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Western Short Story
Phantom of the Wood
Jason Crager

Western Short Story

Weather can be harsh in this region. The days can be hot and humid to the point where it becomes nearly unbearable to travelers while one would be lucky not to catch a case of hyperthermia if not properly insulated through the nights. Adapting is improbable for those who are not native.

It’s the nights that are the worst. The darkness is more profound here than it is any place else, the natural noises never seem to resemble those caused by standard critters or environmental settling, and the gnarled trees, which fail to blossom regardless of season, cast eerie shadows that dance at will and without rhythm. It is no place for the faint of heart. It’s one of them places where none are welcome and only the bravest tread.

Rocky Caitiff is not one of the bravest. He knows of this place through barroom gossip. He’s heard rumor of this place’s unwillingness to show mercy. Had options been available, he would have chosen to go anywhere but here. However, there were no options, just as there was no choice for him to make.

Rocky followed his companion here. He followed him because the man has encountered these lands before, because the man never reveals a trace of fear, because he owes his livelihood to the man and because the man would give him a thorough thumping if he did not follow.

Clarence Doughty is a brute of a man, stout, thick bearded, and just as mean as he is ugly. He’s a vagabond, a nonconformist, and an outright foul individual. Better men tremble in the presence of one such as Clarence, women avoid him at all costs, and none trust him. None except for, perhaps, Rocky Caitiff.

Rocky, a simple and meek man who does not embrace conflict unless absolutely necessary for his own survival, is not an outlaw by nature. He’s not a noteworthy gunslinger at all. Up until seven days ago, he was the proud owner and operator of a small and nearly profitable watering hole down in Mudd Creek, Kansas. His was a well-liked place about town where hard working cowpokes could enjoy themselves over a somewhat cold beer after work without the ruckus of whores and gambling over at The Banjo or the One Chance.

Although Mudd Creek itself was widely known to be a place of corruption, Rocky chose to run his little business honestly and there were some locals, albeit not too many, who respected him and his bar for it. It all went peacefully for Mr. Caitiff until the Cooper Gang thundered into town.

The Coopers were a rowdy band of brothers, four of them in all, three of them mounted and one guiding a covered wagon, along with an innocent looking young girl whom the gang had acquired from parts unknown. These were the dangerous type of men who believed that everyone owed them something and would not hesitate to take what they considered to be theirs, a real shady bunch who had come to Mudd Creek only for the purpose of adding to their hoard.

Having recognized the method of politics in the small town, the gang quickly paid off Sheriff Parks and with Mayor Fields being too cowardly to stand up to them, the Coopers gained free reign during their stay. Mind you, these were the days before the arrival of Doc and his infamous Regulators.

Seeing Rocky Caitiff’s place as an easy mark, the Coopers marched into the saloon with pistols skinned and bad intentions. Clemson Filmore, the lone patron, rose from his stool and gave his best attempt at slowing the gang’s entry only to have his mouth bashed in by a brutal pistol whipping. He crumbled to his knees and crawled out of the swinging doors, leaving behind a trail of blood and shattered teeth.

Rocky did always keep a sawed down double barrel beneath the bar. However, after considering his odds, he opted for the path of least resistance. With much regret, he handed over the money. He gave them every cent of it. He was ruined.

Rocky moped down the street a beaten man with his chin low, past Floozie Suzi’s, past the turned cheek of Sheriff Parks and past the snickering Cooper brothers. Slowly, his depression began to evolve into a fury he’d not experienced before. He knew that he could not allow this to go unavenged. He, of all people, did not deserve this. Rocky Caitiff needed some muscle.

Clarence Doughty and his two cronies stood on the boardwalk of the One Chance, squinting in the noon sun, spitting tobacco juice and arguing over which direction they would head in upon departure from Mudd Creek. The three were rootless wanderers stopped off for a few days on their way through. After having made short work of a drunken brawl with Big Joe Wilkins, Clarence had established himself as a formidable bully.

