“So anyway ” Wilbur said clearing his throat and waiting patiently for silence. When he had the complete attention of the all men standing around the fire he went on. “This old farmer—hell he must’ve been up in his seventies—marries this pretty teenager and brings her out to live at his place.” “S’what I’d do,” one of the elderly ranchers cackled, grinning a gummy smile. “Damn sure would.”
“Yeah.” Wilbur’s smile became strained. “Well anyway, this farmer lives with the girl as man and wife for awhile, then a traveling salesman comes by. Apparently, his wagon broke down out front. It was raining that night, and he asked the old farmer if he can stay over until he gets his wagon fixed in the morning.”
“I bet that salesman had something else in his mind, huh?” another rancher chuckled, leering at the others. “Pass me ‘at there bottle, boys.”
“If you’ve all have heard this one,” Wilbur said, his smile slipping slightly, “I’ve got one about a widow woman and a willing deacon.” He glanced at the barn nearby, where a fiddler inside sawed a raucous reel, and jerked his forehead in the direction of the music. “Or I could just go on back in yonder and do me some more dancing, if you don’t want to hear it.”
“Hell, don’t just stop ‘er in the middle like that,” a man said, handing off the half-empty whisky bottle. “She ain’t roped and throwed yet!”
A sudden cold chill ran down Wilbur’s back. He shivered, and noticed a dark-dressed man standing near the corral. The horses there were milling uneasily as far from the man as they could get in the split-rail enclosure. Looks like a parson, Wilbur thought. Better keep the jokes clean as possible without losing the crowd.
“Yeah, Wilbur,” another cowboy added, taking Wilbur’s attention off the gent in the distance, “take ‘er to the barn!”
Wilbur drew a deep breath, pulled his wool coat tighter against the nippy bite of the late autumn night, and put the preacher out of his mind.
He enjoyed these dances as much as anyone. But it had been a long ride up into the high country, through Phantom Canyon from his little apple farm just outside Canon City to this remote ranch stretching across the southwestern flank of Pikes Peak. He wasn’t looking forward to climbing aboard his aging mare for the long walk back down the narrow Shelf Road, alone in the dark. Wilbur was glad he’d thought to hook the handle of his old railroad lantern on the saddlehorn.
But if these cowboys weren’t interested in hearing his jokes, he might as well enjoy himself some before heading home.
When he decided they were ready to listen, he widened his smile, winked conspiratorially, and pressed on.
“Because it was raining, and the cattle were taking up all the sheds,” he said, “the old farmer says the salesman would have to sleep in the same bed with him and his young wife; that being the only bed they had.”
“I’ll be damned,” the rancher with the whisky said, wiping his mouth and passing the bottle along. “I’d ‘a made him sleep in the shed anyway.”
“Well, that night the woman slept in the middle,” Wilbur continued, ignoring the interruption, “with her husband on one side and the salesman on the other. After a couple of hours, the wife whispers in the salesman’s ear that the old man sleeps pretty heavy, and he won’t hear if they—” he glanced toward the corral, where the preacher was still watching “—well, do what comes natural.”
A cowboy slapped his hat against his thigh. “I knowed it,” he cried happily.
Getting fully back into the spirit of the joke, Wilbur nodded. “The salesman is pretty nervous about having a man’s wife right there in the same bed with the man his own self,” he said, building up suspense, “so the wife says she’ll pluck a hair out of the old man’s backside. If he don’t wake up, she says, they’ll know he’s deep enough asleep so they can do whatever they want.”
Having their complete attention now, Wilbur paused for effect.
“Hell, what happened then?” one of the ranchers prompted impatiently.
“What happened is that’s what she done,” Wilbur said. “She plucked a hair, and he never moved a twitch. So her and the salesman enjoyed themselves for awhile.”
“Damn,” the rancher sighed.
“About an hour later, after she had a little rest, the wife whispers in the salesman’s ear again.” Wilbur lowered his voice dramatically, causing the men to move in closer to hear over the sound of music and laughter from the barn dance a few yards away. “But the salesman was even more nervous about it. So she said she’d pluck another hair to prove how deep her old husband slept whenever she was in bed with him.”
