At seventy-one, the Wind River Kid is a kid no longer. In the last days of the Old West, he was feared in gambling halls across the country, a hard-nosed card shark who didn’t mind killing to prove a point. When he had gotten his fill of violence, he moved back to Elkhorn, a lonely mountain town that died bit by bit, its population dwindling until he was the only one left. It’s 1927 now, but to the aged Kid, it may as well be 1875. He’s been alone for decades, comforted only by the ghosts of a vanished West—until the modern world comes to visit, guns blazing.
A dangerous young couple comes to Elkhorn looking for a place to hide out from the killers on their tail. Wild River just wanted to be left alone, but he will have to take up the gun again if he is ever to rest in peace.
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About the Author
Frank Schaefer was reared in upstate New York but has lived in Texas for many years. He was a hospital corpsman in the navy and served in the Peace Corps in Costa Rica. He holds a master of fine arts degree in theater from Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. Schaefer has written plays, film scripts, commercials, and some twenty novels. He lives in Austin, Texas.
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Ghosts of Elkhorn
By Kerry Newcomb, Frank Schaefer
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1982 Kerry Newcomb and Frank Schaefer
All rights reserved.
The wind spilled down the mountain, kicked up the dust on Main Street, slid through the broken front door of the funeral parlor, and woke the Wind River Kid. Dreams faded before the reality of creaking joints, tired muscles, cells that refused to regenerate, and veins that creaked with blood. He smacked his lips and groaned, worked a kink out of his left shoulder. He groaned again and scratched his belly. He rubbed the grit out of his eyes and stretched carefully. It was a full five minutes before he lay still again, sighed, and ruefully admitted to himself that damn and by damn he was awake.
Outside, patched with a mid-September frost, the town of Elkhorn, population one, waited. The wind returned and stirred the dried leaves pressed against the walls of the defunct funeral parlor. They sounded somewhat like the rattle of chains in a ghost house, Wind River thought, then reconsidered, and decided more like the clatter of loose false teeth. There was a certain comfort to be gained in knowing one was beset by choppers rather than the spirits of the dead. Lying soft and warm under the covers, he thought about that for a while, too, and finally concluded that he was blessed with the best of both possible worlds, if best was the word. On that note, he sat up and looked around for the ghost of Aden Creed.
Wind River's frown, as sour as the taste in his mouth, faded when he saw he was alone. The morning grew a little brighter with the knowledge he'd be able to wash in peace and quiet. Cheered, he swiveled sideways and, careful not to touch the floor, pulled on the socks he'd put under his pillow the night before. Warm feet on cold boards made a big difference. So did the new sun that bounced a yellow beam of light off the water in the basin and turned his hair as gold as it had been when he was a child. Suddenly pensive, he glanced back over the seventy-one years and tried to remember what it had been like to be a child, what it had been like being born, to be so close to a woman that he was inside her, to be loved like that. He had no idea of what his mother looked like, but he hoped her face wasn't as ugly and gnarled as his reflection made him out to be.
The taste in his mouth was back. Wind River scooped up a handful of water, held it in his mouth until it was warm enough not to hurt his teeth, and then swished it around a minute before spitting it into the hole in the corner. Hell. He wasn't all that bad off, he thought, moving to the mirror he'd lugged up from Widow Guthrie's dress shop. He'd had his share of ladies in a youth that had stretched from then until now. He walked straight and steady, and his belly was still flat. He had his hair, long, white curls that caught at his shirt collar, which was more than could be said for Aden Creed, and he did not drool like Lode Benedict down in Mountain City.
A shingle flapped on the roof. Wind River glanced around to see if Creed had entered, but he was still alone. Muttering thanks, he crossed to the stove to build up the fire. That was another part of the morning he liked, especially when fall was in the air. He poked ashes down the grate, blew on the coals until they glowed red. He dropped in a handful of dried pine needles and twigs. When red flames followed the sweet smell of smoke, he added split wood, closed the lid, and slid the coffeepot into place.
Different paths had brought the Wind River Kid and Aden Creed to the town of Elkhorn. Creed had been carried there in 1868 after getting caught in a slide that nearly tore off his left leg. By the time the leg mended, he and Angelina at the Victorian Palace were thick. He had forsaken his mountains to stay with her in Elkhorn. A year later in the winter of 1869, when a skinny, bedraggled, half-frozen and near-starved thirteen-year-old boy staggered into the rough and roaring mining town, Creed and Angelina took him in, fed him, and nursed him back to health.
The runaway had had no parents and no place to go, so it was only natural he should stay. Creed, the gimp-legged mountain man who had always wanted a son, took the boy under his wing. He taught him mountain lore: where to sleep in a storm, how to hunt without sound, build a fire without smoke, walk without leaving tracks. He taught him the taste of strong coffee and thin mountain air, the red smell of beaver blood, and how to wait through the lonely vigil of the hunt and pass the test of stinging snow. But Angelina was there, and she was another kind of teacher who preferred steak served on fine china and knew the difference between good wine and bad. She instructed Wind River in the sophisticated ways of men who wore silk vests and sent cards dancing from manicured fingers and always won at the gaming tables.
