Western Short Story
Jiggs Kelly and the Stranger from Afar
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

It was day’s end, the sun falling to sleep, the first star a show-off on the fringe of distant plain and sky at juncture, he’d guess about ten miles, keeping things at an even quote, when he saw what he believed to be a rider, on the plains, or even in the sky. The sight teased him most of the night of a sleepless night, his mind stirred and stirring at all hours. He felt numbed by possibility of miracles, worldly or not worldly, real or not real, comfort or disturbance, whatever he could make of it all.

At coffee, ready in quick fashion on the old iron stove, finding aroma its very first gift to the insides of the small cabin he called home for the past two years. The spread of the aroma might reach a mile way; he’d known that spread a few times.

Comfort came with his rising to meet dawn, wash in an outside bucket, heed the skyline anew.

The stranger he’d seen the prior evening might be headed this way; perhaps, he’d have company this very day; it had been a long haul since Larry Kincaid had dropped by, perhaps six or seven months ago. He told himself he was lonely for welcome company, the hound Bantry eyeing him from a cozy corner as usual, his eyes full of a remote sadness and yet a warmth ready for another day. There was nothing like a dog to share one’s own failings, one’s own loneliness at specific moments of clarity, like they are soothsayers on the prod, comfort benders and lenders.

The word imagination stuck in his craw like an odd card in a one-man game of poker, a crease in a page of a day, or a fitting hard to place itself in order of time or cycle. Something about this rider, this stranger on the horizon, set his mind on fire; he rode so slowly, as though he nor his horse had anyplace to go, to get to. Slowness is one thing for a horse and rider, creeping is another, pretense is a third.

He was conscious of slim moments when the rider and his horse totally disappeared, like down into a gully or behind a sudden stand of a cliff face, only to come out some other side as real as ever (even if he believed it, for a new twist was beginning to work on him, and at full force, no let-go to it.

The reality of nothingness hit him broadside, that his imagination was loose all over the far western horizon, like he was being tortured by “critters,” by this “critter” playing tag or Kid-rush in his mind.

Loneliness, he surmised, always has a working edge to it, a twisting of the natural state of things somewhat real, but not coming all the way along, favoring tricks of its own; one and one is not two, the bare fact is not existing, perhaps nothing itself is not real.

Though he was still somewhat composed in these thoughts, parts of him had been twisted, bent, brought to emptiness in a second -- only to come back again twice as strong. The fact was, he’d never seen a ghost, never seen a spirit, never known one either, but he was being tested with a whole new experience.

He rested both eyes for long minutes, and then sent them scanning the horizon, hoping to see right through the figure on horseback, through the horse, too. The figure of a man might be spiritual, ghostly, figurative, but never a horse; horses never played around this way; they were above such games, true to their missions, bear a man anywhere he wanted to go, even to Hell itself if it came to that.

Then, in a split second, this strange rider and his horse came rushing at him, across the wide plain, across dry grass and green grass, across dead stalks of corn lined in linear rows, getting closer to him.

He saw the rider’s sombrero tipping in the wind rush, the laces holding it in place, saw a dark gray shirt with vertical stripes of white and black and gray in between, saw the pair of holsters and their pistols clutched by a wide belt at his middle in a slight angle as it bore down at one side, though armed to the teeth as a rifle butt showed itself in a side scabbard, bouncing along in heavy company.

He was coming closer, over the stretch of grasses, up and down small depressions, out of sight in a gulley, rising again, still rushing at him, as though he was not real in spite of all these apparent details rushing noticeably towards him.

Close enough his rush brought him, until Jiggs Kelly saw his eyes, bare of orbs, not a sign of blue or gray and tinted green, but bare; he could have been headless without eyes, and then Jiggs saw clean through those orbs bare as the wide sky, holes for another descriptor, wide holes in his head, his nose an aquiline drop between them, and Jiggs knew he was about to be visited by a spirit from that other world.

He looked for familiar signs, marks of a friend, a lost companion, a former partner at his side in the past war, gone to his forever.

Nothing came to light, as horse and rider halted at his tie-rail in front of the cabin, as his own heart threatened to explode in his chest, his joints shaking all over, his being tested by the unsightly apparition, this horseman and his horse from out of the past, to disappear at once at his tie-rail, fly off into nothingness but the far past, no name from the far war, no comrade daring to make a signal of recognition, to say the light was still lit.

Jiggs Kelly spent the day remembering, one by one, all his lost comrades, how each one went on his way and came for just an announcement of remembrance.

Coming home from war is often odd, testing a soul’s memory of what was and comes to be.