A bright-eyed cowboy spat into the fire and asked, “Did she pick another hair out of the old man’s ass?”
“She did,” Wilbur said.
All the others grinned and nodded at each other.
“So her and the salesman had another good time,” Wilbur went on. “And wouldn’t you know not an hour later, she whispers in the salesman’s ear again?”
“Hell you say,” a rancher exclaimed, his eyes fixed intently on Wilbur’s face in the flickering firelight. “She didn’t!”
“She sure did,” Wilbur said. “And she then made that same offer to prove the old man was still deep asleep. But just as she reached over to do it, the old farmer spoke up and said—”
Wilbur looked around to make sure everyone was watching, and he raised his voice so they all could hear him clearly.
“—‘Young feller,’ he says, ‘I’m too old to stop you from screwing my wife if that’s what you’ve a mind to do. But do you have to use my ass for a tally board?’”
There was a moment of complete silence.
Then all the men broke into hysterical fits of laughter so noisy a few dancers gazed out the open barn door at them and wondered aloud what was going on over by the fire. Wilbur beamed, glorying in the laughter-generated tears appearing at the men’s cheeks.
When the hilarity died down a bit, one of the cowboys spread his arms for attention. “Do you have to use my ass for a tally board?” he laughed, revisiting the tragedy of the old man’s plight and kicking off another uproarious round of glee.
“Wilbur, you sure tell some damn funny jokes,” one of the men chuckled, slapping Wilbur on the back. “Damn funny!”
Several others agreed.
“That’s not funny and you know it,” a chilly voice suddenly whispered on the cold night breeze.
Puzzled, Wilbur glanced around at the others and noted their ongoing laughter. Must be hearing things, he thought. But he still felt uneasy. And the strange parson was no longer standing by the corral.
“Tell ‘at ‘un about the willing widow woman and the deacon now,” one of the men said, chuckling.
“Actually, it was the widow woman and the willing deacon,” Wilbur said. “But that’ll make better sense when you hear it.”
“So tell it, then!”
Shaking off the odd feeling of unease, Wilbur did.
It bothered him a little that they hadn’t said he was funny, though. Just the jokes he heard at the barbershop, and learned out of every magazine and newspaper he could get his hands on and repeat whenever he got the opportunity. Still, he told jokes until the night air turned downright cold and the fire began to die down. He told the last joke—the one about the vaudeville soft-shoe man and the ‘tetchy tanner’s daughter—just as the dance music ended and folks began gathering up their sleeping young’uns, hitching wagons, and saddling horses to go to the house.
Wilbur dropped a few parting puns, then mounted up and rode west down the trail toward Phantom Canyon. No one said goodbye. For some reason though, he couldn’t help thinking about his life so far as his old mare clopped along in the dark. And those thoughts troubled him.
Wilbur Pickett had never been particularly well liked as a kid, and he never understood why. He believed he was affable enough. He didn’t deliberately step on any toes when he could help it, and he generally lent a hand to his neighbors when asked. Oh, he wasn’t necessarily disliked by anyone he could think of, but he couldn’t recall the last time someone stopped by his farm just to sit and talk about nothing in particular. And, though he’d shared many a meal with groups of locals at church socials and town gatherings, and dances like this one, he didn’t remember once being invited to anyone’s house for Sunday dinner. And hardly anyone ever noted his departure with as much as a friendly “So long, Wilbur.”
But at those gatherings, he always found himself sooner or later surrounded by a small crowd. They wanted to hear his jokes.
Wilbur learned early on how the man who can tell a joke is the man everyone wants to buddy up to. Most everyone, at least. Though he had never actually made up a joke of his own, Wilbur found he could tell jokes in a way that made others want to listen to them. Mostly.
Not always, though, and it irritated him sometimes. But he usually didn’t care. It hadn’t happened tonight at the dance.
So what if other men sometimes got kinda snotty over the way he could hang on to everyone’s attention so effortlessly? They were just jealous. It’s not like they couldn’t have learned to tell jokes too. Then maybe they’d be—
“Wilbur,” that same peculiar voice whispered on the wind again.
