Chapter 1 – West of Popdalla

     I reckoned it had been hanging there for at least three days,

judging by the state it was in. The crows had made short work of the eyes and nibbled at lips and cheeks, but the clenched jaw told me it still had a tongue, and that’s all that mattered to me. I cut the rope tied around the tree with my hunting knife, and let the body drop to the ground. It landed with an unceremonious, wet sound. The broad leaves of the hanging tree had apparently sheltered flesh from sun enough so that it still held some juice, despite the heat of late summer. I sat down beside it, legs crossed, and reached for my death bag. Rummaging around, I sought out what was needed. First, the finger bone of a virgin—well, finger bone of an alleged virgin, such propositions being dicey in the best of times, which these weren’t. Second, a vial of baby’s spittle, duly blessed—the spittle that is; baby itself can’t have been baptized in the faith. Good luck finding one of them on the frontier, where folks are more likely than not deeply devout, if not outright fanatics. Third was my charm, the silver cruciform sword which always hung on a delicate chain round my neck. I kissed the charm and drew in a deep breath, preparing myself. This sort of work was never pleasant.

The corpse’s jaws I pried apart with my knife, eliciting a vile, creaking protest of leathery muscle. Then I shoved the finger bone past the tongue and as far down the throat as I could manage. Next, a whispered on-ti-kaht-soo incantation into a dusty ear, nicks and pieces torn from it over the past few days by hungry black beaks. I blew a breath into the mouth, suppressing my gorge as I met wiry whiskers of a beard, and the flaking, desiccated lips of the corpse. A cold sickness in the pit of my stomach signaled that the spirit was creeping up from below and climbing back into the body. After a long moment, the corpse finally shuddered. It startled me, if I’m going be honest with you, even though I knew it would happen.

“I can’t see,” was the first thing the dead man said.

“The crows have been at your eyes, friend,” I answered.

He sighed, chest rising and falling, trying to fill up dead lungs that had no living use for the air. He clucked his tongue and said, “Departed then? Hmmph. Don’t remember dyin’.”

“Someone was unhappy with you,” I offered. “They hanged you from a tree.”

The corpse frowned and let out a long breath that stunk like a long untended battlefield. “Hatches then,” he said. “Maybe Oliver and that new dolly of his. The one with the tits. Where am I? Doages?”

“A long way from Doages. At least fifteen miles west of Popdalla, in fact. No more’n four days’ ride east of the Red Wastes.”

“Huh. Not bounty hunters, then,” he mused, voice emotionless and thin. “Five hundred on my head, last time I checked. A bounty hunter wouldn’t string up their payday and leave it swingin’. Hey! Bring me to that fat ass sheriff in Popdalla and we’ll split coin for the reward!” He tried to laugh then, but it came out more like a barking cough. I had me a wry one.

“Thanks for the offer, friend, but I’ll respectfully decline.”

“Won’t stoop to claimin’ a bounty?” he asked with a bitter sneer, like he was offended.

“Not that. Headed west is all.”

“Belu wept! What on earth for? Only dogs, diggers, an’ witches wander out that way. Other’n a few foolhardy sodbusters, speakin’ in tongues an’ askin’ for the trouble they find.”

I watched the realization dawn on his dead features.

“You’re a dirt witch.” It was spoken with certainty and scorn.

“Been called worse,” I said, and I had. I took no offense at the slur.

“I can’t see ya. You sound white. Stole then as a boy? By the Totchee? The Ghells?”

“No one stole me, friend. But I spent a fair spell with the Totchee. Had a shorter visit with the Doh-Khats. Gave me a lot o’ medicine, they did. And a lot o’ wisdom.”

“Wisdom? I’d spit if I could,” said the corpse. “Woke up from the grave by a stinkin’ Totchee dirt witch! What a turn o’ fate! Whaddya want with me anyway?”

“Need to ask you a few questions, if it ain’t too much trouble.”

“Awww, leave me be!”

“Leave you be? What else would you be doin’ out here?”

“Eternal rest an’ all. What else? Why should I help ya, wakin’ me up like this? What’s in it for me?”

The dead. Still looking for an angle.

“Well, I’ll release you, let you get back to that long nap o’ yours. Unless you’d rather wait here ‘til someone else wanders along, another shaman. Or maybe someone who might do you the courtesy of dicin’ you up into bits tiny, small enough that your soul don’t have nothin’ to cling to and cut you loose from the waking world.”

His scowl wasn’t pretty.

“You’d do that to me? Let me lie here, in this rottin’ carcass, stuck between worlds?”

Maybe I would have. I was beginning to feel a bit ornery and plenty impatient.

“Don’t want to. Just need some answers is all.”

“What could I know that ya need? I don’t even know who strung me up!”

“The dead know things, friend. Sometimes they don’t know what they know, ‘til you ask ‘em. So, I’m gonna ask you some questions, and see if maybe you might could have the knowledge I require.”

The corpse’s grimace was skeptical, but what he asked next surprised me.

“Are they things I’d want t’know I know?”

An ace of a question, and one people don’t ask enough of themselves. Do I really want to know these things? Am I better off in my ignorance? I told him a lie. Well, fairer to say I told him something I didn’t know to be true for certain, something I just pulled from the air to put him at ease.

“You’ll forget it all just as soon as I release you and let you head on out past the Final Veil.”

He gave me a little nod and said no more, ragged, empty sockets staring back at me. Taking that as affirmation, I gathered some of the orange-tinged dirt from the ground in my left hand and let a few drops of the blessed baby spittle drip from the bottle. I mixed them together until I had a muddy paste and made the mark of the cruciform blade on the corpse’s forehead, whispering the necessary words. I took St. Agnes from around my neck and pressed the medal onto that mark. And then I asked my first question.

“What did they call you?”

“Thom Bench. Late o’ Hockett, by way o’ Champline.”

“Did a man pass by here, Thom? Pale, one-eyed fella, wavy blond hair, wearin’ a blue shirt, roses tooled on a leather belt?”

After a moment, the corpse spoke. “Yeah.”

“How long ago?”

“Half a day, maybe a bit more.”

“Armed?”

“A single pistol in one holster, the other’n empty. An’ an old cavalry sword, drawn an’ held casual in his right hand, draggin’ the point through the dirt as he walked.”

“There was a demon riding him, Thom. What was its name?”

A pause. Then, “Apterfuge.”

Apterfuge. I had never heard the name. That gave me reason to hope.

“A lesser spirit of the Pit then?”

“Oh…no,” said the corpse of Thom Bench, a wicked rictus grin spreading across his chapped and nicked face. “A Soldier of the Furnace. Hungry. And trailin’ fire. You can still smell the cinders on the wind, if you sniff real deep.”

My heart skipped a beat and the sick knot in my stomach did a little jig. It was worse than I thought. So much worse.

© 2022 by Mike Shel. Use only with permission.