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California gal
SS senior field agent

8547 Posts

Posted - 10/24/2013 :  11:49:32  Show Profile
The Night of the Demon Horseman

Who gather round, and wonder at the tale
Of horrid apparition, tall and ghastly,
That walks at dead of night, or takes his stand
O'er some new-open'd grave; and, (strange to tell!)
Evanishes at crowing of the cock.
The Grave (l. 67), Robert Blair (1699-1746). Scottish poet and clergyman

“The town of Simpsonville should be just a few miles ahead, Jim.”

“Good. I’m tired of this cold wind.”

Artie smiled. “It’s late October in Montana, James.”

Jim had to laugh. “I know, but Montana is a big territory. We’ve been riding in it for three and a half days. We don’t seem to be any closer to Billings than when we started.” The Wanderer was waiting for them in Billings.

Artie did not reply. He was as tired as his partner, and hoping for a soft bed to sleep in tonight, as well as a meal that was not cooked over a campfire. Billings was as close as the tracks were laid at this point, and even those were a spur line. At least they could reach the main track line of the Union Pacific from there. However, they had to get to Billings first.

The road they were following now was a narrow, rutted lane obviously used by locals. They had spotted a sign some while back that claimed Simpsonville was ten miles ahead. A long ten miles! Then that was what usually occurred when one was anxious to reach a destination. Watched pot never boils, Artie mused with an inward smile.

The road topped a low hill and started downward. Jim pointed off to the left. “At least a sign of civilization.” Off in the distance was a home with smoke curling from a chimney. The men had not spotted such a sight for quite some time in this vast area of the Montana Territory.

Artie pulled his jacket tighter around his neck, just as his chestnut mare suddenly flung her head and reared up a foot or two on her back legs. At the same moment, Blackjack squealed, tossing his head, while also rearing even higher. Only a horseman as superb as Jim West could stay in the saddle at such a moment, Artie marveled as he leaned forward to calm his steed.

“What in the world?” he wondered aloud.

Jim was stroking the sleek black neck of his horse as he stared down the road. “You didn’t see it?”

Artie looked at him. “See what? An animal? Cougar?”

Jim hesitated. If I tell him what I thought I saw, he’ll never let me hear the end of it! “Cougar or something similar. It… crossed the road very quickly.”

Artie frowned as they started their horses moving again. He could usually discern when Jim was not telling the exact truth, and this was one of those times. Why would he tell a story about what kind of animal it was? He glanced at his friend. Jim’s face was stony, his green eyes straight ahead. No, he didn’t tell me the true story. Why not?

The town of Simpsonville appeared over the next rise. Jim was silent as they approached the town, his thoughts not only on what had just occurred but also on the odd feelings he was experiencing, feelings he could not explain. Not fear. Nonetheless, he knew he did not want to enter the small town that was drawing nearer as they rode. He had never had such a sensation in his life; he had never been one to experience premonitions. Yet, that was what this seemed to be.

It was an ordinary town, they soon discovered. The largest building appeared to be the one with the sign “Simpson’s Trading Post,” a brick and wood structure with two stories and a broad porch where several men were standing… and staring at the newcomers. Most likely don’t get many strangers here, Artie decided, spotting a slightly smaller building that bore a sign identifying it as the Palmer House.

He quickly observed that others were staring at them too as they proceeded down the street. People were coming to the doors and windows of various buildings, probably called there by someone outside. Artie began to feel uneasy. Even if the townspeople seldom saw strangers in town, this reaction seemed excessive. As they dismounted in front of the hotel and pulled their saddlebags and bedrolls off the horses, Artie saw that Jim was noticing the attention they were receiving as well.

The lobby was small, and the desk at one side was vacant. Artie rang the bell sitting on the counter, and a moment later, a middle-aged woman emerged from a door behind the desk. Surprise was evident on her round face, but she smiled. “Good afternoon, gentlemen. Looking for rooms?”

“That’s the general idea,” Artie smiled back, picking up the pen to sign the registration book she pushed toward them. “Two rooms with nice soft beds.”

“Tired as you fellows look, I expect a brick mattress would feel soft to you.”

“I expect you are right,” Artie laughed, noticing that his partner remained silent and sober. The clerk noticed as well, as she glanced toward Jim several times.

Collecting the keys, they climbed the stairway and found their rooms easily on the second floor, seeing that only four rooms existed. Artie stowed his gear then stepped out into the hall to tap on Jim’s door before opening it. He found his partner standing by the bed, staring down at the untouched roll and saddlebag. Jim looked up, surprise on his face.

“Jim, are you all right?”

Jim smiled. “I’m fine. Just tired I guess. I was actually debating whether I even wanted to go out for supper or not. But I guess I will.” He quickly began to unpack his possessions, keeping his back to his partner. I’ve got to get rid of this. I know I didn’t see what I thought I saw. Couldn’t have. Probably just a wild horse. Had to be.

