What’s better than the American Old West? Well, the West when it was raw and untamed and full of things that you might call magic or you might call superstition or you might call a tall tale. But there’s something about those tall tales, haven’t you noticed? The more people tell them, the taller they get. The realer they get. The more they start to be able to reach their fingers through the veil between story and reality and grab hold.
Some good friends of mine have done a Kickstarter campaign for an Old West RPG in this setting. It’s finished, but if you want to give it a look be my guest. The name is “American Sunset,” and they asked me to write a short piece on it.
This is a story about a farm boy who thinks he knows a lot more than he really does, and how it ends up almost biting him in the end.
My name is Isaiah Colwell, and I submit that these stories you hear about religion, magic and any and all gods are worth just about as much as a bit of spare ear’s wax. Maybe less: at least the wax helps keep out all that horse puckey. Ma and Pa–if you are reading this it is meant for you; any other fellow can keep his grubby paws off these records unless you have my word in writing.
I will start off these records with a description of how they began, in part for completeness and in part to serve others reading them. Let me say first that if you hear the name “Carlisle Ward” I advise you to turn the other way and keep walking until the name is gone from your ears and maybe some more past that. He is a no-good crook and would be destined for the fires of Hell if they existed. He preyed upon the good people of my homestead and they, being good god-fearing people, lacked the training in rhetoric to weigh his words. He spoke of earthly fire and brimstone which shocked my Ma so much she developed the faints and they put a tremor in my Pa’s hands too. He swore that Judgment Day was here and had been ever since settlers reached the end of the West: elsewise (or so he said) why would such devils and supernatural occurrences plague us? Ma and Pa: he is the devil, if any exists, and I swear to you that when I return you will have a full accounting of the strangeness he spoke of. I will show to you each of his stories for a sham and I will see to it every queer happening he cites is exposed for its real self.
It is for this reason further schooling is not my path, Pa, at least not until I can send that odious man running with his tail between his legs. I lied to you when I said it was the school I gathered up my things and set off for: I will gladly accept a whipping when I return, but my path is righteous and you always said a man should pursue what he thinks is good. That is why I am bound for Silver Springs, Pa, and I will pass my own judgment on whether it is like Carlisle says.
My arrival in the town itself was less auspicious than I might have expected. Entering our close-knit community would garner at most a welcome party and at least a few curious eyes, but it became immediately obvious to me that the big city is a very different kind of place. Rather than greetings what I did receive was almost complete disinterest. Not a soul spied me riding into town–covered in dust from head to foot–and gave me more than a passing glance. It seems likely to me that of all the lies Carlisle told, that Silver Springs is a melting pot in true American fashion is not one of them. In the short span it took me to enter the town proper I saw a group of Chinamen, a group of rowdy Irish drunkards and a fellow who must have been some sort of Injun. It has been a long time since our home was raided but I must confess a feeling of slight unease settled over me as I passed him. I considered slipping away your old revolver with me when I left, Pa, but you did not raise a thief. Besides, if I am right and Silver Springs is only one large mess of tall tales Carlisle told, as I expect, I will hardly need it. The Injun did not seem to mind me so I tried not to mind him too much. I left my good horse Daisy tied to a post and wandered into the town proper.
The town of Silver Springs is solidly situated right between the best and the worst Carlisle has attributed to it. It is no swath of mansions but no ramshackle affair neither, although I did see parts of both. It seems just like any other frontier town, only a little larger than the nearby place you sent me to for Ma’s medicine several years back. The outskirts of the town are full of small dwellings inhabited by the worse sorts, but inside the town proper the buildings and the people became more uniform. Despite all the tales Carlisle told of silver rushes and constant discovery of any and all minerals, I was only able to pick out one or two miners out-of-doors. With no small amount of satisfaction, I put to rest the first of Carlisle’s lies.
The streets were sparsely populated to the extent I wondered about if everyone was at church, but it was scarcely a minute before I came upon a street vendor addressing a small crowd. He was an oily looking man up on a soapbox, and in one hand he clutched a small vial. In a wheedling voice he touted the health improvements just a single drop could convey. In the space of a single minute he must have sworn it could do ten different things, and then he started in on the ingredients. He told them all but for a single, keystone part which he explained was part of his “secret formula.” Access to which, he promised, would be granted upon purchasing at least twenty of the small vials. I couldn’t believe my ears when he uttered the price: 5 dollars. A man could buy a horse with that much money, unless a dollar is lighter here in the city.
