John Henry knew something was about to happen. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up like signal flags in warning. Cautiously, he eased his right hand over to the Henry rifle in its leather scabbard and drew up reign to listen. He was partial to that particular gun for a couple reasons. First, it was a gift from his dear Anna and second, ever since he had found out its inventor, Benjamin Tyler Henry, was a distant relative, he took extra pride in it. He was often heard to say, “Nothing like supporting a family member in his budding business”.
He had been riding with heightened caution for he had been warned the Ponderosa pine forest of the Colorado Plateau east of the Mogollon Rim in Arizona held perfect cover for robbers and other no goods. Murdering the unwary for their belongings was a common occurrence and John Henry wasn’t about to be caught with his pants down and boots off if he could help it.
His travels had taken him from Texas through the New Mexican territory and into Arizona where he hoped to re settle and start anew in the high altitude of Flag Staff. He rode alone now but for the last eighteen years his wife Anna had been his beloved partner. Less than three months before, she had given up the ghost after a short but painful bout of brain fever. He buried her alongside the creek she loved to play in as a child. Her parents, a twin sister and an older brother rested nearby to keep her company.
When John Henry married Anna, both her parents were alive and the small cattle ranch they owned was prospering. Folks in the early days of the West had rough lives and when both parents came down with Typhus, Anna traveled to her old homestead to care for them. Unfortunately, she too contracted the disease and succumbed shortly after her parents had passed.
In his grief, John Henry sold off the parent’s ranch along with his own small spread and left to escape the painful memories Texas held for him. With one last longing look, his eyes took in the placid scene of the graves dug in safely alongside the creek and knew he was right in leaving. It was a place for the dead to sleep at and wasn’t a place for the living to mourn in wakefulness. Saddling up his favorite mare, he mounted and rode out leaving the dead to rest.
Having survived unscathed to date, the further north he got the more he began to relax. The hand drawn map he carried said it was only a few more days to his destination in Flag Staff
The trip took longer and more out of him than he had hoped. Reaching the tall pine forest a week previous, he decided he and his horse needed a good rest.
It was during that rest that he met and immediately disliked Sean O’Leary.
John heard O’Leary making his way through the forest long before he caught sight of him. Reaching for his Henry rifle he waited until the object of all the racket appeared.
Something about the set of the man, how he packed his mule and the noise he made traveling drew red flags of warning. John waited for the man to ease up and declare his intentions. When the familier yell, “Yo the camp!” never came, John jacked a cartridge into the Henry’s chamber and stood up to better show himself.
Seeing the rider was aware of John and the camp but still no shout of greeting to the camp came, John yelled at the forest rider, “Stay where ya’ are an’ state your business mister.”
Stopping a hundred feet from the camp, the rider threw his arms up in feigned surprise and yelled back in a heavy Irish accent, “ Ach, tis just me, Sean O’Leary. A traveler I am and a weary one at that… and hungry to boot! I could no more deny the scent of your cook fire than I could tell the sun is not shining. Ach, The smell is like that of me own dear mothers cookin’, God rest her saintly soul, an’ here’s me with my belly shouting a plea sayin’ it’s been a wee bit a time since I paid it any mind. “
John Henry heard the false friendly tone in the man’s voice.“Mister, that don’t tell me your purpose, just that you ain’t ate and you want my grub! Only a fool enters another man’s camp without permission! Ain’t you ever heard of a shout or do you really think you’re immune to getting yourself blowed out of the saddle for your ignorance?”
Paying no mind to the question John asked, the Irishman dismounted without permission. O’Leary led his mule by the reigns toward Johns cook fire, dropped them and stood alongside the mules pack. “If you could spare a few beans or a potato, you would surely have my eternal gratitude.” Seeing the Henry rifle lift up and center on his belly, O’Leary stopped his advancement and added. “I bet you are now saying to yourself, now how could a man travel such a distance without even a single potato in his sack? Now before you answer, let me be tellin’ you. I was happened upon by a gun slinging galoot named Marcus along the trail the day before. When that hoodlum rode away, he had relieved me of any food I might be havin in my sack. And here I am just a lone Irishman, a babe in the woods if you will. I’d be behooved if I could at least sit a spell and share in your coffee. ”
John Henry lifted the barrel higher up into the face of the lying Irishman. “I didn’t invite you to eat or to stay. I don’t like your looks mister and I don’t believe a word of your story either. Now just you get back on that mule and ride on out’a here. “
John Henry was no fool. He had ridden the Texas trails half of his life and could sniff out a bandit like a horse does a water hole. He had already looked at and decided the man and his mule were a set up for murder or at least a robbery. The story of a robber known as Marcus was bullcrap. John was always aware of his back trail and who was on it. In the past week, no one was within ten miles behind him. Therefore the Irishman had not come from behind him but had swung around the camp from the front to make it look so. John suspected with the limited supplies that were more for show than for survival, and the man being a lone rider in a bandits paradise, it could only mean one thing… the man had accomplices waiting somewhere nearby.
