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Blood Drive

Episode 2: High Plains Drovers

Based the Deadlands campaign by John Goff. Adapted by Andrew Roberts. Characters and Setting by Pinnacle Entertainment and Great White Games.

The Story So Far

Bill Sutter was unable to get a fair price for his herd of Longhorns from Bayou Vermilion, the nearest railroad to his ranch, the Lazy S. Refusing to knuckle under, he and his niece Abby Morton chose to drive his beeves north to Denver, hoping to get a better price there than in the crowded cattle market in Dodge City. Five drifters hired on as trail hands to help with the drive, but Bayou Vermilion took exception to this and made attempts to stop them. In the process they brought Sutter back in contact with an old enemy a Comanche shaman known as Black Dog. After a rough time in the western Texas scrubland, a brief stop near Roswell turned sour after an encounter with an apparent spy from the local Confederate fort. The Confederates suspected the drifters of being accomplices to the spy. To avoid getting into a losing fight with the Confederate army, the herd hit the trail again. The drifters ran afoul of Black Dog again near Black Mesa. Fending off attacks by braves from the tribal movement known as the Order of the Raven, and creatures straight from the spiritual world of the Hunting Grounds, the herd and crew passed into Colorado and the Disputed Territories. There they encountered a minor warlord, Colonel Socrates Gault, who seized the herd along with Sutter and several other trail hands. With help from enforcers working for the Black River Railroad Company, the drifters took down the warlord and reached Denver with the herd

Chapter 1 A Change of Plans

Denver, Colorado June 1879
Half a days ride from Denver, the Lazy S crew had been milling about the area for the best part of a week. Bill Sutter had been absent for that time, having been in Denver to get a feel for the local cattle market with his niece, Abby Morton. Gabriella Vasquez, a gunslinger from Tennessee known for her vengeful streak, was riding the edges of the herd and rounding up stragglers. Riding alongside her was Plays with Fire, an Arapaho brave who was fascinated by technology. In the last two months, they had gained more experience with cattle. While it wasnt exactly a glamorous duty, it was much easier than driving stubborn Longhorns over a thousand miles of hostile wilderness. When the trail hands werent patrolling, they were swapping stories around the newly replaced chuck wagon. Father Sam Johnson, a former factory worker turned preacher, had recently been appointed as the trail cook after Javier Ortega was killed during an attack by border raiders under the command of Colonel Socrates Gault. The off-duty trail hands that didnt have any tales were playing cards with Shady Doug Liveaux, a former medical student and travelling gambler from New Orleans who secretly practiced a form of black magic hed discovered hidden within the pages of Edmond Hoyles Book of Games. The last of the drifters was Harvey Edward Millstone, more commonly known as Dr Lightning. He was a somewhat delusional scientist from New York whod travelled west to practise with his bizarre invention, the Aetheric Static Compressor. When he wasnt riding the herd or helping Father Sam maintain the chuck wagon, he was tinkering with his devices and constantly mumbling about them. Every couple of days, some of the trail hands would be cut loose to head into Denver by Luke Canton, Sutters right-hand man and trail boss. Sometimes theyd be sent t o gather supplies. Other times they could go to relax for a while. Even though the offer was always there, the drifters tended not to go that often. Although Shady Doug was eager to win some extra money in Denvers gambling halls, the others were often rel uctant. Gabriella knew that Black Rivers agents were in town, and likely to be looking for her. The same problem applied with Father Sam, wanted by Hellstromme Industries for stealing a Gatling Shotgun from their factory in Deseret before he turned to faith. Plays with Fire was also reluctant, as he preferred the wilderness where could follow the Old Ways. Plus he wasnt really comfortable with being in town, as many saw him as an outsider.

After a few days, Sutter returned to the camp and gathered the crew. It turns out we got here a little late. He addressed, Between herds comin down from the Wyoming Territory and Texas herds that have already hit the market in Dodge, the price of beef is in the outhouse hereabouts. Its only a snakes belly above wh at them Bayou Vermilion varmints were offerin, and this time, thats across the board.

So were stuck then? one of the cowboys asked. Sutter raised his hand for silence. Now, after cogitatin on it a piece, I figure its both good and bad. He explained, Its bad that I aint headin back to Texas a rich man at least not right away. Its good in that theres another herd here that I was able to buy for a little more than a song. On top of that, a feller sold me a Union land grant in the Bighorn Basi n up in Wyoming thats a fair sight larger than my spread on the Brazos. Im sick of dealin with those Bayou Vermilion hooligans, so I took him up on it. I plan to take both herds north and start a new ranch up in the territory. Any of you that wants can ride with me. Those who dont I understand. Youre welcome to any pay thats owed to you with no hard feelings on my part. Half a dozen cowboys stepped forward, agreeing to accompany Sutter north. Luke Canton and Abby Morton also agreed, but the others declined and opted to return to Texas. Im gonna follow the Overland Trail north outta Denver. Sutter explained, Thats gonna cut the western edge of the Sioux Nations before we forge north through Winding River Canyon. Those of you who stayed on will receive $45 a month.

The cowboys cheered at Sutters generous offer. As the crew sorted themselves out, Sutter pulled the drifters aside. You folk have done right by me and Abby from the get go. He told them, To tell the truth, this here deal has put a dent in my wallet. Im gonna need to be hirin more hands as well. Im willin to cut you in for a tenth ownership of my original herd, divided amongst yourselves, in lieu of payment, if you choose to stay on with us. Shady Doug whistled at the proposal; Sutters herd numbered 1300 steers when it had reached Denver, accounting for losses and sales along the way. The drifters were being offered 130 Longhorns. The lord shines down on you, Mr Sutter. Father Sam remarked, But Im sure prices will be high in Wyoming. Youre right. Sutter replied, Ill tell what; Im gonna offer 200 steers for your recent contributions these past months. Things probably aint gonna be any easier north of Mason-Dixon, so thats a generous offer. You can get as much as $40 fo r one Longhorn if you sell them in a favourable market. Thats almost $8000. Gabriella commented, We cant thank you enough. Buying the second herd gives us a total of 2000 Longhorns, but were shorthanded for the trip.

More days went by. Sutter had put out a call for experienced trail hands in Denver, and drifters were flocking to the camp. Both he and Canton were scrutinising them carefully. Many of the newcomers were honest cowboys looking for work, but Canton was still suspicious of many, fearing that they could be rustlers or bandits taking a measure of the crew. The first candidate to be recruited was Colton Wright, a somewhat laid back guitar

playing smart-aleck who always wore a brown derby. Also recruited was a mean boozehound named Tall Murphy and a former chemistry teacher from Back East known as Jimmy the Chemist.

A few days later, the camp was visited by a nondescript unimposing man who seemed dedicated to signing on. As the drifters were resting, he approached them. Howdy folks! He said cheerfully, My names Jay Goodman. Im really looking forward to working with this crew. Are you a trail hand? Shady Doug asked. Hell yeah! Goodman replied, Ive ridden down the Texas Road and the Chisholm Trails a lot of times. What kind of things do you encounter on the Chisholm Trail? Tummy Twisters infecting the herds, Injuns attacking us as we pass Adobe Walls, ghostly judges that lynch the trail hands Goodman listed. I heard about those. Doug commented, Do you know anything about them? I heard only a lawmans bullet can put em down. There was couple of other stuff too While Goodman was answering the questions, Gabriella was scrutinising him closely. She had a distinct feeling that he wasnt being completely square with them.

