Here’s a short story I never had any luck placing. I’m gonna share it here. I should probably try a hundred more times, rewrite it several thousand more times and so forth, so on and yeah, yeah. Mm.
The pic is an old-timey postcard of main street Payette, Idaho. Hint, the story to follow is ALSO set in Payette, Idaho.
DOWN AT THE SPOTTED HORSE
Ginger poured me a stiff one. Long Island Iced Tea but she adds a pinch or so of belladonna, some morning glory seeds, a bit of nutmeg, some datura. I fly a bit, but just enough not to get sloppy, sentimental or too murderous. I’m a goddess, after all. A long-forgotten, exiled goddess but still. She placed this in front of me, her bare arms muscled as a pugilist’s. Nobody messes much with Ginger when she’s at the helm of the Spotted Horse. This ghost can throw a fully grown rhino through a wall when she wants. They don’t make em like Ginger anymore, it’s true. Those hardy pioneer type women were far and few between, despite the myths and romantic hoopla.
“How many boys has he found?” Ginger kept her back to me as she washed bar glasses, her reddish hair in a tight bun at the base of her head. Our eyes went to the badly done Appaloosa water color, created by Tom Smith himself when very drunk. Spot, the horse, had still been alive, as had Tom, a half-Shoshone and half-Shanty Irish human misfit. Ole Spot had won the Vale Suicide Race three times. It was the fourth time that killed both him and Tom. Stuck a hoof down a gopher hole, went ass over teacup, as they say in places that are not Idaho. Or Oregon.
Tom, busted up and broken for good, crawled over to his beloved horse, slit the throat to end the suffering. He also lay there by his dead horse for a long time as everyone thought him just grieving, not dying as well. Nobody much cared Tom lay there dying all that time people were enjoying the rodeo.
That’s how things are and people don’t change. People have not improved in my thousands of years of life. Not one fucking bit.
“Can’t say and he won’t admit to how many boys there are,” I slurped down my drink, mostly because it annoyed Ginger. Her face twitched but she did not tell me to stop making noises that drove her into near fits.
The bar had maybe four or five of our kind there. A slow night but it was Thursday. Velma and her sister, Sadie, enjoyed a basket of onion rings and raw liver strips. Ghouls did like their liver. Both lived locally and foraged where they could. That we had a small colony of ghouls here in Payette, Idaho escaped most, as they had learned to hide in plain sight or just plain hide. They were nearly the perfect monster, without any horns or fangs or long claws–just that unnatural strength, the lust for flesh in all ways and the ability to look like little old ladies enjoying a night out. They kept to themselves. Introverts with the social graces of a malcontent most times.
Barry and Craig played pool but they always did. They’d waft in from their wandering, drink beer, play pool, go away for years sometimes, return as if they’d just been here yesterday. They’d fought the Nez Perce back in the day. Barry kept claiming a squaw with glowing eyes cursed him and Craig. Could have been a Nez Perce woman or a Shoshone or a Paiute. The curse would end when the sun burned out. Meantime, the two would wander the backways of Western Idaho and Eastern Oregon, never find any peace or rest. Except when they stopped at places like the Spotted Horse or met up with others that were not living yet still seemed stuck here.
Just a mean, awful curse and nothing I could do about it. I could rip out guts and twist a head off, but reverse a curse like that, no. If some Idaho witch, enraged and crushed by the US army’s rampage over her own people back in the day, had managed to pull off such a malison, it was not my place to end it.
Mr. Harvey sat at the very end of the bar, fingering his lucky pennies. His shy gaze flitted to me, before he blushed, went back to fingering his copper rounds. Back in the 1920’s, he had casually killed his mother while she bathed herself after a long day looking after her adult son, who lived with her while working at a local bank.
To celebrate his freedom from his awful mama, he had tried to fry himself a steak.
All while he took a nap, exhausted after butchering his dam out like a fall pig. The steak caught fire, the house caught fire, Mr. David Harvey never woke up but he did form into a shy, sad ghost who appeared now and then at the Spotted Horse for a beer and a hopeful wish that someone would be nice to him.
The woman who walked into the bar just now had to be human.
