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April 15, 2024

Another Ballad for Shifty Toebone

By Christian McCulloch

We was down by Muller's Creek, me, Smokey and Walter -- Walter Petty. It was a fine day, hot, mind. The only shade for miles around was from The Hanging Tree. The place where Swifty Toebone was strung up by the Sheriff's posse a couple of years back. Ain't nobody going to forget that time.

Smokey and me got the idea to come visit Swifty, seeing it was his anniversary, and all. Then Walter come along. 'Where you goin', hombres?' he says.

'Gonna pay our respects to Swifty,' says I. 'Down at Muller's Creek.'

'Mind if I tag along? There's a slow train comin', ' says Walter.

We picked up a jug and set off. We got to talking about Swifty, how he was a talent cut down in his prime. Not everyone thinks so. A lot of town's folk didn't know Swifty like we did. They said he was no good -- took after his Daddy -- a dead beat, a drunk and a philanderer. Weren't true.

Swifty never touched a drop. Swifty had dreams. He had talent too. Wrote some damn good Penny Dreadfuls, ghost stories -- 'Tittie Twisters', he called them. Damn fine ones, and all.

Town's folk didn't know him like we did.

He had a girl by the name of Minnie, a blackbird. She could sing the Blues better than any nigger you ever met. She wrote a ballad for Swifty after they cut him down, called it, 'Blackfly Blues', on account of the blackfly that appeared mysteriously around Swifty when he was swinging from The Hanging Tree.

'Course, they never called it that back then. No one talks about The Hanging Tree -- so none of them ever talks about Swifty's blackfly. They all know about it -- just don't talk about it, that's all. They don't come down to Muller's Creek neither. Good fishing.

'Guilt,' says Smokey, kicking a stone ahead of him along the dry track beside the railway lines.

'There's a slow train comin',' says Walter.

Walter didn't know Swifty. He missed a trick there. So, Smokey and me told Walter all about Swifty, the Penny Dreadfuls he penned and the ghost stories he told. Said it was a damn shame he didn't know Swifty. I said, 'It's a damn shame that Judge Drybreath and the town's folk didn't know Swifty. They wouldn't have been in such a damn hurry to string him up over the Madgewick girls.'

He didn't have no interest in them. He had Minnie. Mind you, they didn't know about Minnie, being white, and all. No one knew about Swifty and Minnie.

They used to meet under the tree at Muller's Creek -- 'to watch the trains go by,' he used to say as if they was in the big city. We got two trains. There's the slow one and then there's the other slow one.

It took about an hour for us to get down to Muller's Creek. We weren't in no hurry. The Hanging Tree weren't going nowhere. The only thing going anywhere was the slow train.

The steelheads was making lazy circles amongst the reeds, coming up to the surface to make a big O or snatch a skitter-bug. You could see the quiet from fifty yards away.

Smokey tends bar when his Daddy says so. He's pretty good with them cocktails; made up one hisself, called it a 'Toebone Tickler', on account of Swifty had a way of tickling the trout at Muller's Creek. Didn't catch on, mind.

'Guilt,' says Smokey. There's a lot of that with the town's folk over what happened. 'Bet Judge Drybreath has a couple of jugfuls.' he says. We spit together into the dust as we turn off by the railway tracks. 'There's a slow train comin',' says Walter.

Walter's learning to play the Diddley Bow, a one-string instrument, a wooden board with a bottle. Sounds pretty good the way he plays it. Says he wants to play it for Minnie but that ain't gonna happen. Weren't nobody for Minnie when Swifty were around. Ain't gonna be anybody else now Swifty's gone -- just the Blues and that voice of hers -- pure blackbird, that Missie.

We was sitting under The Hanging Tree, smoking, drinking, sometimes talking, mostly thinking. Thinking about Swifty. Walter, thinking about the slow train coming.

Then the first of the blackfly arrived, making lazy circles, then darting and dancing as more come along outta nowhere until there's a cloud of them, buzzing over our heads, not bothering us none.

Then someone said (Smokey maybe), 'I guess Swifty's come to pay his respects.' We all laughed at the time. You know, that empty, hollow laugh that comes along when you're a bit afraid but you don't want no one to know.

We all felt it. None of us said nothing, but even the steelheads in Muller's Creek stopped moving and paid attention.

That's when we saw him.

He was a silhouette against the sky, standing by the railway tracks where the land rises. You could see the dust swirl around his boots where he dragged that lazy leg of his. He had on a long Range coat and a wide-brim hat that he always wore.

We watched him pitch forward, down the slope towards us. There was an agitation in the swarm over our heads. You could feel it like thick liquor in a bottle tipping slowly back and forth, a wave of amorphous specks. Them blackfly was weaving like a boxer, watching for an opening, ready to dodge a haymaker or an uppercut.

But you can't hit what you can't see.

What we could see was something that Swifty used to write about; two worlds coming together, the Past and the Present; ghosts from one side; imagination and thoughts from the other. In the middle, the blackfly danced some slow warning or welcome -- we couldn't tell which until the figure drew closer.

I put my hand on Smokey's shoulder. I could see he was holding Walter's hand. We must've looked pretty frightened.

We weren't much more than kids at the time. Swifty weren't no more than a boy when the Sheriff's posse pitched up, hopped up on whiskey, pumped up from what had happened to the Madgewick girls.

Swifty told them it weren't him. They didn't listen.

He never said how he had Minnie and didn't need to do what some fellah did to them girls. They'd have strung him up twice if they knew that one of their own had taken up with a nigger. At least Swifty Toebone took that secret to the grave.

He was proud of Minnie, but she said, 'No! Our love's in a song. You leave it that way, Swifty. I ain't gonna be responsible for you being strung up because you're too dumb to fall in love one of your own kind.' Swifty would've told her, she was worth ten times any white girl in town.

He'd have been right too. That's the way it was in the beginning. That's the way it is. And that's the way it ever will be. Amen.

But it weren't no ghost standing there looking down at us like Father Time. It was just about the last thing we ever thought would happen.

It were Judge Drybreath hisself. The town's Rock of Ages -- the moral voice of a dumb town, too afraid to open its mouth and speak up for Swifty Toebone.

'I've come to pay my respects,' says the Judge. 'What we done was wrong.'

'There's a slow train comin',' says Walter. We looked at him. We realised what he meant.

'It's a bit late for an apology,' spits Smokey. The Judge nodded. 'I just came to pay my respects,' was all the Judge said. He turned around and left to walk back another hour. Him with that lazy leg of his.

I reckoned that was apology enough.

We drank the rest of the jug and poured some on The Hanging Tree for Swifty. He'd understand the spirit we meant it in. Probably had a good laugh at us for being so frightened by Judge Drybreath standing there as if he could pardon all the wrongs in this world.

We watched the slow train pass and the blackfly dissipate. We walked back into town as the sun dropped below the hills and the dusk crept up and the dust settled down.

It was the anniversary of Swifty Toebone, a talent cut down before his time.

What Judge Drybreath done was a good thing. I hope he too can rest in peace.

Article © Christian McCulloch. All rights reserved.
Published on 2020-03-30
Image(s) are public domain.
2 Reader Comments
11:19:05 PM
I like the accents and the tone, the ambiance created.
Christian McCulloch
04:21:38 PM
I loved writing this story. It seemed to flow out of me as if it had been written before it was dictated. Some stories, like some of my paintings and drawings are done through me, not by me. I say 'THANK YOU'
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