His horse twitched at the…sound?
Wilbur glanced around nervously. There was no one in sight. He was pretty far down the canyon by then, and of course the trail was dark. The lazy young moon was only parting with a stingy dab of watery light, and the stars—usually bright enough to read a joke book by in the clear mountain air—were as sullen and tightfisted with their natural shine as the moon.
He gripped the handle of the railroad lantern with one hand and reached into his coat pocket for matches with the other. Within a few minutes, he had the lamp lit and was holding it out to his side. Even the mare seemed to feel better about the light.
When his eyes adjusted to the scant glow from the lantern, Wilbur looked off to his left—at the sheer drop-off and the five hundred feet of empty air between the edge of the skinny shelf road and what of the ground below he could see in the faint moonlight—and shuddered. Then a sudden icy breeze sprang up and the lantern sputtered out.
He rode on another few dozen feet, and then he felt the horse stiffen under him and attempt to stop.
“C’mon, old gal,” he said, kneeing her into her regular gait again. “This ain’t no time or place to stop to pee.”
She walked on another few steps, then she shied toward the cliff edge.
That’s when Wilbur realized someone was riding alongside him.
“’Evening, Wilbur,” a dark-dressed man said in a voice as frosty as the wind blowing off the snow-covered top of Pikes Peak still faintly visible in the distance. “Did you enjoy the dance?”
“Wh-who the hell are you?”
“Oh, I’d think a better question there would be where the hell did I come from?”
Wilbur peered through the gloom, and suddenly recognized the dark rider’s clothing.
“Why, you’re that preacher I saw standing by the corrals!” Funny, he thought, knowing it didn’t ease his mind any. And he didn’t like the way the stranger had emphasized the word “hell.” “I’d guess you’re heading home, just like me?”
The dark figure shook his wide-brimmed hat. “I still have work to do tonight, Wilbur,” he said. “Lots of it. But you’re going home, in a manner of speaking.”
“Wh-what’s that supposed to mean?”
Instead of answering the question, the rider moved his own mount, a muscular black stallion with eyes glowing a faint hazy yellow, even closer.
“Wilbur,” he said softly, a wisp of icy mist wafting from the gloom under his wide hatbrim, “got a joke for me?”
Wilbur shivered involuntarily and pulled his mare to a stop. “Who are you, mister?” he demanded, putting as much iron in his voice as he possibly could. “I’ve never seen you around these parts before.”
“Oh, I’ve been around,” the figure said dryly. “I’m always around. But if you’re not gonna tell me a joke, I guess we should go ahead and get down to business.”
“For someone who talks, and talks and talks and talks so much without listening, Wilbur, you sure are asking a lot of questions like you expect to listen to the answers now.”
Instead of asking what the stranger meant, Wilbur suddenly dropped the lantern and spurred his mount, whipping the reins on her neck and bending low over the saddlehorn.
But the mare didn’t move. She just stood there, seemingly frozen in place like a park statue.
The stranger sighed.
“Are you through, Wilbur?”
“Look, mister, if you’ve got something agin’ me, maybe over some joke I told sometime, you’ve got my apologies.” Wilber slumped in his saddle. “I never meant no harm.”
“I’m not here for listening to confessions,” the figure said. “Besides, I’ve got no sense of humor anyway, so none of your jokes could possibly offend me. No. I’m here to…hmmm. Let’s see, how should I put this gently?” He thought a minute, and then shrugged. “I’m here to make you die.”
Wilbur’s breath caught in his throat, and he almost choked and fell off the mare. Somehow, though, he stayed aboard.
“Don’t try to talk just now, Wilbur,” the stranger said. “Take a minute or two to let it sink in.” Then, to the mare, the figure said, “Go on. You can walk.”
Wilbur’s horse started walking stiffly forward down the trail, but the fear in the whites of her eyes was plain even in the dim moonlight. Stunned, and obviously no longer in control of his own riding stock, Wilbur just hung on, his mind working feverously.
