The wind howled through the snow-covered pine trees and a lone figure, clad in parka and high-top boots, appeared in the moonlight that shafted down through the branches. He ran down the long sloping hill that lay at the base of the mountain, as fast as his legs could carry him. He stumbled and fell in the snow and tumbled, but he never let go of the Henry Repeating Rifle that he clasped in his mittened hands. He was a man of about 50, in good physical condition, but he’d been drinking. There was a saloon halfway down from the Killibrew, the Red Bird, where he’d stopped to fortify himself and to warn the others. He told them—the miners, the hunters and the whores—they’d better get out of there. He told them what was coming, and if they had any sense they’d run. But they didn’t listen. They didn’t believe him. He’d slammed down one more shot of rye and ran out into the night.
And he was only halfway to Beaver Junction. He had to get there. He had to tell Daniel what was happening. His brother would know what to do. Damn him! It was his fault after all. He had to get there before it was too late. The full Alaskan moon, a January Wolf Moon, was too high in the sky and too bright. It threw his shadow out on the white snow ahead of him, as if it were marking him in place, no matter how hard he ran. It was all down hill but Beaver Junction was five miles away, and he knew he’d never make it.
That’s when he heard it. The music. First it was one of those Indian flutes. High pitched and floating on the night wind like the sound of a ghost bird. Then the drums. Tom-tom-TOM-tom, tom-tom-TOM-tom, tom-tom-TOM-tom. And the chanting. The ancient sound of an old Tlingit shaman, his voice cracking on the high notes, sending out an eerie pattern of sounds that sent a terrible chill through his veins.
“Oh, Lord,” he muttered, clutching his rifle. He thought he saw something out of the corner of his eye. He turned. They were there. Eight of them, but he knew there were more of them out there. A lot more. Tlingits, wearing buckskin pants and no shirts, despite the cold weather. Moccasins covered their feet. They were bare headed, their black hair in braids that hung down over their shoulders, and they came down the hill toward him.
“No!” he shouted and raised the Henry. They came on. Slowly. Their movements couldn’t be described as walking. They staggered on legs that didn’t seem to work properly. Their arms were stretched out toward him. He fired. The bullet struck one in the center of his chest. The Tlingit jerked a spasm, but steadied himself and continued walking on. He fired another round and hit him in the face. The shot tore the side of the Tlingit’s face off, but the face was already a mess. There was only one eye and 0half of its right cheek had been eaten away by worms.
The man raised the rifle to shoot again, and he heard the sound of the drum behind him. He turned and saw the old medicine man, hair white as show, beating on the drum in his hands. A young girl standing by his side played the wooden flute. The drum beat out the rhythm and the girl sent blood chilling notes up into the moonlit sky. He raised his rifle at the old man, but never got off a shot. They had come up behind him. All he heard were the half-bestial roars of the undead things as they pounced on him and dragged him to the ground.
“Mary, Mother of Mercy,” he screamed, as they tore the gun out of his hands. He felt their blunted, rotting teeth sink into his neck and throat. He felt the flesh being torn away and felt his warm blood spurt out of his carotid artery like a scarlet geyser into the snow. He struggled to get up but couldn’t move as the things tore off his parka so they could get to his vitals.
* * * * *
Cassie Foster dropped the bucket down into the well and heard it when it hit the ice and cracked it. She waited until the bucket settled down under the ice and filled with water. She looked nervously at the woods that ran up the side of the mountain behind the town. It was late afternoon. They wouldn’t come until it was dark. It was all right as long as it was daylight. She needed the water to get dinner ready for her father and two brothers. Since Ma died a year ago she was the lady of the house and feeding the men folk was part of her everyday routine. Normally she’d give them their ham and eggs and oatmeal and coffee in the morning, and, full of the good things she cooked, they’d go on up to the Killibrew and not come down till nightfall. She’d pack them a good lunch too. But that was before. Things had changed.
First it was Uncle Wes. They found his body three days ago about a mile from home. Hardly anything left of him. Just some bloody bones and strips of flesh and blood all over the ground. His Henry rifle lay a few feet away. Wolves? No, it wasn’t wolves. There was no wolf spore anywhere around the body. But there were moccasin prints. Tlingit moccasins. Nobody knew what to make of it. Had the Indians gone cannibal? That might have been a possibility. Food was scarce. Only thing wrong with that theory. There weren’t any Indians for a hundred miles around. Her father said they’d all moved out of the area some twenty-five years ago because of the lack of game.
No living Indians had killed Uncle Wes. And it wasn’t living Tlingits who killed the other two men found the next two nights in a row. And it wasn’t living Tlingits who’d attacked the town last night. They were all dead Tlingits. Every one of them. They were on their feet, and they moved around, but they were all dead, rotting red men, who had crawled out of their graves. The Undead.
