Ghosts are like owls, white faced and and in love with the moon. Silent winged and black eyed. In fact, the two are often mistaken for each other as they glide through the empty space between the desert and the stars. You might go months without seeing them, but that doesn’t mean they don’t see you. Both are known to watch from the holes in cacti and the black windows of ghost towns. They seem interested in human affairs, so they watch. Maybe it reminds them of something.
On occasion, ghosts or owls will even follow a person that they deem interesting. Watching with luminous black eyes from their silent perches in the wind. Swirling around the chosen man or woman in ever growing flocks. Like they are doing now.
The woman blinks as she realizes that the stars are sharing the sky with darker companions. The beads of light are hidden by winged silhouettes. Her dark eyes narrow in confusion as they circle above her in the vast glittering blackness.
Despite the hot days, the night has a cool nip to it. The tin roof she lays on is colder still. She shifts, her old bones protesting. But then she hears a man curse at the owls his voice is followed by a few soft thuds. The woman falls still, She had thought she was alone. But as she thinks of it, she realizes that this makes more sense. The owls would not have been following her. Slowly, she forces herself to rise and her eyes to lower from the endless expanse of galaxies. She peers down at the ground and the man throwing rocks at the birds above him.
His hair is black, and his skin is red, but he doesn’t curse like an Indian. He doesn’t dress like one either. Only his skin gives away his parentage, and even that is lighter then is usual.
He is running through the empty street.
The owls are right, she thinks curiously, There is a story here.
So she calls down to him, “What’re you runnin’ from?”
His head snaps up, and he stops short in surprise. He hadn’t realized he had company either. He looks at the old woman for longer then necessary before asking a question of his own, “What makes you think I’m running from somethin’?”
The woman’s wrinkled face stretches into a smile, “This is the lawless west son. You only come here if your runnin’ from somethin’.”
The man remains as silent as the owls above his head.
“We’re all runnin’.” She says to fill the silence.
“You’re a strange old woman.” He says finally, dark eyes narrowed.
“I know,” She smiles again, “Come sit with me. It’s lonely up on this roof by my self, and I think we could both use some company.”
Again, he hesitates for a long time before finally making a decision. He clambers onto the tin roof to join the ancient woman and the endless sky.
“What’s your name? She asks.
“Austin,” there is no pause this time.
Now the woman is the one to hesitate, “That’s not your name,” she says.
“It’s the lawless west grandma. Nobody gives their real name,” but it is said with a tired voice, not a hostile one.
So the woman changes the subject. “How do you come to speak English so well?”
He looks at her with narrowed eyes, but apparently decides that it is no use ignoring or lying to her, so he tells the truth, “A white girl came to town twenty-two years ago. She had a red baby. When she left town, she left the baby too.” The man who’s name is not Austin stares up at the moon, but finishes briskly, “A farmer took me home cause his wife made him.”
“Ah,” the woman nodded as if this made perfect sense, “so that’s who your runnin’ from.”
His laugh is humorless, “You’re… not quite wrong.”
“So tell me,”
And so, because it had been exactly a year since he had left the town, and because the hallow space in his chest felt like it was about to consume him alive, he told her. He told the strange woman everything.
“I always thought my life was hell on earth. Everyone avoided me, looked at me like a frothing dog that should a been put down years ago. But what I didn’t understand was that… it was partly my fault; I let myself become what they told me I was. When someone said I was dangerous, I went at them, fists flyin’. If it was a someone I couldn’t hit, I came up with more creative ways to exact my revenge. I told myself that I fought because I wanted to scare them into leaving me alone, but in truth, I fought cause it felt good to make them hurt like I did. They hurt me, I hurt them and it spiraled down hill until everyone hated me. Even… even my adopted family to some extent. But that wasn’t hell. I didn’t even know what hell was. I do now.
