The Magic Gumball Machine, Pt XII
By Wil Forbis
They were quite a sight, the four of them, walking - hobbling - down Lincoln Boulevard towards the center of Honey Bluff. Duke Haffert, two rifles slung around his shoulder, clutched his broken hand with his good one and made no effort to deny the group the pleasure of his grumbling. Brian Thompson seemed in remarkably good shape having survived a head on automobile collision, but walked with a noticeable limp. Tom Humphries was starting to feel the swelling of bruises caused by his tumble of into the Honey Bluff marshes. Only Reginald Washington, who had for the most part escaped injury in the night's adventures, was able to walk ahead of the group at a faster pace.
They were still far outside the town's center. To their left was mostly farmland and forest. Occasionally one could catch site of a house several hundred yards removed from the main road, but caution prevented any one of the group from suggesting they pay visit to the inhabitants. Off to their right was the open sky above the Honey Bluff marshes. As the full moon cast a warm glow about the area, one could develop the very mistaken impression that everything was right with the world.
As the men walked, they chatted. Tom explained to Brian Thompson the full story, much as he knew it, behind the events of the past week. He tensed when he had to reveal to the bereaved father that it might have been his candies that caused the fatal transformation of Thompson's only son. But Brian did not become angry or show any emotion at all. Instead he just took a swig from his bottle of gin and stared at the road.
The plan, as much as there was one, was simple. Lincoln Boulevard ran straight into downtown Honey Bluff. Once there, they could apprehend yet another vehicle and continue the journey to Delsburgh where they could summon help. They were well aware of the dangers - there was no telling whom they'd run into when they got into more populated areas - but they were out of ideas.
The group had been walking for a half hour when the forested area to their left opened up to a flatter dirt plane. In the center of this area were the industrial train tracks that ran just outside of the town, the same ones they'd crossed trying to avoid Damien and his hot rod. They appeared over the western horizon and ran under Lincoln Boulevard off towards the east.
Suddenly, a thought occurred to Tom.
"Anyone have the time?"
Reginald reached into his back pocket and produced a watch. "3:34."
"Perfect," Tom replied. "There's a 3:50 freight heading east."
"The train, you mean?" asked Haffert. "What good is that gonna do us?"
"See up ahead?" Tom pointed. "Where the Lincoln Bridge goes over the tracks."
"Yeah," replied Haffert. "So?"
"I've watched those trains pass under that bridge since I was a kid. They never go more than twenty, twenty-five miles per hours."
Haffert's eye's widened. "You don't mean."
"Yup," said Tom. "When the train goes under the bridge we can drop down onto one of the luggage cars. We can get out of here without ever going into downtown."
"That's crazy," said Haffert. "That's gotta be a ten foot drop. Onto a moving vehicle!"
"I've seen more than a few hobos do it," Tom advised. "I'm not saying it'll be pretty, but it's possible. It about as safe as walking into a town filled with God knows what."
Brian Thompson nodded his head. "I did it myself once as a kid. Caught it right into the Delsburgh terminal."
"See?" said Tom. "We can do this!"
Reginald scratched his head. "I'm game to give it a try. Like Tom says, it's only as dangerous as the rest of our options."
"But. but." Haffert stammered.
Tom spoke. "Look, I know what you're worried about. You think a big guy like yourself is more likely to go flying off the top of the train once you land. But if Reginald and I go first, we can do our best to grab onto you when you plop down."
"But." repeated Haffert.
"C'mon," said Reginald giving the bearded man a playful punch on the shoulder. "It really is our best chance."
Haffert sighed. "All right. But if I die, I'm gonna kill you."
"Let's speed things up then," Tom advised. "It's still a ways to the bridge. We're gonna have to jog."
Reginald ran ahead of the rest of the group, while everyone else did their best to move at a faster pace. Within ten minutes they were overlooking the train tracks from Lincoln Boulevard. Reginald checked his watch. "Should be along shortly," he confirmed.
