Come morning, the old cabin was a lumpy pile of ash layered on smoldering coals. A few broken, charred beams poked through the cinders. To Lawrence Keeney they looked like the gnarled hands of a doomed man, a man reaching for what he can’t have.
Keeney scoffed at his own morbid, poetic turn of mind. He turned away from the home in which he’d lived for almost thirty years, the home he’d built with his own two hands, the home he himself had burned deliberately in the night. Then, still sitting cross-legged on his bedroll, he closed his eyes, took the Schofield from his lap, and placed the barrel of the heavy revolver under his chin.
Danny Boy whined. The big mongrel, more wolf than dog, sat back on his haunches in the spot he’d claimed in the night, fixing his big, gray eyes on Lawrence. The dog’s ears were flat against his big head. Keeney thumbed back the Schofield’s hammer and the big wolf mix began to growl.
“Damn it, Danny,” Lawrence turned to the dog, the Schofield’s barrel wavering from his temple. “Can’t a man blow his brains out in peace?”
The dog’s growl began to rumble louder in his throat. Lawrence realized suddenly that the animal was not looking at him, but past him. He turned awkwardly, his lower back screaming at him, to see someone emerging from the trees at the edge of his property, beyond the smoking heap that had been his cabin.
“Who’s that?” he called, irritated at the intrusion. He had no intention of letting anyone see him do the deed. Was it so much to ask for a few moments uninterrupted, to make his peace?
Danny Boy stood up, his fur bristling. He began barking in the menacing, serious way he reserved for real threats. Keeney had heard him do that only a handful of times. Once, Danny had barked that way when the pair of them had stumbled on a wounded bear in Sutter’s Woods. He’d done it when the Sutter boys had finally come for Lawrence Keeney, too. Grabbing his father’s hickory cane by the carved lion’s head, Keeney pushed himself to his feet to face the intruder.
“You, there!” he called out. “Get along. Ain’t nothin’ to see here. You hear me?” Keeney watched as the intruder stumbled closer, his features becoming clearer in the weak dawn light. “Seamus? That you?” Keeney pushed off with his cane, taking a step closer, the Schofield held loosely at his side. “What’s the matter? You drunk?”
The man staggering towards Lawrence was Seamus Finnerty, an old hermit who lived at least a day’s walk away. It was Seamus who’d named Danny, in fact, some years before, after finding the stray half-starved near the slowly strangling creek where Seamus still insisted on panning for gold. In the last ten years, Lawrence had spoken to Seamus exactly nine times, counting the day Seamus had shown up with Danny Boy and said only, “Don’t need no dog. Want ‘im?”
As far as Keeney was concerned, the old Irishman’s taciturn nature was the basis for a beautiful friendship. Lawrence Keeney valued peace and quiet. Seamus Finnerty never said a word more than was absolutely necessary, nor did he leave his rotting lean-to more than once every six months. Seamus was therefore the last person Lawrence would expect to come bothering him unnecessarily.
“Seamus?” Lawrence said again. “What’s wrong?”
Seamus continued to advance with slow, clumsy steps. As he neared, Lawrence could see that he was dragging one leg, the foot turned impossibly to the side on what could only be a broken ankle. Then Keeney caught Seamus’ slack-jawed stare and looked directly into the glazed-white eyes of a dead man.
“Holy shit,” he whispered.
The stench hit him. Seamus Finnerty didn’t just look dead; he smelled dead. The old prospector’s gaunt frame looked almost… dried out, his head hanging at an unnatural angle, the turkey-skin folds of his neck and arms gray and hanging loosely as if too big for the bones beneath. The rags Seamus wore were almost unrecognizable as clothes, as if he’d been dead a while, moving about in the last shirt and pants he’d ever wear.
Still using his father’s old hickory cane for support, Lawrence took a step backwards.
“You stay back, Seamus,” he said quietly. “I… I’m damned sorry for whatever’s wrong, but… I don’t want none of it.”
At the sound of Keeney’s voice, a shadow of something that might have been awareness crawled slowly across the gray flesh of Seamus’ face. The old Irishman cocked his head and turned his emaciated body, his white eyes narrowing as he squinted in Keeney’s direction.
Lawrence brought the Schofield up. The hammer was still cocked. “Stay back, Seamus! I swear to God, stay back away from me, or--”
The most horrible sound Lawrence Keeney had ever heard began to roll slowly from Seamus’ dead lips. It was the sound of air pushed through dead lungs and escaping from a lifeless throat. It was the moan of the damned. It was a hoarse, reedy, insistent wail from beyond whatever fate had met Seamus Finnerty.