Creed had argued, remonstrated, berated, and derided, but to no avail. There were the mountains, and there were the wild and sinful ways of men, and the boy chose the latter with scarce an apology or word of thanks. A man of eighteen, he put on his suit, packed his carpetbag, saddled one of Creed's pack mules, and rode out of Elkhorn for Mountain City, Denver, and points east and south, into a world of gaiety and light, a world of luck and the men who ruled it, a world of sweet soiled doves who cooed and dipped their low-cut bodices and gazed in open avariciousness at the stacks of chips and showered their lusty treasures on the winners, only the winners. They called him Kid then. He was good with the women and better with the cards. He learned the easy shuffle and the Dakota slide and the palmed queen and the left-hand cut and a dozen other deals. The cards danced for him as did the women in the night.
As a man will discover a natural talent previously untried, he became a shootist quite by accident. A poor loser in a tiny settlement called Wind River, Montana, disputed the three fours that Kid held. Seconds later, the cowboy lay dead, slain by a hand that was swift with cards and as quick with the gun worn more as an ornament until that single moment when it appeared in Kid's hand like an extension of fate. Before too long and too many more poor losers, the Wind River Kid had built a reputation as a man who was plain downright authoritative when it came to staying alive.
It had been as simple as that.
Luck had ridden with the Wind River Kid, had sat at his side at a thousand poker tables, and had given him everything he asked for and some things he didn't, like enemies. For eighteen years, he had shrugged off the enemies, turned his back and contemptuously walked away from them, or simply shot them. And then one day his luck, and his nerve, had run out. Paunch Pepperdine dead at his feet, Butch and Dupree Pepperdine riding to avenge the death of their father, Wind River tucked his tail between his legs and ran.
The year had been 1892, the Wind River Kid a lean thirty-six, no longer a kid but stuck with the name because that was the way everyone remembered him. His nerves as frayed as his shirt collar, he had headed for Elkhorn, sanctuary of his early days, there to find Aden Creed for the second time. Wiry, a tattered fossil too damned stubborn to lie down and quit, the ex-mountain man had become an eccentric, drunk old coot who eked out a living working the tailings of a silver mine and running a string of traps that seldom caught anything. At seventy, long since kicked out of Angelina's heart and her Victorian Palace, Creed still had his principles. When he and Wind River met in Wind River's room at the Great Northern Hotel, Creed didn't like what he saw, and said so. Wind River told him to go to hell, but Creed wasn't inclined right then because there was work to be done —work requiring a mountain man with cougar courage, a keen eye to sight along the steel barrel of a Hawken rifle, and a willingness to die in a coward's place.
Memories of long ago drifted and died in the short walk from basin to stove and back again. The sun had moved on and restored Wind River's hair to its present and rightful white, which was fine with him. He'd stared at his past too many times to want to again that morning, and gratefully plunged his head into the water, scrubbed and snorted and blew like an old bear in a mountain stream. "Wheeunhh!" he said, shaking his head and shivering, then reaching quickly for the whiskey bottle behind the washstand. Red flannel long johns spotted with ice-cold water, he leaned back and took a swallow of pure hell. "Whee-heohhh!" he croaked, still testing his voice, "and one to grow on." He wiped his hand across his mouth, looked about to see if Creed had snuck in, then drank again. Fire coursed through his veins and his throat burned. "That's got her started," he wheezed. "Now to finish the job."
The fire in the stove was roaring, the coffee steaming. He added a handful of fresh grounds to the sludge at the bottom of the pot, emptied in a quart bottle of water, moved the morning coffee to the edge of the firebox so it wouldn't boil too fast. The initial heat generated by the whiskey was fading, and Wind River became conscious of the cold. Moving quickly, he grabbed for his clothes. The elbows of his Sears, Roebuck plaid flannel shirt were frayed, but elbows were the least important parts of shirts, so long as long johns were whole. His dungarees were patched, but like his bones were basically sound and had a good deal of life left in them yet. As for his boots, it was true that the soles were thin and had started to work loose, but he had leather and awl and thick waxed string, and would repair them some time before the first real snow. The one thing he didn't dare forget was the thick, padded plaid cap with the earflaps tied up.
The coffeepot was singing. Wind River decanted a cup of the steaming black acidic brew and moved outside into the sunlight. The year before, the day after he'd moved out of the Horned Owl Saloon and into Muenster's Funeral Parlor, he'd rolled his sitting log up the street. Now he checked the sky and sat and stared at the morning, taking his time because that's what it was, his time, and Elkhorn's.
