"Get out of here you yella bastard!" roared Clell Miller as the back of his hand just missed Bob Bidwell's gaunt face. Bob was unsure of what he had done to become the object of the man's ire, but Clell seemed to be looking for any excuse to fill him full of hot lead or pluck out his one good eye.
"I'm sorry, mister. I didn't mean anything," squeaked Bob, backing up towards the entrance of the Fat Chance Saloon. In his haste he bumped into Cort Williams, the new lead man for the Agency in Gomorra. Muttering, "Excuse me," Bob hastily made his escape down the street.
Cort brushed himself off and stepped into the saloon. "How about a whiskey?" Cort asked Charlie Landers as he moved up to the bar. When the shot was poured, he leaned in close to the bartender and asked, "So what was that fella's problem? He looked like a rattler was right about to take a bite out of him."
Clell glared at Cort, but his obvious attempt to stare the lawman down was ignored. Apparently, Cort figured the arrogant brat not worth his time.
"Bob's just a good for nothing yella bastard," Clell answered. "He doesn't do nothin' but panhandle for food and rotgut. Durin' that ruckus with them inbred wizards, there was no sight of him nowhere. I heard he went to Nick's Place and hid in the back room." Clell finished off his third glass of whiskey. "I can't stomach a man that won't defend his home or himself... Bidwell won't even face little Timmy Derrick, and the kid took out his eye! He's spineless."
Clell slammed his glass down on the bar top, to which the bartender just shook his head. "Another one, Charlie," Clell blurted as he slid his glass to the end of the bar. Charlie Landers grabbed a fresh glass and a new bottle of liquor (one of the watered down house specials) and poured Clell another shot. Mixing Clell's anger with alcohol wasn't going to help anyone - and it just might get someone hurt.
"You know, you might want to give old Bob a break," he said as he put the bottle away.
"What for?" Clell asked.
"I'd like to know myself," inserted Cort as he rolled a cigarette.
Charlie picked up a rag and walked down to the far end of the bar, where he polished away a grease spot. "Well, for one thing... " he paused to scratch away what seemed to be a blood stain on the counter, "he was once a brave man, maybe even a hero - at least as far as I'm concerned." Clell broke into howling laughter as Cort shook his head and tried to suppress his own reaction.
"So, little man, are you pulling our legs or what?" Clell barked loudly.
"Nope." Charlie kept wiping.
"Then lets hear all about Mr. Robert Bidwell the hero, already!" Clell's sarcasm was razor sharp. Charlie took a moment to appreciate the whelp's reaction. The thought of Bob as a hero must be eatin' Clell up.
"A few days after the big fight at Lord Grimley's, Bob came around. It was pretty early in the morning... I assumed he was just back from wherever he was hidin'. I was pretty surprised to see him, as he'd been missin' since before the fightin'. I think everyone figured that one of them walkin' skin bags must've gotten him. But he looked fine, and I couldn't see nothin' wrong with him - nothin' more than normal, that is. I was pretty angry at first, figurin' he'd just run off and hid, but he said he'd been up in the hills helpin' Meredith Singleton and her orphan kids."
"So what?" interrupted Clell. "He shoulda' been here helping with those freaks instead of babysittin' a bunch of brats! He was probably lyin' to you anyway, the dang coward!"
Cort finished rolling his cigarette, pulled out a match, and lit it with a single flick of his thumb. Despite himself, he was intrigued. Even if it was a pack of lies, he knew Charlie as a good storyteller.
"Maybe Bob was exaggeratin', but he sure sounded like he was tellin' the truth. We got to talking, and he started tellin' me about his childhood. Said he was from some well-to-do Yankee family - and a genuine lieutenant in the Union Army!"
"The Hell you say!" blurted Clell. Cort simply blinked, amused.
"It's true." Charlie pointed his dirty washcloth at Clell. "He stood in that very spot and told me so! When things started to get weird around here, I think he had a hunch about how bad it was gonna get. He just knew no one would listen and decided to do what he knows best: survive." Charlie put down his rag and moved in over the bar, where he could lower his voice. "He told me he'd seen walkin' dead before. It was early in the war, during some fighting down in Tennessee."
Robert Bidwell's mind was anything but at ease. He couldn't understand how God could levy such a cruel punishment upon anyone - even if divine retribution did include future sins. He had joined the Union Army just four months ago and he'd already seen more death than anyone should ever have to endure.
