Misty needed to vacate before the blood made her puke. She shoved her way through the crowd and it was less dense as she went further from the stage. Outside it was dark except for torchlight. She could see through the picture window. There was a huge crew of cowboys just arriving. They were coming along on foot. They'd cause a logjam at the door. Misty picked up speed as she made way for the bar, hoping to beat them to the pass – but, long before she got there – the tavern doors swung open and a kid shambled inside the Bare.
It was Madame's boy.
“No it ain't,” Misty whispered. She stopped in her tracks and squeezed her eyes shut.
When she opened them to have a second gander it was apparent right away that it was not Madame's dead son. This boy's scalp still fit his head. Still, Misty didn't reckon the kid was any more alive than ol' Roger. His filth was something only a hog could condone. His face was slathered in rusty muck. He looked like he'd chewed his way out of the grave.
Nobody else seemed to care. They went ahead with their toasts and card games. Isaac poured a line of shots upon the bar-top.
Misty had to wonder how reliable her senses were any more.
She heard the ringmaster feeding weird vittles to Ben Bitten while providing loud commentary. “The spine? Ben! Don't eat the spine!”
She saw the feller from earlier – the bearded cuss who’d teased Tom – saunter up to the messy kid. He leaned in and said something Misty couldn’t make out. Then he guffawed, spraying the kid’s grimy cheeks with specks of white foam. Slapping his knee, he turned away to reap his compadre’s approval. The cruddy kid didn’t bother to wipe the suds from his face. He simply crept closer while the cuss kept laughing.
The kid was gonna et him from behind! Misty saw it coming.
“Mister!” she cried – but it was too late.
The kid latched onto his back, twisting fistfuls of his beard. He jerked his head aside to better chomp at the intersection of the bearded cuss’s neck and shoulder. Misty gasped.
The brawl was on. Thrice the cuss elbowed the kid in the gut, but to no avail. A champion bull-rider couldn’t have held faster than that kid held onto that feller’s beard. Together they spun and bucked. Beyond them, Misty saw the tavern doors swing inward. She caught a mighty whiff of something foully rotten – and familiar. A sneering, filthy rustler came shambling inside the Bare. He’d been gut shot. A gruesome tendril of gore oozed from the wound, finally coming loose and slapping to the floor like a slug. It looked to Misty like a mortal injury, but he was still up and at ‘em. Outside, the road teemed with scores more of his kind – rustlers who had somehow survived their own deaths.
“Am I the only one seeing this?” Misty backpedaled away from the kid and the cuss. She heard a girl screaming upstairs and it weren't no fake orgasm. It were real pain. “Did you hear that?”
But the man she asked was too drunk to keep his eyes uncrossed.
In the throes of a vicious sort of ecstasy, the kid tore off the bearded feller’s ear and it flicked up into the air. Misty watched it plummet all the way to the floor. She gasped once more, and out with that excited gut-wind went the last of her ether. Suddenly, the wound on her hind-thigh throbbed, steady as a tolling bell. Her bandaged hand hurt – even where there were no fingers.
The deathly rustlers came storming inside. They squeezed through the entrance shoulder to shoulder, packed together so tightly the tavern doors were ripped from their hinges and clattered upon the floor planks. They absorbed the tussling kid and cuss, and the melee spread fast as a brushfire. Men seated at tables beside the doors were tackled in their chairs before they could ever get on their feet and fight back. They disappeared beneath feasting mounds. Drunkards abandoned the bar-top and rushed into the fray. Their punches were met with indifference, and the rustlers fought back with fangs and prying fingers. Misty saw a man swept up by many hands and worse than quartered, reduced to so many fragments of a man it was beyond her ability to arithmetic. While rushing in, another would-be fisticuffer saw the dismemberment, too, and dropped to his knees instead to beg for mercy. Misty knew there’d be none. This weren’t her first apocalypse. It was time to run anyplace else while the barflies were still alive enough to distract the onslaught of the damned.
She turned to flee, but right away she collided with someone and cold metal pressed against her cheek. It was the Sheriff's star.
