Snares

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Morning brought no clarity with it. Deke awoke late and came downstairs to find Miz Blaumer in the kitchen of the boarding house, carrying on a one-sided conversation with Porfirio.

“Morning, Miz Blaumer.” He nodded to Porfirio. “Morning.”

“Morning, Deke!” Miz Blaumer chirped in response, setting a bowl of porridge in front of him. Porfirio simply stared at him, blinking slowly, before finally nodding back.

“How was your walk with Father McCaig yesterday?”

“Unprofitable, ma’am.” Deke spooned porridge into his mouth, thinking about the spreads of foods that usually graced the table of the boarding house. Time was not on their side.

“That’s a shame.” Despite her words, Miz Blaumer did not seem overly bothered by the news. “I’m sure we’ll figure this out soon.”

“I can’t imagine you and Will have much left in the way of supplies, keeping a town fed and watered. Even a small town.”

“Will?” asked Miz Blaumer.

“Yeah, Will Long. Bartender over at the saloon?”

“Of course! Sorry, I was just—” Her brow knitted, confusion clear on her face. “I misheard you, sorry. Well, we’ll make do. Won’t be the first time we’ve had lean times because the wagon was late.”

“But it’s—” Deke stopped himself. Miz Blaumer knew the situation. If telling herself that the wagon was simply late was how she was dealing with it, then so be it. “I believe I’ll head out to set some snares today, see what I can do to supplement our supplies.”

“Is your arm up to that?”

“Just about healed, ma’am.”

“Oh, good. Taylor will be excited to have you up at the mine.”

“Pardon?” Something in her turn of phrase made Deke’s neck prickle.

“Well, I’m sure you’re as keen as everyone else about getting your share of the silver!”

“I tell you, when that road opens up, I may sell my shares and skedaddle.”

Miz Blaumer tsked her tongue. “I think your boy’s got the fever. You may not be able to take him away from the mine.”

“Maybe I’ll sell my shares to him, then. Be like getting his inheritance early.”

“An inheritance that he has to pay for?”

“We all pay for our inheritances one way or another, Miz Blaumer.”

She laughed. “I suppose we do at that, Deke.”

Deke stood up from the bar and stretched briefly. “Lovely as it is chit-chatting with you, those rabbits ain’t gonna catch themselves. And though I have no complaints about your porridge, I’m not disposed to have it for three meals a day.”

“Things aren’t as bad as all that.”

“Glad to hear it, ma’am. I’ll do my part to keep them that way.”

Deke retreated to his room and packed his knapsack with rope, spade, pegs and other trapmaking supplies. He felt an urge to bring the blank book along with him as well, but could think of no reason why he might need it.

Obey pulsed briefly in his mind, and Deke shook his head vigorously, like a dog drying off.

“See, and this is exactly why I ain’t bringing the book,” he told the empty room. “I got a strong suspicion that I ain’t the one doing the wanting here.”

He turned his back on the room and resolutely tromped down the stairs, stopping uncertainly near the bottom when he saw Porfirio standing motionless by the front door.

“Everything okay?” Deke asked. “Uh, que pasa?”

Porfirio gave no response, merely continued to wait.

“All right. Well, I’m out to set snares. Meat? Carne?” Deke made motions toward his mouth with an invisible fork, then stopped, feeling ridiculous. “Well, you’ll get it when you see it tonight.”

He reached past Porfirio to open the door. As soon as the door was open, Porfirio lumbered out onto the porch, ducking his head to avoid the doorframe on the way. Once on the porch, he stopped again, waiting for Deke to catch up. He and Deke walked down the porch stairs together, setting off down the road in sync.

“Oh, you’re coming along?” Deke asked. “Glad for the company, I suppose.”

Porfirio said nothing, and Deke added, “Such as it is.”

The two traveled in silence to the outskirts of town, where Deke knelt to set his first snare. No sooner had he unslung his knapsack, though, then he felt a large hand on his shoulder. He looked up to see Porfirio shaking his head.

“No?” Deke asked.

In response, Porfirio pointed, stretching his hand out into the desert.

“Sure, you may know something I don’t,” Deke said. “Let’s try it your way.”

They set off again, Porfirio slightly in the lead. Though there was no visible path or trail, something had been this way before. Deke noted broken branches on the scrub, torn clumps of grass where something heavy had uprooted them.

It wasn’t until he saw the rust-colored smear on a white, flat rock that Deke realized what path they were following.

“Hell, is this where you took the mule? No thanks. I like my meat a fair sight fresher than that.”

Deke turned to head back to town, but as he did Porfirio’s hand wrapped around his wrist. Deke attempted to tug free, but it was like trying to move the mountain itself. Porfirio simply waited, implacable, until Deke gave up.

