©2021 William A. Lasher
“It’s not like they hold any malice towards us, we just look like an easy meal.” – Major Bartholomew Saxby, Commander of the Mutant Eradication Forces
November 22, 1881 – Rosethorne Station, Western Territory
I resigned myself to a fate which seemed inevitable. It appeared that Molly and I would be executed for crimes we had no recollection of committing. In another day the wretched waiting would be over. I was almost looking forward to the end of it – and then Winterborne appeared outside my jail cell.
“Cheer up, mate, I need to have a chat with you.”
“More legal maneuvering by Knightingale? What’s the use?”
“No, Axel returned to Hainford after the dismissal of the appeal.” Winterborne looked from side to side and then took off his tall top hat and held it before him in both hands. “Come closer to the door.”
I rose from my seat on the uncomfortable metal bench that was my bed, and went to the door of the cell. “At least I’m permitted to talk to you without the mechanical bully boys telling me to shut up.”
“Yes, we’re all alone. The robots are outside.” He moved in closer, and then suddenly, out of thin air, a clear glass goblet appeared, balanced precariously on the crown of his hat. “Quickly, Bertram – take the glass and drink, we don’t have much time.”
“What is it? What’s in the glass?”
“Magic potion. It’ll help me to get you out of here. There’s no time to waste – drink it.”
I took a small sip first. It tasted delightful, like sweet apple cider. I downed the whole glass, and when I lowered it, I was startled to discover Winterborne had suddenly disappeared. I looked about the anteroom, grasping the bars of the cell door in both hands. Henry was gone. He had inexplicably vanished.
“Over here, Bertram,” I heard his voice now, “Look over here.”
I turned in my tracks to look back inside the cell and saw the strangest thing. The heavy cobblestones of the back wall had parted to reveal an opening. Winterborne stood outside the opening. “Quickly, Bertram. Step through the hole in the wall and join us.”
I stepped through the wall and found myself in an entirely new location, on a mountainside far above town. Molly was there, standing next to two horses, and when she saw me, she ran over, threw her arms around me, and kissed me passionately. “I’ve missed you so much, my love.”
“What’s happened? Where are we?”
“Magic, my boy,” said Winterborne grinning. “I used magic to break you out, you’re free now.”
“But won’t the guards connect you to the jailbreak?”
“They never saw me. I conjured up enough magical power to appear inside without ever going through the door.”
“Can you use your magical powers to return us to our home in western Virginia?” asked Molly.
Winterborne lost his smile. “I’m afraid not, time travel is beyond my abilities. Moving from place to place in our current era is not so difficult, but traveling backwards in time is something I can’t quite pull off. ”
“What do we do now then?” I said. “Where shall we go?”
“Anywhere but here,” said Henry. “Take your horses and ride. The further away from Dunkwell, the better you’ll be.”
“We know nothing of this land, how will we get along?” said Molly.
“With courage, my dear. Follow the trail over Ketterly Mountain and leave this place. There’s no time to waste. Farewell and off with you.”
The trail over the top of the mountain led us northward, and we decided to continue on in the same direction. We weren’t sure if it was a good idea or not, just that we should heed Winterborne’s advice – put as much distance between Dunkwell and ourselves as possible, and as quickly as we could ride.
Henry’s magic had outfitted us with a fine pair of horses, and somehow we already knew their names. I rode a painted stallion named Jimbo, and Molly, a Morgan mare. Our saddlebags were loaded with camping gear, cooking and eating utensils, and thankfully warm wool blankets. We built small fires and slept under the stars at night.
It was such a joy to be back in Molly’s company, though we were both so much older now. Our relationship had indeed grown more mature, and on more than one sunny afternoon we made love as the lustful middle aged adults we had suddenly become.
We rode for days in a northerly direction, using the path of the sun as a guide to stay true to our course. Purposely avoiding contact with anyone, we took the long way around when we saw settlements in the distance. We stuck to the highlands, and before long our supply of jerky and hardtack was beginning to wear thin. Surviving the approaching winter alone in the outback would be impossible. Sooner or later we would need to find some new friends.
