West Texas – 1857
A soft breeze blew through the tops of the reeds on both sides of the small creek, whistling slowly as a summer sweet song across the prairie. She dipped her feet in the cool waters and wriggled her toes as she spotted a large black catfish roaming the bottom of the creek bed. She couldn’t remember the last time she had seen waters so clear. The calm trickle of water lapped over a large rounded rock covered in moss like a green cap in the center and was wrinkled like her father’s bald forehead. She stood up and then, licking her lips, leapt into the shallow creek feet first.
‘Careful, Rebecca,’ cried Joe, her brother, not too far behind.
His voice startled her and nearly made her lose balance in the slimy mud of the creek-bed that swallowed her up to her ankles.
She glanced back at the river's edge and spotted her brother’s bright blonde hair and brown poncho. He was three years her senior and had begun to apprentice under their father as a blacksmith. The prospect filled Rebecca with jealousy. She couldn’t wait to wield the hammer and slam it on the anvil like father did and seeing Joe begin to learn how to do just that was unfair, if anyone asked her. No one did, of course. No one cared what an eleven year-old girl had to say about anything.
Then, she realized she had soiled the new yellow dress that mother had just stitched for her. She sighed as she knew she would be scolded harshly once she returned to the birch-wood wagon and mother caught a glimpse of her. She would probably tan her hide, she surmised. Well, since she was already going to be in trouble, might as well be more thorough in her mischief.
‘Get back here this instant, little sister! You’re not done practicing yet. Mother said to practice the flute at least for an hour, and it’s only been five minutes.’
Rebecca stuck her tongue at him and waded to the shore. Joe held his hand out to her and she took it. He pulled her out in one yank nearly popping her arm out of its socket and plopped her onto the dry grass. She clenched her teeth but didn’t whimper rubbing her shoulder with a grimace. Joe, though only fifteen, was built like an ox. A small ox to be sure, but it was more than obvious he would grow into a giant of a man as strong as father if not stronger. He smiled and shook his head.
‘Come now, you were just learning the chorus,’ but then the smile died on his lips and his face turned bright red, his eyes bolted to the creek edge behind Rebecca.
She turned to see what Joe had seen and gasped, dropping the flute into the grass. A man floated face down in the river. An aura of black blood trailed behind and around him staining the clear waters into a murky black. Sunlight glinted off a red pistol still in his hand. He had three arrow shafts stuck in his back, many bullet holes in his body, and his flesh was charred as if he had been in a fire. The body floated past her and Joe silently leaving behind the stench of death. Rebecca signed at him.
‘You’re right, we’ve strayed too far. We must return to the wagon. Mother will be wondering where we wandered off to,’ said Joe, holding his hand out to her. She nodded and took his hand and they both crouched into the reeds and began to make their way downriver.
The skies had suddenly grown dark and the sweet scent of summer that blew in her hair only moments before had turned bitter cold. Fear gripped at her shoulders and she squeezed Joe's hand hard reassuring her that he would protect her should anything happen.
Suddenly, a loud splashing noise caught their ears. They turned in the direction of the creek to see the outline of a man rise from the dark waters. Three arrows poked from his back and a bright fire burned in his eyes. Water dripped from the brim of his hat as he stared at them. He held a red revolver at his side.
Rebecca gasped and Joe darted over the hill. Dark clouds began to collect overhead or was it smoke?
Suddenly, the sound of three gunshots echoed across the plains.
‘Father,’ gasped Joe. They rounded the hill to see their wagon in flames. Mother lay on the ground, unmoving as did Father. Joe ran to the burning carriage dragging his sister in tow.
He ran to Mother, but she was not breathing as she rested on a pool of blood.
‘What happened?’ he gasped.
He turned with tears in his eyes to Father who had his back on a large stone. ‘Run to Tumbleweed. Uncle Ross will help you. He’s never liked me but he’s family.’ He held his revolver and bullet belt out to Joe.
‘Father, we can’t just leave you.’
‘You don’t have a choice, son. Take your sister. Run now!’
A high-pitched scream pierced the crackling of flames. Rebecca looked to see a line of men stumbling towards them. Joe snatched the revolver and ammunition from his Father’s hands. Another scream, but this time it came from behind the wagon.
‘The horses!’ shouted Joe.
He pulled Rebecca around the wagon to see the stumbling men around the horses. The older horse was on the ground with a couple men crouched at its neck tearing muscle and drinking blood.
‘They’re eating Cobb,’ gasped Joe in utter horror. ‘They’re just eating him.’
The younger horse, Hector, still had fight in it as three tried to surround it. It kicked and whinnied in protest.
