Aphelion Issue 242, Volume 23
August 2019
 
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I Saw the Black Rider

by David Smith




Carl Robinson, graduate student at New York University, stepped out of the back seat of the 1926 Ford, closed the door, and tipped the cabbie. “I don’t know why you want to talk to that old man, Mr. Robinson,” the cabbie said in a thick New York accent that bothered Carl heavily, even while being a native New Yorker himself (he managed never to pick up the accent), after he took the bank notes from Carl’s hand. “I know you have a thesis to do, but Jeffrey Davis is a cynical and senile old bum. He ain’t even got no family! He wanted one, but no lady wanted anything to do with ‘em.” He chuckled and looked forward. “Can’t imagine why.” He paused again and sighed. He looked back at Carl. “Look, I know I’m just a cabbie and all, but I still wish I could talk you out of this. Hell, I already feel uncomfortable in front of his house and I’m not even going with you, thank the Almighty.”

Carl said to the cabbie with a frighteningly determined tone, “I have been obsessed with the legend of the Black Rider since I was a boy. I’m not letting a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity like this pass me by.”

“Christ, kid,” the cabbie said, “he probably doesn’t even remember anything. You know he’s been somewhat traumatized ever since that day. That he never invites anyone.”

Carl turned around to look at the little house and spoke in a cruel tone. “He wanted someone to tell his story to, okay?!” he said. “I volunteered and he accepted. Now, cabbie, don’t you have anywhere else to be? If you don’t want to be here, then buzz off! I’m sure you probably got other customers!”

“You don’t have to tell me twice, kid,” the cabbie said as he drove rather fast for a licensed cabbie.

That guy finally off his back, Carl studied the small, lived-in-looking house in this very remote part of Albany, where the mysterious Jeffrey Davis lived as a hermit. No one wanted anything to do with him, and he wanted nothing to do with anyone else. No one ever believed him when he talked about it. They called him a fool who was seeing things, and some even thought he should be committed for having claimed to see the most famous myth of the Old American Frontier. Most famous myth, yes, but still a myth. Just passed down from generation to generation to scare little kids. He, or rather it, started in the Old West, but the legend spread all over the United Sates over the decades, and Jeffrey Davis was the old buffoon credited with starting the whole thing. He was a pariah at this point in his life, at a humble 56 years of life on Earth.

Davis had no longer wanted anything to do with his home state of Texas, where he had had the experience. No one was comfortable with him here, but because of his unwillingness to leave, they just left him alone and pretended he wasn’t there, not something Davis completely hated. He wanted to stay as far away from Texas as possible, to escape the memory that would haunt him for the rest of his life. Even the heat of the Southwestern United States reminded him too much. He wanted to enjoy, at least as much as he could enjoy anything, cold New England.

Carl looked at this awful-looking abode and thought, No wonder no one wants to talk to you! You pass yourself off as some crazy old man, and they’re going to take you as that.

He reluctantly walked forward and his stomach did summersaults as he ventured further into this macabre-looking property. Maybe the cabbie was right, he figured. Maybe he shouldn’t’ve come. He was determined to see this through, however, and besides, there wasn’t any turning back at this point anyway.

He reached the barely-functioning wooden door and knocked. “Jeffrey Davis?” he called. “Mr. Jeffrey Davis? This is Carl Robinson from New York University. We exchanged telegrams, and you invited me?”

There was a long silence that he figured as typical of a man like this. “Come in, Mr. Robinson. It’s open.” He barely heard, but heard nonetheless.

He walked in and was startled by Davis just sitting there in the corner of his room, sitting and rocking back and forth on a small rocking chair, staring straight at him, as if he had been in that exact position all these decades, waiting for Carl to just walk right in. He looked almost comatose and blinked about once every 30 seconds. He looked more like a man of his late 70s than his late 50s. He had dark bags under his eyes, a small grey and black mustache and an almost bald head with just a few strands of grey and black hair. This man had certainly seen something. He knew it. Despite Davis’s frightening posture of a man who was somewhat “there” but not really, his academic excitement and curiosity about this man’s experience quickly took over his initial apprehension.

