"I heard that kind of a sound that a ghost makes when it wants to tell about something that's on its
mind and can't make itself understood, and so can't rest easy in its grave, and has to go about that
way every night grieving."
– Mark Twain
The sky was empty of birds and clouds. The sun beat down on the small town in the middle of nowhere. Tumbleweeds blew across the dry rutted street. The town hadn't seen rain in months and everything was dried up. The streets were deserted as if the town was forgotten.
The tall stranger rode in from the East; the sun scorched his eyes. The wind bit at his raw and sunburned face. A stubble of beard ran from ear to ear; the lines around his mouth etched a story of a desolate and rough life.There was no sadness, no anger, and no emotion.
He shifted in his saddle and squinted into the afternoon sun. A film of water covered his coal black, hardened eyes, reflecting the light from the fading sun. His long scraggly hair hung in greasy strands from under his sweat-stained hat. His horse, a brown and white paint, was covered with dust. They had been riding for four days.
The stranger gazed to his left and right as he rode down the deserted street. The town was eerily quiet. Nothing moved, not even a stray cur.
A face suddenly appeared at the window of Maude's Saloon and Hotel; but just as quickly, it was gone.
He dismounted and tied his horse to the post in front of Maude's, the only hotel in town. A town named Middle Of Nowhere, because it is located in the middle of nowhere. The air suddenly stilled as if it was tense with nerves for what was to come and seemed to suck even the sound of his footfalls into the nothingness of the street. He stopped, and in the distance came hoofbeats; getting closer, louder, he turned but saw nothing.
The wind picked up and whipped the white duster around his legs. He pushed it back, exposing the pearl
handles of his two Colt .45 Peacemakers, each perched on a hip in a shiny black holster, adorned with
silver conches, fashioned from silver dollars by a little señorita he spent time with down in San Antonio in '58. He removed his hat and wiped the sweat from his brow with a red bandana.
He turned and gazed at the sheriff's office and the General Store; both were deserted. He removed his duster and folded it over his saddle, securing it with his quirt. The Texas Ranger Star pinned to his chest, shimmered in the late afternoon sun. He untied his saddle bags and threw them over his shoulder before removing his rifle, a Henry Repeater, from the leather scabbard on the side of his saddle. The smooth metal glimmered in the sun. He reached down and loosened the saddle's latigo, allowing his horse to expand his belly and drink of the warm water in the trough in front of him. The stranger entered Maude's. He walked to the check in counter and ran his finger across the surface; it was covered in a carpet of dust. A pen sat in a dry inkwell and next to it was a small stack of the most beautifully embossed notepaper he ever laid eyes on. He turned around. He felt a chill in the air, a shimmer of mist, something.
He noticed the curtains rustle as if blown by the wind, but there was no wind. The curtains were made of a delicate white lace, embroidered and fringed in crimson cloth, covered with cobwebs, and yellowed from the constant exposure to the hot West Texas sun. The fixtures were expensive and lavish. Dust covered the lampshades, chairs, tables, and divan, as well as the burgundy and gold inlaid Persian rug on the floor.
He laid his saddlebags and Henry Repeater on the counter and rang the bell. There was no response. He didn't expect one.
