Southern Legitimacy Statement: North Carolinian by birth. Raised on about ten acres of land where I roamed as a kid with a coonskin hat and Red Ryder BB gun, imagining myself to be Davy Crockett — all thanks to Fess Parker. Grew up on Elvis music. Graduated from Western Carolina University.
From Pleasant’s vantage point, the wobbling wagon bounded down the flat horizon like a fattened armadillo; it was a good two miles away, its rocking form distorted by the thick dust which seemed to carry it along in an uneven, angry gait similar to that of an irritated deputy bringing a mortally – and particularly aggravating – wounded criminal into custody.
“You said that grandfather once likened death unto saddling up his horse. What he called leavin’ the world behind and takin’ his time before doin’ so,” Jubal said.
“Said that on his death bed,” Pleasant agreed.
“What’d he mean?”
“He liked to compare it all to a last ride. But that ain’t how it always goes.”
“What do you mean?”
“Sometimes, death ain’t nice or amusing. It comes in a whirlwind. And you ain’t got the time to gear up and put the saddle on. Sometimes, it’s just you leaving this mortal coil, bracin’ for what comes next, with nothin’ under you and nothin’ strapped to your back.”
“He ever tell you what he saw in the dream before he died?”
“Over there,” Pleasant motioned with a lazily arched eyebrow – most of its elasticity lost to the hands of time long ago – a wooden pipe held between tightened lips as he lit the tobacco in the pipe’s cradle. After small smoke signals rose from the glowing ash, Pleasant felt an instantaneous calming wash over him as if he was a four-year-old again and his mother was tucking him in for the night. But those feelings were never to be repeated, not by a man well into his seventies, and he knew that. So he moved his tongue around in his mouth, savoring the taste.
The blatant disregard for Jubal’s question was noticed and the subject changed. “I’m noticing,” the voice of Jubal mumbled beside Pleasant.
“Reckon he’s as good as his father?” Pleasant asked.
“Those kinds of apples don’t fall far from the tree. Seen it happen too many times for it not to be true,” Jubal said.
The wagon limped onward, closing the distance but never really going anywhere, or so it seemed to the two gentlemen. The dust whirling around the wagon took on shapes that appeared recognizable at once before dissipating into formless assemblies of grime on the wind. The phantasmal carriage was led by two horses in perfect unison. Powerful thoroughbreds pulled a pile of wooden scrap which looked as if it had been lackadaisically patched together. The dichotomy alone confused Jubal.
“Looks as if he’s…” Pleasant began.
Jubal put up a left hand to silence his father. He leaned forward, the other hand grasping the front porch’s splintered post tighter. “In a rush,” he muttered, finishing Pleasant’s sentence. “What’d you write in that letter?” he asked, turning to Pleasant inquisitively.
“That the b—,” he paused, searching for an appropriate and less derogatory term, “the deceased ain’t in no hurry.” He strained his eyes at the approaching horse-drawn wagon. “Pace shouldn’t be this urgent-like.”
The individual driving the dilapidated, rickety wagon in the distance was Mr. Braxton Vestal, an unusually thin man, standing at 6’5”, whose occupation was a mortician. Cramped in the jockey box, his dangling spidery legs spilled over, nearly causing his toes to graze the barren wasteland. Sweating profusely, hands calloused from the reins, shoulders tired from commanding the direction of the horses (a lone cactus or rock would jump into his vision from time to time and an occasional last minute dodge was required), he looked behind him, eyes wide thanks to an adrenaline induced state of emergency.
Most undertakers who were around in the year of 1866 – shortly after the Civil War – weren’t as busy as before and were looking to make more money to supplement the income that they had once made during the violence and carnage of the war. Such situations do force greatness upon others in the arena of inventions (most times out of necessity), and it was no surprise to the universal formulaic design seen throughout history when a man by the name of Thomas Holmes, through innovative chemical know-how, founded the process of embalming. Now this was crucial in the Civil War as the body count significantly increased, and although the embalming techniques had not yet reached the Midwest, they had tickled Braxton’s ears quite a bit. That explained the three dollar gallon jugs of embalming fluid which swished around viciously in the back of the carriage.
Moxley Hotchkiss, a once very lively woman who could turn a head or two as she sauntered by, and who had lived far away from Pleasant’s and Jubal’s humble residence, was now lying on ice in the cellar, cold and stiff. She was the reason for the mortician’s visit. Braxton had been notified by Pleasant, via letter, that there was a particular lady whose body had been unclaimed. And Pleasant made it known to him that he would be reimbursed for his travels, given that it was a distance longer than usual.