If only out of boredom alone, the men immediately agreed to Rocky’s proposition of dividing the profits evenly if they would help him recover the money from the Cooper boys. He figured that even a fourth of his earnings would at least be enough to keep him in business. Clarence withdrew a snub nosed six-shooter from his right boot. He handed it to Rocky ‘just in case things went sour’.

Although a fire fight in the center of town and before the eyes of all was not exactly what Rocky Caitiff had in mind, things rapidly spun out of control when the instant they approached the thieves, the Cooper at the wagon’s helm levelled a widow maker and sprayed a deadly load of buckshot into the chest of one of Doughty’s guys.

Gun smoke colored the air blue as Clarence and his remaining partner let loose with their own barrage of lead. The wagon’s pilot was the first to drop in a heap of dust and blood. Rocky fired blindly at all adversaries and fell none until a piercing pain in his shoulder brought him to the ground. Clarence crouched low, took aim, and scattered the oldest Cooper’s brains into the dry wind while his friend emptied a pair of slugs into each thigh of the last of the gang, causing him to drop his weapon and go down squealing.

When all that remained was the moans of the last wounded Cooper, Clarence Doughty moved forward and towered over his fallen enemy. The man submitted and began to plead for his life as he handed up the heavy knapsack filled with Rocky’s cash. Clarence took the offering and then he gave a wicked grin as he pointed down with his chrome forty-five and fired directly into the throat of the begging outlaw. The man choked and bled out in mere seconds.

“Fetch the horses,” Doughty barked at his still living partner. “All three of ‘em.” Then, looking toward Rocky, he asked, “You okay?”

Rocky stuffed an index figure into the gash on his left shoulder and winced. “Just a graze. Could probably use some stitching, but I think it missed the bone. I’ll be fine.”

Amongst the many wide-eyed onlookers was the good Dr. Tilly, his ever-present travel bag in hand. Clarence Doughty rudely addressed the doctor. “Patch him up. And make it fast!”

Dr. Tilly obeyed without objection while Reverend Wright began to recite prayers over each of the newly deceased, his wives in tow, all flustered and shaking their heads in sympathy. Clarence walked over to the Coopers’ wagon and crawled into the back. From the doorway of The Banjo, Mr. Gule the undertaker watched on, knocking back a straight bourbon and anticipating a long night.

Just as Dr. Tilly finished securing a bandage over Rocky’s wound, Mayor Fields burst onto the scene with an air of false dignity and forced bravado. “You savages can’t get away with this in my town,” he declared. “I’m going to wire for the Marshals. I’ll see you all in jail by tomorrow.” He rushed off just as fast as his legs could carry his frame.

With Fields’ threat, reality set in for Rocky Caitiff and any hopes which remained of him having a successful future in Mudd Creek vanished without trace. He swallowed the small white pill given to him by Dr. Tilly to take the edge off, thanked the doctor, and pulled himself to his feet. He had to round up Clarence and get moving.

When he pulled the canvas flap at the rear of the wagon aside, Rocky jumped back in shock, horrified at the goings on inside. Looking in the opposite direction, he gave Clarence an over the shoulder warning that the Marshals would soon be on their way.

Clarence emerged from the wagon and the three men mounted up. Right after settling into saddle, Doughty skinned his Colt and sent his partner’s hat soaring through the air with a well-placed bullet to the temple. The man hit the dirt with a thud, twitched a time or two, and then went limp. The crowd gasped.

“What the hell did you do that for?” Rocky demanded.

Clarence looked at the corpse, nonchalantly. “He wasn’t that good of a friend anyways. Besides, splitting the spoils in two is damn sure better than three.”

Rocky did not push the issue further for fear of Clarence deciding that there need not be reason to split the spoils at all. Instead, he bid his neighbors farewell with a slight tip of his hat and the two hightailed it out of town, spurring violently.

