If something wasn’t wrong in the Outland before, it sure as hell was now. The dead man walked. Warner cocked his revolver, took aim, and fired. The dead man walked. Warner cursed and cocked the hammer. He shot again, hitting him in the neck. The dead man collapsed, twitching in the desert sands.
“What do you reckon it is?” Hijack asked, taking cautious steps toward the body. Holstering his pistol, Warner approached as well, the bones he wore rattling with each step. They hunched over the emaciated corpse. Where the skin wasn’t charred, it was moon pale, like its blood had long gone blue. A black liquid trickled from the thing’s neck.
Warner spat. “Smells like hell. If I didn’t know better, I’d say it looks like Keller.”
“Looks like him. But where’d he come from?”
Standing, Warner brushed a lock of his long hair from his face and surveyed the horizon. Save for their settlement just a few yards behind, it was flat fucking desert in every direction, matched only by the monotonous blue sky overhead. No clouds for Tombstone Warner nor the rest of the Infinite Bullets. He spat again and adjusted his shirt of bones. Scraps of sheet metal and wood constructed their settlement. Hide and canvas covered the makeshift shelters that clustered in their spot of desert. Other than his gunshots, it was a quiet morning, and most of his men were too hungover to care to investigate the noise. Hijack had been on watch and came to Warner about the dead man. They stood less than fifteen feet from the settlement, among the hardpan cracked earth looking at this pale thing that might have once been Keller.
“Left for Reaper’s Cove a few weeks ago,” Warner said. “Now he’s come back.”
“Word is Reaper’s Cove burned.” Hijack studied the horizon.
“Use your head, Hijack. More than three weeks ago, Keller says he’s going to Reaper’s Cove, say hello to some of his buddies, go whoring. We get word last week that the Cove’s been burned. Look at his body.”
Hijack looked back at the corpse. Its glossy black eyes stared upward, absent of life. “That ain’t Keller, Warner. That’s a dead man.”
“It’s a waste of two bullets is what it is,” Warner said. “We ain’t going to be the Infinite Bullets much longer if we start wasting ammo on dead men.”
“What do we do?” Hijack asked.
Warner sighed and shook his head. He hated these sorts of decisions. The Infinite Bullets had been a grand idea. When the dark haired man calling himself Raven, had come to Warner, it had been all the luck in the world. He gave Warner more weapons than anyone in the Outland could have imagined. The deal was simple. Find the meanest, toughest men in the Outland. Arm them and teach them to shoot. They’d be the hardest outlaw gang there was, and if Raven ever needed their service, he’d simply call upon them. Ten years now and Warner reckoned Raven had forgotten them. Probably dead.
Guns alone didn’t make a leader, Warner knew that much. In the Outland, bones made a leader. Every outlaw from Glenshore to Harbor wore bones, around their neck, piercing their earlobes. Half the outlaws had never actually killed a man, or if they did, they hadn’t dared touch the corpse. Some thought they were clever and wore animal bone. Hard to tell the difference most of the time. But Warner thought he had been exceptionally clever. He had gone to Glenshore and he spent his metal on every bone he could afford. He even traded a gun. After a little string and wire, he donned his bones, and he called himself Tombstone Warner, making a name for himself as a killer long before he made a habit of killing.
He bought the loyalty of the hardest crew of brigands in the desert. And now that it came to it, he didn’t like it much. There was always an order to be given, a question to answer, and when put to it, all of Warner’s cleverness faltered. He spat toward the corpse. “Do whatever you want.” He should have a better answer. Leave it, burn it, pour one out. He might have done any of those things with a dead man. But when the dead don’t stay dead?
Hijack leaned over the corpse again, dirty, nimble fingers riffling through the tattered clothes.
“Find anything?” Warner asked.
“Nothing of worth, but look at this.” Hijack pulled the man’s shirt open. Deep wounds ran in parallel stripes, stitches lacing up each of the black trenches. “Crocotta got hold of him,” Hijack said. “Then someone sewed him up.”
“You know you don’t stitch up a man when a crocotta’s had a hold on him,” Warner said. “Waste of time. He’ll die of rot. Plus, that don’t explain why Keller’s half-roasted.”
“There’s more,” said Hijack, ripping the pants away. More stitching ran all the way around the thigh, like someone had sewed it back on.
