Clark Reeper and the Corpse That Hopped
Now I'm no stranger to the living dead. I've tangled with zombies, walking corpses, ghosts, and about every kind of animated, long dead sucker a fellow can imagine, and most of the time, I come out on top. Goes with my job description, you see. The name's Clark Reeper, and I was a bounty hunter, one that specialized in the odder jobs out there. Everything from Voodoo-created zombies to living skeletons found their way into my gun sights. But that's all in the past, as I am now a retired bounty hunter and the owner of a profitable dry goods business in San Francisco, as well as a loving and devoted father to my adopted son. Least ways, that's what I thought.
But when me and my adopted son, a nice young fellow name of Charles Green, were traveling through the Chinese countryside, I found out that my days of shooting at things already dead but still moving weren't exactly passed. It was part of a Grand Tour me and the boy were taken, and we were sort of on the tail end of it, now. We was riding the rails through Canton Province, heading to Hong Kong, where we could get on some boats that could take us to Japan or French Indochina, or any place we wanted to go.
Charles and I were sitting down in one of the first class compartments as the train rattled along, staring at the passing scenery. There was wide green fields, high hills topped with mist, and bamboo forests, that Charles said were inhabited by everything from tigers to big, old black and white bears.
Charles was real knowledgeable about all them things, on account of he read all manner of traveling books and had a good memory. He's about twelve years of age, small and short for his age, with brown curly hair and a freckled face, and he wears a Norfolk jacket with a peaked cap, and spectacles on his upturned nose. His pet armadillo and constant companion Winston, was perched on his shoulder, joining him in looking outside.
"So," I said. "You seen any of them panda bears you was telling me about?"
"I don't think so, Mr. Reeper," Charles said. "I don't think they'd like to go up close to the train."
I nodded, looking around the empty car. "Seems like most folk don't want to go near this train as well," I added. "Don't rightly know why, though. This seemed like the quickest route to Hong Kong." I turned back to the boy. "Son, you got any idea where you want to go after we reach that city?"
"I think we should visit Japan," Charles suggested. "There's supposed to be all these amazing temples, and mountains, and its been cut off from the world for a long time, and just recently they've started letting people in!"
"Not like China, then?" I asked. I had met Celestials back in the States, and found most of them good company. They were just another of the many groups of immigrants flocking into the West from all over the world, and they were welcome to it. Still, I wasn't sure what exactly made them want to leave.
Charles nodded. "No, sir. China has been filled with westerners for a long time. They pretty much own cities like Shanghai and Hong Kong. The British own Hong Kong, I mean. I think the French, the Germans, the British, and the Americans have kind of chopped up Shanghai and taken over different bits of it." He shrugged. "I don't think they're that nice to the people here."
"Judging by what we saw of colonial rule in other places, I can guess the kind of rule they have here," I agreed. "Still, it is some mighty fine country."
"Oh, yes," Charles agreed. He leaned back and we watched the countryside roll by for a spell. I put my arm around Charles, and neither of us had to say anything. After all the shooting and fighting and all the wonders and horrors me and Charles had seen, I don't think nothing was better than that.
By and by, the conductor walked by to check our tickets. He was a rotund Celestial man dressed in the dark uniform and peaked cap of his trade. As he approached, I produced our tickets. "Say, mister," I asked, as he was looking them over. "How come there ain't but the two of us riding on this here train?"
He shrugged. "There are rumors, about bad things in Canton Province."
"What sort of bad things?" I asked.
The conductor paused. "They are afraid of the Jiang Shi," he said, at nearly at whisper. "In your language, it is called the Hopping Corpse."
"Living dead?" I asked. "Something like that?" I drummed my fingers on the six-guns at my waist. I never was without my twin Colt Peacemakers, even though the dark suit, vest and tie I wore seemed more suited to some fancy pants businessman than a gunslinger. "Well, if we get into trouble with them, I reckon I can handle it. Me and Charles, we've tangoed with the dead before, and we don't pay them no heed."
"I don't know, Mr. Reeper," Charles said. "What we've dealt with our zombies, and mindless dead bodies that have been brought back to life. Hopping corpses are similar, but from what I've read, they're a lot more deadly as well."
"Long as they can't outrun a bullet, we'll be fine," I said. I nodded to the conductor. "Thanks for the info, friend. And don't you worry about no hopping dead."
He nodded and headed off. I leaned my head back and pulled my Stetson low over my eyes. "You just stick with me, Charles, and we'll get through whatever's up ahead all right."
"Of course, Mr. Reeper," he agreed, utterly confident in my ability to protect him. It did my heart good to hear that, and I closed my eyes and dozed off contentedly, letting the rocking of the train put me to sleep.
But I didn't know that Charles was right about the Jiang Shi, and dealing with them would put us in some mighty bad situations.
The next thing I knew, the train had come to a screeching halt. I sat up and rubbed my eyes. I looked around the train and still found our compartment deserted, then peered outside and saw that we was in a small hamlet, with other villages out in the distance. It had started to rain pretty heavily, and the water was pouring on down from the sky.
The train had stopped because of all the folks crowded around from it. There were men, women and children, all dressed in peasant robes, some with queues and some with coolie hats. They were carrying suitcases and baskets, some pulling alongside wagons loaded down with their possessions. It looked like a bunch of people fleeing from the path of a tornado, a flood or a war. I stood up and looked out the window, and Charles did the same.
"What's going on?" I asked. "What the hell's happening down the road?"
A few Celestials looked up to me. "Jiang Shi!" they shouted. "Jiang Shi!"
