Ezra cried out in the dark.
“I don’t speak lightly of miracles, friends! Miracles are too few and far between, and to treat them with an air of triviality … why, that’s a fool’s business!”
I’d heard those words-well-rehearsed to part rubes from their money-a thousand times in a thousand mud-hole towns. But hearing them at that moment, after all that had happened, reminded me of happier times, back when a bunch of rickety wagons felt like home, and I had friends and family and hot meals and a warm bed-
But Ezra was dead. So was my brother.
And I didn’t have a home, not any more.
I was dreaming-I knew it-but I couldn’t wake up. I didn’t want to wake up. A good dream can damn near fool you into thinking you’ve died and gone to Heaven.
“… I’ve traveled far and wide, through lands civilized and savage, to find the perfect fixings for this here tonic …”
I’ll admit, I’d never so much as tasted the potion. The stink of it-like rotten eggs and bacon grease-put me off. Nor had I been allowed to watch Ezra brew the stuff in his wagon stocked with strange-smelling roots and jars of colorful powders. But Jessie told me the primary ingredient of the tonic was whiskey, and a lot of it. The way Ezra near pickled himself with the stuff, I believed it.
“… And if this elixir ain’t a genuine miracle, then I don’t know if such a thing truly exists! One sip, friends, and you’ll feel strong as an ox, healthy as a horse, and -dare I say-positively virile!”
Ezra’s voice grew distant, like he was calling from the bottom of a deep well.
“This’ll cure them what ails ya, folks! It’ll drive the foul spirits from your body like your granny chasing cats from the kitchen!”
The shadows swallowed up the old man’s voice, and he was gone.
The dream ended.
* * *
Sensation oozed back into my body as I awoke. A deep chill had settled in the meat of my bones. Every breath felt like I was inhaling snow. Maybe I should’ve been thankful for that. I’d been cut open like a Christmas goose, and I imagine the pain might’ve been unbearable if not for the numbing cold.
I opened my eyes …
And a dead man stared back at me.
Frank Cartwright-the cannibal who’d tried to kill me-lay not two feet away. His devil’s eyes were clouded over. His skin was as pallid as a sheet phantom. His bluish lips looked like a pair of frozen slugs, and behind them I spied the sharp tips of his teeth.
I jumped up, and a lance of pain shot through my stomach, almost knocking me right back down. Somehow, I kept from screaming-just barely.
“Easy now.” A firm, steadying hand grasped my shoulder. The stranger’s voice was deep, and his accent betrayed a Southern upbringing. “Most of your cuts weren’t that deep, and I patched you up best I could. I’m no sawbones, though. Wouldn’t take much to tear open that dressing and start you bleeding again.”
I ran my hands under my ripped and bloodied shirt. My belly was wrapped in bandages.
I glanced at Frank Cartwright, who lay still as a coffin nail. It looked like the stranger had searched the dead man’s body-emptied his pockets, removed his gun belt, undone his shirt, even pulled off his boots.
I wondered if his ghoulish pursuits had yielded results.
I didn’t ask what he was searching for, though, and I didn’t ask the stranger’s name. I had a sneaking suspicion I wouldn’t have gotten an answer to either question.
Cartwright’s too-pale eyes followed me. I shivered, partly because of the cold, partly because of the dead man’s fixed stare.
“I wouldn’t worry about him.” The stranger’s words were dry. “He doesn’t have much fight left in him.”
The gunslinger looked the way you might have suspected, the way men of his ilk were portrayed in dime novels-dangerous, menacing. Shadows crawled across his face. His eyes seemed to catch the feeble moonlight and hold onto it like a fly in a spider’s web.
I can’t say how long I was out. An hour, maybe less. I’d been dragged-along with the dead man-up into the hills. Large boulders and outcroppings of jagged stone offered a little protection from the frigid, gusting winds and the sweeping snow. Covered in ice crystals, the rocks glistened. Beneath me, the hard stone ground tried to leech what little body heat I had left. Above me, the sky was a churning stew of thick clouds waiting to dump a pure blizzard.
I struggled to my feet. My legs were unsteady, and my head pounded.
A saddle and bags lay on the ground nearby. From the looks of it, the stranger had been riding for days, and he had supplies aplenty to stay in the wilds for some time. A large stallion stood at the edge of the campsite. Its coat was as pitch as the night itself, and the animal was so still and quiet that it was almost invisible. It was the kind of horse I pictured a ghost riding in a campfire story.
Speaking of campfires, the stranger hadn’t started one. The camp was cold, dark. There wasn’t even a single stick of kindling to be seen.
I started to complain, but all that I could stammer was, “C-c-cold.”
“So you can talk after all.” He smirked. “I was beginning to wonder if Frank hadn’t cut your tongue from your mouth before I killed him. Move around a bit if you’re cold. That’ll get your blood pumping. Afraid I can’t risk a fire. I’d guess Friedricks and his men are keeping a lookout. I’m surprised the gunshots didn’t bring them scurrying out of hiding like rats in high water. They’d spot us for sure if I started a blaze, and they might even have a rifle or two up there. ”
He gazed into the hills, and I looked, too. I didn’t see a thing, but imagining those cannibals staring down on me with their gleaming eyes and chattering fish-teeth didn’t do a thing to make me feel any warmer.
