Sinkhole

Suzanna Stokes wants revenge, and the rising dead outside of Jackson’s Hole, Nevada makes for the first chance she’s had in ten years to confront the hauntings of her past. Speeding by rail and stagecoach, she has only days to settle a long-overdue score before her mother’s men can chase her down or the Army and its Corps of Engineers can destroy the site and all within. Return now to the rugged frontier in this continuation of the heart-pounding zombie western Nine Hours 'Till Sunrise and discover what new horrors lie beneath the earth.

Coming Soon!


Read The First Chapter

ONE

Any town that didn’t have the wherewithal to keep up its signpost out on the crossroads was in no condition to receive visitors. Even so, the stagecoach veered towards Jackson’s Hole. The driver slowed the pair of lead horses, letting them walk the rig over the ruts in the trail, giving the two passengers inside time to see the sign out the window. It leaned with its nailed-on board so low to the ground its arrow pointed down as though they had come up the road to hell.

Wayne Sullivan let the curtain fall as the whole coach jostled side-to-side. He eyed the woman sitting across from him. She avoided his gaze, turning her head to look out the opposite window through the flapping curtain. The cold shoulder again. He tried to think of what he might have said to earn it, but came up stumped.

Maybe it was just the journey itself. Her formal dress might have had something to do with it. This was rough country. A good prairie skirt and jacket was called for, not big-city finery. Not that he didn’t like the way it looked on her. Her long green cotton dress with a deep décolletage exposed the whole of her…smooth, creamy skin. Miles and miles of nothing but prairie and skin for hours on end.

She crossed her legs, throwing a high heeled boot, kicking up the endless length of her dress. It was going to trip her up the moment she stepped out of the coach once they reached town. He’d have to help her yet again, which he didn’t mind at all.

He wouldn’t have trouble getting out. He dressed appropriately for these sorts of journeys. Cuban-heeled boots, a pair of worn and mended blue jeans, a loose wool long-sleeve, and a leather jacket that sat on the bench beside him, weighed down by his gun belt and hat.

“We’re almost there,” Wayne said, barely loud enough to be heard. He licked his dry lips.

She didn’t reply, not looking at him.

Wayne leaned to his side to get her attention. Her eyes turned his way. She sighed as he repeated himself. “Almost there. I’ll get your things off the back when we arrive.”

Suzanna Stokes nodded, thinking about the fragile contents in her trunk, closing her eyes to fend off the urge to warn him to be careful. It was all the travel getting to her, after all. How many times had she barked at the train men and the coach hands already? Whether they were carrying her things with the greatest of care or banging them around and tossing things haphazardly made no difference. Just the thought of someone accidentally breaking one of her instruments when she was this close—she let out her breath. She simply hated all this foolish train hopping and stagecoach riding.

Being confined filled her with dread, too. No freedom to turn and run, or to see the road, leaving her no choice but to blindly barrel through whatever dangers stood before them. It was no way to travel. It was no way to live.

Wayne lifted the dust curtain aside and peered out the window again, his eyes narrowing to a squint. A fine-looking man, she thought. A very fine-looking man if she was being honest with herself, his rugged mantle a ruse masking a kind heart and soft eyes, but the idea of a man—any man, fine or otherwise—was out of the question. Studies first, revenge, then a normal life, the way her father would have wanted.

At least, that’s how she thought of him. Dillon Stokes had died when she was still a girl. He had been a scholar, a geologist, a man of science. He made his fortune assaying land and buying it for the riches hiding beneath its sunbaked crust. Places like this, dirty holes in the middle of nowhere that had hardly water enough to keep the cacti alive, much less a whole town. For years he had lived in the rough, high-plains deserts of the west, until during a field survey he met her mother. Not long after, Suzanna was born, and they returned to Philadelphia.

Dillon had taken the job of metallurgical assayer for the United States Mint in Philadelphia for the stability of it, for a home, until Suzanna grew to nine years of age. By then, his true passion for discovery and science called him back to the frontier, and by the time Suzanna was eleven, her father had purchased land rights to practically an entire town.

The nightmares of what happened there still gnawed at her ten years later. What those people did, the way they—.

Suzanna shuddered as the whole coach turned suddenly, throwing her sideways. She grabbed the sill to steady herself.

“Damn,” Wayne mouthed as he lifted the curtain higher, his eyes widening at the sight.

Outside, the framework of a town rose to blot out the sun-seared landscape. They drove through a patchwork of overturned wagons, stacked barrels, and several cross-sections of hastily nailed boards that formed a crudely assembled barricade. The coach veered one way, then the other as it avoided the obstacles. It cruised past several buildings, each with boarded up ground-floor front windows—a mish-mash of uneven cuts of wood pounded into place with the same urgent jumble as the barricade. Even the alleys between each building were crudely fenced-in at the back.

