Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Walking Fella in Hell: Whiskey Exorcism

In a world so unforgiving
You mean more to me each every day
So may the living be dead in our wake

He sat at my bar, down at the end, as far from daylight as possible. What the hell was he—Festus got it started calling him the walking fella—doing in my bar? Besides paying too much for rotgut whiskey and pouring it over his head, that is. Occasionally he drank some. But most of it went into the sawdust by his feet. A big damp pile of sawdust.

At least down there in the corner I didn’t have to see his face. Mother Mary, his face. Festus saw it too. After that I started givin’ ol’ Festus the real stuff, uisce beatha. Any man what looked the walking fella in the face and didn’t piss his pants got stones. 

He never left. Not after the first day, when he shot Driscoll, bought a horse, and sent a telegram. After that he just sat in my bar. Just sat, from opening to last call. Left nice and polite-like when I locked up, was there waiting when I arrived. Don’t think he had a hotel room. Don’t think Missus Burden would rent to his type. Once or twice I saw him roaming the streets late at night. Like Jesus risen from the dead again.

Yeah, Festus tol’ me about the walking fella’s getting shot. Hear he had some bullets in ‘em already. Back in the old country woulda figured he was fairy-touched. No one believes in that out here. Neither do I.

More likely Driscoll’s gun just misfired. Bastard never took good care of it. Shoving it down his trousers like that.

So the walking fella’s over in the corner, drinking. Doors swing open, in comes Festus, dragging his gimpy leg. Walking fella glances up, swear he grins. My ma’s old rosary starts burning into my leg. Never been a praying type. Not after the famine an’ everything else. But right then I muttered a few Hail Marys. Couldn’t hurt.

Festus stutters for a minute, turns around, and leaves. Damn.

Guess it’s time to bite the bullet. I open my mouth, but walking fella beats me to it. “Riding out tomorrow. ‘Sides, you make ‘nuff off selling me rotgut uisce to make up for losin’ a few reg’lars.”

Thank Jesus. There was a God after all.

Gunshots echoed outside and kept cracking out. “Mother of Christ!” I pulled me old double-barrel shotgun from under the bar and cocked it. “Saint Pat an’ all the rest, this town’s gone to the dogs.”

Down in the corner shadows the walking fella stood up. He’d been huddling under that bloodstained duster of his like it was the middle of winter. Now it fell as he pushed himself off the bar and I saw his gun rig. I’ve known some gunslingers in my day, and none of ‘em wore their pistols low like the walkin’ fella. High up on the hip they wear ‘em, not low down almost to the knee. Bet that’s how he got those bullets in ‘im. Trying to outdraw a real gunhand with a fool gunbelt like that.

Doors swung open an’ Festus dove in. Fifteen years he’s been deputy and I’d never seen him with drawn gun yet. But he’d got his hand wrapped around that piece tighter’n a British landlord’s grip on money.

 “Sheriff’s back. Something’s wrong with ‘im.” Festus pulled himself to his feet and shuffled cartridges from belt to gun. His hands shook, an’ it weren’t from drinking. “First that walking bastard, now the sheriff’s howling about burnin’ wheels rolling backasswards through time. This ain’t our week.”

Christ on the cross. I shifted grip on the scattergun. “Who’s shooting?”

Festus spat. “Sheriff. Shot at the Vandeusen brat. Not that I blame him…”

Jaysus. I crossed myself, kinda quick-like. The walking fella noticed. “God don’t hold a candle to what’s eatin’ that sheriff.”

He walked across my bar, real slow and cool, brushing his right hand across that pistol’s bone-yellow grip. In the murky damp cool the rhythm of wet flesh on dry wood sounded like a far-off drumbeat. A cow’s heart pumping out its last after you cut its throat.

Shouting in the street was getting closer. Sheriff alright. He had the deepest voice I ever heard from a skinny little prick like him. Well that damn bass bellow kept on roarin’ ‘bout  yaller and uncaring outer creatures.           

Just before he walked out o’ my saloon, walking fella looked back. “I’d pray your rosary, Irish. Pray it loud. That or learn things you never dreamed of.”

So I did. Hadn’t said the beads since Ma an’ Marie died. But while I peered out of my saloon, Festus at my shoulder, I prayed. Don’t know if I was praying for the walking fella or myself or Ma an’ Marie or who but I slipped those cool beads through my fingers and I whispered the words I’d almost forgotten and I prayed hard.

That walking fella stomped across the creaking boardwalk, back ramrod-straight. Festus hadn’t lied—there was bullet holes in the stranger’s back.