It was the sound of hunger.
Danny Boy went mad, barking and growling and running around both men in wide circles, almost rabid with fear.
Seamus reached out for Lawrence with mutilated fingers. Nubs of white bone protruded from each gray digit. The fingers of a doomed man, Keeney had time to think, reaching out... for what he can’t have!
The .45 Schofield bullet tore into Seamus’ sunken chest, causing him to reel back. Lawrence pushed with his father’s cane and scrambled backwards as quickly as he could, ignoring the pain in his back, thumbing back the big revolver’s hammer once more. Seamus gathered himself and, moaning again, plodded straight for him.
“Damn you, Seamus!” Lawrence shouted, eyes wide, feeling cold sweat blossom on his face. He fired twice more, then again, and again, the bullets ripping into the Irishman. Each time, the dead man staggered, and each time, he gathered himself for another clumsy charge. The gunfire and Keeney’s screams were making Danny Boy crazy with anger, but the big dog couldn’t quite bring himself to set on the unnatural creature that was Seamus Finnerty.
“Please, Seamus!” Lawrence finally croaked. “Just die, damn it! For God’s sake, just die!” He thumbed back the hammer on his last round and, desperate, aimed for the gray, rotting flesh between Seamus’ dead eyes. The big revolver bucked against his calloused palm.
The bullet blew a .45-caliber hole through Seamus Finnerty’s forehead and plowed a channel through the back, spraying whatever was left of poor Seamus’ brains over the smoking ashes of the cabin fire.
Seamus Finnerty collapsed in a bloodless heap, dead once more.
Hands shaking, with Danny Boy still snarling and barking and growling his terror, anger, and confusion, Lawrence Keeney broke open the Schofield and shucked the empties. Holding his cane between his legs, he struggled with trembling fingers to reload six tarnished brass cartridges from the loops in his worn gunbelt, losing a couple of the old rounds in the process. Finally, he closed the Schofield, took a sold grip on his father’s carved hickory cane, and pointed the shaking barrel of the revolver at the old Irishman he’d called a friend. He hobbled closer despite every urgently screaming instinct to run.
“I’m too old, too fat, and in too much pain to run away,” he said to the corpse of Seamus Finnerty, “so if you’re gonna get up on me again, I’m a' gonna shoot you again.”
Seamus remained still and silent.
“Well,” Lawrence said to Danny Boy, who stood growling with his hair on end, “I reckon that’s an improvement. Come on, Danny. Let’s get the hell out of here.”
* * * * *
Carleton Sutter reigned in his palomino, one hand on the butt of his right-hand Colt Peacemaker. The animal whickered nervously and shifted from side to side until he calmed her and let her back off several yards. Something in the air was foul, and it was more than the black smoke rising from the ashes of Lawrence Keeney’s cabin. Sutter dismounted and ground-tied the horse.
Sutter was a big man, with a barrel chest and a bull neck, his round face defined by a neatly trimmed mustache and chin-beard that showed a slight peppering of premature gray. He wore octagonal spectacles over weak eyes. Under his long drover coat he wore the clothes of an Eastern dandy, the bowler hat on his head completing the look. He also wore twin Colts in cross-draw holsters. A double-barreled coach gun waited for him in a scabbard attached to his saddle. He carried extra shells for it in an oilcloth bag tied to his belt.
With one Peacemaker in his fist, Sutter slowly circled the ashes of the cabin. Yesterday, Lawrence Keeney had told Hampton Barlowe that he was pulling out for good, leaving the town of Keeney’s Rock behind. Sutter didn’t know why the old man would burn his cabin to the ground before he left. It seemed to him that a perfectly good cabin shouldn’t go to waste. He figured an act like that squared with what he knew of Lawrence Keeney’s character. The sour old goat was just plain mean. Sutter had no problem imagining the old fool chuckling at the thought of depriving some future settler of a ready-made home.
He had almost completed his circle of the ashes when he found the body. Dried out as it was, Sutter at first thought it had been there a while. Why Keeney would leave a dead man on the ground outside his home was something Carleton Sutter couldn’t guess. When he prodded the corpse with the toe of his snakeskin boot, he noticed the bullet holes. There was no blood to speak of, but then, he didn’t figure there should be. Had Keeney shot down some poor fool and then left him to rot? Maybe the old coot was crazy by now. Maybe he always had been. Either way, Sutter knew that he’d best take no chances.
Sutter holstered his Colt. There were tracks in the mud. He was no tracker, but Sutter had grown up out here; he could make out the footprints of a man and a dog, headed back to town. He would follow, and when he found the old man, that would be the end of it. He’d be careful, but he’d do right by Bill and Robby.
