Word Count: 1800
The three riders pulled their mounts to a halt and turned to study the horizon behind them. Lightening forked through the storm clouds spilling across the distant peaks. Adam Cartwright checked his horse’s nervous prancing as he spoke worriedly to his brothers. “I don’t mind getting wet, but I sure don’t want to be caught out here in the open with that lightning.”
Hoss Cartwright removed his hat and scratched his head vigorously. “I told you somethin’ was going to happen today. My head’s itchin’ somethin’ fierce, and that always means trouble.”
Their younger brother grinned and shook his head. “The only thing that means is that you need to wash your hair.”
A crack of thunder interrupted the trio’s laughter at Joe’s quip. They looked at the sky with concern. “It’s gettin’ closer,” Hoss frowned. “We need to find shelter, fast. Hey, that deserted settlement called Tin Bucket’s around here close. There’s an old trail cuts that way from the road to Warbonnet.”
“I think you’re right,” Adam agreed. “And, hopefully, the buildings haven’t been torn down for the wood. Maybe we can find a dry spot. At least we’ll be in out of the lightning.”
The three men were still ahead of the storm when they rode side by side into what was left of Tin Bucket, Nevada. Dust clouds swirled around the riders as their horses trotted into the deserted town. Everything around them was bathed in an eerie light from the gathering storm. Even in its heyday, Tin Bucket had been barely considered a town. At that time, the single, short street had boasted a small livery stable which housed a few mangy horses and a couple of dilapidated buggies. A rundown saloon serving warm beer and watered-down rotgut sagged beside it. On the other side of the street sat a meagerly stocked general store, which also served as a post office, though mail to and from the town was scarce. The only substantial building had been a jail house with one rusty-barred cell. Now, it was the only building left completely standing, though loose boards and shutters rattled and slammed in the rising wind. Behind the building, unseen by the brothers, the skeletal remains of a gallows still stood, its frayed rope swinging in the wind.
“We’re in luck. That building looks like it still has enough of a roof to keep us fairly dry.” Adam looked up at the sky as the first raindrops pattered onto his hat. “Let’s get inside.” He arched his eyebrow and smiled. “Bring the horses. I don’t think anyone will mind.”
Dismounting, the brothers started to lead their horses to the door of the building. In the lead, Sport balked, shaking his head and snorting. Behind him, Cochise pranced nervously, and Chubb planted his hoofs firmly and wouldn’t budge.
“Come on, boy.”
“Let’s get inside.”
Adam and Joe talked softly to their horses and patted them gently, until they succeeded in getting the agitated animals inside. Chubb stubbornly remained planted, forcing Hoss to literally drag the big black through the doorway. Once inside, they used the large cell to stable the horses. The three animals stood huddled together in a corner, clearly uneasy.
“What the hell is wrong with these horses?” Joe had found an abandoned rain slicker hanging on a hook by the door. He was using horse shoe nails from Hoss’s saddle bag to secure it across a broken window.
“Could be the storm, or they just got it into their heads that this was a mighty strange barn we were bringin’ them into. Or Cochise and old Chubb were just followin’ Sport’s lead of being stubborn.” Hoss grinned at Adam, who had emerged from the back room.
“There’s no kindling back there. I did find a can of coal oil for the lamp. Some extra wicks, too. At least we’ll have light.”
Hoss started breaking up the remains of a wood chair. “Now we have kindling. Soon as I get this fire goin’, we’ll have coffee, too.”
A clap of thunder shook the ramshackle building and the rain beat against the roof with a vengeance. Errant drops plunked and sizzled on the hot pot bellied stove. In the cell, gusts of wind shook the make-shift window covering, while the horses stomped and snorted. Their stomachs satisfied with bread and beans heated on the smoky stove, the brothers prepared to bed down in the only dry corner of the old sheriff’s office. Adam sighed. “I’m thankful that we’re dry, but that constant dripping on the stove is driving me crazy.”
“I don’t know. I think it’s kind of soothing,” Hoss retorted through a yawn.
Joe wondered aloud. “Why do you suppose everyone deserted Tin Bucket?”
“Little brother, the question is ‘why would anyone want to live here to begin with?’” Hoss chuckled.
“Will you two shut up and go to sleep. We have a long ride tomorrow.” Adam turned on his side and pulled his blanket over his head.
Joe mumbled “‘Night, Hoss,” through the hat over his face, and snickered softly when Hoss’s only answer was a snore and a snort.