He heard a scraping noise, like a chair being slid across the floor. He glanced to his right and saw a form that shimmered and waved, it appeared and vanished, there one moment, gone the next. It wasn't ghostly, not transparent in any way or frightening. It was some kind of an apparition. He shook his head and turned and walked into the bar. Chairs had been stacked on all the tables; dust and dirt covered the bar and floor. In the middle of the bar, there was a mirror, framed in gold, hanging on the wall. Above it was a picture of a woman, covered in a gauzy dress, draped over her reclining body while sitting in a carriage being pulled by two stallions, one white, one black. It appeared like she was smiling at him. He tipped his hat and smiled back. The bar was long and made of mahogany. At one time it must have been polished to a splendid shine. A tarnished brass foot rail encircled the base of the bar. A row of dusty spittoons was spaced on the floor next to the bar. Along the ledge, towels used by the patrons to wipe the beer suds from their mustaches still hung. In the middle of the bar sat a half-empty bottle, alone and corked, with a glass next to it. He picked it up and pulled the cork with his teeth. The pop of the cork leaving the bottle echoed in the empty room. He put his nose to the bottle and inhaled. "Smells like tequila," he mumbled and wiped the dirt off the top. He poured two fingers in the glass and held it up in a salute to the lady staring down at him. Did she just smile or was it his imagination? "I need to wash down some of that dust in my throat. I have been ridin' for four days. Left Nogadoches last Friday. Come lookin' for a lady; heard she was in the Middle Of Nowhere. I thought that was a joke the first time I heard it." He chuckled. "Don't look like she's here. Looks like nobody's here; just you and me. Well, here's to your health, if it ain't too late," he said with a grim smile. He threw back the drink and shook his head. "Wow, I drunk some mighty strong stuff in my day, but you got something here, Miss, and it tastes very good. I might have me another; I hope you don't mind?" he said, as he poured a generous portion into the glass. He threw it back and shook his head. "Damn, that's mighty good. Tastes like Cactus Wine, tequila and peyote tea, Is that what I got me, Miss? Stuff can kill a snake."
He poured another and lifted his glass to his nude lady friend, hanging on the wall.
Before he could throw it back, he heard a voice ask him, "What's your name ranger and what are you doing in the Middle Of Nowhere?"
His hand dropped to his hip and he turned around; no one. He pulled out one of his Peacemakers and looked behind the tattered curtains in front of an elevated stage that was by the far wall behind him; nobody there. He returned to the bar and finished his drink.
"Musta been my imagination," he said to the naked lady in the carriage over the bar. "Name's Mike. They call me Ranger Mike. I come lookin' for Kitty Leroy, one of the best poker players in the West. She also dances; started at the age of ten, they say. I heard she was sittin' at one of them tables over there," he said, pointing at the round tables in the corner with six chairs turned upside down on each of them.
"She's from Michigan. Know where that is? No? Well, neither do I. She worked dance halls and saloons from Chicago to Houston before she supposedly ended up in the Middle Of Nowhere. Along the way, she picked up some other skills, specifically, I heard she's savvy with a gun and knives. Heard she would shoot apples off her husband's head. She got restless, I guess, and wanted to take her show on the road, so she headed for Texas and left her husband behind. By the time she was 20, they say she was the most popular entertainer in Dallas, but she gave up dancing to become a faro dealer and was knowed to bring knives and revolvers to the faro tables."
"What did she do that makes you come lookin' for her?"
"Killed a man, they say," the tall Ranger answered as if the voice was coming from someone standing next to him at the bar, but there wasn't anyone there. The stranger acted like it was as normal as could be, that he would be, talkin' to a voice coming out of nowhere.
He swung around and looked over the empty bar again, his eyes squinting in the sunlight, slicing through the window.
The Ranger stared at the lady lounging in the horse carriage on the wall and said, "I think I better sit down. This here stuff is going to my head. Ain't had much to eat but Pecos Strawberries for the past four days. That's beans in case you don't know."
"I know what Pecos Strawberries are, cowboy," the woman's voice replied.
The tall Ranger shook his head and said, "This Cactus Wine is hittin' on an empty plate." He picked up the bottle and glass and went to the table in front of the stage. He took down a chair and was about to sit down when he heard a woman's voice ask, "Mind if I join you? We won't be gettin' busy for another two hours and I sure am working up a thirst havin' these two stallions pullin' me around town. I sent out invitations to all the principal gentlemen of the city, including the tax collector, mayor, aldermen, judges of the county, and members of the legislature. A splendid band of music will be in attendance. I hope you will stay and join us."
The tall stranger's jaw dropped as he saw an apparition of a woman in a translucent and silky dress, step out of the picture and float to his table.
"Offer a woman a chair, cowboy?" she said.
"Why, why, yes, yes, of course; here, take mine." He stood up and pulled out his chair for her and she sat down. "Are we going to share that glass or are you going to get me my own?" she smiled.