“So we’re going to see Ol’ Sal, huh? Guess I don’t get a whole lotta say in the matter.”

Porfirio released his wrist once Deke was moving in the correct direction again. Deke thought about bolting for freedom, but didn’t fancy the idea of being tackled by the giant if Porfirio decided to give chase. Deke had his knife on one hip and his gun on the other, of course, but so far the most threatening thing Porfirio had done was hold him in place. Hardly a killing offense.

So the two men trudged out into the desert, following the trail of a dead mule. The sun beat down on them and made the sands dance with waves of heat. The landscape seemed to ripple, giving their trek an otherworldly quality.

After walking for at least an hour, Deke spotted something rising out of the sands ahead of them. It was some sort of rock formation, but the heat distortion made it impossible to make out clearly.

“Is this it? Is this what you wanted me to see?”

Porfirio continued walking, not even acknowledging the question. Deke shrugged and kept pace. The rock formation was still a quarter-mile away or more. He assumed that things would become clearer as they approached.

A half-mile later, Deke realized that the formation was much larger than he had at first thought. It towered above the surrounding landscape, its details still wavering in the baking heat put off by the ground. Deke thought that they might still have as much as another quarter-mile to go, too, though he was no longer certain of his ability to judge the distance to the monolith.

Eventually, the two men stood at its base, staring up at the incredible structure. It was not in any way natural. It had clearly been intentionally built, not naturally formed. Even though Deke was close enough to reach out and touch it, its details still somehow eluded him, skittering across the surface of his mind like cakes on a greased griddle.

“What is this?” he asked, his voice hushed and reverent.

Porfirio opened his mouth, his throat twisting around strange syllables. “Know.”


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The Congregation

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Father McCaig left his hand on Deke’s shoulder as they walked, a move presumably intended to provide both guidance and comfort. It was hard-pressed to do either, though, as more and more footsteps joined the first that Deke had heard.

At first, Deke attempted to count the number of those behind him by listening to the footsteps, but they followed no pattern with which he was familiar. Both he and Father McCaig walked with a regular tump, tump beat, but the noises coming from behind them sounded nothing like that. The ones that Deke’s practiced ear could pick out included a rapid tump tump tump followed by a pause, a steady tik tik tik tik like marbles bouncing off of each other, and a continuous soft swishishishish. There were many more, their quiet sounds joining together and echoing off of the rock wall until even though Deke could see the clear path ahead, it sounded as though they were completely surrounding him.

Deke’s neck prickled, but Father McCaig’s gentle grip kept him facing forward. After a short while, the padre began to speak.

“‘And all the congregation of the children of Israel journeyed from the wilderness of Sin, after their journeys, according to the commandment of the Lord. And there was no water for the people to drink.’

“‘Wherefore the people did chide with Moses and said, give us water that we may drink. And Moses said unto them, why chide ye with me? Wherefore do ye tempt the Lord?’

“We are all of us in the wilderness of sin, all of us thirsting for that water of truth and knowledge and salvation. But in our error, we feel that we can demand it, that we can earn it. This water, this life-giving truth, is not a thing to be found by man, but a gift to be given by the divine. We cannot deserve it. We can only humble ourselves and hope to be given it, if the Almighty believes it right.”

Not a thing to be found by man, Deke thought. But what about by whatever follows us?

“We are all of us mortal,” Father McCaig intoned, his voice booming off the rocks. “We are all children of the Lord, seeking his grace and mercy. Though we be imperfect in form, still were we made in the image of the Lord. Still he loves us. There is a way out of this wilderness, out of the mountain that surrounds us and the sin that envelops us. That way is Jesus, for did he not say ‘Where I am, there ye may be also. And whither I go ye know, and the way ye know’?”

A mutter arose from the following crowd, but whether it was of agreement or censure Deke could not say.

“Father,” he murmured, his tone low enough to carry only to the priest next to him. “Don’t you think you ought to know what you’re preaching to, to make sure they’re getting the message right?”

“There is no message but the Truth,” the padre declared, his voice echoing. “And the Truth needs no modification to be received. ‘Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.’

“Jesus!” he barked, his volume increasing to nearly-painful levels. “Jesus is our savior! ‘At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord!’ Obey!”

The last word left his mouth as a physical force, a wave of compulsion that Deke felt wash over him. As the word traveled, the path ahead of them changed without moving, bending in subtle and impossible ways. Nothing was altered as the word rolled over the landscape, except that it was no longer the same. Deke tried to find the words to describe it and failed. Somehow in that moment the twisting path had been recreated just as it had always been, while retaining none of the characteristics it had always had.