Outside in the dusty sun stood Sheriff. Jus’ Sheriff. All we called him. Sheriff screamed blasphemies and heathenish languages into the sky, firing his pistol at intervals. Sweat soaked the armpits of his broadcloth suit jacket. Sheriff believed in dressing fine. Handsome man, Sheriff. Or had been. He’d been painting his face with mud or something, an’ half his hair was cut ragged. That fine complexion of his’n had got all spotty with the heat and big boils writhing with pus. Flies swarmed around him.

Walking fella started barking Latin—I know Latin when I hear it, been to enough Masses in my life—at Sheriff. All jerky-like, a Punch ‘n’ Judy puppet in the Nevada heat, Sheriff turns. He’d been reloading. Now that fancy Peacemaker of his was clenched tight in his fist.

“Put it down, friend. You’ll live longer that way.” The walking fella’s fingers twitched over that low-slung holster. No chance he’d out-draw Sheriff.

Sheriff waved his pistol around. “Darkness everlasting all-consuming shadow of the mind.”          There was other stuff he said but I don’t remember it. Don’t want to, either. Had enough horror in my life.

“I said put the damn gun down. Go peddle your lunacy elsewhere.” Walking fella’s fingers slow-walked up to the butt of his gun. I’d stopped praying now. This was a showdown I wanted to hear as well as see. Back-shot man against raving Sheriff. Could tell stories ‘bout it for years. Walking fella spat a wad of tobacco—black as a blighted potato. Swear the baccy hissed when it hit dirt. “Go on, git!”

Sheriff dropped. Walking fella’s piece was still holstered. Then Sheriff started thrashing. Dust caked his clean black suit. “Óla chalázi tis megáles skoteinés af̱toí pou periménoun sti̱n exo̱terikí̱ skies.”

That weren’t Latin frothing off Sheriff’s tongue with the blood and foam now. That was something different. Walking fella turned to me. “Get some whiskey, pray over it. Bring your rosary. We gonna have a little exorcism.”

I did what the man said. Muttered a little prayer over a bottle of whiskey, hauled it outdoors to where walking fella straddled Sheriff. Handed him whiskey and rosary and backed away. Sheriff was still flailing around. No chance I’d be close to that. Cornered animals get vicious. An’ far as I figured, Sheriff was good as rabied.

Well walking fella smacks Sheriff around a bit, hollerin’ at him. “Stop that god-damned babbling!”

Never seen a man shove an entire bottle down another’s throat. Walking fella shook Sheriff back and forth, holding that whiskey like nursing a baby an’ cussing all the while. Festus an’ me sat back watching. Better’n a circus coming to town, 'cept for little Jimmy Vandeusen bleeding in the street, which made it bettern’ TWO circuses in my eyes.

By the time half the bottle’s down Sheriff’s throat or turning dirt into mud, Sheriff weren’t thrashing nearly as much. Then walking fella doused Sheriff with what whiskey remained—Sheriff wolf-howled. A real sick sizzling smell drifted off him. Walking fella spat again. “The power of Christ his fucking self compels you!”

Whatever walking fella did it didn’t take. Sheriff spat out some more gibberish. “Tha prépei na eínai o̱s theós!”

“Be like that.” Walking fella grabbed me ma’s old rosary—blessed by martyr priests an’ more—held it up against Sheriff. Right onto Sheriff’s forehead Walking fella pressed the little copper crucifix ma scrounged for weeks to buy. “I will wipe Jerusalem as a man wipeth a dish, wiping it, and turning it upside down.”

A Bible-reading gunslinger. By now I couldn’t be surprised by much.

Sheriff bucked against the walking fella’s weight. But walking fella held on an’ kept shoving that crucifix up against Sheriff.

After a moment, Sheriff lay still again. “Damn and blast you, Ethan Walker. Thy mother’s soul suffers in bondage to Sathanas! I shall feast upon thy marrow in the ending of days! All shall tremble beneath the icy blast of my wings!”

Next to me, Festus retched. I kept him company. Every word from Sheriff’s mouth stung and tore at me. Compared to what was eating Sheriff, walking fella’s voice was smoother’n honey.

“You ain’t but a little plague fiend, amigo. Now git outta the man.” Walking fella dug that crucifix into Sheriff’s skin. Flesh blistered around the copper. Up skyward the sun beat down hot and merciless, just like walking fella’s grip on Sheriff. Weren’t a chance of Sheriff breaking free. No matter how hard Sheriff thrashed, walking fella stayed stuck to him like they were making the beast with two backs.

