The Gift


This story originally appeared on our now defunct 

Western fiction webzine The Big Adios.

The jangle of heavy spurs along with the thud of boots slapping against rough wooden planks clearly echoed through the night’s frigid cold.  The boots . . . the janglin’ spurs . . . of a man walking slowly . . . deliberately . . . across the wooden boardwalk of the town’s only hardware store was loud enough to be heard by anyone if they had been standing outside in the darkness.  But no one was foolish enough to be standing outside tonight.  A Northen’er was coming in off the plains.  Bringing harsh rain mixed with snow and a wind that’d cut you to pieces.  Everybody in town this time of night was barricaded behind stout doors and strong walls and sitting close to pot belly stoves to keep warm.

Even the town’s only saloon had its main doors closed and its dozen or so kerosene lanterns blackened out.  Looking like a drunken derelict huddling forgotten in darkened shadows.

But he wasn’t.

Holding a lantern up in front of him with his off hand he moved slowly down the walk his eyes constantly moving to take in the shadows which filled crevices and corners of this sleeping town.  His gun hand rested on the butt of the big .44 caliber Remington revolver as if it was expecting trouble.  His face, bathed in the harsh golden-yellowish light of the lantern, confirmed it.  He was expecting trouble.

The light revealed the face of a man who had lived too close to the edge of the abyss.  Horizontally across the bridge of his nose was a vivid red scar freshly closed and still healing.  Vertically running down his left cheek was an older scar partially covered by the dark brown whiskers tainted with streaks of light gray.  Odd gun metal gray eyes underneath brows wrinkled in anticipation eyed the world around him.  Not a handsome man . . . not necessarily an ugly man.  But the scars told a story to any astute observer.  This man wasn’t an ordinary cow puncher.  He wasn’t a farmer.  He wasn’t a mule skinner.  He was something different.  Someone maybe honest folk should stay away from.

He was dressed in worn sweat stained buckskin.  Long brown hair, streaked in gray, was pulled back behind his head, Indian style, and tied into a long single rope of hair.  Riding low on the right side of his waist was the heavy belt and holster which carried the Remington .44 caliber revolver easily . . . almost casually . . . close to his gun hand.  Stuffed in the front of his belt was the butt of a  .45 caliber Colt revolver.  On his left hip in a beaded deer skin sheath was the ugly form of a long bladed knife.  But riding in the gun belt, tucked in the middle of his back, was the long handled and darkly glistening blade of an ancient weapon.  An Iroquois war axe.  A weapon handed down from generation to generation.  Handed down to the male heir who had The ‘Gift.’

The ‘Gift.’

There was no need to talk about.  No way to talk about it to anyone for it to make sense.  You either had it or you didn’t. You either could see things no one else could see or you couldn’t.  You either could feel the presence or you couldn’t.  If ya couldn’t see it or feel it . . . well, pardner . . . that meant you were just normal.  And normal t’wernt bad

at all.

But Gawd help ya if ya could feel it and see it.  It meant yer destiny was set.

It all began way back before the county became a country.  Before the Revolutionary War.  Way back in the 1760’s.  Great great Grandpa Josiah Pitt and some of his neighbors were fighting the Iroquois up close to the Canadian border during the French and Indian Wars.  Fighting with the British to keep marauding Indians and the French out of the Hudson Valley.  As the family story goes great great Grandpa and his band of men found a Iroquois campsite.  A campsite with lots of captives, mostly women and children, the raiding party were taking with them back to Canada.  A fight ensued.  A bloody brawl that cut up both sides mightily.

As the story goes one swift Iroquois warrior seemed to rise out of the darkness directly in front of Josiah with a war axe in hand and ran screaming toward him while emitting a blood curdling war cry.  Grandpa Joshia lifted his long rifle and took careful aim at the warrior.  But his powder had become wet and the long rifle misfired!  He barely had enough time to club the warrior with the useless rifle and draw his knife before the warrior was on him.

It was a savage, silent, fight to the finish.  Grandpa Josiah was cut up bad from that Iroquois war axe.  But in the end it was he who took the axe from his opponent and killed the warrior with his own weapon.  And the moment that happened The ‘Gift’ settled into the bones of all the selected male Pitt heirs yet to come.  There was no other way to say it.  As strange as it sounds it nevertheless was the harsh truth.  Those who possessed The ‘Gift’ saw Ghosts.  Ghosts and Evil.

