Josiah stuck his spade upright into the pile of dirt he’d been moving and wiped his brow. It had been a hot day and, though the sun had set nearly four hours earlier, the effort of breaking through the sun-hardened ground had worked up quite a sweat. He tugged at his dirt-encrusted shirt a few times to fan the cool night air over his skin, then picked up his lantern from the cemetery grass and examined the hole he’d been digging.
It was roughly seven feet long by three feet wide and a little over three feet deep. At that moment it was an ugly amorphous thing, but by the time he’d finished it would be six feet deep with neatly squared corners. He was determined that it would be a proper dignified hole ready to receive its occupant.
He had made good progress. It was nearly halfway done after only two hours of digging. The earth was harsh in this country but it yielded quickly to his vigorous effort and practiced hands. In the twelve years Josiah had been digging graves, he’d gotten plenty of practice.
Josiah took a swig from the bottle he brought with him, feeling the water soothe his parched throat. Maybe later, after he’d finished his work, he’d swing by the saloon and have a tug of something stronger, but for now he would abstain and treat his task with the sanctity it deserved. After all, he was a professional and tomorrow’s funeral wasn’t for just anybody.
Old John Cobb, the dearly departed sheriff of Lembo, Arizona would be buried here in this very grave.
The death of Sheriff Cobb had devastated the people of Lembo and Josiah was no exception. At thirty years old, Josiah could not remember a time when Cobb had not been sheriff and even in recent days the old man’s energy and fortitude were still remarkable. His death had come as a real shock.
Off in the direction of town hall, twelve low tones signaled the arrival of midnight.
Not wanting to be up digging until dawn, Josiah placed his lantern down by the edge of his hole and took up his spade. He was just about to ease himself back down into the opening when a noise caught his attention.
It was a small, delicate, tinkling that had come from the darkness at the other end of the graveyard. Though barely audible, it put Josiah’s hair on end. He’d always done his digging at night to avoid the sun’s brutality, and normally all was quiet except for the sound of his digging.
He froze to avoid making noise and strained his ears.
The sound repeated again, jingling a few times, before stopping again for a moment and then resuming in a semi-rhythmic beat.
*clink* *clink* pause *clink* pause *clink *clink* *clink*
Josiah adjusted his grip on his spade and rested it upon his shoulder, readying it for a good swing. He moved quietly across the graveyard towards the source of the sound. Though the moon was out and the sky was clear, the bluish ambient light did nothing to relieve the shadows that lurked along the stone walls of the cemetery and behind every tombstone.
As he neared the far end of the cemetery, the sound grew louder and more distinct.
*clink* *clink* *clink* pause *clink* *clink*
Spurs! Josiah realized with surprise. But who would be skulking around the cemetery in the middle of the night wearing spurs?
He realized with some unease that the sound was coming from over by the small chapel that stood near the eastern wall of the cemetery. A separate building from the main church, the chapel was a modest but dignified structure that was used for one purpose: housing the body of the deceased until burial.
A grave robber? he thought with growing disgust and anger. Some scoundrel who’s looking for valuables or to get himself a souvenir from the great John Cobb. His sheriff’s star or his belt buckle. Or maybe a tooth or a finger bone.
Feeling more angry now than afraid, Josiah tightened his grip on the shovel and moved quietly over to the nearest wall of the chapel. He could hear the jingling more clearly now. The intruder moved around on the other side of the structure. He made his way to the corner, risked a peek around it, and was about to make his move when he heard the clinking again, louder than before.
This time, it came from behind him.
He spun around in surprise, spade at the ready. Coming around the other corner of the chapel was a tall, striking figure. The moon’s light highlighted it a cool blue. It paused and seemed to regard Josiah with a calm gaze.
“Who are you?” Josiah demanded, ready to smash the intruder in the head with the spade. “What are you doing out here?”
The figure began to move towards him and, despite moving within the shadow of the chapel’s overhanging roof, it retained its azure glow as though the moonlight had followed the figure into the shadows.
*clink* *clink* *clink*
“No closer, I’m warning you!” Josiah yelled, hefting the spade for a swing.
“Yah!” Josiah huffed as he brought the implement around, aiming for the side of the figure’s head. The shovel passed right through without resistance, and did nothing to halt the figure’s advance.
Josiah, expecting an impact that had never come, was thrown off balance and fell over to the side. He staggered back up to his feet and turned back to face the apparition, spade at the ready. The figure had stopped and regarded him once more.
The eyes that gazed at him were kind but sad. They were set in an old and weathered face with long handlebar mustaches running over the chin. The figure wore a long duster, a wide brimmed hat, and a gun belt. The butt of a pistol was clearly visible over the top of the holster. Most conspicuously of all, a star adorned the man’s chest, the word “SHERIFF” clear across its face.