The crowd was hardly sold, especially after being told the price, but before his listeners began to wane the salesman announced a demonstration would be held. He dabbed a few drops on his wrists, cracked his knuckles, and ran his eyes through the crowd. When he spied a particularly burly man he called him up in front of the crowd and rolled up his sleeves. The two of them began to arm wrestle and in front of all of us he beat the man handily. Before this display not a single individual looked likely to purchase a vial of his concoction, but now there were murmurs through the crowd. A woman in front of me was debating with her husband whether that tonic might help him repair a failing fence, and if perhaps the cost might be worth tightening their belts for a spell. About that time I spied a lawman of some sort leaning against a nearby building. I felt he would certainly intervene and keep these good people from losing hold of their senses, but although he met my eyes he did not move so much as a muscle.
I confess, Pa, I saw an amount of Carlisle in that salesman. I stepped forward and called to the fraud (as I believed him to be) that for a good show he should wrestle two men, not one. He seemed to ponder this, and upon closely examining me agreed. We set up in front of the crowd and I rolled my sleeves up past the elbow. He placed a few more drops of the tonic on his palm, rubbed them in, and acted as if it had invigorated him. The man was oilier still from a closer vantage point, and looking at him seemed like to make me ill. I stared instead at his hand and noticed it seemed excessively slick. I recalled on the farm, Pa, when you taught me how to catch the hogs when they burst the pen, and I patted my right hand down on my dust-covered pants. I believe he intended me to slip when we clasped hands, and to undo me in that instant, but he found a tougher challenge than I expect he planned for. All the same he was a strong man, but despite my thinness I am after all a farmer’s son. I forced his hand down after a moment and the crowd began to murmur. He made a show of being duly impressed by my strength, but I do believe the damage had been done. Before long the crowd filtered away and I trust he received no more than two purchases.
After the success I enjoyed making a spectacle of that fraud, I was in a fine huff. I found the nearby lawman I’d spied earlier and set my course straight for him. He had a silver star for a badge and a pair of six-shooters on his hips but I laid into him proper anyways, asking him what kind of sheriff let his people get fleeced by a man like that. I took him for older than you, Pa, on account of his grey hair and the deep-etched lines in his face. Up close I could see that weren’t the truth, and all things being equal… the look in his eyes brought me up short. You always did say I had a habit of going off half-cocked and I expect you are right. He didn’t seem a fist-fighting man, though, and instead he rebuffed me in a real East coast accent. He did his best to set me straight on a couple things, but I can be as stubborn as our old Ox. He could tell I was not taking to it and told me in no uncertain terms Silver Springs had enough troublemakers already. Imagine! Me, a troublemaker, when all I am attempting is to set things right where they lay crooked. He started to get a look in his eye I did not like the sight of, but backing down is as little in me as it is in you, Pa. I hope you appreciate that. Anyways before he had my bacon cooked, a group of rag-tags came milling by and took up the Sheriff’s attention. They were speaking about some sort of haunting but I had to take the opportunity when it came into view. I backed off and caught one last glare from the Sheriff. I decided he and I were on opposite sides of the playing field, so to speak, and to avoid him wherever possible.
After my close brush with the law, I decided on some spirits to calm my nerves. As a matter of fact, locating a liquor establishment was less a task than choosing which to patronize. One, “The Silver Tap,” caught my eye and drew me in. Inside the place was not too rowdy, and I confess the wide row of bottles behind the bar left me a mite star-struck. I ordered myself a small scotch and nursed it for an hour or so, trying in my own fashion to discover the next step of my journey. In Silver Springs for half a day and being already on the Sheriff’s worse side, I was beginning to feel pretty low. I do admit thinking about quitting my search but returning after a day seemed worse than anything. As luck would have it (you might say it was divine intervention, Ma) just as I was thinking on leaving the establishment that same rag-tag bunch entered. I recognized them as the folks who had saved me from the Sheriff, but they did not seem to recognize me. I let them get a few drinks in, and then approached them. I am no actor like Carlisle, so I only told them the facts: I am a farm boy from over yonder, and I am here to put to rest a few myths on account of a conflict with another individual. At first I think they did not believe me, but a round of drinks set us up as good friends.
I learned over the evening that man was named Sheriff Hammond, and these four were his new recruits. They seemed a trifle mixed on motivations but as far as I am a good judge of character they appeared decent folks. As they began to reach the bottoms of their cups they did vent some complaints about how little Hammond let them tackle, and his dislike for charging in off the cuff. A couple of stories unfolded that then reassured me when he did move, the Sheriff was a force to be reckoned with. I became doubly glad to have not incurred his wrath any further, and I deeply regretted taking issue with him in the first place. Before the bunch left they mentioned what they had come to Hammond for when our paths had crossed for the first time: I received no particulars but for a report of supernatural haunting behavior, as told by a widow on a range just outside the town. Hammond had tasked one of them to investigate come the morning, so I had only that long to do my own detective work. I figured if I put some thought towards the case, perhaps I could show the widow what she was really seeing was just sheets blowing in the sundown wind. Then I might endear myself better to the Sheriff and perhaps even enlist his aid in the future.
