“If old Ezra could read minds and foretell the future and such, how come he didn’t know he was gonna get himself ate by cannibals?”
That’s how my brother, Jessie, saw things, and I reckon it was difficult to argue with his reasoning no matter how bad I wanted to do just that. Even after all the peculiar things we’d seen over the years, Jessie was ever the skeptic, especially when it came to Ezra. Me, on the other hand, I believed the old codger’s tales of learning mind-reading from a medicine man, hypnosis from a Creole voodoo priest, and potion-making from a beautiful French witch. According to my brother, that made me no better than a rube paying two-bits for a palm reading. But I never needed a lick of proof in regards to Ezra’s abilities. I don’t know much about faith, but sometimes you just got to go with your gut.
So how come Ezra didn’t see his death coming?
The old man once said, “It ain’t the province of man to know the time and place of his own demise, although ther’re some who risk plumb-awful magicks to discern that very thing.” His demeanor grew dark and brooding then, like he was dwelling on something he could hardly bear to think about. “But once those steps are taken… well, then that man ain’t got nothing on his hands but time to regret what he’s done, all for some inkling of events that can’t be changed. It don’t matter two spits how much foresight you have, when it’s your time to die, there ain’t nothing to be done about it… Nor can you do anything to change when you’re gonna come back.”
At the time, I didn’t think much of Ezra’s cryptic rambling. The old man liked his drink, and was prone to strange rantings when he’d tipped back a few shots. But things started to make a little more sense to me after he was killed, and after the events that unfolded on that Christmas Eve …
Well, let’s just say it wan’t Ezra’s whiskey talking, after all.
Way I figure it, Ezra had known Boone Friedricks and his gang was coming, knew his time was growing short. He’d grown quiet and sullen a few days earlier, and he won’t to be seen unless it was with a near-empty bottle of his special elixir in hand. Maybe his thoughts in those final days were plagued with visions of the gnashing of teeth and the carving of flesh and the screaming that don’t never seem to stop.
“It ain’t the province of man to know the time and place of his own demise,” he had said.
But—by God—he knew, and I shudder to think what foul bargains he’d made in order to obtain such knowledge. I reckon it would have been a kindness on his part if he’d warned the rest of us of the dark days to come. If we’d been prepared, maybe we could’ve avoided the tragedy that befell us. Maybe I wouldn’t have seen fit to wander out into the cold and snow, a shooting iron strapped around my waist and my mind set on revenge.
Jessie might’ve called me a damn fool or worse for traipsing off after Boone Friedricks and his men. He might’ve been right, too, but I don’t think he or anybody else could blame me.
My brother got ate by cannibals, too. All told, they had killed six people—counting Ezra and my brother—over the course of two weeks. Just dragged them off into the hills and did Lord knows what to them before they devoured their flesh. Sometimes, you could hear them screaming out there in the icy cold. I won’t never forget Jessie’s screams, not until the day I die, just like I won’t never forget my shame at not doing something sooner.
I was no gunman, though, not in those days, and I calculate I might have ended up worse than dead if it weren’t for the stranger—a dark figure striding across a plain of white with the wind whipping snow into phantom shapes all around him. When I first saw him, I thought he was a dark angel come to claim me. And he did bring death with him—wore it on his hip and carried it in his heart—but not for me.
The stranger was there with me when Ezra and Jessie and all the others came back from the dead—a genuine Christmas miracle, although I’m more inclined to call it a nightmare.
This is how it happened.
* * *
Climbing into the sharpshooter’s wagon was like stirring up a rattlesnake’s nest of memories.
I hoisted myself into the wagon, and suddenly, it weren’t the dead of winter anymore, and it weren’t the dead of night, neither. Warmth—or at least the distant recollection of warmth—flooded back into my frostbit fingers and toes, and I smelled the first wildflowers of spring along the open road, the rich stink of the horses and the animal pens, the putrid odor of Ezra’s potions a-brewing, and the aroma of cinnamon nuts roasting. And it was no longer the memories of screams that echoed in my ears, because suddenly I could hear Old Ezra himself, barking to the crowd about his special elixir.
“And I’m here to tell you friends—and I do consider each and every one of you good souls a dear friend, so you know I wouldn’t steer ya wrong—this here tonic will cure what ails ya! The nature of the ailment… well, that’s your business, and you’re entitled to your privacy. Looking out amongst you, I can pretty much guess that this group’s got all manner of worries, concerns, and consternations!”
Laughter then, carried away on the wind.
“But it don’t matter because this is a miracle tonic, and it’ll damn near cure anything! Bad skin! Bad teeth! The piles! The back door trots! This brew’s as much a great equalizer for the sick as a barking iron’s a great equalizer for the gunslinger! Ya have my personal guarantee, friends! This tonic will purge the bad spirits out from your body, sure as I’m standing here before you today!”
Memories of better times, that’s all, but I would’ve gladly sat there for hours, savoring those bygone days.
Soon enough, though, I snapped out of it and set about my task. If Mr. Newcomb caught me snooping around Colt McGregor’s wagon, near about the best I could hope for was one Hell of a drubbing. More than likely, I’d find myself in the same predicament as Ezra and Jessie and all them others—namely, sacrificed to Boone Friedricks and his band of murderers. Newcomb kept the wagon locked up tight ever since Colt ran afoul of Daisy the Dancing Bear and ended up buried in an unmarked roadside grave for his troubles. Newcomb had claimed the wagon and its contents as his own property, just as he’d claimed the whole camp, and he didn’t take kindly to anyone challenging his decrees.
I glanced around camp as I pulled the wagon door shut behind me. From the looks of it, no one had noticed me pick the old padlock and slip inside. The camp was quiet, and the circled wagons were dark. Several inches of glistening snow covered the ground, further muffling all sound. In the center of camp stood a tall evergreen tree decorated with bits of colored yarn, tiny figures made of straw, and strips of old carnival tents cut into ribbons. Even with all that had happened, folks still thought they might experience a little joy and hope, what with Christmas being just a couple of days away. Far as I was concerned, though, they were grasping at straws, and the tree—with the sad-looking little straw men and the ribbons tossing feebly in the breeze—looked more like a funeral marker than anything else.
Hell! I thought. For all we know, them flesh-eaters’ll come back into camp again before the holiday was over. Maybe they’ll want another of us to serve as their own Christmas feast!
I turned my attention to the contents of the dead man’s wagon. There, amongst dusty crates full of props and racks full of musty old costumes, I found the small, wooden case. It was shoved underneath a scarred-up saddle, and as I dragged it out, every crate and box in the wagon seemed to shift, like moving one small piece would bring the whole place crashing down around me. I moved a little more slowly, grabbed the box without any major calamity, then jumped out of the wagon and scurried off into the shadows with my prize.
Inside the box I found McGregor’s pearl-handled Colt revolver. The gun gleamed in the darkness, and as I grasped the handle, I could’ve sworn I felt a jolt of greased lightning jump through my fingers. There was magic in that six-shooter, I just knew it. I’d seen Colt shoot the feathers off a crow’s ass at a thousand paces and at the wink of an eye. I’d seen him perform such feats with that gun—feats I wouldn’t have thought possible. Like I said, I didn’t know much about guns and about shooting and about killing, but I figured I could use whatever magic was left in that gun to help me.
To help me put those cannibals in the ground once and for all.
* * *
TO BE CONTINUED NEXT TUESDAY…
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