Suzanna didn’t like the looks of it. It reawakened the nightmares of her childhood, the night her father died.

The stagecoach slumped to a halt. She nearly fell out of her seat. Regaining her composure, she looked up and realized Wayne was talking to her.

“…been a nasty spill. Are you alright?”

Suzanna nodded, straightening herself and her dress, pressing her hands flat against its length to hide the fact they were shaking.

Thankfully, Wayne didn’t seem to notice. He stood hunched over to turn the door crank and pushed it open. A swirl of dust swam in to greet them, the air outside as hot and dry as in the coach. The acrid bite of sagebrush cleared out the perpetual scent of worn leather and sweat that had been rising from the stagecoach seats and backrests all day. She could even make out a whiff of stale beer in the breeze, as though a saloon door had opened and its drunkards all spilled out to see the spectacle, every one of them exhaling at once.

She let out her breath as Wayne climbed through the narrow stage door. This was it. This was her childhood nightmare come to life again, and she meant to bury it once and for all.

Wayne stepped down, his legs and feet sore for having done so little for hours. He pressed a hand against his lower back and straightened, adjusting the brim of his hat over his head. The coach driver climbed down one side as his guard climbed down the other, shotgun resting on his shoulder with the barrel pointed toward the sky. The two horses shook their bridles and lines, snorting irritably. Damned driver must have parked them too close to a trough and they’d gotten a whiff of water.

A man standing in the shade of the propped-open door to the saloon caught Wayne’s eye. The short, awkward fellow squinted back at Wayne with a suspicious glower.

“Not exactly a warm welcome,” Wayne said under his breath as he spun around and kicked at the coach step. He hadn’t expected much to begin with, but as he glanced up and down the main road, not a single man, woman, or child was out. Probably more distressing was the sight of yet another barricade at the other end of town, this one completely blockading access in or out. Beyond that, about a half-mile outside of town and up on the top of a ridge overlooking the long valley and its small trickle of a river, an incomplete adobe wall ringed a small outpost. Other upturned wagons and debris made more sloppy barricades there as well.

Wayne swallowed the lump in his throat, gazing into the coach.

Suzanna sat perfectly still, raising an expectant eyebrow toward him, a flare of her nostrils reminding him of his manners.

He tugged his gun belt and jacket out of the way of the door, throwing them onto the wood plank sidewalk behind him before offering a hand to her. Her eyes softened, as if to say, “that’s better,” and she took his hand. Her Irish lace gloves dangled over the string of her purse, which hung from the crook of her elbow as she put her slight weight into him, lifting the hem of her dress with the other.

She didn’t have the kind of soft skin on her hands that he imagined the rest of her body must feel like. Hers were hard and calloused, and even the skin on the backs of her hands were spotted with small scars that looked oddly scrubbed clean compared with the sunning the rest of her skin had been put to these last few days. These hands of hers were accustomed to work, not soft finery.

He watched her long black boot as it extended out of the coach, making sure it found the coach step before giving her room. Cleavage hung in front of his wide eyes and he swallowed the knot in his throat once again, thankful she struggled with watching her step and not his wandering eyes.

Once on the ground, she straightened and stretched with an unladylike croak, turning her body one way, then the other, using the motion as an excuse to look the town up and down, to get her bearings. The place was fortified for a siege, but no one manned any lookout posts. There were no guards, and hardly a sole except the man hiding in the saloon and a boy pushing open the door to the stables three buildings further up the road.

Suzanna recognized the dread, sensed the despair seeping out through cracks in the boarded-up windows and tight-shut doors. These precautions weren’t on account of Indians. Her eyes drifted up to the rooftops with an expectation of finding the rest of the townsfolk up there staring down at her, waving silently and urgently for her to get up off the ground, to get somewhere high where the things couldn’t reach.

Wayne stepped beside her and held his hat above her head, offering her eyes shade against the sun as it wandered for to the horizon. He followed her gaze, seeing the same nothingness that she did. She glanced at him. He was a fine-looking man for sure.

He nodded toward the building across the street, at the sky above its rooftop. Scores of black birds circled in the distance, about six or eight miles out. Suzanna held her breath at the sight, watching in eerie fascination. Wayne gently put his hat atop her head. She turned to regard him, eyes on his.

“I’ll get your trunk.” He held up a hand before she could speak. “I’ll be careful with it.”

Suzanna offered him a wan smile, shivering as she let out her breath. Wraiths of childhood terror circled her like the vultures and crows out over the desert. She drew in a slow, deep breath to steady her nerves. She could do this. If there was ever a chance to put an end to the nightmares, this was where she had to make that stand.

It wouldn’t bring back her father, but it might be enough to put everything else to rest.