Wish me luck, Pa. You always did say I had a keen mind: I hope you were right.
I found the widow and her dusty farmstead easy enough. She was a hard-looking woman very much similar to what I remember of my Gram, and she looked at me with an untrusting eye until I told her what my business was about. After that she took to me with a shine and insisted I sit down with her for coffee and biscuits. Over the meal (which I welcomed, and thanked her proper for) she told me all about her troubles. The hauntings, she said, had begun a week previous, just as her son had left to go cattle-ranching. At the beginning of the witching hour (or so she said) a ghastly moaning would echo throughout the canyon. Worse, in the direction of the moaning a pale figure in the shape of a man could be seen distantly atop the ridge. She had waited at her front door with a shotgun but the figure never seemed to approach any closer. It was a harmful specter, she reasoned, an Injun angered by their settling of his land. I barely had to question whether I might stay the night before she agreed. I could tell despite being a hard woman, she was spooked.
That night I awoke to the sound of a horrid wailing that made the hairs stand atop the back of my neck. I found the widow Brady already standing at the front door, stiff as a statue. I peered past her and indeed I saw a fluttering white figure from the direction of that awful sound. I confess for a moment I stood there transfixed, sure I was seeing an apparition of some sort–but no superstitious fool am I, so I set off towards it. That noise pursued me as I picked my footing up the dusty ridge, but I persevered. The closer I got the surer I was I would come upon some sorry fool wearing a sheet, and when the wailing cut off abruptly I was nearly certain. I crested the ridge and saw the illusion for what it was: a simple bed’s sheet caught on a gnarled sapling. The wind had blown it on and caught it there, too distant to be clearly picked out except at night when the moon shone through it. All this I explained to the widow when I brought her back the sheet, and in pieces I put together the circumstance.
The widow Brady had been washing the clothes her son was to wear for his cattle-ranching and her own linens as well: she had been so overcome by the departure and the work to be done before his leaving that when a single sheet had blown off the line it was out of sight and out of mind as well. She was sorely relieved to hear the explanation and I rode out several hours later fuller of coffee as well as a tart I was glad to have waited for her to cook. Only on writing this account do I remember the wailing, but it may be all for good I did not bring it up to her. It seems most likely that harrowing noise was simply made by the canyon or the rocks or some such, and had existed before the sheet.
A REWARD FROM THE SHERIFF
I rode into the town feeling awful full of myself, and I strutted right towards the Sheriff’s Office. In hindsight I do expect he would have thrown me out if his recruits hadn’t seen me walking in. They said hello and asked about the haunting, and I did well to tell them. The Sheriff watched me keenly over his desk as I described the poor Widow Brady’s situation and the absolutely mundane cause, but when I finished he did not tear loose. I thought that a good sign. He spoke up to ask a few questions and seemed satisfied when I answered them, then fell silent. I held my own breath and waited. Soon the Sheriff gave his recruits a glance and they scrambled out of his office, then closed the door behind them. I suppose I must have looked like a dog ready to be whipped, but thankfully no blow ever fell. Instead, he handed down an opportunity to me.
Sheriff Hammond explained to me that Silver Springs was a place that regularly came by issues like the widow Brady’s. He said he had received no less than a dozen reports of Wendigoes in the past year. Imagine, pa! Wendigoes! Like from the stories Uncle Jack used to scare me with when I was a young’n. I believe the Sheriff saw my derision and he must have known I was the right man for the job, because he revealed to me an entire list of unsolved mysteries his outfit was too taxed to handle. Maybe he thought to test my gumption by going on to mention I would receive no support, no reward and no accolades, but as a matter of fact this was just the opportunity I had traveled here for. I gave him my unconditional agreement and was almost out the door before he stopped me. I could hardly believe my ears, pa: he said that under the power vested in him as Sheriff of Silver Springs, he was naming me an honorary deputy. I did not care that he went on to say it would be a secret between us and of course he would have to deny it under scrutiny: I could hardly keep myself from whooping out loud. I made it to the street outside and was so overcome by providence I almost had to pray. Imagine, me! Praying! But that was the state I was in.
