On the far north end of the Texas panhandle there is a tiny, almost completely unnoticed town called Lamentry. Lamentry has a fairly colorful history, as small towns go, having been founded as a waypoint for cattle drives coming out of New Mexico and Arizona bound for Abilene, Kansas. It has seen its share of gunfights, usually disagreements between drunken cowboys over the local bargirls. In fact, the town began with a gunfight between its two founders back before the war between the states.
Eighteen hundred and fifty-eight, it was, when Luther Cosgrove and Able Tanner decided it would be profitable to provide a welcome stop for cattle drivers coming out of the sparse plains of New Mexico to stop on their long dusty trip. The land provided plenty of water and grass, and they would provide other necessities such as whisky and women. The town was funded by some of their banker friends back east who saw an opportunity for profit, and when Luther and Able first arrived there they were partners and best of friends. Luther wanted to name the town Cosgrove, of course, and Able, well, he wanted to name it Tannerville. They were unable to solve the disagreement amicably, and their friendship eventually turned to enmity, and the enmity to violence. Neither one was what you could honestly call a gunfighter, but of course they both carried guns, as everyone did. By the time the town had taken shape and could boast of a few saloons and at least one general mercantile, it still had no name. One day when both Luther and Able had had a few whiskeys too many and happened to come out of two saloons right across the street from each other at the same time, well, a final settlement on the name of the town was just about inevitable. No one saw who drew first, but everyone heard the shots, and when the bullets stopped flying Able was dead and Luther dying. There were several people gathered around Luther, watching him gasp out his last breath, when they heard him say something. Mortally wounded as he was, he could hardly get it out, and there was some dispute as to whether he said "lemon tree" or "lamentry," neither of which made any sense. An enterprising journalist who had decided to make a go of starting his own newspaper there wrote the item up as "lamentry," and somehow the name stuck. So neither Luther nor Able had his way, in the end.
Gunfights were fairly common from then on, as is the way of most towns where the main industries are liquor and ladies of pleasure, and most of the customers are traveling, trail-weary cowboys. There was one particular gunfight, however, that some of the folks remember and still talk about today. The war had ended, all the Confederate states were once again part of the Union, and the cattle industry was getting back into full swing since all the soldiers had quit soldiering and needed to go back to making a living.
One day a tall, dark stranger rode into town on a gaunt, black horse, a horse so thin you could count its ribs. The stranger wore black leathers and an eyepatch, and he and the horse were both covered with several layers of trail dust. He wasn't part of any cattle drive, that much was certain, but other than that no one could say much about him. Nobody seemed to know his name, and he didn't offer it. Rumor went around that he had been a rebel sharpshooter during the war, but that may have just been because of the Sharps rifle sticking out of a saddle scabbard. He wore a big Walker Colt tied down low in a gunfighter's style on his left--though whether he was a southpaw by nature or necessity no one could say, since it was his right eye that the patch covered.
He was in town for no more than a week, all told. He took an upstairs room at the Silver Dollar, which he paid for in gold coin. There he spent most of his time, only coming down to the bar in the afternoons, where he'd stay until late at night drinking whiskey and playing poker. Old Gus, the barkeep, might still tell some folks about how the stranger checked in. When Gus asked him to sign in for the room, he just looked at Gus for a second, and said, "Oh, you'll know me." Some folks wondered if the stranger was on the run from the law, though he didn't act like someone who was hiding out. Besides, he caused no trouble until that last day, and there was nothing wrong with the gold he paid for the room. Gus will even remark how the stranger was one of the best customers he ever had. Paid for his room, bought whiskey, and played poker. "Funny thing," Gus sometimes adds, "how the fellow never seemed to eat."
About the only time he left the Silver Dollar was to go tend to his horse. That horse was just as quiet as the stranger himself, just stayed in his stall in the stable, and never made so much as a nicker even when all the other horses were feeling restless. Speaking of which, the other horses didn't seem to like it much. They all tended to shy away from that skeletal black beast. When the stranger brought it in, he paid Raleigh--he was the blacksmith, you know, and kept a stable on the side--with one of those gold coins and just said, "I'll tend him myself." Raleigh still remembers. Sometimes he'll even say that the stranger's voice was cold and dead as the desert in December, but Raleigh's always been the kind to use a dozen words where one would do, if you take my meaning.
