Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
It was the blacksmith of Drover Down, a small settlement in Nevada against Rocky Mountain foothills, who first saw the ghost behind his shop, a black figure lit up by a lightning strike in a tall tree near the edge of the stream. For a while, until the lightning bolt lit up the world, it was black, noisy and pure hell-raisin’ in the skies around Drover Down.
Henry Startooth, the blacksmith who some said must be part Oglala Sioux the way he could frighten children with his facial grimaces, said to the sheriff and the mayor of Drover Down, “May the Lord strike me down, gents, if I didn’t see, after all the hell-raisin’, this man in black, half as tall as a tree, or my back barn, standing right there hard against Hadley’s barn near the edge of the stream, like he was going to jump in or just got out. He was making small signs, like trying to speak Indian maybe, and he was wet all over. I could see that, but it was also raining at the time.”
Sheriff Clyde Markell, new on the job, new at the job, presentable to most ladies in the small settlement, especially those not married, looked quizzically at Startooth and said, “Did this big black figure have anything to say, Henry? Did he introduce himself? Ask for a hand-out? Did he even say hello?” His lips were curved in further conversation of a sort.
The mayor, Floyd Westcott, said, “Yes, Henry, anything to any of that or all of that?” His look of disdain, disbelief, was the same as the sheriff’s only pronounced more deeply on his fleshy face.
“Laugh at me if you will, gents, but he said nothing, made no noise, came and went as silent as the stars in the sky. He’s too quiet. I’ll call him The Quiet Ghost of Drover Down if you’ll have it. That would suit me, and him, I’m willing to bet. Came quiet, he did, in the middle of a storm. The man didn’t bother me. I swear he could have picked me up and tossed me to the other side of the stream.” Startooth raised his hand with a 10-pound hammer in it and pointed to the far side of the stream. He did it without any sense of strain, his arm bulging with muscle, his neck near at ease.
“How big did he look compared to Hadley’s barn, Henry?” The mayor, Claude Balmer, stood with his hands on his hips. He was a likable fellow and had helped Startooth get a start with his shop, so Startooth tolerated him in touchy situations, but the mayor kept approvals close to the vest, like a politician does naturally.
Startooth looked across the way and pointed at Hadley’s barn. “See that lintel over the doors; well, up that high he stood. Wide as one door and black as the ace of spades.”
Markell said, “If he comes again, Henry, yell for me.”
“Hell, Clyde, you couldn’t hear me that far down the road if I was screaming.”
“Well, shoot your gun.”
“Not if he thinks I’m shooting at him. Not a chance of that. Like I said, he could have tossed me across the stream. It’d be easy as hell to shoot me, if he had a mind and a gun.”
On that note they parted ways, and Drover Down was as quiet as ever, the wind from the far Pacific jumping with ease over the mountain, the scent of Douglas fir trees coming downhill like the forest door was thrown open for the evening, the last of the sun sneaking like a school-skipper down past the same mountain. Drover Down, as many in Nevada knew, had grown up around a simple memorial left in the ground to mark the spot of the death and burial of a cowboy with no name.
The story supposedly began with a cowboy joining a herd being driven to new range. He joined up in haste as a stampede, set off by an unexpected single bolt of lightning, raced by his campfire. The strange cowboy quickly offered his services to the drover boss, who accepted. Later in the day the unnamed cowboy was found dead, crushed by an element of the stampeding herd. His horse was not found, no saddlebag, no old letter, and no markings on his gun belt or holster to give a clue to his identity.
The wooden cross, marked crudely by a thoughtful cowboy, simply stated, “A drover down here - no name - July 1856.” A bit later a small settlement started near the marker on the edge of the stream, and the name was taken from the marked cross. It stuck, and later settlers celebrated the unknown cowboy each year, and his unselfish help to a strange crew. The settlers assured the original marker was preserved and kept as part of the annual memorial celebration. And, of course, the cowboy testimonial spread throughout cow country in all directions.
There was no other place in Nevada that could take the place of Drover Down.
