Lucy Clover leaned against one of the thick ropes that supported the tent to take some weight off of her ankle. It throbbed with pain, with no time to recover from her injury at the circus. Her daddy always said that there were times that a person had to fight through pain, no matter how hard it may be. That advice echoed in her head now. Breathe in, breathe out.
An explosion echoed through the town, followed shortly after by another, then another. Then came the screams. Lucy briefly looked back toward the circus tent. What was going on?
Lucy had hoped to regroup with the sheriff and the others, but in this town, it was always one emergency to the next. Someone had to respond. From where she stood, the closest explosion came from the north end of town, just a few blocks away, so that’s where she moved first, running as fast as she could with her wounds.
All around her, people on the street called out, “What’s going on?”
“Get off the streets!” she yelled back. “Stay inside until we figure out what’s happened!”
But Lucy didn’t get that opportunity. She turned a corner to see the orphanage, isolated and vulnerable in the middle of the grassy earth that surrounded it. A woman stood on the porch in a grey dress, her frazzled, salt and pepper hair up in a bun. Willa Mae MacGowan, who ran the orphanage, guarded the front door, with a number of children peeking out from behind her.
Lucy limped over to them. “Are the children OK, Willa Mae?” Lucy said.
“They’re understandably frightened,” she replied. “Just like everyone else.”
Lucy looked down at the eyes peering around the old woman’s legs, then glanced around the front of the building to the rest of the small faces in the windows. Amid the rising sound of the chaos in other parts of town, a sing-song voice rose as it came toward them down the street.
“Meat and souls, meat and souls. O’er to the orphanage we go!” The voice belonged to Karl Odett, who oversaw the Sanatorium just a few blocks north. He marched forward, acting like like an orchestra conductor, as he moved toward the orphanage.
The hairs on Lucy’s neck rose with the goosebumps that came at the sight, but that was nothing compared to the creatures that surrounded him.
A dozen or so patients from the Sanatorium, wearing stained gowns and little else, followed Karl, entranced by the movements of his song. They appeared transfixed, moving forward with little mind of their own. Some of them drooled and growled, as if desperate for something to sink their plague-ridden teeth into. Behind them rode an old wagon, driven by a few of Odett’s orderlies and carrying at least a dozen more of the diseased patients.
“Get in and stay there!” Lucy shouted back to Willa Mae.
“Of course, but Deputy Clover, what about you?”
“I’ll give you time to move the kids upstairs,” Lucy said with all the fake confidence she could muster. She drew both of her six-shooters, aiming at the blighted surrounding Karl.
She had no chance of making it out of here alive. There were far too many of them, and she couldn’t take them all down. But dammit, someone had to try to save the children. “Daddy, if you’re out there listenin’ … I could sure use a little help about now.”
The young deputy steeled herself as the carriage came to a halt at the end of the walk. Odett continued humming as he turned toward her, bidding his diseased servants to follow. He sneered wickedly as he advanced, daring Lucy to her only two choices … stand and fight or turn and run, certain of the personal entertainment he’d find in either.
Unsure of just how many bullets she had left after the fight at the circus, Lucy took aim at Odett and fired, watching in shock as he brushed the bullet aside in a flash of light and continued his approach with renewed frenzy in his eyes. Not to be undone yet, Lucy spread her arms to point at two of the blighted ones on either side of Odett and pulled the triggers, managing to hit them both, as they crumpled and fell. Her new targets identified, she planted her feet on the walk, making herself the wall to go through if they wanted to harm anyone inside.
But she soon realized the weakness of that wall as her left pistol clicked dry after downing another of the patients, each of them beginning to snarl and lash out dramatically as if only barely restrained by an invisible wall of Odett’s making. Her right pistol soon followed suit, taking down two more. Odett smiled as he noticed the faint resignation in her eyes with the realization of her fate just before he dropped his hands to allow the rabid patients to surge forward.
As Lucy prepared for her final moments, she only had a moment to consider the new expression of confusion on Odett’s face as he looked over her shoulder before the sound of an explosion instinctively sent her diving for the ground. She rolled and turned to see something possibly more surprising than anything else that day … another woman, tall and strong stood at the edge of the walk. Her dirty blond hair loosely framed her steely gaze as she held firm to a double-barreled shotgun, the end of which still smoked gently in the evening light.
The second barrel erupted, ripping through another set of the Sanatorium’s residents, including Odett himself. With the expression usually reserved for discovering stepped-in horse manure, Sloane looked down to see him still alive, holding some of his white guts in with one arm. He looked up briefly and began inching himself back to his feet and toward the carriage before she could pull her backup weapon, leaving a trail of black ichor on the walk.