Then there was the incident with Lovey Phillips. Lovey, like most women of her particular vocation, had been around the turn a time or two and had probably seen a few things that wouldn't normally be spoken about in polite company. Not that the company kept at the Silver Dollar was necessarily polite--Lovey herself least of all. But, she kept herself well and was one of the more popular ladies at that fine recreational establishment. She had seen the stranger pay for his room that first day, and when she saw those gold coins she got the idea in her head that if she could earn herself a few of those coins she'd soon be leaving for greener pastures, maybe even change careers and open a little sewing shop up in Abilene.
So about the second or third day after the stranger showed up, she caught him playing poker and sat herself down on his knee.
"Honey, you look like you could use some company," she said, all smiling and as pretty she could be.
"I don't think so." It was all the stranger said, but his tone of voice had the finality of a grave in it.
Lovey was not to be discouraged. "Oh, come on now, honey," she said, then leaned over and whispered something right in the stranger's ear.
Suddenly he had hold of her wrist and pushed her away, forcing her to leave his knee and stand on her own feet. A look that some believed was only frustration, but others later said might have been fear, shifted across her wide blue eyes as the stranger pinned her with his dark, one-eyed glare. They stared at each other for a few seconds, then the stranger said, "Well, if that's what you really want."
They went on upstairs to the stranger's room and no one thought anymore of it, it was just the usual day's business at the Silver Dollar. It wasn't more than ten minutes before everyone heard a shriek from upstairs, then another, and the general hubbub of the saloon ceased as everyone listened to doors slamming and Lovey screaming something that no one could understand. Tess Harper, who shared a room with Lovey, went up to talk to her and came back down in a few minutes for a bottle of whiskey, saying Lovey just needed something to calm her down. Lovey calmed herself down, all right. She drank herself senseless that night. Tess wasn't able to get much sleep, either. Lovey just kept moaning to herself in her sleep, things like "red hungry eye," "darkness," "black stars," and curiously enough, "buzzards." Tess wasn't able to make heads or tails of it, but whatever happened in that stranger's upstairs room, Lovey didn't want any part of it. Apparently she'd earned herself a couple of those gold coins, though. She bought a seat on the first stagecoach to Abilene the very next morning, and no one in Lamentry ever saw her again. As for the stranger, he never said anything about it. The next day he was just playing poker and drinking whiskey as usual.
The stranger had been in town for right at a week when Ben Yates arrived. Ben was a cowboy who worked the cattle drives, and he fancied himself as something of a gunslinger. He was known to the folks in Lamentry, and on two separate occasions he had had gunfights in the street just outside of the Silver Dollar. He won them both, of course, and there was talk that he had had other gunfights in other towns along the trail. He was a hothead, that much was certain, and he wore a pair of Navy Colts that he was mighty proud of. He'd told the story more than once of how he had taken them from a Yankee captain who he'd killed during the war. On this particular day he got himself into the same poker game as the stranger. Some of the other gentlemen sitting around that poker table said that Ben accused the stranger of cheating, and they exchanged some words, when Ben jumped up and called the stranger a liar. No one heard the stranger's reply, but Ben began reaching for his gun when Gus yelled at him to take it outside, nobody was going to shoot up his bar.
In those days, a man was only as good as his word, and being called a liar was a mortal insult, something that you just didn't let go by without doing something about it. So it was only to be expected that Ben and the stranger would settle this little altercation with bullets. Ben nodded toward the doors and said, "Let's go." The stranger, in his quiet, flat, humorless voice, just said, "Well, if that's what you really want."
The streets cleared when they went outside; it was obvious to everyone that death was going to visit their little town within the next few minutes. Ben and the stranger stood facing each other thirty or forty feet apart, Ben crouching and tense, his fingers working just above the butts of his guns, the stranger standing motionless and seemingly without a care. Just about everyone who could was watching out of various doors and windows, and later most everyone agreed about the shadow of a low-flying buzzard that flickered over the street just as Ben went for his gun.
