Mercer’s Ghost – Milo James Fowler

I am haunted.  I tell you the truth.

Like so many others before me, I found as I approached my seventeenth birthday an overwhelming desire to test my mettle, to become my own man, and so I was led by insatiable curiosity to the western frontier to see for myself that golden land of opportunity and adventure where men were made overnight, either forged in the fires of adversity or blessed by Providence with wealth beyond measure in veins of gold or winning streaks at cards.  This was my aim:  to prove to my father that I was more than the son of a newspaper man.  There would be no ink found beneath my fingernails but rather the dirt of my own land and hard calluses from the pickaxe I’d wield to claim my fortune from God’s green earth.

But alas, as with all good intentions and best-laid plans, Hell more often than not is the unforeseen destination, and so one night in the sleeping town of Warner Springs, I found myself penniless with no bed, no claim, and no plans for the future other than keeping out from underfoot.  The local sheriff was a hard man who did not take kindly to vagrants sitting on the stoops in front of hotels or saloons or whorehouses, unable to afford the pleasantries that teemed within their walls.

To put it plainly, I had been swindled.

As a young man of schooling from the great city of Boston, Massachusetts, I should have known better; but at first I saw this frontier through rose-colored spectacles, as the saying goes.  The man who promised me a fifth share of a certain claim—a “sure thing” in his words, a site that was releasing gold nuggets “like a bitch in heat”—took my money and vanished without a trace, and there was nothing the sheriff could do about it, reticent as he already was to come to my aid.  As soon as I’d opened my mouth to speak, he heard the roots of my accent, and a look of utter disdain passed through his eyes.  I have never experienced such prejudice in all my life.

Abandoned by luck, I sat on the stoop of the third hotel I’d visited that night, as the sheriff made his rounds and threatened me with no more than a withering stare—but it was enough to get me moving along the muddy streets and driving rain, my frock coat tugged tightly to shield both my chest and throat from the biting wind.

Warner Springs was not the land brimming with golden opportunity I had hoped for; rather it was no more than an uncouth frontier town that would forever leave a bad taste in my mouth.  Hopes dashed by one foolish mistake—trusting a man I had no right to trust with a fortune I had no right to demand from my father, I vowed to survive the night if nothing else.

And even if I had been able to afford the train fare back to Boston, how could I have faced my father again?

“I will make a name for myself,” I had told him with my chin raised high and haughty.  “You will see.  I shall return richer after a month than you could ever hope to be by the time you fall upon your deathbed.”

read the entire story in Pulp Literature Issue No. 2, Spring 2014.