But more than that.  The ability to see Ghosts and Evil was only a minor curse the odd Iroquois war axe carried with it.  The true curse was the need, the overwhelming desire, to pursue Evil and defeat it.

Which is the reason why he was in this miserable little town huddled in a cul de sac at the base of the towering, snow capped Grand Tetons.  He was hunting a Ghost.  An ethereal creature hiding in the hulking form of an old buffalo hunter.  Two nights earlier he came across a sod house set out on the wide expanse of the eastern plains of Wyoming.  A sod house bathed in moonlight with smoke rising out of a small chimney and one lone kerosene lamp glowing dully sitting in the middle of the open door of the home.

Inside the eerily silent home he found them all dead.  Husband, wife, two small children.  All dead.  Brutally murdered.  It took some time to bury the dead out on the plains a few yards away from their home.  But he buried them, made rough crosses to mark their passage into the afterlife, and then climbed with aching bones and tired muscles up into the saddle of his big Appaloosa mare just as the biggest, brightest full moon hung directly over him and his horse in a sky filled with a hundred billion unblinking stars.

That’s when he heard the laughter.

The insane cackling of a madman.

Or the braying, taunting howl of a Ghost.

The Navajo called them the yee naaldlooshii.  Skinwalkers.  Witches who had the power to take on the image of other creatures, including humans, to do evil things.  Male or female the evil in them unleashed controlled them and roamed the night hunting their prey.  Skinwalkers were known by all the tribes by one name or the other.  Few natives knew the true reality of the horror.  The yee naaldlooshii need not be living, breathing creatures.  Many were already Ghosts who, for one reason or another, returned back to this world to haunt the living.

Great great grandpa Josiah Pitts had killed a skinwalker years ago with the skinwalker’s own weapon.  It was now his  . . . Jeremiah Pitts . . . curse to hunt down and send yee naaldlooshii back to the bottomless pits of Hell.

In the distance of the rolling plains the Ghost taunted him.  Challenged him to find and face him in combat.  Occasionally he caught sight of the spectral, ghostly, image of the skinwalker darting back and forth from one hiding place or another  across the plains over the two days as he tracked the creature to here.  Why the creature wanted to confront him in this hovel for a Western town at the base of the magnificent Tetons he had no idea.  But here he was, lantern in hand, trudging slowly across the wood flooring of the hardware’s front heading for the town’s only barn and blacksmith’s shop.

The massive Spanish silver spurs on his boots barked loudly with his every step.  He didn’t mind the noise.  He wasn’t trying to hide from the fiend.  The fiend wasn’t trying to hide.  His gun metal gray eyes eyed the gapping blackness of the open barn door knowing the skinwalker was inside waiting for him.  The entity wanted to face him.  To destroy him.  To claim his soul as its own.

Gripping the brightly lit lantern in one hand Pitt stepped off the boardwalk and made his way across the frozen dirt of the town’s only street and came to a halt in front of the gaping mouth of the open barn door.  Lifting the lantern high over his head he stared into the darkness of the barn for a second or two before deliberating bending down and setting the lantern in the dirt just in front of the barn door.  Standing up he took two measured steps back away from the lantern.  The first measured backstep underneath the bright moonlight beaming down on him clearly illuminated his presence to anyone who  decided to glance out of a window.  But his second backward step . . . the second step engulfed him into a massive shadow cast by the town’s only bank.  . . . and with that step Jeremiah Pitt dissolved into nothingness!

The gray eyed, buckskin clad figure was gone!  Vaporizing into the night as if he too was a . . . was a ghost himself!

From inside the blackened barn a terrible wail of anger mixed with surprise sang through the night air.  An unholy sound that held its high pitched notes for some seconds in the darkness of the barn before slipping away in the wind.   It was quickly replaced by the sound of something heavy . . . something massive . . . sliding through the dirt of the barn floor.  One of the two large barn doors moved slightly as if pushed open partially by an unseen hand.  And then, after a slight pause, something incredible emerged into the moonlight.