The four men leaned over the bridge and looked to the west, eyes peeled for what could be their salvation. Tom's gaze wandered northward to where the beginnings of Honey Bluff's inhabited areas occurred. The most identifiable sight was the Hurly Family Tow Yard, an automotive graveyard for decaying cars that Papa Hurly or one of his numerous sons had picked up. Piled around his lot had to be at least forty automobile carcasses, including two three axel freight trucks and several bulldozers. Some still had some life left in them and were marked with "For Sale" signs, but the others lay immobile, quietly gathering rust while being cannibalized for spare parts.
"What time now?" Haffert asked.
"It's only been a couple minutes, Duke," Tom scolded. "It'll be along."
For a few minutes, the only sounds that could be heard was Reginald tapping his fingers on the concrete bridge rail and Brian Thompson taking the occasional swing of gin. There was no sign of the train
Finally Tom couldn't help himself. "Can you check your watch again, Reginald?"
"I just did," came his reply. "3:55. Are you sure you got the time right?"
"It passes through at 3:50 A.M." said Tom. "It's been that way for years." He strained his eyes over the horizon looking for any sign of an approaching train. Nothing. His stare swept over the area, and stopped at what looked like a figure moving about in Hurly's yard. "What the-"
"Hey," exclaimed Reginald. "Listen!"
Haffert cocked his head in the air. "I hear it! A whistle."
There was no mistaking the sound off in the distance. A train whistle tooting above the sound of steel wheels rolling along the tracks. Within seconds the locomotive's headlight appeared in the distance.
"You were right, Tom," said Brian. "Good job."
"Sure," said Tom. "Just a little late, that's all."
The men watched in anticipation as the train traveled across the plain and approached their vantage point on the bridge. It was a short train, maybe ten cars, and just as Tom had said it would, it was traveling slow. Even Haffert had to agree it wouldn't be hard to leap down to the top of one of the cars and catch a ride out of town.
"The trick is to wait for the last several cars," Tom advised. "They'll be less likely to hear us that way. We can go two at a time. Reginald and I first, then-"
Suddenly a new sound cut above the trains rotating wheels. It was the throaty roar of a car engine, but not one on Lincoln. The group's collected eyes followed the sound over to the junkyard near the tracks. One of Hurly's abandoned vehicles, an eight cylinder truck had its lights on and exhaust was coming out of its tailpipe.
"What the crap," said Haffert. "Who is that?"
"Hurly or his boys," said Brian quietly. "But what's he doing?"
As they watched, the truck shifted gears and began to move. It was pointed south, headed right for the wooden fence that separated the junkyard from the tracks. Gathering momentum the black truck plowed through the fence and up the dirt hump upon which ran the train tracks. Dirt spinning in its wheels, the truck managed to climb the hill and came to a rest right on the twin metal rails.
"Jesus Christ!" said Reginald. "What is this idiot doing?"
"I think he knows exactly what he's doing," said Haffert. "He's going to stop the train."
The approaching train caught site of the vehicle on the tracks and blared it horn as a warning. The conductor hit the brakes and a piercing wail cut through the night.
Moving quickly, a man hopped out of the cab of the truck and walked around his vehicle. He stood on the tracks between his vehicle and the oncoming train. The train was heading right towards him and it was extremely questionable whether it would stop in time.
"Damn fool," muttered Haffert. "He's gonna be squirshed!"
"It's gotta be one of them," said Reginald. "He must have turned. It's just like McDouglas."
The train continued to slow its approach, the shrill call of the brakes still numbing Tom's eardrums. He wasn't sure, but he thought he recognized the man - one of Hurly's sons. Ned. Ted. something like that.
Finally the train came to a halt just a few feet before the man and his truck. The squeal of the brakes stopped. The engineer poked his head out of the window and let forth a stream of expletives.
The man - Ned Hurly, that was his name - looked over at the junkyard and raised one hand. Suddenly two sets of headlights lit up and a couple of engines roared to life. A second later, two of the freight trucks started moving across the lot, headed for the train. They plowed through the fence and veered down towards the metal locomotive.
Tom saw the expression on the conductor's face transform from anger to fear. He stared wide-eyed at the encroaching assault and then disappeared inside the lead car.