The dry Autumn weather held out. A week into our journey, the mountains began to give way to wider basins. The high altitude ranges became more isolated, and we rode out across golden brown grasses in the expansive valleys. Water became harder to find.
We came upon a treeless divide between two of the basins, and looking down the other side, we saw a settlement in the distance. I used my quadoptical device to have a closer look. Lowering the extra set of lenses into position, I examined what appeared to be a military outpost of some sort.
“What in the world is that contraption above the buildings on the other side of the basin?” said Molly.
“I’m not sure. Let me have a look.” I scanned the hill Molly had pointed out, and brought the strange apparatus she had noticed into focus. It looked like a gigantic artillery canon mounted on a circular turret with an array of gears. There was a pipeline connected to the metal contraption, and flights of stairs on a framework.
“Should we ride down and say hello? We’re extremely low on water.” Molly shook her almost empty canteen.
“I think so. We seem to be a long ways from anywhere. Hopefully far enough from Dunkwell that we won’t be recognized.”
“Henry said the territory is full of outlaws. It’s unlikely we’ll be recognized. Let’s come up with assumed names. I’ll be Margaret Abbotsford – what about you?”
“That’s a good one. Let’s see. What about Donovan Highgarden?
“I like it. Let’s go find out where we are.”
The outpost was surrounded by a fence built from narrow logs, and the buildings within were constructed of heavier logs painted brown and chinked with grey cement. The gate at the front entrance was open. We rode through, and came to a building that appeared to be a command post. A British Union Jack was flapping in the breeze on a flagpole out front. Smoke rose from a stone chimney, and I smelled the enduring scent of burning coal.
As we dismounted, the front door of the building flew open, and a soldier strode out to greet us. “You must be my reinforcements, and they sent a lady I see. Well, that will be perfectly fine, I have nothing against women in the military. You’re dressed in street clothes. Where are your uniforms?”
“We’re not soldiers, we’re travelers,” I said. “We were hoping you might have water to share.”
“Yes, I have plenty of water. Travelers, are you? Are you gainfully employed? Do you have jobs?”
“Not just yet,” said Molly. “As a matter of fact, we’re hoping to find some way to get by.”
“Then I’ll conscript you into the military service. We need all the help we can get, there’s plenty of work for you here.”
I looked towards Molly, caught her eye, and noticed a small smile at the corner of her mouth. “I’m Donovan Highgarden, and this is my traveling companion, Margaret Abbotsford.”
“Jolly good, quite pleased to meet you.” He grasped my hand in a bone crunching handshake. “I’m Major Bartholomew Saxby of the Mutant Eradication Forces, and this is my command. We suffered a chilling giant crow attack a fortnight ago. I lost three of my gunners, carried off by the crows, and in the resulting panic, the rest of my men deserted their posts. The cowards ran off into the hills, never to be seen again.”
Saxby looked us over more carefully. “A fine pair of horses you’ve brought. We have stables behind the barracks and barrels of oats. Do you have firearms to present for inspection?”
I looked towards Molly with apprehension and hesitated to say anything in response.
“Oh come now, I’m not going to confiscate your weapons. I just need to have a look and record your weaponry in my day log.”
We handed our .50 caliber pistols to Saxby, and he looked them over, opening the firing chambers and peering down the barrels on both. “Cleaned and oiled. Very good. I prefer a soldier who knows how to handle his personal weaponry.” He looked towards the door. “I hear my tea kettle whistling. Let’s step inside for a spot of tea and continue with our conversation.”
Saxby wore a khaki uniform and he removed his safari helmet as he strode inside the building. He poured us cups of strong black tea, and then opened a bakery tin and set it down on the center of the table. Molly and I took seats. “Date cookies. Imported from London. They’re very good, help yourselves.”
“When you say giant crows, how big do you mean?” Cup of tea in one hand, cookie in the other.
“Quite large. Wing spans of twenty yards or more. A normal sized crow often feeds on insects, and to the mutants, we appear to be the size of insects.”