Then Sheriff convulsed once more an’ some kinda fog poured out of his mouth all red and purple and black like letting wine outta wineskin. Cursing up a storm, walking fella scrambled backwards on his ass. He tossed splashes of whiskey at the cloud forming over Sheriff’s thrashing body. “Piss off! The power of Christ compels ya, creature of the outer dark!”

Well that just riled the damn thing up. Now a cloud of purple gas spread all over town like the Morrigan’s wings.

“I thought you knew what you were doing!” The words flew out ‘fore I could stop ‘em.

Walking fella stared at me for a long minute. “Exorcism is hardly an exact science, sir. You may want to haul what’s left of your sheriff inside now.”        

Me? I wasn’t going out there. Not with that unholy-looking fog choking the streets. Nossir. Not me. Festus looked at me expectantly and muttered something about covering me from the saloon. Cowshite. Thought he was brave. I went out. “Plá ar do theach.”

Doc Henniway tipped his hat to me before picking up Jimmy Vandeusen and taking him in. Not much chance of the kid still living, but Doc had to try. Eventually.

At least Sheriff hadn’t moved. Jesus, Mary, and all the saints. What had walking fella driven out? Sure, Sheriff’d never been a heavy man. But now he looked like nothing was left. Something done sucked the juice outta his husk an’ left him lying. It’d take more than some blessed whiskey or Henniway’s doctoring to get Sheriff lookin’ prime again.

I drug Sheriff inside an propped him up against the bar. Festus was pressed up against the back wall, wide eyes locked on every wisp of fog leaking in. “God damn, McConnell, we’re in deep shit here.”

Back over in his corner, the walking fella snorted. “This ain’t nothing.”

Well, that set Festus off. Cripple or not, he fast-limped toward the walking fella, hand on gun. “What the hell you talking about? This whole damn mess is the worst thing I ever seen! God-damned demon creature inside Sheriff and now some mist straight out of Satan’s maw!”

Walking fella chuckled sick-like deep in his throat before coughing and spitting. “I saw Wilderness when I’s still hangin’ on my mam’s skirt. Time I could walk they had me lootin’ corpses.”

“Which side?” Festus tensed up, looking ready to draw.  That’s right. Festus had been a soldier in the War Between the States.

Pulling a needle and thread outta his saddlebags, walking fella started sewing up his torn duster. He had delicate hands. Artisan’s hands. Too pretty to waste on gunning men down. “I ain’t that old, Festus. War ended before my mammy got her wish of sending me off ta fight. Crazy bitch.”

Thankfully, Festus cooled off. Didn’t need him drawing down on walking feller an’ endin’ up dead. We needed some law in this place. Sure as hell wouldn’t be me. I’da shot the Vandeusen brat first thing if I got a badge on me. Surprised it took Sheriff long as it did to snap. He resisted temptation right up until a God-damned demon possessed ‘im.

Walking fella finished mending his jacket an’ slung it over his shoulders like a cape. “Give it an hour or so. If all this fog don’t blow over, I’ll deal with it. For a price.”

Oh, lord. Festus lost it, went for his gun. Walking fella clicked his tongue quietly. No, not tongue. A blued-steel revolver sat on the polished wood bar. Holdin’ my breath, I looked over to Festus—his gun had only half-cleared holster. Festus breathed like a racehorse.

“Not bad, amigo. Bet in your younger days you coulda drawn clean on me.” Walking fella picked at a fingernail. “But my mammy raised me to kill men. Crazy ol’ witch. Thought Lincoln was the Beast of Revelation. Listen, pal, you don’t have much choice, lessen you know more ‘bout dispersing a demon of pestilence than I figure.”

Pestilence. Damn it. I came to America to get away from pestilences.

Festus sat there hemming and hawing, shuffling his boots back and forth. “Waaaaaaal,” he drawled out, “I suppose I could withdraw a sum under my authority. Won’t be anything much, though.”

“All I want’s some supplies. Cartridges, a horse, an’ such. I’ll be needin’ ‘em. Bastards took all but my pistol when they buried me. Can’t hunt man nor beast with a revolver for long.”

I hinted how I reckoned he weren’t just looking to shoot ordinary folks nor ordinary critters. Walking fella laughed. “Well, I dunno about that. All I’m interested in is getting back my kit from Driscoll’s lot. Figures he didn’t have anything on ‘im. Prolly sold it first chance he got.”

Seemed to me walking fella’s voice got more pleasant the longer I heard it. Still not a pretty voice, more like one that hadn’t been used in quite some time.

“Well.” Walking fella stood up. “I’ll be taking my noontime stroll now.”