They had asked the woman, who had identified herself as Mrs. Palmer, the owner, about restaurants in town. She laughed: only one currently existed in Simpsonville. Then she had said a very strange thing. “You are just staying for the one night, aren’t you?”

Artie assured her that was the plan, wondering why it appeared to represent a problem to her if they planned to stay longer. Perhaps she’s expecting a large party. That seemed highly unlikely in such a location.

The hotel had a stable, but no hostler, so they took their horses around behind to the small structure, unsaddled them and made sure they had food and water, then returned to their rooms to wash up before heading out to eat. The restaurant was further down the main street, and as they soon discovered, a part of the town’s only saloon. A door connected the two. Patrons in the restaurant gaped at them openly, leaning toward each other to talk in quiet voices, as they had been doing on the street.

“I wonder if one of us resembles someone they don’t want to see,” Artie considered after the white-aproned cook took their orders.

Jim shook his head. “I doubt they get many strangers.”

“I had that thought earlier. However, all this attention we’re getting seems disproportionate. Oh, well. We’ll be gone after breakfast tomorrow.”

Neither spoke much as they ate the food served. The fare was passable. Artie knew he had eaten better stew, but he also knew he was sometimes too critical. The stew was hot and flavorful with some very good fluffy dumplings. The coffee was just fine. He noticed, however, that Jim seemed to be forcing himself to eat. His mind was still somewhere else.

Jim’s mood seemed to relate back to the moment their horses had been startled on the road. Artie pondered over that event. He himself had been momentarily disconcerted, primarily because he had not expect his usually stolid mare to react to anything, let alone a rabbit or even a wildcat crossing the road in front of them. Jim’s spirited steed was another story. Blackjack always liked to show off, and rearing at such an intrusion was normal. Perhaps that was why Jim was able to stay in the saddle; he expected anything from his rambunctious steed at any moment.

They went into the saloon afterwards, each getting a beer from the bartender—who stared—and going to a corner table. A dozen men were in the rather small room, which otherwise looked like many another barroom they had been in. A pool table was in the rear, unused right now. Once again, they were the subject of attention and obvious whispers.

Finally, a barrel-chested man wearing a star on his shirt entered the saloon through the front door, paused, and then headed straight for their table. “Hello,” he greeted. “Newcomers to Simpsonville, eh? Planning on staying the night?” He sat down without asking or an invitation.

“We have rooms at the hotel,” Jim replied rather archly. “Is that a problem?”

“But you’re leaving in the morning, first thing, right?”

Now the two agents exchanged a bewildered glance. What was this? “We plan to,” Artie replied. “Why?”

The sheriff hesitated, his glance going toward the men at the other tables, who were all watching. “Well, it’s likely you’ll be wanting to stay. My name is Chet Mann, by the way.” He extended his hand. Nothing to do but give their names and accept the handshake. His eyes widened. “Are you the special agents I’ve heard about?”

“We work for the government,” Jim replied steadily.

“What’s this all about, sheriff?” Artie asked. “From the moment we rode into town, we’ve been stared at and obviously talked about. Mrs. Palmer at the hotel also suggested we would want to leave first thing in the morning.”

Mann leaned back, folding his arms across his broad chest. He looked from one to the other. “Well, tomorrow’s Halloween.”

“I guess it is,” Artie concurred, after considering a moment. They had pretty well lost track of the date the last few days. “Halloween comes every year. So?” He glanced at Jim, and saw that his partner had withdrawn into himself again. He knows something I don't know!

“Halloween is… special here. Guess I’d best tell you the whole story, now that we’ve gone this far. Maybe then you’ll agree it’s a good idea for you to leave as soon as possible.”

He began his narration in a slow, even voice. The town had been founded about thirty years earlier when Lucas Simpson established a trading post to serve the trappers and the first of the farmers and ranchers in the area. Gradually other businesses opened around the post, which was now a general store. Simpsonville was a quiet, fairly prosperous town, a good place to be.

“Then Otis Ebell rode in one day, close to ten years ago. Never did figure out why, but he decided to stay here. And he made life hell for a lot of us.”

“How was that?” Artie prompted when Mann paused, staring blankly at the two of them as though lost in bitter memory.

Mann sighed heavily. “Otis Ebell was a bully. He was a big man, one most ordinary fellows wouldn’t have a chance against in a fight, fair or foul. He was at least six foot six, maybe more, and I’d guess weighed close to three hundred pounds, most of it muscle. He liked to pick fights too, and beat men bloody. Worse, he liked to kill, and he was so damned fast with a gun… I never saw anything like it. He’d prod and poke another fellow until there was nothing to do but draw against him, even knowing you had no chance. He always claimed self-defense, and the witnesses had to agree. The other man drew first.

“Men took to avoiding him, but he would hunt them down. It was like bloodlust. He had to see someone hurting, dying, at his hand. He bullied women too. That was another way he would get men to face him with fists or guns, by insulting women. At last count, he had killed seventeen men in this area over three years. Then, seven years ago, on Halloween night, he died.”