There was a way of it, a way it would have to be done, if he was to kill Lawrence Keeney with honor.
* * * * *
Keeney’s Rock lay sprawled before the son of its founder, collapsed on itself, a tired, worn town that time and the railroad had long since passed by. It had been three decades, give or take, since the Gold Rush. Back then, Keeney’s Rock had been a boomtown, full of hope and life and even danger. It had been a place that, for all its risk and quick living, was worth a go, a place with a future.
Now it was dead. It didn’t know it was dead, not yet, but it was rotting as surely as Lawrence Keeney’s old cabin had been. It had died when the last of the gold played out. Those who stayed were too stubborn to admit what was happening. They’d just been picking at the bones of a corpse.
Sure, they’d made a go of it for some time thereafter. Keeney remembered thinking that the town had put down roots, that the gold had been just the spur, that the local farms and businesses supporting them would be the foundation for a bigger, better town. He laughed at the memory of his foolishness. The dream had lasted just long enough for the Powers that Were to line their pockets with bribes. Then the railroad had bypassed Keeney’s Rock for Templeton Center, effectively choking off the folks who were left. Lawrence remembered all too well the day he printed that story. He’d wondered, even then, if it was to be one of the last he’d put on paper with the old press.
Lawrence’s nose twitched. The air smelled of smoke and rot. A black cloud drifted from behind the sagging façade of the Possum, where the old livery stood abandoned. Keeney couldn’t tell from where he stood if fire had taken the livery or the rear of the Possum itself. The saloon was still standing, or at least was no more falling down than it had ever been.
Even during the Gold Rush, the Possum had never been what Keeney would call well built, nor even safe, as far as he was concerned. Its owner, a German named Mattias Riech, had been an enthusiastic drinker but a poor carpenter. The Possum had, in fact, gone by another name when Mattias first opened for business -- something German, though he couldn’t remember what it had meant -- but some tin-panning wag had marveled that the crooked, ramshackle building with its uneven floors and drooping roof wasn’t fit for man nor beast to take shelter or drink within. He’d seen dead possums stand up straighter, he claimed. The name stuck, and after a couple of years, Mattias gave in and renamed the place.
The German was gone, now, like so many of the others. He’d pulled out three years back, in fact, when the meager business the saloon was pulling in couldn’t pay for the whiskey and beer that was all that kept the customers coming back in the first place. Lawrence had watched him go, standing in front of the Possum but careful not to put his full weight on the boards of the building’s porch. Riech had turned back to look at what was left of Keeney’s Rock only once, and when he did, he spat on the ground. Then he pulled his hat down low over his eyes and kept on going.
Spring of last year, a letter had come through with the monthly stage. It was from Mattias Riech’s family. He had a sister back East, it seemed. The letter was addressed to the “Current Owner of Mattias Riech’s Former Holding.” In it, the poor woman inquired after her brother, asking that anyone with word of his whereabouts forward these to her. It seemed Mattias Riech had never made it back. No one ever saw him again.
Now, Keeney’s Rock was more than just dead or dying. It was torn up. The windows in the few buildings not yet abandoned were broken out. Another fire had scorched the front of Miss Stephanie’s cathouse. The street was littered with overturned wagons, trash, and -- Lawrence Keeney started, his hand on his Schofield -- a couple of dead bodies. He made for Barlowe’s General, not knowing what he’d find. The big two-story building, a little more solid than the others, with the street’s highest façade and a fresher paint job than those of its neighbors, didn’t appear to have suffered any.
Keeney threw open the door, his gun out, not knowing what had happened. The idea of an Indian raid seemed far fetched at best. But what and who else could have done all this damage overnight? Danny Boy, slinking along behind him, growled and then dashed behind the counter, where he seemed intent on holing up.
“Danny,” Keeney called. “Danny Boy. Come on.”
The dog wouldn’t budge. “Hell, stay there then. You ain’t mine, anyway. Never was.” Keeney shrugged. Either the dog would eventually come with him, or he wouldn’t.
The store had been more or less as it had always been, when he’d last seen it yesterday morning, saying his goodbyes. Hamp Barlowe was packing up and moving out, and with him gone the ghost town of Keeney’s Rock would finally breathe its death rattle. They could get by without a lot of things, but Barlowe’s General Store was the heart of what was left, and with Hamp leaving there just wasn’t a point to it, none at all. Keeney had made sure to square accounts with Hamp, getting a few coins for the “Indian” totems he carved and left with Hamp to sell. Keeney figured the asking price was no sin, especially for anyone stupid enough to be passing through and dumb enough to buy one.