This begun a series of small mysteries I will not mention in too much depth here. Suffice to say they all followed the same path the widow Brady’s troubles had trod: some perfectly ordinary occurrance had been seen through a superstitious eye and been made a hullabaloo where none belonged. One old grandfather’s pocketwatch had in fact begun to tick backwards, but not because of any kind of curse: the gears in it had just become worn. Blood-red water spewed from a pump because nearby shoveling had dislodged iron dust. And a strange man in a black suit who appeared at noon had just been a trick of the heat-haze. And of course, all these miraculous happenings stopped once I had set their mysteries to rest. The pocketwatch ticked the right way, the water turned crystal clear, and the man stopped showing up. These things passed with such little fanfare that I scarce should mention them but for how they led me to the real mystery I faced in Silver Springs. An account of that is to follow.
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
I should say that as much as my deductive skills grew, my popularity in the town shrank twice as fast. I assumed, perhaps foolishly, that the good people of Silver Springs would be only too happy to discover how they’d been mistaken, but not everyone I set right took the news well. I must admit I was not always correct with my initial guess, but I did in the end arrive at the truth. These small mishaps grew into a misunderstanding among the townsfolk: they called me “suspicious,” and I thought at first it was a compliment. After all, my suspicion of what they took as truth allowed me more often than not to set them right.
But the name was not intended as a compliment. I discovered this fact in the midst of a small demonstration by a woman gunslinger: by the time I arrived she was demonstrating her skill and accuracy with a small pistol of the kind one might conceal in a pocket. As I stopped to watch she shot several bottles to pieces from across the street, and the crowd cheered. I was, of course, duly impressed–but I was used to showmen at this point, and I considered them mostly to be frauds. When she announced next she would shoot a hole through the center of a falling playing card, I knew her to be one of them. It didn’t take a brilliant mind to deduce her plan to toss a card with a hole already shot through, and I shared as much with the Sheriff’s recruits I’d found myself nearby. She tossed the card and fired… but when the card fell to the ground, no hole marked it. The crowd muttered and I had to shake my head. How could she fail to throw the right card? She tried again, and once more the card fell, untouched. She stared fiercely at the card as if she’d never failed to make the shot before, and I raised my voice to tell the crowd all about her trickery. Before I could manage more than a couple words, however, she put the pistol into its holster and tossed the card. In a flash three shots rang out and when the card fell, one perfect hole was cut through the middle. I was impressed despite myself by her adaptability, but before I could continue my explanation the crowd turned on me. They called me “suspicious” and for some reason seemed to blame me for the difficulty the woman had encountered! I would have argued my case, of course, but she seemed none too happy with me. Fraud or not, I deduced she couldn’t fail to shoot me, seeing as I was much larger than a card, and wisely retreated.
I won’t lie to you, Pa, being vilified unfairly by the townspeople did aggrieve me. However, you didn’t raise a quitter. If anything I grew more determined after being mistreated in this manner. And that was what had me riding Daisy into a dusty ranch supposedly plagued by a creature known as the “goatsucker.”
I had told the Sheriff’s recruits that this particular investigation would have me gone for no more than a day’s time, and indeed I believed it. After all, every instance of supernatural animals I had looked into was, in the end, any combination of several misconceptions. And so when a hard-looking farmer with a rifle in his hand showed me the corpse of his best goat, I was prepared to treat it just the same. It was a thin, wasted nanny goat with a wound on its neck, and I knelt beside it confidently. “These holes in its neck, if you look closer…” and we looked closer. But instead of the ordinary bite wound I expected to uncover, we were left staring at a pair of dark holes pierced in the flesh of the goat’s neck. I must confess it had been quite some time since my initial guess had been so instantly disproved, and it left me shaken. However, I grew only more determined at this initial setback. Could it be a wound left by thorns, or small bullets? Could another wound have proved the truly fatal blow? Could the goat have been simply weak and frail, not “drained” as the monster was supposed to have done? All of these ideas were disproved one by one until I was left with only uncertainty in my mind. To make matters worse, further investigation uncovered a third hole slightly below the initial two. Not even a beast with enlarged canines could have perpetrated this assault.
The farmer accompanied me for the initial part of my inspection, but soon left to tend to his other, living, animals. I do not blame him: even after two hours of inspecting the area I was left with more questions than I had possessed two hours previously. The dry wind had cleared away any tracks the perpetrator might have left, except for two prints that might have been left by a stray dog. This was the sum of my investigation, even after a further two hours. By this time night had begun to fall and the farmer found me once more. I was unable to tell him anything of much substance, but I fixed upon those tracks. I reassured his wife and his young son during the simple dinner they thoughtfully provided for me that this beast, whatever its origin, was likely to be a stray dog with oddly-shaped teeth. The farmer seeemd wholly unconvinced, but he chose not to trouble his family further. And I… for the first time, something was giving me pause. I redoubled my convictions and recommended a stakeout near his goats for later that night. We would see the beast for ourselves, mutt or something stranger.
