Western Short Story
A minister of the cloth, weary in the saddle, a long time in his travels, arrived in a small settlement tight against a small stream coming out of the Rocky Mountain Range. The scenic view caused a gasp at his lips as he saw his place of dreams before him. It was a scene he had seen a hundred times, in reveries, in dreams, in silent moments in the saddle when he nearly dozed off with the rhythm of his horse.
He saw no church in the small settlement, and the void touched at his soul. “This is it,” he said as a sense of relief rolled through him. The horse’s name was Gabby, and was a short version of Gabriel, which was given to the horse on the day of his birth back in Yeoman’s Hill, a distant piece of Pennsylvania.
The name of Gabby’s rider was Reverend Claude Transtromick, a member of The Free Church of the Horizon, which had one location back in Pennsylvania, a church that had withstood fire, riot, gunshots, pillage and theft of its pews in a night of hatred. That hatred spanned nearly seven long years. He had survived it all until the night the church was blasted with sticks of dynamite, killing the caretaker and his wife in their sleep. In the morning, after services for the dead attended by none of the former congregation, fear controlling that decision, the reverend mounted his horse and rode west, following the sun.
The Church of Rocky Sermons was destined to be built by one man … in Hagen’s Dream, Nevada.
Hagen’s Dream was just that, and on closer view it stirred the reverend without a church, not as yet though, but sudden joy rushed through him.
The grass he had crossed in his approach to the town was fertile, rich, green as green could be, and seemed to be touched with a mighty hand he had first heard of in Colorado, that of “a hand from a Greater Kingdom and a Lesser Court.” He thought he knew the meaning of those words, though they scrambled through his mind in spurts and mad dashes.
The sign over the general store said, in tight, blocky letters lending a sense of sturdiness to the place, “Dispenser of Good Goods Often with Change for the Dollar.” He loved it, the whole wide span of it running across the entire building. It tickled his sore soul no end; he needed it even as he wore the collar. It made him whistle in the stirrups as he proceeded through a town totally new to him, this man of the cloth now without a church of his own.
The humor stood out and cheered him, almost announced itself aloud, and the glee snapped through him again as he looked at the next sign hanging over the front door of The Lazy Bull Saloon, his expectations keen as ever. The sign featured, along with the saloon name, a bull sitting on his haunches at one end of the long sign and a demure and pinkish cow at the other end, looking back past her flank at the bull, her look sporting a pink flush. He laughed so loud that residents on the edge of the road through town turned and stared at the lone but laughing rider.
Then he spied the mortuary and its accompanying sign, in a very graceful script, which pleased him no end: “Departures with Reverence Where All Debts Are Paid.” Undoubtedly this was going to be his type of town; he’d been looking for it, it became very apparent to him, since he donned the collar after the Great War, the good Lord calling on him in each heightened engagement
“Oh,” he said, “I’ll have to meet the painter of the signs, or the creator. Either one would do, for the spirit has moved through both of them and sets the tone and temper of this town … or it ought to.”
The blacksmith’s open-door shop was illustrated by a sign, in rugged and wide black letters, saying, ”I Cried ‘cause I Had No Shoe, and My Horse Cried Out Too.” Included were images of an anvil and a horseshoe.
“Oh,” cried Reverend Claude Transtromick, “I will love this place. I will build my everlasting church here, The Church at the end of God’s Green Grass.” For sure, he’d let the ingenious sign painter, whoever he was, handle the commission of the work.
He did not feel a pinch of doubt about it.
Nor did he ever hazard a guess that the sign painter was one of the loveliest creatures he’d ever meet this side of the Pearly Gates.
But he believed he had earned a drink at the saloon; it had been a long hard ride and a good mug of beer would continue his good day. He was not any kind of hypocrite for he liked the taste of a beer. His father, in a temperance mode, knowing the edges that liquor can slide into a man, had introduced him to beer at a young age … and had tempered him.
Reverend Claude Transtromick dismounted in front of the saloon and entered The Lazy Bull Saloon … and fate, as happens on occasion, innumerable occasions, moves along with good intentions as well as bad intentions.
