Short Story: The Man Who Rode With The Devil

KANSAS, 1876

The man known as Ty Hohner was something of a legend in these parts.

At an early age the Half-Breed Indian had either left or been evicted from his tribe, for whatever reason best known only to himself. Some people reckoned he might be Cheyenne. All Hohner rightly recollected was that his mother was Indian. His father a white man who’d been shot dead by his wife’s own tribe.

All Clay McConnell needed to know about the Half-Breed was he had to kill him.  McConnell had repeated it to himself over Hohner’s wanted poster, the one he snatched from outside the Marshal’s office in Hays, as if it were either a mantra or a prayer.

Hohner’s career as an unchallenged gunfighter was well known, and ultimately feared. Not merely throughout Kansas, but in Texas, Nebraska and beyond. Even lawmen hesitated at taking him.So what hope did a twenty three year old farmboy have? Wasn’t the desire for revenge and an unbridled anger enough?

rode with the devilFolk in these parts whispered Hohner’s name to recalcitrant children, in the  depths of night, as a warning. They called him ‘The Shadow Man.’ They reckoned a trapper had once spotted Hohner in the mountains. The trapper told how the man, stripped to the waist at early dawn, clad in Indian apparel, had blood smeared over him. The story went that as soon as he was spotted, Hohner appeared to vanish like a shadow. As the trapper had a reputation for drinking his weight in red-eye, no one actually believed him. However the tale seemed to stick with superstitious folk.

The less than superstitious preferred to believe their own eyes, and Hohner’s true reputation was earned from the challenges he issued. Usually over some triviality or other. For Hohner’s boast was that he had never killed a man in cold blood. His skill lay in the fact he counted on people’s weaknesses in order to satisfy his thirst for gunplay.

Six weeks previously, Clay McConnell’s sole interest was in marrying his childhood sweetheart, Jane Meadows. They had set the date, and he was engrossed in preparing a home for his new bride. His friend Davey Oakes was to be his best man. The two young men had grown up together, and Davey helped on the McConnell’s farm. Silas McConnell’s wife had died of the consumption two years previously.

Davey was seeing a saloon girl called Sally. The Miners was the boys invariable watering hole. Sally was pretty and she laughed a lot. Davey was besotted by her.

Astride the palomino, the only horse anyone had ever seen him ride, Ty Hohner  entered  the town.  The man was handsome, there was no doubt of that, and appeared to be in his mid thirties. In the familiar black buckskins, high leather boots displaying the dust of his travels, the Half-Breed appeared ignorant of his observers. Truthfully, the man was capable of weighing them up, assessing whose blood he could spill, as long as they were wearing a gun.  He carried his own weapon, a long barrelled .45 Colt nestling in a fine hand-tooled holster.

Soon the town would buzz with news of his arrival. The man whom they claimed rode with the Devil, that Death followed in his wake.

In The Miners Saloon, two young men were halfway to intoxication valley. Drunk with the whisky, and with his love for the pretty saloon girl, Davey Oakes remained unaware of the tall man in the black buckskins who had entered. Sally had observed his entrance however.  The last time had been in an Abilene saloon, where she had worked as a dancehall girl.

So the man was handsome, and knew it, with the wild black hair he sported, worn long to his collar.  The piercing equally  black eyes had roved over her body, enough to indicate that she was his. Sally couldn’t pretend that she felt comfortable with this man, and recollected that when he got close, she  smelt the stench of stale blood on him.

Hohner was unable to contain his jealousy when he discovered the girl he considered his in the arms of another man. Although it wasn’t simply the proverbial green-eyed monster which attracted him, it was the anticipation of spilling another’s blood, which prompted him to call Davey Oakes out.

The youth was obviously enamoured of the girl, Hohner described to The Miners patrons, as a whore and a gold-digger. That she had been his mistress and had slept in his bed. All lies of course, but Davey Oakes didn’t know that. After all, the Half-Breed sounded convincing enough. Davey had barely moved a hand toward his gun when Hohner’s weapon was a lightning flash from leather encased fingers.  The young man was tossed against the counter, blood pooling through his shirt. Eyes gazing sightlessly upward with two bullets in his heart.

With a cursory shrug of his shoulders, Hohner acted as if he had simply swatted a fly. To the astonished folk in the saloon he muttered something about not wanting to drink there anyway, and not mixing with bad company. Swinging the doors aside, he moved into the street, where he was accosted by the Marshal. Hohner explained the kid had drawn first. “You only gotta ask the folk in there,” Hohner told the lawman nonchalantly, gesturing toward the saloon.

