Western Short Story
The moon slipped behind a cloud black as a bat. It was midnight and a breath of air, cool as a deep hole, swept downhill from the mountain range above Chandler Springs. At the darkest part of the night, at the very stroke of midnight, the cry of some malevolent beast broke free of the mountains and came down over the prairie and all the nearby ranches the way a rampant disease might come. Any ranch hand still awake, whether in the bunk house or out on the grass, curled in his blanket and shook in his bones. None of the listeners had ever heard such sounds before, not in Chandler Springs, not near it.
“Hey, Magnus,” said rancher Jack Flannel in the middle of town during the following day, “did you hear those horrible howls last night coming off the hill? Scared the hell out of me and my woman.”
He pointed to the highest peak on the Catlo Range, the sun barely touching the peak as it dropped over the Rockies. “I swear they came from up there, like they were coming right off the top of the world. Weird and eerie, if you ask me.” He shook his head in disbelief. “Stuff like that is godless, unholy, like it’s tearing at your own soul if you got the mind to find it in you.” Shivering, his eyes went into a deep passage, like a miner searching for a turn in the tunnel, or twist toward daylight. “Something’s wrong in this world, if you ask me, plumb wrong.”
Magnus Henry, owner of the B-Bell-Bar Ranch and a neighbor of Flannel’s, went into deep thought. He replied after a long pause, but his words came measured, like a teacher’s, questioning. “Whoa, Jack. Put the brake on. Are there any kills out there? That’s what I’d like to know, Jack. Any kills out there? You see anything or hear of anything dead or left for dead? Any kind of animal? One’s got to go with the other.”
“Not a word about kills, Magnus, but Caldwell says he thinks a number of sheep and goats went missing in the last few days. Strange doings. And the pony Amos Stutter got for his kid Willie, the one who’s got some catching up to do, hasn’t been around for more than a week.” He looked back over his shoulder again, at the high peak and said, “We haven’t had anything like this since that Indian ghost was raising hell up there, what, maybe 10 years ago. It’s been too quiet. That’s what my wife says.”
“Scared her 10 years ago, too, didn’t it?” Henry said, looking right into Flannel’s eyes the way someone daring him would look. “I remember those screams and howls like they were coming right in your window if you dared open it.”
“Oh, you’re right there, Magnus. I’d rather face a stampede than unknown stuff like that, the kind you can’t see for real. That poor girl was scared to death for two whole weeks. Kept seeing that old shaman in her sleep, would wake up screaming and scaring me half way down the damned ladder to hell. Took her a long time to really get over it. To tell the truth, she kind of looks over her shoulder every once in a while even now. I’m glad she was sleeping through the whole thing last night. I wasn’t scared last night, but I’d hate to be up there all alone when that ruckus starts up. Crawls right down the skin of your back, it does.”
“Where did Lucas and Paul go on their trip? I couldn’t get a word out of them. Kids keep secrets longer than we ever did, Jack. But I’m suspecting a bit of St. Louis nights called them, crooked her little finger.” Henry’s son Lucas and Flannel’s son Paul had gone off for a week with several other friends for frolic week after home schooling was over for the year. It was a local treat for young boys after a year of school while working a job about full time. Few parents ever found out where and what, though they knew the when.
“Jack said, “Member that time we cut over to Shadow Creek and spent a week there? We were about as wide-eyed as them.”
Magnus snorted his answer, “Don’t you ever talk too loud about that, Jack. The girls wouldn’t ever let go of it.”
They told a few stories of their own youthful escapades and then got back on the mysterious events on the mountain. They went about their business in town and headed home in late afternoon only minutes apart, the two of them riding southwest out of town.
Flannel, about ten minutes behind Henry, topped a rise in the road well out of town and saw Henry at the side of the road talking with two men who must have been on a freighter’s wagon. The three men were well off the road in a wide stretch of grass and the loaded wagon was in the middle of the road. Flannel rode up and heard one of the freighters say, “Looks to me like the poor critter was ripped apart right at the throat. Sure appears to be that. Look at those shredded veins. God, what a horrible sight. Do you recognize the pony, Jack?”
