Ghost Town by Chris Adam Smith
THE FIRST THING I saw as I walked the tired bay out of the rocky arroyo and onto the dirt road was the iron-fenced and carefully tended cemetery. It stood within the shelter of a small stand of lodgepole pine with maybe sixty or seventy markers, mostly wood, each heading up a clearly defined grave with the whole plot free of wheatgrass or sagebrush. The second thing was the neatly painted sign nailed to a cottonwood tree and declaring that the bay and me were entering the township of Moonbeam with its population of 1,470. I was glad to have found it, the weather was worsening, dark clouds gathered on the high ground ahead of me and thunderheads rolled in the darkening northern sky. I needed people and shelter. The town below the narrow ridge would offer me both of those things.
But that was not quite the reality of it.
Moonbeam was as damned near to a ghost town as a town can get without actually being declared dead. Like dozens of other such boomers hidden away in the valleys and canyons along the bottom of Colorado’s Sawatch Mountains it had seen better days. Most of the buildings had fallen into decay, their weathered boards split and sun-bleached. A livery stable, its wide doors hanging loose from broken iron hinges, a drugstore, bakery, land office, two stores, a saloon and assay office all derelict. Even the Miner’s Bank was wide open to the vagaries of the weather and the whims of the mountain winds which could blow hot or cold dependent, it seemed, on the disposition of some Higher Power. On the east side of Main Street a large section of the porch roof had collapsed onto the sidewalk making the walking of its length difficult to impossible.
Here and there though, some of the buildings were still open for business of sorts. A small general store with buckets, barrels and shovels hanging in front of its dirty windows or stacked on the boarded sidewalk which was itself swept and clear of rubble. Next to that what appeared to be a billiards parlour and beside that the biggest building in Moonbeam, the American Eagle Hotel, cast its long late afternoon shadow across the street. The hotel had once been painted green and where the flaking paint still stuck to the timber it was clear to see that the color had faded long before the wind and the rain had practised their destructive, abrasive works upon its surface.
The woman was standing on the covered boardwalk in front of the hotel in the deep shadow of the porch leaning on one of the uprights watching me and waving as I eased the bay along the rutted street chased by tumbleweed and little swirls of alkaline dust.
She was, I guessed from one long look at her, going on thirty but looking nearer forty and, like the building behind her, weathered. She had dark hair tied back in a single ringlet and held to the nape of her neck by a faded paper rose on a cloth-covered wire stem. Her eyes were coal black, sparkling like diamonds in candle light, her mouth was painted onto her face, dark red and bigger than the lips the crimson paint was hiding. She was tall and slim in a faded knee-length, flowered dress. Her tawny naked legs vanished into lace-up ankle boots. She was part Indian I guessed and proud of it. She watched me closely as I walked the bay up to the hitching rail, leaned forward on the saddle horn and touched my dusty hat to her. Up close she was a good-looking woman of that there was no doubt.
“Evening, ma’am, Moonbeam isn’t quite what I expected it to be, no sir.”
She smiled the gentleness of it reaching her eyes but destroyed by the harsh redness of her paint-covered lips. She reached out and brushed the back of her slim fingers across the soft muzzle of the bay who nickered softly and nudged her hand asking for more.
“Just what did you expect, mister?”
She was looking up at me then, touching the pony but studying me with those dark eyes. She would see I had been in the saddle for a long time and was in need of a bath and a shave. A good meal wouldn’t have hurt me either just about then. Her eyes took in the faded red shirt, the black vest, worn Levis, stovepipe chaps and scuffed boots. They wandered over my trappings, the yellow slicker draped across the saddle’s battered cantle, the booted rifle, the pistol on my hip and finally the badge. They stayed there for a moment reading the stamped gray metal then moved up to my face. Still waiting for an answer to her question.
“People, ma’am, a whole lot of people would have made my long ride the more worthwhile.”
She smiled at me her hand never leaving the bay.
“The people, most of them at any rate, left right after the silver money played out.”
“You stayed on.”
“Waiting for people like you, Marshal. You would be surprised how many folk ride through here in the course of a summer. Winter, hardly nobody at all but summer’s not so lonely.”
