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Published on Monday October 26, 2009

In the Image of Our Maker

By Kenneth Mark Hoover

 

The morning sun cut like a straight razor across Boot Hill. The mud underfoot was thick, and men slipped as the north face continued to give way.

   

Three saddle bums hired for cheap whiskey wrestled a coffin out of the mudslide. Haxan's undertaker, Ezekiel March, consulted his hand-drawn map.

"Marshal Marwood," he said, "that's Charlie Cate they're digging out now. He was shot and killed by Sheriff Cawley on Christmas Day."

I made a motion. "Bring him up, boys."

The men, including my deputy, Jake Strop, groaned and set to work.

"Lucky that rainstorm blew through last night," March said, "or we'd never know about this ugliness."

He had a point. It had rained so hard the north face of Boot Hill crumbled, exposing half a dozen coffins. As the boxes tumbled down the mudslide they crashed into one another, spilling their contents.

"Yes, sir," March said, "mighty fine luck." Belike he envisaged the fees he would command burying the men twice.

Jake worked an iron lever under one end of a pine box. "Luck isn't the word I would use." He tried to pry the box out of the sucking mud.

"That's Caleb Becker you're wrestling, Jake." The sun glinted off March's spectacles and highlighted his black chin whiskers. "He always was stubborn. Got drunk one night and tried to kick a goat as I recall. Fell into an irrigation ditch and broke his fool neck."

"Jake," I said, "open that one where it lies."

"Marshal, you want this one open, too?" one of the grave diggers, Tad Shallot, asked. He carried a crowbar. His blunt face was smeared with mud and dirt.

"Can't be helped, Tad."

"This job ain't worth a bottle of whiskey," one of the other hands grumbled.

Tad worked his crowbar under the half-rotten lid, tearing shiny iron nails and splintering wood. Whole planks fell away.

"We should get two bottles of whiskey for a job like this," the grumbler kept on. "Ain't right, digging people up. I don't care what that hard-nosed Marshal says."

The third man among them growled, "Why don't you tell him to his face, Jim? He's standing over there."

"I'd soon never see another drop of whiskey if this is what I have to do to earn it," Jim said.

"Move aside," I told them. They clawed through the mud to clear the way.

The lid was still on; Tad had gapped it half an inch. I kicked the planks free so I could view the remains. I fingered the shiny nails hammered through the planks before I turned the skull over. It wasn't attached to the body and there were holes in the back of the head.

"Bones are crushed," I said, "like the others."

The arms and legs were broken as if put under stress. The pelvis was also fractured.

"I can promise you, Marshal, he was in better shape when I buried him the first time," March said.

"I think I'm going to be sick." Tad collapsed on the edge of an empty grave and hung his head between his knees.

"I'm off whiskey for good," Jim promised. "Nothing is worth this hell."

As I replaced the skull I heard something rattling inside. I shook out a piece of rose quartz the size of my knuckle. It was heavy despite its size.

"That's a funny thing to find," March said. "Must have had it with him when he was buried."

"In his head?" I put the quartz in my vest pocket. We searched the casket but didn't find anything else except moldy bones.

We opened the coffin Jake was working on. The skeleton was like the others: crushed in different places.

Ezekiel March folded his map. "That's the last of 'em, Marshal. Six coffins washed down Boot Hill, six graves accounted for. Every one buried when Talent Cawley was Sheriff of Haxan."

Jake looked up from the casket. "What do you think it means, Mr. Marwood?"

The other men hammered the remaining boxes together as best they could, the nails splintering the half-rotten wood.

"You ever hear of resurrection-men, Jake?"

He went a little green. "You mean body snatchers?"

I watched the grave diggers shovel earth. "These bodies were experimented upon in a meticulous and scientific manner. I don't know the truth of it, but I mean to find out why."

"My stars."

"When these men finish pay them off in whiskey like we promised. If Jim doesn't want whiskey give him three dollars from the office kitty."

"Where are you going, Marshal?" March asked.

There was only one man in Haxan who would want to study dead bodies.