“Are you going to shoot me?” he finally managed to ask.
“Shoot you?” The stranger seemed downright shocked. “No, Wilbur, I’m not going to shoot you. That’s what people do to each other. No, I’m considering something a little more…natural. But something unusual and interesting.”
Wilbur was both relieved and even more terrified at the same time; relieved he wouldn’t be shot and left in the road for some traveler to find, and more afraid because he suddenly realized just who this might be riding along beside him.
“Are you…Death?” he asked softly.
Hoping he hadn’t given offense by being too familiar in using first names with someone he’d just met, Wilbur pulled the mare to a stop and tried again.
“Are you Mister Death?”
“Naw,” the figure said dismissively. “He’s too busy with important people to bother with the likes of Wilbur Pickett.”
“Then are you…the devil?”
“Now you’re getting closer,” the stranger said. “But I’m not the boss, either. You can think of me as a sort of midlevel demon with the thankless job of rounding up the riffraff.”
Wilbur flinched. Riffraff? Damn! But he didn’t doubt this black demon could do what he claimed. Still, Wilbur had to try something.
“Yeah, sure you are,” he said, hoping sarcasm dripped from every word. “Sure you are.”
The stranger snorted. He didn’t respond with words, but as Wilbur watched, fascinated, the demon began glowing; slowly at first, gaining intensity as Wilbur stared, unable to look away. In the disturbing greasy green light growing from somewhere deep inside the figure’s frock coat, the hat slowly tipped back and a face appeared under the hatbrim. A face like Wilbur had never seen before. The…whatever he was, was as expressionless as the dead, Wilbur thought, and he could have been anywhere between a hundred years old and ten thousand. His eyes were cold and lifeless, and his mouth looked stiff and incapable of forming words, much less cracking a smile.
“You satisfied, Wilbur?” he asked in his icy whisper, the sickening face moving like hard-tanned leather.
Wilbur looked away and wanted to retch.
“But I got to church,” he pointed out when he was able to speak again. “Most of the time, at least. You got no call to come get me!”
The demon shook his head and lowered the hatbrim, and the ghastly glow subsided. “Doesn’t matter,” he said. “You don’t go for the churchiness of the thing. You go to tell jokes to anyone who’ll stand still long enough and listen to you.”
“Your time’s come, Wilbur,” the demon said firmly, moving his hand and causing the horses to start walking again. “There’s no talking around it. The only thing I need to decide now is how they’ll say you died.”
Wilbur’s mouth went dry and his heart began racing furiously.
“No, it wasn’t any kind of heart attack,” the demon said, nodding at Wilbur’s chest. “Nothing that tedious.”
Wilbur didn’t think he could be more horrified, but when his heart slowed to a normal beat he nearly passed out from fear of this demon from hell.
“No,” the dark presence continued, “it was something good. Something interesting. Something…something different. For instance, you might have died when, say, a mountain lion jumped you from overhead.”
In the darkness, ahead and to his right up the side of the steep grade, came the unmistakable coughing snarl of a hunting cougar on the prowl. Wilbur held so tightly to the saddlehorn he soon lost all feeling in his hands, but he never noticed his hands. The big cat got louder and more menacing as they approached. Then they were past the sound, and it faded away in the night.
“Or,” the demon went calmly on, “a landslide might have spooked your horse, and she ran off the cliff.”
Rocks falling onto the backtrail startled Wilbur, and the mare took off running at an angle toward the sheer drop on his left. When she stopped less than a yard from the edge, Wilbur almost flew britches-over-hatband into the canyon. Somehow he managed to hang on to the saddlehorn and stay in his seat, but it was a close thing. The demon trotted up and joined him directly.
“Or you could have just been shot.”
“You said you weren’t going to shoot me!” Wilbur cried.
“I did,” the demon said, shrugging. “But now I study on it some, it’s a pretty good idea.”
A heavy pistol went off on the road behind him, and Wilbur ducked as a bullet cracked angrily past his left ear. His mare whimpered pitifully, but stood as still as a headstone at the sudden large-caliber explosion.
