Ezra Standish pressed his forehead against his bedroom window, eyes fixed on the starry skies, trying to shake off the nightmare that had dragged him from his bed. He pinched the bridge of his nose, eyes falling shut as he desperately tried to push the images back.
…red dawn…copper scent…shouts…blood…blank faces…moans…bright fires…shrill screams…
He opened his eyes. Why now? Why should the memories be plaguing him now? It had taken him a long time and a lot of whiskey to push them into a dark corner of his mind. …snarling teeth… He bit off an expletive. His fingers clenched on the window sill. His arms trembled.
His voice, harsh with repressed emotion, echoed in the empty room. He dragged in a breath as he pushed the memories down. Perhaps he had stayed too long…become too complacent. He had never been in one place for so long. His mouth rose slightly on one side as he turned away to dress. He knew some of the others thought he used to leave town one step ahead of the law, and occasionally that was true. Most of the time, however, it used to be he would leave town when he stopped looking over a shoulder, when he grew comfortable - becoming comfortable meant relaxing; relaxing meant letting his shields down. When his shields came down…
His memories bubbled up. "Damn."
Air, he needed air.
He stepped out onto the walk in front of the saloon. He leaned against the post and took a deep breath of the cool morning air.
"Bit early, ain't it, Ez?"
He reached for his gun and aborted the movement in nearly the same instant as his mind identified the voice. "Mr. Tanner, your predilection for surprising people is going to bring you a great deal of trouble one day." Ezra turned to face the slouched figure in the shadows.
"Long as I see them first, I figure I'm safe enough," Vin Tanner replied. The soft-spoken Texan leaned his chair back and fixed concerned blue eyes on his friend. "Something bothering you?" Ezra raised his brows in question, and Vin rolled his shoulders. "It's not like you to just waltz right past folks without spotting 'em."
"A restful night's sleep was apparently not in the cards for me," Ezra replied. He glanced towards the east as the horizon grew slowly lighter. "I had no desire to simply stare at the four walls of my room and decided to partake of the last of the night air." He leaned against the post once more and let his eyes close.
He heard Vin shift slightly behind him, but the tracker did not feel the need to fill the silence with noise. For once, Ezra felt a profound gratitude for his friend's reticence. His hand twitched. Friend; friends; faces began flitting through his mind. He sighed, realizing he could not simply up and leave. It had been too long since he had people he could call his. In this homely little spot on the desert he found friends, belonging, even respect…people did not turn away or tilt their noses as he walked past, gambler though he was.
The silence stretched between the two men.
Ezra did not know how long a time had passed when he heard Vin's chair come down with a thump. He merely reacted. His hand fell to his weapon. His eyes snapped open and he looked towards his friend.
"Damn," Vin said softly as he stared towards the rising sun. Ezra frowned at him before turning.
Instead of continuing its slow softening of night into the light blue of day, this morning the sun rose drenched in a more ominous shade. Ezra's back stiffened as he took in the bloody orb creeping over the horizon. His nightmare clawed at his waking mind. He could hear the shrieks once more; feel the heat of great blazing fire; smell the sweet sickness of death.
Vin's whisper managed to cut through the vicious haze. "Red sun at dawn – a bad omen."
The friends stood shoulder to shoulder staring into the hateful glare of the sunrise. One man endured remembrance while the other dreaded foreboding. Neither was untouched by fear.
A soft step, the slight swish of cloth, drew their attention away from the image. They turned to face the newcomer. Chris Larabee tilted his chin. "Problem, boys?"
The men exchanged glances before Vin answered. "Don't know exactly. Something's not right."
Ezra rubbed his eyes and sat down. Chris frowned at him, but Erza could see the concern lurking under the dark expression. "Got anything to add, Ezra?"
"A difficult night, a need for sleep, a desire to avoid the same? Feel free to take your pick," he answered honestly.
The stormy gaze narrowed, searching his face. Chris then turned and gave Vin a direct look. Vin's blue eyes held an uneasy expression in their depths. Their leader bowed his head in thought. "Who's got morning patrol?"
"JD," Ezra replied.
"He should be up soon," Chris muttered. "I'm cancelling patrols today. Everybody stays close to town."
Ezra felt an inexplicable sense of reprieve even as Vin's shoulders slumped in relief. Chris gave them both a nod before striding towards the hotel. Ezra turned back towards the east. Crimson shadows spread across the landscape, stretching towards them. A shudder ran down his spine.
Vin moved up to sit beside him. "I don't like it." An apprehensive note filled the tracker's voice.
"Nor do I, my friend, nor do I."
The day passed with an uneasy air hanging over the town. Folks moved a little faster, talked less. Everyone seemed to notice the strong presence of the men in the streets. Chris had assigned the men to cover various areas of the town - not constantly, but he wanted them out there as much as possible. They had moved around every so often, trying to keep people calm while still being vigilant. Now as evening drew closer, the men grew more and more tense.
