There are fibs, lies, and tall tales, and exactly which one was afoot in the Peachtree Saloon that night could be debated. Savanna Sal, Harvey McCallian, and Muley Sam got to yarn spinning over a few beers. Each one put a dollar on the bar betting who had the best story. The bar patrons gathered around to listen and later vote on who got the prize.
Sam was a prospector and early mountain man from the old days with his footprints covering much of the land west of the Platte. When his turn came he stepped up with his favorite reminiscence from his time in California.
"If you get up in the back country of the Sierra Nevada you might run into a man-bear. Some say it's not true, but I'm here to tell you it's real 'cause I saw the making of this creature.
"There were five or six of us trapping in those mountains back in '35. One of the men was Red River Ralph. He was a big man, maybe the biggest man I ever saw. Rough, rugged, with a mighty chest and a bellowing voice that could strip bark clean off a pine tree.
"One morning outside of camp we heard a crashing and growling in the brush. Ralph went to see what it was and up popped the greatest grizzly bear in the world. It busted out right in front of him. They were both startled and held their ground for a moment, then the bear opened his grand maw and through its gleaming sharp teeth dripping with slobber, let out an ear splitting roar. Not to be out done, Ralph drew in a full breath and responded with a deafening roar of his own.
"The bear was not used to anyone or anything standing up to him. So, he reared up to his full height, maybe 12 feet or more, and roared again. Standing his ground, Ralph responded in kind, even though he looked puny next to the mountain beast.
"Now, full of anger, the beast dropped to all fours and bolted full speed at our fellow. Ralph was quick for a big man and sidestepped the bear as it lunged for him. In a quick moment the bear stopped, turned and went back after Ralph. Our friend started to run in a circle around the bear. We were sure that the bear would have him in a short order, but Ralph continued to stay just one fang away from the beast's jaws.
"The faster the bear ran, the faster Ralph ran; around and around they ran in tighter and tighter circles. They kicked up a thick cloud of dust so we could not see which was which at any moment. They came to look not as two beings, but one being spinning around like a great puppy chasing its tail.
"Finally, they slowed with exhaustion and to our amazement there was not the two of them, but only one creature standing there all out of breath. It was a curious thing. It had fingers extending out from its paws, with Ralph's face where the bear's face had been, and it was wearing Ralph's britches.
"We were rooted to the ground with fear and awe and could not have defended ourselves if the man-bear had turned on us, but it didn't. Confused and full of mystery about its condition, it turned and wandered back into the underbrush.
"We followed after it for a spell, but to no effect. For the rest of the season we would catch sight of the man-bear up on a high ridge or down in a valley or hunting in a stream. The next year we were back trapping the same ground and we caught sight of a she-bear with two cubs. Each one had fingers and a child's face. Since then you hear reports of man-bears up in the Sierra Nevada all the time.
"A man bear?" Harvey McCallian thought to himself. He scoffed, but felt it was not right to question another man's tall tale so he let it go. "I too met a bear once when I was riding for the Pony Express and had an experience that will make your flesh crawl."
"You remember the poster for the Pony Express: 'Young, skinny, wiry fellow not over eighteen; must be expert riders willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred. $25 per week. Apply at the Pony Express Stables.'
"So there I was, not a month past fourteen and an orphan just like they wanted. I walked in and they gave me a job, no questions asked."
"Hold it right there," Sam interjected, having no problem with stepping on another man's tale. "I know your dad and brothers. You ain't no orphan."
Without skipping a beat, Harvey countered, "I picked them up after this happened," and went on with his yarn.
"It was on my third or fourth run, three days out of St. Joe, when a band of Crew Indians cornered me and shot my horse. They were a fierce lot with painted faces and none too friendly, I'll tell you.
"Figured I was a goner when they stripped me and staked me out on an ant hill. Then they slathered me with this sticky goo that smelled worse than anything that ever came off a stable floor. Guess it must have been to get the ants to agree. The cowards took off and left me to die a horrible death being swarmed by them little beggars.
"They were in my mouth, up my nose, all over my ears and eyes, and they even got into places that one should ever go. I was in a hell of a fix for sure. Then I started to laugh.
"Don't know why, but them varmints crawling all over me gave me the tickles. The more they moved the more tickled I got until I could do nothing but laugh out loud. I laughed and laughed and laughed like I was possessed, half mad.
"I raised such a ruckus that all manner of critters came by to see what was the matter. Among them was a passel of lizards including a gila monster. Well those reptiles got to feasting on those pesky ants and in no time they had picked me clean.
"Of course I was still staked to the ground and the sun was getting pretty hot by then. That's when a bear came by sniffing around. He was a proper bear too, no man-bear. Seems he liked the stinky goo pretty well and started to lick it off my body. That was one time I lay so still, like the dead, who I was not looking to join.
"After his licking he set to work digging into the ant hill. He dug so ferociously he popped my stakes out of the ground and, when he finally left, I was free.
"You must have been bad sunburned and nearly starved for water by then," Sam questioned. "How did you survive?"
"Well Sam, I was pretty bad off, but that is when the sky clouded up and it started to rain and I got swept up in a flash flood that carried me to the next Pony Express station where I arrived holding a fat trout in each hand that they cooked up for my supper."
"Bears, ants, gila monsters, trout" Sal piped up. "They're not so strange." Sal owned the saloon and was known to be a woman with a bawdy soul, so the patrons were ready for a ribald tale.
"I grew up in Kansas and you know when it gets to blowing out there on the plains a lot of strange things get to happening. So this one afternoon I was walking home from school and the black clouds came up out of the west and it got dark real fast. The tongue of that twister came down right behind me. I headed for a small grove of trees as fast as I could run, but it caught me and lifted me up and spun me around.
