Destry Rides!

Dear Reader,

Are you a writer?  If so, I tip my hat to you. If not, do give it a try sometime.  It’s not easy – there are many aspects that need to be addressed – but there is a certain satifaction in getting your ideas down on paper.  Someone might even read them.

For me, coming up with ideas is relatively easy.  The trouble is a) having time to jot them all down before I forget them and b) connect them all up. I have lots of jottings and vaguely formed plans, and not enough time to turn them all into outlines and fluently worded stories.  Hence #TortoiseFlashFiction: These are the stories that I really did want to write in response to a prompt, but which I didn’t have the time to do anything about at the time.

Debs introduced me to Chuck Wendig, who offeres some really interesting prompts.  One that was offered on August 5th (2016, that is) was a mash-up of two different genres. From a list, randomly select two and write a 2000 word short story.  I rolled the dice and got…Weird West (itself a mash-up ) and Noir.

I decided fairly quickly that I wanted to write an origin story for Washington Dimsdale, the town drunk in the classic, Destry Rides Again: why is he such a drunk?  How did he come to know the Destry family?  Why did he part company with Tom Destry (Senior)?

In many respects it’s a pretty blank canvas to work with – Tom Destry is a famous lawman, Dimsdale was his deputy. When Dimsdale is made the sheriff of Bottleneck because no-one believes that he can do it, it is a source of consternation that he sends for Tom Destry Jr.  But I thought that it might be useful to some research – might there be an earlier Destry film that I would need to take account of? Afterall, it is not completely unheard of for a sequel or reboot to more famous than the original.

What I found was a situation adjacent to that of Bladerunner.  In that instance, the film makers decided that they didn’t like the title of the novel (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) that the film was based on and so they bought the rights to a not very good screen-play, a medical thriller, and used the title for that instead.  In the case of Destry Rides Again, the title comes from a book about a cowboy called Destry (so far so good). And the original plot, where the character is much more morally grey than those we associate with Jimmy Stewart’s white-hat.  There is an earlier version (1932) of Destry Rides Again, which is based more closely on the book, but both of these are much more traditional Westerns, albeit with a touch of “The Count of Monte Christo” about the plot.

Fundamentally, no prequel to take into account…Thanks for bearing with me!  Without further ado:

DESTRY RIDES!

Forgive the shaky hand-writing.  I write this in what might be my last lucid moment.  I cannot bring myself to suicide, but I cannot live with this memory.  The only way to block it out is to view the world from inside the bottle.  I will put away my guns and strong liquor will protect me from a world that I no longer understand.  But whilst no-one will believe me, I must leave some sort of record of these events.  As I alone, saw the whole thing, it is up to me to write it.  Others will no doubt chronicle the adventures of Tom Destry, but it is up to me to write this strangest episode, even though Tom himself does not know that it happened.  And yet perhaps it is better if I do not write?  And then again, how will I ever exorcise myself of the sight?

My name is Washington Dimsdale, and no doubt you have never heard of me.  I was Tom Destry’s Deputy, his right hand man.  Tom was, is, the kind of lawman who goes where he is needed, builds up a local to the point where he is sheriff and then moves on, and I with him.  But it’s no kind of life for a family man.  Tom had married and started a family, and he was looking to settle down for a while.  At this time we’d ended up in Sweetwater, which of itself was probably the quietest place that we had ever stayed.  Yep, a quiet town.  It was mainly farmers, which probably accounted for it.  Ranchers are always on the move, there’s a steady turnover of casual labour.  Farmers are more settled somehow.  There was a mining camp two days out into the hills, and miners is always wild, wilder than cowboys I always reckoned, ‘cept these weren’t.  They knew to come to town sober if they wanted to buy or sell anything at the store.

But these miners were unlike any I’d ever seen, or even heard of: quiet, peaceable, sober. Maybe it’s because they weren’t goldminers and had not been overcome by that peculiar madness.  Their leader was Old Shulz, and that again may have been the reason for the quietness of the place.  Don’t get me wrong – that mining camp was mighty strange, but still quiet for all that.

One day, Tom an’ I were out in the easy chairs out front of the sheriff’s office passing the time of day in the pursuits of the towny at leisure, trying to see who could make the spittoon ring the loudest and drawing up plans for what needed doin’.  We was getting soft there, and kinda enjoyin’ it all.  Tom Jr was gettin’ him some schooling, and Tom Sr was ribbing me that I should ask the school marm out and settle down myself.  We talked about the farms hereabout and where we thought the next ride-about should be. We talked about upcoming hoedowns and barn-raising’s and all of half-a-dozen other things that we’d never had the opportunity to get real involved in, things that you only really see in a strong community.

And then our jawin’ turned to subject of Old Shulz, and his strange mine.  We’d been up there a few times and we couldn’t understand how it could be so productive with so few people to work it.   Whenever we’d been there, we’d only ever seen a half-dozen or so people: Old Shulz himself, a couple of cousins, a few nephews.  No one who wasn’t kin.  They were that clannish sort that would try an’ make you feel uncomfortable by talkin’ their old country language, so’s you couldn’t tell what they were saying, when you knew perfectly well they could speak a decent language same as any other.