The counter was still there, but the shelves behind it were empty. A few clumps of dust were all that was left of the stock Barlowe had packed up and taken with him. There was no sign of the shopkeep’s wagon, either, which made sense. Keeney was glad that, whatever had happened, Barlowe had probably left before it took place. He checked the back room of the store, finding a wooden crate with a few odds and ends Hamp hadn’t seen fit to pack. A dented tin cup, a few old shotgun shells, half a wax candle... there wasn’t much, but Keeney wondered for a moment why it had been left. He pictured Hamp crating up all his worldly goods, staring around the store he’d opened every day without fail for... how many years had it been? Small wonder he couldn’t bring himself to take every last stitch. Keeney figured that in Hamp’s place, he’d maybe have left something, too.
The ladder leading up to the second floor stared back at Keeney. There were no stairs and Barlowe had never seen fit to add any. There was just the ladder, and Lawrence couldn’t see himself and his bad back and his bad knee dragging up those rungs. There couldn’t be much to see up there, far as he knew.
He scratched his graying hair. What to do now? He’d come into town because he didn’t know what else to do. Whatever had been wrong with Seamus, it was bad wrong, and somebody else had to know about it -- but there was nobody else left to tell. Whatever horror had come to Keeney’s Rock had rolled the old bitch, emptied her pockets, and left her for dead. Keeney didn’t know as he was even sorry about that. He worried about Hamp and the others, though.
He checked Miss Stephanie’s next, leaving Danny to sulk at Barlowe’s. The aging madam was kind of a town fixture, even with no whores to sell and no customers to sell them to. Lawrence had always figured she’d stay in Keeney’s Rock until she died.
He was right.
What was... what was left of Miss Stephanie was all over the parlor of her brothel. Keeney had to back out for fear of losing his stomach to the smell. There was blood everywhere. Miss Stephanie was staring one-eyed up at the ceiling, gutted, a ragged hole where her throat had been, her face slashed so bad that the other eye was just... gone. Pieces of... meat... littered the floor. Keeney hung his head in disgust and hobbled away from that charnel house as fast the old hickory cane would carry him.
That’s when he heard it.
“Lawrence Keeney!” a voice bellowed. It was young and strong, alien in this place of decay and collapse. Keeney turned, wobbling on his feet, and shaded his eyes with his gun hand. The only too-familiar barrel of the Schofield was cold against his forehead.
“Lawrence Keeney!” the voice shouted again. Keeney realized there was a man approaching. He could just make out a horse tied to a hitching post at the far end of town. Between him and the horse was a newcomer in a duster, carrying a coach gun with the barrels pointed skyward. The gray light of day flashed on the glass of the man’s spectacles. Keeney realized that he knew this man.
“Carl?” Lawrence called out. “Carl Sutter?”
“That’s right, you son of a bitch,” Carleton Sutter boomed. “Do you hear that, old man? It’s justice, and it’s coming for you.”
“It’s a fire, you idiot,” Lawrence said, “and it’s going to eat what’s left of this town and us in it.”
Sutter paused as he neared, taking in the damage and the corpses. He faltered, his coach gun wavering in his fist. “What the hell--” He stopped then, looking past Keeney. “You stay out of this, Barlowe! Just leave like you said you would. This is none of your affair!”
Lawrence whipped his head around, following Sutter’s gaze. Hamp Barlowe, still wearing his shop apron, was walking slowly toward him. He’d come from around the corner of Miss Stephanie’s.
His lower jaw and chest were covered in blood.
“Oh, God!” Keeney shouted. He ran, hobbling and stumbling, almost falling as he went, going straight for Sutter.
“What are you doing?” Sutter said, lowering the coach gun. “Stop where you are, you old bastard, and face me like a man if you’ve--”
“Shoot him!” Lawrence said as he stumbled over to Sutter and then past him. “Shoot him before he gets close to us!”
“What?” Sutter turned to watch the older man, but his coach gun steadied, pointed in Hamp Barlowe’s direction. “Shoot Hamp Barlowe? What the hell for?”
“He ain’t right!” Lawrence said, drawing his Schofield. Sutter’s shotgun twitched a couple of inches toward Keeney until the younger man realized the revolver was pointing at Barlowe.
“What do you mean, he’s not right?” Sutter asked, confused. Then he took the time really to look at Hamp Barlowe. The man shuffled unnaturally, his head held at a strange angle. He was covered in dark, red stains. “Blood,” Sutter whispered. “He’s covered in blood.”
“And you can bet it ain’t his!” Keeney said. “Shoot him!”
