From the author: Zombies in the Wild West, natch. This story was published years ago and there are some minor word choice changes from the original.
The stories all start when a pale rider comes into town on a pale horse.
The rider came into town alright, but not on a pale horse, rather on a stocky black and white pinto with a long mane. There was, too, nothing pale about the rider. The rider's dark, weathered face showed signs of a good slice of Native ancestry. The rider's garb, though, was entirely that of a white man...jeans, boots, shirt, hat.
In short, not somebody to whom the good people of Ellis Ridge would have paid any attention. It was not like men like him did not ride into, and through, town most days. Always through. There was little reason for anyone to linger in Ellis Ridge, which was not even a ridge, by any self-respecting standards. A bump, maybe, running across the prairie. Not enough to even slow a traveler down, although this one hesitated.
A single saloon stood on what passed for the main street, in which the town's only whore solicited. Outside the town lay a handful or so of respectable farms. Some of them even had respectable farmers' wives. It was a new place, a raw place. Yet, the rider reined in his horse, securing it to the hitching rail before stepping into the saloon, the doors swinging past the shut point several times before settling.
The place was empty except for the barkeep, cleaning glasses. He took one look at the rider, grunted, and set the glass down.
"What can I help you with, sir?"
In answer, the rider tugged off the hat and shook his...no, her head. The delicate features and long, raven hair revealed gender as clearly as if her breasts had been visible.
"Ma'am..." He seemed hesitant, all of a sudden. Few women rode like men, and those who did were among the most dangerous.
"Is there anything resembling decent beer in this town?" She did not call it forsaken or worthless or small in her words, only in her tone.
"I have beer. You will have to judge whether it is decent yourself."
"Fair enough. One man's decent beer is another's swill." Her tone remained even, almost cold.
The barkeep visibly shivered, even as he poured her drink. "What brings you to Ellis Ridge?"
"I have work to do." She could not help but feel vaguely amused at the barkeep's reaction to her.
"I was assuming you would ride right on through. There is little work here."
She shook her head. "My kind of work is everywhere." "And what is it?"
She tilted her head. "Hunting vermin."
"What kind of vermin? The human kind?"
"The kind good, decent folk would rather not know existed."
"You hunt bounty." Not a question.
"Sometimes." She slid a coin across the counter to pay for the beer.
"What's your name?"
"Mary." She did not supply a last name, but simply took herself and her beer to a table, from which she watched the barkeep.
He did not trust her, was the rapid conclusion she came to. Either because she was female, because she was not white, because she admitted to being a bounty hunter or...most likely...all three of those factors to varying and different degrees.
That was fine. She did not need them to trust her right away. She only needed them to stay out of her way. From her read of the place, there were relatively few men who would be useful for a posse. Even fewer women. The average white woman hid behind her own skirts. Not that the average Native woman was much more use in a fight, but at least they would try.
The saloon began to fill a little as darkness fell, although if business was ever good, tonight was not the night for it. She studied each man who entered, watching for both signs of trouble and for potential allies.
Heads turned towards her. She did not bother, now, to conceal her gender. It was always telling to see how these men reacted. They were pulling away, leaving a wide space around her.
Not a good sign. A woman in a red dress came down from upstairs...and vanished a few moments later with one of the men. If she was a working girl, she had no sisters in this place.
And few of these men would have wives. She resolved to sleep that night with her gun very close to her. She had had problems before, with such men, thinking that she was a working girl, or would acquiesce to their needs for other reasons. Assumptions. The only man she had ever permitted to touch her in that manner was dead. There would be no other any time soon, although she would not say never.
Besides, she could not do her work with a brat or two tagging along behind her. They were close. She was sure of it, as sure as if she could already smell them.
Finally, a man came over to her. "Frontier's no place for a woman alone."
"I could demonstrate my draw if you wanted." It was not a threat, she kept that out of her tone. It was a challenge. If he pushed it, she would cheerfully see him for a target shooting session.
He misunderstood despite that. "I don't duel women."
"I was not proposing a duel. If anyone doubts my ability to look after myself, I will demonstrate it, but I prefer not to kill."
He studied her, perhaps realized she was serious. "You can kill all the rabbits you want. We have a plague of them."
"I will bear that in mind." Rabbits were generally trouble. They bred and ate, that was all they did. Rabbits were, of course, also good eating. "Any real troubles around here?" Now she could get some information.
"Nothing recent. The occasional troublemaker, but they tend to ride on. We don't have a bank here and the mail stage stops two towns east...for now."