Mrs. Moxley’s casket, customized and tailored to fit her corpse specifically, was in the back of Braxton’s covered wagon beside the embalming containers, but Mr. Vestal wasn’t looking back to check on the casket’s aesthetic condition; instead, he was looking over his shoulder at the cannibal on the horse only feet away from the wagon’s back end.
The horse on which the cannibal, whose wispy hair violated the humid air with a stench that rivaled that of the dead, rode could at once be identified as a rabid animal. Saliva ran over his gummy lips as it bellowed like a pig – the kind of bawl something would make out of anger toward the designer of its deformed body. Sun glistened madly on blood and pus which oozed from its various wounds.
The cannibal atop the abomination growled at the carriage, a simultaneous attempt to scare the mortician into submission and to quicken his own steed’s pace.
“He’s being chased by someone,” Jubal pointed out, took a step inside the front door and grabbed an 1863 Springfield rifle musket.
“Wait a damn second,” Pleasant said, taking a step in front of his son, blocking Jubal’s view, placing a calloused hand on the barrel. “That comes later.”
“If we don’t kill whatever’s behind him, that time won’t come,” Jubal said, his youthful impatience getting the best of him, concentrating his ill-focusing optics on the chase which was now only a mile away. He noticed something in the pursuer’s hand. “The hell’s he carryin’?”
The cannibal raised something – a Molotov cocktail lit ablaze – bright and glowing above his head. From their earshot, the two gentlemen on the front porch could hear the maniacal laugh as it poured from the cannibal’s throat in an acidic procession of gurgling grunts and wheezing inhalations. Then he launched the object from his hand. It landed in the back of the carriage, the flames immediately engulfing the cloth. The explosion of flames temporarily muted the hilarity induced cackling from the hunter.
The mortician placed both reins in his right hand, balanced himself on the footrest just below the jockey box and leapt for whichever of the two thoroughbreds would take him.
Jubal descended the porch’s steps with hurried feet. “That man’s more important than anything we got at the moment.” He took a few steps in the hot dirt and took aim.
Mr. Vestal had indeed landed on one of the horse’s rear, albeit messy and nearly breaking a hip in the process, and clung to the horse with tufts of mane clutched in his hands. “Good boy, Pilot,” he spoke to his companion, his mouth inches from the animal’s ear, his belly flat over the horse’s back. However, unsolicited heavy breathing interrupted the short-lived victory of having just survived leaping flames at his back.
It was the cannibal, grinning from ear to ear.
“He’s next to Braxton. Can’t get a clear shot, right now,” Jubal commentated. “Shit.”
Only five hundred yards away, the nameless cannibal and Mr. Vestal were side-by-side.
“See if he can get it himself,” Pleasant suggested.
Jubal shot a look over his shoulder, an eyebrow raised in shock. “You’re crazy. We need this man.”
The cannibal’s condemned horse galloped at a pace that nearly bucked its owner off. Braxton couldn’t remain steady on his own steed and, the carriage a huge ball of sun behind him along with the two horses clumsily falling out of order, decided it was time to bail. Instead of the fast, hard ground beneath him, he needed something a little softer on which to land. Braxton’s anxious eyes leapt into the man-eater’s hungry ones and then the mortician jumped on the back of the diseased horse which instinctually veered away from the carriage as Mr. Vestal’s vehicle crashed in flames, the horses falling over each other, collapsing in a mound of fatigue.
The cannibal and mortician, now sharing the same horse, continued in the direction of Pleasant’s and Jubal’s cabin, now only fifty yards away.
Shocked by the surprisingly fearless (really unplanned desperation) junction of the two riders, the cannibal whipped his head around and bit into Braxton’s shoulder, his putrefied teeth sinking deep into the muscle. He tore the meat from Braxton, his one-track mind sending him into a concentrated feast which included his mouth munching and his hands holding the spills. Braxton leaned back in agony and fell off the horse, landing flat on his back.
Suddenly, the cannibal’s head exploded as a bullet found its mark and his body fell off the horse lifelessly. The horse, his equestrian now having relinquished him of his duties, road away, vanishing in the distance.
Jubal stood like a statue, smoke billowing from the rifle’s muzzle, he dropped it and ran over to the mortician.