Western Short Story
I awoke with a scream loud enough to wake the dead. I began to leap from my bunk, butinstead settled back down, shaking with fear and covered with sweat. The full moon sent its vivid light through the bunkhouse window and directly onto my bed, while a steady wind moaned through the pines. That wind had blown open the door and slammed it against the wall.
“What in blue blazes was that all about, Bob? You all right?” Thad Coburn, one of the other new men here at the Rafter K Ranch, called. I’d awakened everyone in the bunkhouse. They were staring at me questioningly.
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine. Just had a real bad nightmare, that’s all,” I explained.
“You must’ve been dreamin’ that the devil himself was after you to let out a holler like that. Sent shivers up my own spine,” Jake Bennett, the Rafter K’s segundo, added. “Sure hope you don’t wake up like that again.”
“I won’t,” I promised him. I’d only arrived at the Rafter K a few days previously, and had talked them into taking a chance on this grubline-riding cowboy named Bob Lydell. I sure didn’t want to lose the job by scaring everyone out of their wits, ruining their sleep. And I liked what I’d seen of the place so far. The Rafter K was set high in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies, with fantastic scenery and crisp, clear air. The bunkhouse was sturdily built and cleaner than most, the other buildings in good repair. The chuck was the best I’d had on any of the spreads where I’d worked. The cattle were all nice and fat from grazing on that thick Colorado grass. Best of all from a working cowboy’s standpoint, every horse in the string I’d been assigned was a superior mount. Each of them was a hardworking cowpony, trustworthy and true. I felt I had finally found a place where I could be content for the rest of my life, and perhaps drive the demons from my mind for good.
“Good. Then I’d recommend we all get back to our shut-eye. We’ve got an early start and a long day ahead of us,” Bennett stated.
“As for me, if I’m gonna dream, it’s gonna be about Betsy, that cute blonde filly down at the Drover’s Bar,” Coburn commented.
“Dreamin’ about her’s about all you’ll do,” Hank Mays retorted. “That gal ain’t ever gonna give you the time of day.”
The others were soon back asleep, snoring softly under their blankets. However, I couldn’t shake the terrifying image of that nightmare from my mind.
I tossed and turned for a spell, then gave up trying to get back to sleep as a lost cause. I swung my legs over the edge of the mattress and sat up, then picked up my shirt and jeans from the floor alongside my bunk. I used the shirt to wipe the sweat from my face and chest, then tossed it aside and pulled on the levis. I reached for my vest, hanging from a peg over my bunk, and removed my matches, cigarette papers, and sack of Durham from a pocket. Not wanting to again disturb my bunkmates, I didn’t pull on my boots, but quietly padded barefoot to the door. My hands were shaking so violently it took me several tries to build a smoke. I spilled half my sack of tobacco before I managed to sprinkle enough on a paper to roll a quirly. When at last I succeeded, I scratched a lucifer to life on the wall, then touched it to the end of the cigarette and lit my smoke.
Dark, puffy clouds were scudding across the sky, obscuring then revealing the full late September harvest moon. The interplay of light and dark sent eerie shadows across the rolling foothills. The tall pines seemed to bend threateningly toward the bunkhouse with each fitful gust. Inside the stable the horses were restless, nickering and stamping. And somewhere in the hills a wolf howled mournfully, its chilling call echoing off the hills and across the prairie. The animal’s high-pitched wail sent shudders up my spine.
That wind, the moon, the shadows, and the wolf’s cries brought back memories of another night a year ago. A night on the Wyoming high plains, much like this one. A night that, try as I might, I would never forget.
One Year Previous
I’d spent most of my twenty-eight years on this earth as a drifting cowpoke, starting in Texas at the age of sixteen, following the herds north to the Kansas railheads. Since then I had cowboyed from Texas west to the Arizona Territory, then north to the Dakotas and Montana, with jobs just about everywhere in between. Just plain fiddlefooted, I’d stay in one place for a time, then move on. I’d finally wound up working for the Diamond M in Wyoming.
The Diamond M was a huge operation, big even by Wyoming standards. It sat south of the Bighorn Mountains and east of Wind River Canyon and the Owl Creek Range. Its range spread all the way from Badwater Creek to the South Fork of the Powder River. Besides being mighty good grazing land, the Diamond M took in some of the prettiest scenery in the West. I had been working there for almost six months, as long as I’d ever stayed in one place. Now, in early September, I was seriously thinking about remaining through the winter.