The first freight truck hit the hilly upslope of the dirt hump and flew up in the air. It came down, nose first, right onto the engineer's cars. There was the sound of crushing metal and breaking glass as both the truck and train crumpled from the contact. Seconds later the second truck hit the third train car. The impact was much more pronounced; the truck's engine exploded and for a few seconds the night sky was lit up with the flash of burning gasoline.
Both collisions had their effect on the train's ability to stand on the track. The first car keeled over, dragging the second down with it. Half of the third car rose up in the air, but its southernmost wheels stayed on the tracks. The locking grip connecting the two cars let out a low moan under the strain.
The group on the bridge grimaced as they watched their escape plucked from their grasp. Tom breathed in deep, tasting a mixture of automobile fumes and burnt flesh, the byproduct of the second truck driver's deranged suicide.
Then more figures appeared in the Hurly junkyard. The entire Hurly clan of twenty or so individuals was suffering the effects of the gumball mutation. Young, old, male and female, blisters covering their bodies; they all ran across the length of their yard towards the train. They had clearly been waiting, like spiders for the fly, to spring their trap. They clamored up the hill and began pushing on the third car. "Heave," Papa Hurly, a robust, bearded man in his seventies, could be heard to call out. "Heave." With each successive push the train's wheels strained harder to stay on the track.
Finally, they were successful. The third car toppled over, followed, like dominoes, by the fourth through tenth car. With a calamitous series of pounding that could be heard for miles they all crashed to the ground. The glass windows of each car shattered and an thin metallic dust rose in the air.
"Sweet motherfucking Jesus." muttered Reginald. "Why would they do this? Did they know what we wanted to do?"
"I don't think they even know we're here," replied Haffert. "But even after going bonkers, they're doing what they always did: scavenging. That's all that family ever was good for."
As if to illustrate Haffert's pont, the entire Hurly family, from 80-year old aunts to 10-year old grandchildren descending upon their feast, dismantling metals doors and unscrewing giant wheels. Two of the Hurly brothers leapt atop the now fallen front car and dropped down through the door. Within a minute they reappeared with three of the train operators in tow. The men were obviously dazed, two of them bleeding from the head. The Hurlys pushed and carried the gentlemen up the hill where they were surrounded by several more of the clan.
"Uh-oh," said Tom. "This doesn't look good." Haffert removed one of the rifles slung around his shoulder and wrapped his paws around it.
The youngest of the train operators, barely out of his teens, was bleeding and crying. The fear on his face was obvious even from a distance. Ned Hurly grabbed the lad with a puss oozing arm and screamed. He pushed the engineer backwards against the throng of other family members who then grabbed at the young man, ripping his clothing. The older conductor struggled against the Hurly brother who was holding him. With surprising strength he broke free and dove at Ned, attacking him from behind. But the junkyard heir, obviously strengthened from the gumball mutation easily tossed the train conductor off him, sending the man reeling to the ground. Other family members grabbed the man by his arms and legs, holding him still on the ground. Ned towered over the conductor, pointing and screaming. Then he dropped down, implanting his knees on the man's chest. He knelt and brought his face close to the conductor's and horrible, gurgling screams filled the night. When Ned pulled his face back it was clear what he'd done. Like a wolf, he'd removed the man's throat from his neck.
"Sunnavabitch!" exclaimed Haffert. He raised the rifle and took aim.
"Duke - No!" Tom called out.
A rifle shot cracked through the air. Then another. And another.
Ned Hurly stumbled back, confused by the sound and pings of dirt flying up in the air. Then he realized what was happening and gazed up at the interlopers above. He let out a monstrous roar and pointed them out to his family.
POW! This time Haffert didn't miss. The rifle shot his Ned directly in his forward. The back of his skull turned into crushed grapefruit and spattered onto the earth behind him. Silently, his body crumpled to the ground.
A chorus of dumbfounded cries arose from the rest of the Hurly family. Papa Hurly ran over to the body of his deceased son and let loose a below of rage.
"Terrific," Tom sarcastically announced. "Now they know where we are."
