The Greenhorn and the Maiden

The young lawyer looked every bit the part of a greenhorn. He was dressed in the latest fashions from Back East – light, striped, high-waisted pants, velvet frock coat, a low-cut vest, a small tie and yellow boots that remained free of mud and horse dung only because he’d avoided walking outside during most of his stay in town. He was high-strung and certain he’d meet his end as the result of an unfortunate and mistaken encounter with one of the gunslingers who he believed lurked around every corner.

His neurosis made him a perfect target for the town wags, who perpetuated his fear in various ways — randomly ducking off the street in a hurried fashion, their faces decorated with spurious looks of fear, or simply standing around the corner of a building, whistling, at the greenhorn’s approach. The greenhorn was sure the whistler was a gunman, waiting to shoot anyone who walked by.

He was staying at the town hotel. He found an office, on the second floor of the news office across the street from the digs he’d occupied since his arrival. When he found out the news office had the second floor for hire, he moved on the opportunity, going to the point of hiring some of the same locals who – unbeknownst to him — tormented him when he ventured out, to clean out the space. One, a painter, took brush and paint to an office window facing the street, painting on it, in block letters, “H. Woodrow, Lawer.” He noticed the missing “Y,” but doubted his clientele were more likely to notice the omission than the illiterate painter had. After all, they would be gunslingers trying to avoid a hanging or a prison term.

He rather liked the hotel. The bed was clean and comfortable, and the food in the dining room was as good as he’d ever eaten. His host’s granddaughter, Anna, a young woman of 17, caught his eye, as well. He couldn’t have described her adequately, because the words he would need weren’t fit for the politest Boston company. When he thought of her – something he did frequently – the blood rose to his face quickly. He turned pink, then red, then a purplish color nobody in town had ever seen. He wouldn’t have spoken to her without a proper introduction, but she walked up, bold beyond his experience, and introduced herself. Thereafter, she regularly engaged him in conversation and listened to his complaints about living west of the Mississippi and his qualms about life in general. Every Sunday, after lunch, she sat on the hotel porch with him, listening to his woes.

She talked to him and told him stories. She was a wonderful storyteller, in the Greenhorn’s opinion. She told him about the history of the town, including the story of the ghost in the hotel. “His name was Bob and he was my father’s partner in the hotel. He left the hotel in his white duster one afternoon with a satchel of money, going to the bank,” she said, “when my father was out of town.” The Greenhorn’s palms were sweaty. “That night, he walked back in, stopped in the lobby, set the bag on the desk and turned to walk upstairs.”

“The higher he climbed, the less there was of him until he disappeared completely. It scared me and I screamed.” She put a great deal of emphasis on that last word. “When I looked at the satchel on the desk, it disappeared. Poof!” The Greenhorn shot a glance as the steps leading up to his room and another at the desk. Could her father have doubled back to town in an effort to violently inherit the whole profits from the enterprise he had begun with another?

Just then, a man stepped through the door. His ride had covered him in dust and used his wide-brimmed hat to knock the last bits of it from his white duster. He turned to the Greenhorn and Anna, stopped and grinned.

The Greenhorn squealed and ran out the hotel’s front door. Thinking about it later, he didn’t know if his feet touched the ground on the way to the train station. He remembered he’d opened his money belt with difficulty and purchased the ticket to St. Louis from the railroad agent. He could buy the onward ticket to Boston later.

The ghost hadn’t carried him off to Hell and neither had the thoughts he had about Anna. He didn’t care that he’d actually touched the ghost in the white duster as he squeaked by him and didn’t bother to notice he wasn’t covered in the ectoplasm the town Spiritualists said ghosts would slather all over those with whom they had contact.

He also didn’t care that he abandoned two new, unworn suits or that the cutthroat competition among lawyers in Boston meant his dreams of fleecing the illiterate of the American West were gone, just like the hotel ghost walking up the stairs.

“What was that about, Girl?” Anna’s Uncle Bob, her father’s partner in the hotel, set his Gladstone down on the desk when she hugged him. She was glad his trip to St. Louis hadn’t taken as long as he said it might. “D’you scare off a suitor?”

“Just a very boring suitor from back East.” Her uncle wondered about Anna’s wicked grin. She had such a vivid imagination.

— Sam Harper

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