Snakebite 1

Traveling through the Wild West with a sack of money at one’s side would fray the nerves of any man. Yet as Paul Perkins rode his horse over one of many hills on a westward road, he wasn’t afraid. The bills were holy.

The saintly members of Paul’s church had gathered the money. They’d learned that a deacon’s daughter and her husband lived in a rough town with no church, and picked Paul to found one. Who better than the pastor’s son to bring spiritual guidance and civilize the rowdy town?

As the horse started down the hill, the saddlebag containing the money bumped Paul’s leg. He managed not to look at it. Once his journey had begun, he’d had to train himself not to glance frequently at the bag, because he didn’t want to draw attention to it.

He surveyed the prairie before him, golden plains dotted with dark green patches of woods and surrounded by jagged gray mountains. The setting sun made the beautiful landscape glow. His spirit soared at the sight.

Movement down the road sent his spirit crashing back to earth. Five men with bandanas tied over their faces raced toward him on horseback, their eyes glaring through the slit between their cowboy hats and bandanas. Four men carried revolvers and one held a lever-action rifle.

Paul didn’t draw his revolver, since he couldn’t take on five armed men at once. He had no hope of fleeing, either. They were too close. He stopped his horse in the center of the dusty road and prayed for protection. The outlaws surrounded him.

“Get off your horse,” the tall, bulky leader of the outlaws said.

Paul slid from the saddle to the ground.

The leader motioned to a skinny man. “Search him and his horse.”

The skinny man dismounted. He took Paul’s revolver and gunbelt, the small amount of money in his pocket, and a knife out of his saddlebag. Paul didn’t complain. Then the man dug to the bottom of the saddlebag and pulled out the packet of money for founding a church.

“I’m a preacher,” Paul burst out. “The money you hold is the blood, sweat, and tears of hundreds of people who sent me to bring the Gospel to the American frontier. Can you truly be heartless and wicked enough to steal that money and spend it on vice?”

The leader of the outlaws looked down at him. “I’d steal the blood, sweat, and tears of the whole world if I could. I’d take God’s throne out from under him if I could. What do I care about religion?”

Paul looked him right in the eyes. “You’d better care, or the devil will claim your soul.”

“Mighty cocky, ain’t you?” The outlaw leader laughed. “I’m the closest thing there is to a devil, boy, and I don’t leave witnesses. Especially cocky ones.” The outlaw turned his back to Paul and spoke to his gang. “Kill him.”

While Paul devoutly believed in miracles, he also knew that God didn’t want people to just stand around waiting for the miraculous to happen. He dove off the road into some tall grass and crawled as fast as he could. He tried to keep his head below the level of the grass so that they wouldn’t have a clear shot.

The outlaws fired. Bullets tore through the grass all around him. One bullet dug into the ground in front of him. But not a single bullet hit him. He kept crawling.

“Stop standing around!” The big man roared. “Go hunt him down.”

Footsteps pounded through the grass behind Paul. He was scrambling forward so rapidly that he didn’t see the hill’s edge before falling over it. He toppled down the hillside, rocks bruising him all over until he crashed to a halt at the bottom.

Slowly he sat up, the world spinning around him for a moment before finally settling back into place. He put his hand on a big rock to help himself stand. He had to keep running before the outlaws caught up.

A rattling sound made him pause. On top of the rock, hissing and rattling its tail, a large rattlesnake coiled with its eyes locked on him. Its thick, tan body was covered with dark brown blotches. Before he could withdraw his hand, the snake struck, sinking its fangs into his flesh.

He cried out in pain and backed away from the rattlesnake, staring up the hill as the outlaws came in view. Several aimed their guns at him, but when they saw the snake and the way he held his hand, they lowered their guns and laughed.

The outlaw leader pushed through to the front of the group. “Why ain’t you shooting?” Then he saw Paul, and joined the laughter. “Well, well, preacher man! Apparently virtue’s reward is to be robbed and die a slow, agonizing death. It’s beautiful, I say. Simply beautiful.”

