Western Short Story
The posse, a malignant bunch looking as if they'd been on the trail for a month of motherless Saturdays, couldn't find a tree for a proper hanging. The land, as far as the eye could see in a canyon harbored by steep mountain ridges, showed poor and held little promise. What grass lingered sat thin, brown, and ridden over by a constant sun. They had, at surprise, found themselves in a deserted spread, the old once-solid cabin most-ways burned down, fences long gone wherever, the barn a sad wasted recluse of a thing ready to fall in on itself. This was shown by a ridgepole now holding to a near-crescent form. They were ready to fight among themselves if a hanging was not enacted quickly. To a man they agreed that getting this far, to this luckless place, proved fitting enough and proper for a hanging, neither place or prisoner amounting to much of anything.
They'd captured a prisoner, they had the rope, but they didn't have a tree with a stout limb. Nowhere around them a tree with a thick trunk and a limb stout enough to bear the weight of a swinging man kicking his way from life. The trees had gone to ax or to predetermination that this area was used up, useless and possibly, most possibly, cursed the way desolation spread about them..
"The whole place makes me shudder," one disillusioned rider keeping his voice down said to another disillusioned rider. The two had their mounts at the back of the pack of riders ... at least keeping some voluntary separation from the coming lynching.
Another of the desperate riders, differently affected by the landscape and its sense of loss, eyed the sheriff and said, "Did we come this far and this long to go without a hanging, Sheriff? It sure ain't right for a posse to do nothing." Feeling he was the conscience of the lot, a kind of spokesman of death, he pushed a little more, adding, "Let's get to it, get it done, go back and have those drinks we're all thinkin' about right now." He nodded his head at each of the riders, pulling them into his tight little world of thought.
Berger Hampstead, the usually docile sheriff of Coldpatch, run to the ground himself like a wanted man on the run too, was exhausted and had not a lick of fight left in him. Neither did their prisoner, a black-clad young man they'd found camping alone in a nearby canyon. None of the posse liked the looks of him after a long and hard ride, especially the fully black outfit that seemed to say, "I am the guilty one you have been chasing for two weeks." He looked powerful guilty and that was enough for most of them, tired beyond their good senses, any temperance of justice, fair play.
They would not believe a word from him if he said, "I've never killed a man in my whole life. I'm out here looking for my brother Carlos. I haven't seen him in five years. I'm just plain old Chico Juodad and looking for Carlos." Wasn't it Carlos who started the name-calling in the first place, so many years ago, calling him every time like the Yankees might call him, "Who dat? Who dat?" Oh, he'd wrap his arms around him now if he appeared, even if he had to die twice to do it.
One of the posse, name unknown, also near exhaustion, thirsty for countless hours and positive that only a shot of whiskey could cure it, said, "Hell, Berger, I looked down there in the canyon, all the way to the far end, and there's no trees there. Just hang 'im on the barn door. It'll hold him for as long as it takes him to kick his way dead. Just throw the rope over the top of the door and knot it down on the other side. What the hell do we need a tree for?" He got no rejections from the posse members, not a single reservation in the bunch of them, the claws of thirst digging into all of them, even the pair sitting their mounts at the back of the pack.
The rider who spoke to Berger had been looking at Hampstead all the time he spoke and literally saw the man melt down as he looked into his eyes. He was more tired than all of them, this sheriff, older, feebler, but calling the shots on a bunch of angered misfits, town drunks, pillars of the saloon bar. It was a "Can't lose situation,' in the aftermath of heavy persuasion piled on top of Hampstead's inert mind.
He nodded at the suggestion, and Chico Juodad was lynched from the top of the old barn door and left kicking his way from life when his horse, an old black stallion but big as a midnight mountain, ran off from under him and across the spread of dry, dead grass. None of the posse chased the old animal who'd probably die out there on the trail, which hadn't even produced enough water to slake the posse's thirst.
In the rarest of moods the posse headed back to town, a day's ride and a celebration ahead of them, a dead man dangling behind them, and the innocuous sheriff seemingly numb to all of it.
For the whole of the next month it was all hanging out for new tales to be told, beginning right there at Coldpatch's The Beefhead Saloon, when drovers and visitors and several wagon masters and stage drivers dropped snippets, colorful pieces, half truths and half lies according to the liquid level. Often the full regalia of a new legend posed in the very making "right here in our midst." And right down to "only his shadow left on the barn door like he's still hangin' out there and ain't really dead yet. Sometimes, in the late part of evenin', that shadow goes places where we can't see but it's all around us, like a ghost of him ridin' in his black duds. And his horse ain't ever been found either and no one can tell you they seen him loose either, no matter where they looked."
This latter fact seemed to swing the heaviest weight about the horse, saying the black horse of the hung man might have returned after the posse rode away from the barn and headed back to town, many of them repeating aloud like it was practiced, "and by hisself that damned horse up 'n' let that kicker stand on him and got hisself free of the rope and plumb rode off with him, maybe off to Hell itself."
Dead man and horse were never seen again ... supposedly.
