She approached without fear, shotgun loaded with what few bullets she could scavenge. Her soft brown locks, matted in some spots, bounced with her quick pace, rocks and twigs and dead grass crunching under her worn boots. How she’d love a new pair . . .
She drummed her fingers nervously against the long gun in her grip, hazel-green eyes focused on the camp growing bigger with each stride. Stealth wasn’t her plan, but she feared the rowdy drunks inside would detect her from the way her heart thumped against her chest alone. It took everything not to turn around and forget about what she came for.
But then again, she had nothing to lose.
The Earp family, her family, could’ve been safe in the homestead, so far from their small town and even further from the city. No one in the city stood a chance when the Cordyceps hit them, so how could the small town of Purgatory possibly? They were lucky to get some warning. But everything still went to shit in a blink. Small town, limited resources, nearly nowhere to hide . . .
They had been enjoying an afternoon lunch at Shorty’s, really the town hangout. Though Ward Earp, like most, had been a drinker and never bothered with anywhere else anyway. For once, unfortunate in this case, everyone Waverly Earp loved was here. Her burly, good-enough beau Champ Hardy was showing off on the mechanical bull. Shorty himself, Aunt Gus, and Uncle Curtis shared old stories at the bar. Her father’s close friend Robert Svane shared a drink and a laugh on his hour off. He was the only one who could make Willa Earp laugh, something that was probably best for everyone. And Wynonna Earp finally strolled into town from who-knows-where, bottle of whiskey in hand, unfiltered opinions of Champ’s bull riding and personality as a whole spewing from her lips and into his ears, threatening his concentration each attempt at his own record time.
Everyone heard of the virus spreading around the country’s big cities and select small counties. Still they tried to go about their normal lives, some unconvinced the end of the world was really happening. A handful left Purgatory for loved ones elsewhere and most continued their eight hours working in the day and eight hours hiding indoors from the snow at night. Then that kind gentlemen passing by from the city turned and turned others in a flash. If Ward Earp was the sober type of sheriff he’d have actually hit the man before he spread his disease, before Uncle Curtis was bit, before Aunt Gus was bit, before Shorty himself was bit, before Wynonna quite literally yanked her youngest sister over the bar and to the safety of outside.
They assumed the homestead would be safe, and for a while it was. It seemed like the perfect place, a sanctuary compared to the real purgatory becoming of their town. But then Ward returned from a long hike to the overridden city not because he was protecting the people as sheriff but because he was scavenging supplies like a father. Though as usual all he could return with was mostly alcohol.
And this time, a bite he was too drunk to notice.
He and Robert argued for what felt like an eternity, Robert safely locked inside with the girls and Ward rightfully stuck out on the porch. Willa, always loathing her father, happily helped Robert in convincing the man to stay out and away. Waverly stood in the background, thinking not of her still-missing boyfriend—or ever, really—but of how they were about to lose another member of their family. She hoped her mother, wherever she was, was safe.
That’s when Ward let his gun off. Infected poured in from nowhere despite them already being nowhere—a lesson no one ever forgot: guns were to be an absolute last resort. Then Ward was being grabbed and Wynonna kicked the front door open, taking her father’s and family’s treasured Colt Buntline in her own hands and putting him down. Dying was always better than turning. At least, that’s what she believed. Waverly always thought different. In this horror of a world they were learning to know, surely there’d be some way to save that person?
They skipped town after that. Purgatory simply had no more supplies, and liberating areas holding the things they needed were too dangerous to even look at.
Robert gathered what they had left, packed the truck, poured in the remainder of their collected fuel, and they were off to the next town, then the next and the next. Really, they tried to keep moving. Maybe staying still was worse than moving around.
Until somewhere along the line they met other survivors, mostly hailing from Purgatory. And lacking leadership. They were delinquents but somehow soft-spoken Robert Svane could talk to them. That’s where his mousy personality died and he became tougher, harder, crueler, now reborn as Bobo Del Rey, someone who knew what to do always and how to protect his own—even if it meant tossing some out.