So it was, Ma and Pa, that the two of us crouched behind a stump overlooking the farmer’s goat pen. I know you will steel your heart reading this, Pa, but I must implore you to refrain from sharing this next account with Ma. I know despite her being aware of my safety, it will give her no end of fright. For anyone else who may have cause to read this, I encourage you to take these words to heart: not everything on God’s earth can be explained.
The first sign we had of it was when the goats began to grow restless. They bleated and stamped, drawing inwards and huddling so close that they seemed almost one mass. The farmer and I scanne the horizon for the source of their distress, but the pale moon did not show us much. He checked his rifle once, twice, inspecting the shot to make certain it would serve. I swept my eyes from side to side, but found nothing at first. And then–
It seemed like a dog, the way it moved. It was a thin and sickly thing, and it stopped near the farmer’s house to lower its head and sniff the ground. Then it drew towards the pen. He saw it soon after I did, and leveled his gun. “Just a dog,” I whispered to him. “Did I not say–”
But it was no mutt. The closer it came, the clearer that was. No dog had a spine that articulated or that visible, more like a skeleton than a living creature of flesh and blood. No dog had spines like a lizard’s, folding and unfolding on its back. No dog drew its paws in the dusty ground and left great furrows behind. “Just a dog,” I repeated to myself more than to the farmer, half-believing the moon would reveal some new, comforting feature of the thing. But each step it took acted as a new refusal to be simple. To be explained. It was a true monster, like from one of Carlisle’s tales, and a great horror began to take hold of me. Beside me the farmer raised his rifle, and I began to feel some relief.
And then the thing hissed.
It hissed, low and feral, and something odd happened. The goats which had been nervously shoving against the walls of the pen ceased, even to bleat. They relaxed and stood immobile and docile as if unaware their predator drew closer by the second. Thankfully the farmer still had his wits about him: he rested his rifle on the stump and drew a bead. Slowly, he drew the hammer back. And as it clicked, the awful monster turned. The thing looked straight at us, and hissed once more. I felt a great horror overtake me, as if my spirit had finally come to terms with the reality of this thing. My lids fell halfway and my mind swam: before my eyes the creature seemed to grow, and when its mouth opened great horrible fangs dripped blood. It began to pad towards us, and beside me the rifle fell from the farmer’s slackened fingers.
I knew this great horror was approaching us: I could see the thing as it grew closer, and yet I could not move so much as a finger. All I was able to do was clamp my eyes shut and hope. All I could do was pray to whomever might be listening–this thing could not be real.
But when I opened my eyes, it was. And it was close, less than ten feet away, stalking closer. Its red eyes were on the farmer, and he did not move.
“You can’t be real,” I breathed, not knowing if it was aloud or not. But either way the thing heard me, and its burning glare fixed me instead, like that of the devil upon some unfortunate soul. Indeed I did feel as if brimstone was upon me, but the farmer recovered. One shot rang out, narrowly missing one of the crooked ears on the beast. Then another, but the thing moved impossibly fast, springing to the side, and a puff of dust raised where it had stood. The god-awful thing pounced then, and gouged the farmer with its fetid claws. The rifle was riven in two and he groaned, clutching his sopping wounds. Then it turned to me.
This would have been my end, I am sure, but for the shot that rang out above its head. It hissed again and crouched like it might spring, but one more shot clipped its paw. With a last hiss it sprang back and dashed off into the darkness just as Sheriff Hammond rode up pulling the bolt on his rifle. I am not ashamed to say that the strain of facing this creature immediately overcome me, and I fainted dead away.
It unfolded that I had the Sheriff’s recruits to thank for my timely rescue. They had become worried when I had failed to return, and had mentioned it to Sheriff Hammond. What led him to come out to my rescue I may never know, but I am certainly glad he did. As soon as I woke I searched him out, thanked him, and turned in my badge, so to speak. Not that I ever truly did receive one, but I expect he must have been just about to present me with one. No matter: I was through. My expedition to Silver Springs had been in the pursuit of proving tall tales were just that, but coming face to face with something I now consider a beast from Hell set me right. I come now back to you, Ma and Pa, to apologize. Carlisle still is no friend of mine, but I find I must change the statement I began these accounts with.
Most supernatural things may be pure superstition, but there are some things on this world that man cannot explain.