Gone West–Excerpt from ‘The Hangman’s Valley’
by Eland Robert Mann
Chapter 1—Gone West
A terrible knocking shook the log frame of the tiny homestead and Robin was awake. He kept his eyes closed as loose bits of dirt tumbled from the sod roof onto his face. The distance between the door and the bed shrunk in his mind. There was no escape. A single, horrifying thought echoed over the din.
“The man in the mask,” whispered Robin, crippled with dread.
But the thought was sustained only as long as the percussion of hard knuckles on worn wood; when it faded, Robin heard a voice he had never heard before. He sat up, wiping the dirt from his face, relieved to know the figure behind the door was only a stranger.
“Open up, Mr. Osterholz,” the hard-knuckled voice said. “We know you’re in there.”
“This sign don’t fool us,” joined a second voice, gentler and tubercular. “We saw your new horse when we rode up. You can’t act like you already left.”
The big brown eyes of his brother’s mare studied Robin through the window at the back of the homestead. He looked at her and his surroundings, contemplating escape from the two strangers. The hinges on the window had long since rusted, but it still might open. The mare, her reins tethered to a clothesline beside a small garden plot, was removed of her saddle; it waited inside, next to the bed. Robin figured, as he jumped into his boots, getting the saddle and himself through the window was his best and only option for escape. Robin gave the window a push and it rattled open. Beyond the homestead, infinite miles of dewy grass shed the final husks of night.
“We’ll be back on the trail in no time,” Robin whispered to the mare, rubbing her warm flesh. He looked east. A volcanic orange erupted into a semi-circle around the horizon and he straightened up. “The sun’s about to rise.”
“Mr. Osterholz?” shouted one of the men at the door.
“Go away,” barked Robin, doing his best to speak gruff and low, as he imagined the voice of Mr. Osterholz.
The two men muttered back and forth to each other outside the log walls.
“Look, Mr. Osterholz,” the gentler man began, “We only came to help. Put the liquor down and open the door. Let us help you.”
Robin squeezed his saddle into the window frame but the opening was too slender. He pounded once on the saddle and then listened. The men outside the door fidgeted with impatience. He resumed pounding, harder this time, pleading for the saddle to pass.
“Mr. Osterholz?” The homestead shook again.
Fear replaced caution when the saddle refused to budge.
“Stand back,” he whispered to the mare.” He lunged at the saddle with his shoulder and watched it shoot through the frame. It grazed the rusty hinge and Robin winced as he heard a crack. The window held for a moment before the hinge finally snapped. A swarm of glass burst from the ground as if he had disturbed a hive of bees. Robin blinked; the swarm was golden, reflecting the pre-dawn squall of color in the east.
The noise was too much for the men outside to tolerate.
Hard knuckles shook the homestead one last time. “We’re armed, you pig-faced Hun, and we’re coming through.”
Robin squirmed into the vacant window as a kick and a crunch broke the door. He tried to pull his body through, but the two men streamed into the room, each grabbing a leg. He managed to hold onto the ledge for a brief moment before they wrestled him back inside, just enough time for Robin to catch a glimpse of the garden plot next to the clothesline. Three small mounds of fresh dirt, one long and two short, were placed in a row, from which not one plant grew. His fingers slipped from the window ledge and he fell onto the packed earth of the homestead floor. Wind shot from his lungs as he bounced off the ground. The two men, their faces dim and obscure, looked intently at Robin.
“What in the hell—”
The sun wedged itself from beneath the earth and the day was new.
Light, bounding into the homestead through the open door, swept out the last of the shadows. Illuminated was a boy of fifteen, scrawny for his age, prone on the ground with his fists clenched over his stomach. His skin was pale; his short hair an ashy blonde. His loose jacket, a couple sizes too big; his cotton shirt, a size too small. His pants were secured to his waist with a leather belt. His boots, muddy and scuffed, had been new when he set out on the trail. He preferred them dirty. His exposed eyes, blue as the western sky, rippled beneath squinted lids. Here was a creature with something to prove.
“You’re not Osterholz!” exclaimed the large one who had knocked so forcefully on the door. A metal Sheriff’s badge glinted at Robin from his wide chest.
“We may be too late,” said the other. Robin noticed the second man wore a white collar and a round hat; a style used only by preachers.
“Where’s Osterholz, boy,” snapped the Sheriff.
Air returned to his stomach. “I never heard of no Osterholz in my life,” Robin gasped.
The Sheriff and the Preacher looked back at the door. A wooden sign, nailed lopsided to the front, advertised in faded ink the likely whereabouts of the homestead’s previous occupant. It read: ‘Gone West.’
“You don’t suppose—”
“—I do,” said the Preacher.
“Then this boy here is a squatter.”
“I ain’t squatting,” Robin said, sitting up and sliding back against the wall. “I’ve only slept here a night. I’m riding the Conquistador trail—on my way west, too.”
The Sheriff and the Preacher looked around the small room and saw a table, an ancient stove, and a child’s bed, all covered in a thin layer of dust.