The three Earp girls weren’t tossed out. They left. It was all just too much, beginning with some turning to cannibalism and preying on innocent travelers and ending with torturing said “food” until it was their time to be the night’s main course. A map that suddenly appeared in the Earp sisters’ quarters was the final push, even if they had no reason to trust the thing. But a detailed mystery map was still better than sticking around with a group of madmen. It’d only be a matter of time before they lost their minds, too.
Better yet, someway, somehow along the way another group—gang, more like—rose and began a massive turf war for the former thumb-sized town Bobo’s men cleared months ago. The lead challenger being Lou, another Purgatorian even mousy Robert wasn’t fond of—meaning Bobo had no patience for the man. It got to a point people killed each other as if gaining points in some sick game.
In the middle of it all, desperately trying to leave this deathtrap of a town, was Wynonna and Waverly Earp, now absent of their murdered older sister, armed with nothing more than a Colt Buntline, a shotgun, a handful of bullets, and whatever they could carry on their backs. Neither felt shame in stealing from either party. They’d be out of here soon, anyway, and these people were nothing past awful.
But then Wynonna went missing. She left to do some honest hunting in the generous woods surrounding this nightmare of a place but never returned. Waverly was supposed to get a move on as they discussed in this particular scenario, at least find a new place to hide or try for an opening her size in the stretching, barbed fence by the area’s only safe exit. They found travelling through the woods to freedom was worse than crossing through the groups. Men were always here, local or not, and the wildlife was unkind. Even hunting was suicide. But Waverly wasn’t leaving. There was no way Wynonna Earp was carved up by some four-legged mutt or two-legged forest freak. If she wasn’t in town on her own she was with one of these damned gangs. Alive or not, Waverly needed to find her. Wynonna was all she had left.
And so she marched into the camp occupied by Lou’s men, not Bobo’s, shotgun held tightly in her hands, heart thumping, feet aching in crappy old boots, crunching whatever littered the ground under her heels.
She ignored the threats at the conquered space’s front gate. Its guards, in utter disbelief, stared as she strolled in as if she belonged, gun not even cocked or pointed anywhere but upward, resting still in her grip.
The men inside weren’t as amused, though some laughed, beer bottles in hand, and others, weapons in hand, threatened her off. She cared none. She only clenched her jaw, took a nervous breath and made her demands.
“Give me back my sister, assholes!” she asked of them, none of the usual Waverly Earp kindness in her tone. More laughter, then guns cocked and pointed. She tried not to look as scared as she felt.
“Piss off, Baby Earp,” someone warned.
“Ain’t no one seen that nympho,” another chimed. Her grip tightened.
“Look,” she tried, “give her back and we’ll be on our way, I swear.” They had to be lying, right? No way Bobo’s men nabbed Wynonna. No way something got her in the woods.
“No one’s got or seen her,” the first man reassured in a sharp, annoyed tone. “Now get the fuck out before someone shoots that pretty little face off.”
Her shotgun snapped to attention, aiming at the men with shaking hands. They were lying. They had to be. This is the only place Wynonna could be. If Bobo had her it’d be hell to get her back, especially alone and with half a pocket of shotgun shells.
People were shouting, laughing, swearing, making promises of dropping the light from Waverly’s life with the simple pull of a trigger. And once that trigger’s pulled, it can’t be taken back, expected results or not.
So another entered the scene, greatly understanding this concept, having experienced its ugly truth. Something about her made Waverly stare, even forget her troubles for a moment, as if she had some sort of mystical energy about her. This woman was tall, focused on pulling and tightening a red holster to her hips. The silver and black pistol was tucked away, not out and reflecting the trash can fires of the camp like a mirror. She looked tired as all hell, red hair pulled in a messy bun and a look in her eyes only a college student in the old world held, one of pure exhaustion. It didn’t appear she’d been drinking and laughing about whatever with the others, but maybe doing something reasonable with her time.
“Come now boys,” she muttered, voice groggy with sleep.