Joe aimed his revolver and squeezed it four times. He downed two instantly but the third turned and with a howl and raced at them. Flesh clung to his face and his bones were exposed. His eyes were white as he ran at them with mouth agape. Rebecca squealed and buried her face in her brother’s shirt. Just then, Hector charged with a loud snort and trampled the stumbler into the ground, stomping on its head crushing it instantly.
Satisfied and panting, the horse stared at the children.
‘It’s me, boy. It’s Joe,’ he whispered.
Rebecca tapped on her brother’s sleeve and signed to him.
‘Damn,’ he grabbed the horse’s reigns and brought him to the other side of the wagon. The flames had mostly consumed the wood and a large pillar of smoke was all that was left. The sun had gone beneath the hills leaving a blood-red sky in its wake.
Joe knelt at Father’s side, but his eyes were still and glossed over. Tears streamed over Rebecca’s cheeks and she held her chest.
‘Come on, Reb,’ he said, standing up, his voice breaking. ‘We have to go.’
She signed at him.
‘Tumbleweed. We need to find Uncle Ross.’
Hector trotted across the plains carrying the children. Rebecca couldn’t do much other than hold onto Joe’s shirt as tight as she could. Darkness had descended over the plains like thick tar, and she didn’t know how her brother could see where he was going. She closed her eyes, but the fire in the dead man’s eyes rising from the creek was burned into her mind. No matter how hard she tried, she could not get them out of her head.
Then, he pulled on Hector’s reigns bringing the horse to a halt. They stood at the top of a hill overlooking a small town. A fire was raging within and they could see dozens of stumblers in the streets. Some of them were on fire, but they didn’t seem to notice as they moved with twisted limbs and mouths open to the skies.
‘That’s Paducah. I was hoping to stop there and rest for a while before moving onto Tumbleweed. I suppose that’s not going to happen,’ said Joe. He pulled on Hector’s bit but then a series of gunshots pulled their attention back. Several men on horseback rode through the town with a giant net corralling the stumblers. They riders shot them in the head and dragged the bodies to a pile of corpses on fire. They whooped and fired their revolvers in the air. They seemed to be enjoying it.
‘Let’s get out of here.’
Rebecca turned her head and froze. The dead man with fire in his eyes stood just a few yards away. How had he followed them on foot? He stared at the children with revolver raised, but it wasn’t pointed at them. He just stared, silently and horrifically.
Suddenly, two bullets whizzed overhead. Joe kicked Hector’s side and the horse darted into the night. Rebecca tried to find where the dead man had disappeared to but she could not see him. She tapped Joe’s shoulder and signed to him.
‘I don’t know, Reb. Uncle Ross will have the answers though.’
Strangely, after some time had passed, the moon had found a way to poke through the soup cloud above and shed a fragment of light onto the land. The children had emerged from the plains and had entered a series of canyons. Joe knew they were close but they could not simply run through the canyon; to do that would risk break one of Hector’s legs. That would surely doom them. They found shelter in an old bear cave overlooking the canyon entrance that was big enough to shelter even their horse. Joe put a blanket over them to try and sleep. She knew they could not even close their eyes for a minute.
Rebecca signed to her brother.
‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘If I knew what was happening, you would be the first person I would tell. Maybe the screaming preacher on Sunday was right. Hell has arrived on earth.’
She yawned as the sun began to rise on the horizon. Only when she took a closer look, she realized it wasn’t the sun. A great fire burned as far as the eye could see, red and angry. She signed.
‘Heaven? I suppose we were supposed to be there. Maybe not anymore. Maybe we made God angry.’
Then, she saw a small shadow creep into the canyon far below. She gasped and pointed.
‘That thing has been following us for a while now. It’s not like the other stumblers,’ said Joe. ‘This one seems almost smart. Its best we try to keep as much distance between us. I know Uncle Ross will sort him out.’
They tried to sleep, but it would not come. Eventually, Joe stood her up and helped her up onto Hector’s back, and they resumed their path.
Rebecca was the first to see it. Tumbleweed lay in the middle of nowhere. Its only export was iron; the mineshaft being the only big building in the small town.
Then, Joe fell out of the saddle. Rebecca gasped and jumped down at his side. She saw blood on his belly. How had she not seen he was bleeding?
‘The riders must have thought I was one of the stumblers and shot me,’ coughed Joe.
Rebecca sobbed and tried to pick her brother up, but he was too heavy.
‘Go. Uncle Ross is there. He will help.’
She shook her head and signed to him.
‘I’ll be fine, sister dear. I won’t die. Just go and get help, I’ll just take a quick nap,’ smiled Joe, blood stained on his teeth. ‘Take this, just in case.’ He held the revolver out to her.
She took it and leapt up on Hector’s back, tears flying from her eyes as she urged the horse onward. She raced into town and, much to her surprise, did not see a single stumbler. Just then, a row of riders emerged from the houses with rifles and revolvers pointed at her. Cruel smiles were etched on their faces. It was the same riders from Paducah.