The entire form was emitting a subdued azure glow and Josiah realized with sudden horror that it had nothing to do with the moon.
The figure’s mouth opened as if to speak but uttered no sound.
Josiah had never been superstitious--people that are make for poor grave-diggers--but he recognized the man standing before him and his whole perspective came loose.
He’d been digging that man’s grave only minutes before.
Sheriff Cobb! he thought in disbelief. Impossible! I prepared your body myself, you were dead! Are dead. But that would mean…. No that’s not….
The ghost’s mouth opened again but again remained silent. Josiah was unable to speak, shocked as he was and trying to make sense of what his eyes were telling him.
Cobb’s eyes grew sadder and his mouth slowly closed. He looked at Josiah with an expression of sorrow. Then turned and began to walk away.
“No, wait!” shouted Josiah, finally finding his voice, but the ghost seemed not to hear. As it went, it seemed to fade into darkness, the jingle of its spurs fading with it,
*clink* *clink* *cli….* *....*
Tired, Kensley thought, leaning against the wall of the mayor’s office. Everyone in this town looks so tired.
He and Selma had arrived that afternoon and had barely stepped down from the coach when Errol Finley, the town sheriff had come to retrieve them for a meeting with the mayor. Though tired from the harrowing trip across the harsh desert, they were professionals, and they’d postponed unpacking their luggage to follow the sheriff to the town hall. Every face turned their way as they walked by. Faces that spoke of fear, exhaustion, and hopelessness.
We are not the first ones to try, Kensley had realized looking at those faces. Others, several others at least, have been here before us, and they all failed. These people don’t think it can be done.
Now, as he leaned against the wall in the mayor’s office, near the door as was his preference, he saw that same deep fatigue in the faces of the sheriff and the mayor. Worse even. These men had not only experienced the same fear as the townsfolk, they were the ones responsible for trying to fix a problem that seemed unsolvable.
“... begging you,” the mayor was saying. “We’re on the verge of anarchy out here. People are scared senseless. They can’t sleep. They can barely work. Not to mention the effect it’s had on commerce! We can’t get traders out here to save our lives!”
Wayne Bennett was a portly man who looked much older than he probably was. Being the mayor of a town like Lembo was a tough job, even when that town was not plagued with a melancholy spirit, and the weight of it was evident in the man’s eyes. He slouched in his chair, out of pure exhaustion rather than out of laziness or ease, and looked like he hadn’t slept in days.
“We shall do what we can,” Selma said reassuringly.
She always did the talking. She was well-spoken and had a knack for keeping calm when things were going terribly wrong. Her knowledge of the paranormal was unmatched and it was why they were the best in the business at dealing with such things.
Kensley’s talents were of a less subtle nature: carrying things, hitting things, and shooting things were his usual contributions.
“We have dealt with spirits before and this one should not be much different. We’ll need you tell us all that you know.”
“Of course,” the mayor said, wiping his brow. “Let’s see, where to begin?”
“Start by describing the events in the order in which they happened.”
“Right, then. It all started about two years ago. Our previous sheriff, who was getting upwards in years, died suddenly and unexpectedly.”
“It was a real tragedy,” added the sheriff. The whole town was really shaken up by it. Everyone really loved old John Cobb. They don’t know how to deal with ...”
Kensley, who until then had only been half listening, suddenly interjected, “Wait a minute, John Cobb? You don’t mean John Cobb as in ‘Lightnin’ John Cobb? He’s the one who’s been haunting you?”
“Well, yeah, though he hated to be called that. I figure it brought back some painful memories for him. Only ever heard one person call him that and boy did they come to regret it.” The mayor and sheriff both chuckled at the memory.
“Wait, you knew the man haunting Lembo?” said Selma, turning around in her chair to look at Kensley.
“What? Of course not, but I know of him. You mean that you don’t? Everyone knows who ‘Lightnin’ John Cobb is!”
“That’s true,” confirmed the mayor.
“Everyone,” added the sheriff.
Selma pursed her lips in annoyance. “Great, then you should have no problem explaining who he was.”
The three men tripped over each other to be the one to explain but in the end Kensley won out.
“John Cobb was the greatest gunfighter who ever lived. He put more men in the ground than smallpox.”
“A wonderful legacy…” Selma muttered not trying to hide her disgust.
“Don’t be like that, I’m talking about bad men. Some of the worst scum to slither the earth.”
“And the most dangerous,” added the mayor. He and the sheriff seemed to be filled with a new energy and excitement. “He’s the one who shot ‘Hoary’ Harry Harrison, A.K.A the ‘Bearded Bandit of Kansas.’ Put two slugs in him before he even …”
“Suffice it to say,” continued Kensley, annoyed at being interrupted, “that he faced a lot of very bad characters and never lost. Never even took a scratch. The guy struck faster than a viper.”