“Take cover!” shouted his dark, throaty voice. “With that thing on her hip, she’ll burn through the whole lot o’ ya!”
Sloane was less concerned with the suspicions that arose from seeing Odett’s innards than the fact that he knew something about the holster that helped her in battle. She handed the empty weapon to off to Jake, the young boy behind her, who quickly carried it inside as instructed before pulling out one of her pistols and setting to work. One after another, she dropped the blighted that charged toward the orphanage.
A couple of them broke off to approach Lucy, still on the ground as she struggled to fend them off. A quick whip of her pistol butt slammed into a temple, dropping the diseased man cold. The other, a woman, lashed out with her hands, clawing at Lucy’s clothes and desperately trying to reach her throat. Lucy managed to keep her strength enough to wrestle herself back onto her feet. A knee to the woman’s side followed up with a blow to the back of the woman’s head sent her to the ground in stillness as well. She turned to see Sloane standing the ground she’d first set out to defend.
As quick as lightning, Sloane’s other pistol was in her hand, pointed straight at Lucy’s chest. “We gonna have a problem, Deputy?” she said coldly without even looking in her direction.
“I think we both got bigger problems than bounties today, Sloane,” Lucy said, her exhaustion becoming evident in her speech. “Let’s get inside before they decide to regroup.” She leapt onto the porch and through the orphanage’s front door. As she did so, Sloane hissed through her teeth and twitched for a moment, but whatever it was passed as quickly as it came as she put away the second pistol and turned to follow, kicking the door shut behind them.
Odett staggered back toward the wagon, gesturing wildly at the orderlies. “The BACK, you idiots! Cover the back door! Everyone in there either leaves in our wagon or a coffin!” He saw one of them take a step out, and hastily added “Roll the wagon with you! Don’t get caught in the open!”
Sloane glanced out the back window, but it was too exposed out there, there’d be no way they could get to safety.
“We’ll need to barricade that d–,” Sloane began, before she was interrupted. Before she was even aware of what was going on, a slender hand had grabbed one wrist and twisted it into an awkward position that held her fast. She tried to draw the second pistol again, but quickly found that hand restrained as well in a swirl of silver hair as she found herself held fast from behind, yet she never lost grip on the weapon in her hand. A heavily accented voice, now positioned between Sloane’s back and the wall, whispered tensely, “Why are you here?”
“Lay offa her!” Lucy cried as she lunged forward. The silver-haired woman pushed off from the wall, spinning Sloane around and pressing her face up against the wood as she brought her leg to connect with Lucy’s midsection, sending her reeling to the floor.
Sloane, seething through her current position, managed to get out, “We’re trying to save these kids from those things outside!” There was a tense pause between the three of them for a moment as they all considered their situation, after which, Sloane was slowly released to turn back around and face the newcomer, a Chinese woman with long silver hair.
Sloane straightened her vest and Lucy got to her feet again, repeating the woman’s question, “Why are you here?”
“I come for Benji,” she said, pointing to a black boy in ruddy clothing in the corner of the room with a group of other children, including Jake who was desperately trying to remember how to reload Sloane’s shotgun. “He say he need help with other children, but when I hear explosions and see the wagon coming, I come in from upstairs window.”
“SEE?” the boy popped up, stepping away from the group slightly to point at her. “I tol’ y’all I was in a Kung Fu gang! Now will y’all believe me?!”
Ignoring the boy, Sloane took another look outside to see the men slowly moving the wagon around the yard to the back of the building as the a few of the wounded blighted men and women slowly crawled toward the home.
“We need to shore up the backdoor,” she said. “I think Willa Mae had some boards and tools in the kitchen.”
“I’ll get ‘em,” Lucy said, running down the hall to the room in back. “Willa Mae!” Lucy had entered the room to find the old woman sprawled out on the floor, surrounded by wooden slats, a hammer, and scattered nails. “Sloane, you murderous –!”
“I didn’t kill her!” Sloane turned away from the window to yell back down the hall. “She got hit by the back door when I came in and just fell there. Now shore up that door!”
Suddenly, the window behind her erupted in a flurry of glass and linen curtains as an arm, mottled with pus-oozing scabs had grabbed her around the neck. She struggled for a moment before the silver-haired woman leaped into action, pulling the arm back from Sloane, pushing the outlaw to the side, and delivering a blow to the throat of the invader with a crack, all in one swift movement.
Sloane rubbed her throat with her open hand and uttered a terse, “Thanks … Miss…?”
“Chen Xui Yin,” the Chinese woman replied.
