Science Fiction & Fantasy by Dan Frederick
Science Fiction & Fantasy by Dan Frederick
By Dan Frederick
All Rights Reserved.
All characters and other entities appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, dead or alive, or other real-life entities, past, present or other-dimensional, is purely coincidental. This is fiction!
THE DEAD WEST, when the end of days came, it came with a blast of hellfire and fear. Survivors talk of a comet crashed into Earth near the Yellowstone Caldera which erupts chaos across the face of the planet. At the epicenter, the eye, strange events ripple outward across the ashen plains. The dead west of 1882 falls to an apocalyptic event of ash, fire and the seemingly supernatural. Wagon Master Frank Starr and his best friend and second the “Viking Gunslinger” Dred are caught deep in the storm of unnatural events and seek answers where none may lay and death burns across the frontier.
WARNING to the Reader, this story has unsettling death and gore. Be warned!
On the Ash trail, 1882 Wyoming.
The blasting winds and ash worked together to blot out the sun. It had been this way for days now and the members of the wagon train had sheltered in place as the initial downpour of hot ash rained down like hellfire. Not that they had a lot of choice in the matter, upturned wagons, horses and oxen on the loose, the prairie schooners were a mess cast across the burnt grass and covered in deepening ash and soot.
Sheltered under Miss Daisy Hawthorn’s wagon, the wagon master, Frank Starr, looked longingly at his tobacco and frowned. It was hard enough to breath without lighting a pipe. Besides, as he turned his head and looked at the others hiding with him under the wagon, none of them would want to be inhaling the extra smoke. Habit had him tapping out a pack of tobacco he knew he'd measure then just place back in his pack.
Each raspy breath he took behind the dust covered bandanna was strained now. His lungs hurt like the devil from the initial blast of surreal wind and grit that had blown across the prairie that first day. Tossed like a child's doll into the air he had landed badly, on his back and on a sharp rock. He hadn't looked, but he knew his right side was bruised. The pain distracted him from thinking too much about what the school teacher, Daisy, had said. About how the dinosaurs had perished.
Frank frowned even deeper and returned the tobacco to his coat pocket and turned around to look back out at the ashen landscape. Two days. There was no way they could just stay out here hiding forever. Gilbert's Crossing was still a good three days away. By horse. The Wagon Master sighed. The devil only knew where the horses had gotten off to.
Even with horses these prairie schooners would have a damned time of it traveling through several feet of ash. If they could be up righted and fixed for travel. Anger swelled in his heart as he reflected inwardly, "How could I have known hell would visit us." He'd planned for the weather, and a million other factors, to keep the people he was responsible for safe. This was his twelfth crossing and he was an experienced Wagon Master.
Comets crashing into the Earth and wiping out humanity like the dinosaurs hadn't been a concern. Until now.
The Wagon Master wondered if anyone else from the wagon train was still alive out there in the blasting ash fall. Sheltered and waiting for help. For two days now his world had consisted of the occupants hidden under this wagon and he had no idea how the others faired. It bothered him greatly.
Loud coughing behind him pulled Franks attention back to those huddled beneath the broken wagon. A strong, barrel chested man with blue-black beard stubble, dead, flint chipped eyes and a crooked mean mouth hawked and spit. His brutal, scarred, appearance belied his keen intelligence and swift decision making ability. The ruffian, Dred, was Franks second. A stark contrast in appearance to the handsome blue eyed, lean and kind looking Wagon Master.
Frank was one of a few who knew the ruffian’s full name was Edred Snorri Gunnerson. In times past he had been called the Viking Gunslinger, the Bastard of the North. The killer had rode the darker trails once, but had now been employed by Frank for near a decade. Simply going by Dred now, Frank thought about it and figured it had been at least a year since some slinger had come looking for Dred in hopes of making a name for themselves. The man was still fast as lightning from Frank’s point of view but likely had slowed with age. Hell, they both had. Frank and Dred were both pushing close to fifty.
Dred couched again, clearing his throat and slowly made his way closer to Frank to peer outside. Pushing past the young Tommy Wells who was snuggled up to Miss Daisy, Dred shook his head with disgust. The ruffian had conversed with Frank over a week ago on the boy’s soft nature. According to Dred, the School Teacher was coddling the teen and would make the orphan boy Wells a simple man. Frank had refrained from laughter and simply listened to his second rant. Was none of their concern as far as Frank figured.
Dred pulled the cloth back over his face as he low crawled up along Frank. His long forked dark beard covered behind his own bandanna Dred could pass as any ol' cowboy now.
Doing his best to hide his discomfort Frank moved more to his left to make room for Dred to look out the passageway they had erected as a makeshift door under the overturned wagon.
Grunting the Wagon Master looked back at the sleeping Daisy, Tommy, and the others. The Harris family was with them. Jed and Kara and their two daughters May and Lacy. All four asleep and huddled as one mass to stay warm.
"You got bleeding on the inside Frank?"
Closing his eyes and not bothering to turn his head the Wagon Master simply grunted and leaned his head back.
"Don't rightly know Dred."
Pulling his dark brown leather pack closer the ruffian pulled out a cloth wrapped monocular and with loving care lifted the old viewer to his right eye.
"What do you see?"
Both Wagoner’s looked down at Tommy who had silently sat down between them.
"Damn boy! Don't sneak up on me like that less you're looking for a lead meal."