Joe shivered and rolled to his side, wrapping his blanket closer around him. “Geeze, it’s cold! There must be something else I can burn in the stove.” Joe’s eyes popped open and he clambered to his feet. Moonlight streamed in the jailhouse window; the same window he had covered earlier. Around him everything was deathly quiet in the empty building. No snoring brothers or restless horses. He looked around, wide-eyed and puzzled. “Where the hell are Hoss and Adam and the horses? Better yet, what am I doing in the cell we were using for the horses?” Joe pushed on the cell door but instead of squeaking open, it was solidly locked. “Hoss! Adam! Fellows! Come on now, this isn’t funny! Hey! Let me out of here! Where the hell are you?” There was no answer, just the continued heavy silence. Sitting on the cot, he pulled the threadbare blanket around himself. The cold draft that had woken him seemed to be blowing straight into the cell. Something moved in front of the door to the back room. A shadow? “Adam? Hoss?” Joe’s words caught in his throat. The draft was turning into a swirling mist. Joe clutched his blanket in trembling hands as the mist assumed the shape of a man. The shape moved towards him, growing more solid as it neared. Joe could now make out the dull gleam of a badge pinned to its shirt.
The door to the jail house opened with a crash. Joe huddled in horror, as a freezing fog flowed into the room, and separated into the forms of a mob of men. There was a rushing noise in Joe’s ears, but he could make out an occasional muffled word. The voices sounding like they came from under water. “Murderer!” “Child killer!” “Hang him now!”
A distinct shot rang out. The figure wearing the badge lay crumpled on the floor. It quickly faded away as if it were never there. The shadowy mob advanced on the cell where Joe sat on the cot, paralyzed by fear.
Adam felt jerked out of an uneasy sleep and yanked to his feet. He was dragged to the back room of the jailhouse and out of the back door. The freezing air swirling around him slapped him awake. He found himself standing in front of a gallows in a tiny fenced in dirt yard, completely swept bare of any blade of grass. The night was silent and still, except for a misty, roiling fog.
He looked wildly around for any sign of his brothers, his teeth chattering in the cold. The fog now seemed menacing, and his distant voices rang in his ears murmuring, “Hang the murderer! “ “Hangin’s too good for him!” The fog clung to him as he was propelled up the gallows steps.
Hoss stood on the gallows platform, unable to grasp what was happening. He had been tossing and turning in his bedroll, strange thoughts and even stranger voices bouncing around his head. All of a sudden, he couldn’t breathe. He felt as if he were being carried away in an icy torrent. He awoke, shocked and terrified to find himself in a freezing fog, on this splintery wooden platform, a noose around his neck. He was completely alone. “Where’re Joe and Adam? Oh, Lord, I hope they got away!” He jerked in fear as the noose tightened.
“Joe! Joe! Wake up!” Hoss grabbed his brother’s wrist just in time to keep from getting punched in the jaw, as he shook Joe awake. “You were havin’ one heck of a dream, little brother.”
Joe stared at Hoss groggily from the corner where he huddled, his jacket awry and his blanket twisted about his body. “Yeah, I guess I must have, but I sure don’t remember what it was about. Sorry I woke you up.”
“You didn’t. I must have been havin’ a nightmare, too. All I can remember, though, was I couldn’t breathe. I was pantin’ and sweatin’ like a race horse when I woke up, just a couple minutes ago.”
Joe untangled himself from his blanket and looked around. “Where’s Adam?”
“He’s waterin’ the horses. He woke up ‘bought the same time I did. He’s rarin’ to go, even though don’t look any more rested than we do. He didn’t even want any coffee first.”
The pair quickly packed up the bedrolls and cooking utensils and went outside. The horses had satisfied themselves at the sagging, rain-filled horse trough. They were impatiently stamping and snorting.
The brothers loaded up their gear. “Hey, Adam? Me and Joe both had nightmares last night. How’d you sleep?” Hoss asked.
“I didn’t sleep well at all. To tell you the truth, I had a nightmare, too,” his older brother admitted. “I don’t really remember it, though. Whoa, Sport. Settle down, boy.”
“That sure is strange. That all three of us would have a nightmare, and wake up at pretty much the same time.” Hoss patted Chubb’s flank. “These horses are still nervous about somethin’.”
Adam swung into his saddle. “Not really so strange. It was probably a mixture of the storm and the uneasiness of the horses and being so tired.” He chuckled. “Let alone spending the night in a ghost town.”
“Yeah, well, come on you two. Unless you want to eat our dust,” Joe piped in. Cochise was prancing and pawing the ground, eager to be away. “Ever since we came outside, I’ve felt like someone’s watching us. Let’s get out of here.”
Adam and Hoss, following behind Joe, exchanged a grin. But Hoss saw Adam give one last curious look at the old jail as they rode by.
Behind the jail house, in the desolate courtyard, a noose hung silent and waiting.