‘When a man comes to Hinter Hill, it ain’t to get no riches or fame, reverend – it’s to run.’ Those were the words old Andy Miller said to Reverend Adams the day the reverend came to town. The man had warned him that the only thing to find at the hill was dust and tumbleweed, and a whole lot of graves.
‘If you’re a lucky, son,’ he said, ‘you won’t have to help dig many.’
It was Henry Anderson who dug Andy’s grave. Reverend Adams had built the casket out of local pine wood.
Behind the hill, the townspeople congregated in a small cemetery under a purple sky. It was good to see so many had risen from their beds that early morning for the funeral service, though it didn’t surprise Reverend Adams. Andy Miller was a well-known man, being the owner of the only saloon in Hinter Hill – the Dust Bucket Saloon. The name had seemed to strike out at the reverend during his reciting of the eulogy.
‘In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through Our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God: Andy Miller. We commit his body to the ground; earth to earth; ashes to ashes, dust to dust.’ Don’t be disappointed when all ya find here is dust and tumbleweed, he heard Mister Miller tell him again. ‘The Lord bless him and keep him, the Lord maketh his face to shine upon him and be gracious unto him and give him peace. Amen.’
‘Amen,’ the others joined.
Dawn light was beaming through the windows of the Dust Bucket by the time every man had flocked there after the service. Reverend Adams sat forward at the bar, staring down at his glass of water, listening to the commotion behind him. Mister Miller was dead, but his business hadn’t suffered any grief.
The minister noticed the young Will Miller, Andy Miller’s only son, was already breaking into his role as owner. The young man had thanked the reverend for his service, but that was all he had time to say before the crowd pushed through the doors demanding whiskey and beer. Since then there hadn’t been any quiet…
…until the boy Jimmy Ringo burst in red-faced and shouting, ‘HE’S COMIN’! HE’S COMIN’!’
There was silence; a quiet so still a man could hear his heartbeat in his chest. Every voice had stopped and every eye was on the boy as he struggled for breath. Reverend Adams kept his gaze on his water.
‘Who’s comin’, lad?’ asked Tall-John, hoping with all hope.
‘Him. The Man,’ Jimmy replied.
‘What man?’ insisted skinny Tucker Davies.
‘The Man in the Black Stetson!’ In that moment, the boy Jimmy Ringo brought a heavy shadow down over them all. Grown men dropped to their knees under its weight, and wept; others muttered words of prayer, and some ran. Reverend Adams took a drink of his water.
The minister remembered the tales he heard men tell in Hinter Hill over shots of Coffin Varnish and rum. Most of the time they were stories told by drunks, trying to give their friends a fright, but some told queer stories beyond the teller’s imagination.
Some spoke of a man, an outlaw who was once an undertaker before he butchered his entire hometown. Twisted-Carter heard he was no man at all, but a demon come to claim souls for the Devil. One-Tooth Sam claimed he was a savage who scalped his victims. But whichever story Reverend Adams heard, the man was always described dressed in black with a matching Stetson hat, with a face cast in shadow. And now the Man in the Black Stetson was coming to Hinter Hill.
After all the patrons had left the Dust Bucket to barricade their doors or run south for the next town, Reverend Adams remained at his stool, with the quiet. Outside he heard shouting, the distant banging of a hammer, and mayhem. Don’t be disappointed when all ya find here is dust and tumbleweed, and a whole lot o’ graves. Oh yes, plenty o’ graves, reverend. And if you’re a lucky son, you won’t have to help dig many.
‘Reverend Adams.’ Jimmy Ringo had returned. ‘The mayor would like to see ya, sir.’
‘Then I shall not keep him waiting.’ The reverend smiled at the boy, stood, and followed him back outside into the dusty streets.
Hinter Hill’s population was near on two-hundred – and not one was in sight. Planks boarded doors and windows left and right, with nothing but shrieking wind to keep them company on their way to the town hall.
They passed Poole’s Barber Shop, Brooke’s Goods and Wares, Bart’s Leather Repairs, The Burrows Blacksmiths, and the Ten Winks Inn, all closed. The stables were empty, except for one hardy chestnut horse that the minister didn’t recognise.
