There he stood burying Purple Shadow, just as he has buried Gray Gulch before it. Almost any town west of the Mississippi was a ghost town in the making. That was the way Hy Calvert figured it and that was good for business. He was a gravedigger like his father before him, only they preferred to call themselves bonediggers.
When he was a boy Hy’s father would say to him “Son, when you grow up you’ll hear people make reference to the world’s oldest profession. Pay no never mind to what that is just yet, people do need that—but as long as people have died and will die; until the good Lord ends death—someone will have to dig.”
His father loved his profession. He appreciated necessity and while Hy had a rebellious streak and wild oats to sew, he came to love it himself. Hy’s father had told him that he had wanted to name him Charon—never knew if he was kidding or not. Hy did not believe his own passion was that intense. While he liked it just fine, liked being of service, had money for a roof, food, and the hair of the dog—he hated days like this.
At his feet were three dead bodies, not only did they represent the last folks who had clung to the patch of desert behind him, but he knew them very well.
Hy had been through Deadwood and Tombstone until they hit their decline and a half-dozen other places that had gone in a cloud of dust, but everywhere he found people he liked just fine and hated to bury. Nowhere else was that more true than here.
There was a mother and son. The mother, May Belle—if that was her real name—was a whore. She did not have the heart to leave her son, Little Wesley, on a doorstep somewhere. She knew not who his father was only who she wished he was. To their right was a man, a displaced Shoshone, named Moon Bear. He was a father-figure to Little Wesley. They had been leaving, too. Hy’s wife, Esther, and his son—called Junior, though that was technically inaccurate—had left ahead of him with a protector. He, Moon Bear, May Belle and Little Wesley were heading out soon thereafter. But—
Tears were about to burst forth from his eyes when he heard the coarse scraping of boots kicking, dirt, rocks and manure behind him.
“Bring out your dead!” cried out a voice that had Hy nearly lose his shovel and bolt out of his britches.
Hy lacked formal education but was intelligent, so he aside from knowing his father wanted to name him after the ferryman of the dead, he also knew this to be a medieval exclamation that originated during the Black Death. After all, they were facts tangentially connected to his work.
He turned to see whom had jarred him from his moment of solemnity and what it was they wanted.
“Bring out your dead!” the man repeated as Hy started taking stock of who this boisterous interloper was.
Hy observed a man in a ten-gallon hat, with some gray hairs coming in at his temples, his five o’clock shadow was pushing six. He smiled without showing his teeth and without the joy reaching his eyes. Hy thought those things odd, but that’s not what unnerved him. He could not put his finger on that. He wanted to avoid the man’s bottomless black eyes, so he glanced around him and took in some of the familiar sights in the town he was leaving behind: The Bootfog Hotel, where he had stayed when he first arrived, the Starlight Saloon, and the rooms above it where he had lived for a while thereafter.
The man noted his avoidance and saw fit to make him speak.
“What’s your name?” the stranger asked.
“How are ya? But I asked what your name was.”
“My name is Hy.”
“Oh,” the man’s smirk returned. A zephyr blew through the sagebrush about their feet. “Apologies. Interesting name, short for Hiram?”
“No, Hyssop. Pa wanted to name me Hiram so he could call me Hi. Ma said ‘If you’re shortening it anyway, let me name him what I want.’”
The other man nodded. The wind had settled but now the scent of burgeoning putrefaction bloomed. Hy was used to it, but it was threefold and he was halted from shoveling earth over it.
Hy saw that the man’s hands rested on holsters. He clutched his spade tight. He used it like a gunslinger wielded a six-shooter.
“Name’s Whirlwind. That’s been my nickname so long I’ll be damned if I can remember what my real name is.”
Hy had Whirlwind pegged. He was trying to make casual conversation with human carcasses underfoot. He was a vulture. Hy just had to figure out what he wanted.
“What can I do for you?” Hy asked.
A tumbleweed blew by. They’re dead until the wind gives them life, his Father had told him. His Pa had a million of them. Hy could relate, most things could be made into a metaphor for life and death.
“The bodies,” Whirlwind said simply as if this explained it all.
“What of them?”
“I’d like to take them off your hands, save you some labor.”
Hy shook his head in disbelief. Hearing a cawing, he threw a glance over his shoulder. A murder of crows approached, flying westward leaving the Pecos behind. With great reluctance he faced Whirlwind again.
“Can’t let you do that. I owe a debt to the dead and their families.”
“You’ve been paid.”
“T’ain’t about money.”
“Every man has a price out here.”
Hy tried to ignore Whirlwind. He brought his spade down off his shoulder, stuck it in the ground, and started bringing up a shovelful of dirt. He sought to complete the dorsal ridge of death here in Purple Shadow just as he had made a plateau of putrescence leading out of Gray Gulch.