“What’s going on here?” Sutter demanded.
“It’s a sickness, a plague or something,” Keeney said quickly. “Hell, maybe it’s witchcraft. I don’t rightly know! All I know is I shot Seamus Finnerty full of holes and he didn’t die until I finally plugged him in the head. He wanted something from me. He wanted what poor Hamp wants now. He’s coming for us!”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Sutter said. He took a step forward, letting Hamp Barlowe close on him. “Hamp, are you all right?” he asked. “Are you sick?”
Hamp Barlowe’s dead, white eyes widened. His bared his bloody teeth and hissed, reaching out for Carleton Sutter. Sutter reacted on instinct, putting the barrels of his shotgun between the bloody man and his own chest. Barlowe clamped down on the heavy metal, breaking off several teeth in the process. He roared, the sound moist and ragged in his throat, lurching against the shotgun, desperate to reach Sutter’s flesh.
“Jesus!” Sutter whispered. He lashed out with a vicious kick, planting his snakeskin boot against Hamp Barlowe’s chest, pushing the man back.
“Shoot him!” Keeney urged again.
Sutter leveled the shotgun, both hammers eared back. “Barlowe, stay away!”
Hamp Barlowe howled wetly. Sutter blasted him with both barrels, the roar of the short-barreled coach gun deafening on the desolate street.
Barlowe staggered. He blinked his milk-white eyes, his mouth lolling open. Then he hissed and charged again, bowling over a shocked Carleton Sutter and taking him to the ground. Sutter yelled in sudden terror as the old shopkeeper pinned him, sinking broken teeth deep in the younger man’s shoulder as Sutter clawed desperately for one his revolvers.
Lawrence Keeney hobbled closer, put the barrel of his Schofield to Hamp Barlowe’s forehead, and blew the man’s brains all over the street.
Barlowe collapsed like a wet sack of grain. Sutter crawled out from beneath him, cradling his bloody left shoulder, shaking and pale.
“What... what was he?” He whispered the words, the knuckles of his right hand white as he squeezed at the bite wound Hamp Barlowe had made through Sutter’s duster.
“He weren’t right,” Keeney shrugged. “Don’t know what’s going on. Don’t care. We got to get out of here.”
“You saved my life,” Sutter said.
“Probably not my finest decision,” Keeney snorted. “I suppose you’re going to extract justice now? Jesus, boy, the way you talk. They teach you all that speechifying back East?”
Sutter bristled. He let go of his shoulder, his hand making a half-hearted path towards one of his Peacemakers.
“Going to gun me down, youngster?” Keeney said, squaring off, still leaning on his cane. The Schofield was still in his grip. “Figure you can draw down on me before I put one in you?”
Sutter frowned behind his glasses. “You got it coming,” he said, a trace of his Kansas accent cutting through his Easterner’s voice.
“Do I, now?” Keeney said. “I suppose you’d see it that way. Well, come on, young man. I got nothin’ to lose. Hell, I was fixing to eat a bullet myself, just this morning. You want to do it for me, you just try. I’ll warn you, though. I’m feeling just stubborn enough to put one in you before you can, just for spite.”
Sutter’s left eye twitched. His hand hovered over the butt of the holstered Colt. “I should.”
“You should, at that,” Keeney dared. He looked past Sutter then, his eyes widening. “Oh, shit.”
Sutter glanced back -- and cursed himself for a fool, for falling for the old trick. His hand slapped the wooden grip of his revolver just as realized that Keeney wasn’t drawing on him, after all.
“There, damn you!” Keeney pointed.
It was then that they heard the moaning, over the wind and the crackle of the distant fire. From the edge of town, they came.
Scores of them.
“Oh, Jesus,” Sutter finally drew his revolver, slowly, careful to keep the barrel pointed to the ground. Are they...?”
“Like Seamus,” Keeney nodded. “And poor Hamp. Look at ‘em, boy. Look at how they walk.”
“They’re slow,” Sutter said.
“Slow and awkward,” Keeney nodded, already hobbling out of the street, headed back to Barlowe’s General. “But determined. They ain’t right, just like Hamp weren’t right, just like Seamus. They’re comin’ for us, Carl. Get on, if you’re getting. We’ve got to move.”
Sutter hesitated, his mind reeling as he took in the horrible sight. The crowd of people -- were they people, really, anymore? -- staggered down the street in a loose mob at least sixty strong. They stumbled over each other, some of them moaning, some of them making the same empty, hungry, hissing noises Hamp Barlowe had made. Many were bloody. Some were missing limbs, or pieces of limbs. A few dragged themselves along the ground; Sutter wasn’t sure, at this distance, but he thought at least one of these was missing the lower half of its body completely, ropes of its intestines dragging in the dirt behind it.
