Jack Ketchum. A man whose name has been synonymous with horror for as long as I can remember. A man whose works, when I was growing, were spoken of with reverence by those who knew everything there was to know about horror writing, works so terrifyingly real that they were too much for even the most hardcore of readers.
Over the years I’ve eaten up everything I could by the man, so imagine how honored I was when I was informed by the production team behind Minions of Ka, the ambitious zombie project we gave you the first word on “>last week, that Ketchum was not only going to be contributing to Ka, but writing an original short story exclusively for Dread Central readers.
Yeah, needless to say, that was a good day for me.
Now the wait is over. “The Western Dead” is here! Set firmly in the universe that will be fully realized when the Minions of Ka graphic novel is released at the end of July, Ketchum’s story is important for two reasons: One, it’s all ours and two, it gives you guys a history lesson as to who or what Ka is, why he has minions, and how it will relate to the dead walking the Earth for centuries to come.
Enough of me; let’s turn it over to a true master!
—THE WESTERN DEAD—
An original story by Jack Ketchum
“Shoot ‘em in the head, for lord’s sake,” said Sam Pitts.
“Sometimes I like to play ‘em a little,” said Chunk Colbert.
“It’s a waste of munitions.”
“Munitions we got. It’s women we don’t got.”
Chunk was always going on about the women and Sam had to allow he was right about that however annoying it was to be reminded of the fact morning noon and night. Apache aside, the closest women around were the Widow Heller a mile up the Gila and the wife and daughter of Lonesome Charley McSween halfway back to Fort Thomas. Charlie’s Etta was a sight to see and the daughter was burgeoning fine but the Widow Heller could frighten a prairie rattler back into its burrow.
He wondered how any of them were doing.
Sam and Chunk and Doc Cleveland sat beneath the timid shade of the thatched roof ramada and in the glare of sun and baked adobe watched the White Mountain Apache whose left front forearm Chunk’s Colt Army .44 had just now retired to the dirt hobble toward them across the quadrangle, mouth working like he sensed it was suppertime. Which Sam supposed he did.
Chunk fired again and a good-sized hole appeared in the Apache’s breechcloth.
“Goddamn!” said Doc. “You shot that off that fella’s wedding tackle! That’s it, right there behind him.”
“You’re the doc, Doc,” said Chunk. “You ought to know. I’m getting’ pretty good at that shot in particular.”
“Quit foolin’ ‘round, Chunk,” said Sam. “Else I’ll take him with the Spencer.”
At range this close the Spencer would make one helluva mess.
“Awww, alright, Sam, if you say so.”
He took a pull on the bottle of Forty-Rod whiskey and squinted into the sun and aimed and fired. The Apache went down like an oatsack, the top of his head three feet back. Sam had to admire Chunk’s skill with both the Colt and the whiskey. Forty-Rod was nothing more than pure alcohol colored with coffee or burnt sugar and forty rods was about as far as a man could walk before paralysis made further movement unlikely for a while. But Chunk had been at it all morning while they sat there shooting dead White Mountain warriors and the occasional squaw.
“Kinda slow today, Sam, doncha think?”
“Lot fewer than yesterday this time of day. And no three or four at once. Why’s that do you suppose?”
“I dunno. They drifted on?”
Still they had well over a dozen bodies littering the quadrangle. Come the blessed cool of evening they’d pile them into the wagon and haul them out of the station against the rot and stink. But not for a while yet.
Right now the day was hot as a whorehouse on nickel night.
In ordinary circumstances this was the kind of chore he’d have left to the Coyotero Apache scouts. There were forty-two of them under Sam’s command. But the scouts had all lit out under cover of darkness three nights ago. The same day dead White Mountain Apaches started showing up at their door with a powerful yearning for human flesh be it Coyotero flesh or white man.
They’d learned this lack of partiality the hard way.
Mata Lobo had been his number one scout before going out to greet Leaning Crow come down from the reservation that morning and getting his neck bit in half for his trouble. Then Will Fry, his interpreter and longtime friend, rode out to the wickiups three miles downriver to see what the devil was going on with their two hundred or thereabouts native charges. Saw a young naked girl in the cottonwoods and prickly pear and got off his pony. Got right back on again when the girl bit off a chunk of his gunhand between thumb and forefinger and rode back into Gila Camp bleeding all over his good chestnut mare.
They’d telegraphed for Doc but by the time Doc’s stage arrived they’d already had to put a bullet in Will’s head. Same as Leaning Crow and Mata Lobo. Doc said he’d seen it once before with a trooper who’d been bit on the shoulder just outside of Fort Thomas and knew it was going to be useless riding out there. But he and Will were friends too from way back so you did what you had to do. Yet Sam figured it was that — the plain solid fact that if these damn things bit you anywhere you were gone home to Boston so to speak — that spooked his Coyoteros.
Now Doc was waiting on transportation — either the stage back to the Fort or the cavalry, whichever came first. The cavalry was late mustering — they’d been sent for two days ago — and the stage was late as always. But Doc was no fool. He was not riding out of there without company.