Again the lawman stopped, lost in his own thoughts. This time it was Jim who spoke up. “What happened?” he asked quietly. Somehow, he knew at least part of the story.

Again Mann sighed. “Most of the time, Ebell drank quite a bit, but he seemed able to hold his liquor. It never caused him any trouble when he faced a man with fists or guns. However, this night, he decided he wanted to take on the biggest man in town, our blacksmith, Joe Ryan. Joe stayed out of the saloon, and he stayed away from Ebell. He was close in size to Ebell, but wasn’t the fighter Ebell was.”

Ebell had gone to Ryan’s place of business, the blacksmith shop and stable at the far end of town. Ryan had been working, repairing a large axe that was fixed in a vise so that he could smooth out some nicks in the blade with a rasp. A few men trailed after Ebell. Morbid curiosity, the sheriff called it, although a couple claimed they were there to make sure the fight was fair. They did not say what they would do to make the fight fair, considering the terror in which everyone was held where Ebell was concerned.

Ebell had taunted Ryan about his Irish heritage, his religion, and anything else he could come up with. Ryan ignored him at first, but as the insults became nastier and nastier, mentioning Ryan’s wife and daughters, he finally had to act. The fight took place there in the blacksmith shop and for the first time, Ebell seemed to realize he had bitten off more than he could chew. Ryan was not a pure fighter, but he was big enough and strong enough to hold his own.

“So of course, Ebell turned dirty. He started grabbing things, like some horseshoes in a box, trying to hit Ryan with them. Joe turned out to be pretty agile and was able to dodge, getting in some telling blows. The more he got hurt, the more angry Ebell got. A couple of men were afraid he was going to go for his gun, but he didn’t. He just kept picking up anything he could find to try to hit Joe with.

“Then he went really crazy and grabbed the anvil. You boys must know how heavy an anvil is. Well, Ebell was strong and he got it lifted over his head. Only when he started for Joe with it, his foot turned when he stepped on one of the horseshoes he had tried to use earlier. He fell sideways, holding that heavy anvil---and fell over the block where the axe was held blade up in the vise. I reckon you might guess what happened. His neck hit that vise. Between his momentum, his weight, and the weight of the anvil… and his head was chopped near clean off.”

The room had gone completely quiet as the sheriff continued his story, and one by one, the other men in the room were rising from their chairs and converging on the table where the lawman sat with the two strangers. Mann looked up at them, then at the agents. “That isn’t the end of the story, gents.”

“Then why don’t you finish it?” Jim’s voice was surprisingly harsh, and once again, Artie was certain that his partner somehow knew at least some of what was going on.

“I will.” Mann remained silent a long moment before he spoke again. “As you probably imagine, no one grieved for Ebell, despite the gruesome death. No one wanted him buried in the churchyard, so a hole was dug out in a field and he was dumped there. Who knows, maybe that’s what really caused it all.”

“Caused what?” Artie was becoming impatient.

“We had a quiet year. A peaceful year. Then the next October 31, Joe Ryan came to me, white as a sheet and shaking all over. He said he had seen Otis Ebell, on a horse. He said Ebell talked to him, but he didn’t have a head. Of course, I thought that even though I knew Joe didn’t drink, he was talking nonsense. Maybe he had dreamed it. He said Ebell told him he was coming back that night, on All Hallow’s Eve, and was going to face Ryan in a gunfight. I told Joe to go home and relax.

“Later that night Joe’s wife came screaming down the street. She said Joe was dead, shot down in their yard. When she calmed down, she said Joe had been sitting in their parlor when he suddenly jumped up as though he heard something outside. He grabbed his shotgun and went out. Mamie went to the door and Joe seemed to be talking to someone, but she couldn’t see anyone. Then she heard shots. Pistol shots. Joe fell down dead. She heard the sound of a horse riding away.

“Well, even then we didn’t think that much about it. Joe had been fretting all year about what happened. He had to work in that shop every day, and no doubt, he saw in his mind Ebell’s head rolling on the floor, all the blood streaming everywhere. I couldn’t exactly explain who shot him, but it seemed as though someone with a grudge had called him out. Maybe Joe even knew this fellow was coming for him but didn’t want to worry Mamie.”

“Then it happened again,” Jim said softly.

Mann looked at him in some surprise. “Yeah, it did. The next Halloween, and every Halloween since. Six men have died on Halloween under mysterious circumstances. They all claimed to have seen and maybe talked to a headless Otis Ebell. I witnessed one of the gunfights, right here on the streets of town. Paul Granger, who sometimes acted as my deputy, said he met Ebell on Halloween morning. Said Ebell, without a head, was sitting on a big black horse right outside the cabin where Paul lived by himself. That night, out in the street, it was like he went off his head, yelling at someone none of us could see. Paul drew his gun suddenly, but before he could get a shot off, he was falling down, with a bullet in his heart.”

“A ghost bullet?” Artie asked skeptically.