As the day went on, Goodman continued to chat up the trail crew. He recalled anecdotes from his drives, monopolising conversations to some extent and barely letting other parties getting words in. He also entertained the others with cigars, chewing tobacco, a flask of whiskey, a deck of cards, and a small roll of cash, playing to their vices. As he played, he established a rapport with Shady Doug. What happened when you went through Texas? he asked them during a card game. The usual array of threats. Gabriella replied bluntly. Whyd you come to Denver? We wanted to get away from Bayou Vermilions monopoly on the cattle trade. Abby told him, We were gonna make sales at Roswell but werent successful. What happened? Did you have some kind of encounter? I dont know what you mean. Shady Doug answered. Well, when we came across the Hanging Judges on the Chisholm Trail I had a rough encounter with a Texas Ranger. Hank One Eye Ketchum was his name. He kicked my ass for trying to investigate the mystery behind the Judge.

The Chisholm Trail is nowhere near Roswell. Tall Murphy informed him.

In the late afternoon, Goodman was preparing to take his leave. It was a time and a half. He told the drifters, Im sure your boss will keep me in mind if work opens up. As he was leaving, Gabriella pulled him out of sight behind the chuck wagon, holding her bowie knife to his throat. No one has ever been that outgoing when applying for trail work. She hissed, I want answers and I want them now! Thats not necessary. Goodman replied, What do you take me for? Youve been asking too many questions. Gabriella stated. For all I know, youre scouting us out for rustlers. Now spill the beans before I spill your guts! She pressed the blade to his throat tightly. Goodman was trembling like a leaf. Whatever his agenda, he was no martyr. Im a spy for Union Blue! he stuttered as the other drifters investigated the commotion, Im just making sure youre all who you say you are since youre passing the Uni on Blue line. And why are you interested in Roswell? Gabriella demanded. Word reached the railroad that a Wasatch spy broke into the Confederates base there. Goodman explained, They heard about your dust-up with the army. Hes telling the truth. Father Sam told Gabriella, Only one of Hellstrommes agents would carry Deseret bank notes in New Mexico. You see? That wasnt so hard. Gabriella noted, Now scram! They watched the spy take off back to Denver. Shady Doug took another look at the paper hed taken from the body of the spy in Roswell. Father Sam examined the illustration and the annotations. It looks like a schematic for Hellstrommes automatons. Father Sam explained, It looks like the Confederate army was attempting to reverse engine er one. How would that work? Plays asked. I dont know. Sam replied, I only worked on the chassis, not the interior. Ive never seen them in action.

The following day, Sutter led the herd on the new drive.

Chapter 2 Outbreak!
Thanks to a little amount of good animal husbandry and large amount of luck, none of Sutters herd had been afflicted by any serious parasites. Unfortunately, the previous owner of the herd hed acquired in Denver was not so lucky. A week out of Denver, the crew was nearing the South Platte River. Father Sam was driving the chuck wagon, while the other drifters had been promoted to flank riders. Shady Doug was riding close to the herd on his horse, Baron. As he rode, he noticed one of the Longhorns staggering to a stop and falling over. Is everything alright there? Sutter called. One of the Longhorns just collapsed! Dr Lightning called back, Maybe it just stumbled! Despite the inventors premature response, Shady Doug went to examine the steer. While a Longhorn stumbling or even dying wasnt unusual, they had been travelling through good grazing country, there wasnt a water shortage, and their pace had been fairly leisurely. As such, the situation seemed out of the ordinary. When he dismounted for a closer look, he saw the Longhorns abdomen moving spastically in and out, almost fluttering as if it was struggling for breath. He examined the beasts head. There were no definite signs of life: Its eyes were rolled back into its head, its lips were pulled back from teeth, and its tongue was protruding slightly from its mouth. Furthermore, there was no movement in the steers nostrils to indicate that it was still breathing. While Doug was performing his impromptu autopsy, the sound of snorts and squeals erupted throughout the herd as more Longhorns stumbled and collapsed. Almost a dozen had simply fallen over and died, leaving the trail hands scratching their heads. Doug continued to examine them. Within moments, a tick the size of a mans fist burst from the Longhorns stomach. Prairie ticks! Murphy shouted as more of the engorged and blood -soaked parasites chewed their way out of the bellies of the other dead steers, pieces of entrails dangling from their hooked legs. Nausea overcame Plays with Fire as he watched the ticks crawl out of the carcasses and onto the ground. Fortunately, their bladders were filled to the bursting point with cows blood, so all they could do was crawl. Another trail hand, Bob Epps, dismounted and stomped on one of them, reeling back in disgust as its sac burst and sprayed its hellish contents up his leg. Several other trail hands reached for their pistols. No, dont! Gabriella cried, but it was futile. One of the cowboys fired off a single shot in fear. The herd, already nervous from the smell of blood in the air, immediately panicked and broke into a stampede. Ohmerde! Doug cried out. As he was examining one of the dead beeves, he was standing right in the middle of the herd as they began to panic. He was able to dive for cover, but not before being kicked by several beeves as they thundered past. Gabriella and Plays joined the other trail hands as they tried to calm the herd down, turning back the

lead steers by riding in arcs in front of them. By the end of the afternoon, the stampede had halted and the steers were rounded up again. Shady Doug was back on his horse riding to meet Sutter. Thankfully, he had only suffered a couple of bumps and bruises from the kicks, but he had been somewhat rattled. Ill live. He told the others, But we should check the other steers for any signs of the ticks. While examining the lost cattle, the other hands had noticed small lacerations on the steers lips from when the ticks had first crawled into their mouths. Doug hadnt noticed these when he examined them, but they were at least a week old and had mostly healed over. Youre suggesting that we check the mouths of every steer for scratches that are hard to see. Sutter told him bluntly, Thatll take several days to clear the herd and by that time, those which were affected will be dead. Besides, theres not much we can do about it anyway except watch em die or put em down. Doug contemplated Sutters words and nodded in understanding, trotting back to his position on the flank. Fortunately, only three more steers were killed by prairie ticks the morning after the first outbreak. No further losses followed.

Chapter 3 At the Gates of Hades

It had transitioned to mid-summer, so the weather had taken a turn for the milder and lessened the threat of challenging river crossings. The Lazy S crew was able to ford the South Platte River near the stagecoach stop at Latham Station with minimal trouble. The route to the Wyoming Territory looked clear. Even the on-going guerrilla warfare that plagued the Disputed Territories was getting quieter the further north they travelled. After a couple of days, the drifters were slowly beginning to relax. Until Sutter made his announcement that evening: I want everyone to be on their toes for this part of the stretch. He advised, Well be in the vicinity of Camp Hades. Oh Lord. Father Sam muttered, I cant afford to have any run -ins with Hellstrommes flock. Dont panic, Sutter replied, The Overland Trail runs some distance west of the Wasatch encampment. That should prevent any unwanted entanglements with any rail gangs in the area.

There wasnt much relief at Sutters claims. Camp Hades was a heavily fortified railroad camp owned by Wasatch, the company owned by Professor Darius Hellstromme to fund his inventions back at his laboratories and factories in Salt Lake City. The mighty fortress protected the eastern entrance of a mighty tunnel which would run under the Rocky Mountains all the way to California. Since this could be an ideal target for the other rail barons, Hellstromme ordered the construction of a camp manned by his enforcers, including the feared X-Squads, steam-powered automatons, Gatling guns, and cannons.