Then we started talking about the drifters who’d wander in to town.  We’d get a few every week or so.  Some were what you might call professionally itinerant, drifting in few supplies, drifting out again heading somewhere else.  Some would stay for a few days, pickin’ up make-piece work where it could be found.  If there was one in when Old Shulz or one of the other miners was in town then, like as not, the wanderer would head up into the hills above Sweetwater, never to be seen again.  No matter when we visited, we only ever saw Old Shulz and his kin, never a trace of anyone else.

The reason we started talking about the drifters, was that we’d seen nary a one for weeks.  It was a quiet time of the year for th sort of thing, but you’d still expect to see a few around the place, but nothing.  So there we were, out on the porch and in the distance we spotted the tell-tale dust of horse and rider goin’ at a mighty lick.  The rider came straight up to the office and didn’t even bother to dismount.

“Sheriff! There’s a child a-gone missing up at the O’Donnell Farm – come quick!”

Tom found a change of horse for the wind-blown nag the messenger had ridden in to town and then he rode off to the farm to see things for himself.  Most folks round here were pretty sensible and it warn’t likely that the child had wandered off or just hidden itself around the farm somewhere.  Tom sent me off to round-up a posse of our usual occasional deputies – those who had an official role at times like these, and those that we just swept up off the street.  Sweetwater’s kinda quiet, like I said, and so there are fewer of the adventurous types who’ll jump into the saddle when they hear the word ‘possee’, but there’s a much stronger spirit of community than most places I been at, and so we had a respectable bunch in the saddle inside an hour.  The fact it was a child missing didn’t hurt none in prisin’ people from the store an’ such like.

Over the years, Tom and I had searched for a good many people.  Some of them wanted to be found, and some di’n’t.  There were the wrong un’s, on the run and trying to get away, and lost souls who’d misplaced themselves: we tracked them all down, and mostly brought them all back alive.

Tom and the farmer had ridden off as hard as the farmer had ridden in; we took it more sedately.  Who knew who long this was goin’ t’ take?  ‘Sides, if there was a trail worth pickin’ up, Tom could do it more easiy without a bunch of guys tearing up the dirt.

By the time we got to the edge of the farm, Tom had got the story.  Sally O’Donnell had been runnin’ errands around the farm.  She probably wouldn’t have been missed until sundown, ‘cept her pa had sent her to the barn for some rope and she hadn’t come back.  She wasn’t normally tardy, and if her pa had had cause to have words with young Barney Oakwood and his pa, then that’s nothing unusual for her a girl of her age, but it was unusual that she hadn’t done as she was told and come back directly.

Pa O’Donnell and his hands had scoured the barn and the the rest of the outbuildings pretty thoroughly and they were going at it again when O’Donnell sent one of his men over to the Oakwood farm, just in case.   Eldon O’Donnell wasn’t a man to take fright easily, but he didn’t care to take risks where his daughter was concerned, so he sent another into town to fetch Tom.   Tom had done his own search, and by the time he’d finished there were perhaps 40 of us waiting to hear what he wanted us to do, a score or so of farmers from O’Donnell and Oakwood farms, and as many again, or perhaps a few more from the town.

Tom took me aside, and showed me what he’d found: I couldn’t understand what I was looking it.

“It’s red cloth,” I said.  “No, wait, it looks like one of those red-knitted hats Shulz and his boys wear.  But the edge is all ragged.”

“That’s right.  You know how the O’Donnell’s barn is built into the cliff?  Well I found this in the back wall.  I had to cut it free with my sheath knife.”

“That makes no sense at all!”

“I know.  And I found this” –  he showed me a handful of rock chippings –  “underneath on the floor.  I think we need to go and talk to Old Shulz.  You did well with the posse, but I’m worried that with the farmers we might have too many men.”

“Yep.  We can’t take ’em all along to see Shulz – he’ll think we’ve come to arrest him or summat.”

“That’s right.  And these fellas might get twitchy too, they’re mighty worried ’bout Sally. What I want you to do is split the men into groups of four or five, mix up the townies and the farmers and put the most sensible people you can in charge.  I’m pretty certain we’ll find the answer up in the hills.  What I want us to do is to separate out the groups a bit, but to know that we’ve got people close enought if we need ’em.”

It was a good plan and it didn’t take long to get people sorted out.  There was some grumbling, but everybody respected Tom.  He told them that he’d picked out a trail, but that it was quite faint and that we’d have to go over the country careful like.  Tom and I played our parts to perfection, and no-one notice that our two groups were a bit closer together and a bit further forward than anyone elses groups.

