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Journey of the Dead Man

Short story By: Phil Slattery
Historical fiction



A woman recounts the story of the murder of her great-grandfather during the days of the old west. First published in "Wilmington Blues" in 2004. Photo of Emil Preetorius by unknown photographer.


Submitted:Jun 16, 2013    Reads: 51    Comments: 0    Likes: 0   


Allison looked across the breakfast table at her husband Bradley and realized that she hated him more at breakfast than at any other time of the day. Once the Wall Street Journal was spread in front of him, she caught only glimpses of his face for the next hour¾not that that mattered anymore. As these last several years of their marriage had become increasingly monotonous, she had tired of looking at his face. When Bradley first started reading the paper at the breakfast table, this new part of their morning ritual perturbed her, later it irritated her, and still later it infuriated her. But now she no longer cared. As a matter of fact, she had become so tired of his face that, while Bradley read his paper or worked at his computer, Allison daydreamed about life without him, just as she did on those rare occasions when they still made love, if one could call it "making love". As far as Allison was concerned, she achieved more emotional satisfaction when she masturbated.

"Really," she thought, "what good is he? I am better off without him. I just hate the thought of going through another divorce. And I really hate the thought of telling him that I want a divorce. He thinks that I'm just another bored housewife that needs more pampering to make her happy. To hell with him. I can work out my own solutions."

From their kitchen in their house high on the western rim of the broad Rio Grande valley, Allison sipped her tea as she gazed through the plate-glass windows behind Bradley and saw the town of Socorro off to her left, north. In front of her lay the distant Rio Grande, beyond that the Oscura Mountains, and beyond that the Sierra Blanca range and the rising sun. The area between her and the Oscuras and stretching out of sight to her right was the rolling desert known as the Jornada del Muerto.

"Do you know why they call it the Jornada del Muerto?" she asked.

"M-m," muttered Bradley, lost in the tedious depths of the stock market report.

"When the Spanish owned the southwest one of their trade routes ran through this area. The problem was that there was no water between here and Las Cruces. Today that's not a big deal; it's only a few hours drive. However, if you lived in the 1700's and were making a 150-mile journey in a horse-drawn wagon covering maybe a dozen or so miles in a day, if you couldn't find water, you were dead. So they called this area the Jornada del Muerto¾the journey of the dead man."

"M-m." Bradley sipped his coffee and turned a page of the paper.

Allison reflected for a moment as she watched the traffic on the interstate running toward Las Cruces. She decided that the slow, maddening decline of her marriage had begun shortly after moving to New Mexico from New York to escape the proverbial rat race. Ideally, getting away from the east coast should have helped reorganize their personal and professional lives, so that they could spend more quality time together and recapture the excitement of the honeymoon that was already ten years past. Instead, the move only transformed the chaos of their lives into boredom.

At first, Allison had thought the move would be wonderful and romantic. The kids, all Bradley's, were from his previous marriage and were at college, allowing her to not only pursue her new passion of writing murder mysteries, but also allowing much more time alone to Bradley and Allison, so that they could try to have a child of their own. Allison wanted a child desperately, as her previous marriage had produced no children and she saw the end of her childbearing years looming in the not too distant future. Bradley, as the plan had been at first, would be able to run his investment company by a combination of e-mail and conference calls. He could take occasional business trips out of either the Albuquerque or Santa Fe airports less than a couple of hours to the north.

In Allison's eyes the blame for their now dismal life lay with Bradley. He had increasingly filled the spaces between their bouts of lovemaking with work. The sex had become less and less frequent and had dwindled to almost non-existence. Allison might have suspected that Bradley had another woman on the side, but he rarely left the house, preferring to research stocks and mutual funds on the Internet almost to the exclusion of all else except for eating, sleeping, and personal hygiene. Allison and Bradley's escape from the rat race had left Allison with a rat, which might as well have been dead for all practical purposes, and an empty racetrack.

Then it dawned on Allison how she could have a little fun at Bradley's expense and she smiled. "Speaking of death, did I ever tell you the story of my great-great uncle Cullis Embers? Is that the right number of greats? He was the brother of my great-great grandfather. I'm thinking of basing a novel on his life."

"M-m," Bradley muttered taking a sip of coffee. Allison picked up the carafe and poured him another cup.

"Coming out here from the east was a journey of death for him."

"M-m."

"Cullis was a rather mean, self-centered man. He was from Lexington, Kentucky originally and during the Civil War he had served with a band of mounted Confederate guerrillas known as Morgan's Raiders. After the war, Cullis returned to Lexington and married a girl named Rebecca, whom he had known since childhood. Unfortunately, Cullis and his bride couldn't stay in Kentucky, because Morgan's band had raided Lexington several times and Cullis had stolen a lot of horses from his former neighbors in addition to committing a lot of other hanging offenses. So Cullis took his new bride and headed west to maybe strike it rich in the silver and gold fields that were prospering in the New Mexico mountains at that time. They made it as far as Carrizozo," she said pointing to a spot on the eastern horizon, "about seventy-five miles from here, when Cullis found a piece of land that he liked and decided to raise horses and cattle instead of prospecting."

"M-m."

"Cullis did very well ranching and over time became a well-respected member of the community. He ran for mayor once or twice, though unsuccessfully, and became great friends with the sheriff and all the other important local people, who used to drop by unannounced at Cullis's house whenever they had the chance.

