This story is by Steven Nimocks and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Sam Silverman rode from town to town, sometimes for weeks. It was the two of them that shared the trail together. Just him and his horse. They made good company for each other. Ever since the Union victory at Appomattox, the war had left a bitter taste in his mouth. It didn’t sit well with Sam. He never did hold a job very long before he’d hit the trail again.
Each clomp of a hoof made a puff of dust and the rhythmic sound the hooves made was hypnotizing. Sam pulled up rein and stopped. He listened. What was that? A cool gentle breeze against his face dried the sweat in the hot Texas sun. He urged the horse on, and the rhythm of the hooves resumed.
A good bath and some clean clothes awaited him in Abilene. Up ahead, a hawk soared in wide circles hoping for a good meal. The trail turned west where the scrub bushes appeared more frequently, and he stopped again. Something bothered Sam today. What was that? He listened again. His roan dipped her head and shook, trying to find relief from the flies congregating around her eyes.
“It’s okay, girl. We’ll soon be in town.” He gave a gentle spur and the roan plodded on. Templeton Creek soon joined the trail and he could hear the water running over rocks. He stopped again, listening. Dismounting, he led Ruby to the creek and let her drink her fill. The afternoon sun did not play favorites to anyone on the trail.
He filled his canteens after drinking and laid them over his dusty saddle bags. “We’re gonna have to step it up if we’re to make it to town today.” The old horse just shook her head. Sam mounted and urged the roan into a lope. He had friends in Abilene. He had spent time with Calum MacHugh in the war. They fought side by side till Sam took a Union bullet in the head. Sam stopped again. He listened, cocking his head. “I think we may have been on the trail too long this time.”
He took a deep breath and the fresh air felt good in his lungs. He adjusted his hat. He listened. He looked behind him. Nothing in view except the sun making its retreat to the horizon. “C’mon. Let’s go.” He spurred the horse into a trot. Abilene neared and the hot bath and a good meal weighed on his mind.
Smoke from various chimneys rose and danced in the afternoon heat. A rider on a gray passed him heading the other way. “A sod buster, no doubt.” He stopped again. Listened. He still heard the rider who passed by, but the sound of his hooves dwindled. He scanned the horizon looking for… what?
Satisfied, he broke into a trot again. “I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to get to town.” Calum ran one of the liveries in Abilene. “I figure we’ll see him first. Then a hot bath, a hot meal, and a soft bed.” The roan just ignored him. Sam talked to his horse often. It kept him sane on the long rides between towns.
Sam’s eyebrows furrowed. Something bothered him today. Anxious to get to town he urged the roan into a gallop. He saw movement in the distance. Wagons and buckboards loaded with goods. He was determined not to stop again. “Can you hear that?” Of course, his horse did not answer.
Calum’s livery was on the outskirts of town. It was a large livery and his blacksmithing added to his income. He saw Calum out front pounding on the anvil. “That’s what blacksmiths do. They pound on that anvil and make racket.”
Sam pulled up rein in front and dismounted.
Calum looked up from his pounding. “Howdy, Sam. I haven’t seen you in… how long has it been?”
“I reckon a year or so,” as he wiped his forehead with his red bandanna.
“You wantin’ to board your horse?”
“Yep. Can you reshoe her, too?”
“Not a problem.”
Sam fished out six bits from his coin pouch. “Does that cover it?”
Calum looked at Sam for a moment and said, “Are you feelin’ alright? You’re lookin’ like a barber’s cat.”
Sam took his dusty gray hat off and twirled it through his hands.
“C’mon, you can tell me. You know I don’t go jabberin’ all over town. What’s gnawin’ at you? It ain’t that prairie flower down Houston way, is it?”
Sam looked up as his eyebrows went together, “Nah, it’s nothin’ like that.” Sam looked around for nearby folks and said in almost a whisper, “Calum, I’m hearin’ voices… well, a voice in my head. I know it sounds like I have a brick in my hat but it’s true. And it keeps getting louder.”
Calum’s chin went back. “When did it start?”
“Earlier today, on the trail,” and he put his hat back on.
Calum called his stable boy, Vince, and looked back at Sam. “Do you hear it even now?”
Vince ran over, “Yes, Mister Calum.”
“Take care of Sam’s mount for me. I’ll be puttin’ shoes on her later.”
“Yes, Mister Calum. Right away.” He untied the roan and led her inside.
“Don’t forget to give her a good brushin’, too.” He watched the boy until he was out of sight.
“C’mon around to the side of the barn. We don’t want people thinkin’ you’ve gone loco.” Sam smelled the scent of fresh hay as it blew out of the livery and around the barn.
Calum looked around and said, “Sam, I’ve known you for a good spell now. I know you aren’t a loon. Are you hearin’ this voice now?”
Sam took his hat off and scrubbed his other hand through his greasy hair. “Well, yes. I mean not constantly. Just here and there. It’s almost as if the voice starts sayin’ stuff when we aren’t talkin’.”
“That voice ain’t tellin’ you to start shootin’ people, is it?”
Sam looked up with a jerk. “No! Not at all.” He paused and added, “Well, at least not yet.” He threw his hands up and said, “I don’t know what to think.”
“Have you thought about seein’ Doc Horn? He might have some insight.”
“You’re right. This may be serious. I’ll head over there right now.”
Doc Horn was rearranging his supply cabinet when the door opened.
“Doc?” A strong smell of antiseptic greeted him.
Horn turned. “Sam Silverman. I haven’t seen you for ages. You need to come to Abilene more often.”
Sam stepped in and closed the door. “Are you alone?” His eyes darted around the room as if he could see behind the door at the other end of the room.
“Yes. Anna stepped out to get some things from the general store. What can I do for you?” He closed the white cabinet and started toward his modest desk.
“Well Doc, it’s kinda hard to explain, so I’ll just get to the point right off.” He took his hat off and slowly worked his hands around the brim. “I’m hearing voices. In my head, I mean. And I don’t know what to make of it.”
Doc looked at him with a furrowed brow. “C’mon over here and let me get a look atcha.” Sam walked over to exam table. Doc patted the table. “Have a seat up here.” He set his hat on the end of the black table and hopped up.
Doc took Sam’s arm and checked his pulse. “Hmmmm. A little fast.” He felt around Sam’s head noticing the furrowed scar he received when he was shot in the head during the Rebellion. “You haven’t hit your head on anything, have you?”
“No. At least not for years now.”
Doc stepped back and squeezed his bearded chin. “When did this start? Do you recall?”
Sam let out reluctant sigh. “It started today. On my way into Abilene. The voice was faint at first but it’s getting more and more predominant. Louder, I mean.”
Slowly stroking his gray beard, “Has it stopped since you arrived here in town?”
Sam looked up at Doc. “No. I still hear it. I mean when it speaks, I guess. Well, I mean it’s not speaking constantly, but just here and there. It’s almost like it speaks when you or I stop talking. Doc, this is got me afeared.” He paused. “I don’t know what to make of it. Do you know what’s goin’ on?”
“Give me an idea of what the voice says,” as Doc leaned against the wall.
“Well, it’s mostly stuff I already know… I don’t really know how to explain it.” Sam started looking around back and forth.
Doc tilted his head. “What’s the last thing you heard the voice say? Can you remember”?
“You probably won’t believe this. But the last thing I heard it say was… ‘Doc tilted his head.’”