Whirlwind stuck out a hand and touched Hy’s, stopping him from digging. Hy would have responded quicker but the man’s hand was ashen and felt like sandstone trying to flay the skin off the back of his hand. This was the first time Hy’s unease crossed over into fear. He mustered up the gumption to say “Your sick needs can’t be satisfied at any price”
“What would those be d’you reckon?” he asked casting an abysmal dark glance into Hy’s rheumy eyes.
“T’wouldn’t do to think about it.”
Whirlwind retracted his stone hand and grabbed both six-shooters. He cocked them simultaneously.
“How would you like to be boots up in a grave you dug yourself?” Whirlwind asked. A scowl engraved itself into his face, threatening permanence.
“The boy wanted to be buried with his guns,” Hy said nonsensically.
“He was like a son to us all, to Moon Bear especially.”
There was disdain in Whirlwind’s eyes because he thought Hy a bullshitter and a bad one at that.
“Let me guess. The whore—she is a whore, isn’t she?—was like your whore.”
“I never paid for time with her,” which the truth, but then Hy figured he better add a lie to protect his kinfolk. “She was the closest thing I had to a wife. Since Esther.”
He looked solemn. He hoped Whirlwind assumed this had to do with his surrogate family and not worrying about his real one.
The guns were now both pointed high, aimed at his forehead.
“Moon Bear was a good man like his father before him.”
“Whom you also buried. You’re easy to read old man.”
“He got no gold teeth. Even if I was the grave-robbing type I don’t tend to business with folks I don’t know.”
“Ain’t grave robbing if they ain’t in the ground.”
Hy turned to try and dig again. He felt the gun barrels press into his back.
“Scoop more dirt out and you’ll have an appointment with your maker.”
“You think I fear the Reaper?”
Hy did as he was told. Whirlwind bit his lip violently, shielding some kind of unrest in his mouth. The noonday sun scorched the earth and had Hy drenched. He had started these tombs later than he had wanted and now was held up further.
Whirlwind’s shadowy face relaxed. A lightness entered his charcoal eyes. He decided to try and be more cooperative.
“You have a point about strangers,” Whirlwind said holstering his guns. “Maybe we ought to learn a bit more about each other and our business then we can make a deal.”
Hy knew the Smith & Wessons would be out soon after negotiations resumed, he did not have a choice any longer.
The flies came to orbit the bodies, but there was nothing to be done about that. If Hy didn’t humor the stranger calling himself Whirlwind, he would join the triad he meant to bury and would be naught but carrion for the buzzards.
What Hy wanted most at this point was not to confab with this gentleman, but rather he wished he could find something to wet his whistle, whether it was a sarsaparilla like McPherson’s General used to have or the house bourbon from the saloon. Hy had never approached being a tosspot, but he would be more inclined to go for some alcohol now. Taking the edge off would be helpful as he was nothing but edge.
His thirst was magnified because by some mysterious magnetism Whirlwind had gotten him speaking. This was inexplicable to Hy because Whirlwind was the antithesis of the Starlight’s barkeep—Jack Jones, better known as Jackrabbit, was quick to sling firewater and a joke and could convince the Devil himself to have a friendly chat. It was almost as if Hy was engaging with Whirlwind against his will and so he told him more than nothing, which is what he wanted to share. Hy said a bit about his father, his apprenticeship, his deeper thoughts on the work he did, and how he would not mind passing his knowledge on.
“You’re leaving this town behind, nothing here for you, or your boy—who you’ve wisely kept away from the graveyard. What kind of service are you doing your son if you refuse this?”
Glinting in the sunlight, Hy saw a pile of silver coins falling from a leather pouch in Whirlwind’s hand.
“Can’t be,” he said stupefied by the sight of it.
“Don’t take my word for it. Pick it up. Bite it if you have to.”
Hy tentatively reached across and plucked a coin between his forefinger and thumb. He brought it straight to his mouth, chomped, and nearly cracked a molar in the process.
“Ain’t seen a silver dollar in a long spell,” he said as he dried it off and handed it back to Whirlwind.
“I suspected not. And have you ever been this close to a hundred of them? Plus…” Whirlwind reached his left hand into his pocket and removed another pouch. It fell open, glowing like a kerosene lamplight was a pile of gold nuggets.
“Jumping Jehoshaphat,” Hy exclaimed breathlessly. He had almost lost himself in the shimmer of those riches, when reason returned to him.
“That seems like an obscene amount of money for three cadavers. Even doctors don’t be paying those rates when they had to steal.”
