by Paul Lennon
Chapter one of the Desperado zombie incident.
|Desperado – Chapter 1: Run for the Hills
The sun seemed to swell with flame as it died behind the horizon, as if to bestow as much day as it could before it freed the rest of the world from sleep. A lone figure stood watching on the dusty road east out of town, and as the orange slowly turned to soft lavender in the sky, he stroked the handles of twin revolvers resting on either hip with his thumbs, and finished the short walk into the town proper.
A sign displaying crudely drawn scotch bottles and the words “Mustang Hitch” caught his eye. His boot nails imprinted crosses on the loose dirt; the wind quickly filling up the holes with new soil, which tarried just as long before blowing ever onward towards the big cities and fast mouths in the East. Straining his eyes against the swirling dust, he nodded his head in defeat, and crossed himself before entering the saloon; more out of habit than piety. There were times when a man needed something hard and quick to give him rest for the task at hand. The tangible versions of some of those scotch bottles might just do the trick.
“I don’t want to see you again till the morning, barkeep,” he growled, tossing a few heavy coins on to the table. The brashness of this stranger irritated the bartender, but the metallic “thud” of his money kissing the table made up for it.
“This’ll do the trick stranger… won’t help yer face much though,” the bartender jibbed as he slid a full bottle down the counter.
“Health,” he toasted to the barkeep ironically, as the dusty man drowned himself in expensive whiskey for the night. Across the town, through plank board general stores and slightly sturdier fences, the cry of the wind picked up to a devil shriek, and then suddenly died, as if the air choked on its own doom.
A sign placed to watch over the cemetery proclaiming, “Here lay our fallen, in peace,” would soon give face to lie.
Ailin Gallagher regained consciousness greeted by a deep, throaty coughing fit and a pool of his own bile. Blurring in confused shock, his eyes slowly adjusted to the gilded streams of light pouring in through the slats in his blinds. He moved to dress, but found that he was already fully clothed; apparently last night’s drunken Ailin had wanted to sleep, and right then. Grunting, he threw his legs stiffly off the bed, and stumbled to the door.
Something was burning in the kitchen; the smell of ashes assaulted him as he walked into the room. “Eh… morn’ Mum?” he tried cautiously, sliding into his regular seat at the oak table. It was the only piece of hard-wood furniture in their house, and it had been Ailin’s grandmother’s. His grandfather had fashioned it himself from the spare lumber of their cabin in Louisiana, and every family member had carved their name into it since then.
“Mum?” he asked, not knowing whether to be concerned for her, or himself. As she slowly turned to face him, Ailin could see that indeed, something had been burning; his supper from the night before.
“Be home by seven tonight please, Aili?” his mother had asked of him that morning.
“Righto, Mum,” he had chirped, and then rushed off to get disgracefully smashed on cheap liquor down by the rail yards. He was only eighteen, but the coal shovelers on break from their engines would buy his gang of boys all the alcohol they could pay for, provided the boys picked up the tab for their own drinking. It had been a gala night; Ailin’s regular gang, Tedrick McPherson, Mick Rooney, and Steven Brey were all in attendance, as well as a few other local roustabouts, and Ailin’s favorite eye candy, Villeta Mauren.
Wincing under his mother’s acid stare, he shamefacedly lowered his head and traced his father’s name on the table with his index finger, knowing what was coming. “Ya’ can’t keep doin’ this ta me, Aili. Ya just can’t!” his mother scolded behind pained, Irish tears. “If yer father was still alive, oh, I don’t even want ta think of how he’d be layin’ into ya!” The kitchen was a wreck; his mother must have been up all night waiting on him to come home. She had a nervous habit of rearranging rooms when stress got the better of her, and the chaotic disarray of her kitchen meant that most likely, in the early morning hours, Emma Gallagher had finally given up on her son for the night, and ceded the battle to her tiredness; the kitchen left to tell the tale of the night’s battle.
“I know, Mum… I’m sorry,” Ailin mumbled, trying not to make eye contact. He did truly feel bad, but he was occupied with trying to remember whether it was Viletta he had necked with in that open freight car.
“Enjoy your dinner,” his mother spat bitterly at him as she tossed the plate of burnt food in front of him. Ailin attempted to speak, but a look at her face convinced him it was a bad idea. Emma thudded out of the room and collapsed onto her bed in an exhausted heap.
“Night, Mum,” he whispered as he headed out the front door. The town was unusually quiet, granted Saturday mornings were always calm, as most folks were recovering from the night’s activities, but still, it was noticeably more still than usual. A crumpled newspaper rolled across Ailin’s boot as he stepped onto the packed dirt street, apparently heading towards the stables. He turned the opposite way, and began walking toward the general store, oddly named by the owner, Lett Morris, as “Boyd’s Tack Store.” Who Boyd was, and why exactly anyone would want to buy tack were local mysteries, but regardless Lett had a regular, if not exceptionally large, customer base.
“Mornin’, Lett,” Ailin greeted an apparently empty store as he walked inside. He got no reply, but thought little of it. Lett was probably just in the store room, or outside relieving himself. Ailin grabbed a stick of buffalo jerky and knocked on the counter; it wasn’t much of a breakfast, but he couldn’t say he was really in a position to complain. Lett staggered out from behind a stand of old saddles and cow-rope, and ambled toward Ailin. “Mornin’,” he tried again.