She heard the sound of a horse some distance behind her. She turned and saw a stranger riding a buckskin horse, leading a packhorse behind, coming up to the barricade they’d set up at the south end of Beaver Junction’s only street. The stranger was tall and thin. He wore a poncho, and a wide-brimmed hat. A narrow black moustache sat on his upper lip and a Meerschaum pipe curved out from between his clenched teeth. Furry muffs covered his ears.
Ned Gates stood behind the barricade, a Winchester in his hands.
“Whadya want, mister?” she heard Ned say.
“Cup of coffee, a warm fire,” the stranger said. “That’ll do for a start.”
“Yeah?” Ned said. “Where you from? What business you got here in Beaver Junction?”
“Heard you had some trouble here.”
Ned pumped the lever on the Winchester. “Trouble? What kind of trouble?”
“That’s just it. The kind of trouble you got, you don’t have a name for it. Don’t know what to do about it. That’s where I come in.”
Cassie had forgotten about the bucket. She came close up behind Ned as the two men talked.
“Howdy, miss,” the stranger said.
“Hello,” she said, pulling her shawl tighter around her. She looked up into the stranger’s ice-grey eyes.
“Who might you be?” the man asked.
“Cassie Foster,” she said.
“Is there someone in charge in this little town?”
“My father,” Cassie said. “Daniel Foster. He owns the mine.”
“Think I could have a word with him?”
Ned interrupted. “What do you want with him?”
“Business. It’s about the trouble that you don’t have a name for.”
“Let him in, Mr. Gates,” Cassie said.
Gates hesitated, kept his gun on the stranger, then nodded his head. “All right,” he said. “Come on a-down.”
The stranger dismounted. He was even taller than Cassie had thought. Broad shouldered too under that green poncho. Gates pulled aside a crate that formed part of the barricade and let the man and his horses enter. They walked slowly toward the row of ramshackle buildings that made up the west side of Main St. The deep orange sun was beginning to slip down behind the mountain. It would be dark soon.
“Where would I find this father of yours?” he asked Cassie.
“He’s home,” she said. She pointed to the windows of the building up ahead. The words “General Store” were painted on the glass. “We live there.”
The door to the store opened suddenly. A big bulky man in his mid- fifties stood in the doorway in his shirtsleeves.
“Cassie!” he barked. “Where’s that water you went to fetch? And who’s this?” He looked the stranger up and down.
“Sorry, pa,” Cassie said. “I forgot about the water, I’ll get it. This here’s a stranger asking to see you.”
“See me? I know you, mister?” He shot a glance at Ned who had followed the stranger closely. “What’s this all about?”
“Not sure, Daniel,” Gates said. “Seems to think he knows something about our problem.”
“That right?” he looked at the stranger suspiciously.
It’ll only gonna get worse, if you don’t do something about it. For the right fee, I can help you get rid of it.”
Daniel Foster looked at him with his steel grey eyes. He nodded at his daughter. “Cassie, don’t forget the water.”
Cassie went over to the well, her eyes nervously scanning the darkening forest behind town.
* * * * *
“Good coffee, Miss Cassie,” the stranger said. He sat in the rocking chair next to the fire holding a tin mug of the coffee she’d made. “And a mighty fine meal you cooked.”
“Thank you,” she said. She felt her face burning, as she smiled.
“Mind if I smoke?” he took his pipe out of his shirt pocket.
“No, I don’t mind,” she said. “I like the smell.”
Daniel Foster interrupted. “Where you coming from, Mr. –. Didn’t get your name,” he said. They were in the kitchen behind the store. Her father sat at the table, drinking his own cup of coffee. Frank and Charlie, her two brothers, big lads in their early twenties, sat on the other side of the table.
“Name’s Slate,” the stranger said, tamping tobacco into the Meerschaum. “Mordecai Slate. I came up the Chilkoot from Skagway.”
“That where you heard about what’s going on here?” Foster asked.
“Let’s say there are rumors floating around. Nothing most people would take seriously.”
“So we can’t expect any help from there?”
Slate struck a match on the fireplace stone and lit the pipe. “Just me.”
“We don’t need no help, Pa,” Frank the eldest said. “We took care of them last night. They might not even come back.”
“They’ll be back, son,” Slate said, taking a long draw on the pipe. He looked out the kitchen window at the dark and blew smoke at it. “It won’t be long.”
“So if they do, we’ll do like last night,” Charlie said. “We’ll shoot the shit out of ‘em.”
“There’ll be more of ‘em tonight,” he said. “And more the next night. You can’t stop them by just shooting them.”
“That’s horse pucky,” Frank said. “You’re just trying to scare us.”
“If you can’t stop them by shooting them,” Daniel Foster said, “then how do you get rid of them?”
Slate looked down at the empty coffee empty cup resting on his knee. “Think I could have more of that delicious coffee, Miss Cassie?” he said. Cassie ran to get the percolator. After she filled the mug and he took another sip, he said: “For a thousand dollars, I’ll get rid of them.”
“A thousand dollars!” Frank yelled. “Are you serious?” He looked at his father. “Pa, we don’t need this man. Send him back down to Skagway.”
