Spring 2007 Volume One Issue Two
Medicine Man - Steve Barber
One thing is certain. If that horse hadn't kicked Ned Dantzer in the head and splattered his brains all over the street, I wouldn't be here telling you about him today. Even though he was near eighty, he had the constitution of a mule, and he easily had another ten or fifteen years left in him. Of course, he's not exactly what you'd call dead now either. I ought to know. Being an undertaker, I'm kind of an expert on death. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Ned was an odd sort of fellow. He lived alone, had no real friends, and mostly kept to himself. He didn't farm none, and had no regular job, but was always willing to pick up occasional work from me. No one else would do it, neither. See, most folks are uncomfortable around undertakers, and the dearly departed make them nervous as hell. People don't like looking into the face of death. Too often they see their own mortality staring back at them.
Ned was different. The man was obsessed with death. Sometimes he about drove me crazy, with all his damn questions. "Why do they get so cold?" he'd ask, or "How come they can't keep their eyes closed?" Once he asked, "What do they look like once they've been in the ground a year or so?" That one gave me the shivers, because I've had to exhume a few corpses in my time, and it ain't a pretty picture. No, sir.
One day, Ned sat me down and told me what he wanted done after his own death. I don't know where he came up with the ideas he had, but gave me specific instructions, and sealed it with a twenty-dollar gold piece too. If a man's willing to pay me four times the going rate, who am I to say no?
Even though he was fascinated by death and made plans for his own eternal rest, Ned was still mighty scared of dying, and took great pains to avoid it. I don't mean to give you the idea that he'd run down to Doc's for every little thing. Fact is he couldn't abide Doc very much at all. But he was into self-doctoring with herbs and chants and such. I expect that's because he was half-raised by Apaches, who took him when he was just a boy. Ned told me he was adopted by the medicine man, who taught him all about their different potions, dances and incantations. That's what he relied on. You'd never see him without that medicine bag hanging around his neck.
Anyhow, I took it kind of hard when Griff came by and told me Ned was lying stiff outside of the livery. It was my job to take care of him though, so I hitched up my team and drove the wagon down to pick him up. Since Ned didn't have no family, and he'd already made his arrangements with me, I was just planning on taking him up to the cemetery and burying him, once I got him cleaned up, prepared and in his coffin. But women-folk have a way of changing things.
Emmeline Dozier--she's the one what leads the church choir--pushed herself up to the front of the small crowd gathered around Ned and said to me, "Zechariah Smith, you got to give that man a proper Christian burial."
"But Miss Emmeline," I said, "Ned here couldn't tolerate no church-going. He weren't Christian at all. He specifically told me he didn't want no preacher involved. We ought to just plant him up on the hill and leave him be like he wanted."
"You will not. He was one of the Lord's children, church-goer or not. You're going to bury him proper now. That's all there is to it, unless you know the Lord's business better than He does."
"Yes, ma'am . . . I mean, no, ma'am," I said, twisting my hat in my hands and trying to look anywhere but in her direction. "I'll see to it, ma'am."
What is it about women that they get you so messed up in the head?
Anyhow, seeing as I had gone and got myself elected a committee of one to make sure Ned got buried proper-like, I made arrangements with Preacher Rowe for the following morning. I took Ned's corpse to my shop, prepared it, and iced him down.
The next morning, I tucked Ned into his coffin, and the preacher and me loaded him up and headed out to the burial yard. The Gunderson boys had already dug the hole, and were sprawled out on the ground, shovels resting against a nearby tombstone. They came over and helped us haul the coffin out, and set it alongside the grave.
The preacher was halfway through the 23rd psalm when I thought I heard some kind of muffled noise. I glanced around, but nobody else seemed to have noticed it, so I promptly put it out of my mind.
"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death . . . "
"What was that?" asked the preacher.
"Danged if I know," I said. "Probably some animal. I think I heard it earlier too."
The preacher cleared his throat. "Well then, let's get on with it. Where was I? Oh, yes. Uh...valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil . . . "
There was that noise again, but it was much louder this time. Then the tapping started. No, not tapping. More like knocking or banging. As the sound became louder, it became obvious it was coming from inside the coffin.
The preacher weren't none too happy. "Zechariah, you fool. This man ain't dead. We've got to get him out of there."
"But Carl," I said. "You seen how his head was all stove in. There's no way he'd be alive."