“Is that—” Deke began, but Father McCaig squeezed his shoulder and Deke quieted. Behind them, the sounds of the congregation began to fade away, dissipating by ones and twos. There had been no branches to the path, yet still the followers split off until none remained.

At last, Father McCaig removed his hand from Deke’s shoulder, and Deke looked back. The trail behind them was empty, the rock wall unbroken.

“Was that it, Father?” Deke asked, his voice hushed.

Father McCaig shook his head. “Not yet. On the day my faith is rewarded, my congregation will remain. We will leave this wilderness together, and the path will be opened for all.”

“But the path—”

“Is altered, as it is every day I walk it. Satan lays his tricks thickly here, and though I wield the words of God, I do so imperfectly, as a mere man. It will take time and trials to overcome.”

“Father—these words. How can…” The feeling of Obey burned like a brand in Deke’s mind, its painful demand pulsing. Nothing about it felt holy.

“How can I be sure they’re God’s words, you mean?”

Deke nodded.

“He has given me the sight to see them truly. For even in my weakness he has restored me, made me more than I was that I might serve him better. Behold!”

Father McCaig pulled aside the patch covering his ruined right eye. Deke, expecting a closed lid or maybe a milky orb, recoiled. The priest’s eyepatch covered an empty hollow torn into his face, a tarry hole which stretched to a concerning depth. Its edges were red and raw, its sides lined with a thick black sludge shot through with yellowish-white streaks. It throbbed and oozed like a heart turned inside out.

And yet all of that faded into insignificance compared to what surrounded it. Slashed into Father McCaig’s flesh was a symbol, another word unfamiliar yet instantly understood.

Reveal, it said, a baleful razor-edged eye rooting through Deke’s thoughts. Deke cowered away from it, knowing even as he did so that there was nowhere to hide, nothing it could not see.

An eternity elapsed beneath its gaze before Father McCaig settled the eyepatch back into place. Nothing could remove the knowledge that the symbol was there, but without it directly before him Deke found himself able to move forward again.

After a scattered moment, he found his voice. “Fath—” His voice cracked, and he swallowed and started again.

“Father, how can you be sure—?”

He trailed off, but Father McCaig understood his meaning. “With this, I can see all that is hidden. It is a tool for revealing evil, for finding the true nature of things. Surely such a power could only come from God. I have faith that it is so!”

Madness burned fervently in his remaining eye. Deke was far from convinced, but said nothing—knowing even as he remained silent that it did not matter. Father McCaig knew what was in his head.

The day wore on into evening before a turn of the path brought the two men down a slope and back to Rosin’s Hollow. Deke’s shoulders sagged, but the padre appeared undaunted.

“Tomorrow I try again,” he said, clapping Deke on the shoulder. “Will you join me?”

“Perhaps, Father,” said Deke, meaning no.

Father McCaig smiled. “Doesn’t take the eye of God to see what you mean there. Not to worry, boyo. You’ll find your path.”

As Deke turned toward the boarding house, the priest continued walking.

“Not joining us for supper, Padre?” Deke asked.

“I have some business at the church! I’ll make do tonight.”

While taking off his boots, Deke thought back over the day. Although the journey had been long and taxing, he had not seen Father McCaig eat so much as a bite of food on the way. Nor take a drink of water, come to think of it.

Deke’s own throat was parched, so he simply filed this information away until he knew what to do with it and headed into the boarding house for some much-needed food and rest.


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Wilderness

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“I’m glad for your company today, Deke. Your arm’s improved, then?” Father McCaig walked with an easy stride, the kind designed to be maintained all day. Deke marveled again at the man’s rapid weight loss. In the last week, the padre had easily dropped fifty pounds or more. He had been a hefty man, and certainly the amount of walking he was doing would take the pounds off, but that much that quickly was worrisome. Deke’s previous attempts to address it had been shrugged off, though, and so he did not bring it up today.

“Better’n it was, for sure. Ain’t staining the bandages yellow no more. Not much, anyway.” He flexed the affected arm, feeling the bite where his muscles were only just beginning to knit back together. It would take significant time and effort before it was back to full strength, but the arm  was at least functional now.

“This is, in any case, a day for legs,” Father McCaig said. “Unless you were planning on attempting another climb?”

“Can’t say as how that worked out well for either of us last time, padre. I believe I’ll stick to the path today, such as it is.”

“Perhaps a second set of eyes can reveal the true way.”

“A second set, padre?” Deke cast a glance at the priest’s eyepatch.

Father McCaig smiled. “As you like. I see more than you’d think. But the path still twists beneath me, leading me back here every day.”

“Why do you still walk it?”