Paul stared at the two fang marks on his hand, whispering, “Please, God. No.”

The big man waved. “Enjoy your final night on earth, preacher.”

Then he turned and walked away, the other outlaws close behind him.

Paul looked at the sun’s last light fading beyond the mountains. The nearest town had to be at least six miles away. Were any houses nearer? He climbed the hill and watched the outlaws vanish into the distance with his horse.

As he walked along the road, his hand throbbed and swelled. Nausea swept through his body, making him want to lie down. But he couldn’t rest. He had to find help. He shuddered, wondering how long it would be until he was too ill to keep walking. If he reached the town, could the doctor even save him? He needed a miracle.

Once darkness fell, he realized he had wandered from the road and was lost in a patch of woods. The starry sky was hidden from sight by dark branches, and underbrush kept entangling his legs. He stumbled onward, not sure he could keep walking much longer. But he had to somehow.

As he left the woods and entered a field, he crumpled to his knees. He tried to get back to his feet, but only ended up face down on the ground with sticks poking him in the cheek. Raising his head, he looked around. A little shack with light in the window was nestled among some boulders at the foot of a mountain. Could whoever lived in the shack help him?

Pushing himself up, he stumbled to the small building and shakily pounded on the door. He leaned against the door frame, trying not to fall again. When the door opened, a short figure who seemed half man and half bushy gray beard faced him. Paul toppled forward, and the man caught him.

“Whoa, there!” the old man said. “What happened to you?”

“Rattlesnake,” Paul whispered. “My hand.”

“Ah. Say no more.” The old man dragged him across the room and laid him on a bed. “Rest here.”

“Can you get a doctor?” Paul asked weakly.

“Not early enough to do you any good, because the nearest doctor is half a day’s ride away. A doc couldn’t help, anyway, since there’s no way to treat rattlesnake bites.” The old man patted Paul’s shoulder. “I’ve tended to several men who’ve been bitten and heard of many others. Contrary to popular belief, not everyone bitten by a rattlesnake dies. Many do, but I personally saw one man pull through.”

“Do you think there’s any hope for me?”

“You look young and strong, so I’d say you’ve got a chance. But things are gonna be rough for awhile.”

Paul closed his eyes. “How long?”

“At least a week. Likely several.”

“You a praying man?”

“Indeed I am. And I’ll say some prayers for you. You’re gonna need them.”

A fog crept over Paul’s mind. As he writhed in agony in the bed, he wasn’t sure if hours or days were passing. Sometimes sweat drenched him or chills shook him. He kept wondering if one moment he’d close his eyes and the next he’d wake up in heaven. Occasionally the kind old man spooned water into his mouth.

With how many times Paul had glimpsed light and darkness through the window, he eventually realized at least three days had passed. The pain and sickness eased a little, but didn’t go away. He begged God to let him live on to fulfill his calling and found a church.

The old man noticed he was more alert. “Folks around here call me Badger, because I’ve been a prospector for decades, always digging, digging, digging.”

Paul gave his name, then slept again. Nightmares plagued him. In one, he walked the earth as a ghost, trying to find heaven, and ended up scaring the outlaw gang. He woke from that nightmare on the seventh day, his mind feeling clear for the first time since the snakebite.

After another week of rest, this one filled with eating, Paul dragged himself out of bed to help Badger with chores. Paul told Badger his reason for being out west, about his run-in with the outlaws, and how he’d got the rattlesnake bite.

“Do you think the sheriff can catch the outlaws and get the money back?” Paul asked.

Badger shook his head, his enormous beard bouncing against his chest. “Sheriff Lennox ain’t got the guts. Everyone knows a man named Dex leads the outlaws. Dex used to live in town and now has a hideout nearby. But since the outlaws wear masks, the sheriff pretends he don’t know who the outlaws are. And I think he’s telling the truth about not knowing where their hideout is.”

“Why don’t the townspeople do something?”

“About Dex and his gang? They’re too scared. At least a few good men would die. And since Dex and his outlaws mostly bother travelers, the locals ain’t been pushed to the point of desperation. Dex is smart that way.”