Unable to receive any other explanation for the shooting than the one Ty Hohner had vouchsafed, the Marshal was left with no other choice than to allow Hohner to leave unimpeded. He did so the following morning, before sun-up. A drunk witnessed Hohner leaving town, while staggering home in the early hours. He testified that when Hohner went to the Livery to fetch his horse, the other animals became so skittish, “they made helluva ruckus in there, like they was in a panic.” The drunk reckoned all the dogs started barking too when Hohner rode by.

In the wake of the death of his best friend, Clay McConnell had cause to wonder why the Marshal should have allowed Hohner to leave quite  so readily. According to the poster, Hohner was wanted for murder. Talk around town hinted that Marshal Blades was afraid of the Half-Breed Indian, and was relieved to see him go. Even he was too scared to take a man known as ‘The Fastest Gun’.

The man had to be stopped, and Clay McConnell had convinced himself that he was the one to do it. All his erstwhile intentions, his forthcoming marriage to Jane and the running of the farm, were abandoned now. Instead of preparing for his wedding, McConnell practised indefatigably with both a long Colt.44 and his true favourite weapon, the Henry rifle. Hitherto, the rifle had been used merely to kill the rats in his father’s barn.

Jane had hoped to discourage him from his foolhardiness, explaining how she either didn’t want to be a widow before she was even wed, or visiting her husband-to-be in prison. If the law were too scared to go up against this man, his father said, then it was suicidal for his son to even try. Cleaning the Henry, paying attention to its every part, Clay McConnell told his father he had vowed on Davey’s grave to get the man who killed him.

Killing Hohner had been easier than even Clay McConnell had realised. The body was draped over the palomino’s saddle. The weeks of intensive tracking had paid off. The young man had barely slept, and would have been barely recognisable to Jane with his wild beard of a mountain man.

He discovered Hohner astride the palomino, skirting the edge of the canyon. It was midday. The sun was high in the Heavens. Wrapping a cloth about the Henry’s barrel, so it would not catch the glint of the sun, thus alerting his target, the rifle exploded the back of Hohner’s skull. With the sun in his eyes, the  other man was caught unawares. So it was a cowardly act, shooting a man in cold blood. McConnell was aware it was suicidal to try and take him any other way.

Lying flat on his stomach behind a rock, marginally obscured by sagebrush,  McConnell levelled the rifle on the man down below. The Henry only had to speak three consecutive times.  It  was enough. Once in the upper chest, twice in the back of the head. Hohner slipped to the ground, while the palomino stood motionlessly by.

It seemed an age that he waited. McConnell recollecting all the stupid nonsense from the townsfolk. That Hohner rode with the Devil. Well, where was his devil now?. The man was dead wasn’t he? A furtive prod with the Henry was enough to confirm that fact.

As afternoon turned into sun-down, McConnell was aware that he’d never make it to Hays before morning. The pinto was tired and so was he. Now it was over, Clay McConnell realised how incredibly tired he really was. He decided he’d have to make camp for the night. After collecting enough brushwood, he commenced to start a small fire. He’d tethered both the pinto and the palomino, with its gruesome burden, to the nearest tree.

The Henry had perpetrated considerable damage, disfiguring Hohner’s features extensively. Where the two rifle bullets had penetrated one of his eyes had opened up like a flower, splintering the nose and hideously desecrating the once handsome features. Unwilling to look into those dessicated features any longer, McConnell had thrown a blanket over the body.

As he settled down, he was conscious of the pinto’s restlessness, as if the horse were anxious to be gone. No amount of stroking and placating seemed to quieten the animal. McConnell realised that sleep would scarcely be forthcoming. He was glad of the fire however.  The lonesome howling in the distance heralded the presence of a coyote.  He had never heard such a mournful sound, and he heard plenty of coyotes in the six weeks he had been trailing Hohner.  The sound was ostensibly magnified, as if to indicate the presence of more than one.

He had no idea what it was that compelled him to lift the blanket, as if it were to satisfy himself that the Half-Breed was really dead.  The last time he had gazed on that face  it was congealed in dried blood and unrecognisable.

Now, now, he could scarcely believe what he was seeing. Ty Hohner’s features were as handsome and clear as they had been when he had entered The Miners Saloon, and shot his friend. The bloody tissue had healed, somehow miraculously. But that was impossible. No one could escape such terrible wounds.

McConnell, who had been momentarily filled with guilt because he had killed a man in cold blood, was now horrified at what he was seeing. No amount of eye blinking, and rubbing at them in an endeavor at adjustment made any difference.

The face was unblemished. The piercingly cold brown eyes were intact. When they  suddenly snapped open, McConnell could only recoil in disbelief, almost falling into the fire in his haste to get away.

