Eugene Guest, Felix Maloney, and Ivy Bayley rode through the night until their backs ached like splintering wood. At dawn, Ivy pointed to strange mounds in the distance, but Eugene and Felix dismissed them for hills. They fixed themselves on Burnside. Eugene had negotiated a temporary hold on the price hanging on Min’s head, and the group. Burnside looked peaceful enough as they hitched their horses.
Only minutes before Sheriff Sioux visited Magrath’s Bathhouse and Inn, interrupting Margot Jourdain’s well-deserved bath along with Roo’s extra warm bath full of fine smelling suds. Her indignation convinced him to cough up a half-hearted apology, but Min and Xun Roo were wanted, and the law would not be denied – not in his town. Roo handed Laslow the old Ranger’s gun they’d found in the mine and reluctantly went with the sheriff. Margot finished dressing and directed Min to hold up in her room until she came back with a disguise. It seemed there would be no rest for them. Laslow resigned himself to a bit of hair of the dog to take the edge off the brightness of the morning.
Sometimes It Takes a Woman to Do a Man’s Job
So it was that Eugene and Felix came on a very saggy eyed Laslow and slumped wearily into the bar stools beside him. Eugene immediately ordered a steak and eggs. Apparently the group had run into some trouble in the mines with some ghouls, and now Roo had been taken into custody. Felix and Eugene cursed their luck. It seemed that a siesta was not on the agenda quite yet. But they took heart in the fact that it wouldn’t be long before they could all get some sleep and head back to Denver – except their hopes were dashed once again when they heard a man screaming down the street. They scrambled to the window while Laslow sighed and finished his drink before swiveling around in his stool.
They found a man named Philip carrying his daughter, Jesse, who appeared to dead to Eugene at first. They called out to Magrath to get Dr. Jourdain who corrected them of their uneducated assumptions. She was nonreactive, but that was a result of shock. Felix, Eugene, and Margot led the two inside Magrath’s where the doctor could tend to Jesse. Felix and Eugene learned that the farmhouses outside Burnside were under attack at night. Creatures. Philip hadn’t seen, but he’d lost his family. He’d heard their screams. A fire had broken out. And he ran, ran to the only place he could think of for help: Burnside.
Laslow watched patiently. Margot, seeing Eugene and Felix unfortunately distracted by this poor sap’s nightmare told Eugene to stick by the two while she attended to something. She hadn’t even had the chance to get the materials ready to disguise Min. Eugene and Felix looked between Laslow and Margot, confused. They certainly didn’t want to go back out galloping into the hills, but they weren’t dumb either. Just how many ghouls were in the mines, they asked Laslow. And they weren’t able to secure the mine after their escape? Laslow shrugged and did his best to stay vague. He couldn’t see what could be done about it now. Margot thought the same as she raced off to get a disguise. Through the course of her work, matters got even worse. A local whispered to her that she’d heard nefarious sorts were plotting Roo’s death. If she didn’t act fast and get Eugene and Felix focused on the right sort of thing, their group was going to be locked up or dead.
And so it was for our group, that even the simplest of days couldn’t turn out right. Far from it. Now Felix was starting to get a headache from that sun, and Eugene was getting just dying for some steak and eggs.
There is No “I” in Team
When Margot came back Eugene and Felix getting more than a little irritated. They couldn’t stand around all day while ghouls finished their attacks and retreated into sunless holes. Eugene knew a thing or two about ghouls, though his experience was pieced together from second-hand stories of lone ghouls that haunted graveyards or small packs. Nothing like this. Eugene also knew that Pinkerton Agent Harper would be looking for Min and the others. He had to gather the group, get a telegraph off to Sheriff Bainbridge in Denver, visit the Burnside sheriff’s office, and get out to these farms while they still stood a chance of saving someone who might be bleeding out this very moment or being dragged beneath the earth for a ghoul’s feast.
