Jett Gallatin expected trouble in Alsop, Texas—but not zombies.
As the evening breeze blew dust and tumbleweed across the town's main—and only—street, a gleaming black stallion picked his way along it. The stallion seemed to be the one choosing his own path; his rider sat motionless in the saddle, reins loose, hat pulled down too low for anyone to get a good look at what ever it concealed.
There wasn't much to the town yet, just a street with a livery stable at one end and a church at the other, but last year money on four hooves had come to Alsop. The railroad had reached Abilene, Kansas, and a beeve worth five dollars in Texas was worth forty if you could get him to the railhead in Abilene. Alsop had reaped the reward of being one of the towns near the head of Jesse Chisholm's trail; the town's new prosperity could be seen by the fact there were more horses in front of the saloon than there were places to hitch them.
Prosperity draws folks like flowers draw bees. Did it draw Philip? Mother Mary, please let it have, Jett Gallatin thought.
The stallion's rider would never be mistaken for an ordinary cowhand. Jett wore silver- studded black, from the silver-heeled boots and Spanish spurs to the silver- studded hatband on the wide- crowned black hat. This wasn't an outfit made for punching cows—nor was the well-worn custom gun belt with its matched pair of ivory-handled Colts. Everything about the meticulous arrangement of both revolvers told the tale of someone who lived and died by the gun—the holsters tied down, the gun belt tightened so it rode high, comfort sacrificed for the sake of a split-second's advantage in a gunfight. The sleek black stallion was no cow- pony, either, and his silver-studded, carved black leather saddle and tack weren't the sort of thing a working cowhand could afford. Everything about Jett Gallatin told the world the black- clad drifter was either a gambler or a shootist—or both—but no one in their wildest dreams would think Jett Gallatin was a girl. For her freedom, for her life—and for her brother—she played the kind of young gun a boy would want to be and a girl would yearn after.
And you all go on thinking I'm a boy, thanks, Jett said silently. That's what you're supposed to do.
For an instant she let herself remember those golden peaceful days when passing as a boy had been only a game she'd shared with her twin brother. You can't just dress like me—you have to be me. Give a pretty girl the eye. Otherwise you'll never fool anybody, he'd told her over and over. Jasper told her: Jasper and Jett Stuart, twin brothers who went places and did things Philip and Philippa Sheridan's parents would never have approved of. Now Jasper was gone, and Jett Gallatin searched for him ... and Philippa Sheridan of Court Oaks Plantation in Orleans Parish was someone she used to be, a lifetime ago. She'd named herself "Gallatin" for Gallatin Street in New Orleans, where she and Mama had gone to hide the night Court Oaks burned. Even now, sometimes, she couldn't sleep at night, remembering her home burning, burning, burning ...
Finally the stallion stopped next to the rail in front of the saloon. A rancher or a homesteader would have headed for the general store for the local news, but a cowhand would make for the saloon for beer and whiskey, a good meal, and better company. A gambler or a drifter would choose the same destination, and so—she hoped—that's what Philip would do. If there's any trace of him here, this is where I'll find it.
She swung her leg over the saddle pommel and dropped gracefully to the ground. Oh, Philip, if you hadn't taught me to play the boy so well, I'd be dead now.
She was just seventeen. She should have been getting ready for one of the many gala cotillions New Orleans boasted—had boasted—each spring. She thought with longing of the dress she would have worn—yards and yards of silk taffeta and lace and huge hoops, her waist laced small enough for a fellow to put both hands around. Philip would have been standing beside her, tall and strong and proud, ready to lead her out for the first dance.
But things hadn't been the way they should be for six years—not since February 1861, when Louisiana seceded from the Union, one of the first seven states to do so. Her brothers and their friends marched off to war, and most of them never came back. Her father and her four older brothers, dead in Mr. Lincoln's War. Her mother, dead in the occupation of New Orleans. Philip ... the last news she had was five years old. Philip had written to tell them that Papa was wounded, a Union prisoner, and he was going with him to Rock Island to nurse him. A few months later, there'd been a letter from the prison commander's wife telling them Papa was dead—but they never learned what happened to Philip. He could have gone anywhere—even back to the Army if he'd managed to cross the lines. All Jett knew for sure was that he'd never come home. But she refused to believe he was dead. They were twins—if anything happened to the one, the other always knew it. He had to be here—in the West, where Tyrant Johnson's yoke lay lightly on the necks of exiled Southerners.
She had to believe that. It was all that kept her keeping on.