With the tip of his Henry, John then pointed to the mule pack behind the old saddle. “I bet if I threatened to shoot your mule, you’d find food aplenty in that pack. It sure looks like that bacon slab you got in there is staining it” Besides the large dripping pork fat stain, John had noticed an older but well oiled Springfield rifle untied alongside the mule pack and within easy grabbing distance.
Realizing John Henry was a bit more adept at figuring the truth out than he originally took him for, the Irishman decided to make a face saving retreat before any lead flew. “And to think I had it in mind to offer you good coin for some of those beans and coffee!” Reaching down, he grabbed up the mules reignsl. “Never you mind then, I’ll just be on my way.”
As the Irishman was speaking, John Henry could not miss the narrow eyed glances the mule rider was giving his Henry rifle. It wasn’t a look of fear but of covetousness and it made him uneasy.
As the Irishman turned his mule back to the trail, John noticed the Irishman glanced into the forest and gave his head a quick, “No” shake to someone in hiding.
That evening, John Henry bedded down after dowsing the fire. He normally would have left the glowing coals to burn out by themselves but tonight he felt safer having no fire to light up his campsite. He wondered whether the Irishman would return with his gang to kill him for his belongings. To be sure, John knew the man was lying.
He slept that night with one eye open waiting for the Irishman and his cohorts to show up.
The next morning found John still alive and in ownership yet of his rifle and belongings. John lay awake in the early dawn listening to the forest sounds. For the last half hour while he listened, no man sounds could were heard. He felt safe enough then to stand up and show himself. After a quick meal of coffee, biscuits and bacon, he set out heading to the small town of Strawberry. The town sat just north of the East Verde river near Sunset Canyon. From Strawberry it was less than a two day ride into Flag Staff. As much as he looked forward to a hot meal, a soft bed and a glass of whisky, John decided to pass on through the town without stopping. Being this close to the end of his journey, his desires for comfort could wait another day or two.
He traveled unmolested along the forest trail. John began to believe the Irishman and his band of no goods had decided he wasn’t worth the fight and found himself beginning to relax.
The smell of wood smoke lifted his nostrils to the wind. Pulling out the hand drawn map again, he decided the smoke was coming from the town of Strawberry up ahead and not from any bandits.
By noon, he came upon a sharp overlooking bluff on the trail. From there he could see over the tree tops down to the town of Strawberry not two miles ahead. It lay not in the forest but outside it where the desert stretched as far as the eye could see.
The strange beauty of the desert held Johns gaze. Here on top of the bluff within the shade of the dense forest a cool breeze blew and the trees kept the harsh sun from reaching the ground. In less than a mile ahead though there was no shade, no breeze and no trees, unless one called a Joshua tree a tree.
He sat there on horseback overlooking the panorama before him when the hairs suddenly stood up on the back of his neck like red signal flags of warning.
Sounding akin to a bee in flight, the bullet tore into the top of John Henry’s well worn Stetson.
John flung himself from the saddle but in his haste, he landed awkwardly and fell flat faced to the ground. Rearing in panic by Johns sudden movement, his mare then sped off down the trail towards the town of Strawberry.
Realizing his trusty Henry rifle was still snug in its saddle scabbard, John felt his hip to make sure that at least his Navy Colt was still secure in its holster. It was.
Seeing a single clean hole driven into his hat, he grabbed it and plopped it back onto his head.
Cautiously scooting off of the trail into the brush, John Henry lay hidden. Without his horse, he was easy pickings and the moment he stood up he’d be a target of whoever had shot at him.
John had no doubt it had something to do with the Irishman. He figured there were at least a couple more siding with him. “Damn bushwackers, I shoulda’ shot that damn Irishman the moment he stepped into my camp.”
John Henry lay there within the dark shadows of the forest and brush until he felt whoever had shot at him wasn’t going to check on their shot. He crawled parallel alongside the trail until the brush became so dense he could not continue. Reentering the trail, he stood for a few minutes listening to the forest sounds. Nothing seemed out of place. Flitting birds, ground squirrels and other critters continued to make their usual noises. No alarm warnings are sounded. Figuring whoever shot at him was more interested in what was on his horse than him personally, john started down the trail to Strawberry.
