"Visitor," by Jon Wesick
Farley’s Gulch was a small town, not much more than a stable and a dozen wooden buildings. My name’s Jake, and I’d lived there all my life. We made our living off the Wells Fargo stage. There were no roads, only an endless expanse of heat and dust, but the wagons crossed the wide alkali flats to our town on account of our brackish well, which was marked by a stand of cottonwood trees. It’s not quite right that we made our living solely from the stagecoach. There were a few miners digging silver out of the foothills. Every now and then one of them would come to town and buy supplies. We had a general store, a blacksmith, and a herd of goats. Dad worked as a wheelwright, and mom was a cook over at Baxter’s tavern.
Momma tried to teach me my lessons, which amounted to reading the Bible and the complete works of Mr. William Shakespeare. She wasn’t that good a teacher, but I guess I learned to read and figure all right. When I wasn’t studying, dad put me to work fixing wheels or had me slaughter a chicken for supper. Never cared for killing those birds much, so I learned how to make myself scarce as soon as I finished with the books. I had to sneak past Momma too, or else she’d make me take my whiney baby brother Pete along. There was hardly nobody to play with. The Johnson’s girl Claire was my age, but all she ever wanted to do was dress up dolls. Guess that’s why I got interested in rocks. I’d poke around an arroyo every now and then to look for new specimens to add to my collection. Sometimes my dad took me out to the foothills. I had agates, bloodstones, carnelians, a few geodes, and even some petrified wood in a box in my room. Pete knew better than to mess with it, too.
Folks knew about my hobby and gave me any interesting rocks they found. Problem was they were almost always quartz. Now, I don’t have anything against quartz, but how much do they expect me to keep? I’d just say, “Thank you,” and put their gift someplace it wouldn’t get in the way.
Skeet Jackson was different. Whenever I’d see his wagon coming into town, I’d meet him at the general store, and he’d give me something interesting from his silver mine. The last time, he handed me a smooth green stone and waited for my appraisal. It was a game we played.
“Is it jade?” I asked.
“What’s the first thing I taught you?” Even though he was trying to be patient, I could see the disappointment on his face.
“Oh,” I should have known better. I ran the blade of my pocketknife over the stone’s surface. “Malachite.”
“I polished it with wet sand. It’ll look real good in your collection. You got anything new?”
Then we talked about the newest minerals I’d collected.
Aside from Skeet’s visits, not much exciting ever happened in Farley’s Gulch. I often dreamed about how much fun it would be to have a little adventure. The first sign that I was going to get it came when a nanny goat gave birth to a two-headed kid. The day I went to look at it, I found Claire Johnson outside the pen. I thought of sneaking away, but she’d already turned her big blue eyes and starved-looking face my way.
“Hey.” I fought back the urge to flee, approached the fence, and rested one foot on the rail next to hers. I turned to look at the baby goat. It was ordinary except its neck branched like a Y to support two heads. “I wonder what would happen if one of them wanted it to go left, and the other wanted to go right,” I said.
Claire didn’t answer. A juicy black fly landed on her big forehead, but she didn’t pay it any mind.
“Do you think those two heads can hear each other’s thoughts?” I asked.
“It tore its momma’s insides up when it came out. She died.” Claire scratched a bony shoulder through her faded calico dress but left the fly on her forehead alone. “Mr. Cooper could get another nanny goat to nurse it, but Old Lady Baxter says it’s not right to keep something unnatural alive.”
A fly bit my arm. I swatted it and left a splotch of blood. “Guess I’ll go study my lessons,” I said. “See you later.”
Claire didn’t say good-bye. She just stared at the baby goat. I don’t think she was right in the head. When I returned to the goat pen later that afternoon for another look, the two-headed goat was gone. All that was left was a whole bunch of flies. My dad figured a coyote must have snuck in and got him, but others whispered rumors of witchcraft. Mr. Baxter called a town meeting. He wasn’t ever elected mayor, but being as how he owned Farley’s Gulch’s biggest business, he was the closest thing we had. That night the men gathered at the tavern. Of course I was too young to get in, but I stood right outside the swinging door, where I could hear.
