Five days ago I received the fateful telegram from the previously quiet town of Pinewood Gulch:
Urgent STOP Pinewood Gulch overtaken by hoards of invaders STOP Send help STOP Reward offered END
Sheriff D. L. Sloan
Dwight Sloan was an old friend of mine back in Sagebrush where we used to track down cattle rustlers together. He was normally a talkative man so the brevity of the telegram emphasized the severity of the situation. It’s been years since I’ve seen ol’ Sloan and the fact that he contacted me for this incident was both intriguing and alarming. I gathered up The Boys and we headed off, wondering what fight lay ahead of us and planning for the worst. Unfortunately, no amount of planning could have prepared us for the unfathomable horrors that awaited.
We rode hard and fast, but the rugged terrain proved difficult in spite of our minimal equipment and weapons. On the afternoon of the fourth day we reached the edge of town and began scouting the area. As far as we could tell, Pinewood Gulch was a ghost town. Not even a stray dog could be seen. We gradually worked our way to the main street, searching for any signs of life. We tied up our horses and proceeded on foot until we reached the Sheriff’s office.
In hindsight, I should have called out instead of knocking, but I didn’t know what we were up against at the time. My rap on the front door was met with a shotgun blast sending pine splinters from the door into my forearm, just inches from my head. Stunned, I fell backwards and drew my pistol, pointing it at the new hole in the door.
“Hold yer fire!” I hollered, as I scrambled away from the door in case there would be more shots coming my way. “It’s Ted and The Boys, we got yer telegram.”
“Theodore?” I heard faintly on the other side of the wall. “That really you?”
“Yes, dangit!” I answered. “Now stop trying to blow my head off and let us in.”
I could see Sloan’s bushy white eyebrows through the hole and the door slowly creaked open. “Theodore P. Jenkins, am I glad to see you!” yelled Sloan as he shook my hand and planted a firm grip on my right shoulder. “Get your stinky carcass in here so I can fill you in.”
Hesitating, I looked around and replied. “But there’s no one out here. What’s all the fuss?”
“You’ll see soon enough, I reckon.” said Sloan as he ushered The Boys and me in the office. “How’s yer brother by the way, I figured you’d bring him along.”
“Leeroy’s dead, Dwight.” I sighed. “The dumb fool ran into an ambush near Bedrock Valley and got himself killed. I knew his hot head would be the end of ‘em someday. If only he’d have waited for the rest of us…”
“Sorry to hear that Ted. He was dumb, but he was tough.”
“So what’s got ya so spooked, Dwight? Where is everyone?” I asked.
“Most are dead, but some have hunkered down like me. I ain’t sure if any escaped. We’re runnin’ low on food and supplies. …can’t last much longer.” Sloan explained.
“Why can’t you just leave?” I asked. “Where is this horde of invaders?”
“Some have tried.” said Sloan. “Who knows, maybe some actually made it out. The people of Pinewood ain’t rich, ya know. Many of ‘em ain’t got nowhere else to go and don’t have the means to get far if they tried. The problem is, now that our supplies are gettin’ low, we’re further runnin’ out of options. I guess most of the townsfolk figured they could hide out and let the whole thing blow over. If the Reapers lost interest in the town and moved on, they could clean the town back up and get back to their daily lives...”
“Wait, what are ‘Reapers’? What in the Sam Hill are you talking about?”
“Let me show ya…” Sloan started walking toward the back of the Sheriff’s Office. “We managed to snag one that was roamin’ around Lyle Johnson’s barn. The horrid thing did a number on Lyle’s horses and Lyle was ready to burn down the entire barn once he had it trapped in there. I talked him into lettin’ me keep it rather than destroy it in case we can learn anything about ‘em.”
The holding cell was dark and I could only see a gray outline of a human sized creature. I stepped closer to get a better look when it shot towards me and slammed it’s mangled, fleshy face against the cell bars and shrieked.
I stumbled backward and Sloan laughed “He sure ain’t happy.”
“What *is* that?” I asked.
“We think it used ta be a person, but darned if I know what happened. Most are mangled and all broken-looking, but don’t let that fool you… they can move real quick-like when they wanna. They usually have some shreds of clothing , but it’s too torn up to give any clues ‘bout where they came from. The ones that still have faces ain’t recognized by no one ‘round here.”
One of the men covered his mouth in disgust as he watched the caged Reaper.
Sloan continued. “…few weeks ago people started going missing here and there and we thought it may be Injuns or outlaws or somethin’. Then Mrs. Ford found the half eaten body of her husband, Jake, and we knew somethin’ sinister was goin’ on . The townsfolk panicked for the most part and became extra cautious. Nobody had actually seen the Reapers until a group of ‘em stumbled into Miller’s saloon one evenin’. If it weren’t for the ranch hands at the poker table, the Reapers would have killed more than they did.”
