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6. Maggie’s Revenge
Herb Withers watched in horror as Jeremiah raised his hitherto unused pistol. The barrel was pointed right at Herb’s chest, and before there was any chance to react, a deafening thunderclap rocked him backward. He wondered for a brief, confusing moment if he had been struck by lightning, but the warm sensation flowing from his back said otherwise. Shock and confusion ran through him in waves as he tried to keep his balance on his horse. If he could just stay upright, maybe they could get him back to town and do something about it.
Darkness surrounded the hill, closing in on all sides. He looked up at the ominous, bloated sky above him. “I just wanted to see that man hung.” Blood bubbled from his mouth as he said it, choking him and making the words barely audible. In a snap, any and all sensation was gone and he was floating midair next to his horse. Staring at him were two men, both with hangmen’s marks around their neck and one with a neat bullet hole in the middle of his head.
“Where the hell am I?!”
Otis, still in shock from the events unfolding, shrugged. “You’re dead, but I don’t know if that’s going to be a problem for long at the rate she’s going.” He pointed a finger toward Maggie who was already recovering from her run-in with the barrier and headed back toward the fray.
The horsemen spun around wildly, drawing their guns.
“What the hell have you done, Jeremiah?” asked Reggie, with more annoyance than anything.
“I-I don’t know. It just—”
Reggie cut off his explanation by shooting Jeremiah in the head.
“NO!” shouted Jeremiah as he appeared midair. His hands stretched out, still trying to block the shot that had sent his body flying backward off his horse. The damp desert floor soaked up his blood greedily, happy for the extra moisture.
“Jeremiah, you son of a bitch!” yelled Herb. “Why’d you go and shoot me like that for?!”
“I-I don’t know what happened.” Jeremiah’s eyes were wide. “Am I dead?”
Maggie streaked past them, trying to enjoy the newfound chaos in the spirit realm and pointed herself at Reggie’s right-hand lieutenant. He held a repeating rifle and had good positioning on the other two men. His name was Hugo, and Maggie shuddered at the idea of sharing a body with him even for a second. She swallowed her disgust and shot forward. Like before, there was the elastic pull and sudden disorientation.
The first thing she noted was the sourness of Hugo’s breath and the soreness radiating from his lower back. Maggie counted herself lucky that she didn’t have to stay long. She raised the repeater, aiming for the man on Reggie’s left. Her first shot caught him in the shoulder, sending him spinning. He fell off his horse but wasn’t mortally wounded.
Maggie spurred Hugo’s mount, riding over to finish the job, but a splintering pain took hold in her left arm. She hadn’t even heard the gunshot but knew it was Reggie that fired. Pain throbbed through the point of impact, just above Hugo’s elbow. Hot blood ran down his arm in a wave, coating his fingers in the sticky mortal substance. Maggie fought desperately to hold on to Hugo’s corporeal form and managed.
She looked up and saw Reggie turned to the native man, still tied up on horseback. “Don’t go anywhere. Apparently, I’ve got some other business to attend to.”
Rain fell heavy now, mixing with Hugo’s blood and running in small rivers down the hill. Lightning flashed, casting Reggie in shadows as he dismounted. The world spun around Maggie and her mind shook like an overworked muscle. Holding onto Hugo when he wasn’t dying was hard enough, but this was torture. She willed herself to stay and turned her head to look for Hugo’s pistol, lying on the ground a few feet away.
“I wouldn’t do that if I was you.” Reggie had his pistol drawn, the black barrel a gaping maw.
“You think that scares me?” It was strange to hear Hugo’s voice with her words. “Pull the trigger and be done with it.” Maggie wasn’t sure she had another possession in her, but she was sure as hell going to try. The edges of Hugo’s skin pushed at her like a thousand needles, trying desperately to shed the bodily invader. “I’m not done with you yet, Hugo.” She clenched his hands into fists, wincing at the pain in his left arm.
“Now, the Hugo I know is a coward and would never try shit like this.” Reggie turned toward the Hangman’s Tree, then back to face her. “This is crazy, but I don’t see another solution. I’m not talking to Hugo, am I?”
“You catch on quick.” Maggie spat blood. “You deserve everything you have coming.”
Reggie cocked his head to the side. “Who is that in there? Someone we hung here before?”
“Hard to keep track of the atrocities you’ve committed on this hill?” She crept her right fingers toward the gun.
In a blinding flash, Reggie aimed his pistol and blew Hugo’s fingers off.
Maggie cursed, screaming in pain.
“Yeah, see, Hugo wouldn’t do a fool thing like that either. Sounds like I’m dealing with Maggie Brown.”
Maggie made no effort to hide the pained smile she spread across Hugo’s face. “In the flesh, back for my revenge.”
Reggie whistled. “Never thought I’d have to kill you twice, but today has already been quite the day. Reggie checked on the native man who still sat patiently on his horse. “Suppose you feel it’s wrong of us to be killing savages?”
“Do you really need an answer to that?”
“What was it I told you before? It’s just bad for business. That’s right, and it’s still true. I’m a man of dollars and cents, and these uncultured folk coming into our fine town aren’t good for my business, or the town for that matter.”
Maggie felt control slipping away but pushed to hold on. The pistol was out of reach, but she didn’t want to give Reggie the satisfaction of winning again. The man deserved to die. Out of the corner of her eye, Maggie spied movement as the other man she had shot got slowly to his feet.
“You alright over there, John?” asked Reggie.
“Yeah, the pissant just winged me.” The man was wrapping a makeshift bandage around his shoulder.
“Well, as it turns out, this pissant is none other than our good friend, Maggie Brown. You’ll remember her.”