She nodded. "I suspected as much. This is a quiet place...although I doubt it will last."
"It never does. People make a mess of everything." He settled into a seat nearby. "Of course, most here want the stage to come. Then they can order brides from out east."
She flinched at that. The casual mention of women as property. Then again, those women were making a choice. Taking a risk. No doubt they thought they had better prospects here. "They would be better off with women who would come here anyway."
"Maybe they would. On the other hand, would a woman like you make a good wife?"
"Depends on the man." She would have married John in a heartbeat...and that thought made her remember, John on the ground, his throat ripped out.
Made her remember why she did this.
"You would be better off with somebody who chases cattle for a living. More likely to understand." She found herself warming to him, a little. He was still not a friend, nor likely to become one. A stranger on the road, somebody who would, in the end, be left behind. That was her life now, and likely to be so until... "Maybe. It would have to be very much the right man."
"So. You hunt bounty? No job for a lady."
"I'm not a lady."
"Maybe I'll take you up on that shooting demonstration after all." He got up and left.
She made a mental note. That one, for all his uncertainty, might be of use to her. If she was right about the pattern, she might need help saving these people.
If she was wrong, then she would not stay here long, and they would soon forget her. Hopefully they would forget if she was right.
She was, she was sure, closer to solving the full mystery.
The next day, she stepped out of the saloon. The room she had rented had been small but clean, although she had ended up retiring fairly late. She did not want to listen to the sounds of the whore entertaining her guests, and she was sure the walls were thin.
Accustomed to doing without sleep, she was nonetheless up bright and early. She retrieved her horse from the stable and swung up.
Patch snorted at her, clearly not happy with her. "You wanted to sleep in, did you?"
She often talked to her horse. A lot of the time he was the most intelligent person around. Now, though, he just snorted at her again, moving out into a walk.
She had quite a bit of recon to do. First, she made note of the location of the Ellis Ridge cemetery. A small wooden building with a cross on the roof next to it passed for a church. If the mail stage came here, they would need a larger one for sure.
For now, its presence was distinctly reassuring, especially as she saw and sensed no other sacred ground in the immediate area. Whatever else one said about the Christians, their penchant for building churches everywhere sometimes served well. She counted about twelve houses in the town itself, plus the saloon and the general store. A couple of trappers rode into town as she circled around the perimeter, chatting with one another. One of their horses had spur marks and she scowled a little. A good rider did not need to mark a horse. Otherwise, she ignored them. With her loose shirt and her hair tucked under her hat, they would not immediately identify her as a woman.
They might, of course, immediately identify her as Indian. That was more likely to be a problem.
Sometimes, her own people were the vermin hunted by others. And sometimes they did the hunting right back. Whilst the white men killed the buffalo and brought in the cow. Stupid. Bison meat tasted so much better than beef.
Ah well, maybe they would come around before they had eliminated the herds completely. Maybe not. It was beyond her power to do anything about it. She protected these people because they did only what they thought was right.
Even when it was not. And because no woman should lose her man the way she had lost John. The wind changed. She caught their scent on it, her eyes narrowing even as her nostrils flared. She had been right.
They had maybe a day to get some defenses up. She doubted these people could turn the tide. There were not enough of them. The best she could achieve was to push the tide away, so that it would roar past them.
She had to find the source, but she could not, yet. She had to read the pattern, she had to understand it.
For right now, though, she had lives she had to save.
She would start with the sheriff. Even in a place like this, there was a sheriff. She rode back into town, Patch on a loose rein. Sometimes he seemed to know where they were going better than she did. Certainly, he always caught the scent sooner. He had learned not to spook. He would even help fight them...which no other horse would. All training, of course. Training nobody else's horse had had the time or the chance to receive.
It would take months to replace him. He stopped almost of his own will outside the sheriff's office. She slipped down, with a murmured, "Stay."
A good horse did not need to be hitched. He would be right there when she came out. Unless somebody tried to steal him.
Somebody had tried. Once. They would not be stealing any more horses. The sheriff's office, such as it was, was two rooms...and one of them the jail. The sheriff, such as he was, was sitting with his feet on the desk. He needed new boots. Badly. "Yeah?"
"We have a problem, Sheriff."
He started at her voice. "A problem?"
"Ellis Ridge is about to be attacked. I can stop them, but not alone. I need a posse."
"And I'm supposed to give one to a squaw. Why?"