His family had insisted he join 'The Cause' and save the nation from the bigotry and hate of 'the evil secessionists'. He didn't agree with their fervent political views, but the sizable inheritance he stood to lose if he ignored them urged him to enlist. Fortunately, his family's name (and their pocketbook) ensured that he entered the military with a lieutenant's rank. Robert believed he was destined for greater things; as an enlisted man, all he could have hoped for was a quick death. But his careful planning had not paid-off; under an inept captain's leadership, his unit had met with one disaster after another.
And now, like an omen of yet another impending catastrophe, his unit was caught in a heavy fog that had rolled off the humid Tennessee swamps, with Confederate troops saturating the surrounding terrain. Robert was trying to reconnoiter from the top of a rocky hill, some fifty feet above his men. He knew the enemy was nearby, but the thick, clinging mist kept him from spotting them. As he finally descended to his unit, he heard the terrible order.
"Fire!" Sixty-three Union rifles exploded below him, ripping through the fog in unison. Robert knew it was a mistake. They should just get out, retreat to safety. The cries of their Confederate victims were no more than fifty yards away.
Almost immediately, there was massive return fire from the enemy, followed by mirrored screams and cries from Robert's own men. Scrambling down the remainder of the way to the ground, Robert caught sight of his captain's bloody remains, along with those of many other soldiers. His unit was doing its best to return fire, but it was obvious from the thunderous roar of enemy rifles that they were simply out-numbered. Summoning his wits, Robert retrieved his captain's revolver and ammo pouch, and ordered the men to follow him. Maybe he could lead them to cover and attempt to meet up with other friendly units to the north.
Dodging through the fog, Robert quietly scouted ahead. As he neared the swamps, he sighted two Confederate scouts, about twenty yards from their position. The haze and distant gunfire had concealed his approach, and he took the opportunity to sneak around their flank. When he was as close as he dared, he fired twice in quick succession. Both shots caught their targets, and the Confederates slumped forward in the post. Moving closer, he put a bullet in each soldier's head. "You can't be too careful," he whispered to himself. That was Robert's motto, and it kept him alive. Now that he was in charge, he needed those words to keep the rest of his men alive as well.
When Robert reached the swamp's edge, he came upon a large abandoned shack with an adjacent barn. His men were in dire need of supplies, but the Rebel scouts he'd encountered made him unsure about entering the building's close confines. More Rebs had to be close. Robert ordered his men into the swamp, bypassing the shacks. "I don't want to take any chances," he explained to the tired soldiers. "It may be a trap."
Several of the men disagreed and, with their sergeant's lead, approached the shack anyway. "I order you men to stop and return to your positions!" Robert hissed at them, but they ignored him, closing on the shack. Moments later, rifle fire from inside the structures tore through them.
Clouds of gray smoke further saturated the foggy air. The gunfire continued across the shallow waters, closing on Robert's position. He quickly moved the few survivors deep into the swamp. "Dammit!" he scowled at them. "That's why we can't take any chances!"
Robert led his soldiers north. After four hours of trudging through the muck, the strain of the situation started to take hold. Several times he considered turning command over to one of the other men and heading out on his own, but knew his family would never forgive him. Then he heard gunshots and the screams of a woman. Close.
Summoning his strength, Robert led his men toward the screams, carefully easing toward the source. Seconds later, they came upon a marshy road, where a coach was surrounded by twenty figures. The silhouettes were male, but appeared... odd. A few were missing limbs, or their insides were hanging from the bellies!
Ordering his men to remain where they were, Robert closed for a better look. He didn't know how it was that he managed the strength to keep going, but he did. Crawling to the very edge of the road, Robert stared intently at the mangled figures. Some of their faces seemed to be torn free of their skulls, and many were missing large chunks of skin and muscle. They wore both Union and Confederate uniforms, though all were horribly ravaged. The scene was sickening. And the stench... decay... it was nearly unbearable.
A large tree with low-hanging branches had been knocked over in front of the coach, and blocked the road. The woman was inside, screaming as she thrust at the approaching creatures with what appeared to be an umbrella. A man - presumably her companion - stood atop the stagecoach, swung the butt of a rifle at them, trying his best to keep them at bay. But there were so many of them, and they were already circling to close the perimeter around the carriage.
