Midnight at Cerro Muerte

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The desert night was silent, in the loud way that nights are. Insects sang out across the sands, calling to each other in the darkness. The brush rustled gently as a rabbit hopped through it, then again a minute later as a fox stalked quietly behind the rabbit, slinking low against the cooling sands. An owl hooted softly, hidden somewhere in the night’s expanse. The sound reflected off of the mountains stretching up on either side of the shallow valley, making it impossible to even guess at where it had originally come from.

Then slowly rising into the realm of audibility came a rhythmic sound, a clopping of horse’s hooves. It was just one horse judging by the sound, not moving with any particular urgency. The sound grew steadily louder, though, with the horse clearly moving toward a specific destination. It may have been in no hurry, but it had a purpose all the same.

At the sound of the approaching horse, the rabbit froze, then bolted for an unseen burrow. The fox, its dinner denied, slunk back into the brush. Its sharp eyes glinted in the moonlight as it waited, watching this intrusion to see if it would present an opportunity of some sort.

The horse ambled steadily through the valley and toward the rising face of the mountain. It stopped when it reached a yawning cavern that stretched away into the rock, the depths quickly hidden by shadows the moonlight could not reach.. The cavern’s mouth was framed by three sturdy timbers, declaring it no natural occurrence. A carefully-hammered tin plate nailed to the crosspiece read “CERRO MUERTO SILVER MINES.”

The fox watched curiously. Once, people had come and gone from this hole in the mountain with great regularity. The valley floor had been cleared by the constant traffic of horses, wagons and people, leaving no place to hide and no place to hunt. The prey had all been scared away by the noise and smell in any case, as the mountain rang with the clash of metal against rock and shook with internal explosions.

But the stream of people had diminished to a trickle, then died out completely. In the last year, the desert grasses had crept back in, filling in the wagon ruts and reclaiming the cleared areas where canvas tents had once stood. As the grasses returned, so did the rabbits, and so the fox had found itself back here again, the open mouth of the mountain the only testament to what had been.

The horse lowered its head to crop the desert grass as a man clambered off of its back. It shook its mane slightly and snorted as the man began to unfasten thick leather straps that bound a large, awkward parcel to the horse’s back. With a whisper, the last strap slid free and the bundle crumpled to the rocky ground with an echoing thump.

A flap of the bundle’s canvas wrapping came free, revealing the dead body of a man inside. His mouth hung open, giving the corpse a look of mild astonishment. When it crashed to the ground, one pale arm flopped free into the moonlight. It pointed the way into the mine, seeming to ask if that was really their destination.

“Damn your eyes, Taylor,” swore the man, lighting a lantern. “You always were an inconvenient cuss. Cain’t you even stay tied up right?”

Taylor made no response as the man knelt down, tucked the errant limb back into the thick canvas shroud, and began to drag the corpse into the cave. The lantern’s light glimmered briefly from inside, shifting erratically as it swung from side to side, but soon vanished completely into the cave’s interior.

Peacefulness descended again upon the landscape. The horse chewed its grass. The fox perked its ears up, listening carefully for the tell-tale sounds of rabbits nearby. It kept a wary eye on the horse, knowing that as long as the horse was still here, the human would not be far away.

Minutes passed, and then a soft noise came from the cave. It grew slowly louder, resolving itself into words, a continuous, muttered complaint.

“Could’ve stuck to the plan, avoided all this. But instead you turned clear into a no-account fool, and now what?” The man reemerged from the cave, folding the empty canvas blanket up as he walked. “Now what?” he asked the horse, aggrieved.

The horse raised its head to look at him, then returned to eating grass. The man snorted as he rummaged through a pack secured to the horse’s side, pulling out rudimentary mining equipment.

“Exactly,” he said, as if the horse had made some good point. “Nothing, that’s what. The plan’s shot and you get nothing at all. And I get nothing, too, for which I thank you mightily.”

He started off into the mine again, his litany of complaints ongoing. “Not enough that I had to come up with the plan in the first place, then cut you into it. No, you had to go getting ideas that you could do better if you cut me out of it entirely. Better! Boy, you were lucky that I ever….”

The man’s voice faded into silence as the light vanished into the mine again. The horse waited, unperturbed. The night wind blew, rustling the grasses. A rabbit crept slowly out of cover, catching the fox’s attention. The fox focused its gaze, measuring the distance.

At another sound from the cave, the rabbit sprang up and sprinted away. The fox relaxed back to the ground, disappointed. The man emerged from the cave once more, dousing the lantern.

“No happy medium,” he grumbled as he climbed back onto the horse. “Get ’em too stupid, they’re useless. Get ’em too smart, they think they can take over. Useless shanny-pated fools, the lot of ’em. C’mon, Buce.”

The man flicked the reins, and the horse ambled back the way it had come. The fox watched them go, cocking an ear. From the cave came a quiet hissing, something like a snake but more drawn-out and continuous. It was a new sound, unfamiliar, and the fox cautiously drew closer to investigate.

It was no more than a dozen feet from the mine entrance when the mountain roared, a muffled bellow from deep within. A belch of dusty air spewed forth, and the fox fled, not waiting to see what might follow.

Deep within the mine, Taylor’s body lay at the end of a small tunnel off of the main shaft. The stick of dynamite left behind had done its job well, sealing the tunnel and burying the body under a crushing load of stone. The damage done from the falling rocks helped to conceal the slashing wounds along his arms, and the deep stab into his heart.

Outside, the desert life resumed. Inside, the dust slowly settled, and all was still. The air, however, held an electric feel, a sense of energy slowly building.

Where the dynamite had collapsed the ceiling, a small hole showed, no bigger than a man’s arm. Through that hole a faint light glowed, so dim that in anything other than the total blackness of the cave it would have been impossible to make out. It illuminated a chamber, a place with smoothed stone walls and an intricate circular design carved into the floor. Strange symbols lined the edge of the circle, a protective prayer completely encircling it and binding its contents safely inside.

In the center was a low stone seat. It was occupied by a human corpse, an ancient thing of desert-dried skin stretched tight over yellowed bones. Its clothes had long since rotted away, but in its folded arms it clutched a large leather-bound book, holding it tight to its chest. Three interlocking circles were branded into the book’s stained cover, and its thick vellum pages riffled slightly in an unfelt wind.

The ceiling of the chamber had been rocked by the dynamite, and the corpse’s head had been crushed by a falling rock, its skull disintegrating like talc. Teeth scattered the floor and one shoulder hung loose. The hands still clung to the book, but slowly, painfully, the fingers began to fall away. As each one clattered to the ground, the sepulchral glow of the room dimmed further and further, until at last all was dark.

In the darkness glowed something a deeper shade than black, a hole in the darkness itself. The soft sound of pages gently turning filled the air, unheard by any living ear as the book whispered quietly to itself.

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