George A. Yesthal
The saddle still smelled of mink oil. It was not a new saddle by any means. In fact it had been his father’s saddle. Granted it was the old man’s last big purchase and had seen its share of one-thousand-plus-mile cattle drives, but what counted was that it was maintained with superlative care. If it got wet, it was promptly wiped dry and placed close enough to the fire to see the steam arise and keep dry but not close enough to dry and crack the leather. Then it would be covered with oil cloth and stored in one of the wagons. In the morning more mink oil was applied. Toby Ingvald was not going to let anything happen to this saddle. Not because of any emotional attachment but because this was his bread and butter. Next to his horse, Cajones (so named for the horse’s retention of its testicles when most open-range working horses were geldings), the saddle was his most important possession. Actually the only negative attachment to the thing was that it had once been his father’s. He’d despised the man, the abuser, the violent oversexed drunkard that would fuck his lovely mother until she bled and cried and then force he and his sister to do unspeakable things to each other, and to him.
Every saddle sore that he’d acquired from that saddle he’d envision appearing on his father’s face in hell. The saddle was the only thing the old man had ever left behind him of any worth. This was the thought that possessed him as he dusted himself off with his hat and bandanna and tied Cajones to the tether line. He sidled to the campfire and prepared to sit on the hay bale that had been set down for the cowboy’s evening comfort when he heard Papa Jonas St, George call his name. “Oy, Toby, lazy-boy! Dawn’t be makin’ you pretty ass coomfortable when Papa needs potatoes. Gaw now in the choock wagon and get me fifteen o’ the spuds. Now, boy!”
Papa Geo (as he was known affectionately by the trail hands) was an old and arthritic Haitian that had pretty much raised Toby since he’d joined up with Captain Norman’s semi-annual cattle drive at the age of thirteen. Papa Geo was a crusty and cantankerous old coot who tried his best to bury his gentle soul and kind nature beneath a grave of insults and onslaughts. And he was the cook. An amazing cook at that, who could make miracles of culinary delight from such prosaic ingredients as wild carrots, mushrooms, wild garlic and truffles (which were uncovered by a pair of hogs that he kept tethered to the chuck wagon and only used as food in the most dire of situations). Papa Geo was a culinary alchemist.
As Toby approached the cooking tripod with the prescribed “spuds” he noticed something on the horizon, just a smudge of gray on the purple- pink sunset that seemed as though it simply should not be there. He plopped the bag of potatoes on the tail gate of the chuck wagon and his attention stayed fixed on the horizon. “Papa, what’s that look like to you?” asked Toby pointing off into the distance. Papa Geo froze for a moment and then without a hitch went back to his stew-pot. “It’s noothin’ boy, go ring d’ bell and bring in de straggle-boys for dinner”. As Toby went off to do as told with a last skeptical eye cast toward the setting sun, Papa Geo straightened up from his stew pot and, wiping his brow, gazed forlornly in the same direction. “Lawdy hear me on dis…” he said to the ether, “Dawn’t let de boy go tru dis alawn. He’s a good one and ya knaw it.” He grabbed the stew pot handle, a towel protecting his hand from the heat and brought it to the table. With one more glance skyward he said, “Ya knaw what I mean, Lawd.”
Toby and Mikey O’Callahan had been thick as thieves since Mike’s parents and two sisters had died in a prairie fire on their way back from a supply trip to Lawrence Kansas. It had been determined that the fire had been started from sparks coming off of the recently laid railroad tracks from a passing train and consequently no-one’s fault. But that didn’t help the fact that Mikey’s family was gone. Burned away to absolutely nothing. The fire had been so hot and quick that the family, bones and all had been indistinguishable from the buckboard they’d been driving and so the ashes were gathered and buried in one grave. Mikey himself had carved the head-marker from the one small remnant of the buckboard that had remained. On it was inscribed one word…”Why?”
Toby scooped out a small measure of stew into his enamel -coated tin bowl, and after removing his chaps, plopped down next to his friend and hove to.
“Somethin’ in the air tonight, Toby. Ya feel it?” asked Mike between gulped mouthful s of stew. Toby nodded. “Been feeling it all day’,” he said. “I saw something in the sky off yonder. Pointed it out to the old man. He just shrugged like it was nothing.”
Papa Geo had not always been a cook. In Haiti he was a very important voodoo bokor. He’d made some very powerful enemies and decided to leave his Island home while he still retained his life and free will. He knew the secrets of the zombie tradition and voodoo magic and so did some of those enemies. Hearing tales of the opportunities on the American frontier, he decided to give it a go. Truth be told, he took to this way of life like the proverbial duck to water. He had the fondness and respect of the trail hands and life on the trail suited him well. Voodoo is not something one just leaves behind and as fact would have it there was a considerable element of justice in the voodoo way that he was able to dish out in (of course) judicious measures without anyone being the wiser. There was no shortage of injustice in the American west and Papa Geo would set things to right wherever and whenever he could.