Flannel said he didn’t recognize the animal but had an idea it was Amos Stutter’s pony, lost for over a week. “Not many ponies around here. Kids get to grow up right in the saddle and sitting high. Stutter’s boy is a little behind all the others and needed a pony. I’m sure it must be his. I heard it was missing from his barn one night, the door wide open in the morning. He’s still wondering about all that, Stutter is. And the kid Willie’s heart-broken.”
Flannel dismounted and looked closely at the dead pony. “I’m glad my wife Shirley’s not here to see this. She’d sure knock it up to the beastly animal she heard howling during the night. That’s a scourging that put this pony down, a real scourging. What’ll I tell Shirley now about all this?” He threw his hands wide.
Henry said, “For goodness sake, Jack, don’t tell her anything, but we have to marshal some forces together and go look for whatever’s up there in the mountains, whatever it is. You game for that, Jack? You able to mask it from Shirley and any of your hands you don’t trust on keeping us company?”
He turned to the two freighters and said, “If you two blab a word about this, about this scene here and us going up there, I’ll fix it so you don’t get another job in the territory. We have the unknown on our hands and it has to stay that way. You’re part of it now, so get on your wagon, go make your delivery, and keep your damned mouths shut. Whatever happens up there, a piece of it falls on you two gents as well as on Jack and me and whoever we can get to join us.”
He grabbed the reins of his horse and said to Jack, “First thing in the morning, at first light, we’ll ride up there as far as we can go, look the place over, shake loose what we can. I’ll bring some of my hands. You do the same. That good with you?”
“I’ll be there and with a few of my boys.”
During the night, the ungodly screams came again, not drifting down but dropping down like a rock fall on top of the ranches that looped the mountain range in a great half circle. Whole chunks of ungodly and unseemly cries came one after the other as if they had been created for fright and terror. They sounded like banshees or trapped animals with their paws stuck in iron or creatures the mind invented from all the ghost stories heard west of the Pecos, or the Mississippi for that matter.
Jack Flannel’s wife Shirley heard the screams, howls and screeches that came in a tumbling dervish of noise as fearsome as anything she ever heard. It took her under the covers of her bed as she shook with fright and forebodings that cluttered her mind.
She screamed for her husband who had gotten out of bed very early. “Jack. Jack. Where are you? What’s going on? Those weird sounds are still coming from up on the mountain”
Flannel was in the kitchen wolfing down a breakfast would have to carry him at least half way up the mountain on the search. Out the window he could see light in the bunkhouse windows that told him three of his crew were up and getting ready for the trip.
“I don’t want you to get nervous any more, Shirley, but me and some of the boys are just going to search around for a few lost cows. I’m not sure where all that damned noise is coming from, but we’ll take a look while we’re chasing down the cows. The rest of the boys will be around here all day and your sister’s coming later today, so things should be okay. Just take it easy and don’t worry.” He hugged her for good luck. “Somebody’s doing all this to get revenge for something. Plain to see. No mad creatures or godless beings up there. Just some folks bent on revenge.”
When he looked into the bedroom, his wife was getting dressed in a hurry.
“Kay Henry’s coming over this morning,” she said. “We’re all getting our heads together on this thing. She thinks it’s real queer, like before. Mildred Durning and Harriet Ormsby are thinking the same way. I bet they get a whole passel of men to go up there, perhaps an army, and get rid of whatever it is. Scare it to hell off the mountain.” She was quick and firm in her movements of getting dressed. “We’re getting sick and tired of the whole scary thing. I don’t think I’ve had a decent sleep in a month of Sundays.”
Flannel knew she hadn’t.
He and his boys went on their way to meet up with Henry and his crew.
Three hours later they were fairly high in the range of mountains, the paths still open and free for horses, but the trail was thinning out. They had heard nothing, seen nothing, but a quiet discomfort was coming in to play with some of the men. Rather than their actions telling Henry, it was their silence.
