Bill poked the glowing corpse with the toe of his boot.
“That ain’t no ghost,” said John, leaning against an old dogwood tree just off the Natchez Trace. He reloaded his two flintlock pistols, fired both, point blank, before Bill had gotten over his surprise at the ghost-man’s sudden appearance.
“Obviously not,” Bill said. He gulped down some air to catch his breath after the scare but got a lungful of pistol smoke instead. He coughed and then started rummaging around in the dead man’s pack. “But he’s glowing.”
“Uh hum,” agreed John.
“Don’t you want to know why he’s glowing?” asked Bill, exasperated. His brother had no sense of curiosity.
“What’s it matter? Reward is for a ghost and that’s what we was after. That ain’t no ghost.”
“Well,” Bill said, “it’s clearly him that was robbing and killing along the Trace. Look.” He held up pieces of jewelry and coin. “These were in his pack and pockets.” The dead man must have been a road agent, or a highwayman if from up north. They were common in these parts.
“Maybe,” John said. “Wasn’t there supposed to be a white horse too?” He slipped both tarnished pistols back into his leather belt and sauntered over to examine the body.
Bill sighed. “We should go look for the horse. I bet it’s not far. Might have more loot in the saddlebags.” Frowning, he repacked the goods. His fingers now gave off a faint glow and smelled like wet, burned matches. He stared for a second, thoughtful, then washed them off in the nearby stream.
“Say, John,” Bill said, “have you ever actually seen a ghost? A real one, for sure?”
“That’s what I thought. I’m thinking that maybe no one has.”
“Lots of stories ‘bout ghosts ‘round here.” John shook his head. “Especially up at King’s tavern, plus Linden and Glenwood.” He paused to pull out a bowie knife and scratch his chin. “Them witches that kill the grass up near Tupelo too, if you count those.”
Bill waved away his brother’s argument. “But we’ve been to most of those places and we haven’t seen a ghost, have we? Just heard them tapping canes and crying and all that.”
John simply nodded, still scratching his chin with the knife.
Bill glared at him. “So, if we haven’t seen those ghosts and no one has actually seen this ghost, then who’s gonna say that the fellow you killed wasn’t a ghost?”
“Well, he ain’t a ghost,” John said, taking care to enunciate each word. “This here’s a dead man.” He kneeled and jabbed the corpse with his knife. Blood oozed out. “See?”
“Of course it’s a dead man, John.” Bill rolled his eyes before grabbing his pack loaded with stolen goods and heading into the woods, motioning for John to follow. “I certainly know what those look like. That’s not the point.”
John sighed, but started moving.
“My point, dear brother,” he said, slapping John on the back, “is that we can pretend we got rid of a ghost. All the travelers say there’s a ghost been robbing and killing folks and there’s a reward for whoever gets rid of it. Well, the fellow doing the dastardly deeds is dead, isn’t he?”
John glanced back at the body still glowing faintly in the moonlight. “Yup.”
“Exactly,” Bill said. “Now we’ve just got to find the horse. If I’m right about what’s in those saddlebags, I think we’ll be set.”
For several seconds, John considered that in silence, his thick eyebrows scrunched together. “What?”
Bill adjusted his worn cowboy hat and tossed an arm around John’s wide shoulders. Undergrowth licked at their canvas dusters as they picked their way through the forest.
“You’ve always wanted to move up in the world, right, John? Get some nicer guns, leisure time to hunt, all that?”
John grunted. “You too, one reason you went to school.”
“Well, this just might be our chance. Credit for killing a ghost will go a long way, if we play it right.”
“They’ll know that corpse ain’t a ghost, what with it bleedin’ and all.”
“Well, we’re not going to actually show them a body, now are we? It’s a ghost! Ghosts don’t leave bodies. They’ve already died and been buried and all that.”
“Gotta have proof for the bounty.”
“Yes, well, I expect they’ll make an exception when we return all the goods,” Bill said.
“We could keep the stuff instead.”
“Could, maybe, but the jewelry won’t be easy to sell. I think it’s worth the risk. We’ll keep most of the gold though. That way we can’t come out empty-handed.”
John grunted, which Bill took as agreement. No one else could interpret his brother’s grunts half as well. They continued on, Bill whistling Yankee Doodle, the sound of cicadas an intermittent annoyance. Thankfully it wasn’t noon, when the pounding heat and deafening cicada song would be at their worst.
“You know,” Bill said, breaking the silence, “I bet those landowners who say they’ve got ghosts haven’t really got them at all, just like we haven’t.”
John snatched up a long piece of grass to chew on, agitated. “Ain’t no way. Some of them are respectable folk, fought in wars and everything and—“
“And legitimate business owners, pillars of the community, yeah, yeah,” Bill said. “But why have you heard of them? Why them and not all the other people along the Trace?”
“Well,” John said, “the ghosts, I reckon.”
“I bet they weren’t well known till they had any, either.” Bill stopped and held up a hand. “Hear that?”
They found the horse, pure white and glowing, tethered in a clearing less than a mile from where they’d camped. The road agent must have been on his way to the stream for water when he’d stumbled onto them. Bill dug around and located several packets labeled ‘Glow Powder’ in the saddlebags.
“Perfect,” he said. “How do you feel about opening up a place of our own, becoming respectable members of society? A tavern, maybe, where I could brew and you could hunt.”
“Ain’t gonna happen, Bill. We’re just a couple of drifters, even if we do get credit for a bounty on a ghost. Nice idea though.” John stared into the distance, fingering his guns. “Real nice.”