“Come on, damn you!” Keeney called. “You can’t make your horse!”
Sutter looked back the way he’d come. Another mob was moving in slowly from the opposite end of the street. As Sutter watched, unable to grasp what he saw, several of the... creatures... descended on his mount, clawing at the animal with grasping hands. The spooked palomino, terrified, snapped the reins holding it to the hitching post, trampling one of its attackers as it reared back and lashed out with its hooves. Then it fled, scattering the slow-moving, bloody townspeople surrounding it, its hoof beats fading on the wind as it ran off.
“Sutter!” Keeney yelled again. “You want to die out there? Come on!”
Sutter shook his head violently and finally ran for it, snatching up his shotgun as he went, overtaking Keeney as the older man made for Barlowe’s. Without a word, he put an arm around Keeney’s shoulder and lifted him slightly, helping Keeney to move faster, the tip of the hickory cane dragging in the dirt as the two men scrambled desperately through the doorway. Once they cleared it, Sutter slammed the door shut and found the wooden bar Hamp used, ramming it into place.
“Shit,” Keeney said. He was looking at the big window in the storefront. Through the distorted pane, he could see the two groups of... whatever they were... coming together, their heads slowly turning, fixing on Barlowe’s and the two men within. Behind the counter, Danny Boy whined.
“They’re going to come right through,” Sutter said quietly. “What do we do?”
Keeney glanced around, stricken. Then he blinked. “That’s it!” he said.
“What?” Sutter grimaced against the pain in his wounded shoulder as he broke open his coach gun and reloaded it with shells from his belt bag.
“Up the ladder,” Keeney said. “You’ve seen ‘em. They don’t move at all like people do.”
“They move like string puppets,” Sutter said. “Like they don’t quite know how.”
“That’s right,” Keeney said, his cane clicking against the floorboards as he made for the back room. “And I’m betting none of them can climb a ladder for shit! Come on. Help me with Danny. He’s going to put up a hell of a fight getting up there.”
* * * * *
Getting Danny Boy up to the second floor was nothing compared to Lawrence’s own arduous climb. Without Sutter to practically push him up from beneath, he’d never have made it, and he didn’t mind admitting that fact. Danny spent the night alternatively whining, barking, and howling, never quite coming to rest. Even when he finally curled up in a corner of the floor, the noise from below kept his tail twitching like mad. The big wolf-like animal growled deeply every few minutes, not at all happy with what was happening.
Keeney couldn’t much blame the poor dog. The monsters -- Sutter had declared, emphatically, that these creatures weren’t people at all, not anymore, and Keeney couldn’t help but agree -- had broken through only minutes after the two men climbed the ladder. After spending a day and most of the night trapped in the General Store, Keeney was sick and tired of the murderous whatever-they-were. They were below even now, moaning and clutching at the rungs of the ladder, desperate to get at the men above but unable to manage it. Lawrence fancied he could hear the increasing frustration in their guttural noises, but that might have been his morbid imagination at work.
They hadn’t slept a wink, of course, even as boredom took hold and the hours wore on. Sutter reloaded, unloaded, and reloaded his revolvers and shotgun. Keeney shucked the empty from his Schofield, reloaded the chamber, and left the gun well enough alone after that. He thought Carl Sutter looked awfully pale, and in truth the younger man started to get the sweats as the night wore on. Keeney couldn’t tell if it was shock, or what it was. He began to wonder.
Both men knew they were simply delaying the inevitable. It was likely they’d die up here, surrounded by monsters, or die down there, ripped apart or eaten or God knew what else. Like any man does, though, they hung to every minute they could. The thought made Lawrence Keeney laugh. He considered the Schofield on his belt. Putting that bullet in his brain seemed awfully far away, now.
Around three in the morning, by Sutter’s pocket watch, they began to talk.
“I came back to kill you,” Sutter said. He sat slumped at one of the two windows, staring out the broken pane at the creatures moving slowly below. He spoke without looking at Lawrence Keeney, his expression flat, exhaustion behind his words. Sweat beaded on his brow. The bloody wound in his shoulder had crusted over and no longer seemed to be paining him, but Keeney noticed that Sutter did not move his left arm.
“I figured as much,” Keeney nodded. “You still could.”
“We’ve got all the time in the world, eh?” Sutter said weakly. He started shaking. Keeney glanced at him, concerned, before realizing the younger man was simply laughing silently at his own joke. “Where did they all come from, anyway? There’s more of those... things... than there were people in this town.”