"Round and round I went, sweeping about with all kinds of stuff like boards, farm tools and even a fat sow. Higher and higher the storm took me. It blew so hard it stripped off the flour sack dress Momma made me."
The men in the bar leaned forward, anticipating the next line. Here at last was the juicy tale they wanted.
"That didn't bother me much as in a few minutes a much prettier dress came whirling by. I grabbed it and put it on."
From the men, a disappointed sigh circuited the room.
"There was no way of telling how long I was up in the air, but finally the wind started to fade. Instead of sending me back to the ground I found myself sitting on a thick, puffy cloud. With clear air below me, I saw farms and cities and rivers. At first I was scared that the cloud would give out and I'd plummet to my death, but that fear passed over time as I sat there and the wind moved us along.
"In the distance there was another cloud, much bigger than mine, and the wind was pushing me towards it. The closer I came the more I could see and, to my surprise, there was this man standing on the edge of the cloud. He wore a white beard, dressed in white robes and stood in front of massive gates of pearl and gold. For my whole life I've heard about the pearly gates and St. Peter who guarded them. That was the nearest thing I could think of, looking out at the big cloud.
"As my cloud passed by I stood up and yelled, 'How do I get home?' At first he paid no attention, so I called again and again. He heard me at last and as we whisked by, he stretched out his Shepherd's crook and tapped my cloud.
"The cloud began to swirl around me and in no time it reformed into a great grey-white steed with me seated high up on its back. 'Home,' I yelled and we took off right into a head wind. His cloudy mane whipped around and my long hair was swept straight out behind me. The longer he ran the faster he went and soon we were circling our old farm house.
"He lay out on the ground like a thick fog and my feet touched. As soon as I was down, he reformed into his horse form and winged off into the sky. Every now and then I look up at the sky and see him waiting for me. When I'm done on this world I know he will be there to take me back to those pearly gates."
The other story tellers and the assembled bar folks had not expected Sal to tell such a tale. No one knew she had such a soft side, but she told it with such passion one could only think it happened just as she said.
Not letting the silence last one moment longer, Sam started in on his next yarn.
"I've never been one for ghosts and hauntings. But, when something happens that you cannot explain, it gets one to thinking. This one time I was working the Haverhill mine in Colorado, rigging a string of charges for the next blast. After all the men cleared out—"
Just then something caught in Sam's throat and the patrons were suddenly aware of a tall man standing in the doorway, dressed in black silk, wearing a wide brimmed hat that cast a shadow across his face and obscuring his features.
"It seems a bit rude to have a story contest without including the master liar of them all." The dark figure slipped up to the bar and placed a dollar next to the other coins. Strangely, his coin rang like a great bell when it came to rest.
The patrons, transfixed by this newcomer, sat in dead silence as he began his yarn.
"There are ruins down on the Pecos that you should stay clear of if a long life is what you want. Seems at one time a dance hall stood there, and folks came from all around to have a fine old time dancing and singing. A more jovial crowd one cannot imagine. Sometimes, in the early Fall, the dances would go on all night with several musicians taking turns providing the gaiety.
"It was on one of these Autumn nights under a full moon that a new fellow showed up carrying a fancy fiddle case. Not drawing much attention, he appeared as just a regular gent, but there was something about his eyes that didn't look exactly right. When the usual music makers took a break, he stood alone on the stage and opened his case. From it he pulled a shiny, black fiddle that seemed to glow with a light of its own, gleaming in an eerie way. Next came out his bow, strung with black hair, like the fiddle.
"Stomping his foot, he swept the bow across the stings and started playing the old Virginia reel. The people were tired from all the dancing they had already done, but the strains of the old fiddle perked up their ears. After a few more bars they all felt the urge to get back out on the floor and start to spin. Even the old people who usually just sat against the wall were up on their shaky legs.
"Once they were all going, the fiddler played a little faster. To follow the pace, the dances took to spinning a little faster too. The faster he played, the faster they moved. They could not stop even when they were spent. They could not sit down. Something unnatural was holding them up.
"Faster and faster the bow slid across the strings until the bow itself began to smoke. The dancers too were moving so fast they too seemed to give off wisps of smoke. Someone looking in on the scene would be hard pressed to distinguish one person from another.
"The room filled with an unearthly smoky fog and then the fiddler's bow burst into flame and bits of fire flew off, igniting the roof and walls. The dancers were so entranced they didn't notice the dance hall burning down around them. The fiddler played even faster.
"Finally the people started to dissolve and become one with the smoke. As the flames built higher the disembodied dancers were swept up into the sky along with the burning embers. And still the fiddler played.
"By morning there was nothing left of the dance hall but a few ruins; no people, nothing but the fiddler still standing on the remnants of the stage. As if nothing had happened, he replaced his instrument in its case, held out his arms and spun around like the dancers. Turning into a wisp of smoke, he blew away with the wind."
As the dark stranger told his tale, saloon patrons had not noticed the thickening layer of smoke gathering above their heads. That is, until the storyteller described how the fiddler wended his way into oblivion. Then the listeners began coughing and their eye's burned with the acrid air.
The dark yarn spinner concluded, "Now if you go down to those ruins when the moon casts just the right shadows and the wind is just so, you can see those dancers to this day and hear the old Virginia reel wafting through the trees."
By then no one was listening as they milled about in confusion and discomfort. Some men tried to find the door, but could not find a way out. The stranger laughed out loud in a hideous cackle that added to the unpleasantness. "I think these coins are mine," he declared, sweeping the money into his fist. He walked calmly out the door and disappeared into the night.