from Arizona, Tombstone in fact, on a mission of life and death,” said the wounded priest. He grit his teeth as he spoke and pressed hard against the hole in his arm with bloody fingers.

“Colonel Woodson Geppert,” replied the man in Union blue and gold. He shifted in his saddle as he mulled over the Padre’s statement. As far fetched as the other man’s claim was, the colonel respected the totally sincere fervor with which the trespasser stated his claim. “Life and death is about right, Padre. You lot have about fifty rounds aimed at your guts right now and if I don’t like what comes out of your mouth next, I’ll have my men send you and your crew to meet your maker. Now explain yourselves.”

“Evil, señor. Pure evil is seeded in the west. Jasper Stone…you know this name?” asked the Padre.

Colonel Geppert felt his skin run corpse cold as he heard the name spoken aloud. He had been ready for some foolhardy and embellished tall tale but mention of the infamous Deathly Drifter immediately garnered his full attention. Years of military discipline spared him from revealing his surprise to the motley crew of gunslingers as Colonel Geppert maintained a semblance of reserved detachment. “I’ve heard that name once or twice,” he said with a slow measured cadence. 

“He’s gaining power out west, not just in his shooting hands but support from outlaws and bandits as well as some folks on the right side of the law. He’s already taken over Tombstone and the surrounding territory. The rest of Arizona is not far behind and all of the west soon after that,” said the wounded man of faith.

“Suppose that is true. You on the run from him? How are you planning to stop him by coming all the way out here?” asked the colonel.

“Thirteen bullets pulled from his back and now in the hands of the Agency,” said the Padre.

“I see you are a well-informed bunch. At least about a few things,” said the colonel as he scratched his stubbly chin thoughtfully. “One more question before I decide to fill you full of holes or not. The truth is real important right now.”

“Si, señor,” responded the Padre. He gave the best supportive glances to the worried faces of those who had followed him this far as the threat of a firing squad loomed right in front of the makeshift band of would-be heroes. 

“Is this all of you?” asked the colonel.

After a few seconds of conflicted deliberation the Padre finally let out a heavy sigh and spoke. “No señor. We split up and there is another group of us a few miles east.”

“You just saved the lives of your people right now. We already picked up the other half of your posse and so far your stories match up,” said Colonel Geppert. He waved a gloved hand and wordlessly signaled his men to lower their weapons. “Luckily for you, I am a merciful fellow. You are under arrest, by the authority vested in me by the United States of America. We will convey you to Washington, DC with all due haste. There are some people at Agency headquarters who are going to want to speak with you.”