The horded stash of bullets cupped in his hand was all that stood between him and his brother and what hunted them.
Five that’s all there was besides what was in his gun.
Johnny sagged against the rough wood, the shoulder he had braced alongside the window frame the only thing keeping him on his feet.
He jiggled his hand; the bullets making a soft clocking sound as they rolled against each other; cool, smooth, reassuring. With eyes riveted to the moonlit landscape he returned the bullets to his pocket, unconsciously counting them as they slipped through his fingers.
Leaning closer to the window he sighed raggedly, his breath condensing on a shard of broken glass. Absently he drew a line in the moisture, drawing his finger upward. Capturing a stray droplet he rolled the dampness between thumb and forefinger as he kept watch.
Clouds scuttled across the sky obscuring the moon, snuffing the light between one heartbeat and the next.
Johnny turned, resting his shoulders against the wall, seeking his brother in the murky shadows. After securing the door he had herded Scott to the cabin’s one bed, Scott protesting every step of the way. Only one still booted foot was clearly visible, dangling inches above the floor. It took Johnny’s sleep-deprived brain a second to identify what he was hearing. A warm feeling settled in his chest. Scott was asleep confident his brother had his back.
It hadn’t been an issue of trust, his insistence that Scott take the bed first. He was too wound to relax. Kind of like a newly strung piece of wire. Pluck it and the vibration set it to humming hard and fast, bucking for all it was worth. He had managed to snatch a few minutes here and there, enough to get by but he knew it was only a matter of time before lack of sleep caught up with him, making him careless, making him slow.
Almost hesitantly a thin ray of light crept across the floor.
Johnny turned his gaze back to the window, his eyes sweeping the stunted tree line, lingering to probe a suspicious swatch of shadow more closely.
Everything seemed quiet; even the horses were taking the opportunity to rest, tucked up in the scant shelter offered by the lean-to attached to the side of the cabin.
Quiet was a good thing, right?
Not always. That had been a lesson learned the hard way.
He had passed through the village from time to time; nice people who didn’t ask questions and minded their own business. After nearly a week on the trail he had jumped at the chance of a hot meal and a real bed and it hadn’t taken a whole lot of arm twisting to get Scott to agree. Besides, they’d only be a day late getting back, two at the most.
About a mile out Johnny’s instincts had kicked in, the fine hairs on the back of his neck nearly standing at attention. A quick scan of their surroundings revealed nothing out of the ordinary. He drew Barranca to a stop studying the place with a practiced eye. It looked as he remembered; a dozen or so squat adobe buildings simmering under the late afternoon sun, even the straggling rows of corn in the fields near the sluggish creek to the north looked the same.
Scott fell back as he nudged Barranca forward, his hand resting on his thigh near his gun. No use making a run for it, there was nowhere to hide.
The wind played havoc with a loosened shutter, pushing dust and grit into their eyes as they rode down what passed for the main street. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a leather ball competing with a couple of tumbleweeds. Behind one house laundry billowed, straining at the line. The only sign of life was a thick cloud of flies swarming an overturned basket, the rotting remains of tomatoes and beans and peppers littering the ground.
And the smell; faint, elusive, wafting on the undercurrents of the dry desert wind, a smell Johnny was all too familiar with.
He turned Barranca down a passageway between two houses heading north toward the creek intent on putting as much distance as possible between them and the deserted village before nightfall.
The rustling of desiccated stalks seemed overly loud, the air ripe with the musty smell of drying corn as they skirted the far edge of the field. Then seemingly out of nowhere the man had appeared, throwing the horses into a panic as he and his brother reached for their guns.
The man was old, his clothes hanging in tatters on his shrunken frame, his white hair feathering about his head in the breeze. Spittle flew from his mouth as he spoke, rapidly and with great excitement, gibberish mostly as far as Johnny could tell. Gibberish and bits and pieces of stories Johnny remembered from his childhood; stories and superstitions.
Slowly Johnny eased the hammer down and returned his gun to its holster, keeping a tight rein on Barranca who continued to toss his head and sidestep away from the raggedy man. He noted Scott’s raised eyebrow but his brother remain silent seemingly content to follow his lead.
The old man shuffled his feet, kicking up dust, his eyes darting back and forth as he fingered the worn crucifix strung around his neck. Suddenly he grew quiet, head cocked as if listening to someone or for something neither of them could hear. Suddenly he let loose a high-pitched wail and shambled into the cornfield. Johnny drew his gun, pivoting Barranca on his hindquarters but saw nothing but the empty village, the sere landscape and the swaying of cornstalks that marked the old one’s passage.
Crazy, that’s what it was. An old man’s ravings but Johnny couldn’t stop thinking about him and the stories his disjointed ramblings resurrected. Stories told to scare naughty children into obedience, stories told around the fire in the middle of the night. He hadn’t believed it even when they came across the next village as deserted as the last. There had to be some explanation; disease maybe or the rurales rounding up the villagers for a work gang for some big hacendado.
Johnny rubbed a hand over his face, resettled his hat. He stilled at a flicker of movement, eyes narrowing.
The horses began to fuss, nervous whickers blossoming into squeals of fear. Johnny was out the door with a warning shout to his brother. Loosened cinches were tightened, reins snatched free and he was leading the animals to the porch as Scott careened through the door, their saddlebags and his empty rifle in hand.
They threw themselves into the saddle, turning the horses east at a fast trot.
Johnny glanced back. There was no way they could keep up with them being on foot and all but their dogged persistence grated on his nerves. He’d tried every trick he knew to throw them off their trail but still they came. It was almost as if they could smell them.
The old man’s words came back to him, the haunted look in the rheumy eyes which had locked onto his.
The explosive bark of laughter, born of exasperation and exhaustion had Scott looping back in concern. Johnny waved him off. The old ways, the old beliefs had had no place in the life he created for himself as Johnny Madrid or Johnny Lancer.
But nightmares, nightmares were something he was all too familiar with and this one was straight out of hell.
The old man’s voice came back to him, soft as if he didn’t wish to be overheard, as if saying the words would make them appear.
The walking dead.