Western Short Story
Whipping up a dust trail, the stagecoach pulled around a tight bend in the road. The early autumn sun hung in the cloudless sky, glinting off the tin roofs in the town completely encircled by the skeletal remains of a collapsed stone wall. A sign, tilting to one side on a broken wood post, read Jericho.
Two lines of multistory adobe clapboard buildings were ringed in small clusters of tents. Set between fortress-like adobe City Hall and a three-story, high Victorian-style hotel, is a broad, squat saloon and theater. the coach, red paint faded and cracked, pulled to a halt between the hotel and saloon. The driver hopped down, unhitched the first two of his four horses, and set them to a trough of water.
One by one passengers, visibly drained by the trip, clambered out of the coach. The guard, who stayed seated in the driver's box, now hopped up on the coach roof and started tossing the stacked luggage down. Passengers, either catching or picking up their bags, waved over the doorman of the hotel. Press-ganged, the doorman hauled the luggage to the lobby while the passengers stumbled into the saloon.
Stumbling through a pair of swinging doors, the passengers headed in for a quick drink. The oak paneled rooms roof high ceiling showed the second floor catwalk, which encircled the large hall. Doors dotted the second story, leading to small rooms with smaller beds. A stairway between the bar and the entrance connected the floors. A dusting of gamblers played cards while a piano player tapped out of Foster tune.
At the head of the new arrivals shuffling through the doors was a man in his early 30s in a bowler hat. He wore a gray wool, well tailored suit and carried a black leather satchel. While the other travelers spread out through the small rowdy crowd, wondering about, he went straight to the bar. Putting his satchel up, he rapped his knuckles while looking for the bartender.
The barkeep, large man in a white shirt, tan apron and waxed mustache, seemed to materialize from under the counter. Thumping a towel filled paw on the bar, the barman wiped the area by his obviously impatient patron.
"What can I get'cha, mister... ?" Asked the bartender, eyeing the satchel.
"My name is Nettles, Zeb Nettles." Was the reply. "And I would like a cup of coffee and a shot of whiskey."
"Cup of coffee and a shot of whiskey." The bartender parroted. "Coming up."
Nettles drummed his fingers on the counter of the bartender filled his order. With a clink, the coffee nad shot were plunked down. Taking a deep whiff of the smoky aroma, Nettles smiled and drank.
"So, friend, what brings you to our humble little town?"
"Your wall." Nettles replied, then quaffed the whiskey.
"Our wall?" The barkeep mused. Following several seconds of silence his eyes lit. "You must be the engineer come to help us fix the darn thing!"
"One and the same." Nettles stated, contentedly.
"I take it you know the story behind them walls and the town's name?" The barkeep leaned forward, with a boyish look of excitement.
Picking up the coffee cup, Nettles smiled. "Of course. This town was a frontier mission back when the Spanish controlled these lands. After the war with Mexico, we took the land and a gang of bandits took the mission. Later a cavalry detachment forced bandits out, knocking down walls in the process. As a commemoration, the folks who moved in named the town Jericho." He smiled, arching a brow. "My company has provided me with sufficient documentation on your charming town."
The bartender pulled his head back, pushing himself off the counter. "You left out the most important part! The old Cheyenne woman who put a curse on the bandits, told 'em the wall they relied on would be there end! And most of them bandits were crushed when the wall came down!"
Nettles finished his coffee while the barman spoke. Reaching into his suit jacket, fishing out his wallet, he dropped a stack of coins on the bar top. "I don't believe in curses or such nonsense."
Before the bartender could reply, a dour looking man in black burst into the saloon, running up to the bar. "Stephen, did you receive any packages for me? It would have been a large glass bottle with a skull and cross bones on it. It should have been here last week, but it wasn't and I have no idea where it could be!"
"Calm down Lloyd." The barkeep held his hand out to the frantic Lloyd. "Now slowly, what is it? Have you run out of embalming fluid again?"
"Yes, only this time I have old widow Smithers lying on my slab! Her family isn't going to be here for five more days and I can't give them another bloated and green parent!"
Nettles turned to Stephen. "I take it this is the town mortician."
"Yep." The bartender side. Addressing the hyper mortician, he said. "Lloyd, if your fluid doesn't get here by tomorrow I'll sell you at no cost." He shook his finger. "All the hard liquor you'll need. Booze'll preserve a body, don't it?"