“guess I ave’ to start this story on the day I first tried to court a girl. Her name is Maud. She was one of those girls that liked troublemakers. I think she may have been trying to get a reaction from her parents. So I thought… why not me? I would’ve treated her better then the boys she was with. Hell, if anyone had given me a kind word, I probably would have done anything in the world for them.
"But Maud didn’t want me. You would've thought I’d be used to rejection by then. But it still hurt. So I stomped off into Mr. Abe’s woods to feel sorry for myself. I stopped to get a drink from the creek that ran through his property, and… I found flecks of gold. I was gping to be rich. I was going to be rich and then nobody could hurt me anymore.
"The first thing I did was make sure it was gold, which it was, then I asked Mr Abe if I could buy a piece of his property to build a farm on.
"The price he gave me was more then I had. The banker wouldn’t loan me anythin’. Not after I burned down his chicken house. Not that he could prove it was me.
"I was stuck. So I did the only thing I could think of, I told Lee, my… brother. I told him about the gold and asked him to go in halves on the property. Lee went and told all the rest of his family, and before I knew what was happening, the property had been bought in the Gauthrys’ name. Instead of mine.
" I almost left then and there, but the gold was still partly mine and I wasn’t about to leave it.
“So I stayed and built a house on the land with Lee, to keep up appearances, while his mother Lillian and sister Holly did the actual gold panning. His father, Clay, kept up his own farm. It was a good plan, but I was still furious and Lee didn’t understand why. That was another downside. I actually had to spend time with my adopted family. But after a few months… I don’t know, I guess we started to understand each other. I guess that was why Lee started to defend me when his friends mocked me. He’d never done that before, sometimes he’d even join in. But now, he told them to leave. Told them that if he heard them talking about his brother that way again, he’d knock them down himself. Lee called me his brother, and I almost cried.
“That's Goddamed sad, ain’t it? The best thing that ever happened to me wasn’t when I found gold, but when somebody was nice to me. God, that’s pitiful.
“I think I was actually happy after that. When the girls had panned everything they could, we started to dig. I finally felt like I was working toward something. I felt like I was getting somewhere better. Course’ everything went down hill after that.
“I think it was only a few days later that Clay’s cousin Cameron decided to visit. It was a bother keeping him away from the mine while we dug.
"The day he found it was one of those winter days that should have been warm. The sun was blazing down on us, but, as I took a break from digging, I felt like I was about to freeze. I wish I didn’t remember that day so well.
“It was just me and Clay that day. The others where trying to keep Cameron occupied. They didn’t do a great job of it, cause there he came, walking down the path like he owned it.
"‘What are you building here?’ he asked, innocent as a Goddamed saint. I told him it was an irrigation canal that would connect with the creek. Clay said it was going to be a fishin’ shack, which I don’t think is a thing that exists. There ain’t much you can do to recover after that. Besides, the sieves and mining equipment where sitting right there. He would have had to be an idiot not to guess what we where doing. So we told him the truth. He agreed to keep quiet, for a price. It seemed like the crisis was averted… until he picked up Clay’s gun. ‘nice rifle this is,’ he said, and then he turned and… and shot Clay.
" I just stood there. I didn’t… understand what I had just seen. So I just gaped at the man with the rifle, until he turned it on me.
"I can’t explain what that felt like. Just, knowing that I could… stop existing with the flick of his finger. Knowing that I was about to die, and… nobody would care. All I had ever done was fight everyone. Nobody would care.
“But he didn’t shoot me. He told me to walk. He pointed the barrel at my head and told me he would kill me if I didn’t.
"He lead me back to the Gauthrys farm, and locked me in the shed. I didn’t fight him, I didn’t even say a word. I wanted to live, I wanted to live I wanted to LIVE. And so I said nothing. It wasn’t until he turned the lock that my panicked thoughts turned to what Cameron was doing. Why had he left me alive when I’d seen what he’d done? The answer hit me too late.
"He left me alive cause no one would believe me. I had lied and manipulated people enough that no one would listen to me nomore. They might even think I’d killed Clay.