Carl took off his fedora hat, closed the door behind him, and slowly walked forward, for he thought the slightest fast move might scare this fellow away or something. He had been told by everyone he came across who knew Jeffrey Davis that Davis was essentially braindead, and that he wouldn’t be physically able to give anything up regarding his experience if he wanted to. He was never suicidal, surprisingly, but he was thoroughly scarred for life after allegedly seeing something with his own eyes that most people knew only from Old Western folklore. He understood all of this as he approached the man that he had been researching and trying to contact since he first enrolled in the University.

There Carl stood, right in front of the legendary Jeffrey Davis – well, if you could call him a “legend” going by the traditional definition of the word. “I understand that you, Jeffrey Davis, saw with your own 2 eyes, as sure as you’re seeing me now, saw the famous Black Rider of Old Western folklore.”

Another long silence. This type of thing Carl had expected out of people like this man.

Alas, he spoke, finally looking into Carl’s eyes. “Yes, Mr. Robinson, your understanding is correct. I saw the Black Rider.”

“As I told you over our exchange of telegrams, I’m working on my doctorate so I can teach a course on folklore at the university in which I am currently a student.”

Davis smiled slightly, and nodded in approval. “I understand.”

Somehow, though he couldn’t explain it if he tried, he already believed this so-called “crazy old man.” Something about the way he talked or looked now that he had to bring the memory of the event back into his consciousness, a memory he had been trying to convey to snobby skeptics since 1881. Of course, lots of people are able to put on a good show, Carl realized, but not in this case. Absolutely not.

He pointed to one of the chairs at his small dining table just a few feet away from the rocking chair on which Davis sat. He was surprised that the square wooden table (everything in the house was wooden; Davis was an old-fashioned frontier soul after all) did indeed have a chair on all 4 sides of it, considering that everyone knew Davis lived alone. Who would want to live with this old kook, man or woman? “May I, Mr. Davis?”

“Of course. Take a seat.” Something was wrong with this man all right. He looked so dead to the world and yet he was so…pleasant. It didn’t make any sense. But quite frankly, that’s what made Carl like this man already.

Carl was rather eccentric himself. Certainly not to the degree of Jeffrey Davis, but he was always looked at weirdly by his peers at the University, and at every other point in his life. As soon as he started reading books about the Black Rider legend as a kid, as well as legends of the supernatural in general, it all appealed to his fascination with otherworldly things. His parents didn’t understand, but they were glad to see him interested in something, and that made them happy. It put off anyone from wanting to be his friend throughout childhood, and he was the victim of severe social ridicule. Girls certainly wanted nothing to do with a guy who was so seemingly in love with the Devil, which wasn’t the case but they never bothered to listen.

With an almost childlike sense of wonder he pulled out a chair from the table and sat down, one leg resting comfortably over the other and started the interview.

“Let’s start from the beginning, Mr. Davis,” Carl began. “When and where were you born? What was your childhood and early adulthood like?”

That long silence ensued once again. Davis looked down and closed his eyes for a long time, then he proceeded to fold his hands in his lap. They were small, frail, and full of bulging veins, just more features that made him look so much older than he was.

“Take all the time you need, Mr. Davis,” Carl ensured, putting a hand in front of him.

That made Davis open his eyes after a long minute. He sighed and looked back at Carl. “I was born April 11th, 1870 in Austin, Texas to Michael Thomas Davis and Abigail Rogers. My father was what you might call a deadly gunslinger back in the heyday of the American Frontier. He was an outlaw who killed his first man at a younger age than I was when I first saw…him. He was constantly being followed by the law throughout his teens, included in those who followed him was James Hickok, now a folk hero who you younger men might know better by the name ‘Wild Bill.’ But that ain’t no matter. After he was finally caught and was let out of prison after just a couple years for good behavior, he met my mother, a prostitute. Well, they got real friendly-like and I eventually came. They never actually got married.”