“Something like that,” the soulless presence said. “But it wouldn’t miss twice.”
Though he was frightened worse than he’d ever been in his entire life, anger welled up in Wilbur and he glared at the demon.
“Just because I tell jokes and make people laugh don’t give you no call to play with my life like I’m a mouse and you’re a damn cat,” he snarled. “Why the hell are you doing this?”
“Because I’m a demon. That’s what I do. I make life hell for people like you.” The demon sighed. “Don’t you understand, Wilbur? It’d be different if you somehow made people happy. Helped make their burdens a little easier. If that was the case, we wouldn’t be here tonight discussing your impending passing. There’s no way I’d be allowed to bring you in because you’d be too valuable to…well, call it my competition.”
Wilbur scowled, but the demon ignored it and went on. “Laughter is sweeter when it’s born of happiness,” he said. “But that doesn’t matter to you, Wilbur Pickett. You just make them laugh. Then they stop laughing, and they’re no happier than they were before.”
“It ain’t my place to make someone else happy,” Wilbur snapped. “Making them laugh is good enough for me. I’ll bet good money you never made anyone laugh in your…life. Or whatever it is.”
The demon snorted, blowing another wintry mist in Wilbur’s direction. “It’s not you that makes them laugh,” he insisted. “It’s the words to those jokes you tell. The situations in them causes the laughter. You just say the words out loud so they can be heard. But the jokes are not in you, Wilbur. You never said a funny word in your life that you didn’t hear or read somewhere else first. That’s why no one wants you around when you’re not telling jokes. On your own, you just don’t have it in you to make anyone laugh.”
Wilbur’s eyes narrowed in determination as cold as the demon’s breath.
“I can make you laugh, you dour-faced old bastard!”
The demon started to say something, and then stopped. He waved a hand, and the mare began walking. Wilbur sat in the saddle and silently fumed. They’d gone more than fifty paces before the demon spoke again.
“If you can do that, Wilbur Pickett,” he finally said, “I might just let you off this time.”
“I said I can do it, and I can!”
“So sure, are you?” the demon asked. “Care to see my face again?”
Wilbur leaned casually back in the saddle. “I reckon not,” he said boldly. “From the looks of it, it probably stinks, too, and I don’t want to smell it just now. And speaking of stinking, this woman who had a problem with passing silent gas finally got up the courage to go to the doctor about it one day.”
“Go on,” the demon said.
“‘This is so embarrassing,’ she says to the doc, ‘but I just can’t help farting silently. You probably haven’t noticed, but I let three farts just since I’ve been here in your office. Is there anything you can do?’ The doctor looks over the top of his spectacles and says, ‘Why, yes there is, madam. But the first thing we need to do is get you a HEARING HORN!’”
“Ah.” The demon yawned. “Was that it?”
“Nope,” Wilbur said, “I was just clearing the road dust out of my throat.”
“Well get on with it. I don’t have an eternity to waste, like you’re facing if that’s the best you’ve got.”
Wilbur started the one about the traveling salesman and the old farmer’s tally board, but he stopped when the demon pretended to snore.
“Okay,” he said, “this old man down in Texas was fishing for bass one day when he ran plumb out of nightcrawlers. He wasn’t ready to quit fishing just yet, so he looked around for something else to use as bait when he spied this rattlesnake with a toad frog in its mouth. He knew how much those big bass like frogs, so he decided to steal the frog from the snake. But the rattler was dangerous, and he’d have to be real careful getting the frog away from it.
“So he snuck up behind the snake and grabbed it by the back of the head before the rattler knew he was there. The snake is madder’n hell, too. He wrapped his whole body around the old man’s arm, and shook his rattles something fierce. But the old man pried the snake’s mouth open and made him drop the frog.
“The old man knew he couldn’t just drop the rattler because it might bite him, so he pulled a pint of whiskey from the bib pocket of his overalls and poured a couple of belts into the snake’s mouth and down its throat. Well, that snake’s eyeballs rolled up in his head and his body went all limp, and the old man tossed it back into the weeds. Then, using the frog for bait, the old man went back to fishing.