John walked over to get a better look. As he got closer, he stumbled and his eyes went wide.
“You good?” asked Reggie, never letting the pistol barrel leave Maggie.
John recovered, but Maggie could see the difference in his expression. “Yeah, think I’m just a little low on blood.”
“Well, let’s finish our business quickly and get you back to town. We’ve lost enough good men to this bitch today.”
Maggie smiled through the pain and blood. “Anything for you, Reggie.”
“How sweet of you. Unfortunately, we’re in a bit of a hurry now, so I’m going to have to cut our little chit-chat short. I think I’ll send you back to where you belong. Any last words? Don’t think I gave you the chance last time.”
John winked at her and dropped a hand to his pistol.
Maggie smiled. “Yeah, payback is a bitch.”
“Ain’t that the tru—”
John raised his pistol and shot Reggie in the side of the head. The bullet passed clean through, sending a red spray into the growing wind. Reggie fell to his knees, mouth opening and closing slightly. In the same moment, John’s body shook violently, and his eyes were wide once more. “Oh god, what have I done? Reggie?!”
Maggie didn’t wait for him to get his bearings she rolled to her pistol, picked it up with her good hand, and used the last of Hugo’s strength to fire it. The force of the pistol rocking back threatened to tear Hugo’s wounded arm off. Hot pain bloomed, but the shot hit. John dropped to the ground.
Buzz saws ran down every inch of Hugo’s body, trying to forcibly cut Maggie out. The world blurred between the grey of the spirit realm and the churning darkness of a dying man’s last vision. Hugo was losing a lot of blood. Maggie took what remained of her resolve and stood. Waves of nausea and dizziness swept over her, but she stumbled toward the native man all the same. Each step was a marathon task. Hugo’s legs moved like they were dragging fifty-pound weights behind him.
Maggie pulled a knife out of Hugo’s belt, wanting to cut the native man free, but dropped it through his bloody fingers. “Shit,” she muttered. It was hard to remember anything through the haze of agony that surrounded every movement. “Help us,” she managed in broken Shoshoni. “The dead are trapped.” The world went dark and a force shot Maggie from Hugo’s body. She caught a brief glimpse of the spirit world and the cavalcade of new arrivals. Then. she hit the barrier. Everything went white.
Things were tense on Hangman’s Hill. With all the commotion, even the Dirt Nappers came up to see what was going on. As it turned out, letting bygones be bygones didn’t apply to the furious deceased faced with their murderer. Of course, no one could do anything to Reggie, but they sure tried. In the end, they settled on making his life a living hell, floating in a tight circle around him, wherever he went, the ghosts were a constant reminder of the sins he had committed in life. They took turns speaking to their deaths, repeating the stories to drive the man mad. Reggie never got so much as a moment’s rest.
Otis and Adam sat on the edge of the commotion, wondering if anything would come out of their great experiment. The native man had been able to cut himself free, but whether from fear or self-preservation, rode off immediately. To say they felt disappointed was an understatement, and had it not been for the entertainment that was Reggie’s misery, they might have become Dirt Nappers themselves.
“What do you think happened to her?” asked Adam one day as they watched white clouds passing by on the horizon. “She can’t be gone, right?”
“I don’t think I know anything worthwhile about this place,” replied Otis. They had watched Maggie shoot out of Hugo with such force that it was impossible to discern her form. She had been a streak of light, careening toward the barrier. When she hit, her energy dissipated, and she wasn’t seen again.
“Maybe she hit it so hard she got out.” Adam hoped it was true.
“I hope so, too. Either way, we both saw the grin on her face when you possessed that man and shot Reggie in the head. I like to think that would have put her at peace no matter where she ended up.”
Adam nodded. “I didn’t think I would, but I miss her.”
“Me too, kid.”
Weeks passed. The desert was implacable as always, but on the third week, a wind kicked up. Hoofbeats carried through the air as twenty riders appeared on the horizon. Every single soul that had been trapped on Hangman’s Hill came out to see who it was. At the lead of the riding party was the native man they had saved from certain death, and while Reggie and his men weren’t too happy about seeing him again, the rest of the group was elated.
As the group approached, horses fanned out in all directions and men with bows and arrows stood sentinel along the edges of the hill. From the center of the pack, an old woman emerged, garbed in elaborate clothing decorated with beads and quills. Her hair hung in long braids that swayed in the wind as she approached the base of the hanging tree. She ran her hands over the carvings and muttered words to herself while the others looked away. Most stood outside the edge of the hill, instinctively knowing the boundary.
It didn’t happen all at once. At first, there was a muted glow in the ground, like light reflecting off metal. The brightness grew, making its way to the sky. Otis felt warmth spreading through his ghostly limbs as the barrier above him dissipated. His spirit floated upward, not of his own accord, but he felt safety in the movement and didn’t fight it. He looked down and saw the other spirits experiencing something similar. Most were floating up toward the sky but several, like Reggie and his men, were earthbound.
“What the hell is this?!” yelled Reggie. “As if Hell couldn’t get any worse.” His spirt grew dark until it was almost pitch black as a shadow.
A pale horseman rode up from the edge of the hill, brandishing a shining scythe and approached those remaining on the ground.
Otis looked away but heard the screams of terror from below. He focused his mind on the sensation surrounding his body and the overwhelming sense of safety he felt. In the distance, he saw Adam moving upwards as well.“All’s well that ends well then.” As he floated past the highest branch on Hangman’s Hill, he felt a familiar presence tugging at him. There were no words, but he knew the feeling of companionship and peace in the energy.
“Rest well, Maggie.” Otis smiled and the world went white.
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