Lovely’s first shot took the zombie square in the skull. Pow, it’s all over. Again. Second shot was just for fun, really. Showing off. Cracked the thing in the chest, set him spinning like a top.
I didn’t even bother drawing. No sense waving at air.
“Neatly done,” I said, by way of contribution.
Lovely smiled, twirled his pistol back into his holster.
That smile still made me wince. First thing to know about Lovely is that he wasn’t. Lovely, that is. Hadn’t been lovely before they got at him with the tar and feathers, wasn’t no lovelier now. Good sort, though. Or leastways good enough.
“You figure them was what we was after, Rope?”
I shook my head. “A few new-dead, still restless and smelling of sunshine? Nah. Gotta’ be something more to it. Pay was too good. Villagers were too scared.”
We skirted the mess and kept on. Fact was we didn’t know quite what we were after. Not so unusual in our line of work; folk can get real close lipped about their local heebie-jeebies. Often they figured they were partially to blame for whatever nasty was prowling about. Often they were right.
Well, we’d worked from less in the past. We were still upright and walking.
I took a swig from the canteen at my hip. Lovely raised an eyebrow.
“Ain’t that the holy water?”
I almost spat. He was right, though. Sort of. Lovely had a powerful respect for holy water, even though in my experience it was precisely as useful as it’s unsanctified counterpart. There was a good chance I’d told him we were well stocked with the stuff. In the jug I was sipping from.
I thought a moment, then had another pull before slipping the canteen back onto its hook.
“Reckon if we find something in need of a holy dousing, I can just have a piss.”
Lovely’s mouth opened in a little “o”, like maybe that there was the wisest thing he’d ever heard me say. Hell, maybe it was. I wasn’t exactly renowned for my pontificating.
Another mile of overgrown trail before Lovely stopped, squinting below a hand against the waning light.
“Something there, Rope.”
Squint as I might, I couldn’t see a thing. Lovely always had the better vision.
I shrugged. “Weapons, then.”
Lovely reached for his pearl hilted revolver—I caught his wrist.
“Red this time, I’m thinking.” His red revolver had a bit more backing up the bullet. The quiet of the wood all around had that kind of feel.
Lovely raised an eyebrow, but reached for the red.
Proved the right choice. Another fifty paces we could see them clearly. Undead, and no spring daisies, neither. I put them at a hundred years on the wrong side of breathing.
Lovely watched as I had myself a nice quiet bout of cursing. When it comes to the restless dead, old is bad; they get smarter with age, or leastways less stupid. And damned if I didn’t hate killing zombies, besides. Like killing family.
I let loose a long suffering sigh. “Right then. Usual tact. We clear what needs to be cleared, find what’s causing the fuss, and deal with it. Should be out before full dark.”
Lovely had a glance at the sky, one more back toward the two zombies standing sentinel over the path. He rolled his eyes. “You say so, Rope.”
Wasn’t his faith just a shining beacon?
But hell, we’d done this a time or two before. Didn’t have to stop and chit-chat about it. I took the left while Lovely swung around to the far right. I waited a slow count of thirty, drew my pistol, sighted, and let fly.
My shot popped the dead man right above the eye, which is a pretty good place for it. Should have been enough to put him out of commission, since your average zombie is just looking for any old excuse to lie down and go back to sleep. This one proved a regular go-getter, though. Shrugged off that bit of enchanted lead like it wasn’t nothing but a bee sting, and out he comes after me, faster than any zombie had a right to be.
I’m a man of many talents, but grappling with an overzealous undead don’t place among them. I lit out of there.
“A little help here!” I shouted
Lucky for me, Lovely had fared a mite better. He saw my plight and put a bullet in the leg of my new friend. Slowed him down enough to let me gain a little ground.
All I needed. I hopped over a log, spun about and sent three shots hurtling right through the zombie’s brainpan. Bam, bam, bam.
Poor fella’. All that gumption didn’t mean squat in the end.
Lovely caught up to me, fumbling his pistol into his holster when he saw I was alright. He eyed my erstwhile tagalong.
I was still breathing hard, could only nod. Just about as tough as zombies come.
It was about then we heard the rest of them as they stumbled down the trail. I’d say a good dozen, and every one of them as aged and eager as the one who’d almost caught me.
“Son of a bitch.”
Lovely drew the red again, and, after a moment’s hard thought, drew the pearl, too.
I sighed and shook my head, took a step forward. “Too many. Get behind me.”
Lovely winced. He knew what that meant. “You gotta’, Rope?”
“Don’t see any help for it.”
He nodded wistfully and tucked his guns away, took a step behind me. Then he pulled the brim of his hat down over his ears and held tight.
I reached back to my shoulder-holster and drew out Selis. Prettiest damn shotgun you ever saw. Double silver barrels, silver inlays up and down the stock. A real beaut.
Still, I hated to use her, because she hated being used.
She came out screaming, same as always, such a high-pitched howl it set your teeth to aching. The mess of zombies in front heard it, too. They stopped short and tilted their heads like a pack of dogs at a whistle. Truth be told, wouldn’t have mattered if they’d sprouted wings and headed skyward. Selis would have her due.
The hammers flashed and flames leapt sputtering from those pretty silver barrels like the gates of hell unbarred. A wall of fire struck the zombies and splattered the lot like a row of overcooked tomatoes.
I was thankful for my hat as our little clearing started raining bits of charred zombie. I put Selis away; she’d done her part, and besides, after a performance like that she wouldn’t be worth a damn without a good long rest. Fussy as any other woman that way.
Time to see what was stirring up all the trouble.
About a hundred feet on there was a bit of a hill, and up on top of that hill was a sad, shallow excuse for a grave. Sitting beside that grave, on a rickety pinewood coffin, was a dead woman holding a baby.
She was a spirit, not a zombie. Small blessings. She glanced up as we neared. “Please. Please don’t hurt my baby. He’s innocent. I swear, mister. He ain’t even marked.”
I got my first good look of our restless spirit, and all the pieces came together. The tell-tale purple splotches on the woman’s hands as well as spelled it out. She had herself the marking disease.
Marking disease was ugly, no denying. A casual touch could pass it on, and there wasn’t no cure. Thing was, it was harmless. Just left its mark and moved on. Nobody ever died of the marking disease, leastways not without the help of human fear.
Seemed pretty clear what had happened, then. Young mother came home showing signs of marking, and the townsfolk up and panicked. Stuck her in a box, dragged it out here and buried it.
Murder, plain and simple. Still, times being what they were, might have been something a man could let pass—weren’t for the baby. I had a good look at the little thing. Not a spot on him. Not a hint. Yet those townfolk had stuffed him in that box right along with his mother.
Someone should answer for a thing like that.
But wonder of wonders, the boy was still squirming. His mother’s restless spirit had managed to sustain him. Damned if I know how. She’d even drafted a few of the local dead to stand guard. Hell of a thing.
Lovely looked downright angry, which was a wonder in itself. “They shouldn’t oughta done that to no baby, Rope.”
“I’m inclined to agree.” I pulled off my hat. “Ma’am. Happens I know a good woman up north who lost her boy about a year back. Nothing in the world would make her so pleased as a chance to look after such a fine child.”
The spirit seemed to understand. I motioned Lovely forward and she set the boy into his arms.
“Now it’s time for you to rest, ma’am.” A sad nod, a final, imploring glance at her baby boy, and the woman drifted away, all smoke-in-the-wind like.
“What now, Rope?”
“Deliver that child to its new home.”
“Then back here. Refund some coin for an unfinished job.” I stuffed my hat back on my head. “And then I reckon some folk gonna’ pay what they owe.”
My friend Lovely grinned like a wolf.