“A while later, he felt something tapping at his foot. He looked down, and there was that same rattlesnake with two more frogs in his mouth and a pleading look in his eye.”
The demon didn’t say anything for a moment, then he jumped as if startled by something.
“Oh, you’re finished,” he said. “Well, I guess we’d better be on our way on down to—”
“Hell no, I ain’t finished,” Wilbur snapped. “It takes more than just one or two good jokes to generate a laugh! Might get a snicker, or even little chuckle like that. But sometimes it takes deep joke mining to strike pure laughter.” Even though the night was as cold as it was clear, Wilbur removed his coat and rolled up his sleeves. Eyeing the demon closely, he cracked his knuckles and pasted his usual joke-telling smile on his face. “Now, did you ever hear the one about…”
Wilbur ran through a few of his best clean jokes to no effect. So he switched over to the dirty jokes. Then he started on the really dirty jokes. Still, even with each one bawdier than the last, the demon never once so much as grunted.
Joke after joke after joke, on and on it went.
But Wilbur couldn’t stop. He suspected the moment he gave up would be the moment his life ended—in some devilishly interesting way—and this demon would drag him down to the hot hereafter.
Finally, in desperation, Wilbur was forced to dip into his ugly collection of tragic jokes; the stuff he couldn’t get a laugh with even from railroad workers.
“Back in the war, this soldier woke up in a hospital after a big battle. ‘Doctor,’ he calls to the surgeon standing nearby, ‘I can’t feel my legs.’ The surgeon walks over and says, ‘Hell, I know that, boy. I amputated both of your arms.’”
To Wilbur’s surprise, the dark demon snorted. At the noise, Wilbur suddenly realized the demon’s taste for human tragedy should not have shocked him. This was a demon, after all.
“So anyway,” he went on as if he hadn’t caught the evil stranger’s tiny response, “you might like this one real well. A preacher is lost in the woods when suddenly this big, mean grizzly bear jumps out at him. He turns and runs away, but the griz stays right on his heels. Pretty soon, the preacher comes to the edge of a cliff—” Wilber pointed at the sheer drop to his left “—something like this one here, and turns to face the bear. Then he drops to his knees and opens his arms wide to the heavens.
“‘Mighty one,’ he intones, ‘please give this bear some religion. Now!’
“Suddenly, there was a tremendous roar of thunder and lightning, and the skies parted and a bright light shown down on the top of the cliff. The grizzly was bathed in the brilliant radiance from above, and it stopped short just a few feet from the preacher. Then, wouldn’t you know it fell to its knees and folded its hands and bowed its head!
“‘Oh great almighty,’ the bear shouted joyously, ‘for the tasty meal I am about to receive, I give thee thanks!’”
The demon actually chuckled. “You’d have had to been there,” he said, snickering, “and I was.”
Wilbur didn’t stop. Didn’t even slow down. He told the one about how the little boy born with no arms or legs always wanted to play baseball with the other kids, so they used him as third base. Then he launched into the one about how the cannibals ate the missionary’s wife, then the missionary, then killed and cooked them both. The demon’s delight, like a miserly mountain trickle at first, slowly began building into a steady stream, flowing faster and faster toward, Wilbur hoped, becoming a raging torrent of laughter.
Then Wilbur’s insides ran cold when he realized he was down to the absolute last truly awful joke he knew. This had better do it, he told himself, keeping his customary smile plastered on his face. He casually rolled down his sleeves and slipped back into his coat, and chuckled one last time over the previous punchline. Then he drew a deep breath.
“I sure have been telling jokes a long time tonight,” he said. “And speaking of a long time, this pregnant woman finally gave birth after more than a full day in agonizing labor. The midwife took the baby to clean it up, then she brought it back right away. Instead of handing it over, she tossed the baby in the air, then threw it on the floor! Then she picked it up and twirled it around by its heels a few times before slamming it against the wall!
“The mother sees this and screams and screams, and then hollers, ‘What the HELL are you doing to my baby?’
“The midwife picks the baby up off the floor and throws it at the mother. ‘The joke’s on you’ she says, laughing. ‘Your baby was born dead!’”