Them were the words the conductor had told me, and I sat back down. "Hopping corpses," I muttered. "Must be a goddamn infestation of the bastards or something, scaring people out of their villages." I looked over at Charles. "Guess that means the train won't be going through Canton and getting us to Hong Kong any time soon."
Sure enough, the conductor came by, just then. He bowed his head to me and Charles. "I am sorry," he said. "But we cannot go any further. There are some inns in this village, and perhaps you would like to stay here, or maybe purchase transport on another train or a wagon heading back to the east?"
"How will we get to Hong Kong, then?" Charles asked.
That little fellow had had a tough life, probably on account of hanging around to me, and it seemed a right horrible thing, ruining his Grand Tour just because of some uppity corpses. I stood up. "Don't worry about, sir," I told the conductor. "Me and Charles, we can go forward on shank's mare, waltz on through the villages and find our way to Hong Kong all on our lonesome."
The conductor shook his head, flustered by my decision. "Sir, I must ask you to reconsider!" he cried. "The Jiang Shi, they will strip the bones from your flesh, and suck the very chi, the life essence, from your bodies. It is far too dangerous!"
I drew out one of my Colts and returned it to my holster with a practiced spin. "This here shooting iron is all the protection I need," I explained. I tipped my hat to him. "Obliged to you for the warning, but I think me and my boy will be all right. Come on, Charles, Winston."
I grabbed my suitcase from under the seat, and Charles did the same, Winston still perched on his shoulder. The two of us headed past the surprised conductor, to the end of the car, and hopped out of the train. We walked our way through the dense crowd, and then made our way to a bridge that connected this little village with the rest of the Canton Province. Not looking back, we both crossed it.
We headed down the simple dirt road, shivering a little in the rain. I kind of missed having rain slicker, but it was Charles I was real worried about. He was getting good and soaked, and he tucked Winston inside his jacket so the armadillo could keep warm.
"You oughtn't to be getting that wet," I told Chares, taking off my jacket and wrapping it over his shoulders. It trailed behind him a little, but he pulled it around him and smiled at me.
"I'm not that cold," he said. "I'll be okay."
"Sure, son," I agreed. "You stick with me now. We just keep on moving, hopefully the living dead won't have no reason to attack us." I shook my head. "And they only want to suck out our cheese anyways. What kind of zombie wants to munch on cheese?"
"Chi, Mr. Reeper," Charles corrected me. "It's life force, sort of like a soul or something."
Having a dead fellow munching on my soul wasn't a good prospect, so that made me even more wary by the time we reached the first village. This settlement was a bit bigger than the one the trained had stopped at. There were several rows of houses, shops and inns and huts on both sides of dirt road. Charles and I walked by slowly, and my hands dropped down to the revolvers at my waist.
We was walking by one of the buildings in the center of town when we heard a noise from inside, like something rustling about. I motioned for Charles to stay quiet as I looked at the building. I sniffed the air, and smelled filth and disgust.
"Hell," I whispered. "That's not a corpse rotting. That's someone's droppings."
"What do you mean?" Charles asked. "Is it like a bathroom or something?"
"Might as well be," I replied. "That there's an opium den."
Charles froze up a little when I mentioned the drug, and so did I. The reason for that was what I had been an honest-to-god opium fiend for longer than I cared to admit. It was after the love of life had been killed, shot down in front of me. Seeing her die was like seeing the good go out of the world forever, and if it weren't for what I owed Charles, I would probably still be sucking back opium and worshipping the Dark God to this day.
There was that sickly sweet smell, hanging over the scents of filth and human degredation. But then we heard the rustling going on inside, and I decided it was worth a look. "Y'all stay right here," I told Charles and Winston, and went to peek inside, with one pistol drawn.
The opium den was barren and empty as the pockets of those who frequented it. There were a couple of overturned chairs and piles of dirty, soiled cushions, and many clay pipes lying on the ground. I looked inside, and set a broken lantern upright and lit it. As the flickering light filled the small chamber, I spotted something in the far corner.
It was a man, and his back side turned to me. He lay on his hands on his knees, and I saw that the opium had caused the poor man to really let himself go. His fingernails were long and untrimmed, a bristly beard filled his face, and he stank like he hadn't seen a bath for a year and a half.
"Hey!" I called, waving to the fellow. "Howdy! You all right, there?"
Slowly, he turned around to face me. I looked into his face, and I saw that most of it weren't there, having rotted away. He was stinking not just because he hadn't bathed or washed at all, but because he was rotting away, and was nothing more than a corpse. I figured him for one of the Jiang Shi. I raised my revolver. The hopping corpse opened his eyes, and revealed that they were milky white and completely dead.
"Easy there," I said, cocking back the pistol. "Just take it easy, and I'll go ahead and put you out of your misery."
But that opium fiend had other ideas. He leapt forward, leaping about like he saw goddamned kangaroo or something, and knocking me straight to the ground. My revolver fell from my hand, and the opium fiend leaned over to munch on my face. He opened his mouth wide, and I saw that the gristle and stubble covering his face was green, nothing more than moss covering up dead flesh.
A long black tongue snaked out of his mouth, quick as a viper striking. It slammed down, trying to wrap around my neck and strangle me good. Luckily, I still had a second six-gun on my belt. I grabbed the revolver with my free hand and fired into the hopping corpse's chest. I knocked him backwards, and scrambled to my feet.
The shot had knocked the dead man back, but he was crouched and ready to leap again right quick. He leapt through the air, but this time I was ready. I grabbed my pistol with both hands and fired, the bullet striking him in the forehead. Black, rotting brains flew out in a storm of gore from the back of his head, and the body collapsed on the ground next to me.