Ahead of them, at the north end of town, was the church with its small bell tower, resting atop a brown hill from which the settlement was named. Even the house of God showed no signs of life.
‘Why have you not left for safety with the others?’ Reverend Adams asked young Jimmy as they walked.
‘I don’t run,’ the boy said defiantly.
‘It is not a fault to look for protection, son.’
‘I don’t need no protection.’
‘What of your parents? You must have some family that would be concerned for your wellbeing.’
‘My Ma died when I was seven. Didn’t know my dad, and the only other family I had was an uncle who drank too much and hit me, ‘til I shot him in the leg, and… now this is home. These folk are my family, or at least they’re as close to one as I’ll get.’
‘We are all God’s children, Jimmy. We are all family.’
Passing the sheriff’s office, five notorious faces stared at them; five notorious faces Reverend Adams knew well. ‘Wanted dead or alive’ it read above their heads: John R West wanted for stagecoach robbery and bank robbing; Will ‘Crow’ Martin wanted for gun slinging and train robbing; Shirley ‘Wild’ Canton wanted for prostitution, loitering and murder; Mart ‘Big Bang’ Arthur wanted for cattle rustling, vagrancy, stagecoach robbery and murder. But the last face was the one Reverend Adams knew better than any man: Cornelius Black wanted for vagrancy, bank robbing, stagecoach robbery, gun slinging and murder. When a man comes to Hinter Hill, it ain’t to get no riches or fame, reverend – it’s to run.
When they both stepped into the mayor’s office, the minister eyed Sheriff Stilwell standing beside the mayor’s desk, chewing tobacco with his strong jowl.
Mayor Walters was seated, his round face beaded with sweat. ‘Thank you for coming Reverend Adams, truly.’ The mayor fidgeted in his chair and folded his hands on the desk. ‘I didn’t think you’d run with the rest, but a man can’t be too sure about people these days.’
‘Yes, of course. How may I be of service?’ asked the reverend.
‘Well, uh, it’s the townfolk. This “Man in the Black Hat” has caused up a mighty panic,’ he explained, as though the minister couldn’t have known.
Listening, the sheriff rummaged through his coat pocket to retrieve a handkerchief and spat brown into the cloth. ‘Black Stetson,’ he directed to the mayor.
‘Beg pardon, sheriff?’
‘He’s called “The Man in the Black Stetson”, not “The Man in the Black Hat”.’
‘Eh,’ the mayor shrugged, ‘makes no matter; they’re near the same thing.’ The mayor turned his attention back to the reverend. ‘Anyhow, what I wanted to say was that maybe you could help us. There’s still a good number of folk left in town, and they need… distraction, comfort; and I think you’re the man to give it to them.’
‘I’d be more than happy to do so,’ said Reverend Adams, ‘but are you sure I’m the right person?’
The mayor gave him a long look. ‘These people trust you. You’ve heard their confessions, buried their loved ones, and taught their children. You’re well respected; have been since you’ve been here. Old Andy Miller knew what kind of man you are, and he spoke of no one higher. I’m asking this of you not only as mayor but as a fellow townsman of Hinter Hill.’
‘I will do my utmost.’
‘But how would you propose I get the townspeople to leave their homes?’
‘Most of ‘em have gone and barricaded their doors shut,’ Jimmy added.
Mayor Walters made some thinking sound and then sat quiet for a moment. ‘Call a sermon, and let the good sheriff deal with getting the people out of their homes.’
Before the minister could speak, Jimmy cut in. ‘What if the Man in the Black Stetson does come?’
In reply, the sheriff whipped his gun free from its holster, showing the initials K.S. engraved on the frame. ‘Then I’ll deal with that as well.’
Reverend Adams stood at the altar, listening to the church bell ring. When he closed his eyes the sound became drops of water falling against a pond surface, sending endless ripples out to touch the water’s edge. But then he remembered Andy Miller, the notorious faces, the Man in the Black Stetson, Cornelius Black, and then the sound became a knell.
Jimmy was the first to step inside and sit down that late afternoon, followed by Mayor Walters. Sheriff Stilwell remained outside, gathering restless children, puffy-eyed women, and men stinking of whiskey into the church.