There were those who allowed that the remaining ghostly figure in black, loud as life on the door of that old barn, was burned there by the sun of that hot day in Hell when an innocent man was hung, while others say, time after time, "It was True Justice handlin' the whole affair but it ain't done doin' its thing yet. The Man Hung on the Barn Door goes ridin' every night all 'round Coldpatch on the lookout and it won't be long before he gets that whole posse in one fell swoop if not one by one until they're all dead, and most likely swung right out of this life in the same way, on an old barn door."
A shudder moved across the room, as though it passed from posse member to posse member, leaping past all others, but who sensed the passing.
None of them seemed aware that a legend, and a ghost story, had been born in their midst and was getting up a head of steam.
The bartender in the saloon, Joe Coleman, center of talk that went all ways at once, and appeared to be a kind of judge in his own little world, was heard to say more than once, "When lies and rumors and plain dirt about folk gets to movin' around, it can't hardly be stopped by a big mouth, a sly mouth, a protectin' mouth 'less it's against a deaf ear, so show me a deaf ear in this whole damned room."
There were arguments, the kind all cases have, being just the opposite, that "the rider in black is the hung boy's brother, Carlos 'Who-dat' Juodad, and others who didn't believe that part for a minute. They knew a promise of death was a promise of death and there's no way to beat it off or plain duck it, no matter how hard you try, no matter who or what you believe is looking for you.
Besides all of this so far presented, neither Carlos nor Chico had been positively seen and identified since the day of the hanging.
For history's sake, it was Coldpatch's sheriff, Berger Hampstead himself, who first saw the ghost in black, all black, not even needing a mask for his face, also as black as his clothes, possibly from an ashy application. Came up in the night, he did, right to the sheriff's house there at the edge of town and tromped on his porch until he came to the door in his night duds and heard, clear as a bottle broke on the saloon bar, proving something was loose inside the bottle breaker's head and was bound to be heard: "Listen to me. I will get each one of your posse one by one, and then I'll get you."
And then he was gone.
And it was a man all in black and on a horse black as a starless and moonless night who had made the threat.
Word had it that the sheriff packed his wife off to her sister's place across the territory and then took himself a room at the hotel in town, right next to his office, and spent most of his time looking out the window of his room, a rifle in his lap. And he just about gave up his nights of drinking at the saloon bar with his old cronies, a few of them from the posse at the barn door hanging. More than one person thought he should have chucked it all and gone off with his wife.
It was one of those cronies whose wife came rushing into town one morning, early as the rooster crowing out behind her, that her husband was dead, "'n' he's hung up on the barn door 'n' I thought he was out takin' care of the foal all the time, 'n' there's an old horseshoe caught to the end of the rope and the shoe is caught on the top of the barn door 'n' holds the rope tight as an axle tree on a stagecoach or a wagon." She pulled endlessly at her frizzy hair like it was burning her head and nobody knew what to do with her, and then she walked off by herself and no one in Coldpatch ever saw her again. And if that didn't do anything, it added to the legend crowding its way out of Coldpatch.
Nothing else was seen of the black rider for a week. That's when the Coldpatch Bank was robbed at midday and three men rushed out holding the banker as a shield and mounted up and dumped the banker in the dust of the road. All three robbers were shot dead by one man at the edge of town. And it was Molly Truebear, a half-breed Indian, who rushed into town and yelled out wildly, "I saw him, the man in black on a black horse shoot all three robbers," and one of the dead men proved to have been a posse member of the ignominious lynching on the barn door.
The legend of The Man in Black shot once more through the whole territory around Coldpatch as though it was sent by one higher than the imaginable. In that time Sheriff Hampstead had not left his room at the hotel at all and subsequently vacated the job, gave up his badge, and ran out of money to pay for his room. No more than a week later he was found dead in the road after the evening stagecoach ran over him when he rushed from the side of the road.
The undertaker, it was learned much later, never told anybody that he'd found a bullet hole in Hampstead's chest, fairly close to his heart. The undertaker believed in the awful fates due certain men in this life, and had seen more than his share of such a turn of events. Never did he say a word about the ex-sheriff's death, leaving that to another page of fate, come what may, for they all came to him at the end. Most all of the dead did so, except when vultures had their pick of the quickly dead or the slow deaths of lonely men bent on escape from a failed theft, or a simple but direct piece of lead exacting a particular demand for a particular crime.
Coldpatch rocked when word came that three of the original posse were found in Jasperville hanging against a barn door on a lonely spread, the nooses knotted over the top of the door, their horses wandering about a fenced corral, and their side arms and rifles, their ropes and saddles and boots laid out as if they were being displayed for sale ... and no seller around.
Five of the dozen riders were dead when September crawled in on a cool evening, and the tote board not on the wall of The Beefhead Saloon, but under the bar where the bartender Joe Coleman kept it and would show it to anyone who asked to see it. People, as it happens when not personally involved, began betting on the "game" as it came to be called, the names of the known dead becoming a litany of odds ... at the wrong end of a rope, if handy, or lead as a substitute, as we all now know was the case with the weak-kneed sheriff.