Whirlwind’s lips pursed in dismay. He shoved both pouches back in his pockets, inhaled dramatically and glared at Hy.
“Tell me what funds do you have to resettle elsewhere with? Ain’t your son going to need a helping hand to make his way through the world ‘fore you lie down below yourself? Is that your father’s spade? You could use a new one cant’cha? What’s your son’s name?”
Hy shook the cobwebs out. That barrage of questions was designed to disequilibrate him, but Whirlwind had overplayed his hand.
“I never told you I had a son.”
“That boy at your feet—” he did not want to look to look down, but couldn’t help it, his hair was being tousled by the breeze “—you said he was like a son to everyone.”
“Men don’t generally say that unless they got a son.”
“But mostly when we decided to befriend one another you said you’d like the job to continue down your line.”
“Don’t normally say that unless you got a boy. Grave digging is hard physical labor—”
“I calls him Junior,” Hy said. He didn’t want to tell him that but at this point shutting him up felt like a victory.” But his name is Eohippus, Hi for short, so Junior, and I have hope he won’t bury bodies if’n he doesn’t want to.”
“Tarnation, what blasted kind of name is that?”
“Name of a pre-historic horse. That Marsh fella dug it up a little bit ago back east, Jersey I think.”
“Mine.” Hy was fascinated by bonediggers of any kind. He found the inverse of his profession—bringing bones out of the ground and lending creatures new life a bold new frontier. Hy had told his son the origin of his name and he became fascinated by paleontology as only a child can. “Inspired by his name my son is an apt pupil of the sciences. He mayn’t need to dig.”
“Good for you, and him. Can’t imagine studying dead lizards and horses is cheap though.”
Hy knew it was not and this gave him pause. During this portion of the conversation he had trouble avoiding Whirlwind’s frigid glare. He looked down at his feet to regather his thoughts.
He saw Moon Bear, his eyes still awestruck and open as they had been when a bullet smashed through his neck right where the collarbones meet.
The masked men, the scourge that had rolled through Purple Shadow earlier today—long after the Cleighton Gang had been vanquished, allowing the town to thrive, and people to be happy—finished what time and economic distress couldn’t, they ended the last few hangers-on.
Were they just angry they found next to nothing left to loot? Maybe.
Hy glanced upward and saw smoke rising out of Gray Gulch. The marauders would have found no one there, so of course they’d burn it.
Why would they think there was anything to find in these towns? Where they been? Did this Whirlwind put ‘em up to it? Are they just greasing the tracks for him?
“The west is dying,” Whirlwind continued. “Law keeps coming out. In a few years, most—if not all—these territories will be in the Union.”
“This has nothing to do with that.”
Hy was pulled back into Whirlwind’s patter but was trying desperately to back out. Tired of being sold snake oil.
He looked down to May Belle, her jaw agape. Hy had covered her in a burlap bag. Her dress had been torn, her body bruised, she had been violated. They were all packing to leave. Maria, the madame of the inn, had recently passed after surviving her family. Hy and May Belle were nearly out the door when the men came. They wanted her services, needed them they said.
Rejecting them out of hand would have been risky, plus having some money to help in relocation would come in handy.
“You’re in luck, gentlemen. We’re about to pack up. Come on in, wait your turn, and let’s see the color of your money first.”
Hy went to pack their things, strap it to a mule. Junior and Esther had been sent off earlier in the day with Wesley No-Name, who May Belle named her boy after, and who was a paragon of virtue and still protected Purple Shadow whenever he came through no matter how much the population had dwindled.
If only Wesley No-Name were here, slow to anger, quick on the draw, with a dead-eye.
While scanning his room for forgotten items, Moon Dog heard May Belle’s protestations. He took a bullet to save her life, but they both ended up dead. As did Little Wesley who had not even come to her room, he was just killed as a matter of course.
“It’s a dig’em shift,” Whirlwind continued, not knowing or caring that Hy had drifted off.
Hy knew he meant paradigm shift, but when he first learned that phrase his father had said it just like that—another one that may have been his father joking unbeknownst to him.
“No one’s here, why do you care?” the enigmatic stranger pressed on.
Isn’t that exactly why I care If not me who? Hy thought.
“Why do you care?” Hy said, turning the question back on its poser.
“The west will be nothing but a tourist attraction soon, not just a circus sideshow. Boots, spurs, a red man’s skull, a whore’s girdle would be ideal for a traveling exhibit.”
Hy did not think this was an unrealistic version of the future, but he figured it was his turn to know something he ought not.
“All malarkey…” he said mostly to himself.
“I said it’s bullshit!”
“What?” Whirlwind repeated, outraged.
“What do you really want with them?”
“I need a body to have skull.”