Her hair had been cut short, but an expensive short that framed her triangle face in sun-streaked pale brown spikes. She carried a big, expensive Prada bag and had the air of a douche bag trying to pretend it did not squirt vinegar up your hoo ha.
“I’m looking for a woman called Pearl? I’m a travel writer. Road trips. Unusual, out of the way places, places off the grid, off the map. I write books. I can pay,” her voice said far too loudly.
Heads turned a bit.
My head turned toward her a bit.
Her eyes went to the badly done watercolor of Spot the horse, framed with sticks tied together to form a square. Ginger sighed visibly. What had she done to deserve some weird random human who managed to find this place? Humans seldom bothered the remnants, the flotsam of curses, murders and forgetfulness.
People had once offered me goat’s blood and child hearts for spring planting luck. Nowadays I just called myself Pearl and got spiffy on belladonna when bored with how long eternity really is.
“I’m Pearl,” I said, when no one said anything and the woman seated herself a seat down from me. Her tanned face lit up, her very blue eyes scanned me in a professional manner. She was doing her job. She meant to have a great night tickling stories out of the dusty locals. She probably had a nice hotel room rented in Boise. She probably thought there was nowhere around to get good sushi. I hated her, I knew her. My amusement with her lasted ten seconds, replaced with resigned boredom. “Whatcha want, hon?”
Her face twitched at being addressed as if three instead of thirty or whatever age she pretended to be. Careful or she’d have to visit a surgeon to refresh that face or perhaps she embraced aging as a hip activity to add to her resume.
“Drink?” Ginger placed her two hands on the counter, that rough hewn face thrust forward.
“A beer, whatever’s on tap is fine.” The blue eyes went to the Keystone, Black Hen and Poison Toad, before returning to Ginger. “Black Hen?”
This particular beer was not really a beer, more a tonic with a sour ale smell. It also contained poisons, bits of marrow from my own special hens and dirt Tom brought back under his fingernails. I made it once a year, the Spotted Horse offered it until they ran out.
I’d given it to one human who had managed to stumble through the front door. He had both exploded and melted. Ginger still complained about the mess.
“No,” I said at once, as Ginger blew out air in real relief. “Get her a Bud. That local stuff is just for locals. Why are you looking for me, hon?”
Why play games? Let’s get this over with and the woman sent screaming out into the night or perhaps turned into just another missing person that would fade from memory sooner than later.
“Ah, yes, thanks! A Bud. Hi, Pearl, I’m Jen Reece, from Dives and Diners. I write for them. Travel books, a travel blog, we have a podcast…never mind. I mostly do out of the way places, dive bars, biker bars, places like the Spotted Horse. I was dared to find this place. I was up there in Miner’s Hole, in Stanley? That’s a rough place, but great people, really interesting sort of folks. A lot of guns. The bartender did some quick draw for me out in the parking lot. She shot a tree. Said she was ready for Jesus to come back and bears. That was her joke. I guess. She said it was but she seemed serious. Anyway! I was told this story by someone who wants to get into the Citadel. I had to look that up. I want to ask why you’d want to live in a walled compound. What are you so afraid of? Might make a trip back up there, a return to Miner’s Hole!”
She took a breath.
I tried to remember even a sentence of what she had just babbled at me.
“That Bud looks cold, gonna be yummy. Anyway– James, no last name, that sort of person. He told me a story about this mysterious dive bar said to be somewhere near Payette, Idaho. Full of monsters and ghosts and werewolves and vampires. I had to check it out, you know? The Spotted Horse, he called it.”
Jen accepted the glass of Budweiser, with the thick white froth. Ginger went back to washing bar glasses, just so she could hear what nonsense was about to spew forth.
Our lives tended to be routine and stale as old crackers.
Except tonight we were expecting ole Tom to ride through, with whatever boy he had managed to find. He used to kill young orphan boys to spare them his childhood miseries. A philanthropic mass murderer. Tom had a good heart in him, despite his solutions to a real problem being a bit kerflooey. Judgment had been reached that he find the lost boys, bring them to the meeting place for lost souls over by Hells Canyon. He’d been riding the night for almost sixty years now.
