“Then here is how it shall be done,” Yule began. “Downstairs, beneath my workbench, is the cask of lacquer. As we exit by the alleyway, I shall loosen its spigot and draw a liquid fuse continuously along the rear wall my shop, dousing likewise the JAIL and other buildings as we pass. We shall come to the Crossroads, and we will then proceed fast as we are able to the Westman Compound, where the cask can be detonated from a safe distance by a well-aimed shot. It will produce a tremendous explosion and the fire will spread fast.” The others nodded their approval.
“Rex will be flushed out into the open or he will cook in his own cabin – and that’s a win-win. Everyone understand?”
“You’ve a well thought plan here in short-order,” the Sheriff said.
“My affinity for fast-thinking has always been my best asset.”
“And should the back-alley be impassable?” The Sheriff wondered, “Do you know of any contingency then?”
“There is none,” Yule answered flatly. Before the Sheriff could counter, Yule turned away and asked Misty, “Are ye well enough to mount?”
“I thought ye'd never ask.” Misty smiled, “but mayhap we ought wait till this quarantine is complete before we finally have us that fuck.”
Yule kissed her cheek. He tied the sling around her. Then she was the woman carrying his child.
“Can you manage?” he asked. She just nodded and stroked the babe's cheek.
“We’ve only two mounts,” the Sheriff noted, reloading his pistol.
“Misty and I shall ride upon my paint,” Yule replied. “And you two upon Doc’s Appaloosa. That horse is able to trample whole regiments of shambling cannibals – so it ought be the lead animal.”
Downstairs, the riot taking place in the showroom suddenly intensified. The survivors had to shout then simply to be heard.
“We ain’t got much time!” Doc hollered. “Get a move on!”
He skidded to the spiraling staircase and started down with Dude on his heels. The Sheriff went next, with Yule and Misty following close behind.
But as they descended, Yule felt a chill. The paint snorted. First Dude began to rumble, and then something wooden thudded to the floor in the darkness below – and he erupted ferociously.
“Wait!” Yule warned, but the workshop was suddenly too loud for anyone to heed him. With one hand he held Misty back, and with the other he held his pistol poised.
Above the ruckus there suddenly arose a mad shrieking, the sort of desperate noise which instantly withers a man’s globes. By that juncture they had all come to know too well the sound of a feller being et. Doc was dying down there at the foot of the stairs. In the next instant his screams ceased being shrill. Then he gurgled like a tub of boiling tar. Misty and the babe cried out in Yule’s ear. The Sheriff took shots in the dark, gunning that which Yule could not immediately see, mercifully deafening everyone in the process.
Over yonder, Yule spied a crack of light coming in from the rear wall of his workshop – from the alleyway. The door was open.
Yule could not breathe. A kick from a mule couldn’t have knocked the wind from him worse, so squarely had the realization struck: he had never barred the door. He and Doc had come inside, and searching then for signs of Misty had consumed them such that neither man had ever thought to latch and bar the fucking door. And now, Doc was paying for their carelessness.
But there was no time to mourn the old man, nor blame himself – Yule had to act. Whatever creep or creeps had killed Doc did not come alone. The door to the alley was opened wider still, and a shadow came lurching inside. It threw itself upon Yule’s colt. The paint snorted. Rearing up, the Appaloosa struck its head against the ceiling and the whole workshop shook. The Sheriff had finished off Doc’s killer but had yet to finish reloading. He couldn’t save the paint. Neither could Yule get a clean shot. He was as apt to put a bullet in his horse as he was to rescue it from the fiend. Misty clung to him and cried.
Only the canine could act, and Dude did not cotton at all to some feller assaulting his old comrade: the paint colt. In a blur he was upon the ghoul and at its throat. They fell tussling to the floor and the paint shied away from their clench, breathing out hard through its nose. The Appaloosa stomped its hooves and clear on the other side of the workshop the survivors were chilled by a cold-blood mist. Doc’s old mare had taken a liking to crushing ghouls under its shoes. It turned in place, stamping the fiend flat, bugling out a triumphant neigh. Dude was planted beside it with his hackles on-end, barking up a storm at the now pulverized creep.
The Sheriff sprinted across the workshop and slammed the door shut. Suddenly, it was pitch-black once more and louder than ever. Something was stoking the damned in the showroom. They were excited, raspy and eager. The barricade rattled and Yule reckoned he had little time before it all came apart. He dragged Misty down the remainder of the stairs and led her to the paint.
“Wait here,” he said close to her ear. She did not protest.
“Sherwin!” the Sheriff wailed. “We’ve got to go now!”
Yule did not answer right away. He moved through the darkness by memory and found the cask of lacquer under his workbench. It was a short keg with a spigot near the base, the sort of vessel in which wine would have aged perfectly. He guessed it was roughly three-quarters full – more than enough to burn a town whose fire brigade was all dead.
“Check the alley,” he said to the lawman as he passed in the blackness. “And if it’s feasible, mount up and move on out.”
The Sheriff cracked the door and peered out into the alleyway.
“All clear,” he said. He drew the doors wide open. He took the Appaloosa’s reins and stepped into the stirrup.
“Steer right,” Yule advised, “and if a shadow darkens your path best see it trampled flat.” Then he helped Misty and the babe onto the nervous paint before mounting it himself. He gave a whistle for his dog to quit woofing at the squashed ghoul and to come along, instead.
