Western Short Story
Billy Boyd rode into Liberty town with violence in his heart. It was late October. A cold spell had set in over northwest Arkansas, leaving icicle teeth hanging under the eaves of the buildings and filming the water troughs with ice. Billy’s breath smoked as he came along main street and dismounted in front of the general store.
The store was stuffy warm. The proprietor, Jim McGregor, stood gossiping with four local men around the potbellied stove. They all looked at Billy when he came in. Most made sour faces. Billy lived back in the Ozark hollows; he and his kin were superstitious and ornery, with too much bark on them to be well liked.
“Lookin’ for Caleb Post,” Billy said.
McGregor shifted a toothpick from the left side of his mouth to the right. “Ain’t seen him today,” he said.
“But yore likely to.”
“Maybe,” McGregor agreed. “Most days I do.”
“Tell ‘im I’m in the saloon spectin’ ‘im.”
“What’s it all about, Billy?” a man named Coulson asked.
“Personal,” Billy said. He headed back out into the cold.
Billy led his horse across the street to the Rusty Nail saloon. Only a few men were drinking inside; only one woman worked. Billy ignored the men’s stares and ordered a bottle of whiskey from the woman. He sat, drank, waited.
An hour passed. Caleb Post came in. He paused just inside the door, then made his way on shaky legs toward Billy’s table. Caleb was nineteen, three years younger than Billy. He was normally a handsome fellow, but now his clothes and yellow hair were disheveled, and his eyes blinked uncontrollably. His face was white.
“You…you looking for me, Billy?”
Billy put down his drink and rose, hitching up his gunbelt. “You got it right.”
“I ain’t armed,” Caleb said, holding up his hands.
Billy nodded, then unbuckled his gunbelt and coiled it like a rattlesnake on the table next to the half empty whiskey bottle. “Reckon I’ll jest beat the snot out of you then,” he said.
“What for, Billy? You ain’t got no cause.”
“Katy Whitten,” Billy said.
Caleb’s face colored; his eyes stopped blinking.
Billy smiled crookedly. “Figured you knowed what it was about. Katy’s my girl.”
Caleb coughed, licked his lips. “Katy… She’s her own woman, Billy. You can’t tell her what to do or who to see.”
“Not tellin’ her,” Billy said. “Tellin’ you.”
Caleb started backing away; Billy followed. Someone yelled, “Fight!” Someone else ran out the front door. With a sudden shriek, Caleb threw himself at Billy, head lowered. Billy was caught by surprise. He swung a fist that glanced off Caleb’s head, then went down as the younger man tackled him.
The two rolled back and forth on the floor, trading blows. Billy’s punches began to tell. Caleb suddenly tore free and surged to his feet. He turned to run and Billy shot out a hand to catch a booted ankle.
Caleb crashed to the floor again and Billy swarmed over him, raining fists as the younger man tried to cover up. When he couldn’t get in a solid punch, Billy climbed to his feet, grasped Caleb by his shirt and jerked him upright. Caleb stood nearly defenseless as Billy slammed a blow into his belly. Caleb doubled over, groaning, his mouth spewing fitful spurts of green bile.
Billy jerked Caleb back up straight and hit him in the face. The younger man would have fallen if Billy hadn’t held him. Billy began slapping Caleb then, the sound loud as his palm cracked back and forth.
“Stay. Away. From. Katy!” Billy snarled.
He punched Caleb again, was about to let the boy fall when a screeching wildcat came from nowhere and jumped on Billy’s back. Fingernails raked Billy’s cheek, drawing bright flashes of blood. Billy cried out, reached over his shoulder and grabbed cloth while he twisted his body and flung his attacker over his shoulder into the saloon’s piano.
A wild jangle of broken notes sounded. The piano crashed down. For a moment, Billy stood frozen. Then. “Oh my God! Katy!”
Billy dropped to his knees beside the still form of the woman he loved. Her dress was torn at the shoulder, revealing pale flesh. Blood reddened her hair at one side and dribbled down her face. Her eyes were closed.
“No!” Billy screamed. “Katy!” He grabbed her, shook her. A blow from behind knocked him unconscious.
* * *
Thunder woke Billy. He sat up slowly, wincing at the pain in his head. It was dark, though a faint glow came from somewhere. Billy realized where he was—the Liberty jail. He struggled to his feet and over to the barred window. A sudden rain lashed against it; the cold spell had broken. The night was ripe with storm.
Billy grasped the bars, then sagged. “Katy,” he murmured.
Was she alive? She’d been so still. Surely he hadn’t killed her, not the girl he loved. He had to know. The door leading into the front office of the jail was slightly ajar. Lantern light bled through the crack.
“Sheriff,” Billy called, “Sheriff!”
No response. Billy shook his head, staggered to his cot and fell on it. For a long time he lay there. Then a brighter light bloomed in the other room and he sat up.
“Sheriff?” he questioned.
No answer came, but the light grew stronger. The door creaked open further. A figure in white stepped through, its face hazy behind a lace veil. The figure held a lantern in one hand and swayed back and forth. Billy couldn’t hear any breathing.
Gasping, Billy rose and stepped toward the door to his cell. “Katy,” he said. “Katy! Is it you, girl? Never meant to hurt yah. If I’d only knowed.”
The figure’s empty hand began to writhe, then slowly rose until a finger pointed directly at Billy. A whisper came.
“You killed me, Billy. You murdered me!”
“Cain’t be!” Billy cried out, shaking his head. “Cain’t be no haunt.”
The whisper came again, “But, Billy...”
The faintest of hopes bloomed in the young man’s face.
The voice slaughtered that hope when it continued. “I won’t be the last to die. I mark you, Billy Boyd. I curse you for what you’ve done.”
No, no, no!” Billy cried out. He dropped to his knees, hands clawing at his face. He’d learned with his momma’s milk that the curse of a ghost could not be denied. He was a dead man. No fighting it.
The door to the outer office was thrust wide and men poured in. They swept around Katy as if she wasn’t there. Billy saw Jim McGregor, Abe Coulson, Caleb Post, and others. He recognized Frank Whitton, Katy’s big brother.
Billy’s cell was flung open. Men took Billy’s arms, jerked him to his feet. He scarcely struggled as they pulled him out of the cell, out of the jail and into the storm on main street. Across the street from the jail lay the stable. A block and tackle for moving hay hung from the second story.
“You Boyds been earning this treatment a long time,” Frank Whitton snarled.
Billy realized what was going to happen but he still didn’t fight. He couldn’t take his eyes off the figure in white standing in the jail’s open doorway. Billy’s hands were bound behind him. A rope was slipped around his neck and tied to the block and tackle. Billy finally started to kick as he was hoisted into the air. It was too late. Rain poured down. Thunder rumbled like the gates of hell opening.
Inside the jail, the white figure lifted her veil so she could see everything clearly. Katy Whitton, very much alive, and very much aware of the superstitions of a lover who’d refused to be spurned, laughed as Billy Boyd slowly strangled to death.