By Carleton Grindle

Illustrated by Kevin Duncan

It wasn’t that far a walk from town to Boot Hill but before he was there, Doc Holliday was beset by a coughing fit and forced to stop. Old Tom Aderholt, Patterson Springs’ marshal stopped a few feet ahead of him and waited politely for the fit to stop so they could go on. When he could talk again, Doc looked up and said in his soft drawl, “Sorry, Tom. I always figured when I came out here there’d be six good men and a team of horses to carry me.”

Aderholt smiled. “Sorry to be so un-obliging.”

Doc looked at the cemetery. “Under the circumstances, I think I can abide the discomfort. Especially since I wasn’t expecting a trip back.”

He brushed some of the dust off his pearl gray suit, removed a handkerchief from his pocket and mopped his brow.

He was a slender well-dressed man and in the late afternoon light he looked frail and sickly. He had a pallor to him that seemed to Aderholt to lend a grayish tint to his skin. He’d known Doc a few years ago in Dodge when he himself wasn’t such a law-abiding citizen; and while he knew Holliday had left his native Georgia on medical advice, he vaguely thought it had more to do with lead poisoning than consumption. It surprised him to see how far the illness had progressed, and he wondered how Doc kept his crisp white shirt from showing flecks of blood.

He turned and started up the hill again.

Behind him, Doc said, “To tell you the truth, Tom, I’m not much for daytime. I could have made this trip with less coughing if it were later in the day.”

“Yeah, but it’s the trip back has me worried. I guess we got ourselves a deadline to worry with.”

“Then there’s all this damned mystery. You know I don’t have much patience with mystery.”

“We got a problem, Doc, and I suspect you’re the only man I know can handle it.”

He stopped by a grave with fresh turned dirt and a wooden marker that held the name Johnny the Ace and the current year, no more.

“Johnny the Ace? Don’t you have his last name?” said Doc.

“Does it matter?”

Doc shrugged. “Hell, men like Johnny don’t use their full names much, I suppose. I think I heard him called ‘Slocum’ once, but I think I heard him called ‘Smith’ a few times, too.” He shrugged again. “I suppose what you got is enough to satisfy him now. When’d he go? I’ve been in town two days and I haven’t seen him in any of the saloons.”

“A week this Thursday,” said Aderholt.

“A week?” said Doc. “But look at his grave. That’s fresh-turned dirt. There’s the shovel over there, leaning against that tree. Are you saying you just found his body this morning?”

“We buried him a week ago.”

Doc studied Aderholt a long moment. He saw a man, taller than he was by a head, lean, and twenty-five years older. Aderholt’s face was dark from exposure to the sun, seamed and leathery. He had a thick, gray mustache and a generally hard look. The effect of that look was ruined by his eyes. They were soft and brown, and as soulful as the eyes of a calf.

Doc looked down at the grave. “Last time I saw Johnny was in Las Vegas, New Mexico. Wyatt Earp and I dropped in to visit with Wyatt’s brother Virgil who was marshal there. You remember Virgil, don’t you?”

“Wouldn’t know him if I saw him, to tell the truth,” said Aderholt. “I only know Jim and Wyatt and the youngster, Morgan. Met them when I was in Dodge.”

“Oh, you’d know Virgil,” said Doc. “He and Wyatt look so much alike it’s hard to tell them apart. I sat in on a poker game with Johnny in Las Vegas, him and Took Pollard and Syl Foster and some other guy whose name I don’t remember, though I ought to, because it was that man who’s the reason I recall that particular game at all. I won $1400 from him.”

“Is that a fact?”

“It is,” said Doc. “Now you give me another fact, Tom. Why is it I’m so almighty qualified to deal with a grave robber?”

Aderholt went over to a tree and picked up a shovel that was leaning against it. “On account of there ain’t no grave robbing,” he said.

He scooped a shovelful of dirt from the grave and threw it to one side. Then another.

“I know what Johnny’s last name was,” the old man said. “It was Aderholt.”

Doc was quiet a moment while Aderholt continued to dig. The he said softly, “I never knew you had a boy, Tom. Never even knew you were married.”

“She died when he was two years old. Heart condition. Hell, Doc, she had the biggest heart of anybody I ever knew, and then one day it just gave out on her. Mine broke.” He kept digging. “The boy was raised by relatives in Arkansas. I didn’t see him much growing up but I’d write him a letter every now and again and he’d send one back and that’s how we kept track. Weren’t much, those letters, just howdy and I’m doing fine, thank you. But he had a nice hand, he did, good enough for a lawyer. Hell, I was hoping he’d grow up to be a bit more than just a tinhorn gambler.”

“My folks had that hope for me, too,” said Doc.

“Well, you got some schooling at least.”

“True enough, and if it wasn’t for my consumption, I might have made a career for myself as a dentist. But I guess people just don’t want a man who coughs in their face while he’s pulling their teeth. I had to find another way to make a living. I happen to be handy with a deck of cards.”

“Didn’t mean nothing by what I said, Doc. I don’t know nobody life is really easy for.”

“That’s a fact,” Doc agreed. “You going to tell me about what’s going on here?”

Aderholt kept digging but was quiet for a moment, as if deep in thought. Then he said, “Johnny came into town a couple months ago. He’d play in an occasional game, then bought into a bank at the Wichita and seemed to be settling in. He was a good poker player and ran a square game.”