A white hand gripped Hijack. He jerked back, but the thing that had been Keller held tight. It lurched, flailing its other arm towards Hijack’s throat. He let out a yelp, trying to escape the corpse’s grip.
Warner hesitated a moment, drew his gun, and aimed. He shot at the creature and missed. Blood sprouted from Hijack’s torso. He screamed, knees buckling. The corpse pulled the wounded Hijack down and rolled over him. Warner’s next shot hit it. Black liquid sprayed from its body, covering Hijack’s face in tarry streaks. His mouth gaped and he flailed in horror, but neither he nor Warner’s bullet had slowed Keller’s corpse.
It began to bludgeon Hijack. One fist at a time, it beat down on the man’s face. Warner might have rushed to help the man, but if a gun couldn’t stop Keller, then there was little he could do. But that might look like cowardice to the men, and Warner couldn’t have that. Hijack had stopped screaming, which was good. Warner looked back to the settlement and no one seemed to have made anything of the commotion. Just three yards away, the cluster of shacks and dilapidated buildings stood silent.
Hijack gurgled and twitched, hands weakly spasming as if still trying to find the will to resist. Keller’s black eyes just stared at the man as he beat upon him. Hijack had been a good man. Not bright, so it was a small loss, but it always hurt to lose someone loyal.
Warner held the gun aloft. His earlier neck-shot had felled the dead man. He’d shoot it in the head this time, put it down again, tell the men how bravely Hijack had defended him, insisting that he fight it alone for the glory of it, and then Warner would tell the men how he had stepped in too late. They’d burn the corpses. If nothing else, that would do the trick.
Then Warner turned, looking back at his settlement. Standing just out front, not ten feet away, three of his men watched him. They had spectated as their leader let his man take a beating. There was Dirty Dan, Bry, and Pat. How much had they seen and what would they make of it? He decided he would address them boldly, as if his inaction had been deliberate. A lie came to him, and he opened his mouth to speak, but something in their faces gave him pause.
It slammed into his back. His knees struck the ground and the gun skittered across the desert sands. A cool, clammy hand gripped the back of his neck, pushing his face into the dirt. He flailed, trying to breathe, bone shirt digging into his beating chest. The sand gritted on his face. He pushed up, but it held him down.
The weight lifted off, suddenly knocked back. Warner struggled to rise, gasping for breath. He rolled over to see Dan and Bry pulling it off, and Pat beating it furiously with his crude sword. Picking up his gun, Warner stood shakily and rubbed his sore neck.
After an endless hacking, Keller’s corpse lay in enough pieces that it seemed they had gotten all of the life out of it. Less worried about his reputation and more grateful to still be alive, Warner looked up and smiled at the men, ready to thank them. But yet again something came from the north. In the distance, on the horizon. He squinted at it, but it was no mere trick of light.
“Burn the corpse,” Warner said. “Get ready.”
They rushed about the settlement, the tumult of their preparations a constant rabble of clattering and shouts. Along with the gathering of blades, bludgeons, and spears, they loaded every rifle, pistol, revolver, and shotgun. The men drove rows of stakes into the ground. Warner’s bones rattled as he shouted orders from the only building, the tall centerpiece they had built their settlement around. He called down to the scurrying scouts to ready them for what was to come. “For fuck’s sake, Bry,” he shouted down, “if that’s all you can carry, you’d be more useful digging a trench. It’s an ammo box, not an anvil.”
It was too far to tell what sort of army came for them, but it was big, whatever it was, and would arrive by nightfall. The Infinite Bullets would be ready. They may only be fifty strong, but they had the guns.
They stocked all of their ammunition on the north side of the settlement. The men with rifles stretched prone on rooftops. Shotgunners had the front line. Out of thirty-seven men, Warner had given Dirty Dan six of the best to hold in reserve should the enemy come at them from the side or penetrate their defenses.
Torches appeared at nightfall, ushering the mass toward their settlement. The Infinite Bullets lit no fires of their own. They sat restlessly in the dark, waiting for the first sign of combat. Now in his full bone armor, Warner ate by the moonlight wishing he were a harder man, that he could replace the knot in his stomach with confidence, and that whatever this was that approached them only meant to pass them by. Unlikely.