Waverly could pick up a slight accent. While she found this, oddly, cute, the woman approaching hated the way it sounded. But with the world where it was now, she didn’t care much making a fuss to change it.
She stopped her walking, long legs really reaching a distance, directly in front of the youngest Earp. Some lowered their guns, some started to ignore the situation, and some even left for private quarters. What, was she the riot mediator or something?
“Let’s not make a scene. It’s blowin’ past midnight and I’m not in the mood for clearin’ out Infected.”
“Troublemaker in our place, officer,” a man with long blond hair and the universe’s most unamused expression happily tattled. “Our place.”
She inspected Waverly, flames dancing in her reflective, dark eyes. After a moment she let out a laugh, one that warned Waverly to tighten her grip on that black-as-night shotgun.
“Troublemaker?” The woman asked the few men still offended by Waverly’s presence. Others, by now, went about their business, as if this sort of thing happened often. “This one?”
“She’s a damn Earp!” the same long-haired man nearly shouted. He looked ready to pull that trigger.
“Ah,” the woman crossed her arms, “Earps comin’ lookin’ for trouble?” She indicated Waverly to those who were still riled up, still frothing at the mouth with rage. “So why’s there one? And the small one, at that?” She looked back to Waverly now, letting out another laugh that made her feel quite small. “Can you even shoot that without fallin’ flat on your ass? ‘Cause I could trade you a pistol. More Baby Earp sized.”
This woman was beginning to grow less cute.
But, Waverly was noticing, there were less and less men tuning into the situation by the second. Was she helping?
“Small or not,” the man with the long hair and clearly unbrushed teeth went on, “she’s an Earp. A thief! You’re not doin’ your bullshit good cop show. Not tonight.” He raised his gun and Waverly instinctively jerked hers to point at him. “Not on a damn thievin’ Earp!”
The woman sighed, pistol still holstered. But Waverly could see her eyes were fixed tightly on this man’s weapon. It even looked the firearm made her uncomfortable.
“I think you’re just a little drunk, Carl. You should go sit down.” Her tone, a bit teasing before, was serious and cold as stone now.
“Don’t take me in, officer,” he continued, waving his cocked gun about. The woman’s eyes didn’t leave the weapon. Neither did Waverly’s. “Why do we listen to her, anyway?” He searched in his colleagues for an answer. A good chunk of the camp went back to drinking, silently now, trying their best to ignore the whole scene. He, Carl, huffed and looked back to the tall woman, eyes still tired, arms crossed, and face as unamused as his. “Why do we listen to you?”
“Because I’m the only one here who hates chaos,” she shot back. “Now go back to drinkin’ and I’ll handle this. Tell that story again, the one about the bar fight you won with nothin’ but the legs of your chair.”
He returned to his place before and slumped back into his seat—fell, really—and slurped from his beer, resuming a poker game and telling a story, probably the one suggested judging by the collective groan from his peers.
The undeniably gorgeous redhead Waverly was oddly fascinated with (maybe even attracted to?) flashed the softest smile she’d ever seen, before or after the Outbreak, dimples popping from her cheeks.
“Thank you so much for not shootin’,” she said, voice much gentler now than before. “I didn’t mean any of that, I swear. It’s just easier to deal with them by bein’ as much of an ass as they are. I’ve sort of become the welcome committee here, since they blast anyone who comes close. Personally, I only got in for makin’ a rude poke. How’re we supposed to get new people if they just run ‘em off?”
“I guess that doesn’t make much sense,” Waverly agreed slowly, the fear bottling up in her stomach easing greatly.
“So what can I do you for? I knew you Earps were bold, but damn.” She smiled still, indicating the long gun in Waverly’s grip. The proud Earp hesitantly lowered the thing, not leaving her grip, not until the tall redhead stuck out her hand. Waverly slowly slung the gun over her shoulder and shook the woman’s outstretched hand, warm and gripping impossibly gently.
“Looking for my sister,” Waverly re-established, taking back her own hand and gripping her gun’s strap on her shoulder. “Though I’m seeing how terrible an idea this was now.”