As the herd moved along the trail, the drifters were looking over their shoulders. On the horizon, they noticed a group of heavily armed gunmen shadowing them from the higher ground. As they looked a second time, the group had moved on. The trail hands, including the drifters, were jittery. They were afraid that rustlers were observing them. Sutter himself was not worried. He knew this was another effect of being in the vicinity of Camp Hades; the armed groups were obviously scouts working for the other rail barons keeping an eye on the activity in the area. The group monitoring them had obviously determined that the Lazy S crew did not pose a serious threat.

Two days after the herd crossed the South Platte, a devilish howl pierced the air. Everyone recognised it as the sound of burning ghost rock. A steam wagon was churning across the rolling terrain towards the herd. From a distance, it looked bulky and oddly shaped, moving slowly in an ominous way. Obviously, it was not one of the commercial models sold by Smith and Robards. Sutter turned to the drifters.

See what those folks want before they get closer. He instructed, I dont want that contraption scaring the herd.

The drifters turned their horses and rode to confront the approaching steam wagon. As they rode closer, they discovered that the vehicle was heavily armoured, including a drivers bench surrounded by steel plating. When the drifters reached the wagon, they found themselves staring down the business end of the barrels of a manned Gatling gun mounted behind the drivers compartment. While the gunner wasnt tracking the drifters, they still got an eyeful of the weapons barrels. The steam wagon came to a halt a short distance from the drifters. A tall, thin man dressed in a long, steel-grey coat stepped down from the passenger side. His gaze was solely focused on the drifters. He dismounted and marched up the drifters in a determined manner, carrying a pistol-like device attached to a backpack. Guten tag. I am Jrgen Emmerich, a representative of the Wasatch Railroad Company. He said with the warmth and personality of cold steel. It has come to my attention that you or one of your fellowcowboys is in possession of property of an intellectual nature that belongs to the Wasatch Railroad. What property? Gabriella asked. Emmerich hushed her. This property is of tremendous value to my employer and he would like it returned posthaste. Of course, the perceived value of the property warrants that I render adequate remuneration on his behalf for your efforts in seeing it safely here. Ill ask again. Gabriella said, What property are you talking about? Emmerich gave them a look of exasperation. The exact nature of said property is not something I am at liberty to discuss. However, acourier in our employ was en route to deliver this property when he ran afoul of Confederate interdiction forces in the vicinity of Roswell, New Mexico. Other sources have informed us that the Confederates did not recover our property. The drifters looked at him blankly. The same sources have also provided that this herd the Lazy S, correct? And its crew were the only others in the vicinity at that time. Again, we would appreciate the return of our property. Failure to do so would not be looked upon favourably, of course. How much are you offering? Shady Doug asked. The railroad is willing to pay the sum of $1000 in whatever currency you require for the information. Emmerich answered. Shady Doug produced the blueprint from his pocket and handed it to Emmerich. The representative examined them before throwing them aside.

I will not pay for these forgeries! He snapped, turning sharply and returning to the steam wagon, which departed in a cloud of dust. Even though the drifters were correct in assuming that the Confederates were attempting to create their own mechanical man, Emmerich had a diffe rent impression. Hellstrommes spy in Roswell was sent to confirm a belief that the Confederacy had been able to partially decipher the secret of the automatons. Even though the spy was killed trying to escape, Wasatch had learned that the Confederates did not recover any documents, and the Lazy S crew were the only others in the area. When the pieces were put together, Wasatch sent Emmerich to recover the documents. Unfortunately, Emmerich had already decided that the Lazy S crew was to be eliminated. After all, they could have already made copies of the documents.

In the middle of the night, Gabriella was waking up to relieve Shady Doug of night watch duty when she heard some unusual noises: the snorts of frightened cattle at the western edge of the herd half a mile away from the camp. She woke the other drifters up, leading them to mount and investigate. Several Longhorns lay dead in the area, with large holes in their sides. Do you think that weve had more prairie ticks? Plays asked. Shady Doug examined the carcasses and shook his head. These wounds have come from an outside trauma. He reported, I doubt that theyre ticks. Plays nodded in agreement. In the poor lighting, he could make out a large number of small indentations around the dead steers. Almost immediately, the sound of more frightened steers arose not far away. The drifters ran to investigate. The steers were being attacked by five mysterious creatures. As the drifters looked closer, they could see them: a group of spiders the size of small dogs, similar to those which they had encountered back in Texas. However, these spiders werent organic creatures; they were mechanical constructs that were attacking the Longhorns with acid sprays. Plays with Fire readied his bow and fired an arrow at one of the spiders. The arrow hit the tarantulas carapace, but failed to penetrate the metal plates that covered it. The other spiders moved to engage the drifters with their acid sprays. Shady Doug concentrated. A pair of jacks materialised in his hand. He concealed them with a nifty shuffle while flinging another card from his sleeve with devastating force. The spider collapsed, releasing a burst of acid from its head. Gabriella fired a shot with her Peacemaker. The bullet ricocheted off the spiders casing. Dr Lightning immediately fired up his Aetheric Static Compressor. The burst of electricity hit all four remaining spiders, putting them out of action. Father Sam examined the attackers. There was no clue to how they worked. These spiders are one of Hellstrommes creations. He explained, Whatevers in their heads seems to have been destroyed.

Was I too enthusiastic in stopping them? Dr Lightning asked. No. It looks like they released acid into their casings to dissolve the mechanisms that made them run. It was probably meant to stop people figuring out how theyre made.

The following morning, the drifters were once again met by Emmerich. So youre the one who sent those tarantulas after our herd. Gabriella said accusingly. Tarantulas? I sent no such thing. Emmerich lied, If youre going to accuse me of that, I would like to see these alleged contraptions. He knew full well the defence mechanisms on the spiders would shield him from claiming responsibility. Perhaps some of our inventions fell into the wrong hands and were released on your cattle. That would be a terrible event if it occurred, of course. Having seen how dire possible outcomes from these circumstances can be, Im sure that you understand my interest in recovering my employers property. I would hate to see any further calamity befall your efforts. We have those blueprints if theyre what youre looking for. Father Sam explained. It is my firm belief that you are withholding information. Emmerich stated, I do not have the patience for your foolish and obstinate ways. Once again, he departed in his steam wagon.

An hour later, the crew had been continuing along the trail. The smell of cattle and horses was prevalent, but the drifters had picked up a distinct odour of smoke in the air. A few minutes later, a large grass fire was approaching rapidly from the east. Gabriella and Plays joined the other crew hands as they tried to keep the skittish cattle under control. While the herd was already moving away from the fire by their own accord, the crew were ensuring that they didnt stampede.

Once the herd was under control and away from the fire, Plays rode back to investigate. He could make out the tracks in the ash. The fire had obviously been started deliberately. He returned to the crew. I dont think a fire would burn that fiercely in its own. He told Sutter. Maybe someone got careless with a cigar. Jimmy the Chemist replied. I doubt it. A cigar wouldnt burn up that quickly. It was probably a flamethrower. Father Sam deduced, Theres no doubt to who the culprits are.

