Phearson studied Jared O’Brien’s corpse, and he was troubled.
Phearson O’Toole was no stranger to death; he’d served in the County Irregulars as a young man and seen action in various disputes and blood-feuds ever since. But the way Old Jared’s mortal flesh lay neatly set on the dining room table . . . were it not for the bullet holes in his chest, Phearson would’ve half expected the old man to sit up and grumble about two uninvited visitors.
Father Mac threw a sheet over Old Jared’s remains, snapping Phearson out of his woolgathering. The priest said to him, “Are you ready for the long night?”
“Aye. I brought a deer piece, one of the new repeaters—though I doubt it’ll be of much use in the darkness—and two fowling pieces. The Tulleys will regret it if they plan to pay Old Jared a second insult.”
“No doubt they will; the old man felled two of the horse-thieves before they laid him low. Was there ever a Tulley born who was worth a pot of piss?”
“Well, you keep those shooting irons handy; it may well prove a bloody night. I shudder to think what the Tulley boys—what’s left of them, anyway—would do to the old man’s remains if we let them.”
“Probably chop off his head and stick it on their mantelpiece, like an old war trophy.”
“I wouldn’t put anything past them. I’ve something to take care of up at the kirk, but once that’s done I’ll see if I can’t round up some help for you.”
“Why did no-one else volunteer? It’s not as if sitting a wake is a rare thing, and Old Jared was a fixture of this town even if he wasn’t all that popular.”
“Foolish superstitions. You know what they say about murdered men and dark nights.”
Phearson laughed. “That children’s story? Next you’ll tell me they’re cowering in fear from nixies and drow.”
“Quite. But even so, do you have your pipe with you?”
“Did you bring any of that hemp I gave you for your nerves?”
“I’d recommend not smoking any. Have a good night, Phearson, and thank you; you’re a good man.”
And with that, Father Mac departed and left Phearson alone in the darkening house as the last rays of sunlight were dying away. He found a few oil lamps in the cupboards and set them out on the window sills to let any overbold Tulleys know that the house was guarded, and settled in for the night. He found a nice spot in the corner of Old Jared’s dining room where he could see out of several windows without being spotted from outside, and—perhaps more important to his nerves—kept the old man’s corpse well within his view. After checking to make sure his weapons were clean and loaded, he leaned back and studied the two books that Father Mac had loaned to occupy his time.
The first was ancient, a massive tome bound in rawhide and carrying the musty-sweet scent of bookworms. The title stamped into the front cover was so worn with years that it took Phearson a while to decipher it in the dim light. It was an old anthology of ballads, folktales, and, of course, ghost stories.
Phearson couldn’t help but laugh, glancing back and forth between the book on his lap and the corpse on the table. “Father Mac and his queer sense of humor,” he mused aloud. “No, I suppose I wasn’t going to be sleeping tonight anyway.”
He opened the book and began reading, minutes and hours flowing with the pages as the gloaming outside gave way to deep night. When he’d gotten through one of his favorite tales, an old familiar yarn his grandmother used to spin for him, Phearson chanced to look up, and the dining room table caught his gaze. In the oppressive darkness, the vague man-shape under the cloth unsettled him more than the naked corpse; he fancied limbs twitching, Old Jared sitting up, cold hands throwing the sheet away . . . .
His hands began to shake. Willing them to stillness, he dug out his pipe and tobacco and struck a smoke. As the rich, dark flavor filled his mouth and the thick, oily smoke filled the air, his nerves calmed. “Old Jared is only so much mutton now,” he told himself, “and you’re indulging in fantasy when you ought to be keeping your ears open for Tulleys. Quit jumping at shadows like a little girl.”
Phearson listened. The night was loud with insects, night birds, and the occasional yowl of a wolf or catamount from far off. No Tulleys creeping around just now; no matter how stealthy he might be, a full-sized man—to say nothing of a raiding gang of them—can’t help but shut up the night birds. Satisfied that—unless the Tulley brothers had become expert woodmen within the past few hours—all was well, Phearson returned to his book.
As the hours passed, the night grew truly black and foul winds began battering the old man’s house. Rain fell against the windows, first in droplets, then in sheets. This satisfied Phearson; though the Tulleys were ruthless savages, they were also scoundrels, and would have to be either desperate or truly mad to seek revenge on a man already dead in the middle of a night storm.
He remembered the corpse.
It puzzled Phearson why he should be so bothered by it. He’d killed men and seen men die in the war and in the feuds, and that had surely been awful, but a dead man was just that: something empty and hollow, with no more capacity for reason or animation than a hunk of wood. But it did bother him, ticking that same little-used part of his mind that tells a hunter when the stag is close by, or keeps a man from feeling at ease in a room that’s too quiet. Phearson’s hands began to shake again.
