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Western Short Story
The Haunted Shack
Jay Peters

Western Short Story

It is a bright, Texas-hot, August afternoon. All the residents of the retirement center, sarcastically called ‘Trails End’ by the live-in ranching folks, are sitting in the shade along the east facing veranda. Sitting in small groups or singly according to their preference. One small group of former cowboys and ranchers is intently listening and then bursting into guffaws at some windy tale from a yarn spinner. They cuss and discuss politicians, scandalous society, new-fangled inventions, or automobiles. Alternating with their stories, some even true, of angry cattle, bad weather, and survival. The conversation drifted, finally, to stories of wild dreams.

A tall lanky old man, dressed in pointed boots, jeans, a faded blue silk shirt topped with a bright blue bandana, under a rancher’s Stetson, spoke up, “I got my start in ranching from the dreams an old shack told my son and I on the same night.” There were a few low chuckles as the men leaned in for a good tale.

“We wus driving our small herd of fifty cows ‘n two bulls west into upper New Mexico Territory looking to locate a small ranch. My son, Jeb, wuz driving our wagon with a span of four mules and towing our spare riding stock. We circled up outside of a wide-spot name of Nolan fer a beer and information. Our two blue and white cattle dogs would manage while we were gone. The bar-keep, with a half smirk, directed me to the blacksmith as having ranch land fer sale or lease.”

“The blacksmith agreed to let us pasture our stock on his section of scrub land fer twenty dollars fer as long as we like ‘cause we hafta develop our own water. So I paid him, got directions. Collecting a few supplies, Jeb and I headed down the faint trace, past three overgrown graves, to the lonely wore-out shack on the place.”

“We arrived late afternoon and took a look around from the low knob behind the gray shack. A quick look in the shack discovered it empty except for pack rat nests and assorted spiders. We were on the low ground that ended in the whiteness of a saltpan. There were willows and cottonwood lined up, as in a bar, drinking from the dry watercourse. We spotted the old dry stock pond that we had to immediately dig out for water. Cows not being all that patient about water.” That got a few nods and chuckles.

“We got a sloped hole dug about fifteen-foot acrost and three-foot-deep slowly filling with poor alki water. The stock accepted it so we could unharness and hobble the riding stock. But water fer coffee would have to be hauled out from town. We went to fixin’ some supper over cotton wood chunks and a dried cow patty fire in the old fire ring in the yard of the empty square shack. We turned in exhausted to sleep under the wagon.”

“Over breakfast, Jeb tells me of his dream about the Shack talking to him to dowse fer good water. It was the same exact dream I had! We almost burned the bacon in our wonderment and fright. Never heard of dreams happenin’ like that before. That wuz some scary. We even considered pulling out.” That got the ole boys payin’ attention.

“We cut our dowsing forks from willows and began walking separate circles out from the shack. After a couple of hours of covering all the likely spots, we got nothing. So we climbed the knob behind the cabin for a look about. Looking fer maybe a better location. Both our dowsing forks tugged strong for water on top the knob. Surprised, we walked up and over that knob a dozen times and always at the top, both dowsing forks pulled straight down. We drove a stake and left to check on the stock, dig the alki pond deeper, and fix supper.”

“After morning chores and over the first cup of Arbuckle’s coffee we compared dreams. Again we both had the same dream of the Shack telling us how dig a well on the knob. We talked and talked and talked. Finally, after the johnny cake was fried and long eaten, we figured since the shack was right once, mebby it would be twice. The native grass was good, and if there was good water; we might buy the place and make a go of cattle, selling hay, and a large garden. Weren’t no better options handy.”

“We laid out a six-foot circle on top the knob, set up a tripod and pulley to haul up dirt and set to diggin’. We used our wheelbarrow to move the dirt to build a spreader dam. That will take advantage of spring runoff to improve the hay crop. As we dug, we talked and planned how to use well water to irrigate the garden and to water the stock. Planning how to divide up the pastures and grazing. Digging a well gives a body lots of time to dream.”

“In five days of digging, we had no new dreams from the shack. But, we got down twenty feet thru the sandy clays. The sixth day, we hit hard wet sand. As we mucked out the sand we got a good flow of clear pure water. We got thru four feet of sand before hitting solid clay again. We figured, we had what the Shack told us about. Now we had to figure out how to use it. Supper over, we talked into the night kicking around ideas.”

“That seventh night, the Shack dreams told both of us how to develop the well, to go buy the section and we could make a go of ranching here. We covered the hole with stripped down cottonwood branches to keep cattle from falling in. We checked on the cattle and made lists of supplies. The next day we rode into town. The blacksmith hurriedly agreed to sell us his section fer cheap. We drew up the paperwork and made copies to mail to the county seat to be recorded. He knew of a hand pump we could buy so we went off to collect it. The general store owner had catalogs to look thru; so we spent some time looking and found a suitable wind pump we could afford and ordered it. The butcher and the livery man were interested in our spare cows and hay. Jeb and I figured we were in the ranching business.”

“The Bar-keep told us, over a final beer, the history of that old shack. A man tried to farm on that section and went bankrupt. Out of options, out of money, and out of food, he murdered his wife and child, then killed himself. It was a month before they were missed and found. Several people since have attempted to settle there but leave quickly claiming it is haunted.”

“Jeb and I declared we never saw or heard anything unusual like haunts or drifting lights out there. Just the cows, hawks, larks, bullbats, grasshoppers, stars, and the usual stuff. No sense having folks think we wuz crazy.”

“As directed by our last instructions from the shack dreams, we tore down that shack to make the platform for the well, for the future wind mill pump and the wooden troughs to run water off the knob to cattle tanks, or the garden. With each board we pulled off, the nails screeched like cats in pain as they were drawn. Our nerves were on edge from the eerie sounds that sometimes lasted after the nails left the wood. We knew we had to do it but it wuz a fright. When the framing was pulled apart, the nails screeched even louder. The nails in that last post wuz the worst, it was tight and screeched the loudest and took several seconds fer the sound to fade away. Then an exhausted peace and quiet flooded in. It was minutes before the wind blew and birds sang. Even the grasshoppers had stopped whirring and jumping.”

“Jeb and I never had similar dreams again. That wuz 35 years ago. Jeb owns it all now and I sit here telling my tale to you good old boys.”

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A friend of mine, Dan, claims that most of his stories start out as dreams in the night.

That is the inspiration of this story of dreams, and redemption.

Jay Peters