"Unfortunately, as Cullis's business and, consequently, his relations within the town grew, his relations with his own wife became estranged. Part of the problem was that Rebecca was never able to give Cullis the children he wanted, and he desperately wanted heirs to his new fortune. As time passed, Cullis's fights with his wife intensified. Sometimes they argued in front of neighbors or in stores in town. Sometimes Rebecca came to town with a black eye or sensitive ribs, but she always brushed it off by saying that she had fallen from her horse, although no one ever saw her using anything other than a buggy. Cullis always blamed Rebecca for instigating the public spats out of spite, so that she could damage his reputation as a friendly and honorable businessman.

"Around the tenth year of their marriage, it seemed to Cullis that everything that Rebecca did was to spite him, including contracting tuberculosis, then known as consumption. Consumption meant that Rebecca grew gradually weaker and thinner and less able to do her chores, even when she wasn't bedridden. It also meant that she grew less and less attractive and less and less likely to give him a child. After a year in which she had been completely bedridden, Cullis decided he needed to move on with his life. He wanted a child and he could see that, as middle age approached him in a small, out-of-the-way town, the number of young women he could marry was diminishing along with his own youth. Divorce was almost unheard of then and Cullis decided he could not wait years for Rebecca to pass on naturally.

"One night while Rebecca slept, Cullis snatched the pillow from under her head and smothered her. Back then, forensic medicine, if it existed at all, was not as advanced as it is today and no one could tell that she had not died as a result of consumption. To the townsfolk, it seemed that Rebecca was finally, and quite naturally, at peace.

"After waiting the customary length of bereavement for a widower, Cullis began courting, and eventually married, Charlotte, the daughter of a neighboring rancher. The townsfolk suspected that there was at least as much political and business sense as romance in their marriage, because Cullis's new father-in-law, Mr. Branwell, was one of the few people in the county wealthier and more powerful than Cullis. Mr. Branwell was also the only one of the local elite without a son to inherit his estate.

"For the first year the couple was happy, but again Cullis's business began to replace his wife as his primary interest. The arguments started and grew more frequent and intense. Often they would suddenly fly into heated arguments over the most inconsequential matters. One of the most common fights, which visitors to the ranch often witnessed, was over Charlotte's coffee. Cullis constantly complained about Charlotte's coffee and always said Charlotte would never learn to make a good cup until she stopped drinking tea and started drinking coffee. Charlotte would always reply that if Cullis wanted his coffee a certain way, he should make it himself, and then she would drink it, but until then she would drink her tea, he would take what he got, and so to hell with him. Cullis would invariably explode at this, throw his coffee cup against a wall, and yell that he was lord of his manor and master of their house and that if he said she was to make the coffee a certain way, she would make it that way. Charlotte, who had more self-control that Cullis, would then quietly rise, firmly reiterate that Cullis should go to hell, and bustle off into the kitchen to nip at the vanilla bottle, whiskey bottle, or whatever was handy.

"Ironically, in the fifth year of Cullis's and Charlotte's marriage, Cullis contracted consumption. As with Rebecca, consumption forced Cullis to spend less and less time working and more and more time in bed. Cullis, though, deteriorated much faster than Rebecca. More of the chores and business fell to Charlotte, who, although she was quite capable and business savvy, began to suffer under the increased strain. Adding to her stress was the fact that she had never produced an heir for Cullis. Charlotte also wanted children desperately and saw the end of her childbearing years approaching as she watched Cullis's decline from age and disease slowly bring an end to his ability to reproduce. Charlotte suspected that if Cullis had not had any children with either of two wives, the problem lay within Cullis and not within her. Charlotte also suspected that Cullis knew the problem was his. But because his machismo would never let him admit to anything vaguely resembling a lack of virility, Cullis blamed Charlotte for his lack of heirs and the spats between them intensified and became more frequent.

"On the last day of his life, Cullis lay on a day-bed in the parlor, where he had been napping. The day was hot and the windows and front door had been left open so that Cullis could catch what little breeze stirred. He was so weak that he could hardly lift his hands, but he could still shout and he shouted for Charlotte to bring him a cup of coffee. Charlotte brought him a cup straightaway and stood there patiently while he saucered and sipped the entire cup away. He then held the cup and saucer out for her, but when she reached for it, he threw it at her feet.

"'Damn, that's the worst cup you ever made, you dev'ish li'l thing,' he wheezed.

"At that Charlotte snatched the pillow from under Cullis's head and held it tightly, contemplating for a moment.

"Cullis's eyes widened as he realized what was about to happen. He coughed twice and held his feeble hands in front of his face. 'Don't you smother me!' was all he could choke out.

"'Smother you?' Charlotte looked at him in surprise. 'Why, dear, I would never smother you.' She fluffed his pillow and put it back under his head. 'After all these months of putting poison in your coffee why would I smother you now?'

"At that moment Charlotte heard spurs jingle in the doorway and turned to see the sheriff, who had dropped by to pay a visit and had overheard Charlotte's confession. Cullis lived only a few hours more, but that was long enough to wheeze out everything to the sheriff. Charlotte was hung about a month later."

Bradley flipped through to the editorial section.

"Bradley, did you hear anything I said?"

"M-m," mumbled Bradley, taking a sip of coffee.

"Drink your coffee, dear," said Allison as she smiled and raised a cup of tea to her lips. "That's right, just keep on drinking that coffee."

One of the things she enjoyed most about writing mysteries, thought Allison, was researching subtle, undetectable means of murder, such as poisons.





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