She had a soft, wistful voice, a trace of an accent from faraway to the south east of Colorado and Moonbeam. It was soft like the wind when it whispers through the tall grass down along the Belle Fourche in the Dakotas or through the dark rocks in the foothills of the Mission Mountains above the Flathead in Western Montana where I was born and where, God willing, I would one day go home to die. I had no idea as to why I was thinking such thoughts sitting there on that tired bay looking down at the woman from Moonbeam with a paper rose in her hair and the mountain breeze in her voice but I guess it was middle-age and weariness.
“You looking for a room,” she said quietly, more of an observation than a question.
“You got one or are you all full up for the summer?”
She returned my smile.
“Maybe we can fit you in, President’s not due through here till Saturday; you can have his suite, I guess, if that’s all right with you.”
“Obliged to you, sure he won’t mind my stinking the place up?”
“He won’t hardly notice I bet.”
“I see the livery is closed.”
“Leave your pony here, we have a stable out back I’ll get him taken care of directly, rubbed down and fed.”
She turned from me leaving me sitting there under the darkening sky, as now and again the underbellies of the closing clouds rippled white with diffused lightning. There was a distinct smell of rain on the rising wind. I watched her walk away, the swing of her hips, the dress hem swishing against her bare legs. I slid wearily down from the saddle, undid my warbag and dragging the Winchester from its boot followed her in through the screen door.
The floor of the lobby was polished pine and clean. The furniture was minimal. A pair of overstuffed armchairs, a board seat against the walls each side of the double doorway and a small table with a month-old Denver newspaper on it. There were two wide entrance ways leading to the left and right of the lobby. Through one I could see a large dining-room with one table set for dinner and the rest bare or littered with clean crockery. Through the other, the one to my left, I could see a small bar room with a darkly-polished counter and a painted mirror. Tables and chairs were spread about the place and a beautifully figured walnut pianola stood grandly against the back wall.
Both rooms were empty of people.
I set my gear on the floor and walked over to the desk where she pushed the gleaming brass bell to one side and turned the register towards me with one hand holding out an already inked pen in the other.
Taking the pen, I signed the register: John Lincoln, and gave my address as the US Marshals Service, Denver. I set down the date as August 23rd 1894.
She waited while the pen scratched and the air filled with the metallic odour of fresh ink then, turning the book back towards her, she studied the clear copper-plate handwriting and looked up at me her dark eyes half-closed masking her thoughts from me. What were they I wondered, the supper perhaps, was I as old and as dirty as I looked? Did I have any money or was I going to offer her federal script? I guessed it was the latter.
“The room’s a dollar fifty, Mr Lincoln.”
I nodded, “Most people call me Link.”
“In advance,” she added quietly.
I grinned and fished out a dollar and two quarters and set it on the desk.
“Four bits for your horse, an even dollar for supper and another four bits if you want to take a hot bath.”
She did not take her eyes from mine while she spoke.
“All of this in advance, ma’am?”
“I’ve had my share of fly-by-nighters, Marshal.”
“I’ll bet you have.” I said, sorting through my pocket change, then thinking about it and taking out my leather poke so that she could see I had plenty of money and there really was not much point in bothering herself about my being able to pay or not.
“I will take the bath and I will need a receipt for the outgoings.”
She smiled that warm smile again showing me even white teeth and I wished the painted lips were bare.
“Put your money away, Mr Lincoln, I will make you out an itemised bill before you leave, which will be when?”
I took off my hat and scratched at my short-cropped, greying hair. Then studied my boots for a moment thinking it through. I looked up at her and shrugged.
“I’m not sure, though very likely in the morning. I’m escorting a small party of government census workers, they got them out all over the territory at the moment. I volunteered to cover this part of the county and give their butts a rest. So far, I’ve found four empty towns and one old-timer who pulled a pistol on me when I said I was from the government. Old fart damned near blew my head off.”
“The government’s not too popular around here since they interfered with the silver prices, still, I’m glad he didn’t hurt you.”
“That’s a comfort,” I said, trying to read something into the way her voice had dropped. “I’m no politician and the price or wherewithal of silver means little to me.”