“Trouble’s coming and we all have to act together to save the town,” Mr. Baxter said.
“Are you getting all worked up just because of that deformed goat?” my father asked.
Old Lady Baxter made her way to the front of the room. “Aw hell, Ned, sometimes I swear you don’t have any sense.” Normally women weren’t allowed in the tavern, but nobody was brave enough to stop her, least of all her son.
I tried to glimpse the look of shame on my father’s face, but Mr. Fletcher shifted in front of me, and the blacksmith’s denim shirt and suspenders blocked my view.
“Now, Mother,” Mr. Baxter said.
“Don’t you ‘Now Mother’ me!” Old Lady Baxter snapped. “It happened the same way in West Virginia, back when my grandfather was still alive. Deformed livestock, plague of flies, and a week later a stranger showed up asking for a place to stay. Like fools we let him in. Yellow fever wiped out half the town.”
“What do you propose we do?”
“Don’t let the stranger in,” Old Lady Baxter said.
“If he shows up.”
“I don’t see what it’s going to hurt,” my father said. “If some weird stranger ever comes to town, we tell him to be on his way.”
“Oh, he’ll show up all right,” Old Lady Baxter said.
Mr. Baxter offered a round of free drinks, and the men of Farley’s Gulch agreed to stand united against the visitor.
Two days later something odd appeared in the distance. Jamie Fletcher noticed it first, and soon the whole town gathered to watch. We’d all seen dust devils before, those tiny whirls of wind that spun sand into the sky, but this one was peculiar. You’d blink your eyes, and it would suddenly be a lot closer, like it had sped up while your eyelids were closed and slowed down when they opened. I don’t know how we all could have seen the same thing, unless we blinked at the same time. I blinked again, and the swirling wind had become a man walking in the distance. He wasn’t carrying anything. I didn’t know how he crossed the desert without water, but I didn’t want any part of it. I turned to go back home.
“Stand your ground, Jake,” Old Lady Baxter told me. “Now everybody, join hands and stand your ground.”
I took the hands of the people next to me. Before I knew it, the stranger was standing in front of us. He was thin and wiry with skin the color of unpolished brass. His eyes pointed in different directions, so you couldn’t tell what he was looking at. The wind carried the sickly smell of dried violets. I heard a whine like a mosquito landing on my ear and scratched my face against my shoulder, but nothing was there.
“Howdy, what might the name of this fine town be?” The stranger’s words had a slurping sound to them, like he was chewing with his mouth open.
“Farley’s Gulch,” Claire answered.
“I’ve been on the trail for a couple of weeks and wonder if you could offer me some food, a place to stay, and maybe a bath.”
“We don’t want your kind here!” Old Lady Baxter said. “You’d best be moving along.”
“Why,” the stranger took out a handkerchief and wiped his face, “I sure have to admire you folks’ open-mindedness. I mean, electing her mayor and all.” He chuckled. “Hell, most men would be ashamed of taking orders from an old woman, but I guess you must have gotten over it.” He took out a bag and opened it to show the twenty-dollar gold pieces inside. “I can pay you well, real well. All you have to do is take the coins from my hand.”
“You heard what my momma said,” Mr. Baxter yelled. “Get out of here!”
“Whatever happened to hospitality? I’ll stay around in case you change your minds.” The stranger broke out in laughter, turned, and walked back the way he’d come.
We thought that was the end of it, but a couple days later the old lady died in her sleep. No one expected it, least of all her son. Because of the heat, we had to get her in the ground fast. Farley’s Gulch didn’t have a preacher. Most of the time Mr. Baxter elected to say a few words from the Bible. It didn’t seem right for him to do it at his own mother’s burial, so my father agreed to read the sermon.