It was the bigmouth, the braggart, the usual bully of such establishments that made a move on the stranger, trying to score another mark in his favor. He was tall, athletic looking, slim at the waste and wider at the shoulders; he wore a gray Stetson the sun and the weather had punished, with the brim folded in an off-handed manner, a black vest atop a light gray shirt, worn denim pants, and boots with new heels.
“Hi there, stranger,” he said as he approached the reverend at the bar sipping his beer, “I figure you must be passing through here. Can’t be much here In Hagen’s Dream to haul a man off the saddle for any length of time.”
He extended his hand and introduced himself. “I’m Cal Hornbelt. What’s your handle?”
“Claude Transtromick,” the reverend said as he put out his hand, “But I’ll tell you right out that this town pleases me greatly with its pronounced humor, its good feelings abounding.”
It was, of course, the kind of reply the bully wanted. “You sayin’ we’re funny folks here in Hagen’s Dream? You pokin’ fun at us?” Hornbelt drew himself up to appear taller than he was, but the act was unnecessary because Transtromick didn’t even look up at him.
The barkeep, though, was already unsettled, and waited for the bite to come … one way or another. The new customer might not note the challenge thrown at him, or didn’t care for Hornbelt’s manner in the first place.
“No,” Transtromick replied, taking another sip of beer, “not at all, Mr. Hornbelt. It’s just the signs on the buildings here, for a stranger just arriving, are a welcome sight. They carry humor and significant creative spirit on them, in them. They are joys to see.” He paused and offered a wishful note; “I surely would like to meet the gentleman who painted them or created them. They all look like they’ve come from the same creative mind.”
Hornbelt, taken aback by the response of the stranger, suddenly knew his favored lady undoubtedly was bound to come into the mind of another man. And it unnerved him.
Cheryl Matson, without a single vote against her, real or otherwise, was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, and he had dreamed solely about her for almost two full years. He had never kissed her, ridden out on the grass with her, held her hand, or even danced with her at Joe Friar’s Barn dances. And he’d really mess up his chances with a stupid encounter with a stranger.
He backed off, and the barkeep knew quick relief.
The next morning, at a quaint cabin nestled on the side of a green hill, lush bushes abounding on three sides, Cheryl Matson worked on a delicate carving as she sat on her porch, the sun flooding about her and showing off her beautiful features even as she tooled a knife on the carving. The sun found her raven hair glistening like a mountain night without the moon, but finding odd stars in the folds. Her skin glowed with the health of the prairie below her, a run of green for miles atop miles, so green it seemed paradisiacal, and yet broadcast an inner flame men flocked to. And there was a silent energy beating about her, the font of life centered in one person beautiful to all eyes.
It was as the funeral director said on a fair number of occasions, in and outside his establishment, “That woman, in all her days, with those eyes of hers that say nothing while they say everything possible to all of mankind, will drive more men to me than all the guns in Dan Tobin’s store.” Folks knew he was proud of that statement and knew he had practiced its delivery the way an actor readies for his appearance on stage.
The way fate itself arranges and conducts introductions to people, the Reverend Claude Transtromick that same morning rode about the territory surrounding Hagen’s Dream, familiarizing himself with all the area from the river to the foothills of the Rockies, running, like the grass, out of sight on the far horizon, even as the peaks continued forever.
A variety of wild life came into his view, from high in the air to scrambling critters of several kinds on the ground. The buzzards shared the skies with a hawk being tended by a thermal and a falcon, setting off from some high lookout, sped in pursuit of some creature Transtromick could not see. The wonder of all life crowded him with a new faith and energy, the kind that he realized must be renewed every day of his existence. And he wondered at the wonder of geological formations and land falls that shaped the earth from ancient upheavals.
And on one turn in the foothills slipping down toward the wide grass and the river in the distance, he saw a cabin in an elysian setting , a woman working at some task on a wide porch … and a man on horseback, obviously spying on her from a nearly hidden place behind a blow-down. The man did not see him, he was sure, so he continued his ride pretending to be oblivious of the hidden rider.
