I stood over the dead man slumped against the tree, wondering if there was anything of value in his pockets, and how to get to it before anyone else thought of it. Before I could make my move, Leech was on it, picking at the man's pockets like a buzzard nipping at carrion.
"Look at him," said Jimmy. "He looks like he's frozen straight through."
"I'd guess the freezing happened after the poor bastard was already gone," replied McCabe, kicking at the dead man's boot. "He's wrapped up well enough. I wouldn't mind having a coat like that myself."
"Good luck getting it off him," said Leech, still rifling the corpse's pockets. "He's gone and got hisself frozen to the tree. God only knows how long he's been here."
Snow had piled up in the hollows of the corpse's eyes, and icicles had formed in the beard that clung to the purple cheeks like a gray moss.
"No knife neither," added Leech, coming up empty.
"Need a new belt buckle, Leech?" asked McCabe, pointing the barrel of his rifle at the bronze oval emblazoned with the letters "U.S."
Leech sneered and spit on the ground next to the corpse before wiping his hands on his coat as though he had just realized he had touched something dirty.
"Just like a Yankee to make it through the war and then get hisself kilt by the mountains. I never met a Yankee who knew his way around the wilderness. Ain't a one of 'em got a lick of sense."
I didn't mention that, like many of my neighbors in Eastern Tennessee, I had supported the Union, and that some of my kin had been hanged on orders of Jeff Davis for blowing up a railroad bridge.
"I wonder what he was doing out here with no gun," McCabe said.
"Maybe whatever killed him took it," said Jimmy, glancing about nervously.
"Maybe he just got sick and dropped," I said. "I don't see no marks on him. If an Indian or an animal got him he'd show it. He looks like he just laid there and went to sleep."
"Well let's wake him up," Said Leech, laughing as he kicked at the dead man.
As he did this I noticed something glistening from just beneath the corpse's beard. I bent down, eager to get to whatever it was before Leech saw it, and grabbed a silver medallion, which, I discovered, was suspended by a cord around the dead man's neck.
"Seems you missed something, Leech," I said triumphantly, tugging on the medallion.
As the cord snapped, the jaw of the corpse fell open, and it let out a long groan. I jumped up, and threw the medallion down onto the corpse's chest, suddenly wanting no part of it. For once, nobody had anything to say. Even McCabe couldn't manage to utter a word, but stood there, as white as the snowy ground he stood on, pointing his rifle at the dead man. Jimmy had already retreated up the hill to hide behind our pack mule. Only Leech, who had survived the fighting at Murfreesboro, and two winters in the hell of Camp Douglas, kept his nerve or at least was determined to put a brave face on it. He just sauntered up, casual as a school girl picking daisies, and snatched the medal off the dead man's chest.
"That things pizen, and so are you if you keep it," said McCabe. "Put it back!"
"Ain't nothing poison about gold," Leech scoffed. "And look here, it's got some kinda gem stuck in the middle of it. Might be a ruby."
"Pizen! That coin is as cursed as the devil's own blood," warned McCabe, backing away from Leech. "You keep that damn thing, and me and Jimmy will be heading off without ya. You'll come too, Beaumont, if ya got any sense."
"Think I'll stick with Leech," I said, watching the light glint off the ruby as Leech held it up to the sun.
I wondered if I had made the right decision as McCabe and Jimmy tossed our gear onto the ground, and headed off down the trail with the mule. Watching them disappear over the ridge, I was fighting the sudden urge to run after them when Leech waved me over.
"Come here and look at this," he said, holding the medallion up close to his face to examine it. "You ever seen writing like this before?"
After studying it for a minute, I had to admit I hadn't. "It might be some kind of heathen talisman, but anybody's guess would be as good as mine."
"I guess it don't matter," he said, stuffing the medallion into his pocket. "I'll be swapping it for some warm spirits soon enough."
With it getting late in the day, Leech insisted we set up camp right there, within view of the dead man he had just robbed, dismissing me as a fool when I had suggested we find a better spot.
"I like it fine right here where I can keep an eye on our friend. We wouldn't want him sneaking up on us," he had said, punctuating his statement with a laugh I thought sounded just a tad forced.
With the darkness came the winds that tossed the snow into our faces and played hell with our fire. I had positioned myself between Leech and the dead man so my back was to the latter, and I could keep an eye on the former. Leech was a dangerous man, but he was a heavy sleeper, especially when he was in his cups. If I could just wait him out, I reasoned, I might be able to get that medallion.
"I'm glad to see you got more spine than McCabe," said Leech, offering me a sip from his flask, which I declined. "Imagine being scared of a frozen hunk of meat! That's all that fella over there is. I'd just as soon run from a slab of beef."
I mentioned that it was pretty peculiar the way it had made that noise right when I took that medallion off of it and suggested McCabe might be right about the amulet being cursed, not because I believed it, but rather, in the hope of making Leech less enamored of his prize. Leech would have none of it.
"I've seen dead men do a lot worse. Hell, I've seen bodies pop like a bad jar of preserves after they sat in the heat too long, spilling their guts all over the place. He probably had some gas or something inside of him that got let out when you yanked off his necklace. Ain't nothing unnatural about it at all. It'll be a cold day in hell when I let a dead hunk of meat get the best of me."
I wasn't sure if I bought Leech's explanation, and didn't much care one way or the other. I planned to be halfway to Chattanooga with that ruby before any ghosts, or Leech, knew I had run off with it. I knew it would be rough going, the weather being what it was, but as long as the wind kept the clouds from blocking the moon, I figured I could make it alright.