Paul thought awhile and said, “Dex and his gang think I’m dead. I had a dream where my ghost haunted them, and maybe that’s not a bad idea. I don’t believe in ghosts, but they probably do.”

Badger chuckled. “Going to get some ghostly vengeance?”

“I’ll leave vengeance to the Lord,” Paul replied. “All I want is justice.”

Three weeks after being bitten, Paul felt almost as strong and healthy as before the snakebite, so he began helping Badger dig in a nearby mine.

On the fourth week since his run-in with the outlaws, with his health largely regained, Paul hid by the road he’d been following when the outlaws stopped him. He didn’t see them all day, so he returned the following day. Near sunset, the outlaws rode past his hiding place, and once they were a safe distance ahead, he followed.

A few miles down the road, they entered a big patch of woods, perhaps the biggest in the whole valley. They wound this way and that until they came out at the base of a mountain, where a large, clumsily-constructed house rested against the mountainside. Paul smiled, then returned to Badger’s shack and had supper with his friend, telling him what he’d found and his plans for it.

The next day, in mid-morning, Paul snuck back to the outlaws’ hideout and found it deserted. He tested the front door. They were so cocky that they’d left it unlocked. He went inside and opened up a canteen he’d brought. The canteen didn’t contain water. It held fresh deer’s blood from a buck that Badger had killed shortly after dawn.

He dipped a finger into the blood and wrote the second half of Proverbs 11:19 in scarlet letters on the wall: He that pursueth evil pursueth it to his own death. He closed the canteen and left the house, then hid in some nearby brush and waited.

The outlaws rode in near sunset and dismounted next to the house. The leader removed his mask, revealing a bushy black mustache. The man next to him was also tall, but incredibly skinny, with wild straw-colored hair that made him looked like a walking scarecrow. The three other outlaws were shorter and had unremarkable features, except for the greedy look in their eyes.

When the outlaws walked into their house, Paul couldn’t contain a grin. One outlaw shrieked.

“Shut up, Shorty!” a voice roared. The speaker had to be Dex, the leader.

“We shouldn’t have killed that preacher!” A man passed a window while talking. It was the tall, skinny outlaw. “It’s bad luck. Now look what’s happened.”

“We didn’t kill him, you idiot. A snake did. This is just a trick from some fool who found our hideout and thought he’d get away with stealing our loot.”

A few moments later, another voice said, “No, the loot’s still here, Dex.”

“See?” Shorty cried. “A ghost! Only a ghost wouldn’t want loot.”

“Who cares what it was?” Dex growled. “All I care about is that the loot is still here. And we’ll start leaving a guard, to make sure the loot stays here.”

Things soon settled down inside the outlaws’ house. Paul remained hidden in the woods, trying to ignore the snatches of filthy conversation that reached his ears. Night came, and once the house grew silent, Paul crept to a window.

Cupping his hands around his mouth, he said in a ghostly voice, “I am the preacher, and I have come to haunt you!”

Shorty’s shriek pierced the night.

“Shut up, Shorty!” Dex roared.

Paul spoke fast so he’d be finished before someone came outside to look. “Surrender yourselves and all you have stolen to the sheriff, or you’ll become one of the damned! A curse is upon you. A curse!”

Then he slipped away into the underbrush and hid in the safety of the dark woods, far enough away that the shadows would conceal him but not so far that he couldn’t see what went on. The outlaws stormed out of the house, the steel of their guns glittering in the moonlight.

“It’s a trick by that cowardly sheriff,” Dex said. “I know it is. He’s too scared to take us on directly, so he’s trying to trick us. We’ll have a talk with him tomorrow.”

“But how’d he find out about the preacher?” another outlaw asked. “There ain’t been no gossip in town about a body being found, nor about any visitor, especially not one that somehow survived a rattlesnake bite. The preacher’s delirium probably took him to some lonely place where no one will ever find his body.”

Dex didn’t answer.