“Why are you tracking them?” I asked at last. “You chasing a bounty?”
One of his pistols near jumped into his hand, and I couldn’t help but stagger back a step. With a flick of his wrist, he snapped the gun open, checked the chamber, and returned the weapon to its holster in the blink of an eye. He repeated the act with his other pistol. Then he looked at me, sizing me up.
“I noticed a bunch of circled wagons a ways back. That where you’re from?”
What he’d seen was the final resting place of Newcomb and Judd’s Wild West Extravaganza. Once upon a time, it was the finest congress of cowboys, painted ladies, rough riders, and magicians to ever draw a crowd. That was before Mr. Judd died with consumption, of course, leaving that heartless cur Newcomb as sole owner.
“I reckon you got stuck in the snowstorm.” He nudged Cartwright’s body with the toe of his boot. “Bad luck making camp just in time for this lot to find you. Men like Friedricks, they don’t pass up easy meat. Now that they’ve found you, they’ll hide out in the hills, watching like coyotes or buzzards. They’ll pick every one of you clean to the bone before they’re done.”
I didn’t mention Newcomb’s arrangement with the cannibals.
The stranger had his secret, and I had mine … for the time being.
“You’re going to kill them,” I said, “ain’t you?”
The stranger’s stark eyes peered at me. After a time, he spoke, his words as cold as the deepest winter frost.
“I suppose I am.”
“Let me help you then.” I couldn’t help but feel a rush of sudden excitement. “I don’t even want no part of any reward money. Those bastards killed my friend … killed my brother … and I aim to see them dead. I have a gun-”
My fingers strayed to my belt where Colt McGregor’s pistol should’ve been. The weapon was missing, and I suddenly remembered dropping the revolver in the snow. Had it been left behind? I glanced frantically around the camp.
“Looking for this?”
The stranger drew McGregor’s pistol from his own bullet-studded belt. He turned the gun over in his hand deftly, then tossed it to me. The weapon spun in the air, glinting, and I caught it in both hands. The gun felt heavier than I remembered, and I almost dropped it once again.
“You don’t strike me as someone who goes heeled often,” the stranger said. “Where’d you get the six-shooter, kid?”
I looked down, embarrassed. “I stole it, I reckon.”
“So, you’re a killer and a thief, is that it?”
There was no judgment in his words.
“I may not be a gunfighter.” I gripped McGregor’s pistol tightly. “But this gun once belonged to the deadliest shootist to ever pull a trigger. I figured-”
He sensed where I was head and interrupted me.
“Son, I know a thing or two about magic guns … and that ain’t one of them.”
My gut told me the stranger knew what he was talking about. The gun seemed to gain twenty pounds in my hands. My shoulders sagged.
“Just the same,” I said, “I’m gonna make those men pay.”
“Men …” He nearly spat the word from his mouth. “Let me ask you something, boy. Did you get a good look at Cartwright’s teeth?”
“I saw them up close and personal.”
“And did they look like teeth that belonged in the mouth of a normal man?”
I looked at Cartwright, then back at the stranger. “What is he then, if not a man?”
“There are a lot of stories.” The stranger shrugged. “Most of them don’t hold water. But the bad stories, the really frightening ones … More often than not there’s at least a little truth to them. There’s a legend that says when one man eats the flesh of another, then that man invites an evil spirit to take up in his soul. It’s like a hungry worm, this spirit, wriggling around inside its host, and it wants nothing more than to taste human flesh again. And what the spirit wants, the host wants.”
“And Friedricks and his men, they’ve got these things inside them?”
“Maybe so. During the war, they did some awful things, and now it might be catching up with them. They’re changing, becoming less like men and more like the spirits growing inside them.”
“You’re saying they’re …” I didn’t want to speak the word. “… monsters.”
“I’m saying you’ll be walking into a world of trouble if you come with me.”
“I ain’t scared,” I lied.
Maybe the gunfighter knew there was no sense in arguing with me. If he left me behind, I’d just follow him. Or maybe he was just coppering his chances by bringing an extra gun … and an extra body along.
Just then, a strong gust cut between the rocks, and Cartwright’s shirt blew open.
There was something wrong with the dead man’s stomach. Several large, dark bruises covered his pale flesh. From each of the bruises radiated numerous winding veins, like black rivers across his skin. His belly was distended, like that of a snake that had just raided an overfull chicken nest. Something knobby and boney pressed against the skin from within.
“What is that?” I asked. “What’s wrong with him?”
“I don’t know,” the stranger answered. “Maybe he was sick.”
But that didn’t look like no disease I’d ever heard about.
“Forget about that,” the stranger said. “You’d best get real comfortable with that revolver of yours … and fast. We’re heading up into the hills shortly, and I expect there’ll be … bloodshed.”
I barely heard him. I couldn’t take my eyes off the horrible bruises and protrusions on Cartwright’s flesh.
It looked like something had been trying to force its way out of the dead man’s guts.
* * *
TO BE CONTINUED NEXT TUESDAY…
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