The clock tower bell rang at the midnight hour. Josiah cursed under his breath. He wiped the sweat from his brow and continued digging. Though the night was getting chilly, Josiah had taken off his jacket and waistcoat. His shirt was drenched. His stringy gray-black hair stuck to his forehead and scraggly beard, revealing the rough 40 years he’d lived. He put his frustration into his digging, hoping it would help him make progress, though he was exhausted.
Josiah dug out another foot before he had to stop and take a break. He threw down his shovel, climbed out of the hole and sat on the mound of dirt he had amassed. He took out a small cigar, struck a match against a rock he’d just dug up and lit it. Once he had stopped moving, he noticed the cold breeze blowing against his sweaty shirt and skin.
He heard a lone wolf howl at the full moon in the distance. A chill ran down Josiah’s spine.
Josiah finished his cigar and picked up his wooden shovel when he heard a growl. He paused and looked toward the East. He saw the silhouettes of two large mastiffs perched on either side of the main street. The only other thing he could see were their glowing golden eyes. Josiah fumbled through his long coat on the ground and pulled his revolver from it’s holster. By the time he aimed it, the mastiffs were in full sprint toward him and closing in fast. He fired off two rounds, hitting each dog once. They tumbled forward and skidded some distance before halting. The large dogs turned into two ghostly humans, a man and a woman, writhing in pain.
Undeterred, Josiah approached the two spectres, gun still drawn. Seeing they weren’t getting up anytime soon, he asked them, “Why are you here and what do you want?”
The male spectre groaned, “That really hurts!”
“It’ll hurt a lot more when I fire another shot if you don’t tell me why you’re here.”
“They’re with me,” echoed a slow deep voice.
Josiah looked up and saw a blond bear ambling toward him. It’s fur emitted its own faint light.
“Goldern!” Exclaimed Josiah. He fired the remaining bullets at the bear. They promptly stopped mid-trajectory and fell to the ground.
The bear smiled, “Is that a way to greet an old acquaintance?” .
“Acquaintance! You tricked me into hunting your demons and rogue souls. We’re not acquaintances. You’s a manipulator and I’s a fool.” retorted Josiah.
The bear looked at the nearly dug grave. “I see you’ve kept yourself busy. Not your best work though.”
“It keeps food on the table, unlike your dirty work, with your promise of redemption and peace! Consarn it! I haven’t had a day o’ peace since this all began… Even after finishin’ all your jobs.”
“That’s because our business isn’t complete.” answered the bear.
“Complete! I’ve been scrapin’ by doing everyone’s dirty work just to eat for 20 years. Where’ve you been, Oh Great And Mighty Neverrik.”
“Watch your tone with me, mortal. I’ve walked this land your life many times over. You are standing in the presence of an eternal being. I will not…”
“Shut yer cockholster, you damned ghost.”
The bear paused. Never had a mortal creature treated him with such irreverence. “It doesn’t matter, only Pantocrator can address your attitude. In the meantime, I have another assignment for you.”
“Forget it! I’m done! I don’ think you can deliver on your promise to clean me o’ my guilt. Twenty years ago, you just saw a desperate idiot and made me your patsy. I druther live out my days diggin’ these graves.”
“I’ll come back in three days to see if you’ve changed your mind.”
Josiah waved off the bear as he returned to the pile. He tossed the spent gun onto his coat and picked up his wooden shovel.
Neverrick’s companions stood up. As the three began to part, the bear had one last thing to say, “It may be worth knowing, the demon I’m asking you to hunt is Skalda, the one responsible for your wife and daughter’s murderers.”
“Liar! I caught him years ago.” Josiah slammed the shovel into the ground.
“Did you ever think perhaps the reason you haven’t had a peaceful night’s sleep is because he escaped all those years ago and has been on the loose.”
Josiah stopped digging for a moment, then silently resumed.
“As a down payment of my guarantee, the next three nights will be the best sleep you’ve had in years.” The three spectres disappeared.