I took off my hat and sighed deeply in somber thought.
Finally, I interrupted the silence, “Well, boys… we’d better get to it before the sun goes down. Dwight, do you still have that old Gatlin' gun?”
“Sure do, it’s locked up with the other guns. I see you brought a few, but let’s see if we can’t get you fixed up proper.”
Tex, one of The Boys, could barely contain his enormous smile at the mention of the Gatling gun. Tex is what you might call a “connoisseur of ballistic devices.” His real name is Reginald Archibald the third, but we call him “Tex” because it just seems to fit. He sure knows his way around anything that goes “boom” and this has come in handy on many occasions. Tex is fairly tall, but his bulky frame almost makes him look stocky. With solid muscle and a hard head, he can easily hold his own.
We made our way to the armory section of the Sheriff’s office. Dwight unlocked the padlock and removed the chain from the double doors. As both doors opened, light filled the small room and the hardware twinkled like treasure. We stood in awe of the sheer number of pistols and rifles mounted on the walls. There were boxes of ammunition stacked on the floor along the walls. In the middle of the floor stood the Gatling gun in all its glory.
“Let’s get ‘er mounted up on a wagon and get to work, Tex.” I ordered as the rest of the men selected various weapons and loaded up on as much ammunition as they could carry.
In about ten minutes, we had the Gatling gun mounted to the top of a stagecoach that was parked in front of the jail. The Boys loaded up weapons and ammo in the cabin and took positions on the sides and rear of the coach. Sloan settled into the driver seat and I climbed up next to him with a double-barrel shotgun firmly in my grasp. Slim finished up getting the two horses harnessed to the coach and climbed aboard. As you can imagine, Slim is a lanky fella’ and by far the tallest of the bunch. His real name is Jasper, but Slim just seems to fit.
Once we were set, Sloan took the reins and started us slowly down the empty street. We peered into the different buildings as we rolled past. The hotel, saloon, post office, bank and general store showed no signs activity. Sloan slowed to a stop near the end of the street and almost on cue, a giant tumbleweed rolled across our path. I was about to declare that we’d need to search each building for any surviving townsfolk when a faint sobbing sound arose up ahead. Everyone paused at once to listen for where it was coming from.
“In the church.” Sloan whispered, as the rest of use gazed at the towering white building at the end of the street.
“Ok boys,” I began, “Let’s get in there. Tex, you stay here and man the Gatling in case things get ugly. Slim, take the reins and get ready to get us out of here if needed. Clark and Jim, you go around back and see if you can find a way in from there. Daisy Mae and the rest of you come with me.” Daisy Mae is the only girl in the group, but she can hold her own and then some. She is just as much one of The Boys as the rest of ‘em and would easily whoop anyone who says different.
Sloan opened the heavy double doors and I kept my shotgun aimed steadily at the opening. The stench of death was overwhelming and some of the men tried to cover their faces, but it made no difference. It was dark inside, but there were a few candles flickering up front, near the pulpit. We eased our way in and The Boys fanned out among the pews. We steadily worked our way to the front where a pile of white cloth was crumpled on the floor. As our eyes adjusted, we could make out the shape of a woman in a wedding dress; face down in front of the pulpit. The sobbing grew into moans and a chattering sound as we drew closer.
“Mam, are ya alright?” I gently called. “Are ya hurt?”
Sloan and I focused on the slumped figure and The Boys looked around for any other townsfolk. In between moans, there was a sudden “creak” and we all looked up to see a door opening up ahead. We swung our weapons in that direction and then lowered them when we saw Jim and Clark emerge.
“Nothin’ back there boss,” stated Jim as he gazed around the sanctuary.
We returned our attention to the woman on the ground. “Mam,” I tried again. “Are you ok? We are here to help.” There was no response. The moaning and sobbing had nearly ceased, but the chattering grew louder. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness I could see the white figure rocking back and forth.
“Mam?” I questioned again, louder this time.
The rocking grew more pronounced and the chattering grew even louder still. “Boys! Back away slowly… somethin’ ain’t right.” I ordered. The Boys instantly started moving away from the crumpled creature and it became more agitated. We slowly moved toward the door and began to feel rumbling beneath our feet. As the danger became more apparent, we high-tailed it to the front door. Behind us, the old wooden floor started cracking and crumbling near the center of the church and the smell of dust and soil joined the previous aroma of death. The pews tumbled one by one into the growing hole where the floor once was and we could see a writhing mass of limbs reaching for us.
