Western Short Story
Miles and miles of red sand, Joshua trees and distant canyon walls encountered their eyes. The jeep rumbled along the mesa-encircled highway. Asphalt hummed beneath the car.
“Dude, I’m getting hungry. Are there any sandwiches left?” Brian asked. He was a shaggy haired twenty something with a California accent and a sunburn, sitting shotgun. His tee shirt, like his three traveling companions, bore the Greek letters Rho Delta Chi.
“Yeah, we have one left, but we’re out of soda.” Chet huffed, sloshing through an ice filled cooler in the back seat. The chunky young man ‘s glasses slipped down his nose. He pushed them and his ball cap, emblazoned with the letters UNLV, back into place.
“Calm down there lads, there’s an exit ramp coming up.” Alex, the red headed driver, pointed to a green road sign. “There’s a town up ahead and I’m sure they’ll have a restaurant.” This was followed by a barely audible, “and I’m sure they’ll have beer.”
A massive snorting sound was followed by a groggy question. “Ah, we what? Who had beer?” Duke creaked to life. The husky man, seated next to Chet, in a lettered college jacket sleepily shifted to an upright sitting position. “Which one of you guys said beer.”
The three passengers who were fully awake laughed.
“Soon, Duke, soon.” Alex clucked. “We’re pulling into a town now.” He flicked the blinker on, veering onto the off ramp.
Brian, turning to make a crack at his once sleeping friend’s expense, glanced out the back window. His smile changed to a tight lipped, furrowed brow stare.
“Duke you grew up in these parts, right?” The Californian inquired, his voice quavering.
“Yeah.” Yawned the response. “Why?”
Brian ran his tongue across his teeth. “You know if anyone rides deformed horses around here?”
The big man looked at his friend, brows knotted. “I grew up in Vegas. I don’t know what people out here do. Why’de you ask that?”
“Cause there’s a guy out therein the desert riding the weirdest looking horse I’ve ever seen.” Brian pointed out the back window, Chet and Duke followed the finger.
In the heat distorted distance stood a mount and rider. The red steed’s vulture like neck was very long, it’s flat head seemed aimed at them. Extra long knobby kneed legs supported a torso with what looked to be a massive tumor in the middle. The rider was covered head to toe in a swath of beige. Where his head should be a fuzzy disc of brown peeked out. In place of a saddle black cording wrapped about his stomach secured him to his animal.
“The hell is that?” Duke grunted.
“I just asked that!” Brian grumbled.
“Why don’t we ask around in town?” The ginger driver suggested, slowing as he entered the town of Stonescar.
A greasy, single story diner pub stood next to the adobe city hall, the only building in town with more than two stories. The combination restaurant and tavern, the only place for food and drink, was made of two repurposed boxcars. They were bolted together and set on a foundation of concrete encased cinderblocks. A neon sign, half the bulbs blown out, flashed that eats were available at Joe’s.
Rolling to park, the jeep stopped in an unmarked parking lot behind the boxcars. The quartet lumbered out of the car, tromped around the building and up dry rotted four by eight steps to the door.
A rusty bell tinkled as they strolled in. A handful of shabby old men sat at a bar, ceiling and floors were a hodgepodge of odd shaped, weathered boards, all worn smooth. There were several decrepit tables sprinkled about the L shaped room. Not a menu was in sight.
An old man with tussled gray hair, smoked a stub pipe behind the counter and in front of an array of cooking gear. The acrid, bluish smoke wafted past his deep lined face. A huge scar deformed his left eye.
“They don’t have double soy lattes here, do they?” Brian mumbled. Alex and Chet turned to face him, wearing ashen expressions.
“No, Brian they don’t.” The red head glanced around the room. Everyone was now staring at them. “In fact I think if you ask that again they may kill us.”
Unsteadily, the four shuffled over to and sunk onto some rickety stools along the bar. Alex sat closest to the grizzled barkeep. The old man slid over to them, flicking a dirty towel over his shoulder.
“What’ll you boys have?” He asked in a low, gravel voice.
“Well, sir,” Alex started, “There isn’t anything listing what you have. Would you mind telling us what you have?”
The gravely man hacked and wheezed. “We got coffee, black. We got beer, cold. We got whisky, straight. And we got sandwiches.”
“What kind of sandwiches?” Chet requested in a cracking voice.
“The kind with stuff between two slices of bread. What kind of sandwich were you hoping for?”