Anyway, my father would turn out to be a drunken fiend who cheated on my mother almost as much as he breathed. I had to hear them fighting constantly throughout my early childhood, the worst of it once I went to bed. I couldn’t sleep they were so loud. My father beat my mother frequently after nights in the saloon at Abilene. No, my mother wasn’t perfect neither, but she loved me and protected me from my father all the time. Many years after my experience with the Rider, when I was 20 – at least this is what I heard - he got into a fight at a saloon in Dodge City. My father pulled a gun but the other guy was faster and the rest is history.” He paused and slowly raised his folded hands so that his elbows were on each armrest and his chin was planted on his folded hands. He was quiet once again for a good few minutes.

Carl didn’t really notice this pause in Davis’s speech, as he was jotting down notes on a small notebook pad he had brought with him. This doctoral thesis to earn his PhD in Folklore was the moment he had been waiting for his whole life to actually put his obsession with the Black Rider to productive use, and he wasn’t going to waste it. A passion that made him a social pariah his entire life was going to get him places in life. He hoped to become a professor at the University and teach about folklore such as that of the Black Rider. What made him so intrigued with the Black Rider in particular was the legend’s characteristics. This was not something most of the people around him understood, but he was hopelessly in love with things that “go bump in the night.” The Black Rider, according to Old Western Frontier legend, was a multi-dimensional bounty hunter of sorts. He was terrifying to look at and was said to haunt little kids in their bedrooms like a bogeyman. Yet, he was essentially good in nature. He was said to kill outlaws, and, once they were dead at the hands of his 2 six-shooters, he would…suck their souls. His official name in legend was the Black Rider, but a common nickname for him was the “Fire-eyed Rider.” The Rider extended the fire in his eyes and the fires made contact with the bodies of the dead criminals, and from that avenue the souls would be sucked. The creature was a regular Grim Reaper.

Carl finished jotting down his notes and looked back at Davis and noticed a few tears rolling down his cheek.

“Mr. Davis?” No response. “Mr. Davis, are you all right?”

Davis snapped out of his seemingly self-induced trance. “Oh, yes, I’m sorry, young man. My mind drifted.”

“Perfectly fine, Mr. Davis,” Carl said understandingly. “Please continue. Now, tell me, if you can of course, about your experience with the so-called ‘Black Rider.’”

“Ah, yes, the Black Rider.” He looked forward and sighed. He began to stare blankly into space.

“Sir,” Carl said, “if you want to do this another time-“

Snapping out again, he said, “Oh no, that’s quite all right. It’s just that…I don’t know. Whenever I think about that day” – he suddenly started whispering- “it sends shivers down my spine.”

“Amen, Mr. Davis. I understand just what you mean.”

Davis suddenly looked at Carl and started to actually chuckle. “Oh, no, young man. You would not understand.” Suddenly, he became almost frighteningly serious. “The only way you would understand, boy, is if you would’ve been there. Unfortunately for me, I was.”

“I’m sorry to offend you, Mr. Davis. I-“

“Don’t be sorry, Mr. Robinson. It’s quite all right. I’m ready.”


*****



It was Fall 1881, October to be exact. I was 11 years old, and it was just a few weeks before Wyatt Earp and his brothers, along with the deadly dentist Doc Holliday, would take out those bastard Cowboys at the O.K. Corral and rid the Frontier of those lawless filth. I had finally gotten tired of hearing my parents fight after my father had come home that night, drunk from a night on the town.

It was late at night, but having parents who were never there for me, I learned to take care of myself. You got to do what you got to do, I guess. I had snuck out of my bedroom through the window. My parents were yelling so loudly they wouldn’t have been able to hear if I was screaming because someone was sneaking through the window to kidnap me, much less me quietly sneaking through the window. I made my way to the nearby boomtown of Abilene, where my father had been drinking heavily earlier that night and undoubtedly getting it on with some showgirl.

Let me tell you, I had gone out on my own before. Gone to school, milked the cows, tended the family farm, and various other chores, but I had never seen the bustling activity and bright lights of that little town. I did hate my father, but Christ, I didn’t blame him for choosing such a spot to have his nightly escapades. This place seemingly had everything someone could want. It had bright lights, entertainment, fun, and of course, sex.