Jim turned around to stare in amazement as the floor of the old building started to collapse around us. He was grabbed around the ankle by a withered hand reaching out of the floor. He jerked away to get free, but was amazed by the strength of this frail creature. Jim cried for help and Clark turned just in time to grab Jim’s hand before he was pulled under. With all the commotion I almost didn’t notice Jim’s near demise, but worked my way back to help him get free. Clark pulled and Jim scrambled to get free from the numerous hands that were tugging and clawing at his flailing legs. I leveled my shotgun and fired both barrels right into the mass of arms. A few arms we blown clean off and the others were stunned enough to give Jim enough time to get back to his feet.
A pale face emerged from the mass underneath us. It stared right at me as it pulled the rest of itself out of the floor. Without thinking, I lifted my shotgun above my head and came down with all my might. The butt crashed into the face of this foul creature and made a loud “crack.” I raised it again for a second blow and noticed that the butt was broken and barely hanging together. I struck again anyway and this time the creature roared with rage. The rest of The Boys had made it to the door and I knew I needed to get out now or I would be trapped in here with these horrid beings. Daisy May stood at the entrance, blasting away at the massive pit in the middle of the room.
My legs could not have carried me any faster as I flew out the double doors and into the sunlight. I shielded my face from the sudden brightness and struggled to see in front of me. The next thing I heard was “CLEAR!” and I stumbled to get to the stagecoach. We all stared at the entrance of the church while the rumbling suddenly stopped. My ears were ringing from the shotgun blasts, but the sudden silence shifted my balance and I nearly toppled over. Tex leveled the Gatling gun at the doors as everyone else aimed their rifles and pistols and the threat that nearly ended us moments ago. In uneasy stillness, we stared ahead, not risking any glance away from the danger before us.
With my eyes still adjusting to the sunlight, I squinted toward the church and felt sweat running down my forehead to the tip of my nose. The drip of sweat seemed to just hang there like the lumps in all of our throats. It seemed to just hang there like it was terrified of falling, grasping for dear life. It was such an odd thought at the time, but I saw myself as that one drop of sweat. …then, it started to slip. Terror filled me as I felt it roll off the tip of my nose. I couldn’t bear to look, but I could sense it slowly falling to the dusty road below. Finally, in the dead silence, I heard the “splosh”. Then…
“CRAWWWWWARSHHHH!!!!” as the opening of the church erupted with a mass of the horrid creatures. They sprang toward us just as Tex opened up with the Gatling gun. RATATATATATAT it sang as the death dealers were cut down, one by one. The rest of us joined in and picked off any that made it out of the Tex’s line of fire. The bodies piled up and more Reapers crawled over them like rabid animals. We took turns reloading and kept the pressure on unending horde of death. Eventually, the assault dwindled and we finished off the last few Reapers coming through the door.
Our ears rang painfully as we reloaded and caught our breath. The battle was so loud we failed to hear the Reapers gathering in the street behind us. Daisy Mae happened to turn and see the crowd of Reapers before they reached the coach – “BEHIND US!!!!!!” She hollered as loud as we could.
Tex swiveled the Gatling gun to the rear and opened fire. The rest of us scrambled to get onto the coach and Sloan snapped the reins to get the horses moving. We were getting low on ammo and had to make each shot count as we stormed past the old church.
“We need to get back to the armory!” I clamored to Sloan.
Sloan was already thinking the same thing and drove the coach wide around the church and through the pasture to the south. “We can get in through the back and hole up in there while we re-stock.” The pasture was much rougher than the dirt road through town and The Boys had a hard time hanging on to the coach. A few of the Reapers continued the pursuit, but were eventually picked off or gave up.
Sloan drove the coach around to the rear of the jail house. Tex stayed on the coach with the Gatling gun while Sloan and I grabbed our guns and jumped off to get the back door open. We kept watch from there while the rest of The Boys piled into the armory to grab more ammo and gear. Sloan leaned over and said in a hushed tone, “It’ll be dark soon… we need to git a plan together to clear them all out before dawn. If we don’t take care of this now, they’ll go back into hiding and come back again with a vengeance.”
“That’s what we’re here for,” I agreed and kept scanning the area for more attackers. “I say we split up and sweep each building until we’ve taken them all out.”
“Works for me,” agreed Sloan.
The Boys finished loading up the coach and I raised my hand to get their attention. “Listen up boys, we don’t have much time. We have a job to do and we need to get it done before these rascals hole up again. The plan is to split up and clear each building until we’ve destroyed every last one of these monsters. After each hour of hunting these things, we’ll meet back at the armory to regroup and reload. You are welcome to keep anything you find along the way if you think it might help out. I don’t think the townsfolk will mind… if any are even still alive. Keep any eye out for bandages and lanterns; were gonna need 'em. And be sure to keep count of how many Reapers you take out. Along with braggin' rights, there will be a hefty reward to the one who gets the most. Any questions?”
They all shook their heads, knowing full well this would not be an easy task.
“Let’s get to it!”