However, right now I was sick of the whole place. I’d been assigned one of the most distasteful tasks a cowboy could have, aside from digging postholes. I’d been sent to check and repair miles of fenceline along Badwater Creek, from its headwaters south for thirty miles. While I would ordinarily welcome the solitude of such a job, after two weeks of mending fence I just wanted to get back to the Diamond M’s headquarters, then head for town and blow off some steam. But with sunset coming on, all I had to look forward to was yet another night sleeping on the hard ground, the only warmth to ward off the autumn chill that of a sagebrush fire.
“C’mon, Laramie, let’s find a spot to hole up for the night,” I told my paint gelding. Rather than using one of the horses from my assigned string, I’d taken Laramie, my personal mount. At this point I even envied that horse. He’d spent a good part of the last two weeks loafing and grazing while I stretched and patched wire and straightened fence posts.
It took me until well after dusk to find the spot I wanted, a hollow which would shelter me from the almost constant north wind. That wind had been blowing just about every day since I’d left the ranch headquarters, and truthfully it was making me a bit jumpy. For the past two days it had been gradually increasing in speed, the gusts becoming more intense. I didn’t want to spend another night out in the open, but on those desolate high plains I didn’t have much choice. At least that hollow would provide a bit of protection from that chilling wind.
I unsaddled Laramie, let him drink from the small waterhole in the center of the hollow, then rubbed him down and picketed him to graze. Once he was settled, I gathered sagebrush for my fire, made my bacon, beans, biscuits, and coffee, and quickly downed my supper.
After cleaning the frying pan and tin eating utensils, I lingered over a final smoke and cup of coffee, watching the sky as it faded from indigo to black, and the millions of stars pinpricking its inky curtain. A dim light on the eastern horizon promised the nearly full moon would soon be rising. The wind was moaning overhead, but down here in this hollow it was merely a light breeze.
I drained the last of my coffee and stubbed out my cigarette. This night promised to be even chillier than the last several, so I collected more sagebrush and tossed it on the fire.
I walked over to Laramie, scratched his ears, bade him goodnight, then checked his picket rope. Satisfied he was secured for the night, I retrieved my blankets and spread them out. I pulled off my hat, boots, and gunbelt, slid under the blankets, and soon fell asleep.
The next day dawned much the same as the last several. The sun rose brassily in the chilly air, doing little to take the edge off the frosty morning. But by noon I’d be sweating under that same sun. The wind, which had died down during the night, was once again picking up from the northwest. It was sure to torment me all day.
I rekindled my fire, cooked my breakfast, and wolfed it down. Once I was finished, I didn’t even bother to take the time for a smoke. I cleaned up my campsite, tied my bedroll behind my saddle, pulled on my leather gloves, and retrieved Laramie. The sun was barely a half-hour above the eastern horizon when I was back in the saddle, facing another long day of drudgery.
The next several hours were a repeat of the past two weeks. It was ride along the fence until I found a break. Then I’d dismount and ground-hitch Laramie. I’d take my pliers, pull the wire taut and splice it back together. If a post were down, I’d straighten it back up, tamp down the soil at its base, then hammer the wire back in place. Occasionally I would have to use wire cutters to break through a tangle of downed wire, cutting and splicing until I had the snarl cleared and the fence back in place.
By late afternoon I was wistfully reflecting on the days of the open range, before this cussed “devil’s wire” had been invented. Several times the sharp barbs had ripped through the protection of my thick leather gloves to slice my hands. My language had been reduced to swearing every time I felt another sting from that wire. I was almost convinced it was a thing alive, malevolently attempting to tear me to shreds. When the wire in a particularly nasty snag snapped without warning and slashed across my face I went to my knees, violently cursing Joseph Glidden, the hombre who’d perfected barbed wire. If I’d had him in front of me at that moment I’d have cheerfully gut-shot him. But all I could do was curse him roundly, put my bandanna to my ripped cheek until the bleeding stopped, then resume my task.
But much as I hated it, that blasted wire wasn’t the worst of my troubles, at least not to my mind. That accursed northwest wind had been steadily increasing all day. I’d had to tie my bandanna over my nose and mouth to keep out the dust it carried. Nonetheless, bits of sand and grit stung my eyes and blurred my vision. With evening coming on, that wind carried the chill of the faraway snow-capped peaks where it was born. It had rolled out of those mountains, tumbled over their foothills, and worked its way through the canyons and river breaks, picking up speed all along its journey. By now it had been blowing for miles over the high prairies, unimpeded except for the occasional coulee or draw. And where it funneled through those defiles that wind shrieked with the voices of a thousand demons. It was even affecting Laramie, my normally unflappable paint. The gelding kept tossing his head, snorting anxiously, his nostrils flaring as he scented the air and stamped nervously. He finally came up to me and nuzzled my shoulder.
