Desert People, Desert Ghosts
On page 17 of Casualties, one of the main characters is learning about the area of southern Arizona where he and his family are new arrivals. He sees that the area is home to some famous boomtowns of the Wild West, including Tombstone (of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and OK Corral fame), Bisbee (this mining town was at one time the largest city between St. Louis and San Francisco), and another
Paradise, like many other boomtowns, survived only as long as its miners were pulling ores and precious stones out of the ground. Eventually it dried up and blew away, but while it thrived, it had its own checkered history.
This story goes hand-in-hand with the novel Casualties. The character in that book asks, “What is it with these desert people and their ghosts?” He eventually finds the terrible answer to that question, as does the main character in the following story.
by Dev Jarrett
The flat crack of the pistol shot rang out in the late afternoon silence, closely followed by the thud of a body falling into the thin dust of the street. It wasn’t the first time a gunfight occurred in Paradise, and it wouldn’t be the last, unless all the gold claims played out tonight. Probably not even then.
Doc Reynolds slowly pushed through the batwing doors of The Lodestone saloon, calling out to the man still standing on the street with a smoking pistol in his hand.
“I’m comin’ out, Harney. Don’t you shoot me, hear?”
Sheriff Jebediah Harney was what passed for law in Paradise, but out here in the Arizona Territory, that didn’t mean much. Doc knew Harney had been a hardrock miner who’d made a fortune early in the rush, and had shown the good sense to get out before the gold ran out. The man was good with a gun, and wasn’t reluctant to use it if it was needed, so the Territory had offered him the job of keeping the peace in Paradise. Harney had taken it, but Doc knew he didn’t give a tin-star damn for the law. All Harney wanted was quiet.
Doc stepped around the dark-eyed little Indian fellow who swept the floors and wiped the tables in the saloon, then stepped off the boardwalk down into the street. Frank Granville, proprietor of The Lodestone, said the Indian was from the mountains around Camp Huachuca. Didn’t speak much, but talked crazy whenever he did speak. Granville once said the Indian had told him that the mountain spirit had spoken to him in a vision, and told him to come to Paradise.
“The mountain spirit told him to come here and sweep your floors, Frank?” Doc had asked dubiously.
Frank had just grinned and shrugged. “He cleans up for me, I keep him fed.” Doc supposed all saloon-owners were, at the bottom, opportunists.
Doc now stood over the fallen body of Farris Cole. The young man wasn’t dead, but his wound was serious. The ground beneath him was the color of ripe plums where the blood drained into the dust.
Doc felt the boy’s pulse, found it still fairly strong, and barely suppressed a thrilled tremble of anticipation. He knew what lay in this would-be gunfighter’s future.
He called over his shoulder. “You got him, Harney, but he ain’t dead.”
“Is he gon’ get up?”
“He could live till tomorrow, maybe the next day, but he ain’t gettin’ up by himself. You want me to try
“Naw. Hell, naw. You let him lie right there in the street and die. Let the devil come for him and haul him off to hell. He’s like one ’a’ them object lessons, right? Folks’ll see him lyin’ there, dyin’ in the street, and they’ll know they better not start cuttin’ the fool.”
Doc nodded, despite his misgivings. Cole wasn’t a hard man, the way Harney was implying. He was just a kid. Doc had gotten the whole story from Frank before he’d come out of The Lodestone. Cole had just been celebrating some good luck he’d had panning some placer gold out of the San Pedro, and his liquor had gotten the best of him. Harney could have locked him up and let him sleep it off, but that wasn’t Harney’s way.
Just as well.
Cole raised a trembling hand to Doc, and a cloud of buzzing, feasting flies rose angrily in protest at his upsetting their fresh, new banquet. The smell of spilled whiskey mingled with spilled blood thickened the air around the young miner. Cole had the brightest, most heartbreakingly blue eyes Doc had ever seen. Like cornflower blossoms, but somehow more luminous.
“Doc?” he whispered. “Aw, durn, this hurts. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Am I gon’ be all right?”
Doc looked around. People were once again venturing into the street, and many curious eyes studied Doc’s examination of the fallen man.
“Don’t no one touch him,” Sheriff Harney announced to the gathering crowd, “’less you want to spend a night in the jailhouse. This boy didn’t have no business cuttin’ up, and now I reckon he’s reapin’ what he sowed.”
Doc looked up into the pale blue sky and saw thin feathers of cloud sliding toward the horizon. Sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind, looks like. Doc stood, and Cole began to cry, tears cutting clear tracks through the dust on his cheeks.
“Doc? Doc?” The boy’s voice cracked as it rose into registers of hysteria. “Wait, Doc!”
