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Fiction Western Horror

It had always been thus.

The old sign hung upon the mortician’s door had been placed there so long ago that its weathered edges were rounded entirely and the lettering on its front needed constant darkening with soot and ash to keep it legible. The wind whipped through Graydon’s Gorge at an almost relentless pace and the townsfolk were happier for its protection.

Tales around these parts say that Graydon himself was the first to set up shop at the mouth of the gorge and folks around here think that mighty peculiar, as it isn’t often that a mortician sets up on a vacant piece of land with no one to need his particular services. 

The story goes that Graydon’s Gorge, and the river running through it, is home to one of the richest veins of silver this county has ever known. The problem was, Graydon had no desire or skill to mine that vein and so he put an out an ad. 

At first, he was discrete, not wanting to attract the wrong element. His ads were typical of boomtown advertisements and only the most desperate of people would inquire. It was a hard sell because Graydon’s only condition was that you arrived with a family. It didn’t specify the size of the family, and it didn’t define what a family was, Graydon’s condition was that you come and you bring love with you. For his end of the bargain, he promised that love would endure until the end of days. Sappy sentiment if you ask me but it weren’t no ballyhoo and I’m the living proof.

The first to bite was a man named Reginald, a slight and nobby feller who arrived double-riding on a tired horse with a jackaroo named Jeb. Jeb was a quiet feller but Reg was downright loquacious, and so that’s what Graydon had called him. Jeb agreed that it sounded a bit more than Reginald, and Reg himself took it as a compliment. And so, Loquacious and Jeb broke ground on what would become this here inn. At Graydon’s request, they called it the Bone Orchard.

“That’s a lil grim, boss,” Jeb observed.

“Trust me,” Graydon said with a wink and a nod.

Building the Bone Orchard was no easy feat, what with materials needing to be brought in from the coast, a nearly hundred-mile journey but one that brought Connie and Dale and young Ditmus and Betty. They were builders, you see and they came to Grayden’s Gorge with materials and skill and soon the Bone Orchard was up and running.

Within no time at all, the town had begun to fill up. Loquacious and Dale had become fast friends. They and Jeb would spend hours reading the California prayer book and bending at the elbow, gambling their troubles away for that was all they had to offer and filling the space with bumblebee whisky. There were nearly a dozen folks now living in prosperity at the mouth of Graydon’s Gorge but not a single one mined that vein. 

Junie, Bridey, and shy young Pip showed up, entering the Gorge in all their finery. They were all pretty girls and their smiles were practiced, patient, and persuasive except for Pip who hadn’t yet gotten the hang of it. They had come from Archerton in the east where they had practiced the oldest profession. At least two of them had.

“Mine is older,” Graydon replied with a smile, all at once wicked and welcoming.

Within a week Junie, Bridey, and Pip had a place of their own. Dale and Ditmas, Jeb and Zachariah… oh yes, Zachariah was the butcher’s boy. They arrived sometime the previous winter, blown into the Gorge quite by chance during a storm. He and Pip hit it off famously. Within a year they had built themselves their own lil home and not long after the squeals and squalls of Baby, that's what they called their sweet lil girl, were bouncing off the walls, echoing down the canyon and back again.

Not long after, a school was built and Esther came to teach there. So many children now ran the streets of Graydon’s Gorge that it was simply overrun. No one batted an eyelash when that orphanage next town over had burned down and all those kids needed a place to stay. They’d never needed a teacher before, but now they did and Esther had come. Her journey wasn’t easy as she’d traveled a long hard road, but she arrived just when they needed her most.

The orphans, the painted ladies, the butcher, the builders, and Graydon himself all prospered at the mouth of the Gorge, and still no one had mined that vein. Loquacious had often said that their fortune had been made when they decided to build a life here. Jeb always doubled the notion, gently taking his hand. They were all rich in friends he’d say, and not a single soul would disagree.

Baby grew up and grew old among the friends the fire had sent their way. More children were born and more arrived, as did their parents and grandparents. All manner of families arrived, families grew, and everyone prospered just as Graydon had promised. If anyone questioned he would nod and smile and, “Trust me,” was all he’d say. 

Old Nellie sat now upon the Bone Orchard’s porch in her well worn rocker. Her husband, Shad would bring her a cup of hot tea, three times a day. He always perched a wedge of lemon on its rim. She knitted lambs wool into all manner of clothes which she gave away freely, just as Morton, the shepherd had given her the wool for spinning. 