“For a lot of people, it was their livelihood.” Suddenly she was all business again, closing the register and capping the ink well. She pointed to the stairway behind her, “Your room is first on the left and the bath house is out back by the stable. I’ll get you a clean towel and some hot water on the boil and ring the bell when it’s ready.”
Then she was gone, turning and vanishing behind the heavy curtain that covered a doorway behind her. The paper rose bounced on her neck and I could still smell the natural freshness of her.
I bathed, shaved and washed my hair and then laundered my shirt, drawers, socks and pants in the same hot water rinsing them out in ice cold water from the hand pump set over a large wooden bucket in one corner of the bath house. Satisfied, I draped them over the stove pipe pulled on clean clothes and running my hand across my head in an effort to flatten the short hair I made my way back along the alleyway past the stable and into the lobby of the hotel. The wind had fallen away and great raindrops were beginning to fall to earth from the silence of the impending thunderstorm. I dodged my way through them.
Oil lamps bloomed in the dining-room sending dancing shadows into its darkened corners. The bar was still in shadow and although I could have used a drink food was my main concern. It was after seven by my pocket watch so I made my way into the dining-room and choosing a chair which faced the doorway I sat down and waited. The table was set for two. The chair had barely stopped creaking beneath my weight when the woman whose name I still did not know stepped into the room carrying a large tray heaped with vegetable dishes, fresh bread and a white china water jug. She smiled, set it down and swished out again returning seconds later with a smaller tray containing a covered dish. She set that down swept her short skirt out around her and sat down opposite me.
“I hope you don’t object to my joining you, Mr Lincoln, but it saves on just about everything and unless there is an objection it is my habit to dine with my boarders.”
I had climbed halfway to my feet in a gentlemanly gesture as she sat down and seemed to be stuck there halfway between sitting and standing surprised by her remarks but not unhappy with them.
“Are you going to take your meal in that position, Mr Lincoln, or are you going to sit down. I’m sure it would be more comfortable for you to sit.”
She was laughing at me and I didn’t mind that either.
I sat down.
“If you would tell me your name, I would enjoy your company the more.”
She colored slightly, a marginal darkening of her already tawny face, and held out her hand to me.
“Choya Moonbeam, I’m sorry, somehow I thought you knew but silly of me – how could you have?”
I released her cool fingers.
“Yes, the town was named after my husband, he was the first man here and one of the last to leave.”
I did not reply but sat down and took the plate she had heaped with potatoes, beef stew, gravy, dumplings and fresh bread.
So, she was alone. That was something to think about.
Behind closed doors and drawn curtains, ignoring the storm that raged up and down Main Street and rattled the decrepit buildings, we ate in a silence broken only by the crashing of the thunder. Once I did remark upon how good the food was which seemed to please her but did not tempt her into conversation with me.
When we had finished eating, she offered me coffee which I accepted but declined her additional offer of allowing me to smoke if I so wished. In her turn she refused my help in clearing away the dinner things. I had paid her very careful attention during the meal and on more than one occasion our eyes had met across the short distance separating us as she appraised the new clean me. I sipped my coffee, watching her and wondering what the hell was going on, trying to remember if I had seen anyone in the general store or a shadowy customer in the billiards parlour when I rode past them earlier and then remembering my interest had been taken solely by her standing there as if she had been waiting for me.
“Is the bar open yet, ma’am, or…?”
She cut me off with a smile.
“Please call me Choya, Mr Lincoln, and yes, it is although I get so few customers, I save on lamp oil. Excuse me won’t you while I light them. Please come through when you are ready.”
I half rose but she was gone before I could make it to my feet. I drank the coffee, the best I had taken in several weeks, and scraping back my chair and picking up my hat I made my way across the lobby and into the bar.
Choya Moonbeam was standing behind the bar with the flickering lamp light upon her face. The shadows accentuated the height of her cheek-bones, the sparkle of her eyes and the glistening red of her lips. Her dark hair was loose the paper rose fixed into it above her left eye where a thick strand fell down her cheek adding to the overall impression of darkness. Was it Creole I wondered, Negro or perhaps even Apache? It could have been any or all of those.
“What is your pleasure, Mr Lincoln.”
“Whiskey please. You serve behind the bar as well?”
My question seemed to amuse her but she did not answer and instead asked one of her own.