“I suspect a lot of them walked from Templeton Center,” Keeney said. “Somethin’ fitting about that, seeing as how it was Templeton Center that got the railroad, and Templeton Center that prospered while Keeney’s Rock died. I suspect all those good citizens are wandering about outside now, wondering why they can’t die.”
“Walked? But that must have taken--”
“Yeah,” Keeney said. “Whatever’s going on, it’s been going on for a while before getting here.”
“What do you figure it is?”
“Like I said, plague, or witchcraft, or something,” the old man brushed his fingers through his graying hair. “Who knows?”
“I never figured on dying like this,” Sutter said.
“No, you figured to kill me,” Keeney shot back.
“I did, yes.” They sat in silence for a time.
“You want me to tell you what happened?” Keeney finally offered.
“I know what happened,” Sutter said, some of his anger coming back. “You were the newspaperman back then. You had the bully pulpit. You feuded with Bill and Robby and then poisoned the town against them. When they tried to make it right, you made sure they hanged for it.”
Keeney peered at the near-sighted young man in the darkness. “Is that what you really think? That I’m some mean old son of a bitch who just enjoys seeing people swing when they wrong him?”
“Carl,” Keeney shook his head. “You were just a kid when your mother sent you to New York. I figured you’d make something of yourself, what with the fancy education you was gonna get. Why didn’t you?”
“I had to come back here and make things right,” Sutter said quietly.
“Did you?” Keeney eyed him, pawing at the plank floor with the tip of his father’s cane. Beneath him, something moaned. It was a long, low wail that seemed to pierce the floorboards and rattle his ribcage.
“So,” Sutter said. “Tell me.”
“I was the man, yes,” Keeney admitted. “I was the editor in chief. I ran that paper, way back when. Not a word went on the page that I didn’t approve. And it was no secret that I had no use for bullies and ruffians in Keeney’s Rock. I said so. I wrote editorial after editorial about the lower element running roughshod in this town.”
“A lower element that included my brothers.”
“Well, that’s what they were, Carl,” Keeney insisted. “You were barely a teenager when you left, full of hero worship for Robby and Bill. It never once occurred to you that the two of them were the closest thing we had to outlaws in Keeney’s Rock. I said so, more than once. Finally, late one night, the two of them trashed the newspaper office. When that didn’t stop me, they came looking for me.”
Sutter waited. When Keeney said nothing, he nodded. “Go on.”
“Carl, they beat me as like to kill me. Left me for dead. Broke my back, or near ‘bout it. I haven’t known a day without pain since.”
Sutter looked down at the floor. “Bill and Robby did that?”
“And then some,” Keeney said. “It didn’t take a genius to figure it out, of course, but they were sloppy, too. Somebody saw ‘em come to the office that night, and that same somebody saw ‘em leave. It was some miner, some fellow long since gone. Paul, something. Don’t matter. What matters is, Bill and Robby were convicted of trying to murder me. The town had had enough. They hanged for it, and for everything else they’d ever done.”
“I... I didn’t know.”
“No, you didn’t,” Keeney said without anger. “You just showed up here, fit to kill me for something I slept through. I was in bed for two months, Carl. Bill and Robby were dead before I even woke up the first time.”
“All I could think about,” Sutter almost whispered, “was making you pay for what you did. I finished school, and then I bought my guns, and I practiced every chance I got. When I was ready... when I was ready, I came looking for you. When I got into town yesterday, I saw Hamp Barlowe. He said he was getting ready to leave, and when I asked after you, he thought I was a friend. Told me you’d said you were leaving for good come morning.”
“I was,” Keeney chuckled. “And if I’d left, you’d have found me.”
“I don’t understand,” Sutter said. “I came out this morning to stop you, kill you before you left.”
“And if I hadn’t run into poor Seamus, you’d have been too late,” Keeney laughed again. “Carl, I was fixing to shoot myself this morning. I got up, burned my cabin to the ground, and was about to plug myself when all this started.”
“What?” Sutter looked surprised. “Why?”
“Look at me, boy,” Keeney said. “I’m old. I’m broken. I live in pain. Hamp Barlowe was my last friend in the world, and when he told me he was finally packing up and moving out, that was the last straw. What good is a town without a General Store? It’s a ghost town with one old whore and an empty livery. There was no point any more. Keeney’s Rock is done, and I figured I was about done with it.”
“So you just... decided to...”
“Decided to end myself?” Keeney asked. “That’s about it, yes. I said goodbye to Hamp, got myself one last night’s sleep, and then got up today fixing to see the last of it. I felt kind of bad about Danny Boy,” Keeney nodded to the dog sleeping fitfully in the corner, “but I figured he started out wild, so he’d be okay wild again.”