“I ain’t touched nothin’,” said Robin, “so tell your Mr. Osterholz not to worry.”
“Nothing except the window,” the Sheriff said, stepping over and examining its empty frame. His eyes widened as he looked beyond the broken hinges toward something in the backyard.
“Damn it,” said the Sheriff, retreating to a stool beside the stove. The Sheriff removed his hat and Robin watched it begin to quiver, as did the hands that held it. The Preacher walked to the window.
“God help the man,” uttered the Preacher, looking out the vacant window past the barren clothesline, at the trio of graves keeping company with each other and the earth.
“It was sickness?” Robin asked, rubbing his sore stomach and looking from the Preacher to the Sheriff.
The Sheriff shook his head but gave no response.
“There was a sickness here, yes,” said the Preacher, almost to himself. “But it did not affect the little ones, or the lady of the house. At least not directly—not like most sicknesses do. No, this was a most peculiar malady, which first took hold in the mind of Osterholz, where it became entrenched and rotted him from within, until it consumed him entirely. Only then did it spread to the family.”
“Damn you, Osterholz,” growled the Sheriff.
“He went mad?” asked Robin.
The Sheriff jumped up, knocking over the stool. “Yes he went mad! Can’t you read? ‘Gone West,’ he did. Consumed, he was, by that curse of an idea. I never thought he’d do it, but he did, and he didn’t care about what lives he ruined in doing so.”
Robin looked from the sign to the Sheriff. “He’s just gone west? That ain’t much. Maybe he’ll come back.”
The Sheriff began chuckling slowly, first to himself, then in big gales of laughter that tore through the homestead and became increasingly desperate. Robin saw tears fall from his tired eyes onto sunburnt cheeks, but instead of looking away the Sherriff looked at the eastern wall, as if it contained a rusted window that opened onto some long lost memory. Robin turned to the Preacher, who looked equally surprised at this outburst of emotion.
“It’s funny, now,” began the Sheriff, “but it’s taken me a lifetime to see it for what it is. Back in Albion—a hovel of a town a few states over—when I was real young, before all this business about gold and the War, there was this strange saying the old folks had about ‘going west.’ They’d tell us kids, every now and then, ‘oh don’t worry about your great uncle so-and-so, he’s gone west.’ It’d happen every so often when a posse’d come through town and they’d tell us the sheriff caught someone and took ‘em back west—but if we’d ask ‘em why such company was needed the old folks’d only wink at us. A couple years went by and I began to think I knew everything, but that wasn’t true until I heard the older boys talking one day.
“See, Albion was on the eastern edge of the county, and it weren’t nothing but a church and a rundown saloon along the western road to the county seat. On that particular day I heard the boys laughing about a posse going back west. My inexperienced curiosity was excited and I approached them to find out more, but when they saw me every one of ‘em went silent. One picked up a clod of dirt and threw it at my face and they chased me until I ran away. It was only much later when I got home did I find out the truth of what the old folks always said. Ma looked at me with dead eyes and told me my damned horse thief father was gone west. I wondered why he decided to go west without us and when he’d return but then I remembered nobody ever came back. Not the great-uncles or the others wrangled up by the posse. She looked at me as if I was to blame but it’s only because I reminded her of him. She cursed him until she cried, and then I held her and realized my damned horse thief father was gone west and I cried. And that day I learned the reason why nobody ever came back—it’s because each and every one was hanged.”
“You see now how funny it is, those little ways old folks have of talking to children. Doesn’t make it any less hard for us when we grow up and find out what it really means. I suppose it made it easier for the old folks, to tell us children ‘going west,’ instead of ‘being hanged.’ Some even fabricated a story to make the event more believable. A fairy tale, to guard our innocent minds from sad truths. Eventually, years go by, and our curiosity leads us to become accustomed to the aches and disappointments of life, and we lose our want for things fantastic and impractical. But for some, as the decades pile on decades, those stories we heard as a kid began to ring in our aged and hollow ears as the only truth we ever really needed to hear.”
“Amen,” said the Preacher, who was sliding his finger over a wooden log in the wall beside the doorframe. The Preacher picked at a small growth of splinters sprouting unnaturally from the log for a moment before he looked up. “I’m touched, Sheriff, by your rare show of emotion. But does your story have a point?”
“It does,” the Sheriff said, finally drying his eyes and looking toward Robin. The Preacher stepped away from the wall and Robin saw he had been examining a hole in the log left by a bullet. Both sets of eyes fell on Robin and he stood up.
“My point,” said the Sheriff, his gaze leveled at Robin, “is going west is a lie we tell others, or ourselves. Behind it there’s always another story.”
“I ain’t lying,” said Robin, his nervous eyes darting back and forth between the Sheriff and the Preacher.
“You may think you have fooled us,” said the Preacher, “but believe me, we know everything.”
“What do you mean?” Robin asked, resting his back on the vacant window frame.
“You’re too greedy, boy, but you’ve got nowhere to run now. Let us take you in nice and easy. It doesn’t have to get ugly.”