"Jesus Christ!" I whispered, coming to my feet and grabbing my second pistol. I dashed outside and saw Charles standing under the slopped roof of the opium den, looking out at the other buildings. I caught my breath and knelt down next to Charles. "We got trouble, son," I told him.
"I think we do, Mr. Reeper," he said softly, pointing into the houses. I looked in through the windows and doors, and saw more dead men crouching there. Like the opium fiend, they all were unkempt, half-rotting and wore threadbare peasant robes and round caps. They sat crouched on the ground, like cats ready to pounce.
From inside Charles's coat, Winston let out a little squeak. I cocked both pistols. "It's all right, son," I said. "Everything will work out fine. I'm gonna start shooting, and then we start running. We're gonna have to go real fast, and not stop for nothing, okay? If they chase us, we just gotta run faster, and if they follow, we'll have to find somewhere to stop and hold them off." I saw how scared the poor kid was. Walking corpses, a little bit slower than these hopping dead men, had gobbled up his father. "Okay?" I asked.
He nodded quickly, and I could see him forcing down his fears. "Okay," he said. "I'll hold onto Winston."
"All right," I said. "Let's go."
I dashed down the dirt street, Charles running alongside me. Just as I thought, that was what the Jiang Shi had been waiting for. The bastards leapt out from their homes, falling through the air and lunging to gobble me down. I raised both revolvers and started shooting at them. They were leaping through the air real fast, and were a bit hard to hit, especially in the head.
I blasted one hopping corpse in the chest, and the shot knocked him flat on his back, but he leapt up and scrambled around in no time at all, and lunged for Charles. This time he was close enough for me to get a good shot in, and I placed the bullet right through his head.
Another hopping corpse leapt down from a rooftop and landed in our path. He stood up and tried to reach down and grab me, his long tongue swinging from his mouth, but I pushed my pistol into the open mouth instead and pulled the trigger. I pushed down the body as the skull and brains leaked out, and kept on running.
We had reached the end of the town, and were moving out onto the open road. But it was muddy as could be now, from all the rain, and Charles slipped and fell down in the mud. I turned around and ran to him, just as one of the hopping corpses landed behind him. The dead man opened his mouth, and his long, black tongue snaked out like a lariat and wrapped around Charles's leg.
"Mr. Reeper!" he shouted. "It really hurts!" He started to be dragged back, Winston rolling out of his coat and squeaking in terror.
I pointed my Peacemakers at the cadaver and fired, but they were plumb out of ammo. "Hell!" I cursed, holstering one gun and drawing out my Bowie knife from my boot. I grabbed Charles's shoulder and hacked off the tongue, then scooped the boy and armadillo up and carried him away from the town.
The black tongue was still wrapped around his leg, tightening with every second as the cut end waved around and spewed out blood. I pulled it off and it wrapped around my hand, until I finally gave it another stab with my Bowie knife and tossed the tongue behind me.
I set Charles down when we were a ways down the road, and then looked back. The hopping corpses were following us, moving at a steady clip, as they leapfrogged forward. I looked down the dirt road, and saw nothing but grassy green meadows, soggy from the hard rain, all around. "Ah hell," I muttered. "There ain't nowhere to make a stand!"
"What about over there?" Charles asked. He pointed to a small shrine by the side of the road, a collection of stones and statues with Chinese characters carved on them all nestled under a small gazebo-like roof. There were incense and food offerings left before some of the stones. "It's a holy shrine. The Jiang Shi are unholy creatures, and maybe they won't get in!"
"Worth a shot," I said. I set him down, and the both of us ran through the tall grass. The hopping corpses pursued us, leaping into the grass and trying to take us down. I reloaded as we ran, turning and firing soon as I slid a new round in. I blasted the arms off of one of the dead men, and then sent a slug into his face as he opened his mouth to show his tongue. Another tongue tried to wrap around my leg, but I fired down and blasted the tongue to smithereens.
The two of us dashed into the shrine, and the hopping corpses followed. One leapt up to try and pounce on my back, but a bullet slammed into his chest and knocked him backwards. I looked up and saw a broad-shouldered fellow in a pinstriped dark suit with a bowler hat standing on the shrine. He fired down with an automatic pistol, and I raised my hand.
"Thank you kindly for the covering fire, stranger!" I shouted. "I'll be joining you shortly." I grabbed Charles's hand and helped through the mud and grass, and then up the hillside and onto the shrine. We both collapsed on the dirt floor of the shrine, and I turned around and looked at the hopping corpses.
They were crouched in the tall grass all around the hilltop shrine, just sitting there and waiting. I shook my head, knowing that as soon as we left the holy ground, they'd hop on up and be on top of us. I looked back to the fellow who had saved us. He had a thick moustache and stood a head taller than me. "Much obliged to you," I said. "Name's Clark Reeper, and this is my boy, Charles Green."
"Oh, please do not thank the help!" A thin fellow stepped out from one of the stones of the shrine. Like the big fellow, he wore a pinstriped suit and tie, but he had a top hat, and his moustache was thin and pointed. "Lord Douglas Clodderton, at your service, sir. This is my man, Blakely." He had a clipped, upper class British accent that Queen Victoria would have been proud of.
"Pleased to meet you," I said, shaking his hand.
Charles did the same, and then shook Blakely's hand. "Thank you, sir," he said. Blakely merely mumbled and nodded.