That royal September rolled into winter and when spring came around the count was 12 out of 13 posse men gone, hung or shot, and only one of them still alive. His name was Abe Harrad, a loud-mouthed braggart who entered The Beefhead Saloon faithfully and only on Saturday nights, when the shadows were full in town, and the saloon was full too. He'd not be there, and of a sudden he'd appear, himself a shadow of what he once was, but alive, bragging, shooting off his mouth that he'd outlast "both them brothers out to get me." He had "left for parts unknown' in late fall and came back in the spring, saying he had to take care of his sister for a spell.
It seemed not even he had figured out who was the Man in Black bound on getting him dead. '"He don't scare me none 'cause he don't know who he really is himself, and we swung a criminal, didn't we?" He'd say this to one and all many times in the evening, and all the heads would nod as though they believed every word Harrad said.
As it was, The Beefhead Saloon was high on the inside, sort of a temple-high ceiling and roof that kept winter snows on the downward slide when snows came heavy and had several cross beams holding things tight in the upper reaches. Several oil lamps hung from the high beams, especially over the section where card tables were set up for the poker boys and the card sharks who'd wander into town every now and then, play their unfriendly games, win or lose and move on.
Fate, as the undertaker saw it, and Coleman the bartender too, was always in the wings or in the high reaches and could make an appearance anytime at all. Justice had a way of making itself known, often without due announcement, and oftentimes in the strangest manner, like the someone who vouched "Truth is stranger than fiction, and so is Justice."
And it all came at once, one night in early May, flowers busting out all over, the sky a dazzling collection of stars and a new chunk of crescent moon cooking the lower end of the horizon, showing glory on the peaks in the distance and on the hurried water of the river. It all presumed a night of joy and gala undertakings ... but, as the wise man says, "So much for presumption."
Harrad, that lovely evening, had slipped almost unseen in the large crowd right up to a space at the bar, at which appearance Coleman placed a bottle and a glass on the counter, said his hello and took Harrad's money. As he placed the money in the till, he looked around at the customers, a hazy, lazy bunch to begin with, who had stopped talking and were staring at Harrad, nothing else more interesting in their minds. In the air arose the oddest feeling. Coleman acknowledged the touch of it that suddenly squatted all around him behind the bar. There was no evading the feeling, no matter how hard he tried or how busy he made himself, serving customers, wiping down the bar numerous times, sort of an idleness at work, looking around for feeble outlooks, odd interests, waiting the hour of Justice or Fate or God's hand.
In the windows he could see a chunk of the slippered moon and a host of bright stars pinpointing their whereabouts in the far heavens. In the midst of a new mystery he found himself, raw and unknown in its force, but not a clue popped free for him. The new sensations had begun to course through his body, exerting controls he was not used to. Finally, the controls settled in his gut announcing another stab of discomfort, another illustration of awareness, bringing with them a keenness he had not ever imagined behind the bar; Fate or one of its counterparts, he knew, was about to make a visit, exact its demands, and just as quickly depart for home port.
He needed another drink for himself; bent to it.
Directly in front of him at one point of bar-cleaning, Harrad had collared a couple of men and was berating them for believing the man he had helped hang had not died on the rope tied over the barn door. "He hadn't stopped his boots jumpin' around, but they sure had him worked up for the endin'." His loud slap on the bar top gathered more ears, heads bending in to hear it all from the horse's mouth.
"Deader than last night's supper," he spit out, tired of the usual questions from patrons, their eyes full of doubt, the empty but questionable shrug of shoulders around the room like a breeze can ripple a field of corn or wheat as continuous as waves on the ocean or a large lake.
Coleman had his own argument in place: Doubt has enemies of little power in such situations, that he knew sure as Hell waited for some men; had seen it a hundred times, he could argue, not remembering, even in round numbers, how many guns had been pulled in front of him, shots fired, the suddenly dead on the short journey away from the last drink.
While Harrad was making his way through another bunch of drinkers, Coleman thought quickly about a tap dancer he had seen in St. Louis once, doing the dance of his life, spinning on one toe, arms whirling and flaying wildly like a dervish, and go crashing down onto the stage, dead before he hit the floor.
He had no idea where his thoughts were taking him, what they were cautioning, who they might be cautioning, what was in the stars for men like Harrad, for men like himself in this crazy world, when in a flash, a loop of rope dropped over the head of Harrad, the knot tightened, and Harrad went rising in a rush up in the air above the bar, and a loud and exuberant Hallelujah came down from above the saloon crowd. As Harrad went rising in the air, his legs kicking, his hands grasping for the noose at his neck, down came the Man In Black on the other end of that rope, an unintelligible yell still in his throat. A sack of extra weight was at the end of the rope with him, like a sack of potatoes tied on for judgment and improper balance, leaving no room for chance.
Black as a night ghost, black as the shadow left on the barn door, he ran out of the Beefhead Saloon before any of the patrons could move. Hoof beats sounded in the starry, moonlit night as the horse and his rider, a black blur, headed out of town. The sack was on the floor of The Beefhead Saloon while Harrad's last kick of his feet signaled the end of another life, before Coleman could cut him down, leaping too late up on the bar with a knife in his hand.
Coldpatch never saw again the likes of The Man in Black or his horse.