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New American Western
Saddlebag Dispatches




Western Short Story
What Do You Say To A Ghost?
Louis M. Serra

Western Short Story

At first I thought that I was just hearing things. I guess it was because, against my better judgment, I had agreed to fix up an old house for a friend of mine. It was a beautiful old place, built somewhere around 1860. It looked exactly like the ol’ Southern Plantation mansions you see in the movies.

The walls of every important room such as the Dinning Room, the main Study and so forth were paneled with deep oak or light birch, depending on when the sunlight came through the large glass doors and lit up that particular room.

I was in the cellar looking at the cement piers that were supporting the massive beams, which in turn supported the main floor above me. The beams themselves looked as strong as the day they were erected. The piers showed little wear. As I leaned in to check out a strange looking mark on the beam closest to the stairs, I heard what I thought was a weak, soft, voice say something like ‘they’re as sturdy as ever.’ Without thinking, I answered, “They sure look it.” Then it hit me. I’m the only one who is supposed to be here. I spun around to ask the voice what he was doing here.

I felt a chill go through me as I turned toward where the voice came from only to see that I was alone. My first thought was that my buddy Andy Carson, who knew that I would be at the old house working my butt off and had decided he was going to have some fun with me. Andy is not only a practical joker, but he’s a certified crypto zoologist. That is a scary combination of personalities.

Its not that I’m afraid of ghosts, I just never really believed in them. I always figured that if something moves, or makes noise or does any other strange things, that there has to be an explanation for it. Some days I would listen to my friends go back and forth in telling their best ghost stories whenever we got together. There were many times I would silently shake my head in disbelief, that grown men would sit around and try to scare one another. Especially Andy, you never knew if he was joking.

Satisfied that Andy was nowhere to be seen, I told myself that being in this old empty house was playing on my nerves. Confident that I was alone, I went back to work. I reached over to the tack hammer I had been using to test the solidness of the beams when the hammer moved away from me. It slid backwards on the stone slab where I had placed it right before I heard the voice. Startled, I quickly pulled my hand back and stared at the hammer as if I expected it to say ‘leave alone.’

Gathering my senses I looked around again, hoping to see someone peering out from behind the beam next to me. The only thing I saw was the hammer. The hair on the back of my neck began to tingle. The cellar was cool, as expected, but suddenly the air became even cooler. Downright cold. I backed further away from the beam and a bit dumbfounded, stared at the hammer, then the beam. Frustrated I said aloud to what I thought would be no one in particular, “what in hell is going on here?” My answer came almost as soon as I stopped talking.

“Not a heck of a lot.”
I wasn’t sure if I was scared out of my wits-end or just plain scared. Mustering up the courage to say something, I asked the thin air, Is there someone here? Or am I losing it? Who’s down here with me?”

This time the voice took its time answering me. “Do you always ask so many questions before you are introduced to someone?”

Okay, that sounded just a little too flippant. I was certain Andy was in the cellar with me. But, where? I took a step toward the support beam where the hammer was lying. After about two to three steps the voice spoke again.

“Are you sure you want to do this? Most people are afraid of us. I sense that you may be also. Right?”

“Damn it, Andy.” I involuntarily called out. “Stop this joking, now!”

“Andy? No, no. My name is Rufus. Rufus Blankenship. Colonel, Rufus Blankenship. Third Mobilized Regiment, CSA. And you, sir, are?”

“Pike. James Pike.” I answered, then, caught myself. “What’s going on here? Where are you?” I got closer to the beam and looked behind it. Nothing! “Hey! Who or what are you? Come out so I can see you. Are you supposed to be down here? Who gave…” The voice cut me off.

“You do ask too many questions. For someone so young, you…”

It was my turn to cut him off. “Just answer the stupid questions, will ya.”

“Oh, and you have a temper too!” His voice had an almost sarcastic ring to it.

“Look, buddy, I…”

“Colonel.” He corrected me. “Colonel Rufus…”

“Yeah, yeah I heard. Now, where are you hiding? There are no other rooms here. You sure as hell can’t be behind that beam. So, where are you?” That was a mistake.

“Andy? Ok. You win. You had me going for a minute. Now come out from your hiding place upstairs or behind one of these walls, and turn off that damned speaker.”

“Andy? Who is this Andy? What army does he serve? Don’t tell me you boys are Union?” The colonel’s voice trailed off as if he were disillusioned that The North has invaded his domain. I couldn’t tell by your uniform. It looks strange to me. I thought that maybe the newer troops had different uniforms.”