"He's not the sort for conversation," Lord Clodderton replied. "And I say, it is an awful surprise to find Americans in this dreadful place. I am a merchant, you see, a leading businessman in one of Hong Kong's most reputable and fashionable firms. I was passing through this province, touring it to see how my latest ventures were going, when we were set upon by those horrid dead fellows!"
"Me and the boy are on the Grand Tour, and just trying to get to Hong Kong," I explained. I looked back at the Hopping Corpses as I reloaded my revolvers. "Looks like they got us buffaloed. You got much ammo, Blakely?"
He shrugged and opened his coat to reveal another trio of clips for his automatic. He seemed a good shot, and with my two pistols blazing away, we might stand a chance against all them dead folks, but I didn't like the odds of it.
Also, I had no idea if shooting them in the head stopped them for good or just slowed them. With zombies, blasting out the brains normally put an end to them, but I weren't t really check to see if it was the same with these hopping cadavers. I sat down near the shrine and shook my head.
"Fellows, I'm not sure what to do," I said. "Seems we're in for a loss no matter which way we run." I looked outside and noticed that the rain had stopped. "Well, least it'll be a mite dryer," I said, smiling a little.
Charles sat on the ground, then took a few coins from his pocket and set it on the shrine, while Winston sniffed at the incense. Charles pulled the armadillo. "No, Winston," he said gently. "We have to be respectful."
"An armadillo as a pet?" Lord Clodderton said, rubbing his white gloved hands. "Oh, how utterly delightful!" He took the coins from the shrine and held them out back to Charles. "But you mustn't waste your money on these peasant traditions. The Chinese are a simple race, longing only for basest gifts from their superiors. There is no need to indulge them."
"Please put the coins back, sir," Charles said softly. "There's no reason to insult them."
"You're right, son," I said, patting Charles's shoulder. "And it's not like a little luck could hurt."
Blakely interrupted us with a grunt. He pointed into the distance, the road that led back to the village. I looked down and saw two familiar figures heading our way. I smiled to myself. "Brimstone," I whispered. "Couldn't have picked a better time to show your ugly face."
Brimstone Brown wore a worn black duster, and his hair was long and around his shoulders. He carried a long barreled Colt Buntline Special, in his hands, and the handle of a long bladed Arkansas Toothpick protruded over his shoulder. He wore a Stetson with a silver pentagram on the brim. Brimstone Brown was a reformed Satanic gunslinger, who now traveled about battling occult evil instead of trying to cause it.
He weren't alone, as his son Hellfire Brown walked right next to him. He was a head shorter than his father, and wore a similar black duster with a bowler hat, to hide the horns that he had on account of him being part demon. He carried a pair of revolvers tipped with extendable blades. The Hopping Corpses spotted them and came charging forwards, leaping and lunging over each other as they shot out of the grass.
The Brown boys were ready for them. Brimstone raised his Buntline and started firing, the big bullets from the big pistol drilling straight through the Hopping Corpses, and laying them out good. Brown blasted off his shots carefully, planting a slug into the skulls of each of the Hopping Corpses.
Meanwhile, Hellfire Brown raised his two six-guns and fired all twelve rounds, lickety-split. He blasted down the Jiang Shi as they charged forward, putting bullets into their arms and chests and knocking them down in the grass.
"Back them up, Blakely!" I shouted, drawing both of my revolvers. "Don't just leave them hanging!" I dashed forward, firing at the corpses and striking them down from behind. Blakely joined me, firing his automatic at the dead folks and blasting their skulls.
Pretty soon, the last hopping corpse weren't doing any more hopping, preferring to lay in the grass and muddy and ooze away what life they had left. Charles and Lord Clodderton walked gingerly down from the shrine, and then joined me, Blakely, Brimstone and Hellfire on the road.
Soon as Brimstone recognized me, a smile filled his scarred face. "Clark Reeper!" he whispered. "Pleasure seeing you, as always. Bit of a surprise though. When I met you in Egypt, I thought you were just trying to enjoy a normal Grand Tour of the continent?"
"Charles and I been enjoying it okay," I agreed. "Though it's a little different than normal. We was on our way to Hong Kong when the train stopped, and we decided to go on foot. Didn't know there were so many of these hopping dead folks, or that they'd be so damn fast!"
Brimstone nodded. "The Jiang Shi are deadly creatures, and if there numbers grow strong enough, there is not telling how much damage they can do."
"But they're mindless, ain't they?" I asked. "A couple folks with rifles and a lot of ammo should be able to clear them out."
"Wrong, Reeper," Hellfire Brown said. "These dead boys may be brainless, but they got someone big, someone long dead and real powerful, calling the shots."
"That's who we're going to kill," Brimstone added. "He's an old hopping corpse, a Manchu lord who dabbled in dark magic and came back wrong, and now he seeks to use all of these dead men to overthrow the Dowager Empress and conquer the world. We don't even know the Manchu's name, but we're here to shut him down."
I nodded. "Then I'm with you, until the end." I looked down to Charles. "I'm sorry about putting our vacation on hold, son, but this seems a bit more important."
"I don't mind," Charles said. "And Hellfire is a good friend of mine!"
Hellfire smirked, seeming a little embarrassed by the attention the younger boy was showing him. "Mentor, maybe," he suggested. "Anyway, my old man and I were gonna get moving. We think the Manchu is hiding out in a larger village down the road." He looked up at Lord Clodderton and Blakely. "Who are you guys?"
Lord Clodderton stood forward and bowed, removing his top hat. "Lord Douglas Clodderton, sir, at your service, and this is my man, Blakely. I am a simple merchant, caught in the middle of this conflict between the living and the dead." He nodded to Brimstone and Hellfire. "But in the company of you two worthies, as well as with Mr. Reeper, I think I shall be as safe as if I was lounging about in the safety of my estate!"