But Margot would have none of that. She shut his gabbing mouth, and commanded the lazy lot (including Bison who now joined them) to get upstairs while she disguised Min. First thing’s first, they couldn’t be taken into custody. That was how Agent Harper had absolutely no trouble finding the group. He could hear their argument upstairs from his seat by the window. It took ten full minutes of debate before Eugene and Margot, two rams that they were, could find it in themselves to hear each other out. Eugene and Felix discovered, that Roo had unleashed an army of the undead on the unsuspecting Burnside. And Eugene and Felix could shove their wild notions up their you know what. Margot, Laslow, and Min discovered that Eugene knew quite a bit more than they expected about the trouble with the law they were experiencing. If they would just cooperate, this could all be settled in a moment, thank you very much.
By the time they got downstairs, feeling like things might just be moving along, Agent Harper politely interrupted, “Mr. Guest, a moment of your time.” It didn’t sound like a request. He glanced without the slightest bit of surprised at Min who looked like a New Orleans street-walker. (Or, as some said after, Takeheshi.) One thing led to another and Eugene convinced Harper to follow along and resolve things on the way. The moment swung on a hairline between big iron and civilized conversation, but in the end Agent Harper agreed, perhaps because the thought of taking them all on, with a surly bounty hunter and a deadly gunslinger in tow, did not look attractive. At the telegraph office Eugene spat into his hand and shook hands with Agent Harper. In a matter of minutes Felix watched with some admiration that Eugene, sweatin’ bullets the whole time, convinced Harper to postpone apprehending the rest of the group, including Min, even allowing them to walk free for a day, on account of the horde of undead that stood at the proverbial gates of Burnside. That, and Roo would remain locked up in the local jail. That would have to do.
On their way, keen-eyed Laslow spotted a man bullying a woman carrying a tray of food. At first the man expressed reluctance to talk to some nosy green horns and flashed them a rotten-toothed grin for their troubles. Laslow, not amused, blew his hat right off his head. Often, a well-exercised show of grit can accomplish much more, much faster, than all the hot air in a big balloon. Through Laslow’s curt investigations and Margot intensity they learned the man worked for El Groupo. What’s more, Margot discovered a vial of arsenic intended for the tray. She put two and two together and knew they’d discovered an assassin, moments before he murdered Roo in his cell!
Eugene went with Felix to argue with a very unimpressed Deputy Barnes at the sheriff’s office. Try as he might, mustering his best case – and with no time for backwater nonsense – Eugene could not get Barnes to recognize the scope of events. Ghouls? Undead attacks? Why it looked like a fine day. Take down wanted posters because of some know-it-all in a Denver office who changed his mind about a Wanted reward for a fugitive. Not a chance. But he knew better than to ruin his day arguing with someone who was probably recovering from a hangover. Barnes politely nodded. But he did agree to take a statement from Philip, and assured Eugene that he’d take care of everything – with Roo’s security, the unnecessary wanted posters, and with the El Groupo would-be assassin. When Margot, Bison, and Laslow escorted their own fugitive into the office, Barnes was quite taken aback.
Eugene left the office, sighing. Felix came out with him. “That was a fine job you managed.” Eugene smiled back, squinting against the sun and his own growing headache. “Let’s go get the horses and see if there’s anyone left alive at the farms.”
No Rest for the Wicked
And they were wicked, let’s be clear about that readers. They’d unleashed hell on earth on Burnside – albeit unwittingly. And it was an easier thing to do, to just walk away. One can’t blame them too much, though. Margot and Laslow tried to talk sense into these fancy pants boys, Eugene and Felix and now, strangely, Bison: it was a shame about those ghouls, but exactly what did they hope to do.
The answer: maybe save one life. Felix suggested, “maybe discover for sure what murdered families in the night.” Bison firmly said, “We can not allow this corruption. I will go too.” Eugene offered desperately, “maybe create some sort of trap before the ghouls reached Burnside.” Laslow, Margot, and Min frowned, and looked at their companions like they were insane. Finally Eugene said, setting his jaw and grabbing his duster, “We can’t just leave the town to this … this… whatever it is. It’s on our heads. I’m going.”
It was midday when they finally rode out of Burnside into the plains west of Burnside. They found Phillip’s farm laid waste. Bison investigated a mound and dug out the corruption like a weed. His people had raised him to honor the land and he would not let a little bit of earth hide the ghoul any more than one lets the weed hide under the earth, only to later choke out the harvest. It proved a tenacious thing, and he beat it back with his war club. But it came at him still with bloodshot eyes. A flash left Eugene’s fingertips and exploded like a small gun powder bomb into the thing’s side.