“Good God!” exclaimed Molly before she took another sip of tea.
“It’s not like they hold any malice towards us, we just look like an easy meal.” Saxby raised his eyebrows and fiddled with his handlebar mustache. “And the crows only appear for three nights a month, when the moon is full. Nothing to be afraid of really, no reason to abandon your post.”
“The machinery on the hilltop,” I said. “Is that some sort of gigantic gun?”
“It’s a flamethrower. We light it up when the moon is full, and though the crows are hard to hit, it keeps them away from the compound. It was built as a last line of defense against a human zombie invasion. That’s the purpose of my command, to fight the swarms of human zombies migrating out of the Forsaken Zone.”
After tea, the major showed us around the remote outpost that he had nicknamed Rosethorne Station. To the east of the fenced in compound, there was a rail line and switching yard. A line of unusual looking steam locomotives sat idled on a spur.
On the roof of every locomotive’s cab, there was a flamethrower on a revolving turret. The weapon looked like a smaller version of the immense contraption on the hilltop, with a seat accessed by a ladder attached to the side of the cab. Each locomotive pulled a single coal car, and there was an H gas storage tank mounted on every coal car’s roof.
“The rail line extends 250 miles to the north and 250 miles to the south.” Major Saxby pointed towards the north, then turning towards the south, he used his hand to shield his eyes from the bright sun. “It follows the Front Range of the Rockies. We’re at the edge of the high plains here at Rosethorne Station, the de facto border between the Forsaken Zone and the Western Territory. When one of our airships locates a swarm of human zombies, the captain sends me a telegram, and I deploy our steam engines to assist in the extermination.”
“Where do the zombies come from?” said Molly.
“Straight out of the Forsaken Zone. Everything to the east of the mountains was rendered a toxic wasteland by the Hydrogen War. The people who survived the detonations were poisoned by the degraded environment and became walking dead.
“In the last couple of years the zombies have begun to migrate west, we’re not sure why, but thousands and thousands of them have begun to appear on the high plains, all of them slowly and methodically plodding due west. We’ve got a fight on our hands, and once my reinforcements show up, I can get you two trained and our company will be back up to snuff.”
Molly and I settled in at Rosethorne Station. At night we had one of the barracks houses to ourselves. I had never dreamed of sharing a bed with her in Leacock Corners, but at our current place in time it seemed natural, and the major had no complaints about our cohabitation.
The days were warm, but growing noticeably shorter, and the nights were quite cold. There was a potbelly stove in the middle of the barracks house, with a colossal pile of coal out the back door. The stove burnt so hot that it would glow red when the lights were out at night.
The moon became full within a few days of our arrival. It was a harvest moon, and it seemed bigger than normal. For the next three nights we would remain on the lookout for giant crows. We took turns standing watch after Saxby showed us how to operate the enormous flamethrower on the hill. Molly for three hours after sundown, Saxby through the middle of the night, and then at 3:00 a.m., I took over until sunrise.
The hydrogen gas to power the flamethrower was piped in from an extraction plant to the west. The operator sat on an elevated seat high above the ground. Access was by multi-storied stairway. An array of knobs and levers controlled the weapon’s various functions. The apparatus could be pivoted on its turret by pulling one lever, the elevation and vertical angle controlled by two additional levers.
The mechanical functions were powered by a steam plant located at the base, and part of the operator’s job was to keep the furnace stoked up with fresh coal. Every half hour or so, I would descend the stairway to check on the fire. A few shovel fulls was all it took to keep the furnace going until the steam was actually needed.
It was hard to stay awake sitting in the operator’s seat in the dark. If it was Molly or I on duty, Saxby would hike up the hill to bring us fresh tea, and tell us war stories to break the monotony. He was extremely excited, and stayed up through the night, with a lantern lit in his quarters.