As he approached the idyllic cabin, he hailed the woman on the porch. “Hello, Madame, and my kind regards on a most beautiful morning. I do not want to alarm you at all, and send you my greetings on this beautiful day in this most glorious setting. You are to be admired for your choice of living quarters,
which I presume is yours. My name is Reverend Claude Transtromick, newly come to Hagen’s Dream and bound to build a church there.”
The woman was not flustered. “I welcome you, Reverend. Morning coffee is on. I have bread and rolls in the oven, and may I ask what the name of your church will be.” She noted he carried a pistol on his gun belt and a rifle in a saddle sheath.
Transtromick approached the cabin and said, “Thank you for being so cordial on such a beautiful day.”
She was, he noted, a most beautiful woman and he was able to discern the same quality in the wooden carving she was working on. He was struck by the thought that beauty was all around him … in the woman, in her work, all around her in this magical setting.
“Oh,” he said, his voice caught in the moment of her beauty, “and I will name my church The Church at the End of God’s Green Grass.” She put out her hand as she stepped down off the porch. “I am Cheryl Matson, owner of this little abode against the mountain. Many things lord over me.”
He thought, nearly aloud, “Oh, there is an exclamation to ponder on.”
She glowed, her face a remarkable broadcast of inner joy. “Oh,” she said, “and promise me that you will allow me to create and prepare a sign for your church.” Honesty and glee and an idea already working in her mind came announced with her joy.
The contrasts in one element bothered him, but he spoke his mind, as was his way: “Well, I finally get to meet the creator and painter of the signs in Hagen’s Dream. Delightful.” But his tone reflected a small change as he said, “But are you aware, Miss Matson, that a man at this moment is spying on you from a hidden place behind a blow-down, from higher than here, by that big rock off there to the right?” He nodded slowly in that direction.
She showed no distress or worry. “I suppose it’s Cal Hornbelt doing what he does in his own way. He has neither forthrightness nor the particular courage women find attractive in men.” Her eyes seemed to say, ”Like the kind you have shown to me.”
Transtromick said, “It would seem to be the perfect time to cure this problem, to have it be done with. I met him last evening when I was having my daily drink at the saloon. And I loved your sign there.” He roared with laughter again. “Your humor is astounding, and so relevant.” He hoped all his own signs were somewhat decodable.
Cheryl smiled broadly and replied, “Thank you for the compliment and it does seem to be the time to cure the problem. He’s been this way for a couple of years now. I’m sure it will not come to the use of arms, but I’m glad you carry your weapons.”
It was another permission she had granted, or asked for. He knew he was caught up with her and could hardly blame Hornbelt for feeling the way he did.
He saddled a horse for her and they promptly rode to the site where Cal Hornbelt had been spying on her. They caught him before he could get away.
“Well, Cal, back again, I see.” She sat still in the saddle, her hands on her hips.
“I didn’t mean nothin’, Cheryl. I was always kind of lookin’ out for ya.” That kind of persuasion couldn’t lead a thirsty mule to a bucket of water. The three of them were well aware of it.
Transtromick said straight out, “Cal, I think we can put all of this behind us. All of it, can’t we?” He was not looking at Cheryl when he said it. Cal Hornbelt knew it was up to him. He nodded and said, “I’m just a dumb mule, I guess, but I always worried about her. I can’t be all wrong, can I?” He had been beaten down in a nice way.
But Cal Hornbelt got even on that account … getting all the way back.
When Reverend Claude Transtromick started to build The Church at the End of God’s Green Grass, right there at the edge of Hagen’s Dream, Cal Hornbelt was the hardest working man on the job. He did everything and if he didn’t know how to do it at the start, he learned in a hurry.
The first official service in the church, one well attended by town folks, was conducted by Reverend Transtromick.
The second service was the marriage of Cheryl Matson to Reverend Claude Transtromick, performed by a fellow clergyman from downriver.
The best man was Calvin Hornbelt.