Now, Drover Down had a ghost to celebrate or confound its people … take your pick. On the 10th year of the celebration, the mayor wanted to twist the story a bit to gain further recognition. The sheriff opposed the thought … guarding the jail more often was a normal off-shoot of such shenanigans … which he didn’t relish.
Henry Startooth, in his characteristic response, went about his business of horseshoeing, iron pounding, hinge and tool-making. His shop had grown over the years and he was respected by townspeople who marked how hard he worked, how he gave credit to those short on assets, and affirmed when asked that he had seen the ghost on each occasion, though down-playing the events.
No more than a month went by since the last appearance of the ghost, and it was now June, and a Saturday evening. In the midst of another electric galaxy exploding overhead, the ghost came quietly into Drover Down and presented himself to Henry Startooth. All was the same as before.
Startooth said to the sheriff who was again haughty in his manner, “See that lintel over Hadley’s doors, the one I pointed out afore; well, up that high. And as wide as one of the doors. And black as the ace of spades just dealt from a new deck in the Last Call Saloon.”
In a month the annual celebration would be at hand. This year the mayor insisted on a horse race and a pie-eating contest, and a rifle shoot. “We can make Drover Down as famous as any town in the west. We just have to do it the right way. Change the atmosphere of the community, make it important to townspeople and visitors, and carry it beyond the idea of a ghost.” He added, in a flurry, “Of course, it doesn’t hurt us for starters having our own ghost.”
Many of the citizens, like the owner of the general store and the bank president, believed every word the mayor released from his mind. Preparations were underway.
It was only Henry Startooth who voiced his objection loud enough for all to hear. “We’re forgetting the poor cowboy who went down, who got killed, who got buried, and who gave a name to this town though we know of no name for him. It is all so heedless. Those who ride the range and drive the cows know what I mean. The cowboys all over. Wait and see, many of them will visit here just to see the marker for a good man gone too fast, a cowboy who ended up without a name.”
His word fell mostly on deaf ears.
Of all the critters and people in Drover Down, it was a mere child who culled a bit of the mystery from what would henceforth move as a Drover Down legend. Or at least anted up the spread of the good word about the ghost of Drover Down.
William Tecumseh Smithers, 7 years old, once of Boston and a Bunker Hill settlement, who came west with his adventurous parents because they loved the idea of seeing Indians, the first Americans, had also seen the ghost on each occasion, though he never told his parents.
“William Tecumseh,” his mother said each time she addressed him about some infrequent nightly excursions, as if by use of the name she through her son shared kinship with the legendary Indian chief, “where have you gone on these terrible nights? Times like that, and you gone off somewhere, could scare the fever right out of me. And from your father, too, though he will never let on.” The pause in her interrogation lapsed a few seconds before she resumed. “What in heaven’s name draws you from your bed?”
His mother was a beautiful woman and his father a handsome man, and William Tecumseh knew that people in Drover Down really respected their learned manners despite the Indian attachment
so evident around them. After all, he was special, knew his numbers, could read, tell stories, and relaxed in the company of elders and officials, like the mayor and the sheriff and the marshal who came to visit once every few months
His mother, in truth, was hoping that some Indian connection would set her son apart from the other children in the community. The Smithers, as she was apt to say, had a very liberal outlook on the history of the west, a history of the land, never forgetting “someone else was here before us.”
Her voice rose up in the inquisition. “Have you not heard of the ghost who comes here?” The twitter of a laugh was in her throat the way he was meant to understand her.
“Of course, Mother. I have seen him, the ghost, on every occasion, every single time he stands against Hadley’s barn and the blacksmith stares at him. The ghost does not frighten me because he does not come near me.” But he added the real qualification; “He plays games with me. Has fun.”
“The ghost has fun?” She stood perplexed, her hands open for the acceptance of any solution.
“Oh, my,” she finally said when no answer came to her hands, “I don’t know what your father will say about this.” Dearly she loved her son, but shook her head and went about the daily business of the home.