When we gathered at the graveyard, who should we see walking toward us but the stranger? He wore the same faded, torn clothes but didn’t seem as thin as when I first laid eyes on him.
“Go away! You aren’t welcome here!” Mr. Baxter shouted.
“Oh, I think I am. One of your townspeople kindly extended his hospitality.” The stranger smirked and doffed his hat. “But I don’t mean to cause any hard feelings. I just came to extend my sympathies for your loss.” He looked up at the unforgiving blue sky. “Sure is a fine day, though. Too fine to waste moping at a funeral. Think I’ll look around town and maybe stop for a bite at that tavern of yours.”
Mr. Baxter balled his fists and lunged. My father caught him in a bear hug from behind. “Now Jim, you don’t want to make a scene at your mother’s funeral. We’ll discuss this later.”
After the stranger left, everyone eyed one another and tried to determine who’d invited him to stay. The blacksmith glared at Charlie Johnson.
“Hell of a nice pocket watch you got there, Charlie. I don’t believe I’ve seen it before.”
“It was my father’s.” Charlie Johnson turned away from his accuser.
“Your father didn’t have a cent to his name.”
“Yeah, well so what if I took the stranger’s gift?” Charlie Johnson stood straight up and faced the blacksmith. “I worked hard all my life, and what did it get me? Nothing! I don’t care about old women’s superstitions. Somebody offers me a chance to get ahead, I’m going to take it. You all can pass up good money if you want to, but you’re being fools. Fools!” He turned to Mr. Baxter. “Sorry about your loss, Jim.” With that Charlie Johnson walked away.
The weather got hotter. The stranger installed himself on the Johnson’s porch and watched people come and go all day. He must have been paying room and board, because Charlie Johnson bragged he’d have enough money to “leave this godforsaken town and move to San Francisco by the end of the week.”
Once I’d seen a Gila monster sitting on a rock and staring with beady black eyes. It seemed still and calm, but I knew it could move in a flash and clamp its jaws around my arm. And once it did, there’d be no letting go. The stranger’s eyes reminded me of that lizard’s. I stayed away from him. Just when I’d gotten used to him sitting at the Johnson’s, he moved to the Fletcher’s.
“What are you looking so surprised for?” he said to me. “Lots of folks want to show me their hospitality.” He patted his belly, which seemed a lot bigger than it was a few days ago. “Hell,” he chuckled, “maybe I’ll come stay at your house next.”
I had to get away. I hurried past and spent the day in the desert digging for geodes. Found some promising candidates and cracked them with my rock hammer. Only they crumbled into dust in my hands. When I got back to town, a half-dozen men with rifles were gathered in front of the Fletcher’s.
“You killed my little girl.” Mr. Johnson gritted his teeth and glared at the stranger.
“Well, you might say that.” The stranger dug some wax out of his ear and flicked it to the ground. “But she would have died anyway. Someone with a forehead that swollen usually never makes it past fifteen. It’s a blessing really. She didn’t have the smarts to make a go out of life.”
Mr. Johnson cocked the hammer on his rifle and sighted down the barrel.
“You go ahead and shoot, but you’d better ask yourself a question first. Was your daughter alive and fine when I left your home?”
Mr. Johnson lowered his rifle.
“Problem is,” the stranger raised his voice, “whenever I leave someplace, someone behind dies. I chose the Johnson’s for a demonstration, ‘cause I figured they wouldn’t miss that retarded girl too much. So if I were you, I’d think about making me real comfortable. Otherwise I might get my feelings hurt and go. I know what. Mr. Johnson can start by returning the pocket watch and gold coins I gave him. After that I’d like some dinner, maybe some of that goat stew you’re so proud of around here.”
It didn’t take long for Old Man Fletcher to get on everybody’s nerves. Flashing the same twenty-dollar gold pieces retrieved from the Johnson’s, he started throwing his weight around. Among his many projects, he hired my dad to paint his house. Two days later my father entered the kitchen fuming.