“I have several kinds of whiskey and in deference to that badge I should tell you that revenue has been paid on all of it, even the bad stuff.”
“Lightning down from the hills, ‘shine at a dollar a bottle.”
I shivered and she smiled but once again the paint hardened the softness of it.
“Or there’s cheap rotgut at two dollars a bottle or sipping whiskey at two bits a shot. I recommend the whiskey, Marshal.”
“Please, call me Link will you, it’s what most people do and I will take your recommendation.”
I sipped the whiskey it was golden and it was good.
“Can I buy you a drink?” I said, raising my own glass to her. She nodded pouring herself a whiskey and sipping it her lips leaving a red stain on the rim of the glass.
“Good health,” she said.
“The place is crowded out tonight,” I observed, smiling at her waving my hand around the empty room. “Maybe we could find us a table though. What do you say, bring the bottle and keep me company in a room full of strangers?”
Choya lead and I followed her across the empty room to where a table and two chairs stood close by to the pianola. She set the bottle and her glass on to the table and walked over to the machine. As she swirled back towards me it kicked into a waltz drowning out the noise of the storm which still rattled its way around the foothills to the north of the town. Then, without thinking I stood up, reached out for her and danced her around the room.
I was a bit of a dancer.
Choya Moonbeam was as light as duck down, easy in my arms, laughing if I made a fancy move, following my steps, leaning into me and then away. We danced and drank for an hour in that shadowy empty room and when the music of the last piano roll stopped, I did not let go of her and she did not move to be free of me. I looked down into the darkness of her eyes and bending slightly kissed her red mouth. She opened her lips for me, her whiskey breath sweet and hot, her tongue warm and alive. She lunged against me and then twisted away toward the player-piano the music following her graceful steps back to me. Then into my arms again and swinging me across the polished floor dodging the shadows and the laughter and the elbows of the other dancers who, for one strange moment, I thought filled the room. But we were alone and her body suddenly pressing into me told me that we needed no other company that night.
But we did have some.
As I swung her towards the doorway a man’s rough hand dragged at my shoulder and a blast of hot rancid breath dashed into my face followed by a graveyard voice rasping out at me. “Mind if I cut in, mister?”
Choya gasped over my shoulder and I turned, slightly drunk, a little confused and all angry.
He was about my height. His gray-bearded face pale and liverish in the flickering yellow light. His hair was lank and long, the eyes were indistinguishable in their dark cavernous sockets and his dirty clothes were rags – the big tan whipcord jacket draped about a scarecrow frame. I angrily pushed him away keeping myself between him and the moaning Choya. He grabbed at me again, cursing, this time his words were muffled and indistinguishable as if they came from faraway. I pushed him but he clung on to me. I cursed him then, drew my Colt and tapped him alongside the head with its long steel barrel. An experienced tap. A lawman’s way of not busting his knuckles on a hard-headed, intoxicated cowboy, miner, farmer or any other payday Saturday night rowdy. The man went down like a heart-shot deer. The knees buckled, gave way beneath him and he folded like a tent into a silent untidy heap of filthy rags.
I holstered the piece as Choya broke from the protection of my left arm and ran to the bar leaning on it her back towards me, her shoulders trembling, the movement punctuated by muffled sobs coming from somewhere deep within her breast. I walked over and placed my hand on her back. Immediately she leaned into it turned her head to me and I kissed the salty tears from her face saw that the paint had gone, wiped away no doubt by her tears and our frantic embrace.
“Who the hell is that, Choya?”
“Just some drunk old man.”
“Any more like him around?”
I was thinking of the billiard hall and the store and the one or two other buildings still habitable. Wondering on just who had taken care of the bay or lit the lamps and tended to the furnace and stove in the bath house or who had cooked the supper or cared for the small cemetery I had passed on my way into Moonbeam.
“No, he’s the last of them.”
Her words were thick with tears and her arms were around my neck and she was asking me for love. They were words I could not understand, hardly hear but could never deny. And then I was carrying her up the narrow stairs to my room and to my bed.