The outlaws went back into their hideout. Once the house had been quiet for a while, Paul crept through the woods and returned to Badger’s house to sleep. At breakfast the next morning, he delighted the old man with the story of what he’d done to the outlaws. And he was far from finished with his ghostly plans.

Paul snuck back to the outlaws’ hideout after breakfast, and noting the guard, he stayed out of sight of the house. He hung five nooses from a tree along the route that the four outlaws who were away would return by. Then he hid.

A few hours later, he heard the voices of the outlaws.

“Maybe the sheriff was faking being sick,” one said.

“No,” Dex said. “I felt his head while pretending to be concerned. He was burning up. He sure wasn’t in any shape to have been sneaking around last night.”

“Maybe he caught a chill while out after dark,” Shorty said.

The four outlaws came into sight. Shorty’s tall frame stiffened and he shrieked.

“Shut up, Shorty!” Dex roared.

The outlaws stared at the five nooses hanging from a tree.

Dex guided his horse toward the ropes. “The sheriff couldn’t have done this. But whoever’s behind it, we’ll soon fix him.”

“Maybe it really was the preacher’s ghost last night!” Shorty said. “We never saw no one.”

Dex felt a noose. “This ain’t a ghost rope. It’s a real rope.”

He cut down all the nooses, then set them on fire with a match. As Dex tossed the burning mass into the woods, Paul realized that the flames were heading toward him. He flinched and moved over before remembering he had to hide his presence no matter what. The outlaws would kill him if they caught him.

The dry leaves and twigs that crunched due to his single footstep sounded to him like a house collapsing. He crouched, motionless. The burning ropes hit the ground several feet to the right of him.

Dex narrowed his eyes, staring at the underbrush that hid Paul. “I heard something moving. Go check it out.”

“Not me,” Shorty said. “Maybe it’s the ghost.”

“There isn’t a ghost, you idiot! If you’re scared, then shoot where the sound came from. All of you cowards, shoot!”

Shorty and the others raised their guns and started firing. Their bullets tore through the underbrush right above where Dex had thrown the burning ropes. Paul used the roaring of their gunfire to cover his footsteps as he dove behind a tree. He pressed tightly against the bark and tried to make himself as small as possible so that the treetrunk would completely shield him.

The outlaws moved their point of aim, spraying the woods with bullets over an area of about thirty feet. Several of the bullets hit the tree Paul stood behind. Quiet came as the outlaws began reloading, muttering softly.

“Do you want us to shoot some more?” Shorty asked.

“Hush!” Dex said. “I hear something.”

Paul heard it too. A creature was moving toward him through the leaves. Surely whatever it was couldn’t be worse than a rattlesnake or murderous outlaws. He looked down and almost smiled. A rabbit rushed by his feet and hopped out of the underbrush. When it saw the outlaws, it turned and hurried into another part of the woods.

Dex burst out laughing. “It’s just a rabbit. And you spineless ninnies thought it was a ghost.”

“Only Shorty was scared,” one outlaw said. “I wasn’t.”

“Shut up!” Shorty yelled.

The outlaws continued riding through the woods. When they were out of sight, Paul was so relieved that he slid down the tree until he was sitting on the ground. He said a prayer of thanks, then got to his feet and returned to Badger’s shack.

After dark, Paul and Badger carried shovels to the wooded patch that concealed the outlaws’ hideout. With only the moon as a light, they dug for hours until they had five shallow graves lined up in a row.

During his time watching the outlaws, Paul had learned all their names, so he made five wooden crosses and wrote a name on each one. He stabbed a cross into the ground at head of each hole.

As Badger looked at the five open and marked graves, he chuckled. “This is gonna be good.”

At dawn, Badger lightly powdered Paul’s skin and clothes with flour to make him look white and ghostly. He dusted off his hands and walked to his place on the nearby road, ready to pretend to just happen to be passing by. Paul grinned at him. Badger patted the revolver on his hip, which was filled with blank cartridges, and grinned back.

Soon Paul heard the crunching sounds of the outlaws riding their horses through the woods. He motioned to Badger, and the old man started strolling down the road, singing a made-up ditty off-key.