The preacher just glared at me and spat on the ground. He grabbed one of the Gunderson's shovels (the boys were long gone, having run like hell when the knocking started) and started prying up the coffin cover. I got my hammer from the hearse, and the two of us commenced to working off the lid. Once we removed it, we looked inside the coffin. There was old Ned, all open-eyed, and staring back at us. After a minute or two, he sat up, looked around, and then kind of giggled to himself. We were too dumbstruck to do or say much of anything.
Preacher Rowe finally settled down and tried to talk to Ned, but the old man weren't having no part of it. Without saying a word, he stood up, giggled again, and then just kind of sauntered off. We called to him, but he ignored us and just kept walking. It looked like he was headed back to town, but nobody ever saw him again -- except for me, of course. But that was later.
Naturally, the preacher had to go and make a big stink back in town about how I had tried to bury a man alive -- like it was my fault. I couldn't even defend myself, because if folks found out what I had really done to Ned's body, I would have been in worse trouble. If only old Emmeline had kept out of things the preacher wouldn't even have been there. It would have been just me and Ned. I could have taken care of things my own way, and nobody would have been the wiser.
Of course, I knew for a fact that even though he was walking around, Ned Dantzer was just as dead as yesterday. He was dead long before I stuck him in that coffin. I don't say that just because I'm an expert on death. It don't take an expert to understand that when someone has his heart cut out of his chest, that that person is most definitely no longer alive, even if the heart has been replaced by a medicine bag. That's what Ned wanted. That's what he asked me to do, and by damn, I'm a man of my word.
Eventually, it got so that few people trusted me any more. They even formed up a committee to bring in another undertaker -- some young fellow from out near Twin Falls. But it all blew over soon enough. Once the children started going missing, folks had more important things on their minds.
I ran across Ned again a couple of years later. I was returning from a pick up, and Old Widow Hopkins was boxed up in the back. It had been particularly dry for several weeks, and the road was very dusty. I needed to water the horses, so I headed toward a small glen that held a spring-fed pond.
As I approached, I saw a man in the distance, leaning back against a tree. When I drove closer, I could plainly see it was Ned Dantzer, and that he was watching me intently. His eyes followed me steadily until I reined in the mares and set the brake. Then he slowly walked back into the woods. I don't know why I felt so compelled to follow him, but I did. Although I couldn't see him in the thick forest, he was easy enough to follow, as he made plenty of noise, and made no attempt to cover his trail. I finally caught up to him about a quarter of a mile in. He was squatting down over a small, pale, quivering form that was wrapped up in a red and white bundle.
Ned looked up at me and grinned. He absentmindedly ran the back of his hand across the corner of his mouth, leaving a sticky, dark crimson stain that ran slowly down his beard and dribbled onto his shirt. He reached into his pocket, grabbed a small package, and tossed it at my feet. Then he turned back to the tiny figure lying on the ground. After several tugs back and forth, Ned held up his still-beating prize, pulled it toward his mouth and began chewing. I don't remember much after that, but I do remember waking up covered in my own vomit, Ned's gift clutched in my hands. Ned was gone. I cleaned myself up as well as I could, and then opened up the package. Inside was a medicine bag, identical to the one I had placed inside Ned's chest. Without thinking, I stuffed it into my pocket and headed back toward town.
That all happened early last summer, and I haven't seen Ned since. Of course, the children are still disappearing, so I know he's out there somewhere.
The other undertaker and me finally decided to partner up, and we did better together than either of us could have done separately. I'm sure he figured he'd have the whole business to himself soon enough anyhow, what with me getting up in years, but I'll wager he didn't have any idea just how soon that might be. Doc told me last month that I got the cancer.
If I hadn't gotten sick when I did, I might have forgotten all about Ned Dantzer in time. Lord knows I wanted to. But I did get sick, and the fact is, I'm just as afraid of dying as Ned ever was. Doc says I'll probably last through spring. Me, I've got a feeling it's going to happen much sooner. So I've taken steps. I've already had the talk with my partner, and he's got his own twenty dollar gold piece now. He knows where my medicine bag is. I'm convinced he'll keep his promise, just like I kept mine to Ned.
I may burn in Hell for what I'm going to do, but I can't stand the thought of being covered with dirt and having my body putrefy until even the worms won't touch it. Ned Dantzer showed me the way out. So you see, I really don't have any other choice. You understand, don't you?
I do feel bad about the children, though. May God have mercy on my soul, I do feel so bad for the children.
- END -