That night I made love to Choya Moonbeam with more passion and a greater depth of feeling than I had ever before experienced. At forty-eight years old I gave more of myself, my energy and my passion, to that dark woman than I would have thought possible. And it was returned kiss for kiss, thrust for thrust, touch for touch, her soft tawny body compliant to my every whim. Her words were of love and delight and we both cried out from time to time as we took each other to the brink of pain only to relax and then climb the hill again. Finally, exhausted we slept through the midnight hours.
I awoke at what I guessed to be around four in the morning the storm and the pouring rain that had accompanied our passion was, like that passion, spent and past. I was conscious that she to was awake. She was on her back and I was on my side facing her my hand cupping her soft left breast. We had kept the oil lamp burning to enhance our passion, allow our eyes to share the delight we both felt, and I could see by its still flickering glow that she was staring at the ceiling and that her cheeks were wet with fresh tears.
I suddenly felt very protective towards her, concerned for her well-being and instinctively her lover.
“What is it, Choya, what’s the matter? Did I hurt you?”
I leaned on my elbow caressed her nipple and gently kissed her on the cheek but she turned away from me and removed my hand from her body sliding towards the edge of the large bed never once taking her eyes from the shadow-dappled, smoke-stained ceiling of the bedroom.
I have never been good with women not in the sense that I have any real understanding as to their needs beyond the physical, both caring and loving. If a woman needs care or love or even laughter, I can be there for them but beyond that I am nothing more than what I am or that which I can give. I was at a loss, I needed guidance, to be told what to do. Given a sign, a word, an instruction. Choya Moonbeam gave it to me and it was not what I wanted to hear.
“You had best be leaving now, Mr Lincoln, thank you for stopping by and for being with me but the sooner you are gone the better for me, the better for us.”
“My husband, Frank Moonbeam, the man you hit last evening. The old man with the foul breath.”
I pulled away from her, retreated to my edge of the bed. Taking another man’s wife, even a man like the old drunk’s was not my way.
“I thought you said he had gone away, left you.”
“He had but he comes back from time to time to damn me for wanting something more than he could ever give me.”
The softness had gone from her voice. It was flat and dead. The tears had stopped and her body hardened. She pulled the covers up to her throat and continued her study of the shadows.
I sat on the edge of the bed and pulled on my pants and boots. I slipped into my crumpled shirt and vest and with my hat under one arm and my pistol belt under the other I walked across the room and opened the door. I looked back at her but she hardly seemed to know I was leaving.
“Tonight was really something, Choya, if you want me to stay I can think about it, maybe work something out with your old man.”
It was all she said.
Downstairs I checked in on the bar room it was much as we had left it. The lamps were smoking badly and the old man was still on the floor. I thought for one fearful moment he was dead but as I bent down to him, I could hear his muffled breathing, smell the stink of his breath. I placed a cushion from one of the armchairs beneath his head and settled him into a more comfortable position. Then I turned down the lamps and poured myself one last shot of whiskey. It burned all the way down.
On my way out through the lobby I took five silver dollars from my poke and stacked them on the desk beside the register and then I quit that place. Saddling the bay and swinging up on to the cold leather I wondered if Choya was still staring at the ceiling and I wondered if she would remember me.
The sunshine and warm breeze quickly set about ridding the high country of the rain of the previous night. The wet earth and the rocks steamed throughout the following morning filling the air with the sweet smell of damp earth and drying granite. By mid-afternoon I had found three such towns as Moonbeam each one deserted and given over to the pack rats, coyotes and the black winged ravens which always seemed to gather and thrive wherever there was death and decay of any kind. By the late dark evening I was hopelessly lost beneath a cloudy, starless, moonless sky which offered me no navigation points of any kind. That night, I made my camp and a small fire close to a dry creek bed and took my supper of hard sourdough biscuits, jerked beef and bad coffee my soul filled with an abundance of misery and self-pity.
The following morning, I was up with the sun trying to beat my way through the brush and find the way I had lost the previous evening. It was nearly noon when I cut the trail that lead me to a lightning-struck cottonwood beside an overgrown cemetery. There was something disturbingly familiar about it. The graveyard was littered with rolling tumbleweed, tufts of sagebrush with clumps of needle-and-thread grass spreading among the ramshackle headboards of the distant dead. I picked my way around the broken iron fence and up to the low ridge which overlooked the gray town below me. There was no doubt about it. I turned the bay back to the fallen cottonwood and dismounted. I found the sign beneath the scorched trunk and pulled it clear. It was weathered, split and some fancy rider had at some time or another punched two bullet holes through it. Nevertheless, it was still clearly readable. Moonbeam.