In hindsight, I didn’t really know why I wanted to come to this place. I hadn’t really planned on coming here. I think I just wanted to escape my home, and my parents, but now that I was there, I didn’t want to leave. I was just at the entrance to the town, standing next to a wooden sign that said: WELCOME TO ABILIENE – POPULATION DECREASING. I knew what that meant, and I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself, knowing what kind of place I was living in – the open range. It was a place where lawmen tried to do as much as they could but were far outnumbered by the lawless element. I had no doubt as to what “population decreasing” meant. There were constant barroom brawls and gunfights in this town, and many towns around my part of the country, especially towns like Dodge City and Tombstone – the Old West, as it’s referred to nowadays, despite all of the things that the Earps were doing to try and stop all of that.

But anyway, that’s when something happened, and I was snapped out of the trance that I had been put in by all of these things I had never seen before. Gunshots. I was familiar with the sound, and I knew I had to get to a safer place as I saw everyone in the saloon start running every which way. I was small enough that I could quickly crawl underneath a small building. I didn’t know what building it was, but I knew that I was safe. Safe, at least, to watch the show I was in for. I saw the Marshal and his Deputy running out of their office with guns in their hands and they ran toward the bank that was being robbed. Not the smartest law boys that side of the Mississippi, and they both got shot multiple times as soon as they started running through the bank entrance. I think they both flew a little bit as they were blown out into the dust outside the bank, pools of blood quickly forming, and since the Marshal and Deputy were right next to each other on the ground, the pools quickly connected.

I got to tell you, I was truly terrified at this point. Yes, I knew what kind of place I was living in, but that was the first time I ever saw a man – no - 2 men die right in front of me. I had personally seen death with my own eyes. Something I wasn’t either expecting or not expecting. I really didn’t know. I suppose I should’ve. This was the 1881 American West, after all.

What I would see in just a couple of minutes was far more terrifying than any sight of 2 dead men on the ground. These 2 had met early and violent ends, but men die, we all do. I knew this was the, well, “natural order of things,” as most people these days say. No more than a minute later I saw 2 robbers run out of the bank with black bandannas covering their faces, each holding 2 big bags of that green stuff the people of this country worship so much. They quickly secured the bags onto their saddles and mounted the horses and rode the hell away from the scene of the crime. I watched them as they left town, leaving a cloud full of dust behind them. I had never either seen before a crime in progress and the criminals fleeing the scene.

After a few seconds of them going along the trail leaving Abilene, I saw something I would try to explain to people but no one would believe, which I understand. I really don’t know if I believe it myself. I definitely wonder every morning when I wake up and look out my window, and again when my head hits the pillow, if what I think I saw was real, or if I was just god-dang tired and I started to see things. But I must say, I don’t think even a case of seeing things would conjure in my mind something this…this…extraordinary. I saw, about 20 feet ahead of the bandits, a figure just…just appear out of literally nowhere. The figure wasn’t there one second, but the very next, he, or rather it, was.

It was very tall, looked to me almost 7 feet, and wore a long, black leather coat that went down to just below the ankles. It wore black gloves on both hands and a traditional cowboy hat, except for very short silver spikes protruding from it. But it also had a belt with a skull as the buckle. It was dark, so I couldn’t make out very well what it was wearing under the coat, but I noticed the black leather boots. It wore much of the regular cowboy dress, but how did it just appear like that? I couldn’t for the life of me, young man, understand what was going on. But that wasn’t the part that would scar me for life. No. What did it for me was the face, or the lack thereof, that is. It had a black head, but no face! Just complete blackness. There were no distinguishable facial features. It was incredible. But the part that really hits home for people the idea that I should be in an institution, young man, was the one thing on it that wasn’t black - the fire. The fire…coming out of its eyes! I will admit that I may have been seeing things – I probably was – but what I swear is that I am not making this shit up! I am not lying. I’m only telling the truth of what I saw, and I saw fire coming out the figure’s eyes, as sure as I’m seeing you right in front of me, young man, like what you said when you first came in here.