At the lead of the line of riders, Henry dropped off to one side and nodded to each man riding by. Their silence was continual, and their eyes were all alert at overhead sights. It said, if anything comes upon us, it’s from up there, where the strange cries come from. All the men had heard the night sounds.
Henry said to Flannel as he came abreast of him, “These boys have a ton of worry working on them. Don’t you think that’s real unusual for boys who have run with stampedes, driven off rustlers, gone hungry and cold at bad times. They’ve seen it all. Why so different here?”
“They ain’t seen anything yet, Magnus,” Flannel said. “That’s what’s bothering them. Any gent here would stand in the face of a storm, but they can’t see whatever this thing is. It’s enough to break the best of men loose of themselves.”
Suddenly, up ahead of them a lot of screaming from frightened men came bouncing and echoing off steep walls of the mountain on one side of the trail.
“That sounds like Paul and Lucas,” Flannel said. He stood in his stirrups. “What the hell they doing up here?”
Henry picked out his son’s voice, calling down the whole length of the sheer wall. “Pa. Pa. We saw them, the Indian and the wolf dog. We saw them.”
Lucas Henry, 16 by a few days, was running down the trail, screaming, waving his hands, with Paul Flannel and two other boys right behind them.
Lucas Henry yelled again. “They’re in a cave, Pa, goes practically through the mountain. Can hear the other side of the mountain coming through it like a train was running full bore." He continued to point back the way they had come.
There, at that point of their ride up the mountain, and the boys’ running down the mountain, the horrible screeches or howl or whatever one would make of them, came upon the men in the trail like the beast was about to devour them all.
“Slow down, boys, “Henry said, and tell us what you saw. Go slow and easy now. We’re getting a bit old for this kind of stuff.”
Young Henry said, “We smelled smoke but couldn’t see it. Couldn’t even see a fire. And it was as quiet as church up in there. Then, all of a sudden, the smoke poured out of the cave and the sounds came with it, like down a funnel or a tunnel pushing it all together, a wolf dog howling and the sound of tearing at flesh and teeth grinding and an Indian chanting crazy stuff.”
“Where’s the cave?” Henry said.
“Up there. We’ll show you,” Paul Flannel said, pointing back over his shoulder. “We watched them for a whole day, the Indian and the wolf dog he kept on a chain. He teased him with raw meat, making the wolf howl and screech like he was going crazy, and right at the front of the cave with the wind coming through in a rush, like a wind storm. He did something in there that made that wind come through like he had a machine, a wind maker or something.”
“You see him or them today?”
“Not yet, but he’s still in there. He ain’t come out all morning. I think the Indian knows we’re out here. I think he saw us yesterday, like he’s playing games with us.”
“Well, boys,” Henry said to all hands, “let’s go see what’s been keeping people awake all night long and too tight in the saddle all day long.”
The cave was empty, and the tunnel that continued beyond it. When Henry and his son and one of Henry’s hands reached the other end, they found a boulder on this side of a hole big enough for a man to get through, and a similar boulder on the other side, blocking the way. They pushed it out. Henry saw immediately that the entrance could be blocked from either side, coming or going. He nodded at the ingenuity of it, for when they had moved the boulder out of the way, the wind came through in a big rush. It was if it had been waiting to break free and roared down the tunnel to the other end. He was sure it would carry the crazy howls of the wolf dog down off the mountain any time either boulder was moved from the entrance, like it was a musical horn of a sort.
Regrouping at the other end, Henry said to Flannel, “Jack, any of your boys packing a stick or two of dynamite?”
“Charlie Griggs is my rock man.” He turned to his man and said, “Charlie, you got any big stuff with you?”
Griggs, smiling, said, “Three sticks, Boss. I never go without.”
Henry said, “Well, we can rid us of this crazy howling in a hurry. So let’s get it done.” To Griggs he said, “Can you find a good spot to drop enough rock in there to block the tunnel?”
“I figure I can do that, Magnus. The ladies deserve a break from sitting up all night hearing that stuff. I’ll get right on it.”
The lone cowhand, carrying the two sticks of dynamite, walked off to get rid of the howling beast of Catlo County in one final bang.