I am haunted. I tell you the truth.
Like so many others before
me, I found as I approached my seventeenth birthday an overwhelming desire
to test my mettle,
to become my own
man, and so I was led by insatiable curiosity to the western frontier to see
for myself that golden land of opportunity and adventure where men were made
overnight, either forged in the fires of adversity or blessed by Providence
with wealth beyond measure in veins of gold or winning streaks at cards. This
was my aim: to prove to my father that I was more than the son of a newspaper
man. There would be no ink found beneath my fingernails but rather the dirt of
my own land and hard calluses from the pickax I’d wield to claim my fortune
from God’s green earth.
But alas, as with all good intentions and best-laid plans,
Hell more often than not is the unforeseen destination, and so one night in the
sleeping town of Warner Springs, I found myself penniless with no bed, no
claim, and no plans for the future other than keeping out from underfoot. The
local sheriff was a hard man who did not take kindly to vagrants sitting on the
stoops in front of hotels or saloons or whorehouses, unable to afford the
pleasantries that teemed within their walls.
To put it plainly, I had been swindled.
As a young man of schooling
from the great city of Boston, Massachusetts, I should have known better;
but at first I
saw this frontier
through rose-colored spectacles, as the saying goes. The man who promised me
fifth share of a certain claim—a “sure thing” in his words, a site that
was releasing gold nuggets “like a bitch in heat”—took my money and
vanished without a trace, and there was nothing the sheriff could do about it,
reticent as he already was to come to my aid. As soon as I’d opened my mouth
speak, he heard the roots of my accent, and a look of utter disdain passed
through his eyes. I have never experienced such prejudice in all my life.
Abandoned by luck, I sat on
the stoop of the third hotel I’d
visited that night, as the sheriff made his rounds and threatened me with no
more than a withering stare—but it was enough to get me moving along the
muddy streets and driving rain, my frock coat tugged tightly to shield both my
chest and throat from the biting wind.
Warner Springs was not the
land brimming with golden opportunity I had hoped for; rather it was no more
than an uncouth
town that would forever leave a bad taste in my mouth. Hopes dashed by one
foolish mistake—trusting a man I had no right to trust with a fortune I
had no right to demand from my father, I vowed to survive the night if nothing
And even if I had been able to afford the train fare back to
Boston, how could I have faced my father again?
“I will make a name for
myself,” I had told him with my chin raised high and haughty.
“You will see. I shall return richer after a month than you could
ever hope to be by the time you fall upon your deathbed.”
The memory itself left a strong bitterness in my mouth.
The doors behind me crashed open as a man tumbled outside
head over heels. I started to my feet, stepping out of the way as another man
charged outside of his own volition, right hand hovering over the holstered
six-gun at his hip.
“Mercer, you no good son-of-a-bitch!” this man roared,
planting his feet on the boardwalk where I’d been sitting just a moment ago.
“That’s the last time you cheat me out of a fair hand!”
A game of cards gone awry,
by all appearances. I noticed there was no one else watching; the townsfolk
seemed to have dissolved
dark as soon as the ruckus started. Deciding it was in my best interest to do
the same, I moved out of range of the hotel’s exterior lanterns.
The man in the muddy street
rose to his feet and faced both
the hotel and the angry fellow on its stoop. “You want to do something about
“Damn straight I do!” Olson’s hovering fingers twitched with
anticipation. “I’ll give you the count of three—”
“That doesn’t seem fair to me, you counting it off.” The
man in the street backed off a step, then two, three, until he was halfway
deserted mercantile shop.
“I sure as hell ain’t alright
with you doing the counting,
“He’ll count for us then,” the
man named Mercer said, pointing
straight at me.
My heart jumped up into my throat at that, and I felt a bit
dizzy all of a sudden. How had he spotted me there in the dark?
“I don’t see nobody.” Olson scowled. “You better not be
trying anything, Mercer. I’ll gun you down right where you stand.”
“You’ll count it off, won’t you, son?” The
man Mercer looked
right at me like it was as bright as day out there.
“Y-yessir,” I managed.
Olson cursed, boots shuffling
at the sound of my voice. “Fine. Count it off. Do it now!”
“One.” My voice came nearly inaudible. Mercer swept his
mud-splattered coat aside to bare his holstered shooter. “Two.” Olson’s fingers
kept twitching; his jaw muscle did the same, glowing in the lantern light off
the hotel porch. Mercer just stared at him, his eyes pinpricks of light in the
darkness. I swallowed the strong urge to flee burning inside me. “Three.”