I was puzzled by his remark about my clothes, then realized I was wearing overalls. Suddenly, it hit me that I am talking to a ghost. A ghost from the Civil War. Now the hair on my neck was tingling even more. I had to ask.

“Colonel? What year is this?”

There was a long pause, then he spoke. “Are you serious man? We just come out of one of the biggest battles we’ve had and you ask me that. You must be a Yankee. They lost this one. Its 1863.”

I felt foolish, slightly sick to my stomach and downright mad because I’m here thinking I’m talking to a ghost. From the Civil War, no less. Collecting my senses, I again called out to Andy to stop this ridiculous game and show himself. I waited. No Andy. “Alright, buddy. You win. I’ll quit for the day and buy you that beer I owe you. Now just come out.”

The only voice I heard was the Colonel’s. “You keep calling me Andy. If you mean General Andrew Wicker, then you are too late. He died at the Battle of Manassas. Early in ’62. I know I was his second in command. Are you a Yankee or one of ours?”

“I’m neither, Colonel. I told you, I’m James Pike. I’m a building engineer for Carson Construction. I’m here to see if we can renovate this old house. So far…”

Again, he cut me off. “Engineer? Old house? Young man, I’ll have you know that my daddy built this fine house not even fifty years ago. Old! Next thing you’ll say is that we’re losing the war. I have it from a good source That General Lee had Sherman on the run. Furthermore, I believe…”

It took a long time for me to finally convince myself that I really was talking to the ghost of Colonel Rufus Blankenship down in that cellar. I decided to ask him how he died. I started out with, ‘Do you know or remember when…”

Suddenly he spoke up. “I must rest now. The ordeal of meeting someone after the last battle we had is tiring. I shall rest and then we may continue. Good-by for now.”

Silence was all there was now. Because he never did appear in form to me, I couldn’t tell if he was still there or not. I decided to call out his name to see if he would respond.

“Colonel? Colonel Blankenship? Are you still here?”

“Is who still here?” A familiar voice sounded from the top of the stairs. It was Andy.

“By damn, I knew it was you all along.” I called out to him. “Come down here so I can rap you up side the head. I’ll say this much for you, you almost convinced me that you were the Colonel.”

By the time I finished my barking at him, Andy was at the bottom of the stairs. He stood there looking about as perplexed as anyone could look. He finally said something. “Who were you talking to? You were so busy yakking at whom ever, you didn’t hear me calling out to you. I finally realized, by the direction of your voice, that you were down here. So, who are you talking to? I don’t see anyone.”

Thoughts were running through my head so fast about this last ten minutes that when I tried to say something, it came out like ‘dmfhg, blah, blah.’

Poor Andy stared at me as though he were looking at a madman. He cocked his head to one side, similar to a dog trying to understand its master. He quietly, soothingly asked me, “Jim? Are you ok? Jim, tell me what just happened down here. Jim? It’s me, Andy.”

“I know who you are.” I managed to squeak out. “I really don’t know what’s going on. Look, Andy, if you are pulling a joke on me, then I concede. You win. You really had me going. I was almost sure that I was talking to a ghost. Imagine me talking to a Rufus Blankenship or as he insisted, Colonel Rufus Blankenship of the CSA.” I was beginning to feel better for saying all that. I smiled and sat down on an old stool.

Andy had listened intently as I expounded on my morning in the cellar. He slowly walked over to an old iron box about three feet from me and sat down. He leaned forward and looked into my eyes for a moment. He sat straight again and softly said, “Jim, ol’ buddy, I had nothing to do with whatever you’re talking about. I just got here two minutes before I came down here to find you. “I’m not too sure if you’re ready to hear this, but I need to tell you something you may not want to hear.”

I may have been nervous at the time and I may have blurted out things not necessarily in the order of their events, but I was starting to catch my breath and relax, knowing my friend was there too. But I was damned sure not ready to hear what he told me.

“We both know that you have never truly subscribed to the idea of having Para-normal beings around you or us, or even in this dimension. I respect you for that. Of course, because I am a crypto-zoologist, every fiber in my body right now wants time to go back twenty minutes or so, just so I could be here to see the man you were talking to. Or should I say your new found friend?”

It was a good thing for me that I was sitting down. When he finished saying his piece, I felt sickly dizzy. Could I really have been talking to a ghost? I guess I’ll have to work on what we’ll talk about the next time I see him. I wonder though, ‘What do you say to a ghost?’