"Relax Dred. It's the howling wind Tommy. Makes a man loose his ability to hear the smaller sounds. Ya startled us but that weren't no fault of your own. I don't think Mr. Dred can see a thing out in that ash storm."
"Not true. I seen something Frank."
"You seen the horse ain't ya Mr. Dred?"
Frank turned about so fast he yelped in pain as what felt like a dozen pokers stabbed into his side. Recovering but with blurry eyes he looked uselessly out into the ash. He couldn't see squat in the ash storm.
Lifting the monocular back to his eye Dred grumbled as Frank stated:
"Don't be crazy kid. You can't see nothin out there."
"Frank ... shut up. I see something. It's headed toward us. Kinda."
Frank Starr started to move towards the opening more but Tommy moved faster.
"The hell!" Exclaimed the Wagon Master as the teen bolted past him and Dred into the blizzard of ash outside.
Dred quickly returned the monocular to his pack and pulled both of his LeMat Grapeshot revolvers out.
"I saw the horse too Frank. That kids got more sand than I reckoned he had. Problem is. I saw something bigger than a horse out there too. Not sure what it was but, was big. Get your Remington ready and stay here."
A second later Dred dashed out of the makeshift doorway too. Franks mouth opened in amazement as he reached for his rifle.
"Are you insane Dred? Well damn. Of course you are. But..."
Flinching Frank turned back to see Daisy and the Harris family all stirring. A mixture of concern and fears on their faces.
The young school teacher asked her question again.
"Great. Look here. Everyone stay back from the door. Jed, get your rifle out man."
Jed moved. With the Sharps rifle in hand he moved past Daisy to the Wagon Master.
"You any good with that thing Jed?"
The old leathery balding skinny man just looked at the younger Wagon Master blankly for a second with deep green eyes and pursed lips, then said:
"I was in the war. First Sergeant Harris aboard the CSS Virginia, Deo Vindice. What's happening? Where is Mr. Dred and the boy Tommy?"
Frank Starr aimed his Remington rifle out the doorway and worked hard at sounding calm.
"Get ready - Something is coming."
The haze, grit and ash swirled around him as he made his way further out from the shelter of the overturned wagon.
Dred stumbled on the ash burned tree laying across his path. Nearly toppling head first he righted himself with arms spread out wide to his side. Cinders of burnt wood swirled upwards from the large branch and were blown away by the biting wind. Nearly unable to see from the wind torn ash and smoke Dred continued forward into the miasma.
"Damn it! Where are you boy?"
Dropping to one knee the Viking Gunslinger rested his palms on the pearl handled twin LeMat’s holstered at each hip. Old as they might be, they both shot true and were as deadly as any union shooter. He had added the pearl grips himself recently. Looking out into the ash he squinted and could just barely make out the form of Tommy running further ahead.
"Damn fool child!"
Gritting his teeth the large man lifted the bandanna, spat dust from his mouth and stood up quickly, trying to follow the shadow of Tommy in the ash cloud, Dred bolted after the kid, not seeing the larger shadow looming behind the Norseman as he sprinted further away from the wagon.
Dred ran blindly into the swirling dust and hot ash ignoring the occasional burning feeling on his forehead or eyes, trying to not throw up from the ash, he squinted and pulled his pistols out and kept them ready as he stumbled forward and up a small embankment. Reaching the top he crouched down and scanned the horizon for movement seeking out Tommy or the horse.
Almost pushing him over backwards the wind picked up and nearly had its way with the large Norseman. Leaning into the blast of hot wind as his eyes teared up Dred coughed under the bandanna.
The second he saw movement Dred bolted forward in the hopes of not losing sight of it. Running wildly into the ash and howling wind he keep his bleary eyes focused on the shadow ahead. Nearly crashing into the shadow a moment later Dred caught up with Tommy who was now kneeling in the ash and dirt sobbing.
"What is it boy? Where is that horse? What’s wrong?"
Turning the boy around to face him Dred saw what felt like the only color he had seen besides black or grey in days, a deep crimson pool was spreading out from the boy’s stomach into the dirt beneath him.
"What happened?" Dred repeated as he wrapped his arms around the boy keeping him sheltered and both pistols pointed outward.
Another sob and then Tommy cried out, "I don't know what it was Mr. Dred. It hit me from the right and moved past me so fast I never saw what it was! Oh, God, Mr. Dred, it hurts."
Both of the boys hands held tight to his stomach Dred looked around more...seeing nothing but darkening ash he heard it. A low rumbling behind him, the hairs on his neck stood and he realized something was behind him. For the first time in a decade Dred felt fear.
Whatever it was it growled deeper and each step it took closer made the ground under Dred and the dying boy shutter.
Sobbing Tommy closed his eyes and then went slack, mercifully passing out from the wave of fear physically assaulting them. Dred’s muscles ached and he felt frozen in a hot fear. Lifting the gun was proving too difficult. Inwardly he cursed himself.
Suddenly an explosion of forces collided as the gunslinger released Tommy, spun about pointing the LeMat at the beast. Realization hit him nearly as hard at the beast did. The horse. It was the horse. Only not. Doubled in size and with bone like spikes ripping out of its sides the creature was a horrific mutation of the horse it had been. Dred knew the beast was formerly Frank’s horse. It slammed its head into Dred’s face as the gunslinger fired the shot gun round of the LeMat pistol into its neck.
Falling back into the ash Dred dropped the gun and lay unmoving next to the bleeding out child.
END OF PREVIEW