He fumbled another pinch of tobacco into his pipe, spilling much of it, and fumbled a match into the bowl, but though he puffed until his lungs burned it did nothing for his nerves. Still, his eyes and his thoughts hovered about the dead thing on the table, more than half obscured by the shadows.
His shaking hand went for the pouch of green, crumbling leaf that Father Mac had given him, the priest’s warning forgotten in his growing dread at Old Jared’s clay and his growing frustration at the refusal of his hands to still. He filled his pipe, put a match to it, drew.
At once his nerves calmed and his unease vanished. A smile drew across his lips as his mind numbed and he clearly saw the corpse for what it was: an empty vessel, a nothing.
Phearson stood in a forest clearing at sunset, staring at two men. One was old and wizened, the other stone dead with a brace of arrows jutting from his back. Both were dressed in animal hides.
The old man spoke in Father Mac’s voice, and though it was in no language he had ever heard before, Phearson understood. “We have to burn him, boy. We have to burn him. Help me gather wood. There isn’t much time.”
Phearson shook his head and, in the same foreign tongue, said, “Not on my life. A pyre is too good for the likes of him. He deserves to lie here for the sport of the crows.”
“It will be on your life if you don’t do as I say. We’re running out of time. Get a fire going!”
Phearson laughed. “Don’t insult me with your superstitious nonsense, old man. That one is going to rot and be disgraced just as he deserves.”
The old man walked off, shaking his head and muttering. Phearson turned his back to the corpse and idly cut at his fingernails with a stone knife.
As the sun sank lower down into the west, Phearson felt unsettled by the darkening forest and his solitude. He turned around to head back toward his village, but was startled by the sound of a branch breaking under a heavy foot. He turned again to investigate.
“You killed me,” said the dead man, standing up now, his eyes empty and lips blue. “You killed me.”
Phearson drew his stone knife and rushed at the corpse, which stood uncomprehending. The blade struck home, piercing the cold, still heart, but the dead man seemed not to notice. He wrapped one cold, stiff hand around Phearson’s throat and squeezed.
Phearson was pulled out of his dream by the sound of shattering glass. He was awake and up from his chair, fowling piece ready, before Jack Tulley had even pulled himself through the broken window. A round of shot peppered his chest and the Tulley slumped onto the floor without so much as a twitch.
Six shots sounded as if at once, and glass shattered; one of the Tulleys was fanning a revolver into a window, hoping for a lucky shot. Another Tulley jumped through another window; Phearson gave him the second barrel, dropped the spent piece, and reached for his repeater.
“Belay that,” said a voice from the darkness.
Phearson didn’t comply, but spun to meet the challenge. Erik Tulley, the Tulley clannoch, stood half-shrouded in shadow before him, pistol at the ready.
“Mine shoots faster,” said Phearson.
“Mine shoots first,” said Erik Tulley, “and any minute now three more Tulleys are going to come through these doors.”
“I’m in a corner, Tulley. Maybe the lot of you will get me in a rush, but that just makes us both dead men.”
Erik Tulley laughed. “Phearson O’Toole, what did Old Jared ever do for you that made you willing to die to save his dead head?”
Before Phearson could answer, there was a loud thump and Erik Tulley slumped senseless to the floor.
“I’m dead,” said a voice from the darkness. It at once was and was not the voice of Jared O’Brien.
Phearson looked about him.
The dining room table was bare, save for a white sheet that lay flat across it.
“I’m dead. He killed me. Erik Tulley killed me.”
“And Erik Tulley is dead,” said Phearson, his hands and voice shaking.
“Dead,” said the late Jared O’Brien. “Dead. Dead. Dead.”
Father Mac came riding up with ten armed men as soon as the storm broke, which was still three hours before dawn. They saw the broken windows and knew that they’d come too late. At first Father Mac saw Phearson dead on the floor, Old Jared’s corpse gone, and he kicked over the table and cursed the name of Tulley. He slumped into a chair and was cradling his head in his hands when he overheard one of the townsmen say, “Well, isn’t this queer?”
“Isn’t what queer, son?” the old priest asked.
The townsman pointed at Erik Tulley. “That one died from a knock on the head. Phearson’s rifle is broke clean through just like he clubbed someone with it, but it’s empty of shells as well, and these two Tulleys died by buckshot. Not one body here with a rifle-hole in it. And I’ll be damned if it doesn’t look like Phearson and that other couple of Tulleys were strangled to death. Isn’t that queer, Father?”
Father Mac looked up, his mouth agape, his eyes unbelieving. “Yes, son, it’s all very queer. Very queer, indeed.”