Doc was going to wait, all right. He stood and dusted off his trousers, then turned back to the saloon. After nightfall would be best, and that was only a few hours away. He only hoped Cole would hold on until then.
The boy’s cries followed him into The Lodestone, and they didn’t begin to fade until Doc’s fourth whiskey was burning in his stomach.
Doctor Oliver Reynolds had come west after the Civil War, and after a few stops in Missouri and Kansas, the western winds finally blew him to Paradise. He’d been here for ten years, and the strikes these days were becoming smaller, fewer, and farther between. In ten years, he reckoned, Paradise would probably dry up altogether, another boom town gone bust.
As twilight bloomed into full night, Doc stood. He was a little drunk, but when he held his hand out level before him, he saw no tremor in it. A steady hand was a good sign.
Outside, the street was quiet. All the respectable folks in town were already in their homes, and the rowdy bunch, the miners and ranch hands, would likely be much more subdued for the next few days.
At least until someone or something covered the stain of Cole’s blood in the street.
Cole still lay where he’d been shot, but despite the Sheriff’s pronouncement, someone had given him a bucket of water. The blood on his chest was still wet, and glittered in the moonlight.
The boy was more alert, and his breathing sounded stronger now.
“Doc?” he said. “Am I gon’ make it?”
“Don’t you worry, boy. I’m goin’ to take care of you.”
Doc looked up and down the street, making sure no one was watching from under the eaves of any of the buildings. The two of them were alone in the street, beneath a nearly full moon caught in a net of tiny stars.
He lifted his hands to the boy’s face. With one hand he pinched the boy’s nose shut, and with the other, he sealed the boy’s mouth.
Despite the gunshot wound, the boy struggled mightily, flopping around like a fish out of water. Doc
Death was thrilling.
He’d found many years ago that murder suited him. He actually enjoyed killing. Being a doctor just made it easier for him to get away with it. Feeling the mortal efforts of another human slowly weaken
Cole’s struggles finally diminished, and his body relaxed into the bloody dirt beneath him. Doc stood and dusted himself off, his own heart racing. It hammered in his chest as if to strengthen Doc’s limbs; with such power he might perform superhuman feats.
He walked away, feeling as though each stride he took covered miles, and shook the earth. He looked up into the firmament, at the bright moon and stars, and was struck once again by how small and He didn’t see the Indian’s head sticking out between the batwing doors behind him, watching with slitted eyes.
Later, as he lay in his bed, he smiled to himself. No matter how strong or weak, how young or old, when a person’s body finally quit trying to survive, everyone relaxed into death the same way. A slump, a sigh, and then nothing. The most powerful man in the world died the same way as the weakest child.
When Doc woke, the sun was just beginning to turn the sky above the eastern horizon orange. Thin clouds held some of the purple of night, bleached lavender by the dawn. Although it would be another clear, bright day, October was already beginning to grow cooler.
He felt bright and strong, as if he could tear open those old Dragoon Mountains and rip every vein of gold from their sparkling beds of white quartz. He got dressed and went into the front room, his office.
Doc peered out the window between the painted letters of his name. The main street of Paradise was just beginning to come to life. On the far side of the street, Frank’s pet Indian held a broom, pushing the dust around on the planks of the boardwalk in front of The Lodestone. In the street, the crumpled body of Cole still lay like a discarded carpetbag full of clothes. As Doc watched, a large raven landed on the street. It turned its head sideways as if listening to the ground, then hopped toward the dead miner.
Doc opened his door and stepped into the street. He waved his hat at the bird to shoo it away, then walked two buildings over and down the alley by the livery to the mortician’s.
Walt answered the door still rubbing a fist in one eye.
“Harney’s newest hardened criminal finally kicked the bucket?” he asked around a huge chaw of tobacco.
“Yep. Cole’s ready for you to box him up and take him off to Boot Hill. I doubt he’s got any money on him for your fee, but I saw him leadin’ around a mule last week, if it ain’t wandered off yet.”
“I need a mule as much as I need a gol’durn wife, Doc. Not at all.”
Doc laughed dutifully and left Walt to his business. He knew Walt would strip every stitch of clothes off the young man so he could sell them to the Apaches, and then nail the lid shut on the coffin. In a few hours Cole would be in the ground, and no one would ever question how the boy had died.