“You spend much time with him?”

“Oh, yeah. If I was patrolling of an evening I’d drop in at the Wichita and watch him play. He and I had dinner a couple times a week. I don’t guess many people knew we was family – he looked more like his mother than he did me – but we spent time. We got to know each other a lot better than we ever could from letters, and danged if I didn’t come to find out I liked the boy. Liked him a lot, Doc.”

“I’m not so sure you’re a great judge of character, Tom – you count me among the folks you like, after all – but I think I understand what you’re saying. How’d he die?”

“There was something going on. We had a slew of murders – four of them. We’d find people dead, their throats all torn out and the big vein in the neck ripped open – but there wasn’t a lot of blood. It was like something was drinking the blood, if you know what I mean.”

“What? You aren’t expecting me to believe that, are you?”

“Why shouldn’t I expect that? It’s gospel. People were being waylaid and killed and something was drinking their blood. I never seen nothing like it.”

“Are you sure there was anything like it?” asked Doc.

“Well,” said Aderholt, pouring more dirt on to the pile beside his son’s grave, “I didn’t want to believe it, but I didn’t have no choice.

“We had a preacher here in town who grew up in New Orleans and he’d seen something like this before. He warned me and I scoffed at him just like you’re scoffing at me, but the night after the first death he dragged me to Pauk’s Funeral Parlor and I saw the victim get up with my own eyes. This preacher, his name was Durkin, drove a stake through the poor soul’s heart before he could get completely out of his casket. Durkin told me I’d have to do that to anyone I found who died this way. And the next day, the Reverend Durkin, packed up his family and left town. Now, I ain’t saying I believed him then, but by god, I’d seen that son of a bitch get up out of his casket and I couldn’t explain it. So a few days later when we found another man who’d been killed like that, I sneaked into the funeral home and pounded a stake in his heart myself.”

“That’s quite a story,” said Doc.

Aderholt’s shovel struck wood. He stopped digging and tossed the shovel to one side.

“Durkin told me about these things. Seems they can’t come out in the day and they got to return to their graves. When someone’s been killed by one of them, the only way you can stop him from getting up out of his grave and killing to drink blood is to drive a stake through their heart. Or trap them with a cross.”

Doc looked into the grave. Placed on top of the casket was a large wooden cross, holding the top down.

“Your boy?” Doc said. “Your boy was the vampire?”

“No.” Aderholt shook his head. “The vampire or whatever you call the damned thing was a drifter. We surprised him the last time he tried killing somebody. It was in an alley back of the general store. We chased the thing all night. When the sun was about to come up it had to get back to its grave, which turned out to be a casket in a covered wagon that was hidden about two miles out of town in a canyon no one ever goes to. I figured he was a drifter, traveling in that wagon by night like a gypsy. We burned the wagon and him in it. Durkin told me fire works just as good as a stake.”

Aderholt cleared his throat and when he spoke again it was with difficulty. “We got back to town and that’s when I found out about my boy. It was him the vampire was after in that alley behind the store. Got him, too.”

Doc shook his head. “And you had him buried here with that cross on top to keep him in his grave.”

“Not at first. I guess I couldn’t believe it could happen to him. He got out of his grave. That’s why we had to refill it. I added a cross that time, though.”

“That’s one hell of a story. But why me, Tom? Why me? I mean, I’m good with a knife and a gun and a deck of cards, but the only wooden stakes I ever used were for tents. I can understand why you might not want to do it, but there’s a lot of people can drive a wooden stake better than a damn lunger can. ”

“I don’t want him killed, Doc. He’s my boy.”

“What do you mean, you don’t want him killed. He’s a monster, Tom. A blood-drinking –.” Then he saw it. Then he saw what Tom Aderholt wanted him to do. “Oh my god,” he said.

“We was starting to know each other, Doc. Getting acquainted for the first time, something I should have been working on all Johnny’s life. I just can’t let it end like this. I don’t know any other way to do it and I don’t know any other man with the skill to do it. That cross holds him down at night and it’s late afternoon, so the trees and the depth of the grave will protect him from direct sunlight, and I reckon there’s plenty of time before the sun sets and Johnny gets active.”

Doc took off his hat and mopped his forehead with his handkerchief. “Tom, my tools are back at the hotel.”

Tom took something out of his pocket. “You need anything except a pair of pliers?”

“I most certainly do,” Doc Holliday said. “I need a drink.”

Tom produced a bottle from another pocket. “I thought of that.” He tossed the bottle to Doc, then hopped down into the grave and lifted the cross out.

Doc looked approvingly at the label on the bottle then removed the cap. “At least you aren’t cheap, Tom.” He took a deep drink.

“Don’t finish it in one gulp,” Tom said, opening the casket. “I’ll need some of that, too.”

Doc wiped his lips with the back of his hand. “You know, this is a poor idea. It won’t work. He’ll just find some other way.”

Tom climbed up out of the grave. “I’ll cross that bridge when I have to.” He took the bottle and drank just as deeply as Doc had.

“I can’t talk you into changing your mind?”

Tom put the cap back on the bottle. “I’d be obliged if you wouldn’t even try, Doc.”

Doc sighed and then eased himself down into the grave and stood on top of the casket. His patient waited with less trepidation than any other patient Doc could remember. He glanced at the horizon and judged that it was a good hour or more before the sun went down.

“Well, let’s get started,” he said.