The Sheriff smiled and for the first time Robin saw a row of golden teeth.
“I ain’t done nothin’,” insisted Robin, “and I’m not lying.”
“You’re greedy but you can’t count,” said the Sheriff. “Look outside—see? Only three graves! Wife and two girls. But Osterholz had a son. Kid was shaken up of course, but brave. And he told us about the gold.”
“What gold?” asked Robin, his voice cracking before two men who looked ready to pounce.
“The gold!” the Preacher bellowed. “Osterholz found gold someplace west, and buried it out here on his land. Even as his family begged him for mercy, begged him to spend it, he hoarded it and kept it hidden and let his mind and family rot. What could’ve saved him only corrupted him, until there was nothing left but the gold. The son prayed for escape and one day his prayers were granted. And he prayed for help and one day he met us. And his prayers were granted once again.”
“But you’re too late,” Robin said, “the family’s dead.”
The curvature of the Preacher’s mouth escalated into a sinister grin. “You think we give a damn about the family?”
“We know you found Osterholz,” said the Sheriff as he unbuttoned his jacket and exposed the holstered revolver on his belt. “And you’re the only one who knows now, so we’ll ask you nicely, first—where’s the gold.”
Robin looked from the Sheriff to the Preacher and saw a gleam in each man’s eye that he had never before seen in the eyes of another. If he stayed to talk any more, he knew he would never make it out of the homestead alive.
“If he doesn’t talk, Sheriff, we’ll have to send him west.”
“I’ll talk,” Robin croaked, as he turned toward the window.
Robin heard the Sheriff lick the golden caps of his false teeth. Before Robin said another word he dove through the open window. He felt fingers stretch out behind him and brush his boots, but this time his legs were through before they solidified a grip. He reached his hand toward a glint in his saddlebags and pulled from it a silver revolver which he leveled at the face of the Sheriff in the window. The Sheriff raised his hands and lowered his eyebrows.
“Don’t be foolish, boy,” the Sheriff snarled.
“You don’t be foolish,” said Robin.
Robin, gun trained on the window of the sod homestead, kept his eyes on the Sheriff and the Preacher as he lifted up his saddle and retreated toward the mare. The gun burned his hand, as it did before, but he held it anyway and ignored the pain. He buckled the saddle, and when it was secured he put his boot in a stirrup and climbed atop the mare.
“I’m goin’ west,” shouted Robin, his gun yet at the window. “Goin’ west don’t mean nothing else but goin’ west. You can follow me at a distance if you want but you’ll see I’m gonna keep going. And I ain’t stopping at any hidden treasure along the way either, so don’t even bother. But follow me at your own peril, ‘cause if I see you again I’ll be shooting you. And that goes for both of you. So I’ll be on my way.”
Robin pulled the reins off the clothesline with his free hand and was turning the mare west when he remembered one last thing.
“And by the way—it sounds to me like the kid was lying. He wanted to buy protection for his mom and sisters, so he sold you a lie. And you listened with your goddamned golden smiles.”
Robin kicked his boots into the mare and rode west toward the Conquistador trail; away from the Sheriff and the Preacher; away from the broken homestead; away from the three dirt mounds scarring the eternal grass. He found the trail, empty and unbending, and he yielded to its direction. Hours later, he tucked away the revolver, back into the deepest part of his saddlebags. Between his father’s bedroll, and sausages wrapped in a cloth that had belonged to his mother. The night spent in Osterholz’s shack had made it a week since he left home.
“We’ll just keep riding,” Robin said to the mare, “and eventually we’ll forget about the man in the mask who killed my—”
The words eluded Robin but the mare sniffed back in response, saying all that needed to be said.
The sun was low in the western sky when a shadow crept up the trail amongst the endless prairie. The trail was approaching a subtle ridge, at the crest of which Robin began to discern a single tree. This late in the afternoon, the shadow cast by the tree was impossibly long, and by the time Robin rode up beneath it the land had grown dark. Beyond the ridge, ancient mountains towered along the horizon, bloated and emboldened by the swallowed sun. He continued forward, but a cold breeze broke upon the ridge and shifted something unnatural within the canopy of the tree. Robin tried not to look. He knew what it was. He told himself Osterholz had gone west, but the reality was swaying gently above him.
It was almost as if Osterholz was a dead branch, bent above the earth, bound only by a thin strip of bark connecting green, unburnable flesh to dead firewood. It hovered above Robin, on the verge of tearing, plummeting into him and spearing him with its sharp, lifeless weight. The figure seemed to hang in effigy everything Robin held dear; second chances, last hopes, life lived without regret. For a brief moment, he remembered what he was running from.
“The man in the mask,” he said aloud, returning his gaze from amongst the leaves and looking over his shoulder.
The branch twisted above, scratching at dark scabs of night. Robin thought to look up, but he decided against it. The sight was unrelated to the truth of what happened to Osterholz. The truth was the story the old folks told the Sheriff. The truth was as the madman wrote it, before he nailed it to his door: ‘Gone West…’