The mutant crows showed up on the second night during my watch. It was a couple of hours before sunrise, and I was lingering by the firebox door to warm up when I saw them coming. Three giant crows flying straight out of the Forsaken Zone. I could see them in the moonlight when they were still a mile or so away. They looked like normal sized crows, but as they got closer, I could see just how big they really were – wingspans of at least twenty yards, if not more.
I hurried back up to the operator’s seat, and settled in behind the controls. I pressed a button that lit the pilot flame, and then pulled my face shield down – it was similar to a welder’s mask, with a tinted view port. The gun was pointed towards the east – Saxby had predicted the flying mutants would come from that direction. Firing it up was as simple as turning the H gas knob to high, and when I did, an immense flame, at least fifty yards long, shot out of the barrel towards the incoming crows.
The flame lit up the whole compound, as bright as daylight, and I could see the crows’ shiny black beaks and beady eyes clearly in the H gas glow – it was a terrifying moment.
Roused by the light from the intense flame, Major Saxby ran out of his quarters to watch the giant crows veer off and change direction towards the south. That was the last we saw of them, and after they disappeared into the night, Saxby ran up the hill to congratulate me.
“Outstanding work, Private Highgarden!” he shouted as he climbed the stairway. “You timed it perfectly and scared the devil out of those monsters, by Jove!”
“Nothing to it, sir. You had the gun aimed just right.”
He reached the platform and shook my hand, slightly out of breath. “Yes, they always come straight out of the Forsaken Zone. Who knows where they roost out there in the wasteland.”
“They were big, alright. I got a good look at them in the light from the flame. It was as bright as daylight up here.”
“Brilliant work. You and Private Abbotsford will do just fine in the MEF.” He produced his pocket watch and checked the time. “There’s another hour and a half until sunrise. Keep your eyes peeled in case they return. I’ll go make a fresh pot of tea and be back up in a jiffy.”
“Thank you, sir.”
A few days later, four new soldiers arrived at Rosethorne Station. Molly and I were putting a fresh coat of paint on the timber fence that surrounded the compound when we saw them approaching from the west on horseback. I went inside Major Saxby’s quarters to let him know.
“Splendid!” he exclaimed. “And about time,” as he hurried outside with me to greet them.
We walked at a lively pace towards the front gate where Molly was still working. It was another warm and windy autumn afternoon. Not a cloud in the sky, and the air was as dry as an empty canteen.
The local soil was a fine grained clay that was whipped up into clouds of dust by the incessant wind, and it left a residue on outdoor surfaces. Glare from the sun made the windblown grime easy to see – the reason why Saxby had us concentrating on cleaning and maintenance chores around the compound. The major was a perfectionist when it came to cleanliness and personal hygiene.
“The fencing looks much better with a fresh coat of paint,” said Saxby as we joined Molly at the entrance.
“We could start on the barracks houses tomorrow.” Molly laid her brush down, and wiped her hands with a rag.
“We may have more pressing matters to attend to. First let’s see who they sent me for reinforcements.” Saxby used his hand to shield his eyes from the sun as the four riders closed in.
The horses kicked up a sizable cloud of dust – enough to choke on – as they reached us. The lead rider quickly dismounted and saluted Saxby. “Sergeant Oakhurst, sir, reporting for duty.” He reached inside his coat, produced a folded set of papers and handed them to Saxby. “My orders, sir.”
Oakhurst’s uniform was covered with a thick layer of the territorial dust. He had a mop top of unkempt hair stuffed under his bonnet, and heavy mutton chop sideburns that connected to a full mustache.
“At ease, sergeant.” Saxby took a look at the papers. “And who else have you brought me?”
The remaining soldiers had also dismounted, and all three were attempting to stand at attention while at the same time trying to keep their steeds under control.
“Private Klebitz, Private Ridgewood, and Corporal Dulaney, sir.” Each of the soldiers took a step forward and executed a snappy hand salute as their names were called.
Saxby cordially returned each of their salutes. “You may all stand at ease and welcome to Rosethorne Station. I’m the only officer on base, and though I appreciate the respect, you may dispense with the usual formalities.” He went back to reading the orders. “It says here that you and Corporal Dulaney are both certified steam locomotive engineers.”