In other circumstances, the group might have complained or at least inquired about the infernal magicks they just witnessed, but as it was they had bigger matters to deal with. So their friend was an evil sorcerer who practiced dark powers. They had bigger worries. There were dozens and dozens of these mounds in sight. Margot astutely noted what she’d seen and Eugene’s weak excuse of “alchemy” – well, she knew her alchemy better than any of these ignorant men. That was no alchemy. She would talk to him later. Felix just quietly watched and listened. He could take notes later.
Felix had work to do. He suggested further studies on the creatures. And everyone whole-heartedly agreed. It was dirty work, preparing a bonfire amidst the rubble, digging up another unholy creature, trying different weapons, studying its responses. But they’d learned a thing or two about their enemy. Eugene was able to confirm his theories on the creature – that piercing its organs would do little if anything, that guns would be of no help, that light would not kill them but greatly disturb them. They had to make it back to Burnside to warn the town. Laslow still frowned, unsure about what they hoped to do. As far as he could see, they needed to get far away from here, further than Burnside. But Felix, Eugene, Bison, and now even Margot and Min agreed they needed to warn Burnside. A trap, a trap was what they needed, agreed Eugene and Margot.
We Need a Bunch of Livestock and Some Dynamite
That was what Laslow said, stopping them all in stunned silence. Well, if they were going to do this, they’d better do it right. Margot’s idea of a big pit would just not do to protect a whole town. Eugene’s idea of oil and hay set ablaze was a fine one, but it would not be sufficient to save the town. Give the cows a collar of dynamite, set them to pasture in the way of the coming ravenous horde. They would attract the horde, but light the fuse and get far enough away and suddenly you’ve got a fine bit of triggernometry. You see what I did there readers?
Eugene loved it. Loved it. Pure genius. He clapped Laslow on the back. Felix nodded, impressed once again by his choice of companions. Min peered at them, a little disgusted but unable to argue with the logic. Bison and Margot stared in newfound horror at their companions. But it was between Burnside and the livestock. It was enough to get Margot to reluctantly agree. Bison was not so convinced about the trade, but he could only accompany them and hope to stop them later.
In town they discovered Barnes had let the El Groupo fugitive loose and replaced the Wanted poster in the office. When Barnes continued to not be forthcoming with information on the sheriff’s whereabouts Laslow dropped the head of the ghoul he’d prudently brought. Soon after, they left to interrupt the sheriff’s dinner at the Black Goose. Sheriff Sioux was not a man to be trifled with, even by six armed men and women. “Give him the Barnes treatment,” said Eugene. Laslow shrugged and dropped the cadaver’s head on Sheriff Sioux’s plate. Despite his wife’s screaming and everybody’s totally ruined meal, Sheriff Sioux calmly studied the creature’s features. He concluded this group was worth listening to. He agreed to meet them in a couple hours.
The sun was dipped low in the sky when they finally met Sheriff Sioux and a little under a hundred of the town’s leaders. Eugene did his best to outline the plan the group had made. The last time a large number of people depended on him for their lives he’d been so enamored by the thought of freedom and heroism that he’d let them all be discovered. He had to think of the people first. Then the ghouls. He outlined a plan to keep about 75 volunteers who could protect themselves a little better than most. The rest were to secure themselves in storm basements and other places. Margot suggested water to put out fires, and Laslow suggested they arm themselves in case they had to protect themselves. Eugene then outlined his plan to create a half ring of fire, pointing to one prepared wagon of flammable materials. He had Laslow explain the big trap.
Bison murmured, “Let’s call it what it is, we’re dynamiting cows.” Laslow explained the plan in detail, unperturbed. Margot would help the Burnside townspeople get secured. Felix and Bison would set chicken wire and others traps. Min would help Laslow with the dynamite. Bison tried to free the livestock, tried to dissuade the uncaring people, tried to convince people that they could defend themselves without such a sacrifice. But he was only one man, and Burnside was determined to save its loved ones. And in a miraculous fury, they prepared to face hell and all of its wrath.
