Before I can respond Bertha hits the gas, spitting gravel as we close the gap. The wagon itself swarms now with twitchers.
“Bertha, what are you–”
“Shut up, Georgy! You talk too much.” Bertha leans toward Leonid and yells something in his ear, handing him the wheel before he can object. In a flash she launches herself from the cabin and leaps with amazing agility. Clearing the ten foot gap from the front of the Jeffery to the wagon, she crumples and rolls into a mass of twitchers on top the pile of munitions. A split second later we collide with the wagon knocking everyone from their feet.
“Leo! Reverse, now!” With a few .44-40 rounds remaining, I shoulder my mare’s leg in a desperate attempt to cover her. I splinter the skulls of the first two twitchers to stand, but the jarring retreat of the Jeffery on top a pavement of crushed twitchers, forces me to hold fire. For a few sickening seconds I watch the old woman. Her hair ripped from her scalp by a twitcher, she manages to duck and shake him off. During a final scramble, she raises her hands over her head in victory before being completely subsumed.
In a frightening burst, a light rips through the swarming clump of rotten flesh on top the wagon and flowers into an explosion of shattered bone and splintered wood. Even as we continue to rumble backwards at full throttle, the shockwave quickly overcomes us. The crackle’s so thick I can barely breath. “Leo!” But the pedal is already to the metal.
A surreal popping dances in the air all around us. Twitchers begin to bark frantically as the warning spreads through the ring. They crumple away from the Jeffery, pushing and shoving to retreat. The fire storm is going to be bigger than we had hoped. The wind switches direction, suddenly blowing outward rather than drawing in. We aren’t going to make it. “Everyone hit the ground! Faces in the dirt! Face down, now! Go!”
I see Mykola and Pyotr obeying immediately, the other men following suit. With the twitchers still retreating, the area surrounding the Jeffery is abandoned. I drag myself out from behind the M2, lurch and then roll roughly down the side, colliding with the ground as the air liquifies. A searing heat embraces me.
Several seconds pass, but all I can think of is coughing. It feels like a burning lizard has crawled down my throat and begun to chew my gut. Face in the dirt, I swallow a mouthful and gasp. I’m alive.
My next thoughts are for my sons. I prop myself up to scan the surroundings. Leonid is crawling to my left, his skin a bright red, but alive. “Mykola, Pyotr.” I croak their names, my voice reduced to the rasp of sandpaper on wood.
“Papa.” I turn to see Mykola bracing Pyotr, both of them standing and alive. “It’s time to go home.” I reach out and my youngest pulls me up. The firestorm radius spread thirty yards past our position, cooking twitchers as it went. But they’ll be back. Mykola boosts me onto the Jeffery.
“Everyone on board.” I growl the command as loudly as I can. I nod to Mykola after he sets Pyotr down beside me. “Help the rest, quickly.” Leonid gingerly crawls up the heated metal of the armored car and nods as he gets behind the wheel. I wrap my arm around my middle child and pull him close. He breaths deep and lays his head on my shoulder.
We wait another twenty, maybe thirty seconds until everyone still moving is helped onboard, less than two dozen of us. Just before we start rolling I notice Frank is one of them. The twitchers regather around the rim of the fire storm and cross over after us, but by the time we clear the far side of the burn they turn back to clean the bones of the dead. Frank works his way over to me, his face as bright pink as everyone else’s. He grips my shoulder. “The old hag went out the way she wanted, in a blaze of glory.”
I nod. “The same way she lived.”
Frank continues, “I owe you and your boys my life.”
Mykola climbs over to join us, and I give his arm a squeeze.
“Oh, they’re not my boys anymore.” I grin, the most whole I’ve ever felt. “These are the Founder men.”
Mykola smiles. “Happy birthday, Papa.”