“Here? About this Spotted Horse? Our little place?” Mr. Harvey dared ask and we all just looked at him. He went back to his pennies, submissive as a beat dog.
“Ain’t the Miner’s Hole that Aryan Nations bar or somethin’? You gotta flash em one of those funny fist bumps to get in the door? You should be careful. They’re crazy.” Ginger kept her face neutral. “You gonna order any food? We got a great burger.”
“Um. I could, sure. A cheeseburger, medium, with fries.” Jen Reece fished her wallet out of her fancy bag, produced a crisp twenty. Ginger grunted, began a tab, told Horace to cook a burger but Horace had already heard. “I did find a lot of…Idaho nationals.” Her eyes darted about but no one seemed disgruntled or ready to shoot her so she relaxed a bit, her perfume floral and light.
“Of course you did, they breed like rabbits,” I replied, slurping more enhanced Long Island Iced Tea. “Why are you looking for me?”
“Look. I run down stories about bars and places. That’s my job. I write up what I find. I try to make the place seem okay to visit. Not the bar in Stanley, obviously, can’t recommend tourists go there. And it’s set way back, on a dirt road and you can’t get there in winter but I can still include it.” Jen turned toward me fully, palms up on the bar counter, friendly as a puppy, slippery as a newly skinned carcass. “Hey, Pearl, I just heard that there’s this bar in Payette, Idaho that serves ghosts and witches, and that a goddess drinks there on occasion. That it’s a bar everyone’s heard of but no one can find on a map or by GPS.” She smiled, let her gaze mark the few inhabitants. “I heard about the ghost of this rodeo rider who shows up now and then looking for his horse? Is it that horse? An Appaloosa? Is that right?”
She gave off just the right vibes. Friendly but respectful. Honest yet hiding shit.
“You from California?” I leaned toward her, my long earrings swinging and swaying.
Jen wet her lips, took a gulp of beer. The sound of her burger frying seemed far too loud.
“I’m from a lot of places but yes, California. That the horse? Of the rodeo ghost?”
“Sure is,” Ginger said, taking the second and last gin and bitters to Mr. Harvey. “Painted by Tom Smith himself. Spot. Won three Suicide races, lost the fourth one by breaking a leg and dying from Tom cutting his throat.”
“Good grief, really? They don’t still run that, do they?”
“Of course they still run it. It’s the best part of the Vale Rodeo. That’s over on the Oregon side of things,” I answered as the two ghouls whispered back and forth, upset to have a human so near, knowing they’d have to restrain in these wicked modern times. People that went missing got missed far faster than olden days, after all. This Jen Reece seemed like she had people who might bother to look for her. The ghouls knew how to pick their victims. Jen Reece would not end up with her liver shared by the two sisters. Or maybe she would.
It might become an interesting night.
“Oh. Sure. So, if anyone has a ghost story they wish to tell me, I’ll pay. I’ll credit your name or not, if you don’t want that known. Here,” she fished out a slick book with shiny covers, flashing it before us like a prize won from a carnival booth. “I’m doing an Old West ghost tales and myths, told by everyday…um, people. I got plans to go to Baker City, to Unity, to La Grande and Pendleton and Burns. Just all over this area, collect some stories, put together a book, feature local places in the best light, of course.”
I flipped through Blood on the Walls and Sawdust on the Floors, a Journey Through the Dive Bars of Nevada. Glossy pictures, clean prose, people’s first hand accounts. A travel book you’d find in an airport convenience store while you were getting some gum and possibly a travel pillow. Ginger leafed through it, as well, nodding at some of the pictures of Real Americans posing by scuffed pool tables or by jukeboxes that still played Sons of the Pioneers.
“You see? It’s flattering yet honest. Good for business.”
Ginger raised her black, black eyes and Jen about bolted. “We’re okay that way but sure, we got stories. Every place has stories.”
The bartender, who had tossed her own two small daughters over the cliffs into the Snake River one windy night, went to collect the baskets from the two ghoul sisters.
“I didn’t mean to insult,” Jen put her book back in her bag, her cheeks a bit red.
