Estimated reading time — 8 minutes
Inspired by the news article: The mystery of the 132-year-old Winchester rifle found propped against a national park tree
“Gid’yap, Goldie… jes’ a little farther now.”
Statten Cready rolled exhausted in the saddle of his beautiful flaxen mare and tapped her lightly on the rump to get her to pick up the pace a bit. He was loathe to put knobs to such a beautiful beast, having recently euchered her from a finical greenhorn in Carson City in trade for his pack mule, Old Dumb Bastard, a fist-sized knob of Fool’s Gold, and most of a bottle of jack o’ diamonds from Back East.
He was wondering where he should make camp for the night and wondering even more, as he watched the sun hover at the edge of the horizon, why he hadn’t thought of making camp earlier. He didn’t want to take a chance of Goldie stepping in a gopher hole and leaving him stranded out here in the Great Basin. Especially not before he got to the mining camp on the other side of Sevier Lake. Statten had heard stories about this stretch of the California Trail in Carson City and had hoped to be well away from here by now. Although he didn’t give any credence to the stories of bogeymen or ghasts by the besotted jinglers in saloons, he knew the trails held their share of unsavory characters, not to mention the ever-present danger of running into some of the heathen braves of some tribe of savages.
He espied a copse of trees off the trail a bit and caught the sound of running water.
“Perfect… whoah, Goldie! Whoah, girl!”
He dismounted and walked her off the trail, careful to search the ground ahead for snakes and holes until he found himself under a juniper tree of no great size. He ground hitched Goldie and rubbed her down before removing her bit from the bridle and strapping on her nose bag to give her some oats from the sack. She was a city horse for sure, thought Statten as he brushed her out and checked her shoes for stones and pips, she looked damn near sewn up after just one day on the trail. He walked over to where he heard the water running and found just a tiny bubbling spring running only about six feet before it disappeared underground again. He leaned down and tasted the water. Statten was mightily pleased that it was both sweet and teeth-achingly cold. He scooped some into a bucket for Goldie and let it sit out until she was done with her feed bag.
As she gnawed loudly at her feed, Statten busied himself about camp, getting a fire started, and gathering the ingredients he’d need for a beef and bean stew for his own gnawing hunger. He could hear the sounds of the tiny animals of the Basin rustling between the rocks and dislodging pebbles as they tried their best to find supper while also trying not to become a meal for something else. He gnawed on a piece of salted jerky and unshipped his trusty Winchester from the saddle holster to check the loads. He had only had the gun a year, but he already knew it would be there by his side until the day he died. He had purchased it fire-new in 1882, the year the new model came out. He never went heeled on the trail, instead relying on his rifle to dissuade would-be bandits and to hole the occasional predator that found out too late that human meat had sharp edges and hot, flying lead. His six-shooter, a Colt 1881 SAA pistol chambered for the same .44-40 as his Winchester, was packed away in with his other belongings in his yannigan bag.
The story of the six-gun was a funny one: Statten had picked up his shootin’ iron for a song. In Texas, the most common (and probably the most desired) six-gun was the Colt SAA in .45 Colt caliber. The Texas Rangers were issued SAAs, but they were military issue, sighted for the .45 Schofield round. That’s because the Rangers were both police officers and part of the state’s militia. In 1880 or ’81 Colt sent the Rangers two SAAs chambered for .44-40, since back in ’78 the state bought two cases of ’73 Winchesters, one of carbines, one of rifles; then offered them to the Rangers at state cost. Unsurprisingly, both cases sold out in a single day. Since the state didn’t issue .44-40 ammo and the Rangers had been reloading the Winchester ammo for a couple of years, they tried the new six-shooters with some of the reloaded ammo and found that the primer backed out and locked up the weapon completely, rendering it useless until taken apart. The Rangers blamed the pistol, of course, instead of their reloads. For years you couldn’t give a Texas lawman (or most Texans, for that wise) a .44-40 six-gun. When Statten had gone to the gun shop and saw the old Ranger weapon, he asked why it was only $5 and the clerk said, “When you need it, it’ll lock up on you ever’ time. You need a .45, young sir,” but Statten saw that Colt with the ivory grips and the shiny nickel finish and knew he had to have it. He walked out of the mercantile with it that very day with the shiniest gun in Carson City and had never had a reason to pull it from his custom holster except when he got to his lodgings and took the time to admire it each night before turning down the lamps and hitting the hay.
Thinking about hitting the hay, Statten pulled his velvet couch from his war bag and unfurled it on the ground. He wandered among the stones until he found one flat on top and bottom and pulled it up to the fire to set on while he heated up his supper. The sun finally dipped below the horizon and as the orange light of the sunset faded to red, and then to the deep purple of the gathering darkness, Statten could smell the beef and beans cooking up nicely.
Goldie snorted from her feedbag, which was Statten’s cue to unhook it from her and take the saddle off of her. As he wrestled with the saddle, he could hear the sounds of the Basin suddenly cease. He pulled the saddle off, set it down on some boulders and listened intently… nothing. No animal sounds, no bird sounds, not even the wind moved here any longer. An unnatural hush descended upon this part of the trail as the light faded completely from the sky. Rattled, Statten grabbed his Winchester and cocked it, readying it for trouble. He stared into the night, cursing himself for looking into the fire when he grabbed the rifle. His night vision completely destroyed, he stared, unseeing, into the gloom.