"Oh, that would work, wouldn't it?" Lloyd mumbled. He thrust his right hand out, which Steve cautiously took. Shaking his hand vigorously, Lloyd added. "Thank you Stephen, always good for my business!"
Steve grimaced. "Thank you Lloyd, you're always good for mine, too."
A door on the second level slam shut. Clunking from a pair of women's shoes were followed down the railinged catwalk by the rustle of satin skirts.
"Speaking of good for business…" Lloyd mumbled, backing toward the piano, which had now stopped. A woman in a black polonaise dress, black stockings and a black, feathered rosette headdress strolled down the walkway. She was tall, blonde and curvaceous. Long legs ended in black ankle boots. She held her skirt as she went. The men, and some of the other ladies, backed away cautiously. Once she reached the bottom of the stairs, Nettles could readily see her Teutonic features.
She strolled to the bottom of the stairs. Steve went down the bar, not even looking at the woman. Loyd tipped his hat as he scurried out the swinging door.
"Guten tag, meine volks." She sighed, in a deep, Bavarian voice.
Nettles stared, his mouth slack and eyes wide. He slowly strode the base the stairs where she stood.
"Good evening Miss…?" Asked Nettles asked as he extended a hand. There was an audible gasp from the saloon patrons.
"Steinberger." She replied, her brow knotted. "Gerda Steinberger."
Nettles turned to face the now silent room. The patrons stared, some backed further away. Steve cleared his throat loudly. The engineer glanced over his shoulder at the bartender.
"Since you just got to town, I ain't shocked you don't know."
Nettles shrugged with a strained shake of his head.
"Gerda, here, is cursed."
The whole room nodded in unison.
"Cursed? Wait a moment…" He held one hand out as the other slowly raised to his face. Pinching the bridge of his nose, Nettles asked. "Does this have anything to do with what your mortician said? About being good for business?"
"If you... buy any services from her, you're gonna' die." Steve said, leaning over the counter.
"You can't seriously expect me to believe such nonsense." Nettles snorted.
"Ja, mein liebling." Gerda interjected in her deep, smoky voice. "What der bartender says ist true." She stepped down off the last step. "I vas cursed."
Looking over his shoulder, Nettles then turned to Gerda. "You actually believe that you're cursed?"
"Ja, it vas an old Cherokee voman. Der stagecoach I rode ran over der hund of da voman. Der driver stopped der carriage und I shouted at him to continue. She spoke that I had nacht compassion, und those close to me vould die as der hund did."
"This is ridiculous. You really believe this?" Nettles scanned the room. "How did this absurd theory developed?"
"Well, the first three men who called on Gerda died." Steve piped up.
Leaning in on top of the bar, nettles cocked an eyebrow. "Have you heard of probability? In an environment like this it isn't improbable that a series of clients of woman like her, would die."
"True, I reckon you could be right." Steve straightened, his hands pressed onto the bar. "But the way those fellers died…"
"All right, how did the first one die?" Nettles rested his arm on the counter, propping up his head as he smiled.
"Blown up? What was his job?"
"A miner?" Nettles guffawed. "Mine explosions are the most common ways miners die!"
"It's he was blowed up in the middle of town, carrying a keg of dynamite."
Nestles nodded. "Less likely, granted. Yet dynamite is very volatile, excessive shaking could easily set it off if the packaging is insufficient."
"Yes well, it might've been the packaging." Steve said slowly, rubbing his jaw. "But most folks 'round here tend to think it was the light bolt that did it."
Nettles blinked several times. "Lightning bolt?"
"Yup, lightning bolt. The doctor ain't sure if the explosion or the lightning killed him. Either way, took us a week and a half to clean him off all the storefronts."
The onlookers shuffled cautiously closer. Some whispered amongst themselves, others just stared while sipping beers. Gerda, stony faced, stood by, her hands on her hips.
Flustered, Nettles stammered out. "This is ridiculous! There is no such thing as a cursed person. It's superstition, folktales. It doesn't exist!"
The room stared at the engineer as he flailed his arms. He continued his tirade against all things supernatural, only calming down and breathing after reaching a peak of consternation. Taking a heavy breath, he faced the crowd.
"Just to prove that this is just nonsense." He looked Gerda in the eye. "Are you free this evening?"
The whole room, Gerda included, gasped.
"Ja, aber man sollte das nicht tun, You'll die!"
"No I won't." He stated forthrightly. She turned back to the saloon patrons. "Because cursed persons don't exist."
