Six mangy desperados, a beautiful woman, a deaf girl, a stash of rubies, and a horde of zombies. In the nine hours until sunrise, Ben and his gang discover the horrific secrets of a seemingly deserted town they find while looking for the man who betrayed them all. Nine Hours 'Till Sunrise is a fast-paced, western-style zombie thriller.
Dust swirled and rolled sidelong off the trail as the horses dragged their hooves, heads hung low. The setting sun was at their back, making the bare patches of earth glow like copper. Sagebrush choked the wide desert surrounding the bluff and tiny town ahead. Ben licked his lips and squinted at the sight of a dozen wooden buildings leaning against the hillside. About a quarter mile farther off there were a few toppled canvas tents where a campsite had recently been cleared – or maybe destroyed.
"Why-yute," Jake said, reading the town marker slowly, squinting at the letters. Jake was a teen-aged kid, scrawny compared with the others because he hadn't started filling out yet.
"Woyute," Randy corrected him. Randy was the oldest of the bunch. "It's some kind of Indian word."
"That's what I said," Jake replied irritably. "Why-yute."
"Quiet," Ben said over his shoulder at the pair of them. Ben was the leader of the gang, so usually the others listened when he gave an order. He had the physical size and stature of a leader too, with his broad shoulders, muscular build, and thick neck. "Ain't nobody around."
"Maybe Pat seen us coming," Jake replied, drawing his rifle from his saddle. The others behind him did likewise. "Got the whole town against us."
Ben didn't disagree, drawing his pistol and looking around toward the bluff above the town.
"If they're thinking of an ambush, they picked the wrong place for it," Ben said, waving his pistol at the cliff top. Anyone up there would be blinded by the setting sun, giving Ben and his band of tired horsemen the upper hand. "Let's ride around behind the buildings. You three that way. Randy, you and Jake with me."
With weapons drawn they coaxed their tired horses around the back sides of the buildings, holding rifles and pistols toward the windows, noticing some were broken out like there had been a gun fight. It worried Ben more than he let on. Randy was his usual calm self, his eyes darting everywhere, soaking things up, but not saying a word or letting on he was scared. Maybe it was his age that gave him such a steady hand. The silver in Randy's beard and hair was a mark of experience even if his pot belly hinted of laziness. Jake, like the other boys they'd split up from, was nervous. Well, that probably wasn't true. Tucker wouldn't be concerned. He liked the notion of being in charge of something, even if it was just Mitch and the Mexican.
"This don't make sense," Randy said quietly. He scratched at his salt and pepper beard with the tip of his pistol. "There's still a couple wagons over there. No horses, no dogs, no sheep or cattle. Where the hell did everyone go?"
"Keep going," Ben said while dismounting.
"Where are you heading?"
"To the saloon," Ben replied, pointing it out between two buildings. From his vantage point, Ben could see a trail of something heavy that had been hauled through the alley toward the wooden walkway outside of the saloon. "Go get the horses some water and fetch the boys. Meet me in there."
"What if there's trouble?" Jake asked excitedly. He had a young face to match the impetuous tone in his voice, hardly man enough to grow a day's worth of stubble in the four days they'd been on the trail.
"Well then I'll do a lot of shooting to let you all know about it," Ben replied, sliding his pistol back into its holster. "Go on."
Jake wanted to argue, but Randy tossed the reins of Ben's horse at him.
"You heard him," Randy said, coaxing his own horse to keep moving. Jake cursed under his breath but followed Randy as Ben made his way into the alley. Ben approached an open door on the side of the building. Dark stains covered the floor beneath the doorway and over the two steps. He knew somebody had been dragged out, probably bloody and beaten, or dead, and then hauled over to the saloon. The foot prints around the trough in the dirt looked awkward, as though whomever was doing the hauling had been struggling too.
"Hello?" Ben called into the half open door, pushing it aside gently. Inside was a kitchen turned upside down, the table broken, the clapboards pulled sideways and hanging half off the wall, empty. Pretty much everything littering the floor was broken. He didn't go in. Instead, he followed the trail toward the saloon.
Ben looked up and down the street as he crossed. Nothing in either direction. Aside from a brief gust of evening breeze hitting his ear just right, there wasn't a sound anywhere.
"Hello," Ben called while stepping through the open door of the saloon.
"Oh, please, dear God!" a woman said frantically. Ben whipped out his pistol. "Over here!" she called urgently. "Please!"
The interior of the saloon was so dark Ben couldn't make out anything but the general lay of it. There were several large floor-to-ceiling beams holding up the roof and its supports. The bar was off to his right, beneath a second floor of rooms, its stairway collapsed below the first landing. The floor was littered with overturned or broken tables and chairs. The candle chandelier dangled sideways in the center of the room like a rope swing wheel.
"Hello?" Ben asked, searching for the woman who had called out.