Tonight would be no different. Tonight there would be a reckoning. The old man had known Toby’s father, Gustav (Gus) Ingvald. He’d been a bad seed that came from (by all reports) a good family of Norwegian immigrants and been raised properly, but “the rot was on his soul”, as Papa Geo would say. He’d been hanged in Topeka for the rape and murder of a thirteen year old girl. That was where Toby got the saddle, when he’d shown up to collect the few worldly possessions that were left. The court had awarded Gus’s money, guns and horse to the girl’s family in restitution. Toby got the saddle and a pair of fairly new boots that didn’t fit along with a note to Toby telling him that he’d always been a disappointment and cursing him for not showing up to support him at the trial. After seeing the hurt in Toby’s eyes Papa Geo swore that the man’s dead soul would pay for that hurt, and a bokor as powerful as Jonas St. George was just the one to do it. He’d done the conjuring way before dawn and the criminal’s soul was being held at bay until just the right time. At the stroke of midnight it would happen. Papa Geo had been taken aback by the fact that Toby had been able to see it in the distance.
After dinner Captain Norman announce that it was going to be an early morning, retired to his bedroll and urged the others to do the same, adding, “No whiskey tonight, boys”. Papa Geo hid a sly grin thinking, “Except for what I need for the ceremony”.
Late that night Papa Geo had everything in readiness. Toby had been secretly keeping an eye on him. He couldn’t put his finger on it but something was afoot. He knew that much. So when Papa Geo gathered up a leather valise and skulked away into the night Toby waited a bit and then followed. He followed the old man over a hill and into an arroyo where Papa Geo set about immediately making a small fire. He emptied the valise and placed the contents onto a bandanna that he’d removed from around his neck and began to chant. He took a long pull off a bottle of liquor and spat it into the fire which flared immediately. Suddenly something that Toby couldn’t quite make out began to move on the far side of the firelight. Now he could make out what Papa Geo was saying. “So, villain, you coom to your fate”. Toby could now make out a sight that he could not believe he was seeing. He’d seen the man’s grave. Knew he was dead and yet there he stood. Gus was saying something in an eerie whisper that sounded like the wind itself.
“Why have you called me, old man,” said Gus in a voice that ran right up Toby’s spine.
“For joostice. For eternity”, answered Papa Geo. “Because you deserve what you will get at the very least” Toby wanted to be anywhere but where he was at the moment, but he could not stop his legs from carrying him into the firelight. When he stood a few feet behind the bokor Papa Geo was shocked to hear him say “Pop? Your dead”. And to Papa Geo he asked. “What in God’s name…?”
“No, boy. Not in God’s name, I called his sawl and trapped it.” Toby’s jaws worked but for a few moments no sound came out. Finally he croaked. “But why”?
Papa Geo rose from where he knelt and grabbed Toby by his broad shoulders. “Because of what he did to you ond you family; what he did to det poor leetle girl. Because of what he was, boy!”
Now Toby put his hand gently on the old man’s arm and said, “Papa Geo, what exactly do you have planned”? He could not keep his eyes off the macabre sight of his father’s wavering figure.
Papa Geo bent down grabbed the valise and opened it in the firelight. Inside was the largest tarantula Toby had ever seen. He immediately recoiled sputtering, “What…I mean… what…?”
“I goin’ to take dot twisted sawl and put it in de spider, and dere he stay, maybe forever.
Toby couldn’t believe what the old man was saying. Just then the specter let out a mournful, rasping moan. “You shut up, Mon!” cried Papa Geo, shaking the valise at him. He turned to Toby and said, “I leave it up to you, boy. What will it be?”
Toby walked past the bokor and stood looking at the pathetic specter before him. “When I think of how much I hated him when he was alive…I don’t ever want to feel that again. Send him back. Making him suffer for eternity…I can’t even imagine that. I sure don’t want anything to do with it. If he can go to a peaceful rest let him go. I want nothing more to do with him.”
“So be it, boy. You got a kinder heart den dis old mon.” He uttered something unintelligible and the ghost was gone. Toby said. “Thank God. I’m going back. I feel like I’m gonna be sick.” He turned and strode into the darkness.
Papa Geo knelt down, opened the valise and upended it setting the spider free. It reared it’s forelegs in a threatening stance and Papa Geo smiled.”Be off, you. I dawn’t expect I’ll see you again” As he turned to leave he said over his shoulder. “Oh, Have a good after-life.”
An Imaginary Western. I’ve loved horror since I was a little kid. We’d go camping and that’s where I’d come into my own. I loved seeing the terror in the other kids eyes and knowing that some of them pissed their sleeping bags because they were too scared to go out of the tent. I felt like I’d done my job.