Ezra could see most of the others from his seat in front of the sheriff's office. Josiah Sanchez worked on the roof of his church, taking extra breaks to scan the southern end of town. He had chosen the high position for a better view of the land leading into town. Nathan Jackson was out of sight, but Ezra presumed their healer was on the balcony outside his clinic. He could work on his various medicines and concoctions while still watching over the street leading towards the middle of town.
Ezra turned his head, slowly looking over the street. He glanced upwards and caught a nod from Vin. His friend had taken to the roof of the cigar shop to keep a better eye on things. He nodded back and continued his perusal. JD Dunne stood near the curve of the north end of town. A smile touched Ezra's lips as he noticed their young sheriff speaking earnestly to Miss Casey Wells. She and her formidable Aunt Nettie must have needed some supplies.
The smile faded as he wondered if they would have been safer at home.
He took a deep breath and looked away from the young couple. Now was not the time.
Their resident ladies' man stood a little further away, alert to anything happening on the road out of town. Buck Wilmington had been less than impressed with the orders for the day, but he settled down when all three of them seemed perturbed.
"One of you might just be ailing," he said with a grimace. "Two of you, well, we might still be over-reacting. All three? Ignoring that'd be dumber than a saddlebag full of rocks."
Ezra frowned. Where was Chris? He scanned the street once more. Movement drew his notice to the Clarion office. There was the missing man stepping out now, leaning against the corner of the newspaper office. They covered the town as well as they could. Now if only they were all wrong.
The sun began to darken back to a crimson shade as it neared the western horizon. The shadows in front of the building grew longer. People started returning home. The town grew quiet. Ezra took a deep breath.
Ezra reached the middle of the street before the echo of the shout vanished. He spotted Buck and JD running towards him. Peripherally he could see Vin moving along the rooftops. Chris had disappeared from sight. Ezra forced himself to move faster. He rounded the corner by the Clarion.
The three friends spotted Chris near the western edge of town. They moved up beside him.
Chris gave a nod towards the west. "Stagecoach is coming in fast – too fast."
"What in the hell's behind it though?" Buck demanded. "Sun's making it too hard to see."
JD shook his head. "Whatever it is, it's raising a cloud of dust."
Josiah and Nathan joined them as the stage drew closer. Josiah glanced at Chris. "Saw Ezra and Vin making their way over. Thought we should join you."
Chris nodded. They strained to see what was chasing the stage.
The stage thundered up and the driver wrenched the exhausted horses to a stop. The peacekeepers were distracted as panicked passengers tumbled out. People cried and begged for help. Some ran for the nearby buildings and pounded on doors. The men tried to make sense of the terrified chaos. Some of the townsfolk came out to help.
A whistle pierced the babble, and everything stopped. Vin's voice echoed in the silence. "Riders!"
The stage had been followed by a group of ragged individuals on horseback. Now they streaked towards the crowd on the edge of town. The passengers from the stagecoach began running.
"Good Lord," Josiah breathed as he spotted the riders for the first time.
Ezra simply stared – his nightmare returned to life in the figures before him.
Creatures might be a better word for them. With open wounds and hanging bits of flesh, they could hardly be classified as human. Upon reaching the town, they threw themselves out of the saddle. Their walk was stiff, almost trancelike, but there was nothing slow about their other actions. They began attacking passengers and townsfolk. Ezra watched as one of the men from the stage shot one of the ragged creatures in the heart. The creature's arm snapped out. It grabbed the man and pulled him close. Its teeth tore out the man's throat.
A shot from above burrowed into the creature's shoulder. It barely noticed. Ezra drew his gun. One head shot dropped the creature immediately. He took aim at the next one.
Chris did likewise. "Ez?"
"Head shots," Ezra replied curtly. The other men began firing as did a handful of the townsfolk. The creatures responded by turning on them as well.
Too many of them…that was all Ezra could think as he watched the banker go down under two of the creatures. There are too many of them and too few defenders. "Chris! We need shelter!"
The leader nodded. "Fall back! Everyone back to the church!"
"Tiny!" Ezra's shout drew the bigger man's attention. "Get to the stables and blockade them! Don't let them get to the horses." Tiny's face darkened, and he ran without question.
The men ran for the church, herding the townsfolk in front of them. Most of the seven peacekeepers stayed at the door, reloading their weapons while they had some breathing room. Ezra watched as Vin stood guard on top of the grain exchange. Tiny had moved to the top of the stables.
Chris came up beside him. "Josiah and Casey are blocking the back door. What are they? And how the hell did you know what to do?"
"Demons, devils, the undead? Take your pick." Ezra's harsh answer brought a hard look. He shrugged. "Does it matter?"
"Suppose not," Chris accepted. "Still doesn't explain how you knew what killed them?"
Ezra folded his lips. "I've seen them once before. A lot of people died; its hard to forget that kind of thing."
"Don't let them bite you." Ezra paused, eyes narrowing at the crowd gathered in the pews. He glanced at the others. "Better quarantine anyone that's been bitten."
Chris nodded, looking over the crowd. "Anything we can we do for them?"