“That son of a bitch Fletcher refused to pay me!”
“What do you mean, Ned?” My mother set a plate of stew next to the cornbread on the checkered tablecloth.
“He told me my brushstrokes weren’t even enough and that I had to do it over.”
“After two days’ work?”
“I accused him of being a skinflint, and he told me that if I didn’t know how to do an honest day’s work he’d damn well teach me.”
“Mike Fletcher said this?”
“You boys go up to your room,” my father said.
“But dad, we haven’t finished supper.”
From the way my father’s jaw clenched, I knew better than to argue. When Pete and I got to our room, I left the door open a crack and stuck my head into the hallway.
“What’re you doing?” Pete asked.
I held my finger to my lips and listened at the stairwell.
“That stranger’s money in Fletcher’s pocket has made him real cocky,” my father’s voice said from downstairs. “He complains about the food, drinks only Baxter’s finest whiskey, and won’t share with anybody. We’re all at risk with that stranger here. Don’t we deserve some of the rewards too?”
“I’m not suggesting we do it,” my mother lowered her voice, “but what would it take to get the stranger to stay in our home? One of these days he’s going to leave this town. The only way we’ll be safe is to earn enough room-and-board money to leave before he does.”
Pete knocked over the table. I closed the door and hurried to my mineral collection. My mother came up a few minutes later to check on us and brought two slices of pie.
We weren’t the only ones to think of tempting the stranger away from his hosts, but my mother’s words gnawed at my father like a borer beetle at a lodge pole pine. When the stranger moved on to the Haines’s, we planted Jaime Fletcher in the ground. Then it was Marjorie Haines’s turn. I never expected my parents to join the lunacy, until I found the stranger in my room one day fingering my mineral collection.
“That’s a real fine set of rocks you got there, son.” He picked up my malachite and turned it over.
I held out my hand for him to return the stone.
“I apologize.” He put the malachite back in the box. “Can’t blame me for taking an interest. Can you? I mean, with us sharing the same house and all.”
“Sir? No need to be so formal. You can call me by my given name, Axell. And you might be?”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Jake.” He held out his hand, but I didn’t take it. “You’re obviously suffering hurt feelings. I guess I don’t blame you. Maybe this will help.” I’ll be damned if he didn’t reach into his pocket and produce what looked like a diamond. “Go ahead, Jake. Take it. It’ll round out your collection.”
I held that diamond in my hand for the longest time and turned it this way and that so its facets sparkled with a blue-white light. How fine it would look in my collection box! Then I thought of Claire Johnson lying under six feet of dirt and handed it back.
“I wouldn’t feel right about taking it, sir.”
“You sure, Jake?”
I nodded, and the stranger put the diamond back in his pocket.
Four deaths were bad enough, but the hypocrisy galled the most. How everybody sucked up to that murderer! “It’s a fine day, Mr. Axell,” they would say. “The wife baked some cookies. Would you like some?” That wasn’t the worst. People started talking about him like they were proud to know him, even when he wasn’t around. “Why, just the other day Axell said . . .” They set up a whole pecking order with their importance defined by how well they knew him.
Everyone in town had gone crazy, even my folks. It was time to get out of there for good. There was only one person I could stay with, the miner Skeet Jackson. But how could I get to him? I needed a horse to travel to the foothills, and Mr. Miller wasn’t likely to let me ride one without my father’s okay. My only hope was to sneak out at night and borrow a horse from the stable. In the afternoon I filled two canteens from the well and stashed them under our front porch. That would be enough for Pete and me, but I didn’t know whether the horse would make it twenty miles across the desert.
That night I lay still under the covers and waited for the rest of the house to grow quiet. My warm blanket whispered comforting lies. “Don’t got out in the cold night. Stay here, where it’s safe. Tomorrow, mom will make breakfast, and everything will be like it used to be.”
After an hour I screwed up my courage, approached my baby brother’s bed, and put a hand over his mouth.