“Seems so, though it was real enough. All of them were real. There’s another thing. Ebell was a miserly bastard. Well, he never worked much and didn’t have money, so he bullied everyone into providing him free drinks and meals, even a room at the Palmer House. Ida Palmer can tell you. But the one thing Ebell did was manufacture his own bullets. He claimed he wanted to be sure they were perfect. Not sure if it was that or he was too tight to spend money on them. Anyway, the bullets taken out of the dead men were handmade.

“Each year, early on Halloween, or a couple times, the day before, the headless ghost of Otis Ebell visited every man, supposedly. If Ebell talked, he told the man he visited he was going to be killed that night, and it happened. Seems Ebell says he’s going to keep killing a man every Halloween until he meets someone faster. So far this time I haven’t heard from anyone who says he’s been visited.”

“The victim always sees Ebell first.” Jim’s voice was flat and emotionless, as was his expression.

Mann’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t tell me you…”

Artie interrupted. “Jim! On the road! Was that… did you see…?” He could scarcely grasp the idea.

Jim looked at his partner calmly. “I didn’t think you’d believe me if I said I saw a headless horseman riding across the road in front of us.”

A murmur went through the men gathered around the table. One asked, “Did you talk to him?”

Jim glanced up. “No. He just crossed the road, startling our horses.” A gruesome figure in black, almost seeming to leave a cloud of fire and black smoke trailing behind him and his large ebony steed. The horse’s wild red eyes had stared directly at him. Words had not been needed even if they had been possible from a headless man.

“Well, that’s different,” Mann said. “All the others—even the one fellow who was a stranger passing through town like you—said Ebell told them he was coming after them. Didn’t seem to matter if the… the one chosen tried to hide out. Ebell found them. This particular fellow stayed in his room at the Palmer House. Adele Palmer heard a commotion and shots upstairs. She came for me and we found the fellow with a bullet in his heart.”

“At least that guy got a shot off,” a man said. “A bullet hole was in the wall.”

“Yeah, that’s true. First time we had evidence of that, although the brother of one man said his brother got his gun out far enough to fire into the ground. Like Mrs. Ryan said about her husband, Carl Topping’s brother talked to someone Carl couldn’t see.”

“Maybe Ebell was heading for someone else this morning,” another man suggested, causing the group to murmur in both agreement and apprehension.

“Like I said,” the sheriff responded, “no one has come to tell me.”

“It doesn’t make any difference,” Artie spoke firmly. “We’re leaving first thing tomorrow morning. We have to get to Billings.” He looked to his partner for agreement, but Jim was looking into his barely touched glass of beer. “Jim?”

Now Jim lifted his head. “I guess that’s true.”

The sheriff got to his feet now. “I’d sure advise it. In fact, you might consider heading out right now. Like Ford said, if the ghost didn’t talk to you, maybe you’re not the target. But I sure wouldn’t take the chance.”

Jim stood up. “I guess we’ll wait until morning. We’ve been looking forward to a night on a bed, rather than the hard ground.”

Artie did not say anything, following Jim from the saloon and down the street back to the hotel. He was unsure of Jim’s reasoning for remaining in Simpsonville. For me, I’m thinking to get the heck out of here, whether this story they are telling is true or not. They had to get their gear, in any case. Why would Jim play along with the story? Unless he actually saw…

“Did you?” he asked aloud as they reached the lobby of the hotel.

“Did I what?” Jim returned, walking toward the stairs.

“Did you really see this… this headless horseman?”

Jim paused, a foot on the first stair, hand on the newel post. “I saw something, Artie. It looked like a large man on a large horse… and the man did not have a head.”

“There’s no such thing as ghosts,” Artie muttered as they moved upward.

Jim chuckled. “That’s what I always said.”

Artie did not reply. Experiences in the last few years had taught them that many things they believed impossible were perhaps not so impossible after all. They rarely talked about the little girl they encountered in the desert [see The Night of the Little Girl Lost] and although Jim had never stated it aloud, Artie was certain he had met, even talked to, the spirit of Cinnia O'Donnell [see The Night of the Dead Man’s Revenge].

Artemus followed Jim to his room and stood in the doorway as Jim went to light a lamp by the bed. “James, let’s saddle up and get out of this town. Tonight.”

Jim turned, the glowing lamp behind him now shadowing his face, making his expression hard to read. “Don’t you want to see what happens tomorrow night?”

“No, I don’t! If it’s a hoax, fine. If it’s not… well, I’d rather be a long ways from here. Don’t tell me you’re that curious.”

“It’s not curiosity, Artie. It’s…I can’t explain it. From the moment I saw that hideous figure crossing in front of us, I knew something… was going to happen and that I had to be a part of it.”

“Don’t be ridiculous!” Artie’s frustration was near anger.

“Artie, Simpsonville has been under a curse for seven years. Once a year a man is murdered by this… this specter.”

“But that’s impossible! Ghosts can’t kill.” Realizing what he had said, Artie muttered, “If they exist at all.”