A few weeks later, distant thunder woke up both Henry Startooth and William Tecumseh Smithers. The storm was far off, around the distant peaks and canyons of the mountains, and the sounds of it rolled across the land as if they were riding a new-fangled steam train belching all kinds of noise. Startooth’s bellows gasped for its own air as a rushing wind came into Drover Down, pushing through the trees and playing music when it hit edges of buildings. July’s heat made way its across the land along with the storm sounds behind it.
Neither of these players knew of the other’s part in the ongoing drama with the Quiet Ghost of Drover Down, because, some might argue, there was a definite Indian connection between the two: one had Indian blood, the other wished longingly for it.
William Tecumseh Smithers, slipping out of bed and out a window over the porch, made for the bank of the stream as if he had been summoned by a higher power. Both of his parents were deep sleepers. They heard neither the exit of their son nor the distant storm, though the rumbles touched the center of town. In a matter of seconds he was a bright-eyed, wide-awake boy bent on revisiting a known situation. Blue eyes blazed with both reflections and inner interest.
Startooth, as befitting the mystery still working on him, kept his same position – his eyes fixed on Hadley’s barn not far from the stream that gave Drover Down its life. He did not expect anything different from previous ghostly visitations.
The storm in the far terrain lit up like an artillery duel taking place between many cannons on all sides of the mountains. The lights flashed and blazed and would shake out the eyeballs of any watcher, and the sounds reached a crescendo not heard before … at least by Startooth in his accumulated years and William Tecumseh Smithers in his short period here.
The rolling sounds, bouncing in the ground and in the air, came like a military tattoo taking place with drums and fifes and odd percussion instruments that perhaps the gods themselves had tuned up. It was raucous and nerve-bending and might have been ugly if not for some surreal impact on those awake, like the two characters here at the ends of difference; the boy of 7, excited and dreamy, and the rugged blacksmith so staunch in his ways and beliefs.
In the midst of the Hell-raising, mountain-scraping, grass-twisting storm, the Quiet Ghost of Drover Down returned to the little town by the stream and the memorial to the unknown drover.
One second the ghost was not there, and the next second, after a new barrage of lightning from the storm, he suddenly stood tall against Hadley’s barn. In one look, Startooth knew the ghost was taller, or … a question rose in his mind as to what he was really seeing. It appeared as if, with his arms raised out in front of his face, the ghost was making a gesture, a shadow with his hands spread across the face of the barn, just about touching the edge of the barn and an extra slanting support pole to catch a noticeable lean in the structure.
Startooth at first could not read the gestures, could not determine if they were signals or some gestures that were rising from the heart of the storm, from Hell itself. With another barrage leaping on top of its predecessor, brighter yet, louder yet, almost holy or Hellish, Startooth not being sure, the gesture was gone and another succeeded it … directly out in front of the ghost’s face and managed by two grasped hands.
In his quandary, believing he was the sole witness to the occasion of an unworldly message, Startooth muttered, not necessarily to the awful elements but speaking for Drover Down itself, “Might this be the drover that we remember even though we don’t know his name? Might he be coming back to tell us his name? Is he returning here for his due? Is this really heaven or Hell come upon us?”
A greater blast and barrage succeeded the previous ones, with the ghost reacting with haste to the brightness and to the deafening noises accompanying the Almighty business of lit-up skies, as if the ghost was on cue on a palatial stage.
The hands of the ghost moved and so the shadow, the shadow changed and so the gesture.
And with a clarity Startooth had not yet known, he recognized the shadow, the cast gesture, and swung around for the first time to look toward the stream where stood William Tecumseh Smithers, all 7 years of him, forming with his hands figures lit up by lightning on the broad front of Hadley’s barn. For there, in the current shadow, loomed a Texas jackrabbit with ears taller than the blacksmith himself ever stood.
Startooth thought that he and William Tecumseh Smithers ought to merge their interests and tell no one about the Quiet Ghost of Drover Down.
He went to make the arrangements.