“Yes, sir,” said Oakhurst. “Experienced and certified.”
“Excellent. And you’ve been working in zombie extermination on Colonel Forthwright’s line?”
“Smashing. Abbotsford and Highgarden will show you to the stables and barracks. You may all join me for tea in my quarters after you’re settled in.”
Sergeant Oakhurst and his squad moved into the barracks house next to ours. They were pleased with the uncrowded accommodations, but complained a bit about the lack of variety in the camp’s available foodstuffs. We were subsisting on military rations – the cook had deserted his post along with the others.
Saxby gave his approval for an afternoon hunting expedition, and before the sun had set, Dulaney and Klebitz were carrying a freshly dressed antelope back into the compound. We put the pronghorn on a spit and grilled it over an open fire. Though it was slightly tough and had a gamy flavor, the meat was a big improvement over the canned mackerel we’d been subsisting on for weeks.
There were a total of eight locomotives parked on the siding. With the newly arrived reinforcements, we had enough soldiers to man two of them. Saxby telegraphed Captain Galloway on the airship Constantina. In his message, he said we were still a bit short-handed, but ready to resume the extermination campaign.
Saxby himself took command of Locomotive No. 3 with Dulaney as his engineer, Klebitz as fireman, and Molly on the roof of the cab operating the flamethrower. Oakhurst took charge of No. 7 as engineer, with Ridgewood as his fireman – that left me on the roof manning the second flamethrower.
The next morning, we left Rosethorne Station early, with No. 3 in the lead. The rail line had one track with few sidings and nowhere to turn around, so each of the abbreviated trains traveled in both forward and reverse. In forward gear, the locomotive pulled a single coal car; in reverse, it pushed it.
The smokestack was tall enough to keep the billowing clouds of exhaust away from the flamethrower operator, no matter which direction we traveled. Molly and I were both thankful for that.
Saxby stayed in contact with Captain Galloway by way of optical telegraphy as we proceeded down the line. The Constantina was scouting zombie migration routes about 100 miles to the south. It was unknown why the zombies were grouping up and heading west, but it was our job to stop them. Stop them cold before they made their way into the heart of the Western Territory.
The locomotives picked up momentum as they chugged down the tracks towards our rendezvous. Oakhurst said the rate of speed was for all practical purposes unlimited. He had pushed steam trains to 80 m.p.h. and faster, but it was unlikely Saxby would want to travel that fast. There could be an unknown obstruction over a rise or around a curve, and hitting a large animal such as an elk or a buffalo might be enough to cause a derailment, though all of the locomotives were equipped with cowcatchers.
I could see Molly behind the controls of her flamethrower as No. 3 picked up steam out ahead of us. We both wore heavy oilskin jackets, tinted goggles, and insulated leather caps with ear flaps. I was secured to the operator’s seat by a wide leather strap cinched up tight around my waist.
Steaming across the flat as a washboard plains, we had a magnificent view of the front range of the Rockies to the west. The mountains grew taller as we traveled further south, and the high peaks were already blanketed with snow.
Along the rail line, we were still in short prairie grass, but Saxby had said there was an abrupt change just a few miles to the east. All the natural vegetation and animal life had been wiped out in the Forsaken Zone, and the air was so poisonous that simply breathing it could kill a man in a few minutes.
Up ahead, I saw Klebitz leaning out of No. 3’s cab waving a red flag. It was a signal to slow down and stop. Oakhurst backed off the throttle and began to apply the air brakes. Ahead of us, Dulaney repeated the same procedure, and piloted his locomotive to a dead stop. Oakhurst brought us to within a few yards of No. 3 before he opened a pair of safety valves. It created a loud hissing sound as he released most of the steam from No. 7’s boiler. The locomotive’s wheels ground to a halt.
Through the cloud of escaping steam, I saw Major Saxby climb a ladder that led to a small observation platform fixed to the top of the H gas tank on No. 3’s coal car. From his high perch, he pointed towards the east: “Highgarden! Bring your turret about and take a look through your quadoptical! There’s hundreds of them out there! Hundreds of human zombies, and they’re moving this way!”