“Something is killing these men.”

“It must be coincidence. A… a heart attack.”

“Seven men all experiencing a fatal heart attack on the evening of Halloween? All Hallow’s Eve? They had lead in their hearts, Artie.”

Artemus expressed an exasperated sigh. “I don't know, Jim. I just don't know. But I don’t see why you want to remain and… and risk it.”

“I can’t explain it, partner. From the moment I saw the… the apparition, I knew I was somehow involved in all this. Of course, I didn’t know how until Sheriff Mann told us the story of Otis Ebell.”

“You’re not involved, James! You aren’t! I’m not! We are just passing through, and we can get the hell out of here, if not tonight, then the first thing tomorrow morning!” Artie’s temper was rising, primarily, he was aware, because he did not understand this at all.

Jim sat down on the bed then, and Artemus saw, in the lamplight, the tension in his face. “All my life I sincerely believed ghosts were a myth. During the war, men told me how they saw dead comrades walking through camp. Or when we rode through a previous battle area, someone would say they had seen some of the previous fight going on. I laughed. Then we met little Mary Lee.” [See The Night of the Little Girl Lost.]

“Yeah. And I’m still unsure whether we actually saw and talked to her or…”

“It happened, Artie. I am positive it did. Don’t forget, her uncle was there and saw her, talked to her.”

“But he…”

Jim interrupted. “I talked to Cinnia at the cemetery. I saw her.” [See The Night of the Dead Man’s Revenge.]

Again, Artie sighed, softer. “I thought so. I saw… something.”

Jim looked at him, surprised. “What did you see? You never said.”

Wishing he had not spoken, Artie shrugged. “When you knelt by the grave, it appeared that something… someone… was embracing you. It was more a mist than anything solid.”

Jim nodded, looking toward a picture on the wall above him for a moment, a print of a Rembrandt portrait, one that Jim recognized very well. He turned back to Artie. “Do you remember when Mary Lee was leaving us, when she said she heard her mother call?”

“Yes,” Artie replied slowly. “I also remember that you said you heard that call.”

“I did. I’ve wondered about it ever since. Why did I hear that when neither you nor Ray Denison did? By the way, I recall that in that instance you were the one who insisted we had to stay and help Mary Lee.”

Artie grimaced. “I know. But that was a little girl not a… a monster!”

Jim smiled briefly, and then looked at the portrait again. “I have never considered myself prescient. Nonetheless, more than once I’ve ‘guessed’ something was going to happen before it did. You have as well. I always attributed it to common sense.”

“Jim, are you trying to say you… we… are seers?”

Jim got to his feet quickly and strode toward the room’s window, staring out. “I don't know what I’m saying, Artie. All I know is that I have to stay here and face that demon tomorrow night. It’s as though I was destined to be here at this point in time.”

Artie walked toward his partner, stopped a few feet behind him, remembering something. “Jim, we left a day earlier than we originally planned.”

Turning, Jim nodded. “For no particular reason other than we decided to do so.”

“If we had not, we would have arrived here tomorrow evening, or even the morning after Halloween.”

“So you’re agreeing that it was… fate? My destiny?”

Artie threw his arms out, turning away. “I don't know, Jim. I don't know what to believe. I don't know what this ‘demon horseman’ is, if it really exists. If he exists, he’s killed six men, apparently with… with supernatural powers. What good would your pistol—made of metal—with lead bullets do against a being like that?”

“I have no idea, Artie.” Jim was silent a moment before continuing. “I’ve faced death so many times. So have you. I guess I’ve come to believe it’s not going to happen.”

“You’re not immortal, James.” Artie turned to face him.

Jim smiled. “I know that. Nonetheless, think of all the different things we’ve encountered. Loveless’s inventions. The town of Halcyon [see The Night of the Ordeal]. We survived them all. Who is to say I won’t survive this? We won’t know until I face Ebell’s ghost. If it exists.”

James: Thanks, Artie.
Artemus: "Thanks Artie"! Is that all you can say to me? I've just come back from the grave, risen like Lazarus, and that's what you say? "Thanks, Artie"?
James: Thanks, Artie.
Artemus: It's a pleasure.
- TNOT Pistoleros

California gal
SS senior field agent

8547 Posts

Posted - 10/24/2013 :  11:50:51  Show Profile

Now it is the time of night
That the graves, all gaping wide,
Every one lets forth his sprite,
In the churchway paths to glide.
A Midsummer Night's Dream (Puck at V, i), William Shakespeare (1564-1616), English dramatist and poet)

“How did you sleep?”

Jim glanced at his partner as they descended the stairs. “Sleep? What’s that?” His grin was wry.

Artie had to laugh. Jim had certainly relaxed after their conversation last evening, even if he had not slept well. I’m glad if I had a hand in it. He knows I’m still skeptical to an extent, but he also knows I’ll be right beside him.