“Get back,” he said. She heard his pistol cocked and ready.
She twisted past him. The show was still going on. Onstage, Ben Bitten was eating a shotgun – barrel-first. The ringmaster encouraged him full-throatedly but to Misty it was dull droning. Right then she heard her own panting and not much else. The joint was packed and there was nowhere to run. The audience had their backsides to her.
All except Tom Savage. He was standing near the stage, tomahawk clenched in his raised fist. His other hand motioned for her to come, but the audience had yet to catch wind of the danger behind them, so she was forced to fight through the oblivious rowdies to reach him.
Upstairs, directly above the stage, the girl called Suzie slammed her door open and came shrieking out topless. With her arm held across her bosom she fled to the banister. She shouted down at the parlor but Misty couldn't make sense of her noise. The ringmaster looked up to see what was the ruckus.
Tom gestured more urgently for Misty to come to him. She picked up the pace but her body was feeling its hurts worse with every step. Then she heard a pistol pop behind her and it was something like a second wind in her sails. She rushed toward Tom.
Rex Westman spun around in answer to the gunplay. The instant he kicked out his chair he had his forty-five drawn. Misty couldn't believe it, but she was running right for him. If only she hadn’t lost her awl.
“This is not part of the show!” the ringmaster blared. Then Suzie screamed one last time before the man who had been in her room came lurching out and crushed her against the banister. Together they flipped over and plummeted headlong to the stage below. Their fall smashed the backdrop's scaffold and the whole construction collapsed in a velveteen heap. Even during their descent, the feller never quit assaulting Suzie. Strait-jacketed, Ben Bitten had no way to catch himself when the tussling pair rolled against his ankles. He went down hard alongside them. The audience murmured, sorta miffed. Their heads swiveled and the parlor filled with perplexed grunting.
The ringmaster backed away shouting, “Let me repeat – this is not part of the act!”
Misty hurtled right past Rex and clambered up onstage. Tom Savage was already there, prying the shambler off Suzie. But it was too late. The girl was dead. Forever ago that had been Misty's sister – and that were only yesterday. Misty knelt at Suzie’s side while Tom Savage wrestled with the creep who had just murdered her. She closed the girl's eyes with a wave of her hand.
The crowd was on their collective feet, making noise for the freak-show – but it was an uneasy ovation.
Misty looked out beyond them and saw the thoroughfare window shatter. A man burst through, straddling the frame. The jagged shards of glass shredded his nethers but still he kept coming.
The parlor suddenly roiled with violence at its edges, but those drunk fools in the middle still didn’t know. They were still gawking at the stage.
Misty turned to see how Tom Savage was faring with the creep who'd killed Suzie – just in time to see his tomahawk make impact. The hatchet detached the creep's neck from his collarbone. At once, he went slack and slammed to the stage as if a horse had kicked him dead. His head went rolling and thudded offstage like a melon with a mushy spot. Dull black blood gushed out of the decapitation site and made Misty's knees wet where she knelt. She stood up fast. The blood was not even lukewarm.
The men who had been seated front-row were now facing away from the stage. They dug in their heels and fought against being trampled. From every corner, the entire patronage of the bordello pressed toward the parlor's center. They were being rounded up like cattle. The stage lent Misty a heightened vantage, so she could watch it all going down.
Beyond yonder bar-top she saw the tavern’s breach. A flesh-packed stream of shambling cannibals continued to force their way in. The folks in the bar never had a chance. The ghouls ran roughshod over them, dissected them, distributing the viscera back and forth the way morsels are shared across the supper table. They chewed without ever breaking stride. The noise was awful enough to move Misty near tears. She heard tooth-on-bone scraping, and right fucking loud – as if the fangs were gnawing their way out from inside her own skull.
Amidst the massacre men invented new ways to scream. They exceeded the boundaries of obscene speech, scribing new volumes of profanity in their own blood. They were being eaten relentlessly. The onslaught poured in through the broken picture window. Isaac the bartender discharged his shotgun into a slew of intruders but they kept coming. They crawled over the bar while he reloaded, devouring him before he could take another shot. Misty looked away but blood was prevailing all over. Scarlet sprayed into the air at the far extreme of the crowd and ghouls coagulated there like famished scabs.