“Don’t need a body for their clothing. Tell the truth.”
“Because I’m goddamn hungry that’s why!”
Whirlwind finally flashed his teeth. They were too large and too numerous, but that’s not what caught Hy’s attention. All he could see were the maggots that crawled out of the gaps between his incisors, nestled in snaggletooth, crawling over his enamel, and around his face.
Hy was frightened off his feet. He had not dug a proper grave for any of the bodies yet, but it was deep enough such that tumbling down into it packed quite a wallop, especially on an aged back.
“It’s always more difficult when they see. Didn’t mean to show ya yet, but I guess I should thank you for forcing my hand.”
The spade was not much by way of defense, but when Hy realized it had escaped his grasp he had to scrabble backwards and reach for it. His weary bones were hard to lift off the ground, but panic can make an old man believe he’s young—at least until the adrenaline wears off.
“What are ya?” Hy said regaining his footing.
“Would you believe me? Would you understand, if I told you?”
“Give it a shot.”
“Do ye ken what a ghoul is?”
Confusion supplanted the fear on Hy’s face for a moment.
“How’s about necrophagus?”
Hy’s brain caught up with what he heard. Without conscious effort, his jaw fell agape.
“Ahh, there we have it.”
Hy’s ears brought him out of the stuporous state he’d entered. Whirlwind’s speech was more irregular now, added twang, vacillating between formality and informality.
It’s an act, he’s a vulture.
“If’n that’s true,” Hy spat, he was a bundle of nerves. “Why can’t ya just take ’em?”
“If I’d been patient I woulda, if you were gone, I’d dig.”
“You can’t kill me can you?”
“I’d rather not.”
Hy steeled himself. He lowered his spade, clutched the handle in both hands, looking like a baseball player about to lay down a bunt.
“Do you need permission?”
“Ain’t a vampire, you coot! Just needed some fresh meat and showed up too soon,” his voice rose now. “Because as I said I’m hungry!”
Whirlwind pounced at him. His hands clawed as if he wanted to scratch Hy’s eyes out. Hy back-stepped and stumbled.
He thudded aground again.
The ghoul stood over him and leaned down. What he wanted was back and to the right of him, Hy was no longer an obstacle.
Whirlwind could just take them, can’t he? I’m stopping him, ain’t I?
“Do you think I could eat in peace with your walking here, carrying that thing, swinging away?”
Somewhere below the surface of his mind, Hy had wondered if Whirlwind was reading his thoughts. That was now all but confirmed.
I knew I never mentioned my boy; sure, I may’ve implied, but he didn’t know until he tricked me.
He swung the spade swiftly and clonked Whirlwind in the thigh. A plume of dust and ash flew off him. The spade sliced through his chaps, into his thigh, revealing coagulated blood beneath his skin, more maggots were acrawl in the freshly opened wound, a cyclonic cloud of flies formed around it.
Whirlwind had reached his left hand downward, retrieved his gun, and fired in a snap.
He blew a hole between the fourth and fifth rib on Hy’s right side. Hy started sucking for air.
“You sonofabitch!” Whirlwind yelled.
Hy’s breathing shallowed.
“All you had to do was let me have ‘em!” Whirlwind continued.
“All you…had to…do…was…wait.”
Whirlwind may have known this was true. Hy found that hard to tell. He lay on his back with a gunshot wound in his chest that punctured his lung that was filling it with blood, so he was done separating truth from fact in what Whirlwind had told him.
As if it needed proving, Whirlwind decided to demonstrate that he was something preternatural; lifting up May Belle by her stiff neck allowing the burlap sack to fall off exposing her indecently, making Hy see what human and inhuman monsters did to her.
The inhuman one started feasting on her face, pulling flesh from her cheek, while eyeing Hy.
Next Whirlwind picked up Little Wesley, holding him like a babe-in-arms. Hy knew he was about to be witness to a similar show. Hy closed his eyes, unable to watch.
He started reciting the Lord’s Prayer to himself, hoping against hope that Esther, Eohippus, and Wesley No-Name—Hy’s champion and the namesake of the boy Whirlwind was eating—made it safely to their final destination.
Hy also prayed the name of that city would not cross his mind. He moved on to the twenty-third psalm in hopes that it would submerge all thoughts of his family should he have them, or that his breath would fail him before he could. Hy knew he was to be Whirlwind’s dessert course and he would not help him feed once more.
Hy was nearly gone when Whirlwind approached his face slopped with blood and gore. He leaned down over Hy so they could look at each other face-to-face.
“Mesilla,” Whirlwind said to him, and smiled, flashing his plethora of sanguine teeth. “New Mexico,” Whirlwind concluded.
Dessert was served.Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in