Chapter 4 Death from Above

It was the morning after the wildfire. The crew was still driving the herd when Emmerichs steam wagon once again appeared on the horizon. Sutters fists clenched as it appeared. He called the drifters over. Ive had up to here with that slicker. He grumbled, Go talk to him. Ill send some men with you. The drifters all walked slowly towards the approaching steam wagon, accompanied by ten other cowboys. Above the noise of the steam wagons burning ghost rock was the sound of bullets being chambered into revolvers and rifles. Father Sam had his Gatling shotgun primed and ready. Dr Lightnings equipment was humming. Play with Fire readied his tomahawk.

Emmerich was not taken by the crews show of force. He remained seated on the steam wagons open-topped drivers compartment. His patience had worn thin. I see there were somefurther difficulties, yesterday. He addressed, I truly wish we could have reached an accommodation. Unfortunately, the truth is that my employers could never have been certain of our discretion even if we came to an agreement. So, I suppose this outcome was inevitable. He raised his left hand. Immediately, a Wasatch X-Squad streaked up into the sky from behind a distant hill. Lines of smoke streamed behind their rocket packs as they leapfrogged towards the herd. Simultaneously, an auto-gyro appeared around the base of the hill, flying only a few dozen feet above the ground as it closed in on the herd. Pull back! Emmerich barked unexpectedly, Well lead them to lions mouth and claim the bounty on the preacher! Plays with Fire had readied his bow and fired off an arrow at the trouble-shooter. Emmerich fell from the top of the steam wagon, but was relatively unharmed. He pulled the arrow out, which hand failed to penetrate the ghost-steel shavings lining his vest. The other cowboys scattered behind the rocks as the steam wagons gunner opened fire with the Gatling gun. Gabriella fanned the hammer of her Peacemaker, but the bullets simply ricocheted off the wagons armour plating. Emmerich returned fire with his Electrostatic gun, firing a bolt of electricity at Gabriella. As the gunslinger dodged it, Dr Lighting fired a burst from his Aetheric Static Compressor at the wagon. While it dealt minimal damage to the wagon itself, both the driver and the gunner were fatally electrocuted. The steam wagon rolled out of control into the nearby hillside and exploded.

By this time, the other Wasatch forces had arrived. The X-Squad troopers opened fire on the cowboys with Gatling pistols. Around the same time, the autogyro pilot was dropping bundles of dynamite onto the biggest concentrations of people. The cowboys who returned fire were failing to dispatch the X-Squads, their bullets not penetrating their armour. Abby had raised her Winchester and fired multiple shots. Several stray rounds damaged some of their jetpacks, sending them flying out of control before exploding. The drifters were outnumbered. Those who were in cover were targeted by the autogyro crew. When they ran out to get clear of the dynamites blast radius, the X-Squad troopers carved them up. Shady Doug prepared another mental duel with the spirits who gave him his power. The bullets curved around him as an invisible force field deflected them. He prepared to throw a bolt at the autogyro, only for his mental game to backfire. Eldritch power flowed through his nervous system. He cried out in pain. Meanwhile, Sutter and the other cowboys already had their hands full. The pitched battle had prompted the herd to stampede, and they were trying to control them under heavy fire.

As the battle progressed, the drifters and the cowboys were being overpowered by Emmerichs men. At the same time, more trouble was on the way: One of Hellstrommes automatons was chugging over the hill. This was a humanoid war machine with a ghostrock boiler housed in its torso which stomped across the fields with piston-driven limbs. It opened fire on the drifters with the Gatling gun built into its arm. Although the trail crew was outmatched, they werent alone. A contingent of riders appeared on the hills and opened fire on the X-Squad. Gabriella watched them advance before rolling behind a rock to avoid the automatons fire. S he grabbed a discarded Winchester and took aim. Her shot entered the automatons cylindrical head. The terrifying machine clunked forwards before falling to the ground. Before anybody could approach, the automatons defence mechanisms caused it to self -destruct. Emmerich watched as the new band of riders helped the cowboys beat back his men. He raised his Electrostatic gun and fired at the group. A ball of lightning resembling St Elmos fire emitted from the device. It travelled towards the attackers before erupting in a burst of electrical energy. Emmerich sneered before turning his tail and running. The autogyro flew away to meet him.

The trail crew were busy picking up the pieces when the riders met them. The herd had been calmed down, but almost a quarter of the hands had been killed. Luke Canton was among them. Gabriella watched as Father Sam administered the last rites. Shady Doug was propped against the chuck wagon, recovering from the backlash he had suffered. The riders had stayed to help bury the dead. Jay Goodman approached the drifters. He had been accompanying the riders. I know what you will be asking. He told Gabriella, So let me explain: These men are from Union Blue, normally watching Camp Hades. Weve been keeping tabs on the herd

ever since you left Denver. We couldnt approach until we knew you werent in cahoots with Wasatch. That little skirmish was the proof we needed. Gabriella felt a surge of anger at Goodmans explanation, but it was nonetheless true. She was angry that Emmerich was able to escape them. She wanted to take care of him before he came back. Goodman could tell she was thinking that. Her frontier name was Vendetta Vasquez after all. Dont bother going after that mad doctor. He told her, I doubt his bosses will take the fact that he failed too kindly. Leave him be. So the Confederates were trying to replicate the automaton. Father Sam deduced. If they did crack their secret, theres nothing they can do about it now. Goodman suggested, Youd best get away from here. My boys will keep Wasatch away.

The rest of the journey through the Disputed Territories was uneventful. Sutter and Abby were despondent over Cantons death. The drifters were feeling guilty about it too. After all, it was Canton who had sent them to investigate where the spy had landed.

The drive continued in silence. Nobody felt like talking. Plays with Fire seemed to be getting increasingly uneasy. Father Sam was the first to notice. Plays? he asked, Is something troubling you? Ive been thinking about that fight with Wasatch. He replied, I now understand the dangers of technology. What do you mean? I was sent west by my shaman because of my interest in technology. Plays explained, Now that I have seen the dangers first-hand, my work is done. Are you saying? Gabriella began. Yes. I am finished here. I must return home and tell the tribe what I have seen. He handed Gabriella a small trinket. Take this. He said, Its so youll remember me. With that, he turned Devil Eyes and rode away.

Chapter 5 Into the Nations

Several weeks passed. By this time, the herd had left the Disputed Territories and crossed over into Wyoming. While the chances of partisan attacks had gone, Sutter was still worried. Okay folks, he addressed, Weve almost cleared the Overland Trail, but were due to cross a portion of the Sioux Nations. There were nervous mutterings amongst the crew. They were all aware that the Sioux were protective of their land. Sutter raised his hand for silence. Well try and skedaddle across the very corner of the Nations. He continued, If everything plays out well, we can be in Wind River Canyon before the Injuns know we were in their land. Everyone nodded in agreement. Gabriella chambered more rounds into her Peacemaker.

While Sutter was hopeful, his crew had to respect the fact they were trying to move through territory unnoticed, while escorting a herd of just under two thousand Longhorns. Two days into the journey, Gabriella caught notice of several small bands of Indians. They were shadowing the herd from a distance. It looks like a war party. Plays observed. They both rode over in the hopes of a parley. The band swiftly rode away into the wilderness. Weve been spotted. Gabriella informed Sutter. Theyre only a small band. Sutter replied, They wont risk attacking us. Well have double the watch at night though. Its best to be prepared.