I checked the loads in my Colt Dragoon. "To find Doctor Toland and ask him a few questions."

 

*         *        *

 

"Marshal, I don't have the faintest idea what you're talking about."

Rex Toland had gray mutton chops with rheumy brown eyes. The cuffs of his black frock coat were dusty and there were chemical stains on his vest.

"Doc, you're the only man who would ever dissect a body." I looked around. "And you've got the equipment for it."

We were sitting in the surgery behind his front office. He had shelves stacked with bottles of all shapes and sizes holding minerals, salts, powders and solutions. A weighing balance, mortar and pestle, and fluted glassware used for reactions and distillation were on a work table. In a glass-lined case below the window lay steel knives, probes of various lengths, and a pair of brass forceps.

"I'm a scientific man, that's true. But if it's human anatomy I need you'd keep any coroner supplied with fresh material."

"Doc, no one would go out to Boot Hill unless they were up to no good."

"I won't argue that. You say this grave robbing occurred when Cawley was sheriff?"

"That's what the records suggest."

"I remember the day he left Haxan." Toland fired a black cigar. "You need to remember what kind of town this was before you came, John. We had one general store, one livery stable and one hotel. Now we have twelve saloons and a Santa Fe railroad spur to freight the Texas herds that dust in. Not to mention our share of cutthroats, thieves, murderers, rustlers and road agents."

"You're saying it was more than Cawley could handle?"

"Talent Cawley saw Haxan turn into something mean and hard. When it changed, he changed, too. He had a wife. She left him for a whiskey drummer. Then there was that bad business with his deputy. A month later he submitted his resignation."

I got out of my chair and stood beside a begrimed window. Toland had a second floor office with a view of the saloons and cantinas surrounding the plaza.

   

"I heard Cawley shot and killed a man on Christmas Day," I said.

"That was his deputy, Charlie Cate. It was the last straw for Old Man Cawley. He wasn't religious, but taking a life on Christmas was more than he could bear."

"How did it happen?"

"Cate lost his wages in a poker game and pulled a knife. Sheriff Cawley tried to arrest him for public rowdiness. Cate went after Cawley. Cawley drew his gun and shot him in the chest."

"I see."

"Now maybe you'll understand how Haxan got to be too much of a lift for Cawley. He's not the first man this town swamped, Marshal."

Toland puffed his cigar and rocked the chair back on its legs. "And he won't be the last."

 

*         *        *

 

I walked back to my office, thinking. Jake was pouring himself a cup of coffee.

"Hello, Marshal. Miss Magra came by while you were gone."

Magra Snowberry was a Navajo maiden whose life I had saved once or twice in the past. To show her gratitude she came in every morning and swept out our office and made fresh coffee.

"Where is she now?"

"Said she would meet you for breakfast at the Haxan Hotel. Did you see Doc Toland?"

"He wasn't any help." I scratched the side of my face. "I can't figure it, Jake. I thought a medical man was the most logical choice."

Jake sipped his coffee. "It's a mystery for sure."

After sorting through the mail I went outside and followed Front Street toward the Haxan Hotel. There were drovers and teamsters in the restaurant wolfing down ham and eggs. Magra was nowhere in sight. I walked into the dark, cool parlor and found Alma Jean Clay filing receipts.

"Good morning, Alma Jean. Have you seen Magra Snowberry?"

She looked up. "This may come as a surprise to you, Marshal, but I've got better things to do than tie a bell to that girl."

"She said she would meet me. Not like her to be late."

Alma Jean snorted. "In my hotel? Not likely."

"How do you mean?"

She put her receipts down with a slap. "Marshal, I've got paying customers who wouldn't like sharing a table, much less a restaurant, with that half-breed." She held up her hand. "Now don't get hot on me, Marshal Marwood. Everybody knows you take to Magra Snowberry. And I like Magra as a person, you know that. But business is business and there ain't nothing you can say that'll change that. Good day."

