Authors: Eric Barkett
She smiled and in the moonlight she glowed. Her eyes were enchanting and sparkled like emeralds. Something about the night seemed to bring her alive. “Goodbye, Jed.”
He tipped his hat. “Goodbye, Beth.”
Not far in his walk home, he began coughing again. It was a quick cough and he spat out something wet. Brushing dirt over it, he went to bed.
That morning the most exciting thing to happen in the town occurred. At least Jed thought so. There was a cloud in the sky. Though distance plays hell with size, it appeared only as large as a fist. Jed fervently hoped the little guy made it and perhaps bring some shade. He had Obadiah do some more practice. Guns, boxing, and some general knowledge of the common types of monsters and ghouls. The people could be astonishingly ignorant about them, particularly when it came to vampires.
For instance as Obadiah learned, a clove of garlic had no effect on a vampire. Eating the garlic, though, could assure their next meal might taste bitter. Stakes through the heart prevented healing. The wood was optional. Convenient and easily replaceable, you could just burn the wood with the body. Jed had also never seen a vampire turn into a bat or any other animal. Sunlight does burn them. Reflections in mirrors were another story. In all of his fights with vampires he had never had a mirror handy to test that legend and he never knew any willing to risk finding out. He had doubts on the veracity of that claim.
There was not much to do in the town except train. Sheriff Carter kept an eye open for anything strange. No one mentioned anything. Few worried as the town peacefully moved on. Meanwhile, Obadiah worked hard all day and late in the afternoon, Jed bought him a drink. The red haired youth was not the drinking type and the whiskey got him coughing. Amused, Jed watched him sputter.
A man walked up. His clothes were ragged and cheap. Probably not one of the gold miners. Nervously he asked, “Could I have a word, Mr. Ethan?”
Jed kicked a chair out. “Take a seat.”
“Thank you. I don’t know how to say this.” He paused and said, “Last night I saw someone digging out the graves of the three miners who died.”
Jed leaned forward. “What?”
Uncomfortable, and shifting in his chair the man explained, “I work for the coal mine and last night I woke up to take a piss. My tent is the farthest one out and closest to the cemetery. I thought I heard something and I got closer for a look. I saw a couple men digging out the graves. One of them was already out.”
Obadiah glanced to Jed. He mouthed, “Werewolves?”
Jed gave a quick shake of his head. To the miner he questioned, “Why didn’t you go to the sheriff?”
“With all the rumors about, I figured you was the person to talk to. This don’t seem natural to me.”
“What’s your name?”
Motioning Davey closer Jed whispered, “Meet us at the cemetery tonight. Go when the sun comes down. Make sure no one sees you leave and tell no one about this. Bring two shovels also.”
Davey nodded rapidly. “Thank you, sirs,” he said. Hurriedly he left.
“Is he telling the truth? Could this be a trap?” Obadiah asked.
“Maybe.” Jed was unsure. “Are you ready if this turns sour?” He asked.
“Yeah of course.” Obadiah blustered.
Jed finished his glass in a swallow, contemplating whether to bring Carter. Another gun could be useful. That would require trusting Carter to keep his head in a fight. The sheriff was not a bastion of steel nerves. The first sign of a werewolf and he might crack. Jed definitely did not want Deputy Ross. During a fight Jed felt a bullet might ‘accidently’ hit him in the back. That was their only options for backup. Unless he hired someone in the town with a gun. But, he doubted he could trust them for the same reason as the sheriff. Obadiah began to fiddle with his thumbs and tap his foot.
“Calm down, Obadiah. You’re going to wear yourself out before anything happens.” Obadiah took a calming breath. “Nothing has happened yet,” Jed reminded.
“Will it be okay to dig up the graves?” Obadiah questioned. Uneasiness evident in his voice.
“I’ll make sure no ghosts get you,” Jed replied laconically.