"Uh, sure," Brimstone said, after some hesitation. "Just stay out of our way, and we'll see you right." He pointed down the road as he reloaded his Buntline Special. "All right. We'd best get a move on."
With that , we set off. We walked down the dirt road, looking on both sides to make sure the Jiang Shi weren't sneaking around and trying to ambush us. I wouldn't figure dead people could arrange a bushwhacking like that, but since they was under the control of an evil, undead sorcerer, all bets were off.
Charles and Hellfire walked ahead, Charles letting Winston run along between them. I saw them talking, mostly Charles asking questions and Hellfire answering them all with a sly smile. He was telling Charles of his adventures, I figured, and maybe embellishing a little about the particulars. But I didn't mind. My boy seemed to be idolized Brimstone's son and Hellfire seemed to enjoy Charles's company, even if Hellfire didn't quite want to admit it.
As we walked along, Brimstone holstered his large pistol and stared at me with his dark eyes. "There's just one thing I ain't sure of," he said, his voice its usual rasp. "I got no clue as to how the Jiang Shi started propagating. Normally, there's some sorcerer or wizard at work, but I haven't detected so much as a trace of forbidden magic in the entire province. Something else caused them to die."
I nodded. "That is a bit odd. And there's something else about all the people that were turned into the hopping corpses. They were all gaunt, filthy, and looked poor and ragged as could be." I turned to Brimstone. "Reminded of me, when I was sucking on opium, on account of Myrtle's death."
"Hmmm." Brimstone stared at me. "I noticed that too, that all the Jiang Shi looked a little similar. You're the saying they're all opium fiends."
"They were in life," I muttered. "If you can call begging for cash so you can suck back a little on the clay pipe and forget all your troubles a life." I shook my head. "I did it for a long time, and I still miss that feeling of great nothingness, but I'm glad I'm out of it, and I'm not going back. The way I see it, even before they died and started hopping around, these boys were already the living dead."
"The opium might have caused it, then," Brimstone Brown surmised. "If it only affected opium addicts, that is. Maybe someone put something in the pipes. It might have been the Manchu's plan, but it's a little too clever for him. He's an old fashioned fellow, and he seems to have popped up after the outbreak of the hopping corpses, not before."
"So he's just taken advantage of something that already happened," I added. "Not the cause of it."
It was then that Lord Clodderton stepped forward. "Oh, must be talk of that rot?" he asked. "There must be a more cheerful subject for our conversations, eh chaps?" He smiled at us, his mustachios almost wiggling. "Perhaps the weather would be a better subject? Or the current state of political affairs?"
Brimstone and I both stared at him. "What exactly were you selling around here, Clodderton?" I asked.
"Lord Clodderton, please," he corrected me.
I frowned. "I don't give a damn what high-faluting name you call yourself by, you damn toff! What were you selling?"
"Blakely?" he asked, and his massive butler stepped between us. The butler stared down at me, his eyes narrowing. His hands hung at his sides, balled up into fists and ready to pound me into pudding. "Mr. Reeper?" Clodderton said. "Will you now allow me a small measure of privacy?"
Now, I don't take kindly to threats, and I was thinking of cracking my own fists against Blakely's head until he wised up and got himself a new master, then introducing Lord Clodderton to the toe-end of my boot, but I figured that it weren't exactly the best time for a fight.
"I'm just asking a simple question," I said, stepping back. "I didn't mean no harm."
"Enough of this," Brimstone muttered. He pointed ahead with a gloved finger. "Look at the village over the rise there. You can see them with the naked eye, don't even need no spyglass."
I shaded my eyes from remained of the sun on that cloudy day and looked at the next village on the road. Just as Brimstone Brown had said, the place was swarming with hopping corpses. They sat on the roofs, perched like grotesque birds, or sat crouched in the dirt streets in huddled packs. The hopping corpses were thick on the ground, and I guess that this town had to have three or four opium dens to make so many of them.
"Sure are a lot," Hellfire Brown said. He turned to me. "That might be something wrong with your theory. There's way to be many of them just to be opium fiends."
"I don't think so, Mr. Brown, I mean, Hellfire," Charles corrected him. "I read somewhere that about a fourth of the entire male population of China is addicted to opium. They grow it, and British businessmen export it here, and get people addicted to it, and its caused all kinds of problems and wars."
"Jesus," I whispered. "That does look like about a fourth of that town's population. They're all gathered there, waiting." I turned to Brimstone. "I don't got nearly enough bullets to take them all on. I hope to high heaven you got a plan, Brimstone."
He nodded. "That's the other thing about the Jiang Shi. Their spirits are restless, because they haven't been avenged. We kill whoever is responsible for killing these people and raising them as hopping corpses, they'll go back to being normal bodies, and they won't do much more than rot." He sighed. "I thought the Manchu was the one behind it, and killing him would solve are the problems, but I reckon now that ain't the case."
"Easy," Hellfire said. "We bust in, find the Manchu, and set him alight until he talks." He snapped his fingers, and a ball of bright orange flame appeared over his hand. Lord Clodderton stepped back in alarm.
"Just a trick the boy does," I replied. "That's all."
"Oh," he whispered. "It's quite a good one. Good show, old boy!"
"Thanks," Hellfire muttered. He turned to his father. "What do you say, old man? We go in hot, guns blazing, find the Manchu and get the answers from him?"
"You think we can hold out against all those hopping corpses?" Brimstone asked. "Might cause some trouble."