As the crew camped down for the night, the drifters were on watch. Doug was trying his best to stay awake while Dr Lightning was still muttering about his inventions. As they were on watch, five Sioux braves were sneaking into the camp and making their way towards the Remuda. Gabriella was the first to notice them. She whistled for the others. The braves heard the whistle and turned to face them. Two of them carried ornate wooden sticks. They attempted to touch Gabriella and Father Sam with them before fleeing into the night. Gabriella prepared to give chase with Mina, her trusty steed. Sutter grabbed her shoulder Let them go. He said, Theyre just trying to count coup. What does that mean? Gabriella asked. They touch one of their opponents with an ornate stick. Its meant to be a display of bravery.

Whats happening? One of the other cowboys asked groggily as he wok e up. Sutter was right about the war party. Doug replied, We caught them trying to steal some horses.

The journey continued. Once again, the war party was following the herd from a distance during the day. Once again, they tried to sneak into the camp at night to steal horses and count coup. On some nights, they even tried to stampede the herd. However, like before, they fled into the night whenever the drifters tried to confront them.

Three more days passed. The trial crew found themselves at the North Platte River near the Oregon Trail. Shady Doug was riding Warrior, the horse Plays originally had, while his own horse rested. The brave had left him the horse when he claimed Devil Eyes and returned home. The trail hands riding point were too late to notice a patch of quicksand on the bank of the river. As a result, four cattle stumbled into the pool and began to sink before the crew could divert the rest. Get them outta there! Sutter commanded. The drifters immediately rode forwards. They were due to own part of the herd after all. Lariats were thrown to the cattle. Shady Doug tried to pull one of the Longhorns out. His less than obedient mount stumbled into the quicksand. Gabriella moved to help him. Doug used all his strength to try and climb out. He wasnt able to free himself, but he had stopped himself from sinking further. Gabriella pulled him out, but they were unable to stop Warrior from being sucked under the surface. There was nothing they could do. The Longhorns were a more pressing matter. By the time they were pulled out, Warrior had drowned.

It was only a minor loss, so nobody mourned for long. The damage had been done, but the hazard had been dealt with. The rest of the herd was diverted around the quicksand with minimal effort.

Not long after clearing the river, the crew got their first look at the Oregon Trail after cresting a rise. The drifters were in awe. Not from the trail itself, this was nothing more than a pair of deeply rutted wagon wheel tracks, but from the large contingent of Sioux on the opposite side of the ruts that blocked the herds progress north. I think they want us to follow the trail. Sutter theorised, Maybe thats how they want folks passin through? The drifters had no choice but to agree. The war party had been following them all the way through their land, and their numbers had grown each day. They were outnumbered five to one, possibly more.

Once the herd was moving along the Oregon Trail, the Sioux began to flank them to the north and south, while a rear guard followed them close behind. The crew was keeping the herd to the vicinity of the trail, and the Indians seemed content to pace them. Gabriella was riding point. As she viewed the trail, she could make out the tracks to be from a sizeable group of wagons, horses, and walkers. These are fresh tracks. She deduced, Theyre from at least a few days. Id say there were six wagons. Sutter replied, Possibly more.

The Sioux escort remained with the herd throughout the day and kept watch over them that night. The following morning, Gabriella caught sight of an old fort beside the trail. The rest of the crew spotted it before she could tell them; they had seen the smoke rising from inside the walls, a possibility that the fort was inhabited. An almighty cheer came from the crew. Sutter and the drifters were not rejoicing, and they were right not to.

The fort was in a state of disrepair. Significantly large holes were in the palisades. The gates were propped up with some of the broken segments. There were several figures atop the walls observing the herd. The trail crew could immediately tell that they were not soldiers. As the drifters led the herd towards the ramshackle fort, they found the Sioux blocking any further progress. The Indians drove them towards the fort while simultaneously widening their cordon. They were trapped, shepherded to an area roughly one mile in diameter centred on the fort. Their pen was ringed by a growing horde of Sioux warriors.

As the herd settled down, a small group of men came out of the fort. They looked like pioneers. Leading them was a grey-bearded man in a flannel shirt and weathered plainsman hat. Boy, are we glad to see you folks! He said excitedly, Its the first bit of luck weve had in a while. Those Injuns corralled us here a few days ago, and we aint seen any other white folks since then. Weirdest thing, though. They aint attacked us, not even a feint. They just sit over there in the distance and watch. Who are you folks? Sutter asked. Im Rudolph Jovich. The pioneer introduced, Im the wagon master. Have you tried meeting with them? Shady Doug asked. Rudolph pointed at a few corpses in the distance. Anyone that tries to leave the encirclement gets feathered with so many arrows he looks like an oversized pincushion. He explained, Were afraid to go round em up for fear of catchin a few arrows ourselves.

The drifters wandered into the fort. Nearly 30 settlers were camped inside. The fort itself was as ramshackle on the inside as it was on the outside. The interior buildings were nothing more than an occasional wall or door frame. Large sections of the palisade had fallen down in several places. Wagons had been moved in front of the wall breaches to block them. A few of the pioneers were patrolling atop the remaining wall sections, armed with shotguns or muzzle-loading rifles. Their families had set up living quarters in their wagons or in the half-dozen battered tents. We were heading to Oregon when the Sioux caught us a few days ago. Rudolph to ld them, Ive no idea why they trapped us here. They have made no attempt to contact us.

The drifters were unsettled at the tale. As they pondered, they noticed one family gathered together which was looking more grief-stricken than the rest. What bad luck did you run into previously? Father Sam asked. Thats the Bowers family. Rudolph answered, They lost their grandmother to consumption just outside of Laramie. To be honest, I thought she was too frail to be makin the trip in the first place. Anyways, that cost us a few days, what with her laid up sickand then the burial. You have our condolences. Gabriella said quickly. Father Sam made a sign of the cross with his hand. Heres the part Ive been delayin. Before we ran into the Injuns, a few folks started showin signs of illness smallpox, to be exact. Three have died from it since weve been trapped at the fort. Weve set up a cemetery round back. I reckon the Injuns are keepin us bottled up until we fill it. How many of you are carrying? Shady Doug queried. Weve got four showin the symptoms. Rudolph told him, pointing to a tent in the back of the ruins. The drifters were even more unsettled.

If the disease or the arrows dont kill us, the starvation will.

Chapter 6 - Quarantine
Well be camping a short distance from the ruins. Sutter informed the drifters, The last thing we want is to shelter in a fort with folks brimming with disease. Thats understandable. Gabriella commented as the crew was assembled. I want four people on night watch every night. Sutter addressed, Two pairs will patrol the perimeter in opposite directions as usual.

As night fell, most of the trail hands were asleep, including the drifters. A dozen scalphungry braves were making their way towards the camp. Leading them was Black Dog. He had been trailing the herd ever since their skirmish on Black Mesa, slowly recovering from the wound he had sustained. Now the herd was in the Sioux Nations, he had seen a chance. He had convinced the Sioux to trap them with the pioneers, but his patience had worn thin over the weeks. Black Dogs party had been able to bypass the trail hands on watch, and was prepared to focus his wrath on the drifters. Several braves crept up and prepared to cut their throats as they slept. Shady Doug, always a heavy sleeper, was nearly caught unaware when Gabriella woke up suddenly. She grabbed a blade-wielding arm mere inches away from her neck and threw the attacking brave into the one trying to jump Shady Doug. The other braves ran to attack her. Gabriella drew her Peacemaker and fired off a wild shot. The other drifter woke up quickly and confronted the war party.