"God. They would think I had killed Clay.
“Then I heard the gunfire and everythin made a horrible kind of sense.
"I yelled ‘NO!’ as if that could possibly help anything. I yelled and I threw myself against the door of the shed. As my mother screamed all I could do was hit the wooden door. I couldn’t do anything as the fun went off again. I couldn’t do anything. I. Couldn’t. Do. Anything.
"Another shot, but no scream. That made three. Three. That was every single person I cared about in the world…dead. Dead and I had never told them I had loved them. Never even let them know that I hated them less then the rest of the world. They where dead and everyone would think I had killed Them. They’d hang me and the gold mine would be inherited by Cameron.
"But maybe not.
“I hadn’t head another scream. I fixed on that. I hadn’t heard Lee or Holly scream. What if they where alive. What if Lillian was only wounded. I needed out. I needed to save them. I stopped my frenzied pounding, and found the shovel. I demolished the door. It was solid oak. I… still don’t understand how I did it. I broke out of the shed, and armed with only a shovel, went hunting a man.
“By all rights he should have killed me. He had a rifle and I had a dull shovel, but I guess he didn’t see me. He had his back turned, and I swung that shovel like a bat. By all rights he should have killed me.
"But I killed him.
"And I didn’t care. Your supposed to feel guilty about something like that, but I didn’t. Maybe the towns people were right about me, but I didn’t care. I just needed to find my family.
“Lillian was on the kitchen floor. What was… what was left of her. But I couldn’t find Holly or Lee.
"I ran through the house looking from their bodies. When I couldn’t find them, I went into the yard. Both of them were there.
"They were walking up the road after a day in town. It was the two dogs that where stretched out, bloody on the grass. I hugged Lee and Holly. I don’t think I’d ever done that before.
“The town lawman decided that I’d killed my adopted family and Cameron had been a witness I’d had to get rid of. Anyone who knew me would have known, I never would have hurt Lillian. But nobody knew me. What everyone did know was that I hated Clay. That he didn’t treat me as well as he treated his own children. That I had called him dad when I was little and he told me not to.
"So they decided I had snapped. Lee and Holly believed me, but I wouldn’t let them explain about the gold mine, and without motive my story sounded flimsy.
"My life ain't worth all that gold. Not if it meant Lee and Holly could rebuild. Could have a life.
"But Lee finally broke. He showed the lawman the mine. But he decided this made it more, rather then less likely for me to have killed Clay and Lillian. He said I wanted the gold myself.
“So the mine was discovered and slowly raided, and I was still going to be hung. But Lee broke me out and I left.
"Lee and Holly would’ve come with me, but it wouldn’t have been fair. This was my fault. They shouldn’t have to suffer more then they already had for me. I’m not even a Gauthry. I headed out further west, and have been moving ever since. The owls and... I could almost swear something that looks like Lillian have been following me ever since.
“And that is hell on earth. To leave the people I had only just realized I cared about? To know that Lillian died because she made her husband take in a red baby? I even felt bad about Clay’s death! To know that I’m never going to have another family? I don’t fit in with the white folk, and it’s just as bad with the Indians. I’m stuck in a living purgatory. The worst part is that I had a chance! If I hadn’t fought everyone… If I hadn’t made so many enemies, maybe people wouldn’t have been so quick to decide that I would have killed them. Maybe I could have stayed.
“The only thing I’m not sorry about is killing Cameron.” He finishes his story defiantly.
The woman watches him open his eyes. She wants to rest a hand on his shoulder, but she knows that she isn’t actually solid, and her fingers would go right through his arm. So all she says is, “Thank you for you story, Ellis Gauthry.”
The man who’s name is not Austin startles at the use of his real name.
“Thank you for your story,” because that is all she stays for: the living’s stories. They make her want to cry sometimes, but the people deserve to have someone hear their stories. Deserve to be remembered as she would not.
“Thank you.” and she fads into the darkness to fly with the moon and a winged shadow named Lillian.