Meantime they shot Apaches.
“Tell us that yarn again, Doc,” said Chunk. “I ain’t likely to believe it any more this time than I did yesterday but it’ll serve to pass the time.”
“You mean about the Egyptian or Frank Shirley?”
“The Eye-gyptian. Any man gets his steel hard by having his wife stand against a wall whilst he shoots her figure in the goddamn plaster don’t deserve a re-telling’.”
Doc nodded. “Terhan Bey. He told me that’s where they come from. These dead folks. Come from Egypt originally. He says they been around since long before the Lord His Own Self. Says it’s all his people’s fault.”
“What was this Bey fella’s complaint again?” said Sam.
“Ear abscess. Amused me no end, I‘ll tell you. Here’s this snake-oil salesman scared to imbibe his own tonic.”
“Apache use a few drops of piss,” said Chunk.
“I’m told it can work,” said Doc. “Never tried it. Anyhow, we’re talking here about the pharaohs. According to this Bey fella, the first real pharaoh. United the upper and lower kingdoms. Whole of Egypt. Gentleman by the name of Narmer or Narner, I forget. Bey called him the Scorpion King. And he sure did have a sting to him.”
“Scorpions? They got those damn creatures in Egypt?”
“Why not? You got to figure that the land ain’t much different than what we got here. Desert mostly. Houses mostly mud. Hot days and wicked cold nights. ‘Course we got the Gila here while they got the Nile. Whole lot bigger, more powerful. You fellas at all familiar with any of this?”
Sam shook his head. The Doc was an educated man and Sam felt the lack. Chunk just grunted.
“I saw a statue of one of these pharaohs at the old Arsenal building up in New York City. Natural history museum now. Held a crook and a flail.”
“Flail? Like a thresher you mean?” said Sam.
“That’s right. Flail says that he’s provider of food for his people. And the crook’s like a shepherd’s crook, says he’s his peoples’ shepherd. Seems old Narmer or Narner shepherded his people into some pretty strange places if you believe Terhan Bey.”
“Here’s where I start disbelievin’,” said Chunk.
“You think what you want, Chunk. But the way he tells it, Narmer’s also the first to start seekin’ after life eternal. Life everlasting. Though here’s where it gets a bit confusing to my mind. This pharaoh, they already call him God. His people do. I asked Bey about that. If he’s God, don’t he already have life everlasting?”
“Good question, Doc.”
“I thought so, Chunk. Bey said it was their feeling that it was the pharaoh and the pharaoh’s power that held the sky up and made the river rise. Damn big responsibility. So they venerated him as a god.”
“Like in church, Chunk. When you pray to the cross.”
Sam thought it unlikely that Chunk had ever been inside a church but kept that to his chest and rolled himself a Bull Durham.
“But this Narmer fella didn’t feel like God. Felt pretty mortal I guess. So he set his soldiers and priests to experimentin‘.”
“There’s another one, Sam. You see him there?”
The man was naked as the day he was born and that was unlike the Apache who among the men at least tended to want to cover their loins. He was rounding the corner from the livery stable and inside horses snorted at his presence. Sam allowed that an Apache did have a stink to him dead or not.
“Ain’t that Standing Water?” said Chunk.
“I believe it is,” said Sam.
Many that day had come at them unarmed but Standing Water had been a rough bit of work while alive and was almost bound to be so dead. Anyway the knife in his hand was clear enough glinting in the sun. Like pretty much all of them he was staggering mouth ajar toward the ramada but he was moving a bit faster than most. Already Sam could see that he was bit on the shoulder and that this was what had put him down.
He didn’t want Chunk fooling with him. He raised the Spencer and fired once and all was still again.
“Nice one,” said Chunk. “So you were saying?”
“The experiments, yes. You truly want to hear this again?”
“Sure I do.”
“You’re of a gruesome nature, Chunk.”
“They had the notion that you’d find the secret to life eternal in one of only a few places — in the loins of the male or female, in the heart or in the blood. So they shed a lot of blood, both slave and freeman. Did a whole lot of rapin‘. And not just the ladies but the men and children too, Chunk. Took a whole lot of hearts and privates from their rightful owners.
“I guess they felt that dying itself might hold a kind of magic to it and that you might get a harness on that by prolonging the process if you know what I mean. Though personally I don’t see that. F’rinstance, you got to know that when Yellow Horse and his boys hung old Sam Stark upside down over that slow fire he must have begged for a bullet in the brain. You’re in that much pain, you don’t care to live forever. But they tried it anyway. So you got your crucifixion, your impalement, your vivisection.”
“What’s a vividsection?”
“No letter d, Chunk. Vivisection. Take a body apart whilst it’s still breathin’.”
“You can do that?”
“Real carefully. They tried all kinds of tricks, Bey said. The carpenter come by with his chisel, the stonecutter come by with his drill, the baker with his yeast, the brewer with his malt. Used cobwebs or soot against the blood. Used knitbone, mad stone, nettles, goose grease, beeswax, mustard. All manner of stuff.”
“This vivisec thing. How you handle that exactly?”