“I reckon you’re right, boy,” I tried to soothe him. “It’s time to call it a day and try’n find some shelter out of this gale.”
I jammed my tools into the saddlebags and climbed onto Laramie’s back. Once mounted, I scanned the surrounding prairie for any sign of shelter. The only place I spotted was a high ridge. With luck once I topped that rise and headed down the other side it would provide a bit of cover from the unceasing wind.
“Let’s go, boy,” I urged the horse. He gave a snort of protest when a particularly fierce gust stung his hide with fragments of gravel. It ruffled Laramie’s mane and blew his tail nearly perpendicular to his body.
“It’s gettin’ worse,” I muttered, “And there’s nowhere to hide.”
Here on the high prairies, that wind could blow for days. It had been known to drive men insane. If I didn’t escape from its grasp, I could very well meet the same fate.
I heeled Laramie into a slow jogtrot.
At the crest of the ridge, the wind reached its full fury, tossing sand into my face. I wiped my hand across my eyes and squinted into the distance, searching for a safe path down the steep slope.
I don’t believe it!
My mind refused to consider what I’d seen was real. I blinked and gazed down the ridge again.
It is a soddy! I will have a place to spend the night!
In a little hollow below the ridge stood a small sod cabin, apparently long abandoned. Nonetheless it appeared still sturdy despite the years of neglect.
“C’mon, Laramie. We’ll both sleep comfortable tonight.”
I pushed my gelding down the grade, riding slowly up to the sod shack. Dried grass overgrew the roof and the door hung off one leather hinge. It banged open and shut in the wind. However, the soddy was firmly built and solid, inviting shelter from the elements. Even the small corral alongside it was still in good shape, and overgrown with frost-killed grass it would provide my horse with fodder for the night. All I’d have to do was nail a couple of the rails back in place and it would hold Laramie quite well.
I dismounted, led my horse inside the corral and removed the saddle and bridle. Laramie rolled, then fell to cropping at the dry grass. While he grazed I hammered those fallen rails into place.
There was an old rusted bucket lying in one corner of the enclosure. I carried it to the small pond behind the cabin, filled it, and left it in the corral for Laramie. Satisfied I had settled my paint as well as possible under the circumstances, I scratched his ears.
“You take it easy, fella. Get a good night’s rest,” I told him.
I untied my bedroll from the cantle of my saddle, shouldered my saddlebags, and headed inside the dirt shanty.
The air inside the soddy was thick and musty. There was no furniture, except for a rusted stove in one corner, tipped on its side. Previous passersby must have stripped the place clean. Apparently even the mice had abandoned this sorry place, for there wasn’t a sign of those rodents anywhere. A thick coating of dust covered every surface. With the wind, more dust drifted from the roof in a thin brown haze. The soddy’s dank interior would be dreary enough on a sunny day. Now, with clouds thickening and night coming on, it was downright depressing. The wind moaning overhead and pushing in fitful gusts through chinks in the walls made the dirt-walled shack seem almost threatening.
Worn-out, I didn’t attempt to find fuel and build a fire. I gulped down some hardtack, washed down with tepid water from my canteen.
Too dog-tired to even pull off my boots and gunbelt, I rolled out my blankets on the packed earth floor and slid under them. That soddy might have been gloomy, the atmosphere inside oppressing, but I was thankful for the shelter it provided from the maelstrom.
I curled up on my side and fell asleep to the accompaniment of that howling wind.
I had no idea how long I’d been sleeping when I became aware of a presence in the room. The soddy seemed dimly illuminated by the mid-morning sun, but a brown haze hung in the air, and the wind still moaned.
The door had been blown open, and outside the shack stood a woman, along with two young children. They were standing in front of a freshly dug grave. A crude wooden cross stood at its head, while the wind lifted dirt from the loose earth mounded over the grave and carried it off. The family stood with heads bowed for a time, then turned toward the cabin. Just before they reached the door the wind swept them away, to disappear in a cloud of dust.
I jerked awake, gasping for breath, my heart pounding. Groggily, I reached for a match, then realizing there was no lamp, settled back. The door was still closed, the only illumination a few streaks of light from the rising full moon working their way through cracks in the door.