I activated the turret’s H gas motor and using the control levers, I brought the flamethrower about. It moved at a moderate pace and made a squeaking noise, like the contact between the moving parts needed lubrication. When it was pointed due east, perpendicular to the tracks, I brought it to a stop. I lifted my goggles, rested them on my forehead, and then raised the quadoptical to my eyes. I turned the dials to bring the awkward device into focus, and was instantly terrified by what I saw.
They were quite a ways off and it was hard to make out much detail, but I could clearly see the mass of walking dead. Hundreds of human zombies, moving straight towards us. It was a ghastly perspective.
I looked back towards No. 3, and could see Molly had turned her weapon towards the east as well. Saxby climbed down off the observation platform, returned to the roof of the cab, and took up a position standing next to her. Both of them peered through their quadopticals, closely watching the mass of walking dead.
Oakhurst came up the ladder from the cab. “Look,” he said pointing towards the southern sky, “here comes the Constantina.”
I had never seen an airship before, and it was a glorious sight to behold. The Constantina’s rigid balloon was over a hundred yards long. Oblong in shape, the framework that supported the balloon’s skin was visible on the exterior, and there was a Union Jack flag painted on each side. Above the dirigible, there were five sailing masts rising high into the sky. Sailing masts that looked like they might be better suited to a clipper ship.
Below the rigid balloon, a wooden gondola was suspended by thick steel cables. It was about a quarter the size of the balloon with a large amount of glass around the curved bow where the bridge was located. Four flamethrower emplacements were evenly spaced along the underbelly, and a pair of turning propellers were visible on the stern.
“It’ll take awhile for them to reach us,” said Oakhurst using his hand to shield his eyes from the bright mid-morning sun. “Flying under prop power alone, the Constantina’s top speed is about 15 knots.”
“Are the props steam powered?”
“H gas powered rotary motors. Everything on the airships is powered by hydrogen gas. The tanks are inside the gondola, and the rigid balloon is filled with H gas as well.” Oakhurst pulled a pipe from his jacket and loaded the bowl with tobacco from a pouch he carried in the same pocket. “Hydrogen is lighter than air, it’s what lifts the aircraft off the ground.”
“Are those clipper ship masts above the balloon?” I said tentatively. (I thought I might be seeing things.)
“Aye, they’re sailing ship masts alright, but they only unfurl the sails when they’re traveling long distances and the prevailing wind conditions are favorable.”
He planted the pipe in his mouth, and struck a long wooden match against the barrel of my flamethrower. The sulfur sizzled to life. He held the burning match above the pipe’s bowl and puffed on it, holding the mouthpiece between his teeth as he spoke. “It appears the gnawers may get to us before the Constantina arrives overhead.”
“Gnawers?” My eyes traveled from the airship to the slow moving mass of zombies, and then back to the airship.
“Yup. That’s what we call ’em. The zombies are cannibalistic, and you’ll often see them gnawing on a detached arm or leg. If one of them falls on the ground, the others don’t stop – they trample the fallen zombie to death.” He paused to puff on his pipe, and then, “well, ‘to death’ might not be the right way to say it because they’re already dead, but the other zombies will pounce on the fallen one, rip him to pieces, and start eating him. I’ve seen zombie fights too, and the loser almost always gets eaten by the others. They like to gang up on each other.”
I was a bit startled by Oakhurst’s matter of fact tone as he related the horrifying details. “When do we fire up the flamethrowers? How close do they have to get?” I raised the quadoptical to take another look.
“It’ll be a little while yet. When they get within fifteen or twenty yards we can start roasting them. You want to conserve your H gas. We’ll let Major Saxby make the call.” He puffed on his pipe for a few moments and then, “I’ve got some leftover antelope in the cab if you’re hungry.”
“Uh, no, that’ll be alright,” as I attempted to suppress a pukish feeling in my gut. “But thanks for the offer.”
