A while back I had been looking for writing contests to enter so that I could start building my writing resume, when I came across a lit mag for western writers. I am not really into writing westerns, but I am from West Texas and I know more about cowboys and the open range than the average bear; and the criteria for the next contest had been horror. A western horror story.
This excited me more than I had expected and it didn't take long for the creative juices to spit out an idea of cowboys fighting zombies. Three vivid scenes - as vivid as a memory - bubbled up to my conscious.
The first, was of a man making a run for it out of a shoot out, but being gunned down by a sheriff. He falls to the ground, skids a little ways, kicking up a cloud of dust around him. The sheriff laughs and his deputies congratulate themselves. Then, no one notices as the dead man stiffly gets to his feet, and then clambers towards the men who shot him with nothing but brains on his mind.
The second was of a woman trapped in a small jail cell, trying to escape as the man in the cell next to her as changed into a zombie, and is stopping at nothing to get past the bars and into the cell with her. The thought of being trapped next to someone who is willing to break every bone in his body and pull himself around with his fingernails to kill you - is really terrifying to me. =)
The third was of a small white church exploding in a ball of fire and spray of wood, impaling and burning the zombies who surrounded it.
Those thoughts pretty much came to me on their own. The job was to link those images together and make a story out of them. A few weeks later, I had my outline. I still don't have a title for this story - I hate coming up with titles - but I'm working on it. I'm also open for suggestions! =D
So, now, without much further ado I would like to share with you the beginning of my short story. Caution - scenes contain violence and death and strong language.
A piercing scream shot through the night.
Rhett sat straight up. His Colt Peacemaker was cocked in his hand before he’d even fully awoken. Wide eyed, he searched the dark desert for his demons. But the landscape was empty.
From the corner of his bloodshot eye he could just make out Lee standing stalk still a few yards out from the campsite. His white long johns caught the light of the moon, giving him a glowing, phantom-like appearance. Lee took three deliberate steps backwards. His gun belt was tied fast around his waist, all three of his guns in the holsters.
“Somethin’s out there,” he reported. There was an even, almost jaded tone to his voice. No trace of fear.
Rhett stood and padded over to his right hand man. They had been drafted into the same North Carolina regiment during the war, and had ridden together ever since. Rhett and Lee had saved each other’s lives no fewer than six times. Not that either one was counting.
“Maybe it’s Munson or Ricky.” Rhett suggested. They had taken the first watch and should have been up by the campfire with the horses. Rhett cupped his hand to his mouth and whistled a quail call.
“I’ll take the perimeter.” Lee rested his hands on his guns and marched into the darkness.
That left Rhett to check around the fire. Keeping his gun drawn he quietly crept towards the faint embers smoldering ahead. There was no time and no use in putting on a shirt or boots. The devil didn’t care how you looked when you came to meet him.
Rhett reached the fire, but there was no sign of his men. The horses were still tied to a nearby mesquite tree, their ears pricked and alert but otherwise calm. An armadillo carcass hung off a makeshift spit above the fire. Rhett bent down to inspect the sandy ground. There were a few solid footprints here and there, but no traces of a struggle.
Sighing, he sat down on the twisted trunk of an old tree. Rhett rubbed his eyes. It was too damn late and he was too damn tired to make sense of this.
Back when the war first started, he would have chalked this disappearance up to his men simply goofing off and not following orders. But he had seen too much since then. Now he always expected the worst; The very worst.
While Rhett struggled to shake the fatigue from his eyes, he did not notice two hands stretching up from behind the tree like two snakes poised and ready to strike; the rigid fingers curved like so many fangs. Slowly the limbs rose higher. Then, with impeccable speed, the hands struck. The fingers clamped down on Rhett’s shoulders and tore him off the tree.
He kicked and flailed as he slammed into the ground. His Peacemaker slipped out of his hand and landed a few feet away. A guttural, inhuman snarl roared in his ears. The attacker pinned him to the ground.
It was Munson.
Rather, what used to be Munson. What was once the chiseled face of a good man was now the bloated, putrid face of evil. The eyes - so full of blood - oozed from the corners like crimson tears. Grisly chunks of red clung to the thick moustache. The mouth growled and snapped at Rhett’s flesh. The tongue wriggled like a worm and the teeth clacked together with each empty bite.
Rhett punched Munson in the head to try and back him off. He delivered blow after blow but the undeterred head continued chomping at the air. Rhett reached out for his gun. The head lunged. The clammy lips brushed against his cheek.
Rhett abandoned the gun and focused on keeping Munson at bay. He grabbed the head by the ears and pushed it as far away as he could. Snarling and grunting, the horrible head pressed closer and closer to his face.
With a loud thwack, hot blood sprayed across Rhett’s face. Munson – head and body – rolled off of him. He sprang for his gun and spun around, just in time to see Lee removing his Apache tomahawk from Munson’s skull.
Relieved, Rhett relaxed his wrist and let the barrel of his gun see the sky. He wiped his face on his forearm. That made for the seventh time Lee had saved his life. Not that he was counting.
Lee took a step towards him. He held the tomahawk tightly in his fist and cocked his elbow. He eyed his friend suspiciously.
“You bit?” He demanded.
Rhett stepped closer to the light of the fire. He knew Lee wouldn’t take his word for it, just like he would never take Lee’s word on having been bitten. Countless numbers of men – dependable, honest men - had lied about being bitten by the dead, and countless numbers of lives had been lost because of it.
Lee followed Rhett to the light keeping his weapon raised and ready. The fire cast awkward shadows over Lee’s rough face, and deepened the scar that ran from below his right eye down to his chin, distorting the corner of his mouth into a constant sneer. With sharp eyes he inspected Rhett’s body for wounds, but found none. He lowered the tomahawk.
“Did you find Ricky?” Rhett asked.
“Parts of him.”
Rhett shook his head. There was no use in asking how or why this had happened. Some things weren’t meant to be known.
“Let’s get what’s left into the fire.”
The fire bulged and licked the sky as the flames greedily devoured Munson’s body. Greed and hunger, thought Rhett. That’s what keeps this world spinning.
“Somethin’ on your mind, Rhett?” Lee asked, tossing Ricky’s arm into the hungry flames.
“Just keep thinkin’ about why we’re doin’ this. All the killin’ we done, all the bodies we burned…it doesn’t seem to be doin’ no good. The dead keep rising. The innocent keep dying.”
“Someone’s got to do somethin’. It might as well be us.”
Rhett knew Lee was right. It didn’t matter how tired and how sick he was of riding and killing. He was a man of action. He could no sooner stand by and let the Devil devour the world than he could stand by and let some thief steal his horse. This was his calling; the only thing he’d ever been good at. This was his crusade.
“It’s another day’s ride to Boracho,” Rhett said. “We’ll pick up reinforcements there. If there’s anything left.”