The Sheriff urged the Appaloosa ahead and it moseyed out into the alley. Yule took a last accounting of his workshop – all that unfinished business – artifacts of his quiet misery.
Good fucking riddance, he thought.
He turned the spigot just a little and the pungent lacquer trickled out, splattering upon the workshop's planked floor. Then, for the final time, he left his shop.
Following the Sheriff, he kept the paint reined in while they traversed the alleyway. As they passed, Yule dashed the rear of the jail with the lacquer. He laid the liquid fuse behind them like the opposite of a length of string left in a maze – a path not toward escape but toward fiery ruin. A path more hellward than it was homeward bound.
The alley ended at the crossroad. There, the survivors abandoned the corridor and quickened their pace toward the intersection with the thoroughfare. Yule painted everything they passed: storefronts, the planked walkways fronting the shops, the posts where horse-carcasses were still tied, the ragged, dust-crusted meat of disemboweled cowboys – even the road itself to some degree, as was demanded to keep the fuse contiguous.
When they reached the point where the road crossed the thoroughfare, there arose the moaning pursuit of the horde. The lust of the Damned was primarily for warm-blooded supping, so they were abandoning the Beard's tepid residue and came lurching after the horses and their riders instead. The posse's blood was blazing hot, but death had retarded the shamblers. They couldn't keep up but didn't know when to quit. The survivors left them in the dust. Dude guarded their flank, inching backward with his hackles raised and his own fangs bared in return.
At last, they arrived at Westman’s gates. Jumping down from the paint, Yule passed the reins to Misty and tightened the cask's spigot. This was where the fuse ended. He gave the gates a try but they were locked.
Not for very much longer; that was his heart's anticipation.
“Get back a-ways!” he cried. “This is apt to be a mighty fucking boom.”
The paint and the Appaloosa carried their Misty and the Sheriff away, but Dude would not leave Yule's side – not until his master set the cask against the gate and then sprinted away to rejoin the others. By the time he turned around to have another look, the Damned were swarming about the compound, puking up the lyrics of their gore-song, calling their kin from Red Junction's every nook-and-cranny. That the shamblers were gathering there beside the gates was a welcome convergence. Yule reckoned the explosion might kill many birds with a single stone. The Sheriff aimed his pistol at the cask out yonder, but Yule pushed his barrel down.
“This is my shot,” he said. The Sheriff re-holstered his gun without argument.
Yule held his breath. The horde was angling past the palisades to pursue him and his fellow survivors. He squeezed the trigger.
Detonation; explosion; eruption; all pale descriptors of the blast and blue-tongued hell-fire which shrieked up the timber-stakes. Those Damned who had been too near the epicenter were pulverized. They slammed into the dirt, some with their legs sheared at the knee or the skin singed from their skulls. Others were struck by globs of liquid-flame and became shambling torches unto themselves.
The wick Sherwin had laid behind them caught fire, spreading down the road something rapid. The blue streak snaked fast, leaving red and orange flames in its wake. Yule could envision the JAIL burning, the Meekses remains bubbling inside, the bordello smoldering, the whole town turning to ash. Ahead of him, Westman's gates were becoming black smoke. The palisades were becoming fuck-all but tall matchsticks.
Yule was warmed not only by the fire, but again by pride. He forgave himself, for he wagered it was the sort of manly pride even peaceful fellers sometimes felt during wartime. He climbed back upon the paint. Misty snuggled against him.
Then there came a second explosion and the survivors all startled.
Rex Westman rode out from his burning sanctuary upon a black stallion, dark as the smoke from which it emerged. His forty-five spat thunder into the skulls of shamblers who dared block his way. His escape mashed the broken creeps beneath the stallion's hooves.
“Westman!” the Sheriff hollered. “Halt!”
But Rex Westman wasn't apt to obey. On horseback he thundered along the crossroad, trampling the Damned as his flight demanded. Not once did he look back. Heat drew simmering lines in the air, warping the road between him and the survivors, but it was plain for them to see – Rex was getting away.
“After him!” Yule screamed. He kicked his paint and the chase was on.
The Sheriff snapped the reins and the Appaloosa was unleashed upon the wounded horde. Incensed, the mare blazed a trail between twitching, smoldering ghoul-corpses. Yule had to try and keep up. Westman's stallion and the mighty Appaloosa were pulling away right from the get-go. They were beasts built for the chase, bred for speed, with hard-packed hip-musculature launching them forward one vault after another.
But Yule's pony was of a mellower strain. It was being outpaced by the dog. Yule knew he never should have kicked it. Rides prior had taught him that his gentle mount took encouragement better than abuse.
He leaned forward and whispered right in its ear, “You are such a swift pony – so strong and so brave!”
Up yonder, Rex had already come to the crossroads. There he veered east and headed out of Red Junction. The Appaloosa wasn't far behind.
Renewed by his praise, Yule’s paint found a second wind and galloped along the infernal avenue. Misty had to hold on around his waist with her good hand, her bad-hand cringing whenever it made contact with anything. Yule felt the baby wedged between his back and her front. The most treacherous Damned were gnashing their teeth upon their charred and crushed brethren, snatching up blown-off limbs and gnawing relentless-like. But there were still discerning shamblers whose lust was for live-blood only – and they pursued the slower paint.
Yule knew he had but a single shot remaining in his pistol, and that he should not spend it on any of these fiends.
Fate meant for him to put it in Rex Westman.