The mining camp sat in a slight depression – you needed to know it was there, and you needed to know that the path to get there was hidden amongst a jumble of boulders.  We didn’t want to spook Shulz and his boys, so our two groups dismounted and, leaving two men to look after the horses, we walked up to the head of the mine.  We found Shulz, lolling at his ease outside the minehead, smokin’ his funny old country pipe, and looking every inch the gentleman of lesiure.  I saw at once he still had his odd red hat.

“What can do for ye, Sheriff?” Shulz asked in that reedy, eerie voice.

“Young Sally O’Donnell has gone missing, and I figured you might be able to help us.”

“Ain’t seen no younglings today.”

“This was found in the last place she was seen.” Tom held out the tattered remains of the hat.

Shulz gave a shriek and dived into the mine.  Tom and I signalled our men to take care of whoever might be in the cabin, whilst he and I followed Shulz.  We had to go careful like, in the dim light.  We needn’t have worried, not too much.  Shulz didn’t have no mind on us, but of course he knew where he was going and we didn’t.  We could hear him though, yelling his head off in that old country lingo.  I couldn’t make out a word he was saying, but when we caught up he was roughing up one of his own nephews.  They were tusslin’ under the arch of opening into a big open space off the main tunnel.  Old Shulz was a tough, wiry old bird and the nephew was in sore trouble.   Shulz knocked him down and plunged into the space beyond.

The man was out cold and we left him by the door and looked in.

“What have ye done? Ye’ve ruined us all!” Shulz was exclaiming this over and over again and as pummeled another unfortunate.  This one looked strange though, but it was difficult to tell what was wrong as the figure was hunched over.  We could see other forms hunched over in the shadows.  They appeared to be chained to the walls, but they had picks in their hands and they were brandishing these at Old Shulz’s people.  In their turn, his family were pointing guns at the figures.

There was too much to take in. On the floor were scattered bones, clearly from people, and more than a few.  A saw mining paraphenalia in a jumble here and there.  And finally, I saw her – Sally O’Donnell – lying on the floor behind the figure that Shulz was punching.

I don’t know why – perhaps emboldened by our presence, perhaps Shulz moved funny in Sally’s direction – but the the figure suddenly stood up and knocked Shulz flying as if he were a tumbleweed.  The creature was hideous, although still hard to make out.  In the flickering light of the dozen or so lanterns around the place, the skin looked steel-grey.  The teeth were pointed and sharp and there were too many of them.  The ears were large and leathery.  It was completely hairless, around four or perhaps as much as five feet tall and whipcord thin, although clearly heavily muscled with it.  It was wearing odd scraps of clothing, and as my eyes flickered to the other figures, I noted that they were all similar, but with the addition of the funny red hats.

The creature let out a deep bellow that was at odds with the wiry frame.  One of Shulz’s cousins shot it in the chest and it crumpled.  At this, pandemonium broke out and the miners found themselves under attack.  Tom tried to call for order.  I ran to the creature to see if it were dead and to see how Sally was.  The creature looked at me, but I could tell that it was fading fast.  The voice when it spoke was full of odd sibilant hissings:

“I would not have hurt her.”

And then it died.  Sally was alive but mercifully unconscious.  I scooped her up and Tom covered our exit.  I don’t know know if it were deliberate or happenstance, but some bullet or richochet knocked over a lamp, onto a coil of fuse.  The fuse caught, and the fire spread to some boxes.  The miners paniced and tried to escape but the creatures held them tight.  I ran with Sally, as fast as I could back up the tunnel.  We were not too far off when the explosion came.

Tom was last out, of course, falling through the opening as a lump of rock the size of beer tankard hit him on the side of his head.  I rushed to his side: he was breathing.  I could do nothing for him here and so I got my men to bring up the horses and with help I got Tom up on his horse, climbed into my own saddle.  Sally, in the meantime, and aided by the fresh air, had begun to come round and I put her up on the saddle in front of me and headed back to town.

At first there was disbelief. No one could believe that the miners were dead, that the mine had collapsed so badly.  Then there were mutterings, that perhaps it was providence or some such, divine retribution, mebbe. And then there was nothing, it just seemed to drift out of people’s consciousness.  Sally was fine. She hadn’t seen nothing, and so it faded pretty quick from her mind and she got on with the serious business of growing up big enough to marry Barney Oakwood just as soon as it might be possible.  Mebbe she stayed a bit closer to the farmhouse for a few weeks, but pretty soon she was fed up with chores at home and was back to helping round the farm.

Tom was laid up in for over a month before Doc Barker would let him back up.  The bump on the noggin was bad, and Doc Barker had been real worried for a while.  Tom recovered, like I knew he would, but he couldn’t remember how he’d banged his head.  Doc Barker said it was called amnesia, and that the memories might come back and they might not.  I’d woken, sweaty with terror, every night of that month.  I wanted to talk to Tom about it.  I didn’t know what he’d think of me if I told him what really happened…what could I say?  He remembered nothing: where could I even begin?

 

© David Jesson, 2017

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