A twisted, contorted, but massive black shadow of what once had been a man came out of the darkness of the barn dragging one foot behind it in the process.  Hair, as white as snow, ragged and stringy, began moving due to the night’s soft wind like Hydra’s snakes.  A horrid nightmare slid into the moonlight but was not fully illuminated by the bright silvery beams.  Instead it seemed as if the creature’s blackness absorbed the moonlight’s every bright photon hungrily.  As it approached the yellow light of the burning lantern it still did not reveal any shape or form!  Like the moonlight the darkness of the creature drank the lantern’s light fully.

With a grunt of irritation the creature lifted the lantern with one hand and examined it carefully before angrily hurling it out into the middle of the street.  Twisting first to the right and then to the left the creature sought to fix one dark eye on the human who hunted him.  Seeing nothing he snorted in disgust . . . and froze to absolute stillness!

For a second or two the black shadow remained absolutely motionless.  And then, incredibly, the contorted, twisted image of the compact creature seemed to rise up . . . to straighten itself to its full height . . . before slowly turning around to face the darkness of the open barn.

Jeremiah Pitt stood in the open space of the barn.  Stood with his legs apart.  With the .44 Remington in one hand.  The Iroquois war axe in the other.  Loose and relax.  But his gun metal gray eyes firmly affixed on the now much taller shadow standing in front of him.

“So, foolish man”, the hissing laughter of the yee naaldooshii floated through the air, “You trick me with those spurs of yours by making me rely on hearing your approach.  And then you lure me out of my trap by setting this lantern down in front of the door. Very adept, human!  Very adept!  But it will help you naught.  Are you prepared to die?”

brstatehamB.R. Stateham is a fourteen year old boy trapped in a sixty-two year old body. His enthusiasm and boyish delight in anything mysterious and/or unknown continues.

Writing novels, especially detectives, is just the avenue of escape which keeps the author’s mind sharp and inquisitive. He’s published a ton of short stories in online magazines like Crooked, Darkest Before the Dawn, Abandoned Towers, Pulp Metal Magazine, Suspense Magazine, Spinetingler Magazine, A Twist of Noir, Angie’s Diary, Power Burn Flash, and Eastern Standard Crime. He writes both detective/mysteries, as well as science-fiction and fantasy.

Pitt’s eyes remained unblinking on the shadow before him.  His lips remained tightly clinched.  He waited.  Waited for the Ghost to move.  Waited for the right moment to strike the blow with the war axe that would finish the fight.  When it came it was sudden.  Fast.  And violent.

The Ghost leapt toward Pitt.  At the same instance Pitt leapt toward the Ghost.  The .44 caliber Remington came up with lightning quickness.  BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!   Three loud, incredibly loud, shots ripped through the night air.  Three heavy .44 caliber lead balls slammed into the middle of the shadow’s torso.  Pitt knew bullets would not kill the nightmare.  But it would slow it for a half second before it regained its full strength and lunged for Pitt’s throat.

The half second pause was just the factor which meant victory or defeat.

The shadow staggered, stepped back, then stood up again and lunged.  A shadowy hand stretched out with blazing speed toward Pitt’s throat.  But it clutched empty air when it snapped its soul-eating fingers closed!  Pitt ducked under the outstretched shadow hand, rolled one shoulder past the reaching shadow and came to his feet behind the creature.  At the same time he came to his feet the hand gripping the ancient Iroquois axe swept laterally out and behind him.  The blade of the axe bit deep into the Ghost’s back.  There was an unholy howl of pain.  And then, incredibly, the darkness of the shadow creature began to be absorbed by the war axe.  Like a thick sponge tossed into a bucket of water it back to suck the creature into the axe’s ancient iron blade.

Even before Pitt could stand up and turn to face the skinwalker the creature disappeared completely into the ancient weapon.  For a moment or two the wooden handle of the war axe bucked and tossed in his hand as if it was finding it difficult to keep the evil creature’s soul imprisoned.  But it soon subsided and disappeared altogether.  A grim smile of pleasure spread across Pitt’s thin lips as he shoved the handle of the war-axe into his gun belt behind his back.  Turning, holstering the .44 Remington, he walked out of the barn and headed toward his horse.

In the night the jingling of heavy silver spurs run in the bright moonlit night.  But no one heard them for all the fair citizens of the no name town slept in their beds safely and securely completely unaware Evil had come calling.

~ fin ~