They walked down the street toward the restaurant, noticing again that they were objects of interest. However, something different existed in the stares and quiet conversation. The story of their meeting with the sheriff had spread rapidly. Everyone knew that Jim West had seen the horseman and expected to face him tonight.

I wonder if they know who Jim West is, Artie pondered. Do they know he is considered one of the fastest guns in the west? Do they harbor hope that he will be the one to end the town’s curse? I hope so too!

Jim noticed the behavior of the people in the restaurant. Conversation halted as they entered, continuing at a low murmur. The cook came to take their orders, and when they finished, refused to take their money. He did not say why, but they knew why.

He’s hoping I’m going to get rid of Otis, Jim mused as they stepped out into the October sunshine. He was still unsure about the whole situation, other than, as he had told his partner last night, he simply felt that he had to stay and see it out. Was it possible this ghost actually was returning to slay men in the town where he had run roughshod? On the other hand, was someone playing an elaborate and evil hoax on the town, going to far as to manufacture the bullets as Ebell had?

He kept remembering that moment when the figure crossed the road. Artie had not seen it. The horses had at least sensed it. However, he had seen it. It had been huge, more than life-size. If it had been there, why had not Artie spotted it? Was it because, as the town’s legend said, only the man chosen to face Ebell would see the specter?

They returned to the stable to take further care of their horses, replenishing food and water. Giving the mounts a brisk rubdown was good for both men and beasts. Not only did it consume time in the slow-moving day, but momentarily drew their attention away from the upcoming night.

Artie periodically noted signs of tension in his partner, such as when Jim commented, about mid-afternoon, “This has to be the longest day of my life!” However, mostly Jim seemed fairly relaxed, as he might have been before any battle. As he had said last night, they faced death too many times to fear it. In their occupation, they could not exist in terror that their lives could end at any moment, even while being aware of that possibility.

For the most part, the people of Simpsonville let them be. However, in the general store where they had gone to pick up some supplies for the remainder of their trip back to the train, a wizened old lady rose from a rocking chair where she had been observing the traffic in the establishment, coming to Jim and putting her hand on his arm.

“You have come, vo'êstanévêstómanéhe. I knew you would.”

She then scurried away, going through a door in the back before either could respond. The man behind the counter informed them she was his grandmother, the widow of the founder of Simpsonville. She was full-blooded Cheyenne and his grandfather had married her soon after he settled in this area. The town meant a great deal to her, and he said, she often fretted she would leave this life with the curse still hanging over it.

“Did she call you ‘savior’?” Artie asked as they carried their purchases to the hotel.

“I don't know.”

Artie did not pursue it further. They had both learned quite a bit of Cheyenne language over time, especially after making the acquaintance of American Knife, the shaman. He was pretty sure that the word the old woman used had that connotation. I hope she’s right!

Finally, the sun began to sink behind the hills to the west, while a full moon rose in the east. “Perfect,” Artie muttered when he noted this. “At least we’ll have plenty of light for the big show.” They were standing on the porch of the hotel. Jim was leaning against the porch post. “Jim, we still have time.”

Jim glanced around. “For what?”

“To leave.” Artie sighed and continued before his friend could say anything. “I know, I know. Destiny. Is your gun loaded with silver bullets?”

Jim chuckled. “I don’t know if King Stefan was correct about silver bullets killing werewolves… but Talamantes wasn’t a werewolf after all, as you may recall.”

“Yeah, I remember. It was in that book I found there. Whether it really works… if werewolves really exist… I don't know, Jim. I just don't know.” How many times have I said that these last two days? “One part of me wants to see this ‘thing,’ hopes it shows up. Another part is terrified.”

“Terrified? Of what?”

“That this… this entity is either truly a supernatural creature, or is a man, or men, with tricks. Either way, you could be killed tonight, James.”

“Oh, ye of little faith!”

“I have faith in you, Jim. I know how well you handle a gun. Nonetheless, consider the possibilities. If it is a supernatural being, his abilities may be above those of humans. If the ghost is actually a man, or men, he may use some ruse. Perhaps a sniper that…”

“Artie! It’s going to be all right.”

“And how do you know that?”

“I… just know. One way or another, everything will be fine. I… hear that?”

Artie cocked his head. The town was preternaturally quiet. Lights were on in most of the buildings and people were waiting for the encounter. The saloon was open, but no sounds emanated through its open door. No jollity tonight.

“No. What do you hear?”

“Hoof beats. Far off but coming closer.”

Sheriff Mann had emerged from his office and was crossing the street, his moon shadow long on the dust. He stepped up onto the porch. “Gentlemen?”

“Jim says he hears the horseman coming.”

“I hear a horse coming,” Jim corrected. “But if you’re not hearing it…”

“I don’t hear a thing,” Mann said, staring down the street. “But it’s about time. The other shootings occurred within an hour or so after sundown.”

Artie felt the tension growing inside. He wanted to grab Jim and drag him back into the hotel. Even if he tried, he knew he would not be successful. Jim would break loose and return to the porch immediately. He was determined to carry this through. Artie did not understand Jim’s confidence. Is he sure he can win, or simply accepting death? While neither of them ever courted death, they never fled from its possibility either. They played the game through to its ending, every time.