They heard a shot outside and everyone in the room froze for a moment.
“They’re comin’,” a man shouted out in the street.
“Get your guns, boys,” Daniel Foster ordered. The three men jumped to their feet, grabbed their rifles from the rack next to the fireplace and put on their coats. “You stay here, Cassie.”
She watched as her father and brothers ran out through the kitchen door into the store front. The stranger got up from the rocking chair slowly. “Much obliged for the meal, ma’am,” he said. He put on a denim coat with a sheepskin lining, and followed the others. Cassie ran up the back stairs to the second floor and looked out a window onto the street below and saw her men folk running up to the barricade set up on the north end of the street.
* * * * *
Slate stood on the wooden sidewalk in front of the general store puffing on his pipe and watched Daniel Foster and his sons run up to the barricade. Half a dozen men were already there with their rifles. There was enough moonlight and snow shine so that he could see dozens of dark figures moving down from the forest at the base of the mountain toward the barricade.
“Hold your fire, men,” Foster yelled.
The men waited and there was a tense silence. Then Slate heard the music. First the beat of the tom-tom, and then the flute, and then the weird chanting. The voice of the old medicine man rose up in the night—the Tlingit death song.
The men at the barricade opened fire. The shots struck the dark figures outside the barricade, but none of them fell. They just rocked back with the impact but then kept on coming.
“Jesus,” Frank Foster yelled. “They don’t die!” He fired two more rounds from his Winchester. “Die, you heathen dogs.”
More men ran to the barricade and now a dozen rifles poured a steady rain of lead at the Tlingits. Some of them fell, but for everyone that went down half a dozen more took his place. Soon they were at the barricade and climbing over—an unstoppable, inexorable tide of rotting flesh, bones and gnawing teeth.
There was a scream. Frank Foster was down with one of the Tlingits on top of him. The thing’s broken teeth bit into his forehead and tore a piece of it away. Daniel Foster screamed and beat at the Indian’s head with the stock of his rifle. He knocked the thing off his son, and fired six rounds into its head and it didn’t move. But it was too late. His boy lay still on the ground.
More of the things clambered over the barricade. There was no stopping them. Charlie Foster ran up next to his father. “Pa!” he yelled.
“They’ll kill us all,” Daniel Foster said. He looked up to see two more Tlingits, climbing over the barricade. He fired his rifle, pumping the lever and pulling the trigger as fast as he could until there were no shells left in the magazine.
“Run for it,” one of the men yelled, and the men folk of Beaver Junction ran from the barricade, seeking another place to shoot from. Daniel Foster and Charlie hid in the alley between their store and the barbershop. They jumped when they heard the sound of loud, repeating shots firing mechanically over and over. They looked out to the middle of the street where the stranger, his pipe clenched between his teeth, knelt on one knee behind a Gatling Gun that stood on a tripod. An open trunk lay on the ground behind him, and behind that stood the pack horse he’d brought with him. Mordecai Slate cranked the handle and the gun’s revolving barrels turned, and with each turn a new round of .30 caliber ammunition dropped down from the carousel magazine on top. He turned the gun on a swivel and the Tlingits reeled under the impact of the shots. The gun blew their arms off, split their heads open. Flesh flew and splattered from pancake size wounds in their chests. More of the Undead Tlingits came over the barricade and Slate mowed them down like wheat caught in a combine.
Then suddenly they stopped coming. The ones that were still on their feet retreated to the forest. Daniel Foster came out of the alley with his son. The others came out into the street. They saw the medicine man standing at the edge of the black forest, beating his drum and they heard the young Indian girl, her long pigtails down her shoulders, playing that weird, haunting music on her flute. A cloud passed over the moon and there was less light, and then they all disappeared back into the woods.
* * * * *
“Cassie!” Daniel Foster yelled. “Cassie, where are you?” He ran up the stairs to the second floor. “She’s not here!” he shouted at Charlie. He ran down the stairs and found Slate in the small living room next to the kitchen. “My daughter’s gone,” he said.
“They took her,” Slate said. “I thought they gave up too easily. They got what they came here for.”
“They came here for Cassie?”
“Looks that way.”
Slate gave him a hard look. “I wouldn’t know,” he said.
“My God!” Foster said. “They killed Frank and now Cassie.”
“They didn’t kill her,” Slate said. “There are signs of struggle but no blood.”
Foster grabbed up his rifle again. “Charlie, you stay and see after Frank,” he said and put his parka back on.
“I’m going with you, Pa,” Charlie said defiantly. “We can take care of Frank when we get back. I’m not stayin’ here knowing Cassie’s out there with those things.”
“Alright.” He looked at Slate. “What about you?”
“I told you what my fee is,” Slate said.
“Damn you,” Foster yelled. “Alright. A thousand.”
Foster ran back upstairs and got the money from a tin he kept under a floorboard in the bedroom. He came down and gave Slate the money. “Bring that big gun with you,” he said.
For more Mordecai Slate, pick up John Whalen’s Monster Hunting Is My Business