"Well, of course, where are the glasses?"
"Behind the bar," she replied.
The tall Ranger found a dusty glass and was using one of the bar rags to clean it when he saw the figure of a man, walking on air, materialize out of nowhere; a man he knew quite well, another Texas Ranger, William Alexander Anderson Wallace, known as Big Foot Wallace, a rough and tumble frontiersman. They rode together with Captain Jack Hay's Texas Rangers.
Wallace sat down next to the lady and turned with a far-reaching smile, Cheshire-cat like. Ranger Mike watched him, transfixed, waiting to see if he would speak. At last Big Foot Wallace opened his mouth, but instead of words, he set in motion a stream of thoughts from his mind to the Ranger's; thoughts of days gone by.
"Crazy? I'm not crazy," Ranger Mike said. But he couldn't move his hands. His head was clear, no trace of the "madness" that he could tell; but he couldn't budge. His back began to hurt from the top of his spine to his tail bone. His mouth was dry and his heart was pounding and felt like it was ready to explode, his eyes scanned left and right for signs of someone or something to make sense of all this.
What sort of hell am I in? I knowed Wallace and he was never one to repeat the same story twice; I was with him in Mexico when we participated in what was knowed as the "Black Bean Incident". It was a lottery where 159 white and 17 black beans were drawn from a crock to determine which men would be executed. A black bean meant execution; a white bean meant prison. Wallace, always the non-conformist, drew a gray bean. The Mexican Officer in charge determined the bean to be white and Big Foot was spared death. We survived an 800-mile march to Perote prison in the state of Vera Cruz. Once Big Foot Wallace went without water for six days and then drank an entire gallon at once. We attempted to stop him, but he fought us off and collapsed in sleep. We never expected him to awaken but he did, the next day, refreshed and famished for the remainder of the mule meat he had been living on.
The last time I saw him was on Rattlesnake Ridge, outside of Austin. He went South and I went West. I sure as hell didn't 'spect ta see him sittin' here.
"Why are you here, Big Foot? Lookin' for revenge?"
"No, Ranger Mike, I'm here to see a friend."
Ranger Mike heard laughter and voices coming from the hotel lobby. A group of "painted ladies" wearing make-up and dyed hair, floated into the bar. They wore brightly colored ruffled skirts that were scandalously short. Under the bell-shaped skirts, their legs were covered with net stockings, held up by garters; their boots were adorned with tassels. Their arms and shoulders were bare, their bodices cut low over their bosoms, and their dresses decorated with sequins and fringe. All were armed with pistols or jeweled daggers concealed in their boot tops or tucked between her breasts, in case they needed to keep boisterous cowboys in line.
One of the ladies with beautiful red hair, twisted into a bun on top of her head and held in place with red and white roses, sat down at the table next to Ranger Mike. She wore a shell pink chiffon gown, complete with sequins and seed pearls, imported from Paris.
"That's one purty dress, madam," Big Foot Wallace said.
"Why thank you; I was buried in this gown with much pomp and circumstance, the funeral parade was led by the Elks Band. They played the Death March and were escorted by four mounted policemen. Carriages followed filled with business men, girls from my house, "The Row," and many miners from the camp. My casket was lavender and covered with red and white roses They buried me at the foot of Mt. Pisgah Cemetery at Cripple Creek Colorado. It was a lovely way to dispatch me."
"They dispatched me in San Miguel Creek. That's in Frio County," Big Foot said. "I lived on prickly pear and red pepper and followed my own cow with a dog for a living and ain't nobody played the Death March for me and I ain't much for roses, 'cept the Yellow Rose of Texas."
"And what's your name?" Pearl asked, looking coyly at the tall ranger sitting to her left.
"Folks call me Ranger Mike," he replied.
"Well Ranger Mike, my name is Pearl de Vere. I come from Cripple Creek Colorado and I come here to have some fun. Wanna dance with me, Ranger Mike?"