Doc strolled back to his office and sat in a chair out front. He whittled a chunk of cottonwood into the vague shape of a bird, and watched Walt and his assistant from the corner of his eye. They gathered up the stiff body of Cole and put him in a pine box, then lifted the box into the back of his old buckboard. It wasn’t as fancy as the Black Maria they had down at Tombstone that took the dead out to the graveyard, but it served its purpose. As it slowly rolled to the hillside on the east of town, Doc saw Mr. Granville’s Indian. The little man hung a “Closed” sign on the doors of The Lodestone, then followed the mortician’s buckboard out to Boot Hill.
Strange little fellow.
Doc sat in the warming morning, reliving not only last night’s killing, but revisiting them all, like a lepidopterist admiring his collection of butterflies. From the little Mexican girl who’d only had a mild case of dysentery, to the miner with a wound on his hand that had gone septic. Most of the patients could have been treated, but if they had no one who knew better, Doc was the bringer of death. Some could even have been characterized as mercy killing--the cholera, the influenza, the smallpox--if Doc hadn’t gotten so much pleasure out of it. If each death hadn’t made his own life that much sweeter, empowering his every breath.
The sun reached its zenith and began its downward slide, and only one patient interrupted Doc’s quiet reverie. A gray-haired miner with a desert-blasted leathery face needed something for his digestion, so Doc gave him a Bromo and sent him on his way.
The bell sounded from the top of Boot Hill, signaling that another sinner had been sent off to meet his Maker, and a few minutes later Walt’s buckboard came back down the hill, with the Indian sitting in the back beside the pick and the spade. It stopped, let him off, and pulled away. The Indian went to the door of his saloon, removed the “Closed” sign, and walked in.
And that was it. Farris Cole was buried, and the circumstances of his death lay with him in a shallow grave. The ground of Boot Hill was so rocky that most graves weren’t more than three feet deep, and they were all mounded over with cairns of heavy stones.
Doc thought about it, but couldn’t exactly say how many people he’d put up there himself. Quite a few. He turned the chunk of wood in his hand and saw that it looked nothing more like a bird than it had hours ago. He got up, tossed the wood into the stove, and started a fire in the grate. He prepared a dinner of beans with a little fat in it, and when he finished, he poured himself a whiskey.
Sometime after midnight, he roused himself. The only light in the room was the rosy orange glow of the stove, and the long, flickering shadows made him feel watched. He stood and lit both the oil lamps in the office.
Thunder rolled, and Doc started. He’d seen no rainclouds today. He got up and took a look outside, but above him he saw only the same insignificant stars and moon he’d seen last night. The stars in the eastern sky were obscured by a curtain of dust, even though the night air was still and windless. The rest of the town was quiet and dark, as if the people were gone.
Thunder crashed again, and he realized the sound was the clash of heavy stones rumbling against each other.
Someone was opening graves on Boot Hill.
Doc’s heart nearly stopped when he realized what that must mean. He’d been found out. Somehow, someone knew what he’d been doing.
He grabbed a pistol and ran for the graveyard. The moon, surrounded by tiny, luminous chips of star and shining nearly as bright as day in the cool night, was mute witness to the desecration of Boot Hill.
He heard another rumble of rock as he approached the foot of the hill, and saw sparks fly from flints striking against each other. Doc drew the hammer back on his Colt, and moved cautiously closer. He couldn’t see anyone around, but with all the dust flying, they could be hidden anywhere.
Was it Harney? The old Sheriff might have been watching him this whole time. It could be Walt the mortician just as easily, he supposed. Doc pursed his lips and gritted his teeth. Whoever it was wouldn’t be leaving this hillside. Doc would put him into one of the newly opened graves.
As he came upon the hole nearest the foot of the hill, where he’d seen the sparks, he stopped. The wooden grave marker, for Maria Santiago, sagged forward over an open hole. The mound of stones had been thrown out of the grave as easily as someone might kick an anthill in front of them.
The grave was empty. Doc remembered Maria, a little girl with two broken ribs due to a mule kick.
He’d suffocated her, then reported to the child’s mother that one of the broken ribs had punctured the child’s lung and killed her. He moved up the hill, and saw the next grave with the stones removed was another one of his. Rusty Tomlinson. He’d been consumptive. Also smothered at Doc’s hand.
Doc saw someone standing further up the hill. He couldn’t make out a face, but the general shape suggested a large man. Bigger than Harney, and much larger than Walt. He stepped forward, but another grave to his right burst open, casting stones all over like an explosion of miner’s dynamite. The sharp edge of a rock cut Doc’s forehead, and he hissed in angry pain. Why would anyone blow up graves?
“Who’s doing that?” he yelled as more dust bled into the air. “The hell do you want?”
Some of the debris in the air windlessly drifted up the hill to the shadowed figure, but the figure ignored Doc’s cry. Doc stumbled forward over the disturbed graves, the blasted-apart cairns making the ascent treacherous.