He could hear Goldie softly whinny and he walked over to her to pat her on the neck for comfort. As he touched her, he had to pull his wet hand back in alarm as she reared back in terror, covered in sweat and eyes rolling madly. He tried to soothe her, but she was too badly spooked and took off into the night in a fright before he could even try to grab the reins.
Statten backed up against the tree as he willed his night vision to return. He was going to have to ride shank’s mare if he couldn’t get her back, but he’d be a shave tail indeed to go haring about in the dark, off the trail, to find a spooked horse. He hunkered down, on the shoot, for whatever was coming.
The silence continued, stretching his nerves with fear playing them like a fiddle. Statten began slowly walking a circle around the fire, peering out into the night as the stars lent their faint illumination to the landscape.
“What I wouldn’t give for a nice full moon tonight,” he muttered under his breath.
“And what would that avail you, Statten?”
Statten spun around in a panic as the voice came from behind him. He fired at the dark shape sitting near his cookfire from the hip, confident now that the nameless terror was there in front of him, instead of playing spook out in the night. The roar as his ’73 barked rang out in the Basin, deafening him for a moment. As the ringing in his ears subsided, he saw the shadow stand up from where it had been perched on the stone he’d dragged near the fire.
“Come now, Statten, I just want to talk. No need for theatrics or gunplay.”
“Who… who are you?” sputtered Statten.
“Call me Scratch, Mr. Cready,” the man said.
Statten peered at the interloper, unsure of what exactly he was seeing. While his eyes told him he was seeing a well-dressed city slicker from Back East wearing an ivory-handled Colt crossdraw-style, his gut (and nose) told him that he was seeing a week-old corpse gone to rot wearing tattered rags and a rusty Colt hanging from bony hips. Either way, the man wasn’t a threat as long as his Winchester was pointed at the man’s brainpan. How he had missed before, Statten didn’t know, but for damn sure with the man in full view right by a fire, there’s was no way he couldn’t hole him right in the forehead if it came to that.
He replied, cordially, “You have the advantage of me, pard. You seem to know me pretty well and I ain’t never seen you a’fore.”
“That ain’t necessarily true, Stat. You knew me the moment you start thinking about bogeys and ghosts and then stepped off the trail anyhow.”
“I don’t reckon I know what you mean, Scratch. How do you reckon stepping off the trail introduced us?”
“Because I’m the Fear, Statten. That niggling worm turning in your watery guts, all the sand draining out of you like a sieve. That’s where I live and you knew me. You met me the first time in the dark of your home in Atlanta when you cried for your momma as a baby seeing me in the dark just hours out of the womb. You knew me right well on the bloody soil of Virginia when Sheridan routed your forces at Five Forks. We spent the night together as you scrabbled your way into the dark, with the Union at your heels. See, Statten? We’re old friends, you and me.”
Statten could feel the fear emanating from the stranger as he pictured that horrible night once more, hearing his friends die mere yards from him as he hunkered down in a hollow; his kepi gone, his gray jacket thrown in a ditch along with his useless rifle. He could taste the coppery tang of other mens’ blood in his mouth like he was standing there in person and his muscles knotted in involuntary terror. He fired out of self-preservation and was rewarded with seeing a hole open up in the stranger’s forehead. He cocked the gun again out of habit, expecting to see the man go down like a puppet with cut strings, but all that happened was the fellow’s pork-pie hat hit the dust near the fire.
“What did I say about gunplay, Statten? I said I jes’…”
But Statten didn’t wait to hear what the stranger wanted to say about gunplay, because he was firing and cocking and firing and cocking as fast as he could. He put eight more bullets into the man, each one hitting him with a puff of dust and then pinging off the rocks behind him, barely slowed by their trip through Scratch’s body. As the trigger clicked on an empty chamber, Statten rushed over to his war sack and pulled the shiny Colt from his gun belt. He turned towards the man again and was shocked to see him mere inches away suddenly; the worms crawling in his eyes no longer disguised by illusion. He could smell the fetid stench of the grave on the man’s breath as he spoke directly into Statten’s face, “Well now, this was most discourteous, Mr. Cready. Most discourteous indeed. I’m afraid I no longer want to talk. I think it’s time I just snap your skinny little neck.”
As the Fear consumed Statten, he put his shiny six-gun to his own temple, thinking only to rob Old Scratch of his prey. He closed his eyes and with a quick prayer, commended his soul to God, praying that suicide could be forgiven just this once; for what man could expect to win in a battle with his own Fear? As his finger tightened on the trigger he heard a dull clunk as the primer backed out and locked up his revolver. He opened his eyes in shock and saw only red fading to darkness as Old Scratch’s bony claws found his neck.
After his meal, Scratch looked around the camp at what was left to show the world that Statten Cready had ever passed through here. He tossed the saddle behind some rocks, dropped the worthless six-gun into the spring, burned the bedroll, yannigan bag, and all of Statten’s clothes on the roaring campfire that burned the toxic green of balefire in his presence. He stopped and thoughtfully picked up the empty Winchester rifle, still warm from the slugs that had belched from it mere moments ago. Scratch knew he couldn’t take it with him where he was going, but he couldn’t think of a way to destroy it out here with so much of Statten’s love poured into it.
He ended up propping the thing under the juniper tree, confident that time and weather would take care of getting rid of the last of Statten. He looked around the campsite one last time, nodded in satisfaction at a job well done, and then faded away into the night.
It was as if he had never been there at all.
Credit: Jose Valdes