Black Dog had subdued several cowboys by making them glimpse into the Hunting Grounds. As they tried to flee in panic, he prepared to cut Sutters throat with his Bowie knife. Gabriella quickly threw her own knife into his torso. Black Dog cried out in pain and turned to face her. She quickly pulled the knife out of him before knocking him to the ground. As she raised her Peacemaker, another brave attempted to jump her, giving Black Dog a chance to turn into a coyote and scurry away. As he fled, the remaining braves also retreated into the night.

The following morning, the Lazy S Crew was looking over the damage caused by the night attack. While eating breakfast, the drifters noticed a procession leaving the fort. Shady Doug got up and approached them. Whats happened? He asked Jovich. Another person has died from the plague. The frontiersman explained, Worse, two m ore people have been afflicted. Ill see if Father Sam will run a service. Doug promised.

Doug! A voice called from the trail crews camp. It was Abby. She was running to where Doug and Jovich were standing. What is it? We need you back at the camp. She told him, Coltons fallen ill. I think it may be smallpox. You said you were a trainee doctor. What about your new carriers? Doug asked Jovich, Do they have smallpox too? Jovich nodded. Shady Doug was unsettled by the response. Thats odd. He muttered, Smallpox does not spread that fast.

Father Sam was tending to the feverish Colton. The unfortunate trail hand was afflicted with a heavy rash. Shady Doug examined him. Its definitely smallpox. He said solemnly, But its a more virulent f orm. Can you arrange for some divine intervention, Pere? Im afraid not. Father Sam replied, The time to do that is when the disease first sets in. I may be able to try though. He kneeled down and said a short prayer. Nothing happened. Father Sam got up and walked away, sitting by the chuck wagon in quiet contemplation. Shady Doug watched him moping before turning back to the patient. He looked at the blisters on Coltons ankle. Some of the pockmarks looked out of place from the others. In fact, they didnt look like pox blisters at all; they resembled puncture wounds. He ran to find the others.

Most of the trail hands were spending the day trying to sit out of the blistering sun. Gabriella was consulting with Sutter and Abby. Theres no water source here. She informed them, How did a trade with Jovich go? Not well. Abby replied, His people are running low on supplies. To be honest, most folks are uneasy about trading with them. We dont want another outbreak of the pox. The water barrel on the chuck wagons full. Sutter added, But we have to share it between the herd and the trail hands. It wont last for another few days. Father Sam will be having difficulties cooking. All we have is hard tack. Abby mentioned. Why are being kept here? Gabriella pondered, Surely the Sioux would be after our scalps right now. Do you think Black Dog had something to do with this? Its possible. Sutter answered, They only seem to attack when someone tries to sneak away. If Plays was here, do you think he could parley with them? I think weve been trapped with something. Shady Doug interrupted.

The three turned and raised their brows at his suggestion. I saw some puncture wounds on Coltons leg. He explained, They must have been concealed by his sores. Puncture wounds? Gabriella asked in bewilderment. I think its something to do with the pioneers. Something is among them. It may actually be a vampire. Gabriella and Abby both stared at him. They werent buying his story at all. On the other hand, Sutter was contemplating it carefully. He had seen a lot of things that he didnt understand, both during his days in the army and when he was running the ranch back in Texas. I think you may be right. He said ominously.

It was late in the afternoon. Jovich and his party were watching Sutters group as they dug up the graves to the north of the fort. We wish to examine your pox victims. Doug had explained to him, I believe that I have found a pattern in the spread of the disease. The trail crew had been surprised when he consented to the groups proposal to exhume the victims bodies. Like Doug, he was also suspicious of how fast the smallpox had been spreading. It was tiring work to dig up the shallow graves in the blazing sun. A strong smell of sweat permeated the air, but for some reason, the smell of decomposition wasnt big. Father Sam was digging hard when he unearthed the first body. As expected, it was covered with sores. What wasnt expected was that the corpse burst into flames and was re duced to dust the moment it came into contact with the sunlight. Father Sam made the sign of the cross. We are facing a creature of pure evil. He said hysterically, These are unholy creatures of the night which carry the pox. Lets not jump to conclusions, Reverend. Jovich interrupted. No. Shady Doug replied, Im afraid that he is right. These plague vampires could explain why the smallpox was travelling so quickly. Perhaps this is why the Sioux have trapped us here. We have been quarantined. As he spoke, the trail crew dug up the other graves. Once again, the corpses burnt up as soon as the sunlight hit them. There may be more. Father Sam warned, We should prepare.

How do we prepare? Gabriella asked. I might have an idea. Shady Doug began, When I was still living in New Orleans, I met a fellow student from Romania who told me tales about vampires. He talked about them being unholy beings which were fended off by symbols of religion. Reverend, do you have a crucifix? Sutter asked. Fath er Sam nodded and held it out. We need crucifixes, bibles, crosses, anything to represent our faith! Sutter called to everybody in the immediate vicinity. We might not be able to kill them with that, but it will scare them away. Doug replied, We know that sunlight kills them, as we saw that on hand. Maybe we could hold them at bay until dawn. Theyll be flambed as they are caught in the sunlight. Im all for that. Dr Lightning said enthusiastically. But we dont know how many of these things there are. Gabriella warned, Surely there is another way. Well, the traditional way to kill a vampire is to drive a wooden stake through their heart. Doug explained, But Im sure that most would be reluctant to get close. I dont care. Sutter replied, We should kill whatever ungodly abomination is spreading this, and then we can figure out how to get out of here. That thing will come tonight. Jovich deduced, And when it does, well be ready for it.

Chapter 7 Curing the Plague

As night fell, Gabriella and Father Sam were on patrol. It was late at night and the rest of the camp had settled in. As they looked sharply, they could make out a figure weaving through the herd towards the vicinity of the sleeping trail crew. They watched closely. The figure stood over Shady Doug as he slept, and was preparing to feed. Gabriella drew her Peacemaker and shot it in the back. Unphased, the figure turned to face her. She waved her torch towards it. In the light of the flame, she made out a hideous face which bore the pus-filled lesions of a smallpox carrier, along with a mouth which had sharp fangs in place of teeth. The creature lunged towards Gabriella, when Father Sam stepped forwards with a crucifix held high. The creature was repulsed, as if the crucifix was preventing from approaching. Its here! A shout emerged, Jovich and the other members of his party emerged from the fort with torches and rifles. The creature lunged towards them. Several of the group were unsettled and retreated back into the fort, but the more hardy members forced the abomination back with bibles and crosses. It was caught in a bottleneck, but nobody was willing to approach it out of fear of infection. You must drive a stake through its heart! Shady Doug called, Its the best way to kill it! Nobody came any closer to the creature. Maybe theres another way. Abby called back. Perhaps holy water could do the trick. Father Sam suggested. No. We need to save the water in the chuck wagons. Sutter replied. I have an idea! Gabriella cried, If all else fails, kill it with fire! She swung her torch at the vampire, hitting it in the side of the torso. The unholy creature burst into flames, but was unable to escape as everybody held it bay with their holy symbols. With nowhere to go, it slowly burnt to ashes.

Everybody watched as the creature died. Everybody who has been infected is to be buried with a stake through their heart. Shady Doug ordered, I know many will object, but our reverend friend will agree with me that it shall free their souls. Everyone nodded in agreement.