One thing was for sure. Those were the best three nights of sleep he’d had in nearly 20 years. Maybe Neverrik is right! Maybe I can finally be rid o’ my guilt. Maybe this last job will give me the chance to pay my restitution.
Early on the third morning, Josiah went into Torccati’s parlor. “Mornin’, Torcci?” Josiah called Torccati “Torcci” for short.
Torccati stopped cleaning the burrs off his straight razor and looked at Josiah. He spoke with his thick Italian accent , “I have no work today. St. Joes’ is slow, unless…”
“Unless you want to try your hand at barbering.” Torccati lifted his hand, presenting the razor to Josiah. Since morticians are part of an as-needed profession, Torccati had a second business as the local barber.
Josiah remembered his encounter with Neverrik. “Maybe later. I may need to leave town for a few days.”
“Suit yourself. But I could use a second pair of hands. Plus, I’d pay you apprentice wages in addition your your mortuary wages.”
“I kindly appreciate it. Let’s discuss it when I get back.”
“Sure. Where are you going?”
“I don’ know yet!”
“Well, take care of yourself. You’re the best grave digger in town. I’d hate to lose you.”
“That’s cuz I’m the only grave digger in town.” Josiah tipped his hat and left.
That evening Josiah stumbled out of the local saloon. His shack was by the graveyard, so he passed the fresh grave he’d just filled in. There were no tombstones, only wooden crosses that posed as grave markers. It was the criminal graveyard. People buried there were doomed to fade into obscurity. Josiah glanced at the tombs and continued his way to the shack. He thought he saw something dart behind a tree on the other side of the graveyard.
Josiah finally entered the shack. He passed out on his sofa. The bell in the clock tower woke him up. That damned bell. Josiah stood up and felt the room spin. How drunk am I? He rubbed his head and sat back down. He heard the wind pick up until it became violent accompanied by flashes of lightning. The windstorm rattled his front door. Josiah wasn’t sure, but he thought he saw black smoke rolling in from the threshold. The room got extremely cold and the smell of rotten meat wafted. Jesse! What did that bartender give me? He thought to himself. Immediately, he came to his senses, “Gadzooks! Not again.” the door burst open. Just across the threshold was a black bear with red eyes. When the lightning flashed, it revealed the bear was corpse-like. Part of the head and arms showed bone where the flesh had rotted away. It slowly stepped inside the shack
The bear’s voice was a slow whisper, “I hear Neverrik came to visit you recently.”
“Who do ya think you are, bustin’ into my house, stankin’ up the place with your foul demon filth.” Josaiah sidled to the table where he kept his special weapons. He quietly slid a knife into his hand as the bear began to speak, “I am here to deliver a warning. Do not track and pursue Skalda. It will not end well for you. Forget whatever Neverrik promised you. The very forces of nature will be against you. The waterways, the wildernesses, even the plants will oppose you if you pursue.”
Josiah said, “I’m gonna tell you the same thing I told Neverrik…Sling your bunk you putrid demon.” Josiah’s sudden burst of movement was unexpected by the bear. It growled in pain and looked down to see a silver dagger protruding from its shoulder.
“What is this? I can’t be hurt by human weapons.” The bear stepped back in shock. “What are you?”
Josiah grabbed a small knapsack of salt from the table and walked up to the bear. Without any hesitation, he pulled the dagger from its shoulder. It groaned a second time. “You’d best stick to your own kind. Now get outta my house.” Josiah held the bag of salt by the base
and flung the open end toward the bear’s face and kicked it in the chest. The bear cried in pain, fell out of the doorway, and disappeared. Damn demons! Why can’t they just leave me alone. The windstorm was gone. He closed and bolted his door shut and fell asleep on the couch. He didn’t stir till morning.
By mid morning, Josiah had all his things gathered for departure. He paid the stable hand his due for housing his horse. It was a beautiful brown and white painted pony. Its coat shimmered in the sunlight. The main and tail were a very fine blonde.