Olson cleared leather first
like the gunslingers did in all
the dime novels I’d ever read, and he brought over his left hand to palm back
the hammer with every shell he fired, pumping lead into Mercer’s chest like it
was a target at a shooting gallery. The man Mercer didn’t stand a chance; Olson
was that fast.
But Mercer remained on his
two feet. Sure, he fell back a step or two as the bullets punctured him and
the blood spurted
little gushers, but he didn’t fall.
“What the—?” Olson couldn’t quite believe what he was
seeing. “I put all six slugs into him!” Was he talking to me? Well, I couldn’t
believe it either.
Mercer coughed, spitting blood
into the mud at his side. He straightened his shoulders and cracked his neck,
up. “You already
Olson cursed, fumbling with the shells in his gun belt,
slipping them into the open cylinder of his revolver and glancing up at Mercer
in a frenzy.
“Feel free to have at it.” Mercer laughed, extending his
arms as if to an invisible crowd. “I’ll be here all night!”
“Ain’t right, ain’t natural,” Olson
murmured, sweating now,
his gun reloaded.
“You count it off again, son.” Mercer
was looking at me.
“Go to Hell!” Olson fired another six rounds into Mercer,
who just threw back his head and laughed. Olson started crying then, calling on
the name of the Lord, beseeching all of Heaven to intervene. “Why won’t you
die?” Olson was shaking. His fingers wouldn’t cooperate, and his empty six-gun
dropped to the boardwalk with a clatter. “What kind of devilry is this?”
Mercer took a step toward him, then another, the lantern
light glowing against the wet crimson of his shirt, all twelve of the bullet
holes plain to see.
“Stay back!” Olson cried out, retreating, shaking his head
like he was seeing something that shouldn’t even exist.
I was seeing the same thing, and I had to remind myself to
“Go ahead and take what I owe you in blood, Olson. This
fleshbag has plenty more to give,” Mercer said with a grim smile. “Load up that
shooter and let’s have at it. Hot lead hurts so good!”
“You should be dead,” Olson
started repeating like a fervent
Mercer nodded. “You have no idea.” He slapped at his
blood-drenched chest. “C’mon now, the fun’s just getting started!”
“Stay back. Don’t you come any closer.” Olson
the hotel and slammed the door behind him, bolting it shut.
Mercer laughed again, mirthlessly.
Then he looked at me. “Sticking around, son?”
I had no words for him. My
legs wouldn’t move;
that was the
only reason I remained rooted to the ground.
“Pick it up.” He gestured to Olson’s discarded six-gun. “You
might need one of those.”
“Are you…all right?” I couldn’t
believe he was able to talk,
let alone stand upright.
He winced, fingering one of
the holes in his chest, then
another. “This bag of bones won’t last much longer, and that’s a fact. I’ll
have to find me another one.” Half a smile tugged at one side of his unshaven
face. “But first, maybe we’ll pay a visit to that swindler who took you for all
“How do you—?”
“I see things.”
Well, that much was true. He’d seen me clearly in the dark.
“I wouldn’t even know where to begin to look for him.”
Mercer’s legs gave out without
warning then, and he collapsed to the mud with a groan. Despite my horror,
I rushed to
“Guess I was a little too optimistic.” He grimaced and
reached out for me, gripping my forearm. “You take my gun belt, and you meet me
at the undertaker’s. We’ll ride out tonight.”
I had no response to that.
“You hear me, son? You want
that money of yours?”
“Then you do as I say, and you don’t
ask no questions. Meet
me at the coffin shop.”
“I said no questions.” He unbuckled the belt and whipped it
off with a splatter of mud and blood. “Here. Now go.”
I just stood there like a lost
fool. “You want
me to go for
“No good. Go!”
I took off running down the
street, and for all intents and
purposes I’m sure it would have appeared to the sheriff that I was up to no
good, leaving a man dying in the mud behind me while I carried off his weapon.
But what else could I have done? I’d seen something that night that defied all
logical explanation, and the man had said to meet him at the undertaker’s. So
did. That much of it I could do.
The heavy rain pelted my face, shuddering my eyelids, and in
the darkness lit only by intermittent splashes of lantern light, I stumbled and
nearly fell. Lightning brightened the sky, and a few seconds later thunder
shook the heavens. I felt God watching me, and I could tell He was displeased.