Her hackles rose. Squaw? She knew what that word meant in a white man's mouth. One step above what he might call the red-garbed woman who entertained above the saloon. When he wasn't visiting her. "Because people will die if you do not."
She always had this problem. When John had been alive it had been easier. He could deal with the townspeople.
They did not see him as one step above the vermin, if lucky.
"I only have your word as to that." He stood up, and turned his back on her, pointedly. For a moment, she wanted to put a bullet in it. Then she stalked out. If he would not help, then she would find somebody who would. She had no desire to let these people end up dead or worse because of one man's stupidity. Stupidity? Not exactly. He had no doubt been told over and over again how useless women were until he believed it. Even if he saw evidence to the contrary, he would find it hard to break from that pattern. He would need it thrust in his face, multiple times. She contemplated going straight to the women. Sometimes that was the best route, but half of them probably could not shoot straight. You needed to shoot very straight in her business.
Instead, she made her way to the saloon, looking for the man she had spoken to last night. He might believe her. Might. It was possible they would not believe her until the attack happened, and then it would be too late. Far too late.
She shook her head, not seeing him. The sun was starting to descend. They might be close enough to come tonight. She did not have time. Ellis Ridge, too, had no weather alert bell yet. A bad oversight, for when the storms came up the plains they might spawn twisters that would carry a woman off. Or even an entire house, sometimes.
She cursed a few times in assorted languages, none of them English. Russian was perhaps the most satisfying language to curse in. Actually, it was the only Russian she knew.
"Not words that should come from a woman's mouth."
Not the man from the previous night, but a different one.
"There are raiders coming to Ellis Ridge. And the sheriff won't listen to an Indian woman."
"Raiders? You probably brought them yourself."
She felt jaws close around her. "Don't be stupid."
"Who else would they be but your kind?"
"You might be surprised there. The English and French are fighting skirmishes all down through Louisiana." Although, she suspected that would be resolved in the courts, in the end.
"Point. But up here...why would you warn us?"
"Because I don't wish ill on anyone...even people who would be tempted to shoot me on sight."
"Leave her alone."
It was him. He came striding up, his eyes on the other man. Both were very white, she thought, shaded by their hats. White men, no protection from anything. Hence why they relied on their tools. Their guns.
If rumor was right, their plagues. She shook her head. The small part of her that wanted the white men dead was beaten down again, for the nonce. That small part, though, had a good point some days. White men did bring trouble. White women not so much, but mostly because they were cowed. Their men had to treat everything as property. Land, women, children, animals. Once the only thing a good woman had owned was her tepee and her clothes. Now they wanted them to have houses and cattle.
Yet, she still would not wish the fate that approached on any of them. "He does not need to leave me alone. He needs to get his gun and be prepared to defend Ellis Ridge."
She shook her head. "From far worse."
Sort of. It had been her own people who had caused this in the first place, she was sure of it. As sure as she was that now it was utterly out of control. It would not stop at the white men, it would not stop until all men were part of it.
"Talk to us."
She pulled out her gun, chambered a round. "There's no more time for talking. The sun is setting. Head shots. Nothing else will stop them. I hate to ask for this much trust. Please. Round up every man and every woman who can shoot straight."
She trusted him to do that. He might not get the women, but he also might alert them.
"What about the kids and the women who can't?"
"Get them into the church."
The church would stop them. They would not enter holy ground. It was also the sturdiest building here.
"Are you crazy?" the other man exclaimed. "She's..."
Mary ignored him. She checked her second weapon, and then started to move to the west side of town. "Kill them all. Whether they look Indian, or white, or what. They all have to die. Kill enough and the rest will run." They did that, as if they had just enough intelligence left to have morale, to experience fear. Usually, too, they did not come back. Or perhaps it was something else. Perhaps they sought to pen in the white men, to make them fear to leave their settlements.
Fear to spread further. She looked for cover, found some behind a wagon. If the plague over-ran this place, her horse was close enough. She could and would run. She had no qualms about abandoning these people to their fate.
She would do what she could to help them, but she would not share death and worse with them.
Breathe. The scent of them, causing the horses in town to snort and sidle. Except for Patch. He was loose, she had made sure of that.
He was there if she needed him. She would find the source, but for now, there were these people. Sure, they were land stealers, but were they doing anything but following their chiefs?
There were more important things to worry about right now. She could feel her heartbeat start to elevate. The first of them came across the 'ridge'. It might be a pimple, but it was enough to give them cover until they crested it.
They loped like wolves, ragged humanoid figures...some in no clothing, most in what was left of whatever they had been wearing. Their eyes were missing.