"Don't matter," replied Haffert. "If they try and come up here we can pick them off easy." He raised the rifle and fired off a few more shots. One of them hit another Hurly brother in the shoulder and he fell to ground in a stupefied rage.
"These ones seem different," noted Reginald. "They're not like that Damien kid, or McDouglas. They're. stupider."
"The Hurlys were never too bright to begin with," explained Brian. "Let's just say they're especially close relations."
Haffert again raised his rifle and cracked off a few more shots, grunting in pain from the effort of using his broken hand. One of the younger Hurlys, no more than ten, stumbled back, his chest a gaping wound.
"Duke, stop it!" commanded Tom. "Some of them are just kids."
"After they turn, they aren't anything that deserves to live," responded Haffert. "You think they wouldn't be doing the same to us given the chance?"
Tom knew the redhead giant was right, but sulked."It just don't seem right is all."
The younger engineer lay on the ground, passed out from fright. The third, a moustached man in his thirties was struggling with two of the Hurly family, a middle-aged woman and younger man. They held his arms held tightly and the woman hissed at him.
"See if you can help that guy out," asked Reginald, pointed to the struggling engineer.
"Hell, give it a try yourself, army boy," said Haffert, throwing Reginald a rifle. Reginald raised it and squinted. He squeezed the trigger and dropped the male Hurly in a mist of crimson. With a second shot, Reginald hit the middle-age woman squarely in the back, just above the sacrum. She fell onto the ground, waving her arms and screaming. The newly freed train employee grabbed a nearby rock and brought it down on the woman's skull several times, driving her from consciousness.
"Up here!" Tom called out to the man. The train engineer waved, signifying that he appreciated their help. He got up and ran towards them so that he was just underneath the bridge.
"What the hell is going on?" the man called up. "Who are these people?"
"It's a long story," Tom shouted back. "Get up here! If you climb up along the side there you can get to us."
The man looked over to his left and his eyes mapped out the route Tom was suggesting. But when he turned around to face the wreckage of the he saw several zombified mutants approaching him.
Reginald removed the police pistol from his back pocket and called to the man. "Use this!" He dropped the pistol off the bridge. It hit the soft earth and the man eagerly retrieved it. The engineer turned, pointed, and shot another one of the stumbling Hurly brothers right in the throat. He then began to walk his way along the side of the bridge. A few other Hurly zombies moved in his direction, but they too received slugs in their chests.
The man was halfway up the hill when a new sound arose from the Hurly yard. Papa Hurly had boarded one of the bulldozers and thrown into gear. The mutated octogenarian was now heading up the hill in the direction of the fleeing train engineer.
The moustache man saw the mechanical beast coming at him and began to run. The hill was not an easy climb for either man or vehicle; large thistlebrushes and fallen tree limbs marked the path, Once, the engineer turned round and fired two shots at the oncoming behemoth, but the bullets flattened against the dozer's front edge.
The crew on the bridge had a better view of the driver of the vehicle and Reginald and Haffert both took aim. A succession of shots rang out. Several of them bounced off the metal cage that contain Papa Hurly but one found its target, hitting the deranged patriarch in the shoulder. Hurly screeched, cast an angry gaze at the men on the bridge, and rammed his foot on the accelerator.
The train engineer continued his climb. He was now only yards away from the flat surface of Lincoln Boulevard. But the bulldozer was gaining upon him and it became clear that the inevitable could not be averted. Within seconds the bulldozer was upon him and brought it steel claw down upon the man. Expertly control the levels of bulldozer; Papa Hurly pummeled the man with his metal arm, soiling the vehicle's metal teeth with blood and maw.
"Aw geeze." cried out Haffert. "I thought that guy had a chance."
"We may need to start worrying about ourselves," Tom added. As they watched, Hurly ceased his goring of the train engineer and forced the bulldozer up the rest of the path, arriving on the smooth surface of street asphalt. Swinging the bulldozer around, he brought it around to face the beleaguered group of four. With a stomp on the gas pedal the vehicle lurched forward, Hurly's red eyes betraying his every intent to mow them down!
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