“It’s what I’m meant to be doing, boyo. I cannot yet understand it, but I hope to in time.”

The two men entered the narrow cleft that marked the start of the path out of Rosin’s Hollow. A large eyeball was drawn onto one of the rock faces, staring down at them.

“That’s new,” remarked Deke.

“Aye, it’s been there since I lost my own.” The priest seemed unperturbed by it.

“Father, it don’t disturb you that manmade things are appearing where no man put them?”

“No man, perhaps,” Father McCaig replied cryptically.

“But—”

“Deke, m’boy,” the priest said, turning to look at him as they walked, “you are a liar. I don’t say that to cause offense. It’s just a fact. It doesn’t bother me; we are none of us perfect, and we need Jesus to redeem us all.

“But a liar expects to be lied to. So when you see something you cannot explain, you assume that there is man’s agency in it. You look for the person behind the trick.”

“And you’re saying this ain’t a trick?”

“I’m saying, Deke, no person is behind it. Observe the ground.”

Deke did as he was instructed. At first he saw nothing in particular in the earthen path, just stones, sand and small, struggling plants. The occasional footprint was visible from where Father McCaig had passed before, as well as the prints of some sort of hoofed animal.

Deke frowned. He could think of no animal on Cerro Muerte that had hooves like that. There simply wasn’t enough vegetation to sustain any sort of wild herd. Looking closer at the ground, Deke saw other, stranger prints as well. Three-toed tracks like from a bird, but the tracks were almost the size of Deke’s own boot. The bird that left those would have to be ostrich-sized or larger. There were dots like someone had been walking with a cane, but there was never a footprint near the dot. Some parts of the path looked to have been brushed, as if something heavy had been dragged across it and swept it clean.

“You see them, then? I do not walk alone out here.”

“What are they, Father?”

“I do not look upon them. They are my congregation, and that is enough. They follow me and I preach to them. They are lost, just as we are. My hope is that if I can save them, my job will be done and I’ll find the way to Contrition at last.”

“You don’t look at them?”

“I’m only human, m’lad. I think it would disturb me to see what follows while I walk out here. So I keep me eyes forward and my voice strong, and I do not think about what my congregation of the lost might look like.”

The symbol Obey throbbed down at them from a rock wall, demanding their attention. Father McCaig made the sign of the cross and continued walking, but Deke drew slowly to a stop.

“A minute, padre.”

Deke unshouldered his knapsack and withdrew the blank book he’d found hidden in Taylor’s trunk. Although he’d replaced it yesterday, this morning he had found himself again drawn to the book, thumbing through it as if he had missed meaning in its blank pages. Finding nothing again, he had put it back where it came from—or so he had believed until he had been placing water bottles in his knapsack for the day’s trip, and had spied the book tucked into his own bag. With Taylor right there chatting with them, there had been no way or time to return the book to where it belonged, and so Deke had simply closed his bag again and said nothing.

Deke had not forgotten the Obey glyph, though he had been trying hard to do so. He could have drawn its sinuous, sinister form blindfolded. Seeing it here on the rock wall reinforced its power in his mind, refreshing its demands. But just as Deke knew what the symbol meant without knowing how he knew, so too did he know that that symbol belonged in the blank book. The book should have been full of that language. Instead, it was blank and the words were at large, twisting the world.

With the steadiness and precision of a forger’s hand, Deke opened the book to the first page and began to draw the symbol. But though his hand was firm and his lines were clear, before his eyes they faded away. The lead beaded up on the paper like ink, running down the page to vanish in a puff of dust as it reached the edge. Deke tried again on a new page, with the same result. Any stray marks he made stayed on the paper, smudging slightly if he rubbed his finger across them. Any lines that should have been part of the symbol, though, refused to adhere.

“It seems it’s not yours to have, boyo.” Father McCaig stood a short distance away, watching the process.

“Never seen a drawing with an opinion before,” Deke muttered, putting the book away. “I swear it belongs in there.”

“Perhaps. But it must serve a greater purpose by being out.”

“Why do you say that?”

“If it did not, you would surely be able to draw it like anything else.”

“Faith again, Father?”

“Always faith.”

A footfall sounded on a rock behind them, and Deke started to turn. The priest grabbed his shoulder, keeping him facing forward as they walked. “Do not look! My congregation approaches.”


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Progression

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At the end of the day, the three men convened again outside of the mine. The differences between them were even more striking than they had been at lunchtime. Taylor, though sweaty and encrusted with rock dust, exited the cave with a spring in his step and his tools held lightly over his shoulder. Elmer, on the other hand, looked to be barely putting one foot in front of another. His gunnysack hung heavily across his back, slowing him still further. Envy crossed his face as he looked at