Ranger Mike looked up and saw the full orchestra appear on the stage and all the painted ladies were dancing with cowboys. The judges and the mayor of the city, Middle of Nowhere, were also present and dancing. They were all floating across the dance floor while the orchestra played "The Yellow Rose of Texas".
Big Foot Wallace was smiling and dancing with the lady from the picture over the bar.
Suddenly, the music stopped and everyone on the dance floor turned and looked at the door as five cowboys entered and encircled Big Foot Wallace. The lady he was dancing with faded away and the rest of the dancers shimmered away in a smokey mist. The five cowboys were close to Big Foot in height. They called him names, but then they pushed him and the leader poked him in the chest. Big Foot held it back as long as he could, his veins swelled, he smiled; it didn't reach his eyes. It appeared he was waiting to explode; then he did.
Big Foot grabbed the hand that poked him and bent it back to the cowboy's chin while punching him in the stomach at the same time. One cowboy grabbed Big Foot's left arm. Big Foot whirled and landed a blow solidly on his jaw, right below his eye. He went down. Two of the other three held Big Foot's arms while another cowboy hit him in the stomach twice. Big Foot kicked the cowboy solidly in the midsection, knocking the breath out of him. He bent over but didn't fall. When Big Foot kicked the cowboy in the gut, he pushed the others back and they all went down.
Ranger Mike stood up and entered the fray. One of the cowboy's was on all fours, and Ranger Mike kicked at his chin and landed a hard one on his head. The other cowboy was up and ran at him to tackle him. He stiff-armed the cowboy and pushed him to the ground. While they were regaining their balances, he pulled out his guns. He turned and he saw Big Foot Wallace standing there, smiling.
"Thanks for the he'p, pardner," Big Foot said, as he held up two of the cowboy's who were still knocked out.
Ranger Mike nodded and turned and came face to face with the cowboy that he stiff-armed. He had pulled his gun and was pointing it at Ranger Mike's gut. The cowboy's eyes were hard-rimmed and fixed like they'd rusted into place. Ranger Mike could not see the whites of his eyes nor the vessels that flowed through them.They contained a greater darkness then any night Ranger Mike had witnessed. His fingers curled tightly around the triggers. He smiled and then he fired. So did the cowboy. The gunshots cracked in the air as loud as thunder. The cowboy dropped to the floor.
Ranger Mike looked at the cowboy lying dead on the floor. There was no spark left in the cowboy's eye, the blood pool darkened around the stain on his shirt and spread from his stomach to the floor. The cowboy lay as lifeless as a cadaver and just as pallid.
Ranger Mike's pulse was thready and his hands were shaking so badly, his guns slipped out and landed softly on the body, before falling to the wooden floor. But Ranger Mike was no longer watching the guns. Or even the body. He was watching his own pale hands, covered with scarlet blood, his blood, oozing from the wound in his gut, deep and warm.The pain throbbed. It felt like someone had their hand in there, squeezing his organs as hard as they could. When it waned he could move and he stumbled, when it returned he could only hold still and breathe, breathe slow and deep until it passed. There was no blood anywhere but on his hands and his abdomen which turned purple and lumpy where it should be smooth. Every step felt like a bomb exploding in his innards.
His breathing was ragged, loose hair fell over his features that contorted with pain. Silently he crumbled.
The next thing Ranger Mike saw was Big Foot Wallace bending over him. He wasn't illusory, or frightening. He was like spectral, ghostlike. His skin was as brown as acorns and his plain black cotton pants were held up with black suspenders and his ranger star was pinned on a stained white undershirt. His beat up hat was pushed back from his face. He held out his hand toward Ranger Mike in a gesture of friendship. "Come along now, Ranger Mike, it is time for us to go. Captain John Coffee Hays needs our help fightin' that Mexican General, Adrian Woll, down San Antonio way."
Ranger Mike smiled and nodded. He looked down and saw that his gut was no longer bloodied. The pain he felt had turned to an unpleasant warmth and then disappeared. His body then elevated from the floor and floated out the door with Big Foot Wallace. They mounted their horses and rode south, toward San Antonio, traveling to meet up with Captain Hays and his contingency of Texas Rangers.