She didn't tie up Nightingale with the other horses. She looped his reins at the saddle horn as the stallion gazed scornfully down his aristocratic nose at the dusty cow- ponies. She patted his shoulder—bidding a temporary farewell to a good friend—and stepped up onto the weathered wood sidewalk in front of the saloon. A feeling of weary familiarity descended on her as she stepped through the batwing doors and paused, stripping off her gloves as she let her eyes adjust to the gloom. Sawdust covered the floor, kerosene lamps—the only source of light—hung from wall brackets, and a "chandelier" made from a wagon wheel was suspended from the exposed raf ters. This was the sort of place Jett Gallatin was all too familiar with by now. Four years ago I had no idea places like this even existed.
There were almost a dozen men in the saloon—eleven, to be precise—plus the barkeeper. At this time of day, the locals would be at their supper tables, so these were men without homes or steady employment. A trail boss riding shorthanded might pick up one of them to help out on a drive, but he knew he'd be taking his chances if he did. You had no way of knowing if a man was any good until you'd tried him—and halfway between South Texas and Abilene was a bad place to find out someone was an owlhoot.
As Jett walked slowly up to the bar, the only sound in the saloon was the jingling of her silver spurs. The silence persisted as she put one foot up on the gleaming brass rail and leaned over the bar. I wonder if there's going to be trouble this time, she thought with resignation. She knew no one would guess she was a girl, but no matter how good her disguise, nothing she tried to make her look older stood up to close scrutiny. She looked like a boy, not a man, so she relied for protection on the flamboyant and menacing costume of a gunslinger. It was just lucky she was as good with a gun as her costume proclaimed she was. She'd had to be.
"Where you from, stranger?" The bartender drew a beer without her asking and pushed it in front of her.
"Up the trail," she replied. She fished out her money pouch and laid a silver dime on the counter. Union coin and Union tyranny, she thought with a reflexive sneer. "Looking to see what's down the way." She picked up the beer and sipped it thirstily. At least the bitter stuff cut through the trail dust.
"Been a few strangers through town lately," the bartender replied.
She nodded. "Cattle drives come through here?" she asked, half turning away. She already knew they did; she used the conversation to cover the fact she was watching for trouble. Her next questions would be about finding a bed for the night and the prospects of signing up with a drive. Harmless natural questions for a stranger to ask, and it wasn't impossible for a gambler to want to change his luck. If the bartender gave her the right answers, her next question would be ...
Ah, never mind. Without bad luck, I wouldn't have any luck at all.
A stranger in town was always fair game for the local bully. There wasn't a lot of law out here, and, well, everything depended on how good you were with a gun—and with intimidation. Good with a gun, yes. Intimidation ... not hardly.
She'd just spotted Trouble sitting by himself at a table. He had half a bottle of whiskey in front of him, and he'd been eyeing her furtively from the moment she came in. Her rig-out caused as many problems as it stopped, mostly with fools who forgot a boy could be as deadly with a gun as any man.
Now Mister Trouble tried to lock eyes with her. She pulled her hat down a little lower over her eyes—meaningfully—but he didn't take the hint.
The barkeep answered her question—though she'd already stopped listening—and when she didn't say anything more, he walked down to where he could keep an eye on his other customers and began to polish a glass with the hem of his dingy apron. As soon as the barkeep moved, Mister Trouble heaved himself to his feet and wove tipsily toward her. He was fat and unshaven, wearing clothing that hadn't seen a washboard in far too long. She kept her expression bland, though she wanted to snarl in exasperation. Barring a miracle, Mister Trouble was going to start something she'd have to finish, and then she'd have to light out ahead of what ever law this place had to offer. She really, really didn't want to have to draw down on him, or worse, shoot him. She'd been hoping to stay a few days and make some inquiries.
Wonder if throwing my beer in his face will cool him down peaceable-like?
She guessed she'd find out before she got much older.
It took the drunken ranahan a fair amount of time to make his unsteady way up to the bar, but there was no doubt in Jett's mind he was aching for trouble. Any chance their encounter was going to end peaceably was becoming smaller by the minute. At least she didn't have to worry about sun glare; it was full dark outside by now.
So what's he going to say? she wondered, in the peace that always descended on her in the last moments before violence became inevitable. "You ain't from around here, is ya?" or, "We don't cotton to strangers 'round here"? or, "Them's mighty big guns fer sech a little feller"? She eyed the other customers of the bar to see how they were going to react to the unequal fight. Was Mister Trouble the town clown or a bully everyone feared? If he was a bully, she might be applauded for putting him down. If he wasn't—if he was someone everyone liked, even if they didn't respect him—she'd have to get out of this without seriously hurting him, or she'd have a posse on her heels. Her insides tightened up, and everything got a little sharper.
Most of the bar's customers didn't even seem to notice that misfortune—someone's misfortune, anyway—was brewing, and she couldn't read the faces of the rest. She glanced toward the barkeep, hoping for a better clue, but just as she took her eyes off Mister Trouble, she heard Nightingale whinny in warning. She took three long backward steps away from the bar, her hands going for her guns as her gaze turned toward the swinging doors.