Wilbur fought desperately not to show any of the panic that paralyzed his very soul when only the silence of the grave came from the evil entity.
Damn, he thought, so his life was to end like this? Trying to buy his way out of perdition with what he could see now was nothing but bad jokes he’d always used only as something to help him hog attention? A tear slipped from his eye and ran down his cheek, but he didn’t relax his smile.
Just as he was preparing himself to accept the horrifying but interesting fate the demon told him he was going to meet this cold night, the dark-dressed figure began snickering, then giggling, then howling with laughter—a harsh, eerie, disturbing wail that echoed off the opposite walls of the canyon to bounce back like an entire devil’s hoard of evil minions hooting hysterically. The unnerving noise made all the hairs on Wilbur’s body stand up and wave at each other.
“Your baby was born dead!” Wilbur repeated, sending the demon into even more frenzied fits of laughter. The demon laughed so hard and uncontrolled he slipped from the saddle and hit the ground to writhe helplessly in the dirt of the road.
When the devilspawn dropped off his black horse, Wilbur spurred the mare savagely and leaned low into the frosty wind as she burst into the fastest gallop he could ever recall her hitting. He soon left the demon far behind. But instead of getting quieter, the howling echo of manic laughter grew louder and louder the farther he got from the dark menace.
The mouth of Phantom Canyon was visible in the gloomy distance when out of the echoing laughter, the demon’s voice boomed clear and ominous.
“Wilbur Pickett,” he cried, gasping around lingering spasms of mirth, “I’m gonna call this one a draw and let you go on living awhile longer. But—”
“Hell no!” Instead of sensibly accepting this unexpected reprieve and going on home relieved to have survived the run-in with the dour demon, Wilbur pulled the mare to a stop and turned her around to face back up the canyon road. “That weren’t no draw, and you know it,” he yelled angrily. “I beat you. I said I could make you laugh, and I did it! Dead baby jokes? Turns out you’ve got a sense of humor after all, pardner, and it’s even uglier than your face!”
“Now listen to me, Wilbur Pickett—”
“No! You listen to me! I beat you fair and square, and I’m going to keep beating you by making people happy from now on instead of just making them laugh.”
“I already told you, Wilbur, it’s just not in you.” Suddenly, the demon’s thunderous raspy voice was all around like a thick fog, like a personal storm cloud come down to earth, swirling through and past Wilbur only to come swirling back and through him like a near-solid force an instant later. “Your jokes can’t make anyone happy.”
Wilbur nodded and lowered his head. “Until now, I never thought of it that way,” he said softly, knowing the demon could hear. Then his jaw clenched in firm resolve. “But you opened my eyes,” he said, raising his voice again, “and now I know what to do. Tough luck for you, you black-hearted old sumbitch! I guess you’ll have to collect your riffraff somewhere else.”
“Oh, we’ll meet again, Wilbur Pickett!” The demon’s disembodied voice became a frustrated roar among the endlessly echoing waves of laughter. “We will meet again!”
“No, we won’t,” Wilbur murmured, turning the mare toward home and walking her away at a normal pace. “Not anymore.”
The demon didn’t answer, but his frantic laughter continued bouncing through the canyon. Before long Wilbur left Phantom Canyon and the demon’s howling echoes behind.
After that fearsome night, Wilbur stopped telling so many jokes. He missed getting the attention at first, but he realized the demon was right about one thing: laughter is sweeter when it’s born of happiness. It took folks a little while to get used to the new Wilbur Pickett, but when they did he began getting supper invitations and offers to help him around his farm. He gladly returned the favors without being asked, with good humor and a more than willing attitude.
Wilbur never knew if he truly helped make anyone happy or not, but he lived a long and satisfied life, and had a churchful of mourners on hand when he finally passed away from something thankfully tedious and mercifully uninteresting. And in all his life, and beyond, he never saw the dour demon again.
But sometimes, travelers along the Shelf Road between Canon City and Cripple Creek still claim to hear weird laughter echoing faintly through Phantom Canyon, and wonder what’s so funny.