It struck me as an unusual business, burying Jeremiah Bench in a salt-packed grave with a silver dollar under his tongue and cherrywood stakes through his hands and feet. Reckon something about Bench’s hideout must’ve spooked Sheriff Gunderson into his right irregular precautions. Whether it was the red ink drying on stretched out pale pink hides, or the books with pictures that seemed to move when you looked away from them, or the wet sack he strung up from a tree what never ceased its shrieking, I couldn’t say.
I’ll allow I was glad to ride back to Slipjack Junction and turn in my spade and my deputy’s badge. A manhunt’s a sorry business, no matter how righteous the cause.
Whatever Sheriff Gunderson thought he was accomplishing didn’t amount to a lick of good. Come the morning, there was Jeremiah Bench strolling on main street, proud and tall as you please. That no-good son of a dog walked right by my workshop, and you may be assured he was showing no ill effects of his recent bloody demise. No sign of the six cylinders of trusty Montana lead as perforated that shiny forehead of his, nor the neckbone-deep canyon the Sheriff’s silver knife cut from one ear to the other.
“Guess you didn’t bury him deep enough,” said my eldest, Earl.
I told him to mind his affairs and get back to work. Bullmer and Sons had a consignment of rail spikes to fill, and the Alabama Rail Company weren’t paying to wait on our convenience. He and Bob Junior got back to their chores, but I figured it best I pass word onto the Sheriff concerning Jeremiah.
It happened my destination was on the same route Jeremiah was following, so it weren’t no surprise when I encountered him again, engaged in a close embrace with Miss Olga Tarkovsky. Her professional affairs come with some expectation of rough handling, so I’ll confess I didn’t think too much of their side-alley embracing. But on second glance, their encounter was producing a mite more blood and screaming than I recollect from my past intimacies.
I ain’t never gonna be accused of courtly behaviour, but this weren’t bearable. I drew my Peacemaker and made to intervene, only both man and woman dropped dead as rocks right there in the dust. I gave ‘em both a prodding with the decisive end of my pistol. Not so much as a hoot. Weren’t nothin’ to be done about it but pay my respects to Doc McGillicutty and have his nephew Maurice cart them cadavers to his premises.
“That ain’t something you see too regular, Doc,” I said when he had them both laid out on his inspecting benches. “Reckon it’s some kind of ailment?”
“The breadth of my medical experience may have a hole or two,” replied Doc McGillicutty, dry as a desert breeze, “but I sure ain’t familiar with any ailment that makes a man bite throats out.”
I left him to his surgical observations and finished my mission to furnish Sheriff Gunderson with all the particulars of the affair. He agreed it was best left in the hands of medical science. “God damn that Jeremiah Bench. Bullmer, I can’t abide a man who won’t respect a cut throat and a rite of suppression.”
“Amen,” I said to that. He made the right hospitable offer of a glass of whiskey, then the screaming commenced from the direction of McGillicutty’s surgery. As he’d not yet retrieved me of my badge of office, Sheriff Gunderson re-deputised me and handed me a shotgun.
I hear them Italian painters like to imagine what hell looks like, with flames and devils and what-you-may. I reckon it’s got a touch more in common with a little shack splattered with blood and the howls of the dead. The very deceased Jeremiah and the late lamented Ms Olga were breaking their fasts on the gristly necks of the Junction’s only medical man and his sister’s boy. I’ve seen coyotes with better table manners.
By mutual accord, Gunderson and I rolled a horse trough in front of the doors to hold them fast. He covered the exits with a shotgun and a scowl of consternation. Way I figured it, this was shaping up as a civic matter, outside the parameters of day to day law enforcement, so I fetched Mayor Bilford for a consultation.
Bilford, being a few years since retired from a nautical career, claimed some familiarity with tropical diseases, and declared a medical emergency. Apparently Slipjack Junction has an alarm bell to the effect, because it was ringing like a stampede of milk cows one hot minute later.
“There’s only one way to contain a plague ship,” he declared with some authority, and not a soul in earshot raised a contradictory sentiment. “We got to burn it to the water line.”
Allowing for a degree of interpretation, we took his meaning as arsonous in intent. By way of confirmation he sent his assistant to fetch buckets of grease from the rail supply yard. We painted the surgery walls with the stuff and lit it up. It was soon crackling like a winter hearth and pumping oily smoke into every lung in the vicinity. I fancy I saw a figure or two moving about in the flames, but nothing lives through a burn like that.
Half the town sat in a circle, guns at the ready, and watched until there weren’t nothing left but soot and embers. Reckon our lungs were black as tar from that smoke. Maybe that’s why not a-one of us drew breath when them four dead folks found their feet and went in search of fresh throats.
Maybe the black on our innards makes patterns. Words or pictures, I bet. I ain’t looking but I can feel them moving.
I hear them too. They’re saying there’s a town full of throats down at the end of the Alabama Line.
They’re saying I got a train to catch.
I like Westerns, but I don’t think I could write a straight one if you paid me.
(If you paid me, though, I’d try. Just saying).