And then every horse outside the saloon—even Nightingale—screamed in fear.
The batwing doors swung inward, and a wind as cold as the breeze from an ice house—too cold for the season—poured into the bar. Even through the cold, Jett could smell a stink like a New Orleans cemetery at high summer. The bar's customers began to curse and complain, but before they could really get going, a horde of ... unholy things ... shambled in through the open doors. They were wearing everything from dirt- caked Sunday suits to the ragged tatters of denim overalls. They'd been people once. Now they were dead half- rotted bodies with white- filmed, sightless eyes. Some bore the marks of bullet holes or knife wounds. Some had the grotesque stretched and broken necks of hanged men. Some had been gnawed by varmints. They were all carrying weapons—pickaxes, spades, pitchforks, and even clubs.
Jett clutched her gun butts, though she wondered if the rosary she wore around her neck might be more use. There was a horrified silence in the saloon as its customers realized what had just come through the door, a thump as the barkeep dropped what ever he'd been holding, and then a boom as he whipped his shotgun up from under the bar and fired both barrels. It blew an arm off one of the creatures and knocked another to the ground. But the first didn't seem to notice the missing limb, and the second merely got up again with a fresh gaping crater in its chest.
As if that had been a signal, every living man was on his feet and shooting into the mob of the undead. The saloon filled with the thunder and lightning of gunplay and the smell of gunsmoke, but the barrage had no visible effect.
The zombies kept coming.
The stink of gunpowder mixed with the stench of rotting corpses. Some of the shooters reloaded to fire again, while some had flung aside their useless guns and were looking wildly for any other sort of weapon. The barkeep vanished behind the bar again, and came back up with a fire axe. One of the brighter rannies got the notion to pick up a chair and smash it into the face of one of the things, and then all hell was out for noon. Jett heard a sickening crunch as a living man went down beneath a corpse's club.
Jett still hadn't drawn her own weapons. Her retreat had placed her on the opposite side of the saloon from everyone else, but if she'd had any hopes the living could win this donnybrook, they were dashed within seconds. More and more shambling corpses were shoving their way into the saloon, and while the door on the back wall probably led to the street, it was at the far end of the room and she couldn't get to it. As she backed all the way down to the end of the bar, she saw one of the dead grab the axe from the barkeep's hands. His screams were mercifully brief.
The locals were surrounded, outnumbered, and out of bullets. The situation was hopeless. For the moment, the zombies were concentrating on the men attacking them, and if she didn't want to make this place her last stand, Jett had one chance and seconds in which to take it. She took a deep breath and jammed her Stetson on tight, then made a running dive for the saloon window, ducking her head into her shoulder to save her face from the glass. She hit the window with a splintering crash of wood and glass and turned her dive into a somersault over the plank walk.
She tumbled out into the street and rolled to her feet. The cow-ponies had all fled—the hitching rail was empty, except for a few trailing pieces of broken reins. She couldn't see Nightingale anywhere. She heard screaming, and as she looked frantically around, she saw movement in the street. The street was full of the things—a dozen she could see, maybe more she couldn't. They hadn't just attacked the saloon. They'd attacked the whole town at once and from the sound of things, nobody else was having better luck than the men in the saloon had.
Worse, the shattering window had drawn the zombies' attention.
She groaned in despair as she backed slowly away from the milling corpses. She would have made a run for the church, but they were between her and it. Maybe I can outrun them, she thought desperately. Cowboy boots weren't meant for walking, let alone running, but just now Jett was powerfully motivated.
A flicker of light behind her caught her attention. She risked a glance toward it, and saw one of the storefronts was on fire. Broken lamp, she thought inanely. In the firelight, she could see figures heading for the street. From their shuffling gait, she knew what they were.
She was surrounded now. Fear nailed her feet to the ground.
As the undead moved closer, she crossed herself quickly, breathed a prayer—and thrust two fingers into her mouth and whistled shrilly. If she hadn't removed her gloves as she'd walked into the saloon, she would have died here. But she and Nightingale were much more than horse and rider. They were partners. And because of that, he didn't flee when ordinary horses bolted in panic—and he came to her rescue when even a human partner would have thought twice.
Even so, he was almost too late.
In the distance, she heard a stallion's wild scream of challenge. Nightingale was coming. All she had to do was stay alive until he got here. She gazed around herself wildly, searching for anything she could use as a weapon. She spotted a Winchester leaning against a wall—it would serve as a club if nothing else—but before she could dash across the street to get it, she saw more zombies coming out of the doorway beside it. There was nowhere she could run and nothing to fight with. They were going to kill her, and Nightingale would die trying to save her, and—who would search, for Philip once she was dead?
Excerpted from Dead Reckoning by Mercedes Lackey Rosemary Edghill Copyright © 2012 by Mercedes Lackey & Rosemary Edghill. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Books for Young Readers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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