The tableau enacted in the play of cold full moonlight. It now threw everything, including Hohner’s glacially smiling features – a smile fuelled with profound self-satisfaction over the young man’s terror – into a  kind  of devilish relief. Except now the eyes were blacker, reminiscent of  some hellish chasm.

The man was dead. All this was a trick of the moonlight. It had to be. The back of  Hohner’s head had been completely pulverised. A Henry rifle takes no prisoners.  When the long drawn out wail of the coyote shrilled through him again, McConnell levered the Colt from his holster. The chill of the barrel was comforting.

Come on, Clay, you’re letting your imagination get the better of you. No one heals themselves. It’s just not possible. The man was a legend, sure, and you killed him. Think of all that money the Sheriff in Hays will pay.  What is it?  A $5,000 reward. Think of what you and Jane can do with that.  It’ll be a great start to your married life. Dear Jane. 

Slipping her photo from his jacket, he allowed himself a smile. She was beautiful and he loved her so much. As soon as he reached Hays with Hohner’s dead body, and he was dead, he would be able to claim her. They wouldn’t wait. They would get wed straightaway.

The man was evil. He had to be stopped. He shouted it into the night. “I did something none of you lily-livered bastards have the guts to do. I killed the fastest gun. It was me, Clayton McConnell…” However, his words were allowed to trail as something rustled in the bushes. It sounded like footfalls, the tread measured, but heavy, moving through the undergrowth.

He traced the gun in the direction of the sound while attempting to counsel himself there was nothing there. All his imagination again. The moonlight. The dead man draped over the saddle. The minute scratch of guilt because he had shot Hohner in cold blood.

As if guided by an unseen hand, he found himself drawing closer to the palomino. The horse stood idly by, as if impervious to the night. The blanket remained in the position McConnell had left it. Undisturbed. The pinto neighed restlessly, rearing his head at McConnell’s approach, as if the horse were urging him to be gone. “Easy, boy,” He stroked the animal’s back absently. All the while maintaining an uneasy gaze on the undergrowth, the Colt raised, a finger itching the trigger as if in readyness to fire.

The snap of a twig, reminiscent of a pistol shot, served to startle him. He turned in the direction of the sound. “Show yourself, or I’ll shoot.” There was a tremble in his voice. Despite the chill of the night, cold sweat had begun to break along his backbone.

Apart from the night sounds and the wailing of that damned coyote, there was no other response.  Yet, what was it that succeeded in drawing a return of his attention to that ignominious grey blanket? He slowly, carefully, lifted it, his heart beating an almost painful tattoo inside his chest.   The body had gone!

Clay McConnell staggering, half-falling, blindly into the brush. His mind was no longer his own. Terror gripped him, as if a thousand cold needles had pierced his heart. Nothing had prepared him for this, the creature that now came blundering out of the undergrowth, the scrub and small trees parting in its wake. It just stood there, something that should not have intruded on this world.

Its teeth were bared and sharpened to fangs, half fashioned into the semblance of a grotesque smile. That was how it seemed to McConnell under the white-cold moonlight. Its body, covered in matted brown shaggy fur, was shambling. Its height, he could but conjecture, was the height of a six foot tall man.  The face, if it could be called that, was covered in the same shaggy tangled fur. An elongated snout protruded from that grotesque countenance. The ears were pink and strained to every sound. From within that hirsute, monstrous mask, two piercing yellow eyes seemed to glint with anticipation on the man. Eyes mirrored in the starkness of moonlight.

The deepest, threatening growl that emanated from the creature was as no other sound he had ever heard on earth. Nor was Clay McConnell ever to hear it again.

When the creature swiftly sprang up on him, McConnell was thrown into the dust. A vain attempt to fire his pistol only succeeded in the shot going wild. His spinal column was wrenched apart, as if it were little more than paper. Raising the limp body up to the moonlight, the thing emitted a wild raucous growl.

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Dusty black buckskins robing his hard-packed physique, the man known as Ty Hohner entered the town of Wichita, Kansas late in the evening, astride the beautiful palomino. Some of the folk who had witnessed his approach crossed themselves inwardly, although they had no idea why.

Hohner’s handsome features conveyed a smile of pure self-satisfaction. He remained the unchallenged. The enigmatic stranger capable of instilling fear into the weak hearts of those who considered him the man who rode with the devil.

They called him Half-Breed. Ty Hohner could easily trace his ancestry. The reason why he was abandoned by his tribe. His father had to die from a bullet made only from a silver cross. This man the Cheyenne knew as Ty-Ohni.

The Wolf.

Story by JM Shorney

Illustration by Peter Shorney