At his feet he heard a rattlesnake making its staccato warning. He squeezed the trigger on the pistol and blew the snake’s head off. The snake’s body thrashed, the severed nerves denying their death, but the head lay a few inches away, the narrow thread of tongue dangling between closed lips.
Doc thumbed the Colt’s hammer back again, and continued up the hillside. The dark figure grew as he scaled the hill, but it was still featureless and opaque in the dimness.
To his left, another grave exploded. Doc knew that grave had been the final resting place of an Indian tracker he’d only ever known as Clyde. Clyde had been brought in with a gunshot wound he’d gotten trying to ride a horse and shoot at the same time. By the time he got to Doc, the tracker was weak with blood loss. The Cavalry troop that brought him in dropped him off on the way back to Camp Huachuca, and as soon as they were gone, Doc had stopped the tracker’s bleeding by stopping his heart.
Doc ran a few more steps forward and fell, laying open his cheek on one of the scattered stones. He rolled over, holding one hand to his face and holding the pistol out with the other.
The dark figure stood over him, its features unclear. It leaned down over Doc.
“Don’t you touch me!” Doc cried.
A gap opened, roughly where the figure’s mouth would be, but it was entirely too large. Too wide. It smiled, the empty, smooth hole in its face turned up at the sides. In the moonlight, teeth scrambled up out of its gullet like a swarm of hideous pale bugs, and anchored themselves in the edges of the thing’s mouth. Large teeth, baby teeth, teeth with tobacco stains and teeth worn down to stumps. They arranged themselves haphazardly, with flat, square molars sitting between long canines or thin bicuspids, in every shade of brown, white, and gray. Row after horrible row of random, mixed up teeth.
Doc’s eyes widened in terror, and he suddenly couldn’t find enough air to scream. The shadow-thing’s teeth snapped shut like a bear trap, then began to chatter at him, snapping open and closed as if powered by the pistons of a steam engine.
Doc wriggled backwards up the hill as another grave, this one behind him, exploded. Stones rained down on him like a mine cave-in, one of them shattering the bones in his lower leg. He finally found the wind to scream.
At the bottom of the hill, Doc saw another figure. It was the unmistakable diminutive figure of the Indian from The Lodestone. His arm was a blur, his hand tracing weird shapes in the night air.
“Help!” he yelled down to the little man. “Oh, God, please save me!”
The Indian only looked impassively up at him, his hand continuing its strange circuits in the air, until he was obscured by the movement of the shadow thing approaching Doc.
He heaved himself backwards and fell into the grave that had just been blasted open. His foot flopped loosely at the end of his leg, sending bone-grinding flashes of lightning up his leg and into his hip. The shadow thing slowly moved up the hillside to him. He turned, and saw that the marker for this grave was fresh. The whitewashed plank wore black letters which read “Here Lies Farris Cole – 1881.”
Beneath Doc, Cole’s flesh was chill and yielding. Doc looked at the boy’s broken body, then up at his face. In the place of his eyes Doc saw two ragged, black holes above the corpse’s nose.
He nearly jerked away, but he heard the chattery teeth of the shadow-thing coming close again. He turned, and the thing’s teeth stopped their hideous clashing. The thing’s head was smooth and as dark as dried blood, or packed soil made from decayed flesh. Two slits opened above the horrible, wide mouth, and then Doc found himself staring into the same bright, cornflower blue eyes he’d seen yesterday.
“Get away from me, you damned thing!” Doc was finally able to shriek. He pulled the trigger of the Colt and fanned the hammer back, repeating the movement until the hammer only fell on empty brass casings. The holes torn by the bullets quickly refilled themselves with rot, and the shadow thing seemed to smile again. Doc saw a pair of long, thin rattlesnake fangs protruding from the monster’s lower jaw like the teeth in the underslung jaw of a bulldog.
The thing opened its mouth.
“But Doc,” it spoke, and in those two words, he heard the voices of all the people he’d killed in Paradise. The high, sweet pitch of the children’s voices, and the growly, whiskey-hardened tones of the miners. The dark, round vowels of the Indians, and the musical consonants of the Mexicans. They were all here to get him. He shrank away from the voices.
“Doc,” it said again in its many voices. “I’m not the one damned.” It leaned down into the hole, the bright blue eyes feverish with hate.
“You are.” The awful mouth, with its terrible rows of mismatched teeth, opened wide again and closed on Doc’s head. Twenty yards behind him, the Boot Hill bell began to ring, ushering another soul into eternity.
For more southwestern terror, don’t miss Casualties, available now in paperback and ebook!