The dry grass of the desert seemed to suit Morton’s small herd just fine. It was never too large, but never so small that old Nellie couldn’t provide whatever was needed whenever the occasion arose. Every once in a while they’d lose one to the coydogs which would sneak into town after twilight. But every so often they would find a litter of pups and take those in, train them up, and then the town had its own patrol of pugnacious lil beasts that would snarl and bark and howl whenever an outsider came too close. Their warnings would echo down the length of Graydon’s Gorge and back again.

The sun rose fiery one morning, glowing oranges and reds as it came angrily over the horizon. The waves of heat rose from the sands as if they would catch fire all of a sudden and consume the town whole. Shad came a-knockin’ on Graydon’s door. Shad knew everything that was happening, day or night and he did not fear the angry early morning heat for the years spent shoveling coal on the railroad. There was that sound again.

“Do you hear it, Gray?” The old man asked.

“I hear it.” Graydon’s jaw set firmly.

Shad took a step back. For all his long years at the mouth of the gorge, he had never seen Graydon’s smile wane. But here it was like a new moon all dark, the light was gone. The tapping echoed through the gorge and the rafters of their homes shook as if the gods were raining thunder down upon them. The coydogs were baying and the sheep were bleating and Jeb came to stand at Graydon’s side, his sidearm ready for use.

“Been keeping it ready, boss” Jeb said matter-of-factly. “Should I see to it?”

“They’ve found the vein,” Graydon replied. “Bring all hands and the cook.”

“Everyone?” Jeb was stunned.

“Every last one.” Graydon straightened his tie and walked off towards the mouth of the gorge, the dogs now falling into step behind him.

The three men worked in the light of an oil lantern, hoping the shadows of the deep gorge would soon give way to light. Foolishness, they’d a been roasted alive. The dogs grew quiet, but the rumbles of the deep-throated growls seemed to run with the river’s waters as Graydon reached the small camp’s perimeter. The first one to notice him cast his pan aside and casually grabbed the handle of his pick menacingly.

“Mornin’,” He said, startling his companions into a defensive formation on either side of him.

“Mornin’ to you,” Graydon replied, his expression none too pleased. “This is my Gorge. It’s my river. That’s my silver.”

The three men looked from one to the other and then began to laugh, the leader at their front now taking a step forward. “You know, I think there’s enough for all of us.”

“There certainly is, but you’ve come as thieves in the night and so… you’ve got no claim.” There was regret in his voice. The dogs had circled around to Graydon’s front, and now their hackles were up as they crouched low to the ground, teeth bared, ready to attack.

“You’re going to sick your dogs on us?” The leader sounded wary but still confident.

“No need,” Graydon said, looking to the left and then to the right.

They were all there, Loquacious and Jeb, Old Nellie and strong dependable Ditmas. Shad had come and so had Bridey and Junie and Baby too. The orphans were all there and even kindhearted Esther. They whipped past him in a nimbus of outrage, their spectral hands outstretched like eagles’ talons and bobcats’ claws. They rent the miners’ flesh and sent their blood drifting in little red clouds down the gently rolling waters of the river. They ground their bones to dust upon its rocky bed. Their tools fell down deep into the water where they succumbed to time and the elements. 

The angry spirits of Graydon’s Gorge surveyed the damage. They were lucky. The miners had not yet disturbed the ancient silver vein. For good measure, they sent the baying dogs down the river and back again. When they were certain there were no others the crowd slowly dispersed, each of them drifting back to their eternity and forgetting all about the men who’d have destroyed everything they had paid so dearly to build.

“Sad business,” Jeb said, falling in beside Graydon as he strolled back to the mortuary.

“We’ll be fine. Trust me,” Graydon said, his smile had returned. He dipped his fingers into a small pot that dangled from a nail beneath the old worn sign, emerging with a gob of oily soot and ash which he rubbed into the letters of the sign.

It had always been thus.

June 24, 2023 14:03

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5 comments

Ken Cartisano
22:59 Jul 02, 2023

Strange but satisfying.

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Nicki Nance
13:50 Jul 01, 2023

I was taken by how many layers and embedded stories you seamlessly integrated. Brilliant.

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John Werner
13:58 Jul 01, 2023

Thank you, Nicki! I'm glad you liked it!

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Mary Bendickson
18:43 Jun 25, 2023

Thus it is. Thanks for reading/liking my Fancy Ranch.

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John Werner
00:04 Jul 03, 2023

Thanks for reading, Mary!

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