Both the trail crew and the frontier party spent the next few days watching over their numbers who had been infected with smallpox. One by one, they succumbed to the

sickness, and were given the new burials as per Dougs instructions. Eventually, all the carriers had been taken care of. The morning after the last carrier was staked, Gabriella woke early to find that the ring of Indians surrounding the area had disappeared. A lone rider was approaching. To her surprise, it was Plays with Fire. Plays? she inquired as the other trail hands joined her. I decided to return. The Indian explained, I followed your tracks to the fort and tried to reach you, but I was barred by the local tribes. Why were they keeping us here? Sutter asked, Did you get to meet any of the shamans? Yes. It seems that they had detected the presence of a dangerous abomination among the wagon train here, and were keeping them here to make sure that it didnt spread across the Nation. He told everybody. Do you think Black Dog had something to do with it? Abby queried. He may have manipulated the warriors guarding the wagon train into keeping you at the fort. Maybe he thought that the vampires would finish us off. Dr Lightning suggested. He must have got tired of waiting if that was the case. Gabriella added, That explains why they went for us on the first night. Plays raised his hand for silence. The shamans met me the previous night and asked me to bring a message: They know that you have put down this horrific abomination, and in recognition of your efforts, have convinced their respective tribes to grant us passage through the Sioux Nations unmolested. Sutter turned to face the trail crew. Did you folks all hear that? he called, Were free to go! Now lets mount up and get the herd outta here! There was a cheer from the crew. As they rounded up the herd, Jovich approached the group. Before you go, Id like to thank you all for your help. If it wasnt for this city slickers knowin of the worlds weirdness, none of us would have got out of here. He walked over to Shady Doug and shook him by the hand. Merci, Monsieur Jovich. Doug replied, And Plays; its great to see you again.

Chapter 8 The Home Stretch

True to the shamans message, the herd continued through the Sioux Nations with no interference. Eventually, they arrived at the recognised boundaries of the Nations at the foot of the Owl Creek and Bridger Mountains. Sutter once again assembled the crew at breakfast. The ranges were separated by Wind River Canyon, and the Bighorn River lay to the north of that. We wont have much luck getting a herd across those mountain ranges. He stated, So well herd them through the canyon. If were lucky, we can find a shortcut to our new property near the Bighorn Basin. Most of the crew listened, but they werent convinced; it didnt take a frontiersman to know that it wouldnt be an easy route. The southern mouth of the river flowed north into the canyon between cliff walls that rose in places to almost half a mile on either side. The canyon itself twisted its way between two mountain ranges for nearly twenty miles. There was precious little room between the canyon walls for anything besides the river itself. When the crew drove the herd into the canyon, they found it every bit difficult as it appeared. The river bottom was covered with rocks and the banks were very narrow wedged between rushing water and steep cliffs. The riverbank petered out on one side more often than not, and the roaring rapids made crossings impossible. The crew were effectively running into dead ends, made worse by the fact that they had to convince a herd of nearly 3000 less than obedient Longhorns to turn around and backtrack to a suitable fording spot. By the end of the day, the herd had barely moved five miles into the canyon. There was little else which could be done.

Night fell. The trail hands were all bedded down. Shady Doug was posted on watch while Father Sam was maintaining the chuck wagon. Plays with Fire had been posted on watch at the other end. The only light was from the stars while the breeze was one of the only sounds which could be heard, besides the crackling of the campfire slowly going out. Shady Doug was trying to stay awake, swallowing a mouthful of lukewarm coffee. As he stood watch, he was snapped out of his daze by an odd, high-pitched cry from somewhere above. He picked up a shotgun from one of the sleeping trail hands. Did you hear that, Pere? He whispered to Father Sam. The priest nodded, picking up his Gatling Shotgun from the chuck wagon. He looked up. A black silhouette of what could have been a huge bird passed in front of the stars. All was quiet. I cant have just imagined that. Shady Doug grumbled. Almost ironically, something swooped down and grabbed one of the sleeping trail hands. Father Sam pulled the trigger on his Gatling. A hail of buckshot flew into the creature. In the light of the muzzle flashes, Shady Doug made out the sight of huge black wings, snapping teeth, and luminous red

eyes. More screeching echoed through the canyon. As Father Sam tried to pull the carcass off the hysterical cowboy, at least nine more of the creatures swooped down from the mountains. Shots rang out as the trail hands began to wake up and fire back at the creatures. One of the creatures tried grabbing Sutter. He drew his revolver and fired a wild shot which hit the creature. Protect the herd! He yelled, We cant let those critters steal our beeves. Nobody said anything back as they continued to fend off the swooping creatures. The Longhorns were too big for them to snatch up, but the trail hands were easy targets. More shots echoed through the canyon as the creatures had flown off into the night. The Lazy S crew had only suffered one casualty, who had been picked up by one of the creatures and dropped onto the rocks of the canyon floor. He had cracked his skull when he hit the rocks. Miraculously, the herd had not stampeded during the attack, despite all the wild shooting. As the herd could only travel in two directions, it was fairly easy to round them up again.

The following morning, the drifters were met by Sutter and Abby. I want you folks to ride ahead. He instructed, Maybe we can avoid dead -ends and backtracking as we move further into the canyon. The drifters nodded in agreement, but Father Sam elected to stay behind and maintain the chuck wagon.

By midday, the drifters had not made much progress. That was quickly forgotten about when they heard the sounds of sustained gunfire echoing from the north. It sounds like outlaws. Dr Lightning concluded, Ive modified my Aetheric Static Compressor to do something impressive. He fiddled with several dials on the device he carried with him. The other drifters watched as he fired it across the river. Rather than the standard burst of electricity the gun normally emitted, this time it fired a glowing orb which flew across the river and exploded when it came into contact with the rocks on the other side. Save the juice for that thing. Gabriella warned, We might need a few salvos of those. As she listened to the sounds of gunfire, she heard a lot of it, almost like a pitched battle. They spurred their horses forward and came across an immense sight in the canyon ahead: Two heavily armed groups were squaring off with one another over a railroad trestle that crossed Wind River. One group was using flamethrowers, Gatling weapons, and a wide array of other outlandish mechanical devices. The other was not as wellequipped but had an advantage in sheer numbers. They were not in the mood to take prisoners.

They havent noticed us yet. Gabriella stated in a hushed tone, Perhaps we could sneak around. They look like two of the rail companies. Plays added. The drifters observed the skirmish. To the east of the trestle lay a pair of tents atop the high ground. A flagpole was flying a banner depicting several smokestacks the emblem of Wasatch. To the west, on the opposite shore, a similar layout was in place, but the banner was of two Chinese dragons encircling each other on a green background. This was the Iron Dragon Companys logo. Do you think that Emmerich guy has something to do with this? Shady Doug pondered. Possibly. Gabriella replied. She led the group on. They caught sight of numerous armed patrols watching them. They were watching them, but ignoring them. It was as if the drifters werent there. As they rode, they passed a makeshift field hospital set up by the rail gang. Dead and dying gunhands were haphazardly laid out on the ground. A corpsman was wandering amongst them in a vain attempt to ease their suffering. Gabriella looked down. Their wounds were horrific and obviously mortal. She felt nauseous, but was able to surpass it. As the drifters reached the Wasatch command tent, they found it to be substantial. However, the fabric was long faded and tattered, as if the tent had stood for years against the elements. Likewise, the Wasatch banner outside was badly weathered and frayed, and the pole from which it flew was sun-dried and cracked. Gabriella gingerly peered inside. The Wasatch commander was speaking to another enforcer. He seemed weary, almost saddened at the carnage taking place in the canyon, but was resigned to do his duty. Our orders are to hold Kangs forces here as long as we can. The commander said. We can hold them until hell busts loose, but I dont think we can beat them. His subordinate answered, Theres just too many and they aint showin any signs of retreat. As long as that bridge stands, we keep fighting. As they spoke, Gabriella turned to see someone running towards her. It looked like a courier delivering a report from the battlefield. She was right in front of him, but he wasnt taking any notice. When she held out her hand to halt him, the courier ran right through her. What is going on here? she asked herself, almost in shock from what she had seen.