“Well it’s, uh, just that, uh, I, um…” The chubby man babbled as the bartender moved in front of him. “Do you have tuna? On rye?” Squeaked the end of the question.
“If we got it in the cupboard, you might get it. If I feel like making it, that is. You might get egg salad, depending on my mood.” The old man put his fists on the bar as he leaned farther forward.
“I have a question.” Brian piped up. The weathered old man turned away from a grimacing Chet, who whispered to himself, “I hate egg salad.”
“Yeah,” barked the barkeep, “what is it?”
“Are there any people who ride funny looking horses in this town?”
The old man stared, the occasional slow blink breaking his gaze. “What did you just say?”
“A man in tan clothes riding a red horse with long legs, a big bump on its back and a funny, long, curvy neck. He was out riding in the desert in the next canyon over.”
Murmuring echoed through the building, the old men were tittering. For a moment the bell on the door chimed. The out of towners turned around to an empty room.
“You didn’t see no man riding a horse.” The old man lowered. “That was the red ghost.”
“Red ghost?” Chet spoke up. “You’re saying that was a ghost?”
“Yup.” The old man hunched, his shoulders raised to his ears. “It’s a ghost. A ghost of a murder and the camel he died on.”
“Camel?” All four exclaimed together.
“Yup, camel.” Hissed the reply. “Folks ‘round here don’t talk ‘bout it. Too many been killed.”
“By a ghost camel?” Alex softly chuckled.
“Yup. They came over, the camels that is, in the eighteen fifties. The army wanted to see if camels could work out here.”
The students stared. “You’re serious?” Chet wondered aloud.
“Yup, I’m serious.” The barkeep answered. “You boys want to hear the story.”
“Sure.” Duke belched. “But can I get a beer first?”
Four mystery meat sandwiches were flanked by two cups of coffee and two cold, pints of beer. The old man, who had introduced himself as Stanley, had pulled up a stool behind the bar.
“Like I was saying the camels came over in the eighteen fifties. The army wanted to know if camels were better then mules on long marches. But they got more then they expected. You see the Arabs and Turks used to teach camels to fight. Some of the bigger ones could even kill a grown man.
“Well, the toughest, biggest camel they brought over was this big red dro-mo-dary camel. You know,” he waved his hand around, trying for support, “the kind with one hump.” The students nodded between wary bites. “Well the big red fella’ broke free one night. For years he would be seen all over this country. He killed dozens and dozens.
“You see them camels are smart. The red fella’ knew that people took him from his home, so he went after people. He’d attack folks at night. Got to be so that people wouldn’t even go to the outhouse at night, completely out of fear.
“Then one night a local judge heard something rustling in his vegetable patch. Pulling out his rifle, he aimed at a black shadow in his garden and fired.
“The next morning when he and the local sheriff went to investigate they found the red camel dead, but that wasn’t all. Tied with barbed wire to the animal’s hump was a pair of decaying human legs.”
Alex choked on his coffee. “Legs?” he sputtered. “Whose legs? Who would tie legs to a camel? In the Mojave?”
Stanley chortled into a cough. “No one’s sure whose legs they are. But there is a legend that a local tribe tied a murderer to the back of a strange horse and set him loose in the desert as a punishment.”
“The strange horse was the killer camel?” Chet huffed, softly.
“Yup, the red camel.
“After the judge had the camel’s body and the legs buried strange things began to happen. People would hear what sounded like a man screaming out in the desert. Some folks claimed to be chased by a specter camel, a half rotting man swinging a tomahawk at them.
“No one really believed the stories, until someone died. Young man, ‘bout you feller’s age, found dead out along the road you came in on. There were camel tracks in the sand ‘round his body. Funny thing was the tracks only went ‘bout one hundred yards. Just began and ended in the air, it would seem.”
“So the camel had a man tied to its back, was shot and is now back from the dead.” Alex said, laying the sandwich on his stained plate. “You really expect us to believe this…” He thrust his hands forward. “… Campfire ghost story?”
Stanley’s face puckered. “You don’t trust me? You saw it with your own eyes earlier today right? And you doubt it’s real?”
“Listen, I’m a biochemistry major. I know what happens to rotting flesh and, amazing as this may sound, it doesn’t spring back to life. Even after a decent application of revenge… desiring… feelings.” The red head jabbered. “You know what I mean.
“I’m just saying that it’s a nice story, but we’re not buying it. Right guys?”
The room went silent, save for Chet chewing. Alex faced his fraternity brothers. “Are you guys really going to believe this? It’s just a nice scary story, but not real.”