“Ungh,” was all the clerk replied as he continued shuffling toward the boy.
“This’ll be it Mr. Morris, and don’t give me a lecture about eating right this morning… I’ve already gotten an earful from me mum,” Ailin said with a pained grimace, remembering the kitchen scene earlier.
“Unh huh,” Lett said, grabbing the jerky from the boy’s hand and ringing it up.
“Rough night too, eh?” Ailin asked jokingly as he placed a handful of small coins on the counter next to the ancient, black register.
“The wife’s a bit put off by me I think, me boy. She’s actin’ strangely this mornin’,” Mr. Morris explained finally. Ailin could see him wince as he drew up the change for the jerky, and noticed that he was favoring his left arm.
“Hit you with a chair did she?” Ailin inquired, nodding towards Lett’s arm.
“Bit me, actually,” he said with an odd look. “Like I said… she’s acting strangely.”
“Hmm, that is odd. By the way, where’s Ruskin? I didn’t see him on the porch this morning.”
“Actually, I haven’t seen that mutt for a few days either,” Lett replied, “Helen said something last night about him scratching her and running around the room barking, but it had been a few days before… so I’m not real sure.”
“Well, if I see him, I’ll be sure to send him your way.” Ailin began to walk out the store, absently chewing on his jerky, “Town sure is dead today.”
“Seems so, eh?” Lett said with a wave, immediately grabbing his arm in pain and rubbing it. “Guess I’ll just have to settle for a ‘have a nice day’ for a while…”
Deciding to take the long way home, Ailin set his feet on auto-pilot and walked toward Mill Creek, appropriately named for its use by the mill to run the waterwheel. The gritty facades that littered the main, and really only, street through town cast long shadows across his path, and he amused himself by hopping from one shaded area to the next. He passed the “Mustang Hitch” with a longing glance; the stories of what went on in there were legend. Unfortunately, the owner enforced a strict age limit, and at eighteen, Ailin still couldn’t get in.
He could hear the creek singing long before it was visible; the water trickling across rocks and off small ledges sounded like a chorus of rain angels. Ailin sat leaning against a gnarled old tree with the initials “LM + SB” carved into it. He wasn’t sure who either of those people were, but he often day-dreamed about the life they must have lived, the things they did together. He came to the creek a lot to sit and think, the rushing of the water helped to clear his head, and it was always much cooler down in the shade of his tree.
Today he thought about his mother. He knew he disappointed her a lot; he couldn’t seem to do anything but make her cry nowadays. There wasn’t much for either of them in Desperado, but it was their home, and neither of them had any real desire to leave. He wished his dad were still alive. He always knew what to do. The first time he ever saw his mom cry was the day that the sheriff came to tell them the news: his father was dead. He had been running a herd of cattle from one ranch to another on the opposite side of town, and there had been an accident halfway through the trip. A few of the steers had wandered off by themselves near an outcropping of rocks, and when he rode over to round them back up, a nest of rattle-snakes had attacked his horse. The horse bucked Ailin’s father off and bolted, crushing his right leg and leaving him unconscious. The rattlers had attacked him next, and by the time he was found, the poison had ruptured his heart. Ailin was very young, but he would never forget the image of his father’s face, bruised and bloated, staring up at him with sightless eyes from his coffin. They buried him in the church cemetery near Coal Ridge, and every year on holidays and the anniversary of his death, Ailin and his mother would visit the grave and say the Rosary.
He was so caught up in his memories that he didn’t hear anyone approaching. A shuffle in the grass startled him out of his thoughts in time to see a woman walking towards him, with an odd lilt to her step. “Mrs. Morris? What are you doing out here?” Ailin asked, recognizing the store owner’s wife.
“Ungh” she groaned, continuing on slowly toward him.
“Mrs. Morris? Are you alright?” Ailin asked, rising to his feet in concern. “Lett said Ruskin scratched you… maybe you caught some sort of fever?” His brow furrowed in confusion as she got closer to him. She was very pale, almost white as a bedsheet. Her hair hung in matted clumps, and it looked like there were silverfish crawling across her temples and behind her ears. “Umm… do you need help Mrs. Morris?
“Uhnnn… guuh!” the obviously sick woman responded as she slowly closed the gap between her and Ailin. He began backing up slowly, using the tree as a barricade between himself and the woman. As she neared him, Ailin knew that something was indeed very wrong: her eyes were completely white.
“Mrs. Morris… I’m uh… I’m gonna’ go get some help, yeah?” He muttered, making sure to keep a fair distance from her. Just as he turned to run, his boot caught under a tree root, and he crashed to the ground. Frantically rolling over, he looked straight up into the face of poor old Mrs. Morris, and knew that his number had been called. Just as she reached toward his face, two loud shouts rang out, leaving a sharp ring in Ailin’s ears. Twin streams of dark blood ran from matching holes above both of the woman’s eyes as she fell backwards onto the soft creek shore. A strange hand grabbed Ailin by the back of his shirt and hoisted him up.
“The name’s Dante. I’ll be your guide through hell.”