He pulled the pipe from his mouth and gave me an amiable smile. “So you and Abbotsford were Americans?”
Were Americans. It was hard getting used to the idea that Leacock Corners was gone. “Yeah, Margaret and I grew up in western Virginia, in the Appalachians.” We never made up a story to go along with our fake names, so I quickly changed the subject: “What about you? You’re English?”
“Aye, from the Midlands. Dulaney and I are both from Birmingham.”
“How long have you been in the Western Territory?”
“I’ve been here almost three years. Working on Colonel Forthwright’s line, about five hundred miles to the south.” Oakhurst emptied the spent ashes from his pipe and then crushed them under his boot heel to make sure they were out. “It’s even drier down there if you can believe it. Forthwright’s line goes clear to the Mexican border.”
There was a pond with a wide marshy area between the rail line and the swarm of zombies. Spooked by their advance, a flock of geese took off and rushed towards us, flying low and honking loudly. They crossed the tracks and made a beeline for the mountains. The geese were followed by a smaller flock of equally frightened ducks.
As the zombies reached the marsh, I could see them more clearly through my quadoptical. It was a horrible sight to observe. Hollow grey faces, some missing one eye or both. Tangles of overgrown matted hair. Some of them wore clothes that might be better described as rags, and others wore no clothes at all. I quickly decided that the naked zombies were by far the most disgusting. The naked zombie skin grey and wrinkled with festering sores, and what looked like chemical burns on many of them – a sickly patina of purple, yellow, and green.
Some of the zombies had missing arms, others had gaping holes in their torsos. As Oakhurst had predicted, a few of them were gnawing on detached body parts.
The zombies entered the marsh and kept walking. None of them made any attempt to avoid the deeper water. A few of them went in over their heads in the pond and kept right on coming. Their ghoulish figures coated with slimy mud when they emerged on the other side.
Major Saxby climbed back up on the platform above No. 3’s H gas tank. “Sergeant Oakhurst!” he called out, cupping his hands around his mouth. “I’ll let you make the call! When you think they’re close enough, drop your arm down towards the deck, and we’ll open fire!”
“Aye, aye, sir!” responded Oakhurst with an exaggerated nod in affirmation. “Give it a couple more minutes and we’ll roast ’em!”
I checked the calibration on my sights and lit the pilot flame. I glanced to the south. Molly was ready on her weapon as well, and Saxby stood motionless on the platform with his chin lifted towards Oakhurst. Above the tracks in the cloudless sky, I could see the immense Constantina closing in on us, still a mile or two away.
Oakhurst stood next to me, watching the advancing zombies. He supported his quadoptical with his left hand, and held his open right hand high above his head. I could feel beads of perspiration welling up and running down my face, and a slight tremble in my fingers as I prepared to rotate the control knob. The gnawers were so close I could smell them now, and it was a godawful stench, like rotted meat left out in the sun.
For a few moments it seemed like time was standing still, and then finally, Oakhurst dropped his hand towards the deck. I turned the H gas all the way up, and a tremendous flame shot out of my weapon’s barrel. It made contact with the mass of walking dead, now just fifteen yards or so distant, and I heard a crackling sound as the partially decomposed zombie flesh ignited. As the ghouls began to burn, I heard a nightmarish wailing noise come up from the swarm.
Following Oakhurst’s direction, I used the control levers to slowly rotate my weapon’s flame back and forth across the mass of gnawers. Molly did the same, and before long, the leading edge of the swarm was cooked black and tumbling to the ground.
We kept the hell-fire burning, and I thought it strange how they kept coming. The brainless ghouls didn’t have the sense to turn and run, or perhaps they couldn’t run at all, maybe that’s what it was. It was a gruesome enterprise that I certainly took no pleasure in, but it was a job that had to be done. The zombies had to be stopped before they could invade the Western Territory.
By the time the Constantina was on top of us, most of the swarm was cooked and down. The airship sailed out over the carnage and lit up all four of their aerial flamethrowers. As the fire rained down from above, the inferno grew so hot that we had to move the locomotives. We watched from a distance as the crew of the Constantina finished the job. When they were done, there was nothing left beyond a scorched patch of blackened earth.
