By Nathan Tyree
Buck scratched a match along the sole of his boot and brought the flame up to light the cigarette that he had rolled a moment earlier. His hand was shaking just enough to make getting the thing lit a bit difficult. Henry, the other deputy, was checking his rifle for what must have been the tenth time since they had barred the door to the sheriff’s office. Buck was starting to realize that since Sheriff Johnston was dead that it fell on him to take charge. It was that realization that had started his hands trembling. How weird, he thought, that he had been calm and steady all through the events that had transpired a few minutes earlier, but that now that they were safely behind a thick oak door in the most secure building in the county he was genuinely afraid.
The three cowhands locked in the only cell were raising a ruckus. They kept yelling that Buck would let them out if he knew what was good for him. They insisted that they had friends, hard men, who would be coming for them. When all of this started Buck and the sheriff had both believed that that was exactly the situation. When they had heard the noises out front, the yelling and a few stray gunshots, they assumed that the boys from Bar-J had gotten drunk and come to demand the release of their buddies. That had not been the case at all. By now Buck wished that it had been.
“What are those things, Buck?” Henry had set aside his rifle and had started reloading his revolvers. He carried two of them; one on each hip tied down in quick draw style. It was for show; the truth was that Henry was a slow draw and possible the worst shot in the whole county. He only got the job as deputy because the sheriff had been his cousin. He was starting to look about as pale and drained as a man could.
“Don’t know,” Buck said without looking up. He was studying the surface of the desk as if he expected to find the answer to that very question in the grain of its wood. He stood and walked through the small door that separated the Sheriff’s office proper from the small jail in the back. The three men there, Buck had forgotten their names, were getting louder and he had decided to do something about it.
“Look, you boys need to quiet on down now. If ya don’t, there are gonna be consequences.” With that he pulled the nickel plated revolver from its holster, pointed it directly at the biggest of them, and smoothly pulled back the hammer. They all went quiet. Buck re-holstered his gun and walked back to the front room.
Outside the moaning was getting louder. Henry was peering through the small barred window in the door and muttering to himself. “There’s more of them,” he said.
Buck strode over and pushed Henry aside so that he could have a look himself. He was right. When they had been outside there had been maybe thirty of those damned things in the street. Now it looked like at least fifty.
“What’re we gonna do, Buck?” Henry’s voice was starting to get that panicky sound that Buck knew too well. He knew that when a man got that sound in his voice it was going to be bad. Men who sounded like that made bad decisions. Sometimes they’d just freeze up and let death come. He thought that maybe he should try to calm Henry down. He might need him.
“We aint gonna do a thing. Right now we’re just gonna wait. We’re gonna relax and wait ‘til morning comes, then we can make our move.” He was thinking that the wait would give Henry time to get control and to fight off the panic.
“Johnny shot that one, Buck. He shot him point blank in the chest. I saw it. I saw it. He shot maybe three times right in the chest. It shoulda’ died. A man dies when you shoot ‘em in the chest. A man dies when-“
Buck brought his palm hard across the other man’s face. Henry’s head rocked back and his eyes got wide. He inhaled sharply. For a moment the two men just looked at each other. Then Henry said: “What did you do that for?”
“You gotta get control of yourself, Henry. We’ve gotta be calm and we gotta make a plan.” Buck slid into the sheriff’s chair and lit another cigarette. He believed the things he had said. He knew that they needed to stay calm and think. But, he really wasn’t sure if doing that was going to do them any good. He had seen those things out there. And, just like Henry had said, he had seen Sheriff Johnny Johnston, the toughest man in Carson County, fire three shots point blank into one of them. It had just kept coming.
Buck leaned back in the sheriff’s chair and tried to think.
The three cowhands from the Bar-J had been brought in early that morning. Johnny had gone out himself to pick them up. The three of them had raped a Mexican girl. When she stumbled into the Sheriff’s office, her face a ruin of blood and ripped flesh, Buck had asked to describe the men. Johnny knew immediately who she was talking about. A good sheriff is always well acquainted with those sort of men. Buck had offered to go with him, but the sheriff had said “Leave ‘em to me.” He brought them in without firing a shot. He could’ve killed all three of them, but preferred to see them hang.
As soon as they were locked in their cage they started in with the standard spiel about how their buddies would be coming and coming in force. If the sheriff and his men wanted to survive, then he better open that goddamned cell and let them go. And, they said, since when was it a crime to fuck a Mexican?
“Maybe I will open this cell,” Johnny had said, “Buck, you keep your rifle ready.” Buck stood just outside the cell and raised his rifle as Sheriff Johnny Johnston unlocked the door and walked in. He put himself face to face with the biggest of the three and struck him hard on the chin with an iron fist. The man went down hard into a big ugly pile on the floor.
“You can’t do that,” that was the oldest of the three. He was maybe thirty, and his face was a mess of lines and cracks. His skin looked like badly cured leather and his blue eyes were cold.
“I can do whatever I want. I’m the law.” Before he had even gotten the last word out Johnny had started his fist on its way to the man’s gut. As the cowhand double over Johnny brought his other fist against the man’s temple. Then he turned to the last of them. “You got anything to say?”
The man shook his head. Johnny exited the cell and Buck locked the door. Then they went back to the front of the office where Henry was sipping a cup of coffee and trying to pretend that he hadn’t heard what was going on.