Outside of winter, spring, summer, and fall, time wasn't worth much for a seventy-one-year-old man. Hadn't been for Wind River for over a quarter of a century. As far as he was concerned, he was alive and that was all that counted. He simply didn't care that the year was 1927, for example. He neither knew nor cared that Rif rebels had been bloodily suppressed in Morocco, that transatlantic commercial telephone service had been opened between New York and London, that Trotsky had been expelled from the Communist Party, that Germany had repudiated any responsibility for World War I. He had not read The Great Gatsby or Elmer Gantry or Winnie the Pooh. He had not heard of Picasso, Kafka, or cosmic rays. It did not matter to him that Darwin's theory of evolution had been banned in Tennessee or that Lucky Lindy had flown the Atlantic nonstop, so long as all named parties stayed out of Elkhorn and left him in peace.
The sun was what mattered. The sun and the fresh air and the private, empty sky. Wind River set his cup on the log and stomped around, flapped his arms to work a little life into his muscles. He picked up his cup and drank, set it down again, and stretched. He stared down Main Street. Burnished gold by the sun, the gray-washed buildings hinted at earlier, precarious days of grand fortune. To the east, visible through the empty lot where Doc Bufker's house used to sit, he could see the Rampage Valley, long and wide and green. To the south was Damnation Hill, obscuring Fremont Valley and the road to Mountain City. To the west and north, granite slopes, gray slabs of rock poking through thick clusters of pine and evergreen, rose to windswept peaks. The trees had been stripped from the north slope years earlier, and a puckered wound marred its upper face where men had dug and died for silver. The town itself was still in moderately good shape because Wind River had a habit of repairing a walkway or floor plank whenever he fell through. If civic improvement now and then kept him from breaking a leg, it was well worth the effort.
The Wind River Kid knew the valleys and the mountains as well as he knew Elkhorn. He knew every gulley and ravine. He knew Elkhorn Creek from where it sprang out of the rocks a mile and a half north of town at Silvertip Spring. He knew the first ankle-deep yards that ran through a polished cleft of granite. He knew the aspens, the wild flowers, the mosses that bordered it as it grew to a singing brook. It was said that the men who panned Elkhorn Creek for gold in the old days had to keep a hand free to flip the trout out of the way, so teeming were the waters. Wind River was sure the story was true because the fish had come back during the last ten years, and it was no trouble at all to scoop out a lunker when bacon ran low. He knew the deer trail that funneled cautious bucks and dainty-eyed does out of the aspens, guided them through the tumbled boulders and past Silvertip Falls all the way to where the Elkhorn joined Oak Creek above Mountain City. He knew Silvertip Falls and the pristine glen at its base better than he wanted to. There Elkhorn Creek fell twenty feet into a cold, icy pond. Blackfeet and Crow, Cheyenne and Nez Percé had bathed in that holy glade. The wild creatures had drunk there since time immemorial and did still. Wind River avoided the glade. Aden Creed derided him about his aversion, but he didn't care. At least three men had died there. Three the Kid knew of. But that was a black thought, best forgotten. Easily forgotten, most days in the routine born of years of silence and loneliness.
A wolf will urinate a boundary around his domain. Wind River pissed in the alleys. Years might have rusted his vitality but never tarnished the image of himself as a gambler and a gentleman, and gentlemen did not wet the street. This morning, Wind River peed belly-high on the barbershop from three feet away, flipped it dry, and stuffed it back with a satisfied smile. "Seventy-one by God," he crackled, crossing the open space between the barbershop and the Great Northern Hotel and stopping under the porch to check the sky again. Twice before he'd looked, but it never hurt to check again. A man couldn't be too careful. The goddamn falcon had showed up a year earlier, taken a dislike to Wind River, and swooped down on him whenever it had the chance. Wind River sometimes suspected Creed of conspiring with the bird, but he couldn't be sure and hadn't accused him. Shrugging his relief, he headed back into the street to finish his coffee.
Mornings were a clock of sorts, one with actions instead of hands. The waking and scratching, the rising and rinsing, the fire and the coffee, the water and the whiskey. Likewise, each morning, he surveyed Elkhorn and made note of the myriad changes that had occurred overnight. The changes were minute, not even recognizable to someone who hadn't watched so closely for thirty-five years. A crack widened a hair's breadth here, a knothole fallen out there. Here a beam had shifted, there a spot of rust had peeled off a nail. In truth, the town looked much the same as it had since the turn of the century, except that only the main street was left, the eight houses that had been the residential section having fallen in the slide of '03, when the eastern slope gave way and slipped into Rampage Valley. As it stood on this golden morning in 1927, Elkhorn was a hotel, a boardinghouse, a barbershop, a funeral parlor, a general store, a dress shop, a bank, a restaurant, a newspaper office, an assay office, a stable, a sheriff's office, five saloons, the Victorian Palace, and a whorehouse that still smelled like women when the wind and humidity were right.
Excerpted from Ghosts of Elkhorn by Kerry Newcomb, Frank Schaefer. Copyright © 1982 Kerry Newcomb and Frank Schaefer. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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