Ben was confident that he would win another gunfight. He didn't have a doubt in his mind. The stranger's big Walker wasn't really made for quick-drawing. It was more of a saddle gun that weighed almost twice as much as one of Ben's Navy Colts, with a long barrel that let it throw a .44-caliber ball a long way with deadly accuracy, but was awkward to handle in a rush situation such as this. Ben also had two good eyes, he thought smugly to himself, to the stranger's one. He always liked to stare into his opponents eyes before he shot them, but there was something wrong with the stranger's single eye. The way the sun was hitting it or something, made it turn an eerie reddish color. Yes, it was certainly red, almost burning in the stranger's chasmal eye socket. Ben saw the dark shadow of a passing buzzard slide across the street, but he fought the urge to look upward and kept his eyes locked on the stranger and his single burning red eye. Ben reached for his gun, and suddenly it seemed as if everything were moving slowly, so slowly. Ben's gun was already out of its holster and the stranger still stood, motionless, his own revolver still sheathed.
Ben saw another buzzard flying low just behind the stranger, then another and another. His thumb found the hammer of the revolver and he began to tilt the gun up as the hammer was cocked back. The stranger's single burning red eye was positively on fire, like a tiny sun in the middle of the street, a fire that seemed to burn through Ben's eye sockets and bore holes through the back of his skull. He felt something brush past him and looked upward to see a whole flock of buzzards wheeling around him. Their wings brushed him with gusts of a clammy, carrion wind as they snatched at him with skeletal claws. His gun was up and leveled at the stranger when he felt himself gripped remorselessly around the shoulders and lifted into the air by something huge, black, and merciless. Ben screamed, at first more in annoyance than anything else, and the giant buzzard lifted him away from the street as countless more of the things whirled around him, so thick they blotted out the sun, blotted out the land, blocked out everything but the stranger's flaming crimson eye. It was the only light in Ben's universe, a universe filled with black stars that moved strangely and hungered for the warmth of his flesh. For the first time Ben felt fear, as he fought against the thing that held him and he noticed finally that the things weren't buzzards. In the center of their coal-black heads they each had a single burning red eye that never blinked, that saw right through Ben's soul. The swirling, swarming things parted just enough that Ben was able to look down, far far below him where he saw himself still standing in the street pointing his gun. Then the vision was eclipsed by an infinity of dead black wings and flaming crimson eyes as bony claws began to tear him apart, and he screamed and screamed endlessly as he was shredded and swallowed by an oblivion in which there was somehow no relief.
Most of the folks of Lamentry will still tell in loud, insistent voices about how Ben Yates got his final comeuppance from the dark stranger who rode out of town that very day and was never seen again. They still marvel at the skill of the stranger, who waited until the last instant before he drew his big revolver with impossible speed and sent a single ball directly through Ben's head. Their voices only become more strident and forceful if anyone tries to suggest otherwise. Some of them will even tell how the stranger took his horse out of the stable, saddled it up, and rode out of town before anyone could get up the nerve to go out on the street again. In fact, it was a good half-hour after the stranger and his cadaverous black horse had disappeared over the horizon before Evan Zager, enterprising undertaker that he was, walked out into the street to start taking measurements for Ben's final resting place.
But there are just a few folks in Lamentry who will tell a different story. In the hush of quiet back rooms there are a handful of people who will speak in careful whispers of what really happened. Folks like Gus the barkeep, who was watching from behind the Silver Dollar's swinging doors, or Raleigh the blacksmith, who was peeking out through a knothole in the wall of his shop, or Tess the bargirl, who was looking down from an upstairs window. They will speak quietly of how the shadow of a low-flying buzzard flicked across the street just as Ben slapped leather, and how the stranger stood impassive and unmoving the entire time. How Ben looked upward as his mouth curled back from his teeth into a rictus of voiceless terror, and how he finally began screaming as he deliberately drew his gun and placed the end of the barrel against his temple. And lastly, with halting words, they will tell of how his final scream abruptly stopped when he shot himself in the head.
© 2000 Alan Peschke