Time passed slowly as they waited for the sun to drop. When it did Jed gave a nod, making Obadiah spring to his feet. Jed was more restrained, getting to his feet calmly. They collected their horses at the stable. Obadiah’s horse was filled out more on account of Jed’s coin. Probably the horse had never eaten better. His apprentice was not an idiot about horses either. After training he had taken out his horse to ride, to build its strength. He had even tried teaching it commands.
The road to the miner’s camp, unsurprisingly, was clear. Their route was through the rolling terrain to the mine, straying close to the smoother land on the left. The flat terrain ruled out the possibility of anyone or anything hiding. If it was a trap, Jed did not want to gallop straight where Davey was expecting them. He led Obadiah all the way past the camp, so they came from the north. Sure enough Davey was standing in the graveyard looking south. Dismounting, the last hundred yards went by foot. The hooves made a distinct noise and Davey turned. His hands held two shovels.
“These the graves,” Jed gestured.
“Yes, sir.” Davey stood above the three graves lined in a row.
The reins were wrapped around cross gravestone. The cemetery was rather large in Jed’s opinion for its short history. Mining was a very dangerous business apparently.
He instructed Obadiah to, “Take the other shovel and start digging.”
Rolling up his sleeves his apprentice grabbed the shovel. While they dug Jed stood sentry. Scanning their surroundings, he was just able to make out Davey’s tent and several other outliers. Nothing else of note was close. Obadiah and Davey were making good progress. Their job easier as the dirt was loose and unsettled.
“We ain’t hitting anything Jed,” Obadiah whispered from the grave. They stood several feet in a hole. “I doubt they would have buried him deeper.”
“Okay.” He helped them out. As they brushed themselves free of dirt Jed ordered, “Check one of the other graves. An older one.”
Davey pointed, “I think Harry’s grave is right there. He died months ago in a mine collapse too.”
The two shovels were soon scooping the earth again. Minutes later, Davey and Obadiah reported the same verdict. The body was missing.
“Well, Davey you were right.” Jed acknowledged.
Davey licked his lips. “What happens now?”
Jed gave him a pat on the back. “You did your part. Fill in the graves and sleep. We’ll handle the rest.”
“Why were the bodies dug up?” Davey couldn’t help asking.
Jed asked his own question. “When is Seamus being buried.”
“The drunk? Tomorrow I believe. They didn’t have a coffin ready. Why were the bodies dug up?”
“Just don’t go mentioning this to anyone.” Jed said. “We’ll worry about the why.”
Collecting their horses they rode away. Once more taking the long route. Obadiah waited until out of earshot before asking the same question. “Why were the bodies dug up?”
Jed decided it was a good time for to test critical thinking. A gunslinger needed wits, like a fast hand, to stay alive. “You tell me.”
Obadiah stared at the ground for a minute. Then he said, “Were the werewolves digging them up to eat the bodies?”
Jed dismissed the theory. “And let them rot for a couple days before the full moon? Not likely. During the full moon they will feel the need to hunt. It is something they cannot control. Scavenging a dead body is not going to cut it.”
Then it dawned on Obadiah. “So something else is responsible.”
A vague theory had formed in the gunslinger’s mind and he decided to share. “My money is on the witch doctor. Nadi.”
“Why would she dig up bodies?”
“I’ve met my share of witch doctors. Most of them are decent folk. But they do have powers. One of the things they can do is raise the dead.”
This did not sit well with Obadiah, now squirming in his saddle.
Jed continued, “They create something called zombies. Mindless drones who lose all humanity and memories. Some are used like slaves, with no goal but to serve their creator. Others are turned into killing machines, only seeking food. Bites from them can turn any living person into one. The only way to stop them is a blast to the head.”
“I remember pa saying something about zombies during the war.”
Unsurprising, after all Clem along with Jed had fought at Antietam. Maybe the only time Johnny Reb and Billy Yank had fought together. At least at the army level. They had good reason though. Hordes of zombies like that caused nightmares…for the ones that managed to survive.