She took aim, fired. Straight between the empty sockets. "Head shots!" she snarled at the men.
Hopefully they would not freeze up. Not panic when they caught the stench of death, when they realized these coyotes in human form were no more than animated corpses.
Men did that. Women could often take it better, but then, what is more dangerous than a female protecting her cubs? No cubs for Mary. No children now or ever. Only this, the gun smoking as the zombie went down.
It would not get back up. Other shots, though, echoed past her. Blast it, but they were not accurate enough. She could not fight them alone. The women and children were piling into the church, she could see them out of the corner of her eye. A zombie started to lope that way, then hit the edge of the cemetery and stopped. It howled like a wolf. That was the only sound they ever made, that howling. Worse than a wolf. Wolves, at least, attacked only if provoked. These things smelled human flesh, went towards it, and those they did not consume became themselves members of the horde.
"They don't stop."
"Head." She took out another one, practiced ease. That voice had been the eerie calm that preceded utter panic. The man was going to lose it, any moment now.
Well, it was not her problem if he did. It was her problem if she ran out of ammunition, but then a boy of no more than twelve zig zagged towards them. He was carrying a box.
She hoped it was bullets. She was going to need plenty. Her breath came sharp. At least they did not have guns.
Only numbers, and as the rest crested the ridge, she knew they were in real, serious trouble. They might well all die unless they all fled to the church...and that would be a slower dying, for if the zombies could not get to the humans they would kill the horses and livestock, trample the crops, contaminate the stored food. They were a force of destruction, unleased, perhaps, by some desperate witch. Find the source.
She fired again, the boy crouching down near them. Thank the Great Spirit, he did, indeed, have bullets.
Good kid, she thought, although she did not have the breath to speak. She would thank him later if she could.
"Are they vulnerable to fire?"
The voice, the man she had first spoken to. "Yes, but so's everything else."
"The wind's blowing from us to them."
Not for much longer. They were getting closer. "If you have something in mind, do it." There were not enough defenders, they would be over-run. Patch was starting to move closer. He would take her out of here...he had no desire to end up zombie supper. She would not allow herself to be turned, of course. She would put a bullet in her own skull first. The man, though, did not have bullets. He had arrows. Where he had got them, she did not know. She had not even noticed him leave, too focused on the enemy, that was now a sea of bodies plunging towards Ellis Ridge.
They would all die. One way or another...and then he fired, and flame arced through the sky. She held her breath. The brush was dry. The wind was lifting, blowing the scent of the zombies away, blowing clean air...and blowing the flames into the faces of the undead.
They did not scream. They did not start. They simply went up like torches. She was glad the wind was now blowing away for more reasons than one.
She could barely smell the stench of burning flesh. From the church came a couple of feminine screams, women alarmed at the flames, but the flames did not place them in danger.
Only the undead horde...which broke. Which ran, back across the ridge. If the pattern held, they would not be back.
She closed her eyes for a moment. Opened them. "Good move." She had been doing this so long, she was so tired that she had forgotten how to think creatively.
"Those were animated corpses. Somebody's practicing black magic."
Slowly, she picked herself up, "Yes."
"I suspect so...but whoever it is lost control a long time ago. They probably ate him first." He might even have let that happen, the price, the sacrifice for medicine of such dark power. "It is not the way of my people to do such things."
"No. It would seem more the way of mine." He looked away, then turned and walked towards the center of town.
She watched him go, the flames crackling as they encompassed the ridge. The townsmen had a bucket brigade formed, dowsing the buildings on that side of town to reduce the risk of them catching fire.
She shook her head after him. More the way of his, yes. Yet, her people had lost the war, now. Perhaps they deserved to.
No, not deserved. It was the way of the strong to overcome the weak...and the way of the more numerous to be the strong. These people would claim the entire land, they would kill all the buffalo. She could not prevent this, but she could prevent the worse that was to come.
For now, she turned and walked over to Patch. He snorted at her, and tilted his nose towards the saddle.
"You don't want to stick around, eh?"
He snorted again.
"I know. We have to find the source." She swung into the saddle easily, settling into it as if it was the most comfortable of chairs.
Yet, as she rode west out of Ellis Ridge, she heard hoofbeats behind her. Then the man was next to her.
"You need a partner."
She turned towards him. "Says who?"
His only answer to that was a smirk and a pointing of his horse's nose towards the west and the mountains and, perhaps, the source of it all.
This story originally appeared in Zombist (Library of the Living Dead).