Chapter 9 Battlefield of the Damned

The other drifters had seen what had happened, so there was no need for Gabriella to explain anything: The battle was being fought by ghosts. Well have no chance of getting a herd through this place. Dr Lightning stated. How do we get rid of everyone, then? Gabriella returned, We cant kill the ghosts, but theres no other way around here. Perhaps Doug has an idea. Plays suggested. I dont know. Shady Doug replied, These people seemed to have been doing a lot of fighting for some trestle. Welcome to the Rail Wars. Gabriella muttered. Well, I may have learned about some occult stories from that southern rag, the Tombstone Epitaph. Doug pondered, If these people fought this battle a long time ago, perhaps there is something anchoring them to here. That is seen as a common similarity between ghost tales. I heard the commander say something about keeping up the conflict as long as the trestle stands. Gabriella pondered. It came to her immediately. Of course! As long as the bridge is standing, they will keep fighting. The bridge is the anchor! So? Dr Lightning commented. So, we have to destroy the bridge. Gabriella explained, Then maybe those ghosts will take their fight somewhere else. Gabriella looked at the trestle from afar. Do you know anything about rails? Shady Doug asked. Black River did not employ me to lay tracks. Gabriella replied, They hired me to shoot people. However, I do recall having to protect engineers as they built a trestle. That does not look like one he would want to run a train across. While her experience in the field wasnt great, she was r ight: The trestle was not wellconstructed. Wasatch had been putting more effort into making the trestle look like a viable bridge than they did actually making it. I think that the lower midsection is pretty tempting. Dr Lightning muttered, You may not have built a bridge, but Im sure youve blown one up before, knowing your background. Plays folded his arms. Youd need to do some significant damage to bring it down. It would take days to chop that down. He muttered.

Forget that. Gabriella replied, Wed need some dynamite. Like this? Shady Doug called from one of the other tents. The drifters rushed to meet him. There was a dusty crate at the back of the tent covered by debris. Inside were 24 sticks of old dynamite, coated with a clear a liquid. Dr Lightning rushed forward to take a closer look. Thats not a good idea. He hissed intently, These are sweating. The others looked at him with bewilderment. These sticks have been unused for a long period. He explained, When that happens, they begin to sweat nitro-glycerine. Is it enough to bring down a bridge? Gabriella asked. Yes, but it is highly unstable. Drop it, or even just subject it to a severe enough bump and you can guess the outcome. Leave the horses. Gabriella ordered, We dont want them being spooked. With that, she and Plays lifted up the crate and hauled it out of the tent.

As they descended into the battlefield, things only got worse before they got better. Stray bullets flew past their heads, as if they were being fired by any mundane threat. As they moved, Dr Lightning was hit in the torso by a rifle round. He stumbled back and cried out in pain. Shady Doug ran over and picked him up. Get him out of here! Gabriella yelled, Plays and I will take out the bridge! Shady Doug nodded as he dragged Dr Lightning to safety.

Gabriella and Plays slowly made their way through the battlefield. It was at least 120 yards from the Wasatch command post to the waterline, their intended spot to plant the dynamite. They had considered running, but had narrowly avoided a disaster when Gabriella stumbled. After several long, fear-filled minutes of dodging phantom bullets and keeping the dynamite steady, they were getting close to the shoreline. As they drew closer, they didnt catch sight of what was hiding in the dark water under bridge. Some grotesque creature came roaring and babbling at the pair as they came closer. Gabriella looked on with terror. It looked like six corpses mangled together in a horrifying mass. To make things worse, it looked like it was mad. What is that thing? Plays asked. Gabriella drew her revolver . Her hands were shaking uncontrollably. A wild shot hit one of the bodies, but did nothing to damage the creature in any way.

Get the dynamite set up! She yelled to Plays before running away from the trestle. The mass began to chase her, unphased by her wild shooting. There were a variety of revolvers and repeaters being held in the creatures hands, but they were too rusted up to be fired, but even if they could be, the creatures wild flailing would hinder any shots. Gabriella wanted to encircle the creature, but she wanted to stay on land for mobility; if she waded into the river, that thing would catch up with her. She had to keep it after her so Plays could finish setting up the dynamite on the supports. Hows it going? She called. Its ready! Plays answered. Good! Now run! Gabriella barked, I have an idea! Plays did not question Gabriellas instructions. He ran back to the command tent while Gabriella waded towards the supports. The creature was closing in. She reached into her duster and pulled out a box of matches. As the creature closed in, she lit the dynamite before leaping out of the way. The hideous mass of corpses ploughed into the bridge. Even if the fuse was extinguished, the force of the impact would be enough to set off the dynamite. As long as she wasnt too close. When the monster collided with the trestle, the dynamite exploded. Gabriella looked back. The monster wasnt there, but there was a loud creaking. The trestle cataclysmically buckled before collapsing into the river. There was an almighty splash, strong enough to knock Gabriella off her feet. She tried to look, but couldnt see anything through the dust billowing out from the fallen timbers. The dust settled in a short time. Gabriella stood up. She had hit the ground pretty hard, but it was only a few bumps and bruises, not to mention being slightly rattled. The ghosts of the rail warriors who had died however long ago stopped firing and stared reverently towards the bridge. There was a profound silence, and then the fighters all laid down their arms, turned and walked up the banks, and faded from sight. From the command tent, the Wasatch commander smiled proudly at the drifters. My duty was to hold the bridge for as long as possible. My orders are now fulfilled. We can go home now. He walked away and faded into nothing. Gabriella trudged back up to the tents. A vast array of derelict war machines remained on the banks. Is Dr Lightning okay? She asked. Hell live. Shady Doug replied. Good. Now lets get back to Sutter.

Chapter 10 The End of the Trail

From the trestle, it was barely another days travel to the northern end of the canyon. The Wind River shortly gave way to the Bighorn River. The ride north to the Bighorn River Basin was a relatively peaceful ride. Dr Lightning was able to recover with Abbys help, along with that of Shady Doug and Father Sam. Sutter assembled the drifters as they reached the vicinity of the town of Dirtwater. My land grant is in this area. He addressed, Anybody who wants to leave my services is now welcome to do so, or you can opt to remain here and help with getting the place set up. I thank you for the opportunity. Gabriella stated, But Im staying. This is much better than gun slinging for the railroads. Besides, were part owners of the herd now. In that case, you are welcome to stay. Sutter grinned, And if you help me build up the ranch, Ill let your cattle graze my land. Gabriella shook Sutters hand in agreement, followed by the other drifters, one by one. We have been through a lot together. Abby stated, Im glad you have been with us. Gabriella smiled at her. Over the months, Abby had looked upon her as a mother figure. I think I might just retire to here. Shady Doug remarked.

To be concluded in Range Wars

Original Story by John Goff, with additional material by Matthew Cutter and Piotr Korys Setting by Shane Lacy Hensley Novelisation by Andrew Roberts