"And it ain't worth the risk?"
Brimstone hung his head. "You got a demon in you, boy. That's my fault, but you oughtn't to let it control you. And going in guns blazing, why, that's like enough to letting the demon side of you take total control and lock up the rest of you. I don't want that happening to you."
"Well, what do you suggest?" Hellfire asked, snorting at his father. "You knowing everything we should do and all."
It might have irked Brimstone a bit, his boy giving him lip, but he didn't show no signs of being annoyed. I reckon that a growing youngster will start mouthing off to his father, and getting streaks of independence. Lord knows I was like that when I was young, running off to the war and joining up with the old C.S.A. just because it sounded like some fun adventure. Charles still saw me as his best friend, father and savior all at once, but sometimes I saw that he didn't like what I was doing, and he would tell me about, though always politely and without insult meant. But I had a feeling that might change with time.
Brimstone shook his head. "I don't know, son," he replied. "But going in shooting fire and lead will just end up with one of us getting killed."
We paused for a second. "Does the Manchu know who we are?" Charles asked. "Maybe we could trick him?"
"How do you figure?" I asked.
"Well, we could pretend that we want to help him, and then maybe he'd tell us what caused the opium fiends to turn into Jiang Shi?" Charles said. "If he doesn't know who we are, maybe he'd like having some more friends around, to help him with his scheme."
We all looked at each other. It sounded like a decent enough scheme, but there was a pretty big chance of failure. And if he saw through our ruse, it would come down to gunsmoke and leaping corpses soon enough. Still, it was worth a shot.
Lord Clodderton coughed. "Must I an Blakely participate in this plot?" he asked. "Believe me, I have no love for these dreadful dead fellows, but it does seem rather dangerous, and certain…events may happen to make it even more dangerous. I had better remain out here, with Blakley."
"And get captured and gobbled on down by the Jiang Shi?" Brimstone asked. "No. If we split up, we will fall victim to them with even greater ease." He stared hard at Clodderton, and I could tell he still had some suspicions about the Englishman, and he weren't the only one. "No," he said. "You'll come with us."
We continued walking along the path after that. I drew out both of my pistols and had Charles stay in the middle of the group. He held Winston protectively in his hands, and we looked all around for a sign of the hopping corpses or the Manchu. We could see them on the rooftops and crouched in alleys as we went past the outskirts of the city, but they didn't make no moves against us. I reckoned the Manchu was biding his time.
We got to the town square, and then I turned around and saw that the hopping corpses had been quietly leaping after us, making little hops so as to make a little noise. We was totally surrounded.
"Bastards snuck around us," I whispered to Brimstone, cocking both my Colts. "Thin there's gonna be trouble?"
"Yeah," Brimstone said. "A Hell of it." He raised his Buntline Special and fired into the sky, making all of the hopping corpses crawl back a pace. "O great lord of the dead who rules these Jiang Shi?" Brimstone asked. "We're just a bunch of foreign devils looking to join your growing army! Please accept out humble devotion!" He repeated it in Chinese.
After he said those words, we all waited for a while, wondering if the Manchu was gonna give us the benefit of the doubt, or send his hordes screaming to suck out all of our Chi with their long black tongues. The seconds ticked by, and then we saw all of the hopping corpses, the ones in the alleys and on the rooftops, crouched down and bowing, pushing their heads as low as they would go.
We turned in the direction they was facing, and saw the Manchu walking our way, carried on a litter held up by a bunch of Jiang Shi. The Manchu had been dead for a long time, and it showed. He wore white robes with a big old headdress, and he had a thin, wispy white beard. His skin was rotting away, and I saw maggots and flies crawling around all over him, enjoying their vittles they was making out of his rotten flesh.
He held up his hand and pointed a crooked finger at us, which seemed more bone that flesh. "Who are you?" he asked. "You have come to aid my conquest of these lands? You will swear loyalty to me, and live forever to conquer and die at my command?"
Brimstone bowed his head. "Maybe we could work something out," he said. "We appreciate what you've been doing here, O Manchu."
"Heh! Fools!" The Manchu shook his head. "What good is this, controlling many dead men in Canton, when foreign devils rule everything from Shanghai to Hong Kong? But I must try and take back this country that I once ruled long ago, no matter how difficult." He leaned down on his throne. "Let me test your intentions."
I stepped forward. "How do you intend to do that?" I wondered.
Before I could do anything else, his mouth opened, and his tongue came snaking out. It was like a long black rope, and before my mouth could even close, his tongue spend inside and shot down my throat. It tasted like dark rubber, and I gagged and coughed on it, but couldn't move. Charles ran to my side, and I sank down to the ground. Brimstone pointed his pistol at the Manchu.
"Release him!" Brimstone demanded.
The tongue slipped out of my mouth and back into the Manchu, and sank to the ground with a gasp. It felt like my innards was all rebelling, and was gonna hop out of by body through any exit they could. But more than that, I felt my emotions weakening, like my soul had been scratched. I hugged Charles tightly, and felt tears on my eyes.
"Fools!" the Manchu cried. "I can taste your fear, taste your love and find the truth! You seek to play games with the Lord of the Dead? Then you will surely pay the price." He pointed at us with both of his ancient clawed hands, and the Jiang Shi sprang forward.
I forced the fear and disgust out of my mind. I had to keep Charles safe, and that meant shooting a whole lot of hopping corpses. I stood up, drawing out both my pistols, and started shooting. Brimstone and Hellfire did the same, the three of us blasted the dead men back with loads of carefully placed shots. We blasted brain after brain, but the dead folks were still coming. All of us knew we weren't gonna last long.