Brian stuffed the tail end of his sandwich into his mouth. “Uh, we should get going,” He said, spewing crumbs, “it’s starting to get dark.”
“I still can’t believe you guys.” Alex grumbled as the lone jeep whizzed along the darkening highway. “It was a cool story from a very… weird old guy, and I know you didn’t want to be rude. But you don’t really think that some camel murderer ghost is wandering the desert at night.”
“It’s easy to think that during the day, when we were indoors.” Chet sniffed. “But now it’s night and we’re on the same road that that old Stanley guy said people have been killed.”
Alex took a deep breath. “We weren’t on the road or out of doors when we were in the diner.”
Chet copied everything Alex said in a nasally, high pitch whine. “So we didn’t say anything. So what? Duke hasn’t said anything since he asked for a beer.”
The large, sleeping man beside Chet in the back seat mumbled something and rolled to his side. Brian, still sitting shotgun, was twitchy, his leg bouncing.
“You have your shorts in a twist over a ghost as well?” Alex chided, nodding his head toward the Californian.
“Maybe dude.” Brian said, glancing from window to window. “I thought I saw something moving out there.”
Alex groaned. “You too? Am I the only sane…” The jeep bucked, swerved and skidded with a resounding bang.
“What was that?” Chet yelped.
Brian was white as a sheet. “That.” He pointed out the driver’s side window. A huge camel galloped beside the car. A mound of tan was tied to its hump.
Alex slammed on the brakes. The beast zipped past, turned to face the car. Standing in the headlights, the animal could now be seen clearly. The massive red creature had barbed wire wrapped around its middle, tying the tan mass down, two legs drooped down either side. Its huge, flat, red-eyed head swiveled from side to side, steam coming from its nostrils. As the quivering quartet watched, first a tomahawk-wielding arm then a decaying head emerged from the tan mass. The remains of a buckskin shirt draped the arm. Locks of matted black hair peeling off the brow, slipped down the body and along the remnants of face.
“Holy…” Alex muttered.
“You believe now?” Chet screamed.
The camel charged, beast and man letting out an unholy shriek. Alex slammed on the accelerator. “Everyone duck!” he shouted, dropping behind the dash.
The jeep careened forward, all four hunched, anticipating impact. Seconds ticked by as the car roared forward. Suddenly a white mist sprang from the dashboard, flying through the cabin and out the back seat. Alex shot bolt upright.
“Oh no…” the red head hissed as he slammed on the breaks again, spinning the steering wheel. The jeep skidded again. Hitting the curb, it cart wheeled over the edge and down the embankment.
Life support machines whirred and clicked. Alex, arm in traction, leg in a cast, stared at the ceiling through swollen eyes. The words ‘Boulder City Hospital’ were embroidered on his Johnny, sheets, curtain and blanket. An orderly slowly mopped the floor, carefully avoiding the red head’s catheter.
“This sucks, dude.” Brian bleated from the next bed over. Both his arms were in casts, road rash on his leg was wrapped in fresh cotton gauze. “I really got to scratch my nose.”
Alex groaned. “Will you be quiet?” sighing, he sunk into the bed. “You’ve been too talkative ever since we got here.” The orderly slowed his mopping.
“You’re just angry because the old guy was right.” Brian said, wiggling his shoulders. “Could you call a nurse, I really need to scratch my nose.”
“Just because some old geezer in Stonescar knew about some insane midnight mirage, doesn’t mean I’m going to start believing in ghosts!”
The orderly almost dropped his mop. “Stonescar?” the hospital worker stated. “What old man in Stonescar?”
Both students looked at the man in scrubs. “Stanley, the guy who works at Joe’s, the only restaurant in town.” Alex said, slowly and carefully.
“There’s is no old man working anywhere in Stonescar. It’s a ghost town.”
“Come again?” Both students blurted in unison.
“The whole town was wiped out forty years ago.” The worker began. “It had been a mining town for more than a century by then.
“That’s what did them in, the mining. The mine cracked a pocket of natural gas in the middle of the night. Nobody survived, they all suffocated in their sleep. Took the state a month to get the bodies out and deal with the gas.” The orderly looked briefly out the door to the hall before leaning toward the patients. He lowered his voice. “The last thing anyone heard from the town was a police report. Seems someone saw a man riding a red camel outside the mine just before the disaster. Can you believe that?”
Brian turned, as best he could, to the now frozen Alex. “Still don’t think it’s real?”