“And now look at you,” Sutter chuckled. “You’re still alive, and fighting to stay that way.”
“I reckon that’s how it goes, yes,” Keeney smiled.
“I imagine so,” Sutter said, closing his eyes.
* * * * *
Dawn rose cold and bright. The noise below had not abated. The monsters had started leaning on the ladder, breaking a few of the lower rungs but not dislodging it completely. They still had not attempted to climb up, nor did Sutter or Keeney believe they would be able to do so. Keeney checked his revolver and tried to calm Danny Boy before he realized that Sutter had grown worse.
The man was deathly white, his lips almost blue. His left arm was hanging limply by his side and had turned a purplish black. Keeney thought he could smell rot, the smell of death, coming from the younger man.
“Carl,” he said.
“I know,” Sutter said weakly. He managed to stand, his left arm still swinging, bracing himself against the window frame with his right hand. “Keeney, whatever happened to Hamp Barlowe... I think it’s happening to me.”
“It... it might just be an infection,” Lawrence suggested.
“It probably is,” Sutter nodded. “Whatever turned those people out there into monsters... it’s doing it to me now. I feel all wrong, Lawrence,” Sutter said, using Keeney’s given name for the first time. “I’m... dying inside. I can feel it happening.”
“You... you want me to, ah, send you on your way?” Keeney offered quietly.
“I have a better idea,” Sutter said. He began unbuckling one of his gun belts. “Take this Peacemaker. Take the shotgun and the shells. I haven’t but one arm anymore, anyway.”
“Take them and do what?”
“Save yourself, and the dog,” Sutter said. “Those things... they followed us. They know we’re up here, and that’s why they won’t go away. I’m... I’m going to lead them away, while there’s still enough of me to do it. I’m taking one of my guns, too. I might need it, either for them or... for me. When I lead them away, you get out of here. I’ll take them to the far end of town. You go the other way. Maybe you can even find my horse, if he’s still around. He answers to my whistle. Can you whistle?”
“I can manage.”
“Good,” Sutter said. He handed his second gunbelt and revolver to the older man, then gave Keeney the oilcloth bag of shells. The coach gun was on the floor and he left it there.
“Are you sure about this?”
“Hell,” Sutter said. “I’m dead already.”
“Carl,” Keeney said. “Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me, you old buzzard,” Sutter grinned. “Give me the satisfaction of at least living up to my low opinion of you.” Before Keeney could answer, Sutter heaved himself out the window.
The bull-necked man landed with a groan on the ground below, raising a collective moan from the monsters waiting. Keeney hobbled to the window and looked out, flinching back as several shots rang out. Sutter had shot two of the monsters in the head to make a hole in the crowd. Now he was half-running, half falling, drawing them away. Either he was being careful to move slowly enough so the creatures could keep up, or he was so far gone he couldn’t move any faster. Keeney couldn’t tell. He watched as Sutter drew the mob away and around the corner of the old livery, out of sight of Barlowe’s.
“Come on, Danny,” Lawrence said. “No time to lose.”
* * * * *
He didn’t so much climb as slide and fall down the ladder, but he managed, even with the added burden of the second gunbelt looped over his arm, and the coach gun cradled under his elbow. Danny followed with a yelp, leaping down from the second story without hesitation. Keeney eared back the hammers on the coach gun and carried it one hand, using his cane and pushing himself for all he was worth, putting distance between himself and the store.
Sutter’s palomino, as it turned out, hadn’t gotten far. Keeney found the animal on the outskirts of town. It was skittish, at first, but Lawrence assumed it could tell the difference between a living, breathing man and one of the monsters. It proved a cooperative and even docile mount, once Danny got through running around and barking and generally making a nuisance of himself, in that way that dogs have with horses they’ve only just met.
Keeney saw none of the monsters. He pointed Sutter’s horse away from town and nudged the animal forward, for once barely feeling the pain his back. He realized something, then. He was grateful to be alive. He guessed he’d known that from the moment he saw the look on Carl Sutter’s pale face -- the look of a man who knows he’s dead, knows there’s nothing for it. It was the look of a man who picks up a gun and realizes he’s staring at a dead man’s hand, holding a gun that can only spread more of the same. Carl Sutter had known, in those last moments. Keeney knew it too.
Yes, he was grateful. He would fight to live. With the shotgun at the ready and his pistols on his belt, Lawrence Keeney left Keeney’s Rock for the last time. He did not look back.
Somewhere in the distance, at the other end of town, a single shot rang out.