“Well Chen,” she said as she cautiously resumed her watch out the window. “I counted five of them still mobile, but the wagons still hold more — let’s call it a dozen to be safe, plus Odett and his cronies.” Xui Yin could swear she heard a clicking noise as Sloane calculated things in her head. “They’ll try to split our attention and run our supplies dry so they can move in for the kill, so make every bullet you have count.”
“You certain about that?” shouted Lucy from the other room.
“If they’re smart, yes. Rushing the place is too risky without any cover coming in or out. As long as we’re smarter and stay patient, we have the upper hand. Wait for them to make a move.”
* * *
And wait they did, the sun had disappeared a while ago. Sloane stood guard in the front, watching through the linen curtain. Lucy was still trying to assemble her wits and work through the pain in her leg, sitting in the kitchen with the scattergun pointed straight at the back door. Xui Yin stood in a shadowy corner of one of the upstairs bedrooms, silent in meditation, yet at the same time, alert as a hawk. Willa Mae did what she could to keep the children quiet in the cellar as they waited. Thankfully, the cool darkness there prevented whatever frightened cries couldn’t be suppressed from reaching out to their attackers.
Occasionally, they could hear Odett shouting more orders to his men as he kept the blighted patients at bay until the right time. They heard creaking wood and prying nails as the sides of the wagons were taken apart. Still the women waited. Before they knew it, there were two trains advancing at the front and the rear, each holding a makeshift wooden palisade over their heads and front to shield them from fire. Still they waited. As they reached the doors, the infected minions began to batter down the front and rear doors in unison from beneath their shield.
Lucy stood and moved to the door, pressing the shotgun right up against the door before emptying both barrels into the wood, blasting away the door and knocking back the mob behind it. Then she dropped the empty weapon, grabbed her own revolver, and began removing the remaining boards that held the door fast.
In the confusion at the rear door, Xui Yin leapt from the second story, falling through the back palisade like a meteor, landing with a spray of wooden chunks in the middle of a very confused group. Chanting “jiuchi-dingpa!” under her breath, her whole body became a cyclone of fists and pain, fracturing ribs, shattering knees, puncturing the mottled white flesh of the blighted with her chi-guided strikes. Within moments, a number of groaning bodies and other silent ones lay in a heap at her feet.
At the front, Sloane counted out the time between strikes. Then after a heavy strike, she kicked the bar off of the door, and allowed it to swing open with no resistance, sending the attackers inward, off guard. Her gun slid from its holster like it had been greased, and with one sweep of her arm, the invaders’ hearts had been blown from their chests, showering the wall in sprays of deep red. She kicked the rear corpse out of the doorway before slamming and barring the door once more and resuming her watch.
“Back door’s open!” shouted Lucy.
“I’ve got the front!” Sloane shouted back. “Get them out!”
Outside, Karl Odett swore a blue streak and ran off back to the streets away from the battle. As they had planned, Xui Yin Chen began her task of escorting the children to safety, beckoning the first group to her: three boys named Tyler, Jack, and Drew. She took their hands and led them toward the central part of town, where there would be safety and they could get help.
But they would find neither help nor safety. Now that Xui Yin was in the town proper, she saw why no help came to the orphanage in the first place; the town was being overrun by blighted, ravenous madmen, and had started to burn in several places.
Cursing in Chinese, she grabbed the kids in her arms, leapt to the rooftop of the First Baptist Church, and pushed the three of them into the belltower. “Okay!” she barked, trying to sound chipper. “Plan changed. You wait here and stay quiet. Wait for grown-ups to come, and ring the bell if you in trouble. Okay?”
The three boys nodded solemnly. Tyler made sure his shirt was covering the slingshot in his back pocket. None of them planned on following her orders. They knew who was responsible for this, and they were going to stop that little goblin come Hell or high water.
Satisfied, Xui Yin turned back to survey the carnage. She had no idea where anyone might be holding out in town amidst the flames and screams, or if the other Bandits would arrive to help, so it only made sense to return to the orphanage and continue the rescue. The diseased were running amok everywhere else. But they hadn’t gone out to — no, now that she looked, some of them were making their way to the orphanage. That loathsome slug Odett wasn’t fleeing the battle; he was calling in reinforcements.
Xui Yin bounded from rooftop to rooftop back to where Odett was leading them back to the orphanage. With the same motion, she leapt off a roof and into a nearby tree before landing, foot first, on Odett’s back. She felt his spine cracking under the impact like peanut brittle, but he had only staggered, not fallen. Whatever inhuman thing he was, she needed to make sure he stayed down. Before he could even cry out in alarm or pain, she grabbed him by the chin and wrenched his head almost all the way around, leaving his body to fall in a heap on the dirt.