‘Well, what do we have here, if it ain’t Rebecca Woodrow,’ said a crooked voice. She turned to see none other than Uncle Ross at the head of the riders. His white hair was a messy clump beneath his black bowler hat.
‘That your kin?’ asked a rider.
‘My niece, if truth be told,’ he said, leaning forward on his saddle. ‘What yer doing out here?’
She signed to him.
‘Ah, I forgot.’
‘What’s wrong? She dumb?’
‘Aye. Never learned to speak. She can only use her fingers to talk.’
Rebecca signed again.
‘I don’t understand you,’ snapped Uncle Ross.
She threw her hands up in frustration.
‘She’s not going to be of use to us, is she?’ asked another voice.
‘She’s young and pretty. We could use her to raise our spirits, what do you think?’
‘I don’t care anymore. I never was much a friend to my brother-in-law. Only reason I kept the peace was ‘cuz he was sherrif. I’ll wager that ain’t the case no more. Have at it boys.’
Two riders dismounted and walked to Rebecca with evil intent. She drew her gun and shot one in the chest. She gasped as smoke escaped the barrel of the revolver. The rider fell to the ground dead.
The other rider drew his pistol but hesitated. That was the death of him as Rebecca shot him square in the nose. He fell to the ground in a heap. The other riders stared in shock but not Uncle Ross.
‘You shouldn’t have done that, niece. Now we’ll have our way with you and you’ll be hanged after,’ he said, drawing his revolver. He pulled the trigger aimed at her horse. Hector fell to the ground with a struggled whinny throwing her to the ground. Rebecca grit her teeth.
Rebecca closed her eyes and heard a shout come from Uncle Ross.
She pulled herself from beneath Hector and saw a messy pulp of flesh and bone where his hand used to be. The revolver had fallen to the ground.
Everyone turned to see a dead man with raging flames in his eyes. They opened fire on the man with a hail of bullets. He walked at them without fear and only anger. With hand cannon aimed, he shot one rider after another, the crack of his weapon like the blasts of bellowing thunder. His charred poncho flapped in the wind behind him as each bullet burst a rider into a puff of red mist. Uncle Ross urged his horse away but he caught a demonic slug in the back that burst his torso in half. Chunks of flesh fell to the dirt and his horse, along with the remaining riders, fled away into the night.
Rebecca raised her revolver, but she could not squeeze the trigger. The man approached her with fire in his eyes and then, he smiled.
Her eyes widened and she signed.
‘It’s me,’ said Joe. A second man appeared behind them. He stood and stared in silence. ‘He saved me, Reb. He gave me the choice to live and I took it.’
‘Yeah, I thought I was dead too. I have to go. Hell has arrived on earth and only he can stop them.’
She had no more tears to shed, but she grabbed his poncho.
‘I cannot stay, but I want you to have this,’ he said as he pulled the poncho off and slipped it over her head. ‘It will always keep you warm never-mind the bitterest cold. I promised father I would always look after you, but I’m afraid I can no longer do that. However, I still have something that may serve you better than me.’
He knelt beside Hector’s body and something strange happened.
Hector’s flesh, once brown began to turn black like charcoal and suddenly the creature snorted and stood up. A fire glowed in its eyes and instead of hair, a grey smoke emanated from where his mane and tail were.
‘He will protect you in my stead,’ said Joe.
The other stranger grunted.
‘No. She is of no use to us. She cannot even speak. Please, just leave her be.’
The stranger with fire in his eyes grunted and began to turn away in silence. The rays of sun were just beginning to poke into the bleak heavens.
‘I must go now, Reb. Stay safe and please stay here in Tumbleweed. This can be your home now. Everything east of here is safe but stay away from the west. There are more stumblers there. That’s where we go.’
He stood and just as the sun poked through the clouds little by little they began to disappear.
‘Joe!’ shouted Reb as hard as she could, but he did not turn back. Then, they were gone as if they had never been there at all. As if she had dreamt everything. She fell to her knees holding her father’s pistol in her lap.
Rebecca felt a nudge on her shoulder and turned but there was nothing there. She stood up and heard Hector’s snort. She put her hand out and felt the leathery side of a horse but she could not see it. She gasped as two small balls of flame floated in the air before her and looked down at the poncho on her shoulders but she could only see her grimy yellow dress. She still felt Joe’s warmth on the poncho.
Rebecca grabbed Uncle Ross’ ammo belt and revolver. She strapped the belt around her waist and shoved her father’s and uncle’s pistols in their holsters. She then leapt atop Hector’s back and kicked hard. The demon horse neighed as she guided him west following the stranger and her brother into hell, leaving Tumbleweed in the dust.