The bandits were quite a ways out of town at this point, so everyone in Abilene had calmed down and moved on with their drinking and slow self-destruction. But I was watching this, what I can only describe as an otherworldly encounter who is now being called the Black Rider. It didn’t have a horse this time, like it does in other stories you’re sure to have heard in the past, but Christ on His throne, it didn’t need one! The bandits stopped in their tracks and looked at this figure for a solid minute, just looking at it, and each other. For several moments, the figure just stood there without moving. They just had this staring contest for a minute, until the bandits went for their guns. With an inhuman speed, the figure drew 2 solid silver-plated six-shooters and rapidly fired at the bandits, blowing them to bits. The bandits had gone for their guns first, but the figure was so fast that the bandits were lying in the dust in pools of blood before their guns had even been fully pulled out of their holsters.

I felt completely defeated by what I had scene, laying on my belly in the dust underneath that building. I looked back at the town. No one had heard or seen a thing somehow. They were so indulged in fulfilling their own desires that they were completely oblivious to the unexplainable thing that had happened just a mile out of town. I was almost as speechless at the townsfolk’s lack of attention to this as I was at the fact that I was seeing a man with fire coming out of his eyes single-handedly…well, double-handedly…slaughter these 2 bandits. I was strangely satisfied by it, considering those 2 bastards had murdered that Marshal and his Deputy in cold blood, but Jesus, how the perpetrators went out was just…well, I think you get the idea.

It wasn’t even surprising, I must admit, to see happened next. Oh, no, young man, that wasn’t the end. The figure, well, since the killing part was done just slipped his six-shooters back into his holsters. Such a simple thing as putting the guns back into their holsters, done by this…whatever this guy was, was just wrong. Anyway, he walked over to the bodies and stood directly over them. I was watching what was going to happen next with the same kind of wonder that you young folks do when you watch one of them picture shows. I was terrified, sure, but also thoroughly intrigued. What in the name of Christ was this thing going to do next. I wasn’t disappointed. The thing’s eyes, the fire coming out of them was only protruding a few inches out of the sockets up until this point. But then, as he stood, looking down at the bodies, the flames in his eyes flared out to where they were fiery infernos. The fires went from almost candle-like flames to campfire-sized as the narrow flames pointed down. The bodies began shaking like crazy. They started thrashing against the ground like fish out of water. Then, something came out of each body. Transparent, glowing things came out of the bodies. They looked like physically condensed versions of the dead bodies, and they were being absorbed into the flames coming out of the figure’s eyes. This…Black Rider…was sucking these bandits’ souls! I tell you I saw that creature sucking these 2 bandits’ souls with my own 2 eyes, just as I am, indeed, seeing you now, young man. God’s honest truth.

The creature finished his business with the bodies, and the flames coming out the sockets went back to just a couple of small fires, no more than a few inches long each. He turned around and walked back to the exact spot he was when he first appeared out of nowhere, and then disappeared out of nowhere, just the way he had come.


*****



Jeffrey Davis sat in his rocking chair, staring at Carl Robinson’s face, the eyes on which were almost out of their sockets. “Christ,” Carl said excitedly under his breath, and then jotted a few more things down into his notebook.

“This is what I saw,” Davis said matter-of-factly. “If you believe me, I will feel that I have your encouragement that I am not completely out of my mind. If you don’t believe me, all I can say is that I know what I saw. This memory, as you may have heard, boy, has been haunting me for 45 years, especially with all the stigma I’ve received when I’ve tried to tell anyone. That’s why I live a life of isolation and separation from the rest of humanity.”

“I understand, Mr. Davis,” Carl said, looking intensely into Davis’ eyes. “I want you to know that I believe you, Mr. Davis. I told you before that I have been obsessed with the Black Rider since I was a kid, and I feel like, by talking to you, I finally have some validation for my passion. You have become a legend for being crazy because of what you think you saw, and it will likely disturb my professor a little when I write my doctoral thesis, being a current graduate student at New York University, but I’m afraid he’ll just have to deal with the fact that I decided to consult for this paper a man who has seen the Rider with his own eyes.”