As Xui Yin rose, she turned slowly to the mob of blighted men and women that he’d summoned. Without Odett keeping them focused and at bay, they began to sniff the air, becoming more and more agitated as they turned toward her … and beyond her to the orphanage. “That can’t be good,” she thought as she began her run back to the building.
* * *
“Hey Clover,” Sloane called from the front window. “Chen’s back, and she’s bringing company.”
“Thank God,” Lucy sighed as she opened the cellar to call forth the next group of kids. “I knew someone would come to help eventually.”
“No, you don’t get it.”
Lucy closed the door once more and headed to the window, cursing at what she saw. At least another dozen shrieking, raving men and women, lost to the plague, advanced on them in a horde behind Xui Yin.
“Well, there’s one way to run us out of bullets.”
The two women moved out of the way as Xui Yin dove through the broken front window ahead of her pursuers. She rolled briefly across the floor, then sprang upwards in the same movement to stand ready for battle.
“No,” Sloane cried. “The back is still open. Me and the girl will hold them here. Get the kids out.”
Xui Yin seemed to hesitate, but her own battle instincts came to the same conclusion that escape was the best choice. She bowed briefly in respect to their sacrifice and quickly moved to help the kids out of the cellar and into the night air.
Sloane positioned herself in front of the open window and fired on the mob. Her aim was true as ever, as one after another fell. But there were simply too many of them, and they registered no fear as their fellows were killed in front of them; they trampled over the bodies with the same rabid determination, hell bent on reaching those inside the house. After Sloane had emptied the cylinders of two revolvers, the horde was upon them, clamoring recklessly through the windows, battering their bodies against the doors. They howled, whooped, shrieked, and growled, as if none of them had any idea what they were doing, driven only by a desire to tear the healthy ones limb from limb.
The first of the blighted to make it through a window received a blast from Lucy’s shotgun, as Sloane quickly reloaded. The young deputy quickly moved to the next window, the only one still intact, and emptied the other barrel before the invader could smash his way through, sending his body careening over the railing and into the yard. The first frenzied face to fill the space caught the brunt of the shotgun’s handle as Sloane moved back to her position in front of the windows.
It was a shooting gallery, with the outlaw moving faster than the eye could see from target to target, firing deadly shots with each movement as the slumping bodies filled the window frames. Catching sight of the weakening door hinges, Lucy moved behind to help bar the door, but she would be too late. The front door ruptured under the weight of three blighted individuals. Lucy cracked one across the face with the scattergun again, but two could only manage to hold it up to shield her as the other two leapt upon her, pinning her to the floor.
Sloane dispatched one the last face in the window, then spun and saw Lucy on the floor. BLAM! One of the attackers fell to the other side of her. BLAM! The other fell still, as Lucy managed to push the body off of her. She scampered back away from the doorway and slumped against the wall.
Lucy looked back up to see Sloane still standing with one pistol aimed at the empty doorway, the other trained on her. The deputy’s eyes went wide as she realized what was happening. “What are you doing?” she gasped. “After all this, why now?!” At first, Sloane’s face appeared to mirror the same madness as the blighted they fought, but as the tense moment continued on, Lucy noticed a single tear roll down Sloane’s cheek, recasting the expression as one of intense desperation.
Sloane grimaced as tears began streaming down her face, her hands shaking. Something was welling up inside her, the same thing that urged her on in the fight against Dave Montreal, the same thing that made her twitch every time she’d had a chance to kill but hesitated. The power within the holster, the one Jonah had given to her, now held her fast, forcing her aim at Lucy Clover’s heart. The seething bloodlust she felt at the death of Lawrence, the burning hatred that spurred on to murder the sheriff while her men struggled, now raged in her again, with no justification.
“I’m … not … doing … it!” Sloane choked. Lucy slammed her eyes shut, as did Sloane … right before she fired.
Lucy cracked one eye open to see dust rising from the hole in the floorboard next to her, realizing in shock that she wasn’t dead. Sloane’s finger squeezed the trigger again and again, but only dry clicks came forth. She seemed to struggle for a moment more before dropping both guns to the floor in a great release. In that brief glimpse of freedom, she reached down to her waist, ripped the belt and holster off in disgust, and threw it into a corner.
Sloane panted in exhaustion, as she dropped to her knees. Her eyes rose to meet Lucy’s and the two women exchanged some level of unspoken understanding. But the moment wouldn’t last as a new group of blighted surged past the barrier of their own dead, and the horde was upon them once more.