“How far off is the horse?” the sheriff asked then.

“Much closer,” Jim replied softly. “I wouldn’t want to run a race against that horse.” He pulled off his jacket and handed it to Artie, ignoring the chill of the evening air. In fact, he hardly felt it, his concentration on the task ahead. He drew his gun, spun the cartridge chamber to make sure all six were filled. Often he kept one chamber under the hammer empty, for safety purposes. Tonight he wanted every advantage.

“Sheriff?” Jim looked at the lawman. “What’s the best bourbon carried at the saloon?”

Mann was obviously bewildered by the query. “Why… I think they have some Kentucky bourbon. Costs a little more.”

“Good. It’ll be my treat once this is over.” With a nod toward Artemus, Jim holstered the snake-embossed pistol then stepped down into the dust of the street. When he saw Artemus start to follow, he paused. “No. Stay there.”


“Artie, I’m the one challenged. From what I understand, you won’t even be able to see… him. Stay put.”

With a deep sigh, Artemus nodded and halted at the edge of the porch, by the pole where Jim had been leaning. Glancing around, he saw shadows at windows and doors all around. Bringing his attention back, he saw Jim stiffen, staring down the empty street. Something is coming!

It was an odd feeling to realize he was the only one seeing and hearing it. The rider paused at the edge of town, dust and smoke swirling around him and the great black horse. Jim had to swallow when he realized that indeed the rider had no head. A thick neck jutted out of the black cloak, a neck with a jagged edge. At least blood isn’t pouring from it.

The rider proceeded slowly toward where Jim was. Jim stood erect, his arms hanging loosely by his side, keeping his eyes on the horrible vision before him. Oddly, the closer the horseman came, the more near normal size he appeared, almost as though it was shrinking. The frame of the headless man was still large; after all Sheriff Mann said that was the case with Ebell. He used his size to intimidate.

Except for the dark vapors that emanated from its nose and arose around its hoofs, the black horse also appeared more typical. A beautiful creature, putting Jim in mind of his own black steed. However, Blackjack’s eyes never glowed as this one’s did.

The voice seemed to come out of nowhere, as indeed it would, Jim decided, as no mouth was available to produce words. “James West! I have long awaited the opportunity to kill you! I knew you would be here tonight.”

Jim took a breath and prevented his hands from forming fists at his side. The voice was hollow, seeming to echo inside his head, as though it was originating there. “Ride on, Ebell. Your time is finished here.”

Artie heard Jim’s firm words and all he could do was stare. Someone—something—was there, presumably talking to Jim. He was unsure if it was his imagination or the temperature around the area had dropped considerably.

“Finished? You are the one who is finished, West. You will soon join me in riding forever on a lonely trail, seeking vengeance.”

“I have no one I wish to seek vengeance against.”

A roaring laughter emanated from the carcass aboard the black steed, vibrating in Jim’s head. “We all have someone to seek vengeance against, West. You’ll remember them once you are dead.”

Jim caught his breath as the figure lithely dismounted. Without directions, the horse moved slightly to one side. “I don’t plan to die. At least not tonight.”

“You’re going to die. As soon as I draw my gun against you. So you might as well get it over with and pull your gun, West.”

Jim shook his head slightly. “No. Your reign of terror is finished here, Ebell. You need to return to hell or wherever you came from. You’re going to have to draw first.”

Again that burst of laughter, a little shorter this time. “You have a death wish, West. I will accommodate you.”

Artie saw Jim’s right hand dip and the pistol come up. It fired six times in Jim’s hand as Artemus held his breath and waited to see his partner stagger and fall. Instead, he saw a scene he would never forget for the remainder of his life. Suddenly the figure of a man—a man without a head—clad in black and holding a gleaming pistol, stood in the street. Briefly, almost too briefly to be seen, a head appeared atop the neck, eyes opened wide. The knees of the figure began to buckle, and with a horrific scream, pitched forward.

At that moment, the black horse that had appeared along with the man’s figure reared up high… and vanished in a swirl of black smoke. An instant later, the body of the man on the street also evanesced and disappeared, leaving no sign that it had been there. A great flash then illuminated the sky. A woman screamed somewhere and a man yelled a curse.

Then it was quiet again. Only the silver moonlight bathed the town. No one moved. Seconds ticked by before Jim slowly shoved his gun into the holster and turned toward the hotel.

“It’s over.”

Artie jumped down from the porch and strode out to his friend, grabbed his arm. “Jim! My God! He… he didn’t have a head!” At least not until the very end of the vision.

Jim blinked. “You saw him?”

“Only for a few seconds at the last instant. Just before that flash of light.”

“We all saw him,” Mann said, joining Artie. “In his… his dying moment… Did he die?”

“He expired,” Artie offered. “Would that be a good explanation?”