"Here!" the woman said desperately and Ben turned his head toward her voice. "Over here, please!"
As his eyes continued to adjust he saw her against one of the beams, her head moving as she spoke. She was on the other side of the beam as if trying to hide from him.
"Please, there's not much time!"
Ben took a few steps closer to discover she was tied to the post, her and another, smaller person beside her. He rushed to the door. "Fellas!" he called. "There's someone in here. Bring some lanterns to see with." He holstered his pistol while hurrying to the woman. "Ma'am, I'll have you free in a minute," he told her, fighting to unsheathe his knife.
"Thank you," she gasped. "Please, cut her out first. My daughter. Save her."
"Ma'am, I'll save you both, just settle down."
"You don't understand," she breathed with terror. "They're coming. I heard ‘em!"
"Likely, you just heard me and my boys riding into town is all. There," he said, slicing free the last rope entangling the woman's wrists.
"Hurry!" She struggled with the ropes binding her waist. To the girl she said "it'll be alright, Suzanna." She put a hand to the girl's cheek, brushing aside hair. The girl stared up at her mother.
Ben heard a deep moan.
"It's alright," he said to the girl, thinking it may have been her. "Don't flinch none. I don't want to cut you any."
"Ben?" Randy asked from the door, carrying a lit lantern.
"Hurry!" the woman said frantically, pulling at several ropes still holding her daughter.
"Be careful," Ben snarled. "I've got a knife here!"
"They're almost here," the woman gasped, wildly yanking on the ropes.
"Who?" Randy asked, plucking his pistol out of its holster. He spun around once, his pistol leading the way, letting the lantern light reach every corner of the emptiness. The light helped Ben figure out the last ropes and he sliced through them to free the little girl.
Mitch spat onto the sidewalk before coming inside. He worked a wad of chewing tobacco in his mouth, looking around with his lantern held high, appraising the destruction. Mitch was a thin, blond man in his twenties, the kind to catch a ladies eye wherever he went, and the kind normally found sitting behind a desk somewhere instead of out on the range.
"What in tarnation?" Mitch asked, and as he did there came another moan, this one louder and closer, as though someone in the room had uttered it.
"Oh, God," the woman said, clutching her daughter Suzanna against her belly. "Get to the rooftops," she insisted and started leading the girl away from Ben.
"Ma'am, wait," Ben said, slipping his knife back into its sheath. "What was that?"
"There's no time!" she insisted as she reached the collapsed stairs. The first six feet of the stairwell had been broken off, on purpose by the looks of it, knocked out with an axe that still lay on the ground beneath it. The woman picked up her daughter and helped her up onto the landing above, then started dragging an overturned chair to help herself. The dragging was accompanied by a low and unsettling echo of yet another moan.
"What was that?" Randy asked. "Ghosts?"
"Worse," the woman said as she hiked up her dress and used the chair against the wall to fling herself up onto the landing, displaying her undergarments in the process.
The moaning continued, almost ceaseless now. It wasn't just one voice.
"Hey," the Mexican, the man they knew as Baha, called from the door of the saloon. He stopped suddenly at hearing the moaning. "¿Qué demonios?" he asked, kissing one of the tokens from a necklace of dried ears he wore around his neck. His big frame and sombrero eclipsed what little sunlight was stretching into the room.
There was a loud snap of wood from behind the bar like some trap door being dropped to the ground. With it the moaning doubled. The Mexican cranked his repeating rifle, whispering an oath.
"Get to the roof tops!" the woman hollered over the sound. She pushed her daughter up to the top of the stairs.
A head swayed back and forth from behind the bar, rising slowly out of the shadows of the lantern light like somebody coming up stairs. The man's mouth was gaping open and bellowing low, wanton moans. Then another head appeared behind his, so close the two men stumbled over each other slightly, then came another head.
"Hello?" Ben called out and the moaning men turned their gaze toward him, sunken, haunting eyes that widened grotesquely at seeing Ben and Randy.
"Stop there," Randy warned, holding up his pistol.
"Run!" the woman called out one last time before disappearing through a door on the second floor.
"He said stop!" Mitch called out, raising his pistol and aiming it at the man in front. More men, and now a woman, were appearing in that same, slow, shuffling manner, rising from the depths of the earth through some gateway behind the bar. "We ain't telling you again!"
"Mitch," Ben said, raising a hand to get his attention. He didn't want the kind of senseless bloodshed Mitch was occasioned to do. "Folks," Ben went on, addressing the growing crowd of moaning and advancing people. "Just stop where you are! We don't want to hurt none of you."
More men and women continued to spill out, forming a line coming around the bar, shuffling directly toward Ben and the others. It was a chilling sight. Aside from sunken faces, several had gaping wounds on their heads, faces, necks, and arms. Dark, dried blood stains covered their torn and ripped clothing.