If you spend your life riding behind a badge and surviving the onslaught of old age, bad whiskey, indifferent food and the best the badmen can throw at you, a certain trustworthy degree of instinct and self preservation is ground into your hide. No matter what you want to do or what your heart tells you to do, the gut feeling prevails and you lean to the right, and the bullet misses, or you draw that fraction of a second quicker and beat the man down. Whatever, it works. But sometimes, no matter what your instinct tells you to do you go and do the other thing and I suspect that it is just such a perverseness that keeps mankind stumbling forward, making mistakes along the way but getting there eventually. At least I hope that is the case.
I ignored the inner voice that told me to kick the pony on and ride out of there in a hurry and instead turned the bay’s head down towards the town.
Moonbeam was about the same as it was when I had last seen it only worse, much worse. Most of the east side of Main Street had completely collapsed in on itself and there were no signs of habitation. Sagebrush littered the lots and tumbleweed drifted around in the quiet mountain breeze. On the western side the store and the billiards parlour were quite derelict and the screen doors of the American Eagle Hotel hung listlessly from rusting broken hinges groaning now and again as the draft caught and moved them.
I tied the bay off at the sagging hitching rail, stepped onto the sidewalk and in through the gaping double doors. The lobby was littered with rotting furniture, the stuffing from the armchairs tossed and turned by rats and mice. The dining-room was a mess of broken dining-tables and chairs and smelled of damp and decay. The bar room had suffered even more with piles of bird lime littering the floor where part of the ceiling had caved in and doves had built their raggedy nests in the open eaves and upon the broken beams. The pianola was covered in dust the music rolls spread across the floor in confusion around it.
I did not want to but could not help myself.
The stairs creaked and groaned under my weight but the timbers held. I reached the bedroom door, turned the handle and pushed inwards. It moved a foot then jammed solid. I put my shoulder hard against it and moved it another ten inches, room enough for me to squeeze through.
The man or what was left of him lay in front of the doorway his booted left foot jammed between it and the dressing table. My efforts to open the door had concertinaed his body, doubled it over. It was little more than skin and bone held together with rags. The skull was covered in strips of yellowing skin and tufts of long hair. Gray beard hair still clung to the white bone of the tightly closed and black-toothed jaws. There was a neat round bullet hole an inch above the empty right eye socket with a larger ragged hole above where the left ear should have been. I recognised him from the crumpled dusty clothing. It was Frank Moonbeam and he was dried out and long dead. There was a rusting sawn-off twelve gauge locked in his bony hands triggers back and hammers down.
There were two other bodies both in the bed, partially covered and lying on their backs.
One had undoubtedly been the woman Choya Moonbeam. The paper rose was still in her hair and the sightless sockets above the high cheek bones were still fixed to the flaking ceiling above the bed. The top left half of the rib cage had disintegrated and the gap filled with broken and chipped bone. I could see small gray balls of lead shot embedded in the spinal column.
The man was in about the same condition. Nothing but dry skin and lead splintered bone the juices that had driven him through life were long dried up and gone. There was a long barrelled .45 Colt revolver in his right hand, hammer down, the white boned trigger-finger through the guard jamming the trigger to the rear.
I did not examine the man closely but turned and quickly made my way out of the room, down the stairs and into the lobby.
The five silver dollars were just as I knew they would be, still stacked beside the closed dust-covered register. I walked quickly past the desk through the gaping door and out into the clear fresh air. I stood there filling my lungs seeming to breathe for the first time since I had entered the ghost town. The bay nickered and without looking over my shoulder I swung up into the creaking saddle and walked him back down the street. I paused by the livery unable to help myself and looked back towards the American Eagle Hotel.
Choya Moonbeam was standing on the boardwalk in front of the hotel in the shadow of the porch leaning on one of the uprights watching me and waving as I eased the bay a little faster along the rutted street chased by tumbleweed and little swirls of alkaline dust.