As more townspeople ushered through the doors, Will Miller entered, gave the reverend a silent nod and took a seat upfront. Dust Bucket regulars Henry Anderson, Tucker Davies, One-Tooth Sam, and Maggie Barter all followed; but no Tall-John or Twisted-Carter – both likely halfway to the nearest town.
The sheriff stood outside the doors as the last lot of folk entered. Once they took their seats he gave a nod to Reverend Adams, closed the doors, and kept watch in the dusk.
The reverend looked over the mothers and fathers and sons and daughters; at their hollowed eyes, pale faces and their trembling hands. He noticed some still wore their morning funerary clothes, but what he noticed most of all was the quiet. He never knew the people of Hinter Hill to be so deathly quiet. After they buried Andy Miller they were so full of spirit, drinking and reminiscing of old times in the Dust Bucket. Now they seemed as dead as Mister Miller.
‘Good people of Hinter Hill,’ the minister began. ‘I stand here to tell you not to despair. You have all come from faraway places, I know. All of you have faced many and more trials and persecutions, as you have told me. You’ve all sought Hinter Hill for a simple life, and a peaceful life; to escape unfortunate ends. And I ask you do not give up hope, for the way to God is-’
A single gunshot hit their ears like thunder.
Men, women and children fell to the floor in panic. Jimmy leapt to his feet and ran outside in haste. Reverend Adams followed, leaving the others to hide beneath their seats.
Outside under the darkening sky, Sheriff Stilwell lay sprawled out on the dirt, dead, with Jimmy rushing to kneel over his body. But it wasn’t the sight of the sheriff that sent ice up the minister’s spine – it was the sight of a ghost. A man who stood still as stone, dressed in black with a matching hat that left his face hidden by shadow. As the Man in the Black Stetson started his approach, silver spurs caught the last of the day’s light and winked. Clink… clink… clink, was the sound they made.
‘Jimmy,’ the minister called to the boy. ‘Get back. Come, stand behind me.’
Clink… clink… clink.
‘I won’t hide behind no reverend like some coward!’ the boy proclaimed.
Clink… clink… clink.
‘Stand beside me then.’ The boy found that option less detrimental to his pride and hurried over.
By the time the spurs stopped their song, the Man in the Black Stetson was standing over the dead Sheriff Stilwell. ‘I’ve been looking for you,’ said a grave voice.
When a man comes to Hinter Hill, it ain’t to get no riches or fame, reverend – it’s to run.
‘I know,’ the reverend answered.
‘I wanted to settle things back in Nashville,’ said the Man in the Black Stetson.
Jimmy looked at the reverend with searching eyes.
‘Safe to say, I didn’t expect the notorious Cornelius Black to turn pious and run. In fact, that was the last thing I expected.’
‘It was unexpected for me as well. I didn’t think I could live a better life, but I ran, and I tried. I thought my life was precious, that I could change it all; repent and be absolved…
When I heard you were coming here, I knew it was fate. Every man must pay for his wrongs.’ Both Jimmy and the Man in the Black Stetson watched silently as the minister raised his hands above his head. ‘I am carrying no weapon. I will not resist or flee. I only ask that, once you take your vengeance, you will leave Hinter Hill and its people unharmed.’
The man was unmoved. ‘I only came to Hinter Hill to settle things with you, not to shoot wailing women and yellow-bellied men. Told that sheriff such before he acted a fool. Nothing would please me more than to get out of this backwater hole.’
‘Then we have an agreement.’
‘That we do.’
The Man in the Black Stetson pulled back his coat and took hold of his gun, and the man that was once Cornelius Black closed his eyes and whispered a final prayer.
The gunshot rang loud over the small town of Hinter Hill…
…and when the reverend opened his eyes, the Dead Man in the Black Stetson fell backwards to the dirt with not so much as a grunt.
The reverend turned to see that smoke was still rising from the gun in Jimmy’s hands, with the initials K.S. familiarly engraved on the frame.
‘You saved me…’ he told Jimmy.
The townspeople emerged from the church, mouths open and eyes staring.
‘Not Cornelius Black,’ confirmed Jimmy Ringo with a sharp gaze. ‘I saved Reverend Adams.’
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The Australian Literature Review