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John Marston sat silently brooding in his seat on the train to Armadillo, staring out the window. The weather matched his mood with a dark grey overcast that dimmed the entire world. The scenery outside scrolled past no more than a series of blurred colors. He wasn’t paying attention to it – he had too much on his mind. In his most recent brush with death he’d succeeded in a rescue of that old con man, Nigel West Dickens, and had gotten him safely to Cueva Seca. This despite the mob of people West Dickens had swindled in Cholla Springs chasing after them the whole ride wanting Dickens’ head on a platter – or at least in a noose.
If he didn’t need the swindler’s help to get to his former partner, Bill Williamson, he would have allowed the mob to exact their revenge considering that West Dickens is selling snake oil. This reminded him that the other two he needed help from, the grave robber and the drunk, were no better than West Dickens and he had a hard time seeing how he’d ever get them to work together and breach Fort Mercer. All of which made his thoughts wander to his family, being held hostage by Federal Agent Edgar Ross, and that the only reason he would consider even talking to those three degenerates was to finish this business with Williamson so Ross would return Marston’s wife and son. Just the thought of having to rely on these untrustworthy men in order to do the bidding of a corrupt lawman made him angry.
A clean-cut man in a nice suit and tie, bowler hat and glasses said a quick greeting and attempted to take the seat across from him, but Marston glared at the man, only moving his eyes to do so, and the gentleman reconsidered and took another seat. Marston went back to staring out the window. At one point during the trip, the train passed a man dressed in black standing at a crossroad, creaking out a tune on a battered fiddle to no one within miles. John couldn’t tell if it was his general mood or not, but he couldn’t explain why this sight unnerved him slightly and seemed to him to be a bad omen.
As the sun disappeared below the horizon, John was momentarily relieved when the train finally arrived in Armadillo. Even though he was fatigued, he decided that he’d head into the saloon for a couple of drinks before retiring to his room upstairs. The bartender, Dewey Greenwood, poured him a quick shot, which Marston downed quickly, slamming the shot glass onto the bar. He pointed at the glass and Greenwood began filling it again.
“Well, howdy, pardner!” a cheery voice said from behind him, “I was hopin’ ta find ya here.”
He recognized Seth Briars’ voice immediately, punctuated by the recognition of Seth’s stench, “Well, howdy there yourself, Seth,” as Greenwood finished pouring another shot, Marston took it and turned to face Seth, “I suppose you’ve come to your senses and want to help me at Fort Mercer?”
“Heh. Oh, yeah, that…,” he trailed off as began to remember his obligation to Marston, “Well, not exactly… Y’see, I gots me a solid lead on my treasure, yessir…”
“An’ I got me a solid lead to my bed. Goodnight, Seth,” John said before knocking back the shot. He set the glass on the bar and began striding for the stairs. Seth followed him, pleading.
“No, no Marston, it ain’t like that. I-I know what I’m looking for now, I just need help narrowin’ down the search.”
“I thought you got the location off that Moses friend o’ yours?”
“That was jus’ the second half of the map,” Seth explained – he was fibbing, of course, not that Marston would know, “now I need help findin’ the treasure itself.”
“I ain’t diggin’ up no goddamn corpses, Seth!” John cast him a stern eye as they reached the door of John’s room. Seth followed Marston inside, despite not being invited, speaking quickly before Marston could throw him out.
“Looky here,” Seth said pulling a folded piece of paper out of his pocket – it was the crude drawing the Native had shown Seth of the treasure-filled coffin, “this is what we’re lookin’ for and it’s close by, too.”
John sighed and took the paper from him, when he recognized it was a coffin he was about to throw the paper back in Seth’s face, but the Confederate Battle Flag on the lid gave him pause.
“What’s this here?” John pointed to the flag.
“Why… that’s the ‘X’ that marks the spot! That’s the treasure, Marston!”
“What? No, you fool, that’s a Confederate flag from the War Between the States. What I mean is: what’s it doing on this coffin?”
“I dunno, Marston, but I knew you’d be the right man ta come to!”
Marston sighed resignedly, “Well, if it’ll get you to help me… But this ain’t happenin’ til tomorrow.”
“Hoo-hoo! Hot damn! Thank you, John Marston!” Seth danced his little jig again, until he realized Marston was frowning at him and he stopped, “well, I guess we can get some shuteye and start in the morning.” Seth began looking around for a space to curl up.
“What’re you doin’, Seth?”
“Well, I figured I stays here so we can get an earl—“
“That ain’t happenin’, Seth,” John cut him off as he gently pushed Seth toward the door, “come back between say 10am and 7pm tomorrow.”
“Oh, uh, a-alright, pardner…,” Seth stammered as John closed the door in his face.
* * * * *
Eldin Grubb was proud of his undertaking business and his heritage as an undertaker. His father and his father’s father, God rest their souls, were both undertakers in this very same building. He was so proud, in fact, that he was willing to advertise his services on his own wife’s headstone. Being the only undertaker in New Austin, there was no way of telling whether or not this brought him any more business than usual.
However, tonight he’d just finished doing something he hated about this job: crafting a coffin for a child.
Ralph Anderson had gone missing in the hills, had died, and his remains were retrieved and brought back to town. Well, what was left of his remains, anyway. There wasn’t much, truth be told, the boy’s body probably having been devoured by wildlife, but his mother insisted on a proper burial. So Eldin did his duty and cobbled the casket together.
Weary both physically and mentally, he locked up for the night and retired to his living quarters adjacent to the mortuary. He fixed himself a small bowl of potato soup – his wife’s recipe, naturally – and sat down with a text a German colleague had sent on a process of embalming. He’d read books on the methods of Egyptian mummification, but he was particularly intrigued by the notion of preserving the dead with chemicals and found the book fascinating.