After a mile or so, the trail joined up with what John took to be a wagon road into town. Deep ruts and fresh horse apples said the road was fairly well used. By the time he entered the outskirts of Strawberry, there were long shadows being painted along the dusty street.
Something didn’t seem right to John Henry. While the town was far from any ghost town he’d seen before, he was surprised the street was empty of animals and people.
Making his way into town by walking dead center down the street, John Henry glanced right then left as he walked.
Glancing about he noticed the wooden frame buildings looked in good shape, no broken windows or collapsed awnings. Nothing to say it was a deserted ghost town. The street, while dusty was without trash. There were some dried and even a few fresh looking horse apples laying about. The horses water troughs seemed to have fresh water in them and the hitching post seemed strong and useable.
No store was open no people were seen. A dress shop window had a recently arrived dress from New Orleans advertized in the window. A tobacco shop had meerschaum pipes and silver cigar cutters in the window, expensive items all left untouched. .
John Henry could not make out the other end of town clearly but he figured with the desert alkali dust and heat waves radiating off the dirt street that it should be expected. Not pondering on that, he made his way to the center of town. Once there, he stopped and scratched his head. “What the dickens is going on” he thought, “have I lost my mind or are these folk all out somewhere?”
One way to find out was to see the Sherriff,” if I can find him,” he mused.
As he made his way to the Sheriffs office, he slowly walked past the towns bank. Looking into the windows as he passed, he didn’t see anyone moving about inside. Reaching for the banks front door, he turned the handle and was taken by surprise to find not only the bank unoccupied but all its doors were left unlocked. “Oh hell, this ain’t right!” He loudly exclaimed.
Turning from the bank, he made swift headway to the Sheriffs office.
Approaching the jail, began to wonder if there could be a celebration or maybe a town function of some sort going on. He could recall as a kid the entire town he lived in at the time turning out for a horse race in a field outside of town. Then another time the entire town showed up to see the reformed town drunk get baptized in the creek nearby. There were reasons for people to go somewhere, maybe this was one of those times. “I bet that’s it, they’s just all gone off somewhere, they’ll be back soon.”
Arriving at the Jailhouse John Henry turned the door knob. The door swung inward on a set of squeaky but well maintained hinges. Hesitantly, he stuck his head inside the Sherriff’s office and shouted.
“Hey, anybody home?” He yelled, “Sheriff, you all in here?” Silence was the response.
John Henry could figure nothing further so he stepped inside to wait for the Sherriff to show up. Feeling a strange tiredness, his drooping eyes took in the jail cells. They were also empty.
Yawning, he opened the cell door and stepped inside the confined area. A single cot was all the jail cell had within it. Making his way over to the cot, he sat down to rest. His head began to ache and the strange desire to sleep started overwhelming him, he lay down on the cot, and fell into a strange fever like sleep.
John Henry heard familiar sounds as he lay deep in sleep. Like phantom wraiths they ghosted in and out of his dreams. The sound of horses clopping past, the front door of the jail house opening and closing, men talking within the jail and outside on the wooden walkway. There was the sound of a wagons squeaky, grease starved wheel hub as it made its way down the street. Boots thumping on the wooden walk outside said people were out and about. All the normal sounds for a normal town.
Morning broke through the jails single iron barred window in the cell. Streaking downward and in motion, it finally crawled onto John Henry’s face and eyes.
Abruptly, he awoke and sat up.
Wiping his hand across his eyes in order to sharpen his focus, he stood up and looked into the jails office. Remembering the sounds he heard during the night within the jail, he was surprised no one had wakened him to question why he had put himself in jail. The cell door was still unlocked so he pushed it open and walked into the office. No one greeted him. The place was as empty as the night before. Spying a coffee pot he lifted it up to see if it contained any brew. While empty, it seemed too warm to be room temperature. Tipping the lid back he saw there was a scant amount yet in the bottom. He swirled it and saw grounds moving within the swirling wave. Someone had made coffee while he slept!
He quietly opened the front door, peered outside then stepped onto the wooden walkway.
Back out in the street, silence and emptyness once again greeted him. “Aw c’mon now” he complained, “What in Sam Hill is going on here?” Starting up the street he stepped into a pile of horse dung, fresh horse dung. “How in the hell did that end up here if they ain’t got no horses here about? This is plain retarded!” Swinging around in a full circle and near panic, he again saw a completely deserted town. No horses, only dung, no wagons, just tracks, no people, just unlocked doors.