But he knew well that the thing that had been Keller had not been natural. The hands that had gripped his neck felt like they had been in a damp cellar, not the burning desert for as many days as it took that thing to make its way from the Cove to the Infinite Bullets. Whatever Keller had been or whatever had made Keller what he was came for them now.
Shouts called for Warner and he saw that the fires grew close. He walked towards them, the shadows of shacks and tents in their makeshift town lining the way. The men parted before him and he stood behind their spiked defenses, watching the group that approached.
In the dark their numbers were unintelligible, but many came. Torchlight revealed a motley gang of outlaws, bandits and criminals, some from outlaw gangs that Warner knew. They all wore their bones, some a single piece to show they had the killer in them. Some, a few to boast their record. But none so many as Tombstone Warner, whose bone shirt cascaded down his bare chest, making it seem less scrawny. He had donned every bone he owned and they bristled down his arms and back, jutting from the pads on his knees. They were his armor.
Further in the ranks, pale shapes moved, more like Keller than human. Unlike their armored counterparts, they did not clatter, nor did torchlight gleam off metal and leather, but rather cast a cold sheen to their sallow skin.
Yards away from the edge of the settlement a small group emerged. Along the defenses, a wave of guns cocked, ready to fire. Warner held up a hand to signal his men to hold, a sudden knowing of who marched upon them.
The black-haired man led the small company, a long dark coat tailored to his lean frame. Though short, he was too smart not to be dangerous. And next to a crocotta, any man looked small. It lumbered alongside him on four taloned paws. Its tawny hair bristled along its back like saw blades. The most terrible thing about it was its grin, exposing a jagged set of teeth glistening with hungry saliva. It sniffed at its surroundings, turning its head, the torchlight shining green in its eyes. And it stank. Like a poison-rotted corpse. Flanking them walked two women. Pale as the dead, but not like the others; they wore white dresses. Black, curly hair seemed to sway in a nonexistent wind.
Warner had been too silent as they approached. Their torchlight extended far, brighter than natural, and he knew they could see him plainly. His bones hardly felt intimidating. The approaching group was an army compared to the Infinite Bullets. He cleared his throat, reminding himself to speak strong. “Who approaches the Infinite Bullets? Friend or enemy?” It was a stupid thing to say, and worse, it hardly boomed.
“I am Raven. I think you know me.” the neatly dressed man said in a familiar accent. “It your choice whether I be friend or enemy. I have come to collect on our deal.”
“We have no debts.” After ten years this man came from nowhere, preceded by Keller—or whatever it was Keller had become. Warner had shown too much weakness of late.
“I believe you do,” Raven said. “I believe those are my guns. We had a deal.”
“You can’t come demanding that we honor a deal over ten years old.”
“Your man led us to you” Raven said. “Keller, he said his name was before he died.”
“He wasn’t dead when he came back to us.”
“My point exactly,” Raven said. “You can either honor our agreement or you can serve me as Keller served me. Giving you a choice is merely a courtesy that I am not obligated to extend.”
The crocotta gave a light cackle, but the women remained expressionless. Raven’s smile widened but his dark eyes showed no emotion.
“We don’t respond kindly to threats, do we boys?” The question would get Warner’s men involved, get their blood pumping. This was going to lead to a skirmish. They hadn’t had a real battle in some time, and Warner was finding his confidence rising. But no reassurance came from his men. Silence and then footsteps behind him.
“Dan?” Warner said, smelling the man as he arrived. Dirty Dan smelled worse than a crocotta. Warner looked over his shoulder, the men he had sent with Dan stood around him. “We got this, Dan. These guys think they can bully us into soldiering for them. Well I say they’ll give us little trouble once they see what we’re made of. Give them fire.”
His men had packed every empty bottle with an oil-soaked rag, ready to be lit and cast into this Raven’s army. Warner pulled his own bottle, wet rag dangling from the opening. He struck a match and put it to the cloth. The fire went out. No one else attempted to light their fire-bottles.
“Just water in that one, sir,” Dan whispered in his ear, the stench suffocating Warner. The knife slid in, grating against the bones he wore and then against his own bones. Something warm and wet flowed from his back and then from his pants. He shook, the bones rattling, pissing uncontrollably as he sank to the ground bleeding.He trembled for a long time, trying to move his legs, but something had gone wrong. A voice spoke in his ear, Raven’s strange accent.
“Next time grow a spine instead of buying one.”