Bill grinned and patted the saddlebags. “Don’t count us out just yet.” He shrugged off his outerwear and rolled up his sleeves, then pulled a hand shovel out of his pack. “Alright, he said, “take the horse back and wash it off in that stream. That ought to stop it glowing, then drag the body back here. We need to bury it.”
John untied the horse. It was a real beauty at just over sixteen hands. Friendly, too. He fed it a few raisins from his pocket.
“We’ll start towards Natchez in the morning,” Bill said. He began digging the grave, sweat already staining his cotton shirt. “Tell everyone we meet about how we bested the ghost in some glorious manner. It’ll spread fast enough if we make it interesting; folks love gossip. Then we’ll be all set to collect the bounty in exchange for the goods.”
They stopped at a crowded tavern several days north of Natchez. A caravan of traders was moving from up north down to the port in New Orleans. Bill made sure that they and everyone else who passed through that morning heard all about the spectacular defeat of the Highwayman’s Dread Ghost.
John loomed in the corner, careful not to contradict his brother’s tale, stuffing himself with delicious venison stew. Every so often he’d get up to polish his guns and buy any dissenters a drink.
A few days later Bill and John arrived at another inn to find men sharing their tale, which had grown in size and scope. John’s pistols were capable of scaring a ghost to death, they said and Bill imported incense from far-off lands to magically bind spirits.
When they arrived in Natchez the sheriff himself met them as they rode in, ready to take the jewels and other stolen goods off their hands. Bill only handed over a small fraction of the gold, claiming it was all they found. They spent the morning being invited and welcomed to festivals, card games, dances, parties and social functions of every kind.
“Bounty went up since last we heard,” Bill said. He was already starting to look the part of a gentleman, with clean clothes and a well-trimmed beard. “We ought to have enough now to build a small tavern. Our friends at the bank will help with the rest.”
“You sure they won’t just forget us?” John asked. “Ain’t like killing road agents is uncommon, even if he was a bad ‘un. And they’re starting to wonder about your story Bill. Reckon things’ll die down now that it’s all over.”
Bill laughed. “Not to worry John. Did you ever think about why I wanted to find the saddlebags so bad? We’ve got the rest of the fellow’s glow powder!” He skipped a few steps down the road and twirled back towards his brother, hands spread wide. “That ghost we bound? He’s going to visit our tavern. In fact, I’d wager he stops by every time we have a lot of guests.”
“How do you know them other folks who’ve got fake ghosts won’t tell?”
Bill snorted. “And say what, that it takes one to know one? No, I think we’re safe on that count.”
Hours later the brothers walked back along Main Street to their rooms in Upper Natchez. John had been quiet all afternoon as they set their business plans in motion, turning over an idea in his head.
“What?” Bill’s feet dragged along the ground, scuffing his new snakeskin boots, too tired even to whistle. It had been a long day.
“We’re gonna glow ourselves up like ghosts sometimes, right? Keep folks talking about our tavern?”
“Yeah, Bill said.
“Well, I was thinking, that fellow we killed dressed up as a ghost too. He did it so it’d be easier to rob folks. Might have worked right well for him if he hadn’t started the killing.” He watched as Bill’s eyes widened and his face split into a wide grin. John smiled. He didn’t often have ideas before his brother.
“John,” Bill said, thumping him on the back, “sometimes you are more brilliant than me.” Rubbing his hands together with glee, his earlier tiredness disappeared. “We can offer to chase off these new ghosts for a price. I suspect they’ll use the same place the last one did, since it’s such a good spot and only attack folks who can afford it. What do you think?”
Several weeks later they put the finishing touches on a new tavern just off the Natchez Trace. A few locals and some folk from further afield stopped by to see the new addition. Some eyed the ghost-sighting signs with knowing looks on their faces.
“What will you name the tavern?” one of them asked.
John, now a respectable member of the community, stood dressed in a fine silk coat and shiny, black boots. A brand new American Long Rifle, freshly polished, rode over one arm. He handed the speaker an ale and gestured at Bill, who was outside whistling Yankee Doodle and hammering in a sign.
“Reckon we’ll call it The Painted Horse,” he said.
Time passed and the brothers found success. Bill’s home-brewed ale drew in customers for miles around while John kept them well stocked with fresh meat. Ghosts still roamed the Trace, but there had been no deaths since The Painted Horse opened.
Then one moonlit night, years later, Bill and John went missing.
A search party convened in the tavern, but fate set her hand against them. Volunteers arrived in twos and threes, each group soaked worse than the last, until the sheriff himself ducked inside and closed the wooden door behind him. Silence fell, save for the whistling of the wind.
“Storm’s getting worse,” he said, shaking out his coat and the sitting by the fire. “No one’s going anywhere tonight.”
It took the better part of two days for the storm to abate and by then they were too late.
They found the brothers shot dead at a bend in the road, not far from where their first battle with a ghost took place. Rain washed away any clues that might have remained. A drifter reported an attack by ghosts in that area on the same day they went missing.
Those who attended the funeral gossiped that Bill and John met their end at the hands of a dozen furious ghosts. Speculation ran rampant and the stories varied, each more fantastic than the last, until they reached a consensus. Evil spirits had finally caught up to them and taken revenge. But locals say that when the moon is bright and the winds are heavy, two men come riding up to the old tavern door. One upon a white horse and one whistling a tune.
by M. A. Mackey
M. A. Mackey is a chemist, an avid reader, a recent writer, and a lover of good food. Despite having an active imagination she didn’t start writing until 2012, when she discovered what a fantastic hobby it could be.