It was only a dream, I thought. That wind’s got you spooked.
I reached into my vest pocket, took out the makings, and built a cigarette. I struck a match and lit the smoke, taking a long drag. I lay there in that shack smoking and listening to the wind. By the time I’d smoked that quirly to the butt, the tobacco had calmed my jangled nerves. I stubbed out the cigarette, rolled up in my blankets, and drifted back to sleep.
Once again, that vision interrupted my slumber. As before, the wind had awakened me. I saw that same woman holding two pillowcases, cases which had once been white, but were now yellowed with age. She dipped the pillowcases in a basin of water, then carried them to the bed where her children lay sleeping. She tenderly placed the moistened cloths over their faces to protect them from the dust filtering from the dirt roof. That done, she tied another wet cloth over her own mouth and nose. She stood watching the slumbering children, then turned toward the door, listening. A look of despair crossed her face when the wind’s soft moan increased to a full-throated shriek.
The woman turned from the door and threw herself down alongside her children. The howling wind drowned out her hopeless sobs.
I was jolted to full wakefulness, my blood racing. Despite the night’s chill, sweat was pouring from my brow.
I rolled onto my belly and reached for my saddlebags. I pulled out the small bottle of whiskey I carried, uncorked it, and stared at it for a long while. Reluctantly, I recorked the flask, put it away, and fell back on my blankets. I sure didn’t need that liquor’s effect on my already heightened imagination.
I somehow slept a bit longer, but the dream soon returned. This time the woman had a long-handled spade in her hand. There were now three graves, the two brand new ones smaller than the other. The woman tossed a final shovelful of dirt on one grave, then turned away, her shoulders slumped in defeat, her eyes dull and lifeless.
The soddy’s door burst open. I scrambled from my bedroll, trying to clear the cobwebs from my mind. Upon the ridge above the shack stood the emaciated figure of that woman, pale as death, her features white as bone in the moonlight, the wind whipping her tattered dress.
Unable to pull my gaze from that specter, I watched in dread while she raised her withered arms as if in supplication. Then, with a shriek of such despair it turned my blood cold, she vanished before the wind.
In abject horror, I dashed from the shanty and for my horse, with the wind screaming all around. Laramie was pacing back and forth in the corral, trumpeting his fear. I jumped the fence and grabbed my gear. Somehow I managed to calm my terrified gelding enough to throw blanket and saddle on his back and get the bridle over his head.
I jumped into the saddle, realizing in my panic I had neglected to open the gate. I dug my spurs into Laramie’s flanks, sending the frenzied horse directly at the rails I’d just repaired. He broke through those boards as if they were straw.
My paint needed no urging to flee that hollow. He bounded away from there at a full gallop.
I kept Laramie at that pace, heedless of any obstacles in our path, my only thought to put as much distance between myself and that terrifying vision as possible. I never looked back as I raced for my life, with the merciless wind shrieking at my horse’s heels and the woman’s banshee wail echoing in my ears.
By first light, we were miles from that dirt shack. Laramie came to a stop alongside a small creek. He was completely exhausted. I slid from the saddle and he stood spraddle-legged, his head hanging, too worn-out to even nibble the grass. I pulled the saddle from his back and dropped it to the ground, then collapsed alongside it.
Fatigue finally overcame my fear. Sleep claimed me, and in the daylight I slept soundly for several hours, awakening feeling greatly relieved I’d managed to escape from that wraith. Laramie recovered somewhat too, for when I awoke he greeted me with a cheerful nicker. He’d drunk and grazed while I dozed.
“I’m sorry, pal,” I apologized to the paint. I pulled a currycomb from the saddlebags to brush the dried sweat from his hide. By the time I had finished, the sun was well on its way toward the western horizon. I shivered when a chance breeze brushed my cheek. Dread at the thought of spending another night out on that prairie churned in my belly. Besides, in my panic I’d left my blankets in that soddy. It would be mighty chilly without them
“Let’s try for town, pardner,” I whispered to Laramie.
I quickly saddled the horse and climbed onto his back. He broke into an eager trot without hesitation.
Darkness came well before we reached the nearest settlement, Aminto, a collection of a few shacks, a general store, a livery stable, and a saloon. I settled my horse in the stable and headed for that saloon. I would spend a week in that town trying to drink the horrific vision of that woman from my mind. And the Diamond M would never learn what had happened to me. I never went back.