“You didn’t. We’re just used to our own here. So, you want the rodeo story or the goddess one?”
“Both and more, if possible. I might not use them all but I’ll still pay,” she offered me a huckster’s smile.
We all heard the distinct whinny of a horse.
Ginger went still. Mr. Harvey beamed at being here at the right place and the exact right time. Velma and Sadie hunkered down. Barry and Craig continued to knock balls around. They had no forgiveness coming for them and no mercy. The rules seemed arbitrary and strange but this wasn’t my district, if you know what I mean. Rules about death and salvation are different in different areas. There isn’t a nice cohesive plan in place that fits one and all. I might be a goddess yet, but I had no hand in the making of this world and no say in the rules that applied or not to a particular place or time. I was pretty low down in the food chain, to be utterly fucking honest.
“Is that a horse?” Jen had to ask.
“It’s ole Tom,” Ginger took the basket of medium burger with a slice of American cheese and fries to Jen, who salted the fries, checked out the limp lettuce, purple onion slice and pale green pickles that made up the veggies offered. No tomato but Ginger
hated them for some reason. No tomatoes were ever allowed near food on her nights to work the Spotted Horse. She set out ketchup and mustard squeeze bottles.
This bar full of ghosts and ghouls and goddess, oh my, looked modern enough to casual eyes. Eating the burger might give you a few bad nights but that could be blamed on bar food or anything else but it wasn’t fit for humans to consume. God knows what Horace used for the meat patties, for instance.
The metal door banged open. We all saw the white horse with the brown spots all over its rump standing by the dead locust tree, nosing at the dead cheat grass. A child sat atop
the beast, clutching the pommel. Wooly head, dark skin, small in size, some long ago orphan that met a bad fate one day. Now found, amen.
Tom Smith stalked to the door, his boots loud on the wooden floor. He had a face for radio and a skinny runty body more suited for reality than Hollywood. Black eyes that had never needed glasses but he had died at thirty-eight.
“Whiskey,” he told Ginger before turning to Jen Reece, who had her phone out, ready to snap pictures. I noticed her eyeing the little wonder machine but the camera part would work just fine, except she’d see nothing but a black rectangle if she tried to share them with anyone.
“What are you doing here? You’re human.” He sniffed the air, opened his mouth wide to get her full scent as she tried not to choke on her mouthful of burger.
“I’m a writer,” Jen told Tom Smith, who looked at me.
I nodded, shrugged. What else could I do?
“I got one. He wants potato soup. You got any of that? I don’t know what they have further on down the line.” Tom laughed, slapped his leg, his glee like hearing rocks against a metal plow blade. “Just crying and wanting some potato soup as I dug him up. I remember how hot it was that day. Nevada. Been a long trip.”
Tom turned on our guest and only human. Those black eyes all but spun. “I dug him up, honey. I buried him proper back in the day. Broke his neck clean, buried him. Now I got to dig them all up and bring em home, so to speak. It ain’t like home at all, the angel told me. It’s something else unknown, like a star or love. Aint’ nobody knows what love is. What are you doing here?”
Jen reached in her bag, brought out a notebook. Just a three-ring binder. She found a pen, opened up that notebook, began writing. Old-fashioned as hell itself. Tom sat right by her, practically in her lap so he could read what she scribbled. Jen tried to pretend she was not bothered by some strange man practically trying to get her pregnant but she was. Her cheeks turned bright red, her eyes rolled to me, to Ginger for help in that way women ask other women to assist them against whatever man is bothering them.
“I’m just, uh, taking down some stories. You yanking my chain or what, mister?” She closed her notebook but left it where she could grab it. “I don’t mind. It makes for a funny blurb. I write travel books and I have a blog and a podcast. About road trips I take. I love your horse.”
“Tom,” Ginger indicated he should leave the human alone. Tom grinned with his yellow teeth on display. But he did sit between me and Jen, waiting for his whiskey and Jen relaxed a teeny bit, now that he wasn’t almost draped across her lap.
The child he had dug up wandered into the Spotted Horse, rubbing at his dark eyes with dirty fists. “They have that soup, mister? I’m awful hungry.”