He took Gerda's hand and started up the stairs. The whole saloon watched as they made their way up the creaking stairs along the creaking, railinged catwalk. As the door to Gerda's room closed, the entire saloon took collective deep breath in.
"Should I go get Lloyd?" One old barfly mumbles to Steve.
"Yep." The bartender croaked.
* * * * *
Steve was wiping the counter down as late afternoon sun reflected off the bar. Several sobering barflies argued over a hand of cards in the corner. A couple of older townsfolk walked in and sat down at the bar. After ordering a few beers, they began talking to Steve.
"I heard some newcomer easterner spent last night with the Angel of death. Anything true in that?"
Steve grunted. "Unfortunately." He wiped the bar some more. "Every year there seems to be one or two fools who come to town, but none adamant as the feller. He was actually with her last night. Went out at sun-up."
"Dadgum!" One bellowed over his beer. "Does Lloyd know?"
"He could use the business." Another chimed in.
"Yeah, Lloyd knows." Steve grunted. "He was up here bright and early today buying enough wood for new coffin. Morbid son of a gun went past my house at sun up… Whistling."
A loud clank, squish and rattling boards came from the wooden sidewalk outside the salon. Nettles, his face and clothes soaked, singed and torn, an arrow stuck through his hat and a bear trap hanging off his right pant leg, stumbled in.
"Land 'a Goshen, he's still alive!" Steve snorted. "Nobody's ever lasted this long after a night with Gerda!"
Nettles didn't say a word. He stumbled up to the bar and flopped against the counter. A loud thump upstairs was followed by pounding footfalls. Gerda scampered, wild eyed down the stairs in a gray dressing down.
"Ach du lieber!" She yelled. "He's alive!" She patted herself down. "Vom Himmel, is the curse lifted? Am I normal once more?"
Nettles slowly raised himself, jaw clenched, hands clawing at the counter. "Normal? You want to know about normal? Normal is not this place!" He began poking himself in the chest. "Do you know what I've been through the last twelve hours? Do you?" Stomping away from the bar, he began pacing around the room. "I have been thrown out of a carriage and nearly bellyflopped a cactus! before breakfast! And the carriage tore off without me." He mumbled. "After that I stumbled down to an old sawmill outside of town looking for people. Despite the building being nearly collapsed, the saw kicked on nearly sawed me in half! And…" He paused, breathing deeply. "At what point did the local tribes start attacking abandoned sawmills? Because they shot it full of arrows, then burned it down… With me inside! If I hadn't jumped into the Creek, I will be dead right now! Oh and can any of you explain to me." He looked around his dumbstruck audience. "How it is that a part of the state as flat as this has a waterfall? Because I went over it! And in case anyone is wondering." He shook the pant leg with the beartrap. "It seems that the route between the river in town is a favorite area for trappers to set these things!" He shook the beartrap again. "I almost lost more than a good pair of trousers!" He huffed. "So if you want normal, this place is not for you! Oh, and another thing…" He pointed out across the now growing crowd. "You can forget about your damn wall! Fix it yourselves! I'm leaving on the next stagecoach!"
"What about your luggage?" Steve gingerly inquired.
"Keep it!" Nettles snapped. "But you could give me a bottle of whiskey and don't waste your time with the glass!"
Steve fumbled under the bar and pulled out a labelless bottle. "I got a case that came in without labels. That don't bother you, right?"
"Bother me? I don't care!" He growled. "Just give me the bottle." He snatched the bottle that Steve held out. Pulling the cork out he took a long draught. His face puckered as he pulled the bottle from his lips. "This whiskey... doesn't taste right." He said.
Lloyd rushed in, panting. He fell against the bar. "Steve!" He yelped. "Steve, the… Fluid… Train…"
Steve went over to the mortician and grabbed his shoulder. "Get a grip." He shook Lloyd vigorously. "What are you jawing on about?"
Nettles watched lazily, taking another deep swig.
Lloyd took a deep breath. "I found out where my missing embalming fluid is." He took another deep breath. "One of the conductors on the train that my fluid was on told me he found the labels for my bottles in the cargo cars. Steve, they gave you my labelless bottles of fluid thinking it was your whiskey." Both men slowly looked over to Nettles, who was slowly lowering the bottle from his mouth. He gulped. "Oh, hello. I didn't know you were still alive."
"Well." Steve grunted. "Not for long now."