Four outlaws rode out of the woods, led by Dex. They halted at the sight of Paul, who glared at them from beside the empty graves. Their gaze turned to the names on the crosses, then back to Paul.

When Shorty tried to shriek, no sound came out. Dex’s mouth hung open, but he quickly shut it and laid a hand on his revolver. The other two outlaws looked as scared as Shorty, their eyes bulging like a bullfrog’s.

Badger halted as he passed near the open graves. “What’s going on? Did some people die?”

Paul spoke in his most ghostly voice. “These four men and one other are headed toward death, unless they repent of their murderous, thieving ways and turn themselves in to the sheriff, along with everything they’ve stolen.”

“Get away from him!” Shorty shrieked to Badger, finally making a sound. “He’s a ghost!”

Badger jumped backward. “A ghost?”

Paul approached the old man. “Let me tell you what these wicked sinners did. I’m a preacher, but they robbed me and left me for dead, and now I’ve returned to haunt them.”

Badger drew his revolver with a trembling hand. “Get away from me, ghost! Get away!”

“But I want you to tell others what they did to me.”

“Get away!”

Badger shot at Paul five times, his revolver roaring impressively and sending out clouds of smoke. He was too close to miss, and yet Paul wasn’t harmed in the slightest. The blanks made sure of that.

Badger yelled in feigned terror and threw the revolver onto the ground, then ran down the road, continuing to cry out until he was out of hearing.

Shorty slid backward in his saddle, terror making his lips tremble as he spoke. “The bullets went right through him!”

Paul turned to the outlaws and pointed at the graves. “I’m warning you. Turn yourself in to the sheriff and return all you stole before it’s too late.”

Shorty nodded enthusiastically, along with two other outlaws. Only Dex just kept staring at Paul. He drew his revolver, apparently wanting to try shooting the ghost for himself. Paul had one chance. He walked toward the outlaws.

“Death is coming,” he said, reaching out with his hand. “Turn yourself in.”

Dex put his thumb on the revolver’s hammer to cock it. Paul kept coming closer. Dex’s hand shook. Paul curled the fingers of his outstretched hand, as if about to rip Dex’s soul from his body.

Dex’s hand shook so violently that the revolver slipped out of his fingers and hit the ground. Paul stopped, his hand still raised.

“Okay.” Dex’s voice was as shaky as his hand. “Okay, we’ll do it. Just don’t hurt us. Swear you won’t hurt us.”

“If you surrender to the sheriff,” Paul replied, “and give him everything you stole, then I swear I won’t hurt you.”

Dex and the outlaws turned their horses around and raced through the woods. About fifteen minutes’ later, they returned with the fifth outlaw, and all the outlaws held sacks of loot.

“After you do what I commanded,” Paul said, “you’ll never see me again. But if you try any tricks, I’ll hunt you down, and you’ll regret it.”

“No tricks,” Dex said. “We’re going straight to sheriff.”

“Then go!” Paul roared, in his best angry ghost voice.

Dex and the outlaws raced down the road. Once they were out of sight, Paul started walking to meet Badger, but he was laughing so hard that he had to stop for a moment. Then he continued on his way.

He waited at Badger’s shack until the old man returned with Paul’s horse and other belongings, including the money to found a church with.

“The sheriff was still a little dazed from being sick,” Badger said. “The townsfolk all swallowed the story of the ghost, and the sheriff would have joined them if I hadn’t told him what really happened. It was all I could do to keep from laughing while telling it. He promised to keep it secret.”

Paul chuckled, then hugged the old man. “You’ve been a huge help. Thank you, and God bless you, my friend.”

Badger winked. “I’m gonna miss my favorite ghost!”

Paul climbed onto his horse and waved, then headed down the road farther west. The mid-morning sun shone on the road that led out of the valley, paving the dusty path gold.

As Paul gripped the reins, his hand still hurt, but it would heal, and his heart was soaring as it had before he met the outlaws and got the fateful snakebite. He wondered if he would encounter any more outlaws. He prayed not. Unless, of course, they were just coming to hear him preach.

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