“This is not right, not right at all” He loudly told himself. John Henry then decided to find a saloon. If anyone was in town, that’s where they’d be.
Seeing a building with a tall false front and a set of batwing doors he walked toward it. The sign over head claimed it was the Dusty Bone Saloon. It advertized food, drinks and the most beautiful woman to be had west of the Mississippi. Thinking of how many months some Cowboys was on the trail without seeing a woman, he figured whoever had named the place had hit the nail on the head.
Stepping up to the saloon’s wood plank walkway, he clomped up to the batwings door. He cocked his head before entering it to listen for any sounds coming from inside. He heard nothing.
Slowly he swung open the doors and looked into the gloomy interior. Entering the dimly lit room, he took in the place as he walked up to the gaming tables. Cards lay about, even coins! Drinks had been half drunk and left sitting.
“Hey! Anyone in here?” He glanced at the stairway leading upstairs to the whores rooms and took to the stairs two at a time. Reaching the hallway, he pushed open the first door he came to. Empty. Each room was the same. He turned and ran.
Time seemed to play tricks on him. As he ran from the saloon, he noticed the deepening shadows crawling up the dusty street. Wasn’t it just morning?
Feeling the strange sleepiness coming on once again he headed back to the saloon again and to the whores rooms to nap. Hunger had not seemed to be a concern nor even thirst. He didn’t quite understand, it was as if he was experiencing a brain fog. Reaching the step to the wooden walkway, he took the time to look down the street to the end of town. Once again he could not quite make out the details of the buildings or even the road. The end of town just seemed to blur into a smudge. He shrugged and entered the Saloon again. As he made his way to the stairs, he noticed new glasses had replaced the old ones at the table and bar. A few whisky bottles sat like unmoving pillars among the glasses.
Rubbing his aching head, he climbed the stairs to the whore’s rooms. One room stood with its door open so he stepped in and lay down to rest. Again sleep came upon him as if he had been drugged. The last thing he thought of before he blinked out was that tomorrow he’d get on out of this strange place. Something just wasn’t right here.
Again the night sounds came. This time he heard voices clear and distinct. Sometimes it was the huffing, puffing and grunting of cowhands and whores, other times it was sounds in the street. He dismissed the whores even in his sleep for somehow he remembered where he lay and assumed somehow it was being acted out in his dream. The street sounds interested him though. One in particular was the sound of many horses arriving along with cheers and congratulations. John Henry tried to discern what was being said above the din. Something about finding some no goods, a vigilante posse and hanging were some of the words he clearly understood. Then it all faded back into his sleep as a crowd began cheering. He slept until sunrise.
Dawn came abruptly. Jumping up from the bed, John Henry grabbed his hat and tore down the steps into the bar. Again he saw no patrons or bar tender. This time he was not surprised that the glasses and bottles had changed again. Stepping outside into the morning sun he started down the street to the end of town where he swore in his dream he heard a crowd cheering. By now he was no longer concerning himself as to why there was no one about. He had put that out of his head because just as soon as he could, he’d head out of this crazy town, horse or no horse. Once gone, he figured things would return to normal.
Heading to the end of town he had heard the cheering he abruptly stopped and stood staring slack jawed at what he saw.
There, hanging from one of the few trees in town twisting in the breeze were three men. One of who was the Irishman. Removing his hat as if it would help him see better, John Henry cautiously approached the hanging figures. Black tongues stuck out of their gaping mouths. The two he did not recognize had pissed their drawers and the Irishman had included crap his. It was not a pleasant scene to stare at.
It was then that he realized he was at the end of the town he had not been able to see before. Due to sand being blown or heat wave he did not know, but being as close as he was he figured the end of town would be clearly visible now. It still wasn’t.
A blur of fog was still preventing him from clearly seeing the end of the street, now only a hundred feet away. So intrigued was he that he turned from the three rope dangling figures and walked towards the end of the street.
As he approached, it seemed the end of the town ended in a blur of light. As he slowly walked towards it, he saw the light becoming more intense. By the time he stood within feet of the last building the light was brighter than the morning sun. It wasn’t the brightness though that held him in a trance like state but the figure he saw within the brightness. It was his love, Anna.
Slowly, he approached the vision of the love of his life, his mind reeled in disbelief. “Anna?” His voice cracked, “How? What is going on? That cain’t be really you! I buried my Anna back in Texas!”
In the brightest of light, Anna Smiled at him and spoke. ”My dear Jonathan Dickson Henry, who else would I be?”
