Annie, Get Your Gun!
By R. J. Keith
The can exploded in a spray of red beans and slime.
"Nice shot, Annie," her father said, trying hard to keep pride out of his voice.
Annie rolled her eyes and pulled the slide back, loading another round into the chamber. "Daddy, I'm tired of shooting cans. They don't move. Can't I shoot something that moves? Mrs. Larson down the lane says she's got a terrible prairie dog problem."
Her father's face, stern at the best of times, clouded. "What have I told you, Annie?"
"Don't shoot the living, only the dead. But daddy-"
"Don't but me, little girl. Focus on your cans."
But they don't move, she thought in a whine. Zombies moved. How was she gonna kill zombies if all she ever practiced on was cruddy old cans? Then again, maybe her daddy was crazy, just like everyone said.
Zombies aren't real. Everyone said so. Everyone said that her daddy was just a crazy old man that spent too much time listening to the radio and not enough time attending to his daughter's serious lack in education. Besides, zombies were just war stories told by addle-brained soldiers with nothing better to do. Or worse, they were Northern rumors. And good Southern folk couldn't be bothered by rumors.
But there were stories coming out of the battlefield.
Why, just yesterday the would-be Mrs. Applecott came crying to the salon, telling anyone who would listen that her fiancé had finally seen enough battle to make his mind leave him for good. Annie was only there because her daddy told her it was good to have women company. Never mind that she wanted to be out on her pony, gun on her shoulder, shooting cards in half. Womenfolk were supposed to be good for the soul. Them and their delicate ways of doing things.
Annie remembered how the would-be Mrs. Applecott blew her too-large nose into an equally large hankie, her eyes a black mess of heavy make-up and tears.
"He's done and lost it!" the woman cried. "Oh my poor Henry!"
She wouldn't let anyone look at the letter, kept it crumpled in one hand while she boo-hooed and made the other girls pity her.
But Annie had looked.
People said her daddy was crazy. Maybe Henry Applecott was crazy then, too, because he talked about how an entire regiment was slaughtered and eaten by things that looked exactly like the regiment they had mowed down earlier that very day. It was a miracle that Mr. Henry Applecott even got out alive. And maybe he wouldn't be alive for very much longer because he had been bitten. And no one knew what a bite would do.
And there had been the late night meetings over the radio. Her daddy hunched over it by the still-running boiler, talking in low tones to someone she couldn't hear, about something she didn't understand.
Maybe her daddy was crazy.
But if he was crazy, why would he teach her how to shoot? Sure it had been for fun to start off with, something he did because Momma hadn't given him a son, before Momma died of the fever. But he got over that pretty quick. Annie was good with a gun. She could shoot a card in half. It was easy.
Sure in later years someone would accuse her of cheating because of her telescopic eye, but that wouldn't be true. Annie didn't cheat. She took her eye out before she shot.
So maybe her daddy was crazy. Maybe Henry Applecott was crazy. Everyone said so. But Annie trusted her daddy. He was the sheriff of the town. He had gotten them out of scraps before, like when that mean old Mr. Talbert came down from Oklahoma City rantin' and ravin' about Jericho Copperplate stealing all of his business.
Never mind that Jericho Copperplate was the best welder in all of the great State of Oklahoma and that Mr. Talbert was selling cheap copper imitation off as the real thing. Daddy got that sorted out right quick.
Daddy nodded. "Good girl. That's enough for today. Head inside."
"I'll get supper cooked," she said, handing her daddy the gun.
"I'll be in soon."
She knew he wanted to take a few shots himself, but not with the rifle he let her use. He wanted to make sure his left arm was still as good as it used to be. That business with Mr. Talbert had seen her daddy lose an arm to a well-placed bullet and the gangrene. In its place was one of Jericho Copperplate's finest pieces of work. A fully moveable mechanical arm. It shone brilliantly in the fading sunlight. Her daddy kept it well oiled. The little pistons in the fingers, wrist, and elbow needed to be slick at all times. To keep it working, he said. She left her daddy standing by the fence, Colt balanced on the arm with the skin around it, staring at the remaining cans, eyes narrowed. She watched him.
Slow and easy. Squeeze the trigger, little girl, don't pull it.
The can went flying. She cheered her daddy silently. He was the best shot ever. In the whole state, even. Catching a whiff of something, she sniffed then turned to the house. Had her daddy left the stove on? She always cooked the meals and sometimes he liked to give the boiler hidden underneath their pot belly stove time to heat up. Their steam cooker, one of those newfangled things out of the North that was supposed to make life better for them, kept going on the fritz. They used their little pot belly, thank you very much, and were happy with it.
Another can went flying. The smell got stronger, sharper, with an ashy undertone. Her daddy's head jerked up, nose flaring.
"Annie," he said.
"Get your gun and come with me."
Smoke. A fire. That's what that smell was. Her daddy ran, gun in hand. Annie followed him, picking up the rifle he left lying on the grass. A sharp wind kicked up as they ran down the lane toward Mrs. Larson's--with the terrible prairie dog problem--cottage with the white picket fence and the red, red, red barn now bleeding flames and smoke. Screams pierced Annie's ears. She stopped, suddenly very afraid. Horses streamed from the open doors, running right into the hungry mouths of dead people.
Her daddy wasn't crazy after all. The rifle jumped to her shoulder. Her finger hovered over the trigger. She shuddered, terrified.
One of the dead things fell down, arms outstretched toward her daddy. He looked back once, held up his own gun. Annie nodded, tongue sticking out of the corner of her mouth. Her daddy disappeared into the cottage, looking for survivors. In the distance Annie heard the wail of the fire brigade. The thought of flagging them down came to her mind. She dismissed it with a jerk of her head. Her daddy needed her here to keep the path clear. From the sounds of the screams at least one of the Larson daughters was alive.
"Wahoo!" she cried out as she pulled the slide back. "Nailed two with one shot!" She needed to keep her head. Shouting seemed the best way to do things. The empty casings fell out of the gun with a clink. Excited now, she held the gun to her shoulder and returned to shooting. Both eyes open.
The sirens got closer.
Her daddy ran from the house toward her, a bundle in his arms. It was Mrs. Larson's oldest daughter Sara, sniveling and crying and clinging to Annie’s daddy like some silly damsel in distress from those stupid fairy tales her daddy tried to read her when she was little. He lowered the girl beside Annie.
"Don't let her out of your sight, little girl," he told Annie. "I'll be back with the others."
There's more? Annie wondered wildly. She'd been able to keep her own hysteria at bay by shooting. If she didn’t get back to it soon, she wasn’t sure what would happen to her. Sara Larson turned her clinging hold onto Annie, gripping Annie’s shoulder with white knuckles. Daddy ran back down the hill.
"Get off of me!" Annie yelled, shrugging off the mewling Sara.
"No!" Sarah cried. "Don't leave me!"
"I ain't gonna leave you, stupid."
Annie shouldered her gun again, took aim.
Sara looked up at her with wild eyes.
The fire brigade swung into view. Men ran around, carrying buckets and a machine that was supposed to create a foam to snuff out the fire quick.
"Wait!" Annie yelled as they ran.
Sara looked toward the sound, eyes dry. "Annie?"
Oh no. Annie swallowed hard.
She shouldered her gun, but there were no more zombies to shoot. None she could see.
"Annie," Sara said. "You got another gun?"
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