“Pete,” I whispered. “Be real quiet and get dressed. We’re getting out of here.”
“Are Mom and Dad coming too?” he asked.
I had to think fast.
“They’re coming later. They have to stay behind, so the stranger doesn’t get wise.”
After dressing we tiptoed down the stairs. Pete stepped on the creaky floorboard, and I heard a rustling in the guest room. My heart thudded like a kettledrum while I tried to think up some excuse for being there, but no one came. Pete and I slipped out the door.
It’s strange how the night changes everything. The least sound makes you want to hide, even in your hometown. Something whooshed past, sending Pete and I scurrying and ducking between the Johnson and McCabe houses.
“It’s just an owl.” I got to my feet.
“Jake, you left your rock collection behind. Don’t you want to go back and get it?”
I calculated how hard it would be to return home and sneak out again. It’d break my heart to abandon my bloodstone and moss agate, but I’m not stupid.
“Mom and Dad promised to bring it later,” I said.
Pete crouched by the hitching post, while I entered the dark stable. The air was warm with the smell of their sweat and manure. Even though I couldn’t see, I sensed the horses’ power and awareness in the sounds of their breath. I found my favorite mare’s stall and led her out into the moonlight.
Pete and I rode all night. By dawn we approached the foothills. It took another two hours to reach Skeet’s mine. By then the sun had gotten hot, and I peeled off my jacket. I told Pete to take off his, but he didn’t want to. The horse looked pretty tired. I sure hoped Skeet had enough water.
You have to be careful approaching a miner’s camp. They’re a suspicious lot and are likely to shoot first to defend their claims.
“Skeet,” I called out. “It’s Jake Wright. I need your help.”
There was no answer except my voice echoing from the rock walls. I left Pete with the mare and approached on foot. Skeet’s sagging tent was pitched near the mine’s entrance. The wagon stood nearby, but I didn’t see his mule. An iron tripod suspended a black pot over the fire pit. I held my hand over the coals. They were cold. I caught a whiff of rotten meat and knew for certain the stranger had been Skeet’s guest too. I found Skeet’s body in the mine. Some animal had picked out his eyeballs.
I got a blanket from the tent and covered poor Skeet. Our best bet was to find another miner and get him to help. Grady Coombes had a claim ten miles to the north. Before heading that way, I needed to refill our canteens and water the horse. I pulled the top off Skeet’s water barrel. A telltale smell of garlic hit my nostrils.
“Arsenic!” I burst into Baxter’s tavern. “The stranger poisoned them with arsenic!”
“What’s all this?” Mr. Baxter said. “Boy, you’re in a lot of trouble for taking Mr. Miller’s horse.”
I explained how I’d found Skeet Jackson. As I talked, the men in the room clenched their jaws. Soon, rifles in hand they rushed to confront the stranger with the justice he deserved. But when they got to my house, the stranger had fled. The only trace of him was the diamond he’d left behind for my rock collection.
Everyone threw away all the food that had a chance of being tainted, and no one else died. I didn’t get in trouble for taking Mr. Miller’s horse. He figured he owed me for saving the town and all. Besides the mare made it back okay.
I wonder why the stranger left that diamond behind. Whenever I hold it, I think about what I learned from the whole episode, how easily people are fooled when there’s a promise of a quick dollar. We all have to stick together to keep the liars and thugs from taking advantage of us. I just worry about the next town the stranger visits. I hope the people there are smarter than we were.
Host of the Gelato Poetry Series, instigator of the San Diego Poetry Un-Slam, and an editor of the San Diego Poetry Annual, Jon Wesick has published hundreds of poems and short stories in journals such as The Atlanta Review, The Berkeley Fiction Review, Pearl, Slipstream, and Tales of the Talisman. His recent novel Hunger for Annihilation published in 2015 from Garden Oak Press, and Yellow Lines in October. Both can be found on Amazon.