People were emerging from the buildings now, chattering, laughing nervously after what they had witnessed, almost afraid to be relieved and joyful. Jim turned and saw how they were converging toward him.

“Artie, I’m tired. I’m going inside.”

Without waiting for a reply, he strode into the hotel, by Mrs. Palmer who had come to the doorway. Artie watched him then turned to the astonished sheriff.

“Jim is not one for receiving praise. He’ll be back later.” I think he’s more shaken than I’ve ever seen him as well. What he just faced… well, it’s unimaginable.

Jim stood in the darkness of his room, back from the window a bit, but still where he could watch the street below. He half believed that the apparition might return. He also wondered whether he had seen and done what appeared to have occurred. For a man who spent his entire life refuting the existence of ghosts, this is just about too much to swallow. Yet he knew he had also met the little girl, Mary Lee, in the desert, and he had seen and spoken to Cinnia, the woman who might have become so much more a part of his life had she not given her life for his.

Watching the merriment below felt good, he had to admit to himself. These people had lived in dread of Halloween, a holiday that usually meant celebrations and fun. He remembered the parties he attended as a boy in New York, bobbing for apples, playing tricks on friends, receiving treats from neighbors. Some children here in Simpsonville might never have experienced Halloween in that manner.

After about a half hour, when things began to simmer down in the street and some people were heading home, Jim descended the stairs and exited. Artie was on the porch with Sheriff Mann and a couple of other men. He turned and looked at Jim with one brow lifted questioningly. Jim merely smiled slightly and nodded.

The sheriff saw him. “Mr. West! We were just telling Mr. Gordon here that we’d like the two of you to stay on a day or two so we can show our gratitude.”

Artie spoke quickly. “I told the sheriff that, unfortunately, we will be late for our appointment in Washington if we don’t leave tomorrow morning.” That was not exactly true, but he knew his partner. As he had told Mann earlier, Jim was not much for praise and honors. He had had to be persuaded to attend ceremonies to receive battle medals and commendations.

“That’s true,” Jim replied, experiencing deep gratitude toward Artie. “Besides, I think you might want to save your biggest celebration for next Halloween.”

A tall man alongside the sheriff nodded vigorously. “That’s what I told Mann. I’m Mayor Biggs, Mr. West. Let me shake your hand. And invite you to return to Simpsonville next year.”

Jim accepted the hand. “If our schedule allows, we certainly will. Thank you.” If only to find out whether the specter returns.

The other man on the porch was the young clerk Jim had spoken to in the general store. “Mr. West, my grandmother would like to see you. She’s still up if you have time.”

Jim concurred and walked with him to the store. They went through the back and up some stairs to the living quarters, where he was introduced to the clerk’s wife and two children. He then stepped over to the old woman seated in a rocking chair with an afghan across her lap. She smiled at him and held out her hand, dark eyes shining. Jim accepted the hand and she gripped it so he would not immediately pull away.

“I told you, James West. You are vo'êstanévêstómanéhe. You are the savior of my town, my husband’s town.”

“I’m glad I could help, néške'e.

Her eyes widened with the reference to her as “grandmother.” “You speak the Cheyenne?”

“Very little. I have a very good friend in the Cheyenne nation, American Knife.”

“Ah. A good man. You will come again, James West. I will try to be here to greet you again.”

Jim squeezed the hand. “You’d better be.”

James: Thanks, Artie.
Artemus: "Thanks Artie"! Is that all you can say to me? I've just come back from the grave, risen like Lazarus, and that's what you say? "Thanks, Artie"?
James: Thanks, Artie.
Artemus: It's a pleasure.
- TNOT Pistoleros
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California gal
SS senior field agent

8547 Posts

Posted - 10/24/2013 :  11:51:33  Show Profile

From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!
—Scottish Saying

After a much sounder night of sleep and another free breakfast, the agents headed out again toward the waiting Wanderer. Neither said much about the previous night, lost in their own thoughts about it. Only when they had made a camp to prepare a midday meal and were dining on the beans, did Artie speak up.

“I’m sure glad this wasn’t an official job.”

Jim looked at him. “What? Why?”

“Jim! We have already had so many circumstances that we had to really fudge our reports about because we knew no one would believe it actually happened. What do you think the colonel would say if I handed in a report about a headless horseman?”

Jim had to laugh aloud. “I suspect I might have to find a new partner, in that case. You’d be placed in an asylum.”

“Correct. And sometimes I wonder if that isn’t where I belong, whether I’ve imagined all these… things.”

“Well, if you belong there, so do I. What’s that quote?”

For a moment, Artie was puzzled. Then he nodded. “‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ Hamlet. We are walking proof, James. Walking proof! More beans?”

/~The End~/

James: Thanks, Artie.
Artemus: "Thanks Artie"! Is that all you can say to me? I've just come back from the grave, risen like Lazarus, and that's what you say? "Thanks, Artie"?
James: Thanks, Artie.
Artemus: It's a pleasure.
- TNOT Pistoleros
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