I saw Jen turn pale now as she stared at the child, which had a real transparent look to him. She got a picture of the child, the snick made extra loud in the near silence. Of course I made sure the pic would be blank when she tried to show it to others. It’s how I made sure the Spotted Horse stayed hidden.
My little tricks.
“I got potato soup here,” Horace said and dipped out a bowlful, which Ginger set on a table near the ghouls. “Maybe some milk?”
“I’d sure appreciate that,” said the polite little ghost child.
“What is going on here?” I heard Jen whisper. Tom turned to her, never one to honor space or that folks often just did not want to talk to him.
“Death. Life. Soup,” he answered, laughing so hard the dust flew up.
Horace took the child a glass of milk. He glanced at me to see which way the wind would blow tonight.
“Death,” I whispered and Tom laughed harder but I nearly always chose death. It was just more fun for everyone.
The already damned don’t care about new crimes and sins.
“Give me a reason to mop the floor,” Ginger flexed her fingers.
“Fresh liver,” said Velma, smacking her lips. Sadie drooled.
“The last one was last year,” Craig opined as Barry racked the balls for another game. But they both nodded, promising to join in.
Jen Reece, California-born, writer for slick travel crap, slid off her stool. She rightly read the room. Her eyes hit that door, before returning to me. Her smile had the sincerity of a lioness toward a newborn gazelle. “I guess I can come back. I have a long drive to Burns ahead of me. I got a reservation. I didn’t even think this place existed, it was a snipe hunt or something, you know? Okay!”
She tried to reach the door before shit hit the fan. The child ate soup and drank milk, watching all this with bright, curious eyes. He had been dead, in the ground, waiting to go somewhere else. He had no dog in this hunt, if you will and being a child, no conscience at all.
Tom got there before her.
Jen stopped before she crashed into him. The Spotted Horse had no back door. Her hand fumbled into her Prada bag, the color of overly ripe lemons. She held out a large copper cross studded with turquoise. Real turquoise that almost hurt the eye being so blue and gorgeous. Tom stepped to the side as she waved it at him, as if he were some sort of movie vampire. She waved it at me, but I had not left my seat. She waved it at Craig and Barry, at Velma and Sadie and Ginger and Mr. Harvey, who never participated in the killing orgies. Not once, not even one time. She waved it toward Horace, who sometimes took some raw skin to chew on but otherwise remained aloof.
I think we all turned into stunned statues. Not a single time had someone waved a too-large decorative cross at us, hissing under her breath the Lord’s Prayer. A sort of Catholic meets Protestant moment. It shocked as well impressed us all, in a way. Anyone crazy enough to flash a useless bit of jewelry at us, while expecting us to melt or whatever, had our undivided admiration for a hot second. As well as our blessings toward whatever life they wished yet to live.
Jen got to the door, got it open, her eyes bouncing around the room, that cross held out in her shaking hand. Out she got but Spot got her. We all heard Tom Smith’s beloved horse get a good kick in before Jen got into whatever vehicle she had brought here. The thud of hooves against metal, the scream of that engine, the scratch of tires against the gravel of the driveway.
Tom dared open that door wide, so we could all see Spot still kicking and fussing, still hear the screech of the engine as Jen escaped.
He calmed his beloved, the horse puffing and blowing as it rested the long roman-nosed face over Tom’s shoulder.
“I hope she comes back,” Ginger said, and pulled out Jen’s wallet from under the counter. We all started laughing; we had fun, ate food, spoke of the old days and carried on until morning. The ghosts faded, Tom took his found child to the meeting spot and I walked home. I fed my rabbits and collected eggs from my black hens before I lay down to sleep. I might venture over to Burns to see if Jen would be there but that was a mighty long walk to further torment some Californian. Might be better to let the Oregonians have a go at her, and hear the exaggerated stories later on from the inhabitants at the Wall of Whiskey, yet another place like my beloved Spotted Horse. You could find it out near Riley, Oregon if you knew where to look. I’d have to go alone, but sometimes you have to when you want to know the rest of a tale. You have to go seek it out, sometimes on foot, and return home much later than you wanted.