Robert took a quick mental count of the men with him. Twenty-seven. He couldn't afford to sacrifice any of them for just two people. But then the high-pitched wail of a crying baby echoed out across the waters, and everyone knew what must be done. Robert silently signaled his men to load up and attack. They were exhausted, but moved as swiftly as they could, firing at the creatures with their rifles and then tearing into them with bayonets.
The attack took only moments. The soldiers had the element of surprise on their side, and quickly dispatched the unholy creatures. Another quick count informed Robert that two of his men had gone down during the fighting. Could have been worse, he thought to himself.
But before anyone could breathe a sigh of relief, more of the walking dead were spotted approaching from the swamps, surrounding Robert and his men. They took up a defensive line around the coach, but soon found that several of the zombies which they had just taken down were rising as well, joining in the closing circle. Letting instinct guide him, Robert quickly pulled his sword and charged once more into the fray, chopping the head from one of the creatures and barking orders over his shoulder to get the woman and child to safety.
The man on top of the stagecoach lost his footing as he was climbing down, and fell into a patch of the monsters to Bidwell's right. Three of them were about to tear into the unfortunate fellow when Robert dove in between them, twisting around with sweeping attacks. He felt his sword connect twice, and heard body parts slosh into the swamp waters at his feet. Two of the zombies fell back, one missing its right arm and the other its head. The latter fell into the bog and did not move again.
Robert had no time to pause for breath. More of the creatures were approaching, and several of his men had already fallen. Anger drove him to keep moving; he knew that if he stopped, he would collapse, and all would be lost. He helped the man to his feet and hacked a path away from the stagecoach, heading toward the safety of his remaining troops.
The zombies staggered after the retreating Union troops, and Robert turned to face them. He moved without thinking, hacking away at the monsters to keep them from coming any closer. He was joined by two of his men, one of whom mumbled something about the others falling back. Glancing over his shoulder, Robert noticed with some satisfaction that they were buying the others time; he could see woman, her child, and the rest moving out of sight over a dry ridge behind them.
The following minutes seemed like a lifetime. Bidwell and his two remaining soldiers had almost reached their limit as the relentless dead circled them, looking for an opening. At least the others got away, Bob thought to himself.
As one, the soldiers dove toward three of the zombies, knocking them from their feet and trampling them in an effort to save their own lives. One tripped, stumbled, and was quickly overtaken. Robert valiantly defended the man's remains, but soon had to fall back, leaving the body to be dragged through the murky swamp.
It wasn't until he'd outrun the feasting zombies that Robert realized he was alone. Keeping low to the water, he looked all about, searching for any sign of the others, but they had already moved far into the hills, getting as far from the swamp as they could. Robert would never catch up to them, even if he knew which direction to follow. So he picked a random direction and headed out.
That was the last the Union ever saw of Lieutenant Robert Bidwell.
"Ol' Bob was devastated," Charlie continued. "He'd had enough of the war, of killin', and everythin' else. He traded everythin' he had for passage out here. He said that he felt like too much of a coward to go home... But the way I figure it, he saved three people, and maybe more. That make's him anythin' but a coward to me."
"I'll be damned," Cort finally spoke. "I never woulda guessed he had it in 'im."
Clell shook his head. "Nope. I don't believe it fer a second! That good for nothin' weasel couldn't raise a stick to save himself, let alone against one of them walkin' dead. You ain't foolin' me, Charlie. I can see through your cock-and-bull story." Slamming his glass down, Clell walked over to the poker table, kicking it over. Both players went for their guns.
"Put your pistols away, boys," Cort interrupted. "There won't be any of that today."
Clell burned a gaze into the lawman and stormed out.
"That boy wears his hat too tight," commented Cort, putting on his own. "I've got more business to attend to. Thanks for the story... and the drink."
"Yeah, I heard you were tourin' the local waterin' holes, Mr. Williams. What's goin' on?"
Cort took a moment to answer, looking around the room with a glimmer of regret. "The Union's got me shuttin' down places that breed trouble. And that, my short friend, includes the Fat Chance. You've got two days to vacate the premises."
Stunned for just a second, Charlie almost missed the chance to follow Cort outside, and offer him a sample of his mastery of colorful language. "You low-down, double-dealin', backstabbin', son of a two-bit whore and a diseased goat!" The cursing went on for a while longer, but when it came right down to it, Charlie knew there was no chance of saving the Fat Chance - not when he'd have to go against the Union military. Like Bob Bidwell, Charlie knew when to fight...and when to let the dead rest.