“Here ya go, son.” Josiah dropped a handful of coins into the stable hand’s palm.
“Thank ya, sir.” the young redheaded boy returned. “I’m curious. We’ve housed your beautiful horse for some time. You never told us his name.”
“He dudn’t have a name.”
“Then what do ya call ‘em when you need to get his attention?”
“I call ‘em Horse. What else would I call ‘em?”
“I don’ know. Jasper. Charles. Anything. Seems a shame that such a beautiful animal doesn’t have a name.”
Josiah smiled. “Tell ya what, kid. I’m leavin’ town for a few days. You thank long an’ hard what my horse’s name should be. When I get back, you can name ‘em whatever you want.”
“Gee! Thanks, sir. No one’s ever let me name their horse before.”
“On one condition.”
The boy paused, “What condition?”
“I get a discount for housin’ him here for as long as I need when I get back.”
The boy thought for a few moments. He nodded his head affirmatively. “Deal!”
“Deal,” replied Josiah. The two shook and Josiah rode Horse to the shack.
Josiah dismounted Horse when he got to the shack. He went inside to gather his packs. Sitting on his sofa was Neverrik, the golden bear.
“I see you’ve decided to take me up on my offer,” said the bear.
“May as well. Your kind just can’t seem to leave me alone. I figure either I hunt you or you hunt me.”
“What kind?” Neverrik asked. “Did another heavenly visit you?”
“Not sure I’d call ‘em a heavenly. More of a hell-enly.”
“A demon you damned ignorant ghost.”
“What demon visited you last night?”
“He didn’t tell me his name. But he was a big bear that looked half rotted. Stunk of decayed flesh. Warned me not to go after Skalda.”
“What did he say?”
“Oh the usual prairie coal…Don’ chase Skalda. Imminent doom. Nature’ll kill you. Water’ll drown ya. Blah! Blah! Blah!” God Almighty, what is it with you creatures…”
“We’re not creatures. We’re…”
“I don’t give a fart what you are. Y’all think you’re so high and mighty, issuing promises and threats anytime you like. After this job, we’re done. I get you your demon. You let me sleep at night, guilt free. That’s the deal. If any all y’all bother me after this, I’m huntin’ you next.”
“Your weapons can’t harm me. They’re sanctified.
“My bullets seemed to do a number on your lackeys.”
“They just slowed them down. Holy items can’t harm heavenlies of Ouranos.”
“Then don’t you worry ‘bout that. If items can be sanctified, I’m sure they can be demonized to. It’s just a matter of finding out how. I bet your putrid twin ‘id be morn’ glad to gimme a few details on that.”
Neverrik was silent.
“Gotcha there, ya ghost! I’ll stick to my end o’ the bargain. Just see to it you stick ta yours.” Josiah strapped two bullet belts across his chest and grabbed two large knapsacks with one hand and slid a small leather pouch onto the barrel of his rifle with the other.
“Josiah. I don’t need to remind you how dangerous Skalda is. Last time, he almost killed you.”
Josiah shrugged his right shoulder. “How could I forget.”
“My malachim tell me Skalda is headed for Mexico. He was last seen in Dodge City, Kansas. Your best bet is to go through Kansas City. But you’ll have to cross the Missouri River. I’m afraid your messenger last night was right about being opposed by nature. Several of their kind greatly influence the natural area. Especially west of the Missouri River. Be careful.”
“Hmmh! Seems I’ve got my work cut out for me this time.”
“My malachim will help you when they can, but don’t count on much. They’re very busy with new threats.”
“So I’m goin’ this one alone. Ha! What’s new. You’re guys haven’t really been much help in the past. Pretty sure things are still the same. Where do you want ‘em delivered?”
“I will meet you in Springfield, MO. There you can hand him over.”
“And you can free me from my guilt and let me sleep at night.” Josiah closed the door and padlocked it and mounted his horse.
“Come on, Horse. We’ve got a long road ahead of us.” Josiah rode into the west, looking for Kansas City.