Then the Manchu leapt off of his litter and started walking forward. I spun around and pointed both revolvers at his head. "Suck on these, you long dead loser!" I shouted, firing. Quick as lighting, he ducked the shots and then stood up and smiled. "Son of a gun," I whispered. "Brimstone, we'd best get out of here."
"I hear you!" Brimstone shouted. He dashed down the street, drawing his Arkansas toothpick and hacking away the tongue of another Jinag Shi. He used his pistol shots to clear a path, and the rest of us ran after him. Brimstone pointed to a tea house in the corner of the square, which was two stories tall and looked like some good cover. "In there!" he shouted.
We all ran that way, Brimstone kicking open the doors and covering us with his pistol. I stood next to him and blazed away at the onrushing army of the hopping dead, making sure Charles and Winston got inside. The Manchu was walking in the middle of them, just moseying along like he had all the time in the world. He got close to the door, and then leapt forward. I raised my pistol to gun him down, but he grabbed both my hands and snapped them back, pushing my pistols out of the way.
He leaned in close and opened his mouth, and he could see his tongue coiled up inside like a viper, waiting to leap out and suck down my soul. Before he could do anything, Brimstone fired his Buntline into the Manchu's face. That gave him pause, and he let go of my hands long enough for me to pull away and step inside.
"Much obliged," I whispered. "He was gonna lick me good."
"It weren't much," Brimstone muttered. "Except that was my last round." He jumped back as well, and we slammed the double doors shut, then raced to pile furniture against it and keep the hopping corpses out.
They were pounding at the door, cracking the wood through sheer numbers, and sticking their tongues and hands in. I drew out my Bowie knife and hacked up anything that poked inside. But we all knew it weren't gonna last long. I looked back to Brimstone. "Second story," I said.
"Right," he agreed, and up we all dashed, me pausing to help Charles along. Lord Clodderton and Blakely were the first up, followed by me and Charles, and then Brimstone and Hellfire. The younger Brown was still firing his pistols down at the tea house door, as we saw the would shatter and crack inwards, and then the dead came swarming in.
"We can't win," Brimstone whispered, ducking down to reload his Buntline. "They'll swamp us and we can't stop them. We just can't win."
"Hell kind of attitude is that?" I asked, firing down with my six-guns. "We can kill these bastards as fast as they come!"
"But the damn Manchu will just make more of them!" Hellfire cried, drawing out his second pistol. He was getting angrier and angrier, and I could see the wrath coming off of him in waves, like he was burning up from the inside. Hellfire shook his head and snarled. "We gotta find out the cause of the hopping corpses and stop them, so they can rest forever, or else the Manchu will rule them until we're finished for good!"
Despite the hopping dead folks leaping about like big rotting frogs on the tea house floor, I turned around and looked at Blakely. "Got something to say?" I asked.
The butler merely stared at Lord Clodderton. The Lord shook his head and waved his white gloved hands. "Now see here, Blakely, you demanding anything of me is an affront, and I will not stand for it!" He folded his hands and looked away. "It wasn't my fault!" he cried. "These people are savages! It is there fault for falling into such degradation that they would fall prey to such an unfortunate turn of events!"
"What are you going on about, Clodderton?" I demanded.
"I shall not tell you!" Clodderton cried.
I guess Hellfire just had enough of him, because he holstered both of his guns and grabbed Clodderton by his shoulder, then slammed him against one of the tea house's red-painted pillars. Hellfire's hands glowed faintly orange and he leaned in close, grinning at Lord Clodderton and revealing pointed teeth.
"Fess up!" Hellfire cried.
"Well, it's the trade I'm in," Clodderton whispered. "The opium trade."
"You're the one responsible for this?" I asked. "How'd that happen?"
"I wished to save a little capital, so I mixed some old ashes from various graveyards near our headquarters into the shipments." He shrugged. "I suppose they were cursed, and thus ended the lives of those who smoked them. But such mistakes have to be made in the name of business, and by god, England has fought wars to keep the opium trade with China open! It is our god given right!"
While he was talking, Hellfire got madder and madder. His hat was pushed back as his horns grew a little bit more out of his head, and his skin became pinched and drawn, as his eyes flashed red. He gabbed onto Lord Clodderton's throat, and fired came from his hand.
Poor Clodderton's eyes rolled back and his started to scream. "Close your eyes, Charles!" I shouted. "You don't have to see this!" My boy obeyed my command and looked away, holding Winston tightly to him. Poor Lord Clodderton was screaming away as his skin burned, and even I felt a mite sorry for him.
Brimstone simply leveled his revolver at Lord Clodderton and fired. The shot struck the opium peddler right between the eyes, ending his suffering completely. Hellfire's flames flashed off, letting up plumes of smoke.
He looked at Brimstone with rage still burning in his eyes, and both of his hands burst into flame again. "Why'd you do that?" he demanded. "You weak old man! That man had spread addiction and terror through this whole land, killed hundreds, and turned them into Jiang Shi! He deserved to suffer!"
"You're given in to the demon inside of you, boy!" Brimstone cried. "You're letting all manner of Hell get control, and there ain't no turning back from that! I know it seems like justice now, but you'll be bringing it down more and more, and then there's no stopping it."
"Shut up, old man!" Hellfire shouted, swinging a flaming fist at his father.
Quick as could be, Brimstone ducked the blow, then stood up and raised his Arkansas toothpick to Hellfire's throat. Charles and I stepped back, watching the whole thing and too scared to say a word. Below us, the hopping corpses had stopped moving around, and laid down in silence. Like Brimstone said, the man who had caused their deaths and suffering was gone, so their spirits could rest in peace.