Hearing his name spoken forced John Henry to his knees. There was only one person in the world besides his dead parents who knew his middle name, and that was his Anna.
Anna reached out her hand to him, “Come to me John Henry, it’s time now to leave this place. I have been waiting for you .”
“What do you mean, waiting? How did you know I was in this town anyway?” Looking up in confusion John Henry quietly asked her. “What’s goin’ on sweetheart? Why am I being punished like this. I know you’re not really here. Tell me, why am I here an’ you there? Have I gone mad?”
“No, you have not gone mad” Anna answered, “Do you remember the Irishman you met and took a dislike to on the trail?
“Yes, I remember seeing him. I didn’t cotton to him right off but I never saw his pards I just guessed he’d have some hidden away somewheres. I take it that’s ‘em hanging over there next to him? For what was they all hung for?”
Anna answered, “It is them, and they were hung because of what they were and what they did to you.”
Did to me? You’re tellin’ me it was them that shot at me an’ put a hole in my favorite hat? While I ain’t partial to havin’ my hat shot off my head, that ain’t no call to hang ‘em. Why they hang ‘em for that?”
“My dear John Henry, He didn’t just shoot the hat off your head, he shot the hat off through your head!”
“That’s right, he killed you. Your body was found laying on the trail shortly after some of the town’s folks investigated after hearing the shot. Your horse has been stabled in town since then. They caught up with those three last night in the forest, brought them back and hung them from that tree.
“Well if I’m dead then how come I’m standin’ here talkin’ to you. Wouldn’t I know it if I was dead? Besides that, I’d be layin’ in a grave somewhere an’ I think I’d know if I was layin’ dead in a grave somewhere. Wouldn’t I?”
“It’s true John Henry, you are lying in a grave, right over there on the hill. You can walk over and take a look at your grave but I think you’ll believe me without having to take a look.”
John Henry looked over towards the hill, where sure enough, a new grave had been dug and filled. “How come I cain’t see no one except only them that shot me?”
“Because they are dead. You can no longer see the living. Each time you fell asleep your spirit edged closer here to the light. I was sent to guide you.
The sounds you heard where those of the living. I know you noticed the changes each day. I saw you looking at the glasses and bottles yesterday. You saw they had changed. “
“How come I don’t see nothin’ move?”
“Because you only see a tiny slice of time, less than a blink of the eye, not unlike a painting captures a moment in time.”
John Henry’s mind began to make sense of it all. Rubbing his chin, John Henry looked to his beloved Anna. “So it’s for real then? I’m dead? Huh, maybe that explains why my horse took to the trail without me. She musta knowed I was a goner ‘cause she never woulda’ left me otherwise.”
“She did. I was delighted when she ran towards town for I did not want the Irishman to claim your Henry rifle. I know how much that rifle means to you.”
“It weren’t the rifle itself that meant so much to me Anna. It was ‘cause I knowed how long and hard it was for you to save up that much money to buy it for me without me knowin about it. Yup, I guess I’ll have no need for it now that I’m dead. Say Anna, this may sound a bit queer but was you watchin’ me the entire time after I was kilt?”
“I’ve been able to see everything, yes.”
“I slept in the whorehouse, you knew that?”
Anna started chuckling, “Yes sweetheart, I watched as you slept and the whores came and went and plied their trade in your bed. It did look a bit crowded at times John Henry, I wish you could’ve seen it!”
It started out as a chuckle but grew into a full belly laugh for the two of them. John Henry slapped his thigh and shouted “Oh my word!” He cried, “that sounds like perfectly horrible sight.”
After a minute, the two stopped their laughing and chuckling. John Henry looked soberly at the town around him. True, the only thing that moved was the slow twisting of the dead men as they hung. He pondered the events and it all fit together too perfectly to be anything but the truth. He then turned his eyes back to his beloved Anna and told her.” I always wondered how I would go. Funny thing is, I never even knew it when I did go. I guess that explains why I ain’t touched no food or ever got thirsty either, huh?”
Instead of answering immediately, Anna reached her hand out to him. “Come home now with me John Henry, it’s finer here than even in Texas.”
Jonathon Dickson Henry closed his hand over hers and told her, “I loved you so darn much that sometimes I wondered if I could live without you after you passed. I guess I couldn’t huh?”
Anna smiled at him.
Together, hand in hand, they turned and walked away from the town and into the sun bright fog.
Anna and John Henry slowly began to dissapear from sight.
“Finer than Texas you say?”
“Yes John Henry, as hard as it is to believe, it’s finer than Texas!”