Rocky and Clarence rode hard for seven days, pushing their mounts to the brink of exhaustion and only pausing occasionally for brief, catnap rests in the night. They hardly spoke and aside from stopping off for supplies of coffee, booze, tobacco and jerky, they steered clear of all civilization. Clarence was desperate to get them here in a hurry, this being a place into which he was certain that no man would dare follow.

Their current source of heat is a poor excuse for a campfire, a single measly flame in the center of orange, smoldering embers. Seems the wood around here does not take well to being used. Rocky huddles over the glow, rubbing his hands while Clarence chooses to warm himself from the inside out with a canteen of whiskey.

Although not mentioning so, Rocky cannot keep the image of what he had witnessed in the back of the Coopers’ wagon from his mind and each time the scene replays, he looks at his companion with ever more disdain. That poor, poor girl. Across from him may very well be the most vile and despicable man he has ever laid eyes upon. The sole reason he has not yet abandoned him is because thus far, Clarence has made no further talk of splitting their loot.

These surroundings are beginning to take their toll on Rocky. Each random sound startles him and he looks about nervously, praying for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. He cannot keep from trembling. There is an unspeakable evil lurking here and Rocky can feel its presence deep down to the marrow of his bones.

Finally, Clarence can withstand the smaller man’s uneasiness no more. “Will you knock it off already. Why you so god damn jumpy anyways? What are you afraid of?”

“I don’t know,” Rocky replies, timidly.

“The law?” Clarence shakes his head. “Those men back there were scoundrels. Ain’t no justice for bandits. There’s a reason they call it the ‘wild west’, buddy.”

“It’s not the law.”

“What then? Injuns? They wouldn’t come ‘round here.”

“It’s not Injuns either.”

“Well, say what it is then.”

Rocky glanced around their perimeter as if there may be someone, or something, listening in. “Legend has it that… He… roams these parts,” he whispers.

He? Just who in the hell is He?”

“You know… the demon.”

“The demon? You talkin’ ‘bout that Hardy character?” The big man chuckles. “Slade Hardy?” Rocky does not reply.

“Yeah, I heard of him. He’s ten feet tall and bulletproof and has a draw faster than John Ringo himself.” The echo of Doughty’s bellowing laughter bounces off surrounding trees and Rocky attempts to quiet him.

“He rides a motorized steed of steel and he shoots fireballs out of his ass too.” The sarcasm is lost on Rocky, who remains silent.

“C’mon man, you don’t really believe in all that hokey, do you?” Clarence takes a swig and spits a mouthful of whiskey into the fire, which briefly flares up. That’s how you know you’re drinking the good stuff. “Slade Hardy. Ha!” He grumbles and rolls over onto his side, turning his back to Rocky. Soon, he begins to snore as Rocky too manages to drift off into restless slumber.

Shortly after the two campers succumb to sleep, the earth begins to quake and a tremendous pounding approaches from all angles as if a stampede from Hades itself is charging their site. Aided by alcohol, the disturbance does not affect Clarence Doughty. Rocky, on the other hand, is instantly startled awake, terrified.

What little light remains of their fire is suddenly extinguished, leaving Rocky blind and bound in complete blackness, and the roaring neigh of some unseen stallion erupts into the night.

“Oh, my dear God!” Rocky cries childlike as he curls up into a fetal position, squeezes his eyelids shut and wets his trousers.

The rumble of phantom hooves striking ground comes to an abrupt halt and Rocky, far too scared to open his eyes, can sense a large figure hovering above him and he thinks he feels something brush across his jaw. There are a few snorts, which blow puffs of hot air against his face, and the air stinks of molded oats and decaying flesh.

Now, just as swiftly as it came, the presence retreats back into the mysterious dark. Rocky Caitiff waits a moment in fearful anticipation before he dares to open his eyes. The very first thing he sees is the burlap sack, still full, laying there next to him. He sits up and looks about. The fire is brilliantly ablaze, bright and warm. He is alone.

“Clarence!?” Rocky hollers into the woods.

There is nothing.

Copyright © 2019 Jason Crager All rights reserved.


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