After a bit, Leech tossed away his empty flask and fell back onto his furs. I waited until I heard him snoring and then crept up to slip my hand inside his coat. Holding my breath, I eased the medallion out. It had been easier than I had expected. I stuffed it in my pocket and had almost reached my knapsack and gun when I realized the snoring had stopped. I turned to see Leech, already on his feet, had his rifle pointed at my chest. I could tell by the look in his eyes he intended to kill me right then and there. Then I saw his expression change. The anger was replaced by something I had never expected to see on the countenance of Tobias Leech. It was fear. You would have thought we were still at war, and he was facing the whole Union army by the look on his face.
"Keep it," he muttered as he backed away, staring at me as though I was the devil himself.
I watched, astonished, as he backed off into the darkness and vanished, leaving everything but his rifle behind. I turned to grab my rifle in case he came back, and suddenly realized he hadn't been staring at me at all. I also understood what had caused him to flee in terror, for I felt that same terror rising up in myself. The dead man was gone! There was a barren patch at the base of the tree that the snow had just started to fill in, and leading away from it was a solitary set of tracks.
I strained against the darkness, and the whirling white flakes that danced in it, to see where those footprints led off to. They came a few paces toward where I had been sleeping, went off to the left, disappeared past my field of vision, and then seemed to resume again to the right of the tree. The dead man, or whatever it was, had made a circle around our camp. But where did it go after that, I wondered, listening hard for any sound that might signal the arrival of my unwanted guest. All I heard was the crackle of the fire and the howling of the wind.
It would be alright, I told myself. All I had to do was wait it out. Everybody knew ghosts and such didn't have any power in the daylight. Judging from the moon, I reckoned dawn was just a few hours off. Maybe the thing would busy itself hunting down Leech, who had foolishly deprived himself of the protection of the fire. Then I remembered the trinket in my pocket. What if that was what it was after? Leech had obviously thought so when he told me to keep it. He was smart to put as much distance between himself and that medallion as he possibly could.
"Here! Take it," I shouted, throwing the damned thing towards the tree where we had found its rightful owner.
I heard a baleful moan, and watched as a dark shape shambled out of the woods. It stumbled forward on stiff legs, swaying slightly to and fro as it made its way to where the talisman had landed.
"There! I gave it back," I shouted, watching it bend down to rake the ground with frozen, unbending fingers. "Take it back to hell with you!"
The medallion in its grasp, it looked up at me with dead white eyes. Its jaw hung slack as it threw its head back and forced out a low moan before staggering forward in my direction. I knew I should run, but my legs were as frozen as the ground I stood on. I just stood there shivering while it came ever closer. As it reached the fire, I managed to get ahold of myself enough to aim my gun, and felt for the trigger with trembling fingers.
To my astonishment, the dead man dropped the medallion into the fire and then turned away from me to head off toward the darkness of the forest. Staring at the fire that had consumed the medallion, I tried to make sense of what I had just witnessed. The dead man hadn't wanted the medallion back. It had wanted to destroy it. We hadn't angered a spirit by stealing from it, we had set it free. That talisman had been keeping it down, and now, thanks to us, it was walking the earth once more. Occupied with my thoughts, I failed to hear the footfalls behind me and was blindsided by a fist smashing into the side of my head. Landing on my side by the fire, I rolled over quickly to keep from getting burned. Leech was standing over me, his rifle pointed at my head.
"You almost had me fooled," he snarled. "Hiding that dead Yankee while I was sleeping was a pretty slick move. It took me a bit, but I figured out your game. Now are you gonna hand over that trinket, or am I gonna take it off your corpse?"
I knew I was dead no matter what if I didn't think of something quick. There was no way Leech was going to leave me alive to tell how he had run off like a scared rabbit when he saw the dead man was gone. I knew my best bet was to keep him talking. I started laughing.
"What's so funny," Leech demanded, stabbing the barrel of his rifle into my shoulder.
"I was just thinking how you were the one who had everybody fooled. You've been trapping in these hills for years. You even have traps on the same slope where we found the Yankee."
"Make your point," he growled, poking me again with his gun.
"That body had been there for a good while, maybe as long as the start of the freeze. Why is it you never came across it before?"
"Go on. You're already dead. Might as well finish putting the nails in your coffin."
"I'm just saying it was pretty clever of you to pretend to ransack the body when you knew you wouldn't find anything," I continued. "How'd you miss that amulet the first time?"
"I didn't miss it," he shouted. "The damn thing wasn't there. Somebody hung it on 'em after I kilt him. Yeah, you heard me right. I caught that damn Yankee out hunting, and I stabbed 'em in the back. I was the one who left him by that tree to rot."
"Only he didn't rot," I said inching my hand toward a log sticking out of the fire.
"I guess I didn't count on 'em freezing," he said glumly. "Kinda strange how the critters left him alone too, but I guess even buzzards don't care for the taste of Yankee."
"Or maybe whoever hung that medal on him knew it would keep him intact until you got back. Maybe some old witch woman or medicine man saw you kill him, and decided to give him a chance to get you back."
As he pondered the meaning of what I had just said, probably trying to recall if there had been any signs of an interloper the day of the murder, I grabbed the flaming log and swung it at him, catching his sleeve on fire. Leech let out a scream, and, dropping his rifle, beat frantically at the flames with his other hand. While he was flailing about, I scampered to my feet and bashed him in the face with the butt of his own gun.
When Leech awoke he was tied to the tree previously occupied by the man he had killed. He strained against the ropes, cursing as they scraped against the burns on his arm.
"You just gonna leave me here to freeze to death," he asked, kicking his legs to knock off the snow that had already settled on them.
"I don't think you'll freeze," I responded, bending down to hang the talisman I had fished out of the fire around his neck. "I think an old friend of yours will be paying you a call soon, probably before the sun comes up."
"What the hell does that mean," he asked, but I didn't answer. I had heard the sound of plodding footsteps approaching over the snow-covered earth, and was already on my way down the hill.