We stopped at a small lake on the way back to Rosethorne Station. Dulaney had seen sizable flocks of geese and ducks as we passed by in the morning, and he asked Saxby for permission to stop and go hunting. Armed with shotguns, Dulaney, Ridgewood, and Klebitz walked to the lake while the rest of us stayed on the locomotives.
They returned within an hour, carrying a goose and two ducks. Klebitz was soaking wet – he had to swim out in the water to retrieve the birds. With the whole crew back onboard, the firemen stoked up the boilers, and before long we were back home.
The goose was tough, but the ducks were delicious, tender and juicy. Saxby broke out bottles of English stout – he kept beer and a few bottles of wine in a small root cellar beneath his quarters. We sat by the fire for a few hours, drinking beer and sharing stories. Ridgewood had a harmonica and he entertained us with a couple of songs.
I awoke in the middle of the night needing to visit the latrine. Molly was fast asleep, and I thought her arm was wrapped around my chest much tighter than I had ever noticed before. I brought a fresh bucket of coal when I returned from outside, and I tossed a few chunks in the potbelly stove. Molly was awake when I climbed back in bed, and she snuggled up close.
“It’s horrible to think about what we just did.”
“We did it though, Molly. It was our job to stop the gnawers and we stopped them – we roasted ’em good.”
“We roasted ’em good alright, and I can’t believe how calm Major Saxby was. Right before we lit them up, he was standing there telling me about the flowers he was going to plant in his garden next Spring.”
“He has beautiful roses in his garden.”
“He certainly does, and I suppose that’s how the compound got its name. He told me he was going to plant tulips and daffodils next year.” She laid her hand on my chest. “I was petrified, Bertram! With the major standing there beside me I was able to do it, but it seemed so heartless and cruel, burning them up like that.”
“Don’t worry about the zombies, Molly. It’s not like we killed them.” I wrapped my arms around her and held her tight. “Oakhurst said you can’t kill a zombie. You can’t really kill them because they’re already dead. We’re doing them a favor when we put them down for good; when we lay their troubled souls to rest.”
We continued on for another two weeks. Some days we responded to calls from the airship, on others we went out on our own. There was 500 miles of tracks to patrol, and with only two locomotives, our company was stretched thin.
Saxby called Molly and I into his office one morning for a meeting: “I’ve received word of a change in strategy. Easterbrook Robotics has developed a new automaton. New robots that are specially designed to shoot flamethrowers.”
“You’re going to replace us with robots?” said Molly.
“Yes, but have no fear, her majesty needs you two elsewhere. You’re not going to lose your jobs in the military service. I’m giving you both a raise in pay from private to corporal, and enlisting you in a newly formed expeditionary force. You’ll fly over the Forsaken Zone in airships, and search for nests of human zombies.”
“Sounds like a dangerous assignment,” I said.
“It’s a dangerous assignment alright, and if you two aren’t up to it, just say. We might be able to find you jobs at the extraction plant.”
“What do you say, Molly? It sounds exciting.”
“Who wants to work in a gas plant? Let’s go be real soldiers.”
“We’ll say yes then, major.”
We loaded up our horses the next morning, and as we were preparing to leave, Major Saxby strode out of his quarters to see us off. He was carrying a bouquet of freshly cut red roses, and when he reached us, he handed them to Molly. “These are for you, Private Abbotsford.”
“Oh, they’re beautiful. Thank you so much, major.”
“The last of the year. We’re overdue for a hard frost. The rest of them won’t last much longer.”
Molly gently placed the flowers in her saddlebag, with the blossoms visible above the flap. She took a good whiff of them, and then overcome with emotion, she threw her arms around Major Saxby and hugged him tight. Looking over her shoulder, his eyes briefly met mine, and I shall admit that his expression of bliss made me jealous for a moment, but the feeling quickly passed.
To Be Continued …