“Gloria!” Misty shouted – but it was too late. She saw her whore-sister engulfed by a lumbering fiend. He snatched little Gloria up and clamped down on her throat in one foul swoop. Dangling precariously, the girl's head was kept attached by a celery-stalk of neck-bone and the most tenuous fastening of flesh. The sight and smell of her blood caused a frenzy. The creeps fought for their portions till the last grip of skin relented and her head tore off. The ghouls slurped and sucked the meat off Gloria's skull before Misty could blink, let alone look away. She saw the ivory bones beneath Gloria's face and all her teeth, smiling back eternal-like. The ghouls tossed her glistening skeleton on the floor and moved on.
Pistols were popping and then stopping, plinking out a tinny song – the depleted requiem of the gunslinger. Sulfuric plumes twisted up pyre-like. As a last defense, guns were thrown like stones. A stool exploded as it was bashed against a bald-headed shambler. His hunger was not dissuaded. The stampede was quickly overwhelming the audience, closing from every angle – corralling them toward the stage in the center of the parlor. Glass shattered behind her and Misty's dread swelled. She imagined the whore's quarters filling up with more of the ghouls as they crashed through every window like belligerent burglars.
Ben Bitten squirmed nearby. He wriggled in his strait-jacket and sopped up the cold blood. His burlap mask had become twisted and misaligned his mouth-hole, but even muffled that way Misty heard him begging at great volume, “For fuck's sake please! Someone! Anyone! Do unbind my straps!”
Misty crawled through the cold-blooded quagmire till she was beside the sideways geek. From her knees, the violent consumption at the parlor's far reach was hidden behind a panicked wall of stomping, trapped revelers-turned-snared-rabbits. Still, Misty could hear it going on – the wet smacking and bones fracturing. She struggled with Ben's strait-jacket but it was an unfamiliar garment and she was too panicked to take care. Every attempt to loosen its bindings only constricted the jacket more tightly. Desperate, she finally wrenched the sack off Ben's head. His face was slicked in blood and sweat. She flinched at his weird facial piercings, a metal barbell inserted through each cheek. He was hyper-ventilating, sucking wind like a gill-hooked fish.
“The jacket is too tight,” he struggled to say. “I cannot breathe.”
A round whistled past Misty's ear and she fell on her rump in the blood. The bullet had ripped by so fast it sent her head spinning. She pressed her palms against the stage to keep herself from toppling over entirely. Ben Bitten pleaded for her to loosen the straps but her hands were shaking – and now they were also sticky with cold blood. Her best effort was only making a worse mess.
Out of breath, she said, “Mister, I don't know what to do about your coat.”
It was no use. She couldn't focus on the task of unbinding him because the corners of her eyes were crammed too full with wicked mastication. Men were being mutilated all over. The ringmaster crashed onto the bloody stage with another feller on top of him and Misty had to scoot aside and make way. She saw the ringmaster's lights snuff out though his eyes were still open. She witnessed the murder up-close and too personally.
Then Ben Bitten was screaming nonsense. Someone was dragging him offstage, out of the blood and into the mob. Misty swiveled back to suss out the culprit and saw a creep crouching at his ankles. He pried the flesh apart with his fingers. Squirming with his arms pinned inside the strait-jacket, Ben recoiled like a spade-severed worm. The cannibal kept his fingers dug into Ben's ankle and jerked the other way like a man revving up a bullwhip. Before Misty could do a thing, Ben's leg came undone at the seam. A strand of tendon burst through his calf and tore a gorge toward the pit of his knee. The creep kept yanking till the cord snapped. She wanted anything else but Misty just froze and watched. The creep chewed the gristle from Ben's tendons with his front teeth like a feller chowing corn from the cob. Face-down in cold blood, Ben Bitten was having a conniption.