Brushing free of memories Jed said, “If it’s her then it doesn’t matter what she is trying to do. We’re stopping it.” This could explain why she was so hostile to the gunslinger.
Obadiah sat straighter, ready. Jed saw him already getting worked up. “Easy we’re not running into anything. I figure we will keep a watch tomorrow night. See if anyone tries digging up Seamus’ body.”
The solitary cloud had disappeared the next day. Polished and brilliant the sky was an azure canvas waiting for an artist to paint. Jed was ready to do some painting with his guns. On the corner of two streets was the general store. Fifty yards away was Miller’s old house. Now Beth’s, Jed supposed.
He told Obadiah, “Wait here and keep an eye on the house. Watch to see if anyone comes and goes. I am going to speak with the sheriff.”
He met Carter while the sheriff made his rounds around the town. The graying lawman spoke first, “I still haven’t heard anything.”
“This is something else,” Jed informed. “Tell me everything you can about Nadi.”
Carter pushed his hat up. “Not sure what I can say. I used to work for Douglas, Miller, and Cooper as you know. Still do I suppose, now that Douglas is mayor.” Unsurprising, since technically most of the population was working for him. He could give them a hell of a reason.
“Nadi was always there. I never asked exactly what she did. I decided I did not want to know. Regardless I know she works for Ms. Cooper. Sometimes I was asked to accompany her while she collected plants. Other times I was given bottles to deliver from her to Douglas or Miller. But that was rare and didn’t happen much. Why do you need to know?”
“Just investigating.” Jed replied.
“Something other than werewolves, I reckon.” When Jed nodded, Carter muttered a curse. “Precisely what this town needs. More trouble.”
“Have a good day, sheriff.” Jed said.
Carter grumbled, “Won’t anymore.”
At the general house nothing changed. Obadiah just moved aside for the customers walking by with fresh purchases. No one came or left. He shook his head before Jed could ask.
“We’ll see tonight. Obadiah let’s practice your shooting.”
After practice Jed stopped by the saloon for a drink before the surveillance. He was not there long before Bjorn came down from the second floor. By his side was a thick suitcase.
“Travelling, Bjorn?” Jed asked.
The German approached, “I am collecting the rest of my family. I have money and a house. It is time to bring them here.”
Jed had not known he was married. “Congratulations. Does the train leave this evening?”
“Thank you. No, it comes in the middle of the night. There is a bed at the station I can stay at, so I don’t travel at night. What with all the dangers.” Lifting his suitcase again he said, “I will be back in five days or so. My children will be delighted to meet a gunslinger.”
Jed smiled, “Safe journey.”
He imagined a clan of giant children playing around the giant Bjorn. Obadiah was waiting outside with the horses. Hudson was in a wagon standing by as Bjorn climbed in. Coughing, Jed waved goodbye. Grunting, he mounted his horse. Sunset was approaching as they rode away from town. Instead of directly riding to the graveyard they took a long detour going south. When the town was out of sight, then they veered east and curved around. Constantly, he checked their rear, ensuring no one was following. It was night as they stepped off their horses. Leaving their horses behind tied to dead brush, the gunslinger and apprentice gazed for a place to observe from.
Most of the ground was flat. They got lucky spotting a slight rise, obstructed by more dead bush. Their position was perhaps fifty yards away from the gravesite. Easing into a comfortable position they waited. Moonlight exposed the dark land. Its ever expanding size as it headed to the full moon, provided a perfect opportunity for their stakeout. Hawking and spitting Jed broke the starry silence. Obadiah kept quiet for an hour. A feat Jed had not expected from his young apprentice.
“Are you sure someone is coming?” Obadiah finally whispered.
“That’s what we are finding out,” Jed reminded.
Silence fell again. At one point a coyote howl crooned. Tensing, Obadiah scanned for its location. Muted the gunslinger shook his head, refocusing on the gravesite. A werewolf made a distinctively different howl. One that personally sounded much more threatening. Little happened while the second hour passed, though the frequency in which Obadiah yawned increased.