"Back up," Ben warned Randy, taking his own cautious steps back to where Mitch and Baha stood at the doorway.
"Ben!" Tucker called as he reached the door to the saloon. He leaned in, his shoulder length black hair visible under his hat. "There's people coming out of the hills!"
"Shoot, who are they?" Jake yelled as he appeared beside Tucker. "And who are they!?"
"I dunno," Ben called back, then looked back at the kid. "Why ain't you with the horses?"
"They all spooked and ran off," Jake replied emphatically. He looked like a schoolboy being chided for breaking a window. "I couldn't hold all six of them myself. Your damned bitch mare reared up and just about broke my arm!"
Tucker glared at Jake, shaking his head in disdain. Four days of being on the road gave his dark presence the added weight of a nearly grown-in, black beard. Tucker looked back in the saloon, plucking his pistol out of its holster and stepping inside.
"You folks stop!" Mitch said, stepping down in front of Ben and leveling his pistol at the first moaning man. The man's skin looked gray in the lamplight, his hair greasy and moist like he had been down sleeping in the earth a long time. The man took another step forward and Mitch pulled his trigger. Everyone jumped with a start. The man reeled backward from the impact, blood spurting from his chest where he'd been shot. He fell into the other moaners and they followed him down with their senseless eyes. They didn't watch with horror as Ben did, nor with some grim entertained pleasure as some in his gang of men, but instead with a curiosity not unlike a child's at seeing something new. The man slumped to the ground and there was silence as even the moaning ceased.
"That's right!" Mitch told the crowd, waving his gun. "Any more of you come any closer and you'll get the same!"
Ben counted at least twenty in the crowd and looked sidelong at Randy. Randy had a look of concern too, the creases around his eyes softened by his wide-eyed expression. Ben had never seen Randy worried. It made his gray hairs stand out all the more. Something was wrong with all these people. Not one among them seemed to have any sense.
The dead man stirred, his eyes still open. Even Mitch took a step back as the man he had just shot sat up stiffly and rolled over onto his hands and knees, rising again to his feet.
"That ain't possible," Mitch said, pointing his pistol at the rising man. "I shot you!" Mitch shook his pistol angrily at him. The man opened his mouth, rasping a bubbly, gurgling moan. The rest of what Ben assumed were the townsfolk chimed in. Blam! Mitch fired his pistol again, hitting the man he'd already shot one more time, dead center in the chest, inches from where he had shot him previously. The man stumbled backwards and was shoved aside by the two men immediately behind. Blam! Mitch fired again, this time at the next advancing townsperson, who careened sideways, only to be replaced with the next person from behind. Baha fired his rifle several times into the crowd, knocking three or four people over.
"Get out!" Ben told everyone. "Mitch, come on," he said, tugging at Mitch's arm. Mitch spent the last bullet in his six shooter and fell back, his eyes wide in terror as he saw several of the people he'd already shot stumbling back onto their hands and knees, trying to join in the advancing mob.
Ben and his gang spilled out onto the street, looking both ways for a place to hole up and defend.
"Get on the rooftops!" the woman yelled down at them. "You can't stop 'em. What are you waiting for? Come on! Get up!"
"There," Randy said, pointing out an awning post next to a hitching post. Randy put down his lantern and started to climb.
Mitch spilled his empty shells to the ground and was reloading as Ben rushed to help Randy up. Ben shoved Randy up by his boot, lifting Randy's belly over the roof's edge enough so he could swing his other leg up and over.
"Thanks," Randy grunted.
"This way," Tucker told them all as well, hurrying across the street toward a ladder. Jake and Baha followed Tucker, leaving Mitch alone outside the door.
"Mitch!" Ben shouted. The first of the moaning townsfolk stepped through the doorway. "Damn it," Ben hissed. Randy leapt up onto the roof and Ben drew his pistol, marching up to the two people at the door and firing a bullet into each of them. They staggered backwards into the other advancing moaning ranks.
"Go on, Mitch!" Ben yelled, stepping backward and firing once more into a third person. Mitch shook the fright off and ran over to where Randy had climbed up, stuffing his pistol into his holster before leaping up onto the post, then jumping to the roof. Ben fired again, looked to where Tucker had led the other three, and content that everyone was safe – for the moment – shoved his pistol into his holster and followed Mitch up to the roof.
The moaning townspeople began fanning out into the street, walking in what appeared to be random directions, noses raised to the sky, sniffing. The two lanterns left on the ground were knocked over and went out, leaving only the waning light of dusk to see by. Up on the hillside where the camp had been Ben could see a line of people coming down toward town.
"What the hell?" Ben asked in shock as he climbed off the awning and up to the rooftop with the others. The woman was sitting, holding her daughter's head close to her, covering her ears and eyes.
"We just called them the dead," the woman told them with a degree of sorrow.