“You were just worried’s all.” The woman assured. It certainly made Waverly feel better. “I did hope you Earp girls made it out. But then I’d miss the way your sister’s mouth riled the boys up. Anyway, I promise you she’s not here. If she were things wouldn’t be so calm.”
Waverly didn’t buy it. She couldn’t. “Come on, officer—um—” She shook her head. The personal appeal tactic wouldn’t work without a damn name. “It’s important. I swear you’ll never see us again. She can’t be anywhere else.”
“Haught,” the woman offered. “Nicole Haught.”
Haught, Waverly thought. Of course.
“And officer no more, so . . .” She sighed after a short pause. “I swear I’m not lyin’.” Her honey eyes, reflecting beautifully against the fire-lit camp, searched across the way, where Bobo’s setup stood, doing no different than the current men around the two. “Wrong camp, maybe?”
“Can’t be,” Waverly stubbornly rebutted. Nicole noted the way she anxiously clawed at that shotgun strap.
“Well—Waverly, right?” The girl nodded in confirmation. “Well, Waverly—and the others’ll hate that I mentioned this—I don’t know if you noticed but it looks like there’s some other third group hidin’ out in the woods. That’s what everyone here thinks, anyway.”
“Why’s that?” she asked desperately, eyes wde. Wherever this was going, whether it was true or false, she was ready to investigate. Anything but invading Bobo Del Rey’s unwelcoming fortress. Especially as a wanted, thieving deserter.
“Plenty of us have gone missin’, too. At first we blamed Bobo, but same problem over there. Every person that went missin’ was in the woods.”
“So was Wynonna.” Waverly pinched the bridge of her nose. “A haunting’s really not what I needed right now.”
“I’m sure she’s fine,” Nicole offered. Waverly’s hazel-green eyes met Nicole’s browns. How one person could be so kind in their dead and broken world was mind blowing. Especially when said person was a member of Lou’s gang, of all things. Former officer or not.
“Appreciate the intel. I, uh, I guess I’ll be on my way now.”
“Do you know the area well?” the redhead asked as Waverly made to leave. “We’d love to clear it out but no one’s ever crossed too far into the place. Damn coyotes and whatnot.”
“I do, yeah.” Of course this was a lie. She and Wynonna stayed in the same place and hunted in the same place for weeks now, one person always stayed at camp, and they never slept at the same time. But if this Nicole Haught was offering, the numbers proved valuable, no question about it.
“I mean, I’ll get my ass roasted, but how’d you like to help us out? Like a guide? Maybe we’ll run into Wynonna?”
“Why even bother?” Not that Waverly didn’t want the help. But a member of Lou’s gang? Offering help? Why?
“Can’t leave a pretty lady to fend for herself. Or maybe that’s just the officer in me.”
Waverly cleared her throat. Her face reddened and her heart pounded, a delightfully different sensation from before; it was still a nervous fear, but not the type that came with the possibility of getting your head blown off.
“What about ugly ladies?” she tried to play it cool. She was rewarded with the sight of those damn dimples again.
“Oh Miss Earp,” Nicole laughed, “there’s no such thing as an ugly lady.” She stuck out her hand again. “Deal?”
Waverly gladly agreed, once again grabbing the former officer’s warm, soft hand, this time flashing her own dimples and sneaking a look back into those eyes.
“Come back next sundown. Sneaking around at night is better, I’ve learned.” Waverly nodded in agreement; she and Wynonna learned this, too. “Try not to do anythin’ too crazy until then.”
Waverly watched as her new ally walked off. By now Wynonna’d explain, in detail, why this was a terrible idea. Why everything would turn upside down the second they came back tomorrow, when even the sun was over with the day: because trust died with the world, and there’s no such thing besides a shady human or an infected human. But Wynonna wasn’t here. And Nicole Haught wasn’t infected or shady. Tomorrow, at sun fall, everything would be right-side up.
That’s just how it had to be.