This story owes a great debt to Jack Shaefer’s iconic western novel “Shane.” My character, Slade, is based on Shane and I borrowed the names of the two combatants, Fletcher and Starret from the novel also.
The sun was straight overhead as I rode down the dry and dusty trail headed toward Cheyenne. I was tired and sore after three long days of riding, but knew I’d have to stop for the night; I just didn’t know where. I hoped I might come across a town where I could get a bed for the night, after sleeping rough the last two. One more long day of riding before I’d get to see my girl, Jenny, waiting for me in Cheyenne.
Two hours later my hopes were raised a bit when I saw a sign made of grey, worn scrap wood that said “Desolation, Wyoming: Population 337”. Not promising, I thought, but around the name’s inscription, someone had added vibrant, red flowers in every corner. Green vines had been painted between each flower creating a border that belied the grim message of the town’s name. Odd.
I first passed a series of farms and ranches as my single trail turned into a two-track to accommodate the heavier traffic of the town. The farmhouses were neat and well kept, the fencing tight and true. The very first barn I saw had bright red doors, and the side wall had been whitewashed and filled with a painting of a distant snow-capped mountain, the very one I had been admiring as I entered the town.
In fact, as I rode through town, it seemed as though every farmhouse and cottage was trying to outdo its neighbor with color. Some had painted every flat surface with vibrant blues, reds and oranges. Others hung boxes from their windows, sporting flowers full of blooms. Still others had turned their yards into gardens full of corn, squash, and sunflowers. It was, by far, the prettiest town I’d ridden through on my considerable travels, and yet carrying the bleakest of names.
I pulled Shiloh over to the hitching post nearest the saloon, watered her, and brushed off some of the dust that had accumulated on her once shiny coat. “Let’s see if we can bed down here for the night, girl,” I whispered to her as I brushed. She blew and huffed and nipped at my elbow. I rubbed her face between her eyes and fed her the last couple of sugar cubes I had left in my pocket.
I dusted myself off the best I could and headed toward the double doors of Smokey Joe’s Saloon. As I approached, I spied an old-timer sitting on a barrel just outside the door carving away at a small chunk of wood and as I got closer, I could see a collection of small animals that he had carved placed out on a small table within reach of his perch.
“Hey there, pardner,” I hailed him as I walked up. “That’s some mighty fine work you’ve done there.”
Without looking up he said, “Help yourself, stranger. I just make these to keep myself busy. Kids in town seem to like ‘em.
I picked out what looked to be a mourning dove in flight, delicately carved, and pulled a couple of bills from my wallet.
“Naw, I just give these away. You can keep your money, but if you’ve got a mind to bring me a cold drink, I wouldn’t turn you away. You look thirsty yourself, and I could use the company.”
I told him I’d be happy to oblige and went in and bought a couple of beers back outside to where my new friend had pulled up a stool for me and gladly took the longnecked bottle.
“Tobias Wolff,” he said, extending his calloused hand.
“Joe Sheridan,” I said.
“Much obliged for the beer, Joe,” he said taking a long drink before returning to his work.
“So, Joe Sheridan, I’m guessing that you are on your way to Cheyenne to see some girl you’re sweet on, and you decided to spend the night here in Desolation. I’d recommend Missy Mae’s boarding house down the way if you’re looking for a nice, clean place to bed down.”
“Tobias, I haven’t said more than a dozen words to you yet. How on earth did you piece all that together?”
A grin broke across his face as he looked up from the whittling he was doing and enjoyed my surprise. “Well, Desolation is pretty much a way station for any stranger headed to Cheyenne traveling east to west, so that part was easy. You picked the dove out of my little collection, and it just looks to me like of thing that a woman would especially like. Lucky guess on my part.”
I laughed. “Well, you are as right as rain. Besides this dove, I’ve got a ring I’ll be giving her tomorrow hoping that maybe she’ll have me for her husband. Jenny is her name.”
“Well, good luck, Joe. Maybe we should celebrate with another beer from inside.”
I agreed wholeheartedly and paid the barkeep for four bottles and asked him to keep a couple on ice for me. I was enjoying my time with the old man.
“Tobias,” I said as I passed him his beer, “can you tell me how this town got to be called Desolation? I’ve been through a whole lot of villages on my travels and they are all pretty dusty and grey. Desolation seems like a garden spot. I’ve never seen so many flowers and plants—they’re everywhere I look! And the people here have painted every door, shutter, and barn wall as far as the eye can see.”