Ring of Fire
The sun had set, and the people of Burnside received a much-needed extra hour to prepare for the undead waited for night to fall and then crossed the plains. Their screams could be heard for a mile away. Their unified cry was the stuff of nightmares – never to be forgotten. But the people of Burnside had no where to go readers. Their lives were here. They’d given everything to settle this broken, cracked land. They would not be moved, not for all the riders of the apocalypse. As the ghouls attacked, they set their ring of fire ablaze…
…and then tooth and claw met steel and grit. Undead roamed the previously sleepy streets of Burnside, pulling men down. Men who lived were so painted with blood you could not tell the difference between the living and the dead. All through the night. Bands of steely-eyed men broke from the shadows and fell on the undead with torches, as our heroes had instructed. In the town square, Felix was brought down, Mix was surrounded. Laslow pushed a ghoul off while a man beside him screamed then gurgled to the bite of a ghoul. Bison ran as if he rode a steed of spirit and crushed the skull of one ghoul and then another. Margot ran in, throwing alchemy and smoke, with steel in hand, fending off gray claws. Laslow blew the head of a ghoul apart and Felix clenched his teeth through the pain of a bite and pushed off the ground to beat another ghoul back, then down, then to the ground, gasping as he did so.
But Min had three surrounding her and Margot was out of alchemy. Min spun around, unable to fend so many off, and wondered what foolish turn of events led her to even try to stand against such odds – and even run into the massacre head-long. Late to the show, driving a rattling horse-drawn wagon as fast as he could, Eugene came flying down one of Burnside’s alleys. His walk cane’s blade reflected fire and moonlight, he leapt onto a pile of rubble and pulled what looked to be smoking cards from the air beside him. He threw them and all three landed on the ghouls beside Min, erupting in splattered guts and bones. One still stood but Margot and Min smashed his skull.
Our heroes – rather all the heroes of that day, readers – the people of Burnside, all dropped to their knees as the first hint of blue could be seen. They could see victory, of a sort, was theirs. Hard won, with good friends and family lost, but so much saved.
Sometimes Dead is Better
Margot would not rest until her work was done. Their work. She tirelessly tended to the wounded. She knew this part of war and sickness. It was the same in the hospital as it was on the fields of Civil War as it was here. Her work was not done. Then, once people weren’t bleeding out and wounds were treated with High Science that only she knew to keep from spoiling and from leading to unforeseen transformations, she took to organizing people to gather the dead and burn them. They had to be sure.
But the people of Burnside were too slow. Either they were too tired or too ignorant or too arrogant towards a woman’s argument – but they would not listen fast enough.
And then they saw it rise. The dead had come together into, as Bison whispered, “An abomination.” It stood the size of ten men easily. A giant from another world. It stood, a harbringer of death, bearing the faces of loved ones trapped, embedded in its body. Bison roared and rushed toward it, inspiring his group to courage. His warclub hit it with incredible force, but still it would not fall. The sound of gunfire erupted – Laslow’s rifle and Min’s and Felix’s pistols, but it ignored such weapons. Margot pulled out her sword and threw untreated alchemical dust at it, but it only staggered momentarily, then immediately regained its unholy strength of purpose- to finish its job, to bring the world of the living into the dead. It came down on Bison with a sickening crunch, bringing him to his knees. But still he struggled, spirit unbroken. Eugene whispered to the Manitou who cackled back, playing a game of logic with a trio of devils in the blink of an eye – and won. It gained him one last shot, pulled from the other world, two smoking black cards with hints of blue, and flung them at the creature’s back. It turned toward him and he knew his time was done. But Laslow came in close beside Eugene, reckless to the danger to himself, and shot it once more and staggered it for the briefest of moments, buying time for Bison to pull himself off the ashen ground. Men looked at his rage in awe as Bison leapt at the giant abomination and brought his war club crashing down on the skull of the evil thing.
And all that could be heard was the sound of everyone’s breadth. And all that could be seen were men bent from an unspeakable night. The sky graced them with a thin strip of fire and gold on the horizon, and blue like a serene lake. They burned the bodies all morning, until they were black from soot, as if they had clawed their way out of their very own graves.