My mucked-up boots thumped
onto the plank sidewalk at the coffin shop, and I tried the handle. Locked.
There were three empty
set up inside the front window, and I knew one of them would soon be holding
Meet him there? Twelve bullets
in him, and he’d still been
able to stand—even if just for a little while. I’d never seen anything
like it in all my life. But then again, I hadn’t been in the West for very
A crash came from inside the shop, followed by footsteps
thudding unsteadily toward the door. The bolt slid back, and I found myself
face to face with a dead body.
“You made it,” the corpse rasped, grinning at me in another
flash of lightning. An emaciated hand reached out for the gun belt I carried,
and I was too frozen with fear to offer resistance. “I’ll take that. You got
“The name’s Mercer, son. Now pull yourself together. Haven’t
you ever seen a dead man before?”
In all honesty, I hadn’t. My grandfather’s funeral service
had been closed-casket. Regardless, I’d never seen nor heard of any dead person
walking or talking before, and so I was understandably at quite a loss for
“That son-of-a-bitch who took all your money, he lit out
north this afternoon. I’m willing to bet he’s headed for Dry Gulch to try the
same thieving shtick on a new crop up that way. We leave now, we’ve got a
chance at catching him.” The corpse chuckled. “Only fools would ride in weather
“I-I don’t understand. You—” I glanced back down the
street to where Mercer’s body remained, a formless shape abandoned in the dark.
“Unless I’m mistaken—” I broke off, cringing as the corpse stepped toward
me in a crisp new suit.
“We could waste time jawing about what I am and what I am
not, or we can go after your money. What’ll it be?”
I blinked in a sudden gust
of rain-driven wind. “Why
so keen on helping me, Mister?”
Mercer buckled the gun belt
around his narrow hips and
cinched it tight. “You’ve got a chance here to set things straight in your
life, son.” With that, he pushed his way past me and trudged across the street
to the livery stables. I followed, drenched and chilled and knowing it would
getting a whole lot colder and wetter before the night was through.
Mercer untied his mount and
motioned for me to take the one
next to it. Fortunately, I knew how to ride; that wasn’t the issue.
“Isn’t this stealing?”
“Got a better idea?”
I did not; so I mounted up and steered the horse out into
the rain behind Mercer, and kicking our steeds into a gallop, we left Warner
Springs without so much as a single soul to bid us farewell. For this I was
grateful, as I had read enough about the western frontier to know that
horse-thieving was a capital offense, worthy of the gallows.
But did such laws apply to
me anymore? I was riding with a man who had defied the laws of nature, having
died only to
return in a new
body—albeit the corpse of an old man. Mercer’s ghost had not been carried
to Heaven nor Hell after his last breath. He was still here on the earth,
wearing a different “fleshbag” as he called it. I had to accept matters as they
stood; but I could not begin to comprehend them.
“Have you made some kind of
deal with the devil?”
Mercer chuckled drily, half-turning
in the saddle to wink
back at me. “I’m sure he thought so, once upon a time. But I don’t work for
that imp anymore. Only for myself.”
“What’s in this for you?” I had to shout to make my voice
heard over the thunder from above and the sloshing hooves of our mounts beneath
us. “Why are you helping me?”
“I was like you once, son. The whole world was mine. But I
made a bad choice, one I couldn’t ever come back from.” He paused. “You’re not
“What do you mean?”
“You can go home again. I can’t.
He kicked his mount hard, digging
his boot heels into the
horse’s flanks, and I did my best to keep up. We rode all through the night
with no respite in the downpour. I had never been so wet and cold in all my
life, gritting my teeth together just to keep them from chattering.
But the ride afforded me plenty of time to ponder on this
strange soul who led me along the trail, this man who was a man and who was
not. Had he the ability to leave his body at will and assume the form of
another? Or could he only animate the dead with his ghost? The whole idea
shivered me on top of the shivers already quaking my frame from head to toe.
“That man Olson,” I said at length. “Did
you cheat him?”
“What do you care?”
“You didn’t put up much of a fight for yourself.” It
seemed as though Mercer wanted Olson to gun him down.
“I’m no killer.” He glanced back at me. “You think we’re
going after this swindler to kill him, is that it?”
I swallowed. “Aren’t we?”
“No, son. That’s the sort of thing you don’t come back from.
We’re reclaiming your money, and that’s all.”
“And if he’s not keen on giving
Mercer chuckled. “He will be.”
(continued on page 2)