Brimstone held the blade there and his son and him both remained motionless. "I know the feeling of it," Brimstone whispered. "You want to let it consume you, to rule you. It wants nothing more than be let loose and to burn all the sinners around. Don't let it."
Hellfire slammed his arm into his father and knocked him back, then leapt from the second story of the tea house. He slammed through the wide windows, fire blazing around all of him as he hovered through the air. Brimstone crumpled to the ground, and Charles and I ran to his side.
"Mr. Brown!" Charles cried, as I helped him up. "What's Hellfire doing? What's going on?"
"The demon…" Brimstone whispered. "He's letting it take control." He stared at me. "I've tasted that power before. It's like….it's like…"
"Like a drug," I muttered. "Reckon I understand how he feels." I dashed down the stairwell and ran outside into the street.
The Manchu stood there, surrounded by the dead hopping corpses. Hellfire Brown floated above him. The Manchu drew a long dagger from his robes and threw it at Hellfire, only for the knife to melt away to nothingness in midair. Hellfire sent a blast of fire out, and it scorched the Manchu's legs, burning the rotting flesh right down to the bone.
"What is this?" the Manchu asked. "What are you doing?"
"It's justice, you miserable old coot," Hellfire whispered. "It's justice, and I'm giving it to you." With that, he sent down a dozen tendrils of flame all over the old living corpse, turning him into ash in seconds. Hellfire kept the ground blazing even after the Manchu was gone. Then he turned around and saw me. His eyes narrowed as he flew down from the sky and landed in front of me.
"Howdy, Mr. Reeper," he said. "Get out of my way. I'm heading to Hong Kong. Gonna find the fools responsible for putting Clodderton back in command, and I'm gonna roast them. Then find out who hired them, and so on and so on. You ought to get out of my way."
"Easy, son," I said, raising my hands. "Just slow down a second. You just think about what's happening to you." He gulped as he drew closer to me, and I started sweating. He was hotter than a tin handle under a blazing sun. "Look, kid, these dead folks here, and me, we had something in common?" I waved a hand to the dead opium fiends.
Hellfire seemed a bit surprised. "What's that?" he asked.
"I worshipped the Dark God for a while," I said. "And the Green Fairy, and liquor, and whatever else I could get my hands on. I did it because I was sad and wanted to get away from the world. And I guess that's sort of what you're doing, being so fed up with everything that you just want to forget it all and burn the world down. But that ain't the right thing to do."
"You saying I'm some pipe-sucking filth?" he asked.
"You're a little like one," I pointed out, and he didn't like that. Fire danced all around him, and I thought he was gonna fry me up good.
"What's wrong with that, then?" Hellfire demanded. "Maybe this world deserves to burn! Maybe I ought to let the demon take control, and set fire to everything! You gonna give me a reason why not?"
"Sure," I said. "You got a father that loves you and doesn't want you throwing away your life." I looked up and saw Charles, standing next to Brimstone and watching the while thing through the upper window of the tea house. "He's the reason I got out of my funk, Hellfire. I didn't mind losing contact with the world, but he did, and I couldn't let the little fellow down." I looked back to Hellfire. "And he thinks you're about the greatest thing in the world, son, same with your father. Don't let them down. Don't let me down."
Hellfire's flames slowly flickered away, and his horns ceased their growing. When he smiled at me, his teeth weren't pointed. "All right," he said. "I guess it's all done anyhow." He looked back at his father. "I'm sorry I slugged you, old man."
"It's all right, Hellfire," Brimstone replied.
He, Charles and Blakely walked down from the upper story of the tea house and joined us outside. We looked at all the dead hopping corpses, that weren't hopping no more, and the pile of ash that was the Manchu.
I turned to Blakely. "Sorry about your master getting killed, Blakely," I said. "Hope you won't hold it against us."
He shrugged. "Eh, he had it coming," he replied simply, the first words I had ever heard him speak. "So, let's get out of here, eh?"
"Sounds like a plan," I agreed, and we quickly left that village to the vultures.
After that, it weren't too hard to find our way to Hong Kong. We came across a large road that had carriages and wagons rolling down to Hong Kong, and me and Charles were able to catch a ride. Blakely headed off on his own, looking to find some other employer, hopefully one a little better than Lord Clodderton.
Brimstone and Hellfire was heading off too, but there were going back to Europe. Brimstone explained the reasoning. "Want to get moving, before Hellfire relapses or something. And I hear something's gonna on in Turkey, in Constantinople." He shook my hand. "If you're around there, we could use your help."
"Sure thing," I agreed. "Long as it don't get too much in the way of sightseeing. Me and the boy are gonna tour around here for a bit, and then take the train back to Europe. Maybe we could fit in a stop in Constantinople."
Charles nodded. He carried Winston, not wanting the armadillo to get tired from all the walking. "I would like to see everything there." He turned to Hellfire. "I hope I see you again, Mr. Brow-I mean, Hellfire."
"Take care, kid," Hellfire agreed.
He and his old man headed off then, and Charles and I took off along the cobblestone road. After a while, we found a wagon that was heading our way, and I paid the driver so that we could sit on the back, our suitcases on our laps.
"Mr. Reeper?" Charles asked, all sudden-like. "Are you ever going to get addicted to anything like opium? Ever again?" There was real fear in his voice.
"Never," I said quickly, putting my arm around him. "And all on account of you."
He smiled at me, and we let the wagon take us down to Hong Kong, and the next stage of our Grand Tour.