I stepped out on the porch. The sun was high and the shadows hugged darkly against the buildings. Mexican children chased each other in the plaza while their mothers drew water from the well. Slattery's band saw whined the next street over.

It was a peaceful morning in Haxan. Except six bodies had washed out of the earth the night before, and Magra Snowberry was missing.

I took the quartz out of my pocket and spat on it, wiping one of the facets clean. There was a cracked glitter deep in the heart of the quartz. I held it up to the sun.

"Marshal."

He had come up behind me. At first I didn't recognize him because he was clean-shaven and wearing better clothes.

It was Jim, the gravedigger who didn't want whiskey.

"Can I help you, Jim?"

He held his hands behind his back like a schoolboy. "I wanted to thank you for paying me off this morning, Marshal."

"Jake see to you okay, did he?"

"Gave me three dollars. I bought these clothes second-hand and had a bath and shave. Some food, too."

"Well, that's fine, Jim."

He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "Marshal, I can't do it. I need that drink." He had trouble meeting my eyes.

"Go to the Sassy Sage and tell Henry Gumm to give you a bottle. Tell him I said it was okay."

Jim pushed his hands deep into his pockets until his arms were straight. "I'll pay you back them three dollars I owe."

"Forget it, Jim."

"Thanks, Marshal. Say hello to Magra for me, will you?" He turned for the Sassy Sage when I called him back.

There was something about what he had said that sent a cold spike through me. "Jim, have you seen Magra this morning?"

"Right after I bought these new duds. She's at the railway depot helping those men."

"What men?"

"Don't know their names. Looked like buffalo hunters because they had hides on the station platform. They were packing freight for the morning train."

"Where is this freight?" There were several warehouses at the depot, not to mention a maze of cattle pens and wooden sheds.

"Big Ed's warehouse."

Jim headed in one direction while I ran in the other. I cut across the plaza and bolted through an alley, knocking someone's hanging wash out of the way and trampling it underfoot. I ran along Cutt Street before turning left. I slowed, my heart hammering.

The depot was in front of me. Big Ed's warehouse abutted the raised loading dock. The doors were closed, but the office windows on the second story hung wide open.

I checked the train station but nothing was inside other than papers scattered on the floor and an overturned chair.

There was a water tower used for the boilers. An iron ladder led to the top. I climbed it and crawled along the lip until I was ten feet above the shake roof of Big Ed's warehouse. I kicked into space and landed on the roof, catlike. Then I moved toward the open window of the office, my gun out.

I edged one eye around the window. Two men were on the floor, hogtied and their throats cut from ear to ear. One was the station master, the other the telegraph operator. I slipped over the sill and stood in their sticky blood. Flies buzzed so loud inside the cramped room it made my head ache.

I edged for the door and cracked it open. A flight of stairs led down and I took them, using the wall to support my weight so the steps were less likely to creak. When I reached the landing I stopped, holding my breath.

A familiar voice floated out of the dark like a slimy catfish surfacing for a gulp of air. "We should kill her."

"No," another man said. His voice was heavy and had a tone that commanded authority. Both men were wearing heavy sheepskin coats and wide-brimmed hats that hid their faces, making them unrecognizable. "She's our ticket out of Haxan. That Marshal's going to figure this out, sooner or later."

"If it wasn't for that storm we'd be long gone on the night train," the first voice said. "You had everything planned but the weather."

Rasping laugh. "God, when that north face gave way I thought we were done for fair."

There was the scratch of a match. The first man lighted a rolled cigarette. The flame illuminated Tad Shallot's blunt, cruel features underneath his hat brim.

"Well, we got the quartz out," he said. "Smart of you to hide it in those caskets and wait for the price of gold to rise. Too bad the weight busted up the bones. Made that Marshal suspicious." He looked down at something out of sight. His fingers curled around his gun butt. "We can't let her talk."

I whipped around the landing post. "Don't go for your gun, Cawley. You too, Tad. If either of you move I'll kill you where you stand." I saw the huddled figure crouched on the floor between them. "You okay, Magra?"