“So Johnny, ya think the other boys from Bar-J are gonna come looking for them drunks?” Buck asked this while pouring himself a cup of coffee.
“You never know. If they do they’re gonna wish they hadn’t.”
The rest of the day had been slow. Normally the three men would have made a few rounds around town to show their presence and keep everyone in line. Johnny had ruled against that, figuring that they should be prepared if the Bar-J boys did make an appearance. After the sun went down Johnny had started talking about sending Henry over to Martha’s to get them some steaks for dinner. It was then that they had heard the noises outside. There was a scream and someone had fired a shot. Then they started hearing the groans and the sound of something crashing over.
“Well, I guess they made it.” Johnny stood from behind his desk and checked that his revolver was loaded. The three men moved to the door and stepped outside expecting to see a bunch of drunk cowboys waving their guns around and yelling. That wasn’t what they saw. What they did see froze all three of them for a moment.
There was a crowd outside, but not the crowd they had expected. The things in the street looked like men, but their skin was gray and peeling in strips. Their clothes were tattered and many of them looked to be coated in dirt. They jerked and shambled dragging their feet as they moved aimlessly about moaning and making unintelligible noises. Whoever had been shooting was no where to be seen. In fact, none of the townspeople where in sight at that moment. That changed a minute later. Paula Scolson, a young girl who’s father worked at Hap’s General Store, came running from an alley making her way toward the now open door of the Sheriff’s Office. She only made it a few feet before one of the gray things was on her. It mindlessly groped at her and managed to get purchase on her dress. She screamed as it pulled her in close. Buck couldn’t believe what he was seeing. The thing that wasn’t a man seemed to be sinking its teeth into the little girl’s neck. She fought to pull away and Buck saw a hunk of her flesh rip and blood begin to squirt in dark red arcs and splash into the dust of the street.
Johnny ran to her. He grabbed the girl by the arm and wrenched her from the creature’s grip. As she collapsed in the street he pulled his gun and fired three shots directly into the things chest. It didn’t seem to notice that it had been shot. Its half rotten hands reached out and one tangled in the Sheriff’s hair. “Fucker,” was the word that floated from Johnny’s mouth as he threw a massive punch that landed square on the thing’s temple. Any man would have dropped instantly from that blow. The thing just ripped harder and a portion of Johnny’s scalp tore loose from his skull. Blood ran in rivulets down his face and he fired again; this time he had his gun right against the man-thing’s head and its face exploded. The thing fell.
By then Buck was on the move. He was on his way Johnny, but it was too late. The rest of the creatures were already surrounding him. As they fell on him Buck heard the screams and immediately moved back toward the door. As he ran backwards he fired wildly into the crowd.
“Come on” he yelled at Henry as he went through the door. Inside they barred the door and began to wait.
Sitting there behind the desk trying to think Buck had managed to drift off to sleep. Henry shaking his shoulder hard woke him. “Buck. Buck. Wake up.”
Henry looked terrified. Even more terrified than he had when his cousin the Sheriff was ripped apart by those things. “They’re trying to get in.”
Buck heard it now. The things had gathered at the door to the Sheriff’s office. They were scratching and scraping and prying at the wood. It sounded for all the world like there were a thousand of them out there. The moaning echoed and filled the air. The three men in back were starting to make a hell of a lot of noise as well. They were shouting wanting to know what was going on. They had stopped demanding to be let out of their cell.
Buck head a splintering sound. He thought that they were going to eventually get that door open. Buck thought for a moment, and then looked at Henry. “Get in the cabinet and find three extra rifles. Make sure they’re loaded.”
Henry was already opening the gun cabinet when he thought to ask: “Why?”
“We’re gonna need all the help we can get. I’m gonna go open the cell.” Buck grabbed the keys and moved through the small door to the jail. “Now you boy’s quiet down, we need to talk.”
The three men just stood and looked at him with mistrust and something verging on fear. Buck holstered the pistol he had been carrying and asked: “What’re your names?”
The big man stepped up and said “I’m Paul, this here ugly fella is Bob and that fella is Willie.”
“I’m Buck. Now listen boys, we got a situation out there. That racket you’re hearing is a bunch of… well, things. I don’t know what they are, but they look like dead bodies that got up and started walking around. Whatever they are, they killed the sheriff and a girl right in front of me and Henry. We shot at ‘em a lot, and most of those shots hit, but they didn’t seem to mind getting shot at all. Except, I noticed that all those shots we put into them didn’t do nothing, but the one Johnny put in that one’s head killed it. That got me thinking that maybe you have to shoot them in the head to kill ‘em. Now here’s what I’m thinking: there’s a bunch of them out there and they’re trying to get in. I think they’re gonna, too. Me an’ Henry can’t hold ‘em off forever, so I was thinking maybe you boys would like a pardon.” Then Buck waited.
The three men looked at each other for a minute, then Paul said “Get us out of here and we’ll give you all the help you need.”
Buck turned the key, swung the door open and said “Let’s go.”
The four of them moved out into the main office. Henry was finishing up loading the rifles. “You sure about this, Buck?” He looked nervous about having the men armed.
“Yeah, I’m sure.”
The cowhands took the rifles and the five of them faced the door ready to begin firing.
Buck cocked his own rifle and said “Boys, remember to aim for their heads.” It was then that the door disintegrated in front of them. A mass of moaning decomposition swarmed in through the opening and the room was filled with the deafening sound of gunfire.
They kept coming long after the ammo was gone.