Ezra froze. He took a deep breath. Flat emerald eyes turned to meet Nathan's anxious brown gaze. "If they've actually been bitten, if the skin is broken, the kindest thing you could do is grant them mercy and make it quick."
JD's eyes grew wide. Buck and Chris looked surprised, but Nathan's shoulders slumped. "It's the zonbi, isn't it?"
"So the Creole called it," Ezra replied, southern drawl thick with tension.
"Damn," Nathan muttered. "I hate Vodou." He cast a wary gaze down the street. "They'll be finishing up there soon and coming this way."
"I know, I know."
"What were they doing on horseback?" Nathan demanded. "They should have eaten the horses!"
"I don't know," Ezra admitted. "I've never heard of it before. All flesh – it's always been all flesh."
"You boys want to let us in on what's going on?" Chris snapped.
Ezra and Nathan exchanged a long glance. The gambler tilted his head toward the crowd and the healer nodded. Nathan turned to Chris. "Ezra will explain. I've got to check for infection."
Josiah passed Nathan as he came from the back of the church. "Little Casey and I have done everything except actually brick up the door. Its as secure as it can be."
Chris nodded at him before turning back to the others. "Ezra?"
"To put it shortly then, they are a form of the undead, animated corpses. They carry some form of poison in their bite. It kills and then changes you. If they bite you, you are going to die – only a matter of time. And then you…your body is going to get back up and start going after the first living flesh it finds."
"No," Buck insisted, growing pale. "That's just not possible."
Before Ezra could speak, a call went up from outside. In the faltering light, they could see the creatures moving slowly down the street. The men could see familiar faces from both town and stage among them, including the banker and the man whose throat had been torn out.
"You were saying, Buck?" Ezra directed a level stare at the taller man. "Believe it or don't, it doesn't matter. They're coming."
"Enough," Chris ordered. "Josiah, gather up the others who have weapons and know enough not to shoot us. We go down, you step up. Tell Nathan to keep a sharp eye on anybody he quarantines." He stepped away from the steps and looked up to the rooftops. "Vin! Tiny! Aim for the head. Take out as many as you can!" He glanced back at Ezra. "Do they climb steps?"
Ezra shook his head. "I honestly don't know. I've only ever seen them once before. I was in the country at the time. They do seem to have more trouble with walking than anything else however."
Chris sighed. "You and I have the forward position then. Buck, you're on the right flank; JD, left; shoot what you can, but don't let them come up behind us."
"Promise me something?" Ezra asked keeping his eyes focused on the approaching crowd.
Chris glanced at him. "What's that?"
"Don't let them take me."
Stormy eyes met emerald green and held. For the first time, Ezra could read his leader easily. He could see the fear, pride and promise swirling in the depths of Chris' gaze. Promise given and returned, both men turned back to the street.
A smile flickered over Ezra's lips as he heard Buck grousing behind him. "Somebody better be including me in that deal. Those things are uglier than sin, and me turning into one would be downright sinful."
Chris chuckled. "Time to go to work."
Ezra would never be able to coherently describe the fight that followed. It seemed unending. For every creature they took down, two seemed to take its place. Shots, blood, snarls and screams…this was what he would remember. He would forever see the panic in Buck's eyes as one grabbed JD. The sound of Vin's scream as one managed to knock Chris to the ground would echo through his nightmares. Another nightmare would recall Josiah's desperate prayers mixing with the choking sound of Nathan's tears as he had to order the execution of the quarantined. The night passed in flashes of unending horror.
…shots…feral screams…scent of decay…blank eyes…bloody teeth…smoke…stormy eyes…tears…
Ezra started awake, his breath harsh and heavy. He bolted out of bed. He threw open the window, panting through his panic.
A warm hand settled on his neck. "Breathe, Ezra, just breathe."
"The others?" he demanded.
"Waiting downstairs; I was elected to come wake you. I could hear you thrashing from the head of the stairs."
"Nightmare," he admitted. "I am tired of that night."
"It's only been a few weeks."
"I know." Ezra let the tremble run down his arms, knowing this man would understand. The hand at his neck rubbed a comforting circle at his nape. After a few moments of silence Ezra straightened. "I suppose I should make my preparations for the day."
"Just don't overdo it."
"I do believe Mrs. Wells would be most upset if she were unable to taunt me about being too 'fancy' for her. That would hardly be sporting of me!" He turned towards his wardrobe. He could not prevent his hands from shaking.
"Ezra?" Green eyes turned to fix on the other man. "We're fine."
"I know," Ezra replied. "My mind knows. It's the rest of me that appears confused."
"Get dressed. Come down and get a good look."
"I shall be there momentarily." Ezra paused before fixing his eyes firmly on his friend. "I'm glad that shot missed, Chris."
"Me, too, Ez," Chris agreed. "Me, too."
The two men exchanged a long, speaking look before Chris dipped his chin and stepped out of the room. As the door closed behind him, Ezra looked down at his hands. If only he could forget so easily as his friends could brush it off.
…a shaking hand pointing a tiny derringer at stormy eyes in the light of dawn…