“Yessir, yer right. Desolation used to be like every other town. Worse than most. It was a lawless place. Seems we’d have a killing twice a week over some squabble, and sad thing was, people appreciated the distraction. We had a sheriff for a while, but he was just an orange-faced blowhard who didn’t know what to do, so we ran him out of town on a rail. There wasn’t a spot of color anywhere and nothing seemed to grow, or maybe people just gave up trying. A lot of folks were just hanging on, just getting by.
“That all changed the day that Slade came to town. He rode in and hitched up right there where you tied up, and he was dressed up city-like, fine clothes, but worn, like he’d been on the move forever. He was dressed all in black except for his brass belt buckle that shined like gold. Might have thought he was a gunslinger, but he didn’t wear any kind of pistol. Even though he was a stranger, he moved with a bright energy, walked down the street here like he owned the place, but polite-like. He tipped his hat to every woman that he passed and hauled open a door if he saw someone carrying their goods out the door. After he made his way up and down the street, he settled in here at Joe’s for a drink, and by then everyone in town had an opinion about him. Folks were flappin’ their gums about, “Slade, the bank robber”, “Slade, the outlaw”, “Slade, the do-gooder”.
Tobias’s throat had gone dry from all the talking and I hurried in to retrieve two more beers so I could hear the rest of the story.
“Thank you, son. So, Slade hadn’t been in town an hour before he was the main attraction and had become everybody’s friend. The bar was full of friendly conversation like we’d never had before. Bobby Joe, the barkeep, even found a clean rag to wipe down the counter and polish up the glasses.
“Well, it warn’t no time at all before these two ranchers, Fletcher and Starret, started getting into it over a fence line that they had been feuding about for years. Everyone got tense and started to move for cover except for Slade. He just sat there cool as can be and looked at the two fools who were facing off against each other. “Ain’t nothing bad gonna happen here today, fellas,” he announced and offered to buy a fresh round of drinks for everyone. You could feel the room relax and the crowd gathered around Slade once again.
“But Fletcher and Starret were having none of it. Starret called Fletcher a cheat and a liar. Without a word Fletcher drew on him and fired twice, two dry clicks, and the crowd turned in time to see two daisys fly from the gun and plunk Starret right in the chest. I’m telling you God’s honest truth, Joe. And then, Starret raised his double-barrel, aimed, fired and showered Fletcher with an explosion of petunias! It was the damndest thing we’d ever seen. They each grabbed a second gun and pretty soon the air was filled with bluebells and periwinkles. The crowd at the bar was laughing so hard at the damned fools that they had no choice but to make up and join Slade at the bar for that drink he had offered.
“From that day forward, every gun raised in anger produced nothing but flowers. All the town took it up as a badge of honor and that’s why you see vegetables and flowering plants in every single household. We even sent a crew into Cheyenne to bring home a wagon full of paint for anyone who wanted to spruce up their house or barn or business.”
“Tobias, I’ve heard some tall tales in my time, but that is by far the tallest,” I said with a wry smile on my face.
“You can ask anyone, pardner. Anyone at all. Every word is true. Changed every single thing about this town. It’s when I started carving these gee-gaws. I just wanted to have something to give away, to make people happy.” He seemed a little embarrassed by the admission.
“But the name. Everything changed except the name. Seems to me that this town is the opposite of desolate.”
“Yessir,” he said, “we talked about it. There were a lot of folks who wanted to change the name to Hope. Hope, Wyoming. Had a nice sound to it. In the end though, we decided to keep the old name so we’d never forget what we had been.”
“Slade stayed for a month or so, helping people who asked for help. Doing some painting here, some planting there. Then one night, he packed up and slipped out of town in the middle of the night without so much as a fare-thee-well.”
I thanked Tobias for sharing his time and his memorable story with me. He thanked me for the beers, and I left him as I had found him, carving away. I pulled myself back in the saddle and eased Shiloh down the main street, such as it was, enjoying the gardens, the flower boxes and the brightly painted doors of the town on my way to Missy Mae’s boarding house.
I felt in my pocket for the dove Tobias had given me, pulled it out and marveled at the simple artistry of it. I wondered if Jenny would say yes when I proposed to her tomorrow. I wondered how she would feel about settling down in a small town with an awful name.