Before he knew it, several hours had passed and his eyes had become tired reading by lantern light. He snuffed the lantern and decided to turn in for the night. He yawned and stretched and climbed into bed, hitting the wall of sleep as his head met the pillow.
- - - - - -
Eldin woke sometime later with a start to the sound of shattering glass and splintering wood. Then there were the heavy footfalls of someone moving around in his mortuary office next door. He sat listening for a minute or two, but it was definitely next door and he would have to go and check it out. He fished his Volcanic revolver out of the top drawer of his end table (he never really learned to fire the weapon, he just thought it was beautiful) and went outside.
It was just as he’d expected, the window to the right of the door had been smashed and the door itself was slightly ajar. There was lantern light coming from inside the office. Timidly he crept over to the door, noticed the frame had been smashed to bypass the lock, and gradually pushed it open with the barrel of his revolver.
There was a man with his back to Eldin rummaging through his files, and the man had made a particular mess of the large flat file cabinet filled with maps. Still puzzled, he took a step into the door only to have a Native American thrust a gun in his face.
“Please, sir, drop your weapon,” the Native with the gun politely ordered, his voice muffled by the red bandana he wore just under his eyes that blocked view of the lower half of his face. The other Native, also with his face similarly covered, glanced in their direction before returning to whatever he was doing in the file cabinets.
“What is the meaning of this?!” Grubb demanded as he allowed the revolver to fall to the floor. The Native at the file cabinets began placing documents onto a nearby rug. Eldin recognized that these were his burial plot maps and these two were trying to steal them. “Here! Those do not belong to you! I’ll raise hell! I’ll call the sheriff!”
Eldin tried to turn and run, but the Native with the gun caught his collar and shoved him against the wall. The Native then leaned on Grubb to hold him still and covered Eldin’s mouth with his free hand. Bringing the gun barrel to Grubb’s forehead, the Native cocked the hammer.
“No!” the second Native protested continuing to pile the large sheets of paper onto the rug, “Van der Linde said he was not to be killed.”
The Native removed the pistol from Grubb’s forehead and smashed him in the temple with the butt of the gun. Grubb’s world turned black…
* * * * *
Seth sat at one of the tables in the Armadillo saloon slowly nursing the drink the bartender made him buy in order to wait inside. Seth didn’t really like alcohol, and his faced pinched every time he took a sip. His eyes periodically darted up to Marston’s door, waiting for it to finally open.
When Marston did eventually appear just before noon, Seth tried to pretend that he had just been sitting there casually enjoying a drink. He raised the glass to a table full of men in top hats, who just stared at him blankly. Seth then drank the contents in one swift gulp, which resulted in him bursting into a coughing fit. The top-hatted men snickered and guffawed at his antics.
“I thought you didn’t like nobody, Seth?” Marston ribbed, seeing through the obvious pantomime.
“Naw, they’s a fine buncha fellas! Ain’tcha boys?” Seth choked out and the men just continued to laugh at him.
“Well, who am I to question your fine judge of character?” Marston quipped, chuckling to himself.
“Well, where d’ya think we should get started?” Seth choked out wiping tears from his eyes.
“I got me an idea last night after you left,” Marston said, “let’s take a walk, Seth.”
The two men left the saloon and Seth trailed Marston as he walked a short distance up the main street stopping in front of undertaker Eldin Grubb’s establishment. Marston immediately noticed the smashed door frame and the fact that the window was boarded over. The door was slightly ajar, so he stuck his head in and knocked. He made Seth wait on the landing while he entered the building.
“Hello?” Marston called into the seemingly empty business office.
“Oh, uh, just a moment,” Eldin came out from behind the desk, sporting a tourniquet that had a small bloodstain forming on it. He had been sitting on the floor arranging stacks of paper, “I’m afraid I’m not in any position to do business today.”
“I can see that,” Marston said, thumbing over his shoulder at the boarded window, “but I was just wondering if you might answer a few questions and I’ll be on my way.”
Grubb sighed, “I suppose so.”
“I was wonderin’ if you had any maps of the area that might show where there was graveyards that might not be there now? Older maps…”
“That’s interesting that you should ask,” Grubb began reticently; “I did have maps of the area dating back several generations – that is, until last night.”
“Last night? What exactly happened here?” Marston inquired.
“Two bloody savages ransacked my office and absconded with most of my maps. The only ones I have left are very recent, so they show the plots as they exist currently. May I ask why you’re interested?”
“My sentimental friend outside was hopin’ to locate the grave of one of his ancestors so he could pay him some respects. Seems he fought in the War Between the States…”
“Does the deceased have a name? I might…”
“Well, my friend claims that he’ll know the name if he sees it,” Marston continued, fabricating the story on the fly, ”we were hoping to find a map that had the name on the plot where he’d’ve been buried…”
“The War Between the States, eh?” Grubb pondered stroking his beard, “in my recollection there’s only one place in the local area that could have any graves from that period: Riley’s Charge. It’s been completely neglected since the battle that took place there, so there’s a chance your friend’s relative could still be on site. Though I doubt any evidence of the graves still remain, so the deceased would still be nameless.”
“A dead end then, so to speak?” Marston commented cheekily.
“Perhaps,” Grubb began, “but you look like a resourceful fellow…”
Marston felt as if he knew where this conversation would eventually lead.
“…maybe you could find the two savages that stole my documents? As soon as we get them back, I’m sure we can find who you’re looking for. If it helps, when one savage tried to kill me the other mentioned a ‘Van der Linde’ that had ordered them to spare me. The name doesn’t mean anything to me, however. Perhaps it might mean something to you?”
John felt a jolt from the very mention of that name and the fact that it could only belong to one person.