She sat wedged between the crates of buffalo hides. Her calico dress was bunched around her ankles and her eyes were dark with surprise.

"John!" Her face flooded with relief.

I came down the stairs. "Cawley, take that Smith & Wesson out of your holster. Use two fingers and put it on the ground."

We heard the whistle of the train about a mile away. Neither man moved.

"You take a big chance, mister," Cawley said. "Two against one." He was a broad man with a heavy chin, black mustache and ice-grey eyes.

"You're right about one thing, Cawley. It's hard to be stupid when you left so many clues behind."

Tad Shallot grimaced. "I saw you looking at those new iron nails. And you noticed hard when you found that rose quartz. Those rotten canvas sacks wouldn't hold up. But you're forgetting, Marshal, we got Magra. You might roll the hammer on one of us, but she'll kick next."

"Magra."

"Yes, John." Her voice was meek. She knew what was coming.

"Stay where you are." Those heavy crates would protect her fine.

"Please, be careful."

"What's she talking about being careful?" For the first time there was uncertainty in Cawley's voice.

"She knows I'm going to kill if you don't surrender," I said. "And you're not going to surrender because you don't want to hang for murder."

The train whistle screamed louder.

"Wait a minute." Cawley held his hands in a placating gesture. "There's no need for that. There's twenty thousand dollars of rose quartz veined with gold in those crates wrapped in buffalo hides." The train was chuffing around the bend beyond the cattle pens. The windows in the office rattled in their frames. "We'll cut you in."

"Forget that," Tad spat with conviction. "He can't gun us both. And I'm not splitting when I've got a winning hand." He went for his pistol.

"No," Cawley shouted. "Don't try it, Tad."

Tad had his gun out first and shot Cawley in the back. As Cawley fell he tried to shoot behind him, but the bullet went wide.

I fired once and Tad went down, his lips skinned back from his teeth. The six-gun fell from his hand as he writhed on the ground. I kicked the gun away.

"My leg," he choked.

"I just pinked you some." I tore the neckerchief from his neck and threw it down. "Tie if off before you bleed to death."

"I don't want to hang." His fingers fumbled with the knot.

"You should have thought of that before you shot Cawley in the back. Magra, are you okay?"

"I wasn't hit. I didn't have any choice, John. I was walking to the hotel when they put a gun on me."

"Go find Jake. I'll stay with the gold."

She stopped long enough for me to hold her. It felt good having her lean into me and knowing she was all right.

I smoothed her hair. "I'll meet you in town. I owe you a breakfast."

"All right, John."

After she left I knelt beside Cawley who was lying on his stomach, face down on the floor.

"My partner killed me," he said.

"I know, Cawley. I'm sorry. But he'll get what he deserves."

Tad Shallot's brown eyes stared back at us. He already felt the trap door opening underneath his feet.

"I was a good lawman once't," Cawley rasped. Blood flowed from his nose, soaking his mustache. "Tad and me found that deposit of rose quartz five miles away in Red Sand Canyon. We didn't want to file a claim so we dug it out, bit by bit. Whenever a man died we buried what we had on Boot Hill until the vein petered out. Had everything planned but the weather."

His eyes were turning glassy. "Tell me, Marshal, what kind of lawman are you?"

The timbers of the warehouse trembled as the train pulled to a stop outside the warehouse. A final shriek of the whistle came with a release of steam as the brakes were set.

Cawley lay dead at my feet.

He still deserved an answer.

"Same as you and every other man in this territory, Sheriff Cawley," I said soft. "We're all of us made in the image of Haxan."

THE END

 

Kenneth Mark Hoover has sold over forty short stories and articles to professional and semi-professional magazines. He is a member of SFWA (Science Fiction Writer's Association) and HWA (Horror Writer's Association). His first novel, Fevreblau, was published by Five Star Press in 2005 and sold out its first print run. His last two sales have been to Beneath Ceaseless Skies. He is a professional writer currently living in Dallas, TX. To contact him, visit his website at: kennethmarkhoover.com

 


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