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Austin's Tale

This tale is inspired by Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Pardoner's Tale" from the Canterbury Tales along with a real tree said to exist out in the middle of the Mojave. You can find this story and others in my next book, The Forest Around the Hill.

When I was but a youngun we used to hear tales about an ol' oak somewhere out in desert, 'yond the hills and copper mines. Town was founded on those copper mines, but they'd been shut down 'round forty years. Some folks say the tree has been there since pioneers found copper in the hills. Others say it showed up there during the boom, conjured up by the sins of the townsfolk- greed, adultery, and gamblin'. In any case, people say the devil lives in that tree and anyone brave enough to find it can ask him for a favor. Course the price of such a thing is your God given soul.

Now there's a lot of stories 'bout the tree, most well known being the favor askin'. Damned thing even has a few different names. Simple ones, nothin' too 'maginitive. The kids my age would call it the haunted oak or the haunted tree. Older kids called it the dare tree on account of all the times one of them was dared to go catcha peek at the Man in Black himself. Pastor Bill called it foolishness and hogwash, same as my parents. But not everyone felt this way. The elder-folk believed. It was them who'dun told us the stories. They called it Tim's Perch.

'Cordin' to legend, it was named after Tim West, a local drunk and gambler. One night he got in bad with some fellas. Owed them a whole heap of pesos. The men beat and dragged him through the desert. When they was done with him, a man named Sizemore shot him and left him for dead out there, right by the tree.

No one knows what happened to Tim, but they say the next day he came strolling into town lookin' like death with the bullet hole in 'em. He went into the saloon, plopped down, and ordered his usual. When the bartender worked up the gumption to finally ask what he was doin' there. After all everyone heard what happened. West just replied, “I'm waitin' for Sizemore.” No one would go near him. The lil ones cried. The ladies crossed themselves. The men kept talkin' 'bout throwing him out of town. Finally one of them got the sharp idea to bring in Sizemore.

So Sizemore comes into town after getting' word 'bout West. He and his goons charge the saloon ready for a fight. West gets up. Sizemore and his men drop him dead, again. This time they take him an' string him up at the gallows, leaving him there overnight just to make sure he don't come back. But come mornin' the townsfolk find Sizemore there under the gallows, burned to a crisp. Ol' West is gone. He got his revenge. Only clues left are burn marks in the dirt shaped like cloven hooves.

Now sometimes that's where the story ends, but I heard from an uncle that the people followed the trail back to the tree and found West leaned up against the tree, truly dead. Vultures wouldn't go near him. N'that's how it got its name. Not many know that.

Anyways, I had forgotten that story until the town was hit by consumption. My daughter got sick. There weren't nothin' I could do to help her. She was gonna die and her pa couldn't do a damn thing. My darlin' wildflower who is good and kind. She didn't deserve it.

I weren't the only one to be 'ffected by consumption. Jack Jones, a good friend of mine, had his wife get sick as well. One night we find ourselves mewlin' 'bout it over some mash. When we was good and drunk we got it into our heads that we'd go out to West's Perch and sell our souls to Satan in order to save our women.

Now when you see that ol' tree you'll understand why folks stay away. Even if you were like Pastor Bill and thought it all schoolyard nonsense, the tree is still a sight to see. Looks like it was grown in hell with big crooked branches filled with leaves. Leaves. In the middle of a desert. Damnedest thing I've ever seen. The only plants that grow out here are Joshua trees, snake shrubs, and prickly pears. No idea how it could survive without water. Mayhaps there's a well down there.

Now again, 'cordin' to the legend, to speak to the Devil you have stand on the southern side facing Granite Pass a mile away. There ain't no words to say or spell to cast. Nothin' of the sort. You just sit there and wait. If by mornin' light he hadn't shown then you have nothing he wants and your wish will go unanswered. So me and Jack waited. Sure enough the son of a bitch came.

Wish I could tell you what he looked like, but he spoke to us from the other side of the tree. Neither of us saw a damned thing. But I can tell you he had a smooth educated voice. When he came all the coyotes in the valley started whoopin' and hollerin'. Course the first thing I asked him if he was the real deal Devil.

He said, “The devil isn't real. My name is Mr. Underhill.”

He knew why we were there and offered us a cure fer my daughter and Jones's wife.

“I have in my pocket a seed, a very special seed, that if eaten will cure your loved ones of any illness or injury. But I only have one to give. Now one of you gentleman can embrace the fate of either your daughter or wife, and leave this place empty handed. You'll be forced to watch them wither away and die. The other will live a full and happy life.”

“You ain't go more?” asked ol' Jack.

“No. You must decide who will take it and who will be left with nothing.”

I remember lookin' up and Jack, who was a bigger man than me. When he looked at me I knew he was thinking the same thing. And Mr. Underhill knew it too.

“Or you can solve it the old fashioned way,” he said. "The Cain and Abel way.

Neither of us planned on just walkin' outta that place with nothin'. It could've been me but I was strapped with my colt. Jones weren't. Even if had been, I'm a faster shot. The fella didn't have a lick of chance. I took shot. Didn't hesitate. I liked Jones. He was a good friend. I like his wife as well. But, fella, this is my daughter we're talkin' 'bout. Now his bones are out there under yonder tree, picked clean and sun baked. My daughter is healed. And although what I done was wrong and it's cost me my soul, I'd do it again. I go to the noose tomorrow knowin' my wildflower will live a long happy life, like Mr. Underhill promised. If you're asking if I'd do it again, ya damn right I would. Ya damn right. Two lives fer one. My wildflower is worth it, and I'd kill you too if I had to. If Mr. Underhill asked me for this whole town, you best believe I'd hand that man his prize on a silver platter.

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