“Well, you know how a Comanche or rogue Apache will scalp a fella and unless they slit his throat in the bargain or he loses too much blood there ain’t no reason he won’t be right as rain in a few weeks or so? Same thing with body parts. Arm, leg, pecker, eyeball. All you got to do is cauterize and watch out for arteries. You can cut a man open and remove an organ, long as it ain’t the heart or brain. You cauterize. You can drill through bone. Plenty of things you can do to a man without killin’ him. Take all day if you’ve got a mind to. But I digress.
“The fella behind all this mayhem was a gentleman name of Abydos, servant in Narmer’s palace. A freeman, not a slave — and one with ambitions. Which in time he did overreach. ’Cause for a long while he was overseeing priest and soldier alike in all this nasty business and enjoying every minute of it, then next thing you know he’s on the receiving end.”
Doc paused in his storytelling. A little girl perhaps six years of age shuffled unsteady into the quadrangle past the now-empty bunkhouse the Coyotero had abandoned, her entrails trailing like a muddy rope. Chunk shot and kicked up dirt in front of her. Sam levered a bullet into the Spencer’s chamber and aimed more carefully than Chunk had and the girl’s head exploded.
“I hate to see that,” said Doc. “The little ‘uns.”
“‘Nother good one, though,” said Chunk.
“Thanks. Hadn’t you better reload that weapon of yours, Chunk?” He nodded toward the Colt. “You never know.”
“You have a point,” said Chunk.
He threw open the cylinder and reached for the powder at his feet. Changed his mind and reached for the Forty-Rod instead and drank deep from the bottle. Put the bottle down and this time found his powder.
“Get to the part about the daughter, Doc,” he said.
“Give me some of that Forty-Rod, Chunk.”
Chunk did. Doc drank.
“This Abydos had a daughter. Little thing. Twelve, maybe thirteen years of age. In his high ambition he figured that maybe the gods might favor him should he volunteer her for one of the experiments of theirs. Nothing else had been working out for him exactly. So in front of his very eyes that little girl was raped again and again by the pharaoh’s soldiers and tortured for days on end. Her breasts and private parts in particular, for the obvious reasons. Seats of life, right? He was there to hear her every scream.”
“That’s one evil sonovabitch,” said Chunk.
Sam took note. It seemed that for the moment at least Chunk had ceased his disbelieving.
“That he was, Chunk, that he was. Most evil fella in the land by then and no doubt about it. Sold his soul to the very Devil’s what I‘d say. No telling what he’d been like in days prior — though I’d wager he couldn’t ever have been much — but evil can transform a man. And this Abydos was way over halfway to transformin’.
“But see now, pharaoh had himself a daughter too. And bloodthirsty as he was he didn’t much care for the notion of a daddy using his own blood kin that way. Didn’t seem right to him I imagine. Abydos had been pretty much a failure anyway. So he ordered the fella chained to a wall and treated pretty much the way they’d treated his daughter for a few days and at long last ordered his daughter’s head stove in, right in front of him. And the rest must have been some sort of divine inspiration.
“’Cause they made him drink of her blood and eat of her flesh. And when he was finished they stabbed him through the heart.
“He died a’course — and then he didn’t die. Because he’d long since turned that blind eye of his to all human pain and grief and sorrow, even his own daughter’s pain and grief and sorrow, because he’d damned himself down to the bone, humanity was lost to this gentleman even in death. He rose and walked the mud and sands again. With nothing inside but a hunger to infect every living creature he touched with the self-same evil he carried deep within. And pharaoh had his secret to eternal life.”
They saw dust rise. Far off in the bleak horizon.
“Coach?” said Doc.
“If I had to judge, I’d say cavalry,” said Sam. “‘That’s a good bit of dust. ‘Bout time.”
He thought of his own daughter, his own wife, far away in Louisville. He felt shame at his own betrayal which was so much smaller than Abydos‘ but betrayal nonetheless. And him become some Indian agent in this heat-struck hell of nowhere.
“They called him Ka,” said the Doc. “Egyptian word for life-force or soul or something on that order. Bey was never clear. But I guess Ka had his uses after all. Raised up a whole damn army of the dead to do the pharaoh‘s bidding.”
The horses snorted. Sam looked left and right and saw nothing but the flat baked squat adobe buildings and the quadrangle in which many had died yet a second time this day and yesterday and the day before and the shimmering heatwaves and dust off the flatlands and the dim blue mountains beyond..
“I still don’t get it, Doc,” said Chunk. “Egypt’s a damn far piece away, right? Even if this Bey fella’s telling’ you the god’s honest truth. How’d they get here? I mean, here? On some Apache reservation. You know what I’m sayin‘?”
Doc shrugged and pulled on the whiskey again.
“Evil can travel quite a ways in a few hundred years, Chunk. It can travel many a mile.”
And events were to confirm this. For Sam was right.
It was indeed the cavalry which approached them nearly sixty strong and Apache among them too following their brief skirmish. Soldiers and White Mountain Apache mountless and dead to a man.
Chunk proved to be wrong about the adequate munitions.