Davis had an almost fatherly look in his eyes as he looked at young Carl Robinson. “We are kindred spirits, young man, and it is nice to know that someone is actually interested in what I have to say. I’ve always been stigmatized by everyone I’ve ever met. I’ve always wanted a family, but every woman I’ve ever met, unsurprisingly, turns their back the minute I tell the story of how I saw the man from another world with fire coming out of his eyes.” He chuckled, albeit the chuckle of a tragic and tortured old man who no longer wants anything out of life. “I must say, though you are not my son, I consider you to be a son that I never had the opportunity to have.” He gave a slight smile.

“Thank you very much.” He smiled back. “It’s been an honor to share the day with you, Mr. Davis, sir,” Carl said as he put his fedora back on and got up and put the chair back.

“Thank you very much for coming and listening to this story that so many people have ignored. Thank you for making me feel validated. That’s all I’ve ever wanted.”

“Thank you for having me, Mr. Davis,” Carl said as he stood in front of Davis with his hands folded in front him. “Everyone told me you were just a grouchy, cynical old fool. Talking to you, I realize you’re a very kind man, and I thank you for letting me barge in on you to hear your story.”

Carl walked slowly to get closer to Davis as he sat in his rocking chair and Carl extended his hand. Davis gladly shook the young man’s hand. “I’m not grouchy, as you’ve noticed. They just don’t like hearing about something beyond their understanding. Now go earn that doctorate, Mr. Robinson. I see the other taxi is here to pick you up.”

Carl looked out the front window. “Ah, why yes, it is. Amen, again, to what you said about people and what’s beyond their understanding.” He chuckled. “Secrets the universe doesn’t know about, I guess.” Carl tipped his hat to the man one last time and Jeffrey nodded ever-so-slightly. Carl walked out and closed the door behind him.

“Weird old guy, isn’t he?” the cabbie said naively once Carl was sitting in the back of the cab. “With all that Black Rider and bogeyman nonsense?” The cabbie shook with chills. “Hate coming to this goddamn house. Always creeps me the hell out.”

Carl sighed and looked down. “I think he just needed someone to talk to.”

The cabbie laughed. “Well, I’m sorry you had to take on the task! I never would.”

“Maybe that’s exactly why he’s in the state he’s in,” Carl said speculatively as he looked back at the house. “Maybe that’s exactly the problem. No one took the time to listen. No one’s interested in fantasy or the unknown. Just their own miserable lives.”

The cabbie stepped on the gas and they were off.

Carl looked at his certificate, officially stating that he had the right to call himself either “Dr. Carl Robinson” or “Carl Robinson, PhD,” allowing him to teach his course in folklore, with one Jeffrey Davis in mind. It was because of that crazy old man, he realized, he was holding this beautiful, small, shiny glass case with a doctoral certificate inside it. All he did for several minutes after the graduation ceremony was stare at this validation of his efforts while thinking about the man, the only man who had seen the Black Rider.

“Mr. Robinson,” he suddenly heard a voice behind him say. He quickly recognized it as his professor, Zachary Hammond. Carl turned around and saw a solemn expression on Dr. Hammond’s face. “What’s wrong, Professor Hammond?”

Hammond sighed and then looked at Carl. “I don’t really know how to tell you this, so I’ll just come out and say it. That man you talked to? For your thesis?”

“Yea, Jeffrey Davis!” Carl said nervously. “What about him?”

“His maid, the only person besides you he’s talked to in almost 20 years, came to work this morning and found his body in his bedroom closet, hanging by a belt.” He paused. “I’m sorry,” Dr. Hammond said, and walked away with his hands in his coat pockets.

Carl looked down and wept softly for a couple minutes, but then wiped his face and looked up at the sky, and then directly ahead of him. He was sad, but also glad he could meet the man.

He just needed someone to talk to.



THE END


2019 David Smith

Bio: Ever since I was a little kid, I have loved horror and Westerns, having been addicted to Westerns and slasher films for the longest time. I still very much am. However, I have only recently considered combining the Western with horror. I got the idea for the Black Rider when I was told by my father that I should try to create a supernatural Western superhero, the Rider turning out to be an anti-hero who kills his enemies. I am hoping to make the Black Rider a recurring character in my fiction, and this story is meant to serve as a mysterious introduction for this character, the first appearance of a character I am very proud of. .

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