“Uh huh,” replied Selma looking bored. “Well, you guys can gossip about him all you want at the tavern after we put him to rest for good.”
She turned back to face the mayor. “You were giving us the timeline. Go ahead, please.”
“Yes, so as I said he died about two years ago. The very night he died, he rose as a ghost and scared the man digging his grave near-to-death. Poor Josiah says it seemed as if old John were trying to tell him something but just couldn’t get it out. Then he turned and walked off and disappeared into the night. But he returned the next night, and then the night after, and every night since, without fail. Always at the stroke of midnight. Never says anything, just wanders about town, coming up to people with this God-awful sad look on his face. He peeks in windows, appears in bedrooms, even went into the tavern one night.”
“The barkeep, Charlie, says that was the only night in his forty years of running it that the tavern has been completely empty before two in the morning.” added the sheriff. “Not even on Christmas.”
“Has the ghost harmed anyone?” asked Selma.
“Not a soul. Well, not directly anyway. There was this poor fellow who stopped through on his way to California. Had a bad heart, you see, and got quite a fright. But otherwise, John hasn’t harmed a hair on anyone’s head.”
“Interesting. And you’ve said that others have come through trying to help. Can you tell me what they tried?”
“What didn’t they try? Exorcism, voodoo, seances. Plenty of charlatans, too. One guy came through here suggesting that it was a ‘mass-hallucination’ or some garbage. He aimed to prove us all fools by staying the night in the cemetery. No surprise, he was long gone by morning.”
“Are you aware of any ‘unfinished business’ John might have had? It sounds cliche but in my experience it takes a tremendous amount of will for a soul to remain when the body dies. Generally the will to stay comes from powerful emotions: hatred, love, greed, worry, et cetera. Anything like that?”
“Can’t say that there was, at least not that we know of.” The mayor looked at the sheriff who only shrugged.
“That makes this a lot tougher. Perhaps if we speak to some of the …”
“How did John die?” asked Kensley suddenly.
“Oh it was awful. John had started getting unsteady in his old age and he fell off the deck in front of the jail. It was the worst luck. It was only a few feet down, but the doc said he landed just the wrong way. Broke his neck and died instantly.”
“That is awful,” agreed Selma, “but I don’t know if it helps us here. Though not really a natural death, it’s not really a violent death, either. Nothing really remarkable about it.”
Kensley’s excitement was evident.
“No, don’t you see? That’s exactly the point.”
The mayor and the sheriff exchanged confused looks.
“Think about it! Put yourselves in John’s shoes. Imagine you are a living legend. You have faced death more times than you can count and always came out on top. You never encountered another human being who could beat you, and everyone views you as a hero.”
Selma’s eyes widened.
She sees it now, too. I might be onto something!
“Now imagine that you died. You always imagined that one day you’d meet somebody faster. Or maybe that you would die saving a kid from a well, or while facing a band of outlaws. You always imagined your death would have meaning. And what was it that finally did you in? The top step. A step that a child could climb safely.”
Kensley paused a minute to let it sink in, then added, “I daresay that even if poor John had died from something as common as dysentery he would not have returned to haunt you. At least that would have been a battle.”
Selma smiled and said, “I knew I kept you around for something. So, if your theory is correct, John is waiting for a... meaningful... death and we’ll need to give it to him if he’s to find rest. I’m sure I already know, but what do you propose?”
Kensley smiled back.
“A showdown. High midnight.”
Old John Cobb woke as he did every night and found himself in the graveyard. As always, he felt cold, sad, and… something else.
Incomplete. Something missing.
As he did every night he walked through the cemetery gate, oblivious to the fact that he hadn’t had to open it first, and walked towards the center of town.
Maybe it’s there. Whatever I’m missing. Stahl’s store has everything.
The moon was high in the sky. It’s eerie blue light coated everything as it always did when John was awake.
Shouldn’t the sun be up by now? So long….
As he approached the square, he became aware of another presence. A lone man standing opposite him. The man was silhouetted by the bright moonlight.
John tried to speak to him, to call out.
Please, can you help me find it? What I’m missing?
No sound came out and John felt the same despair he’d felt every night for the last two years, though he knew not how long it had been. To him, it had all been one long, eternal, night. He was about to move on when the man called to him.
“So, John, you decided to show? Good. The moon is high and we have a score to settle.”
A challenge? Who… but wait... this is it!
John, for the first time in two years became aware of the piece at his hip. He watched as the stranger’s hand crept down to his own gun. With the expert control he had in life, John’s hand eased down to rest on the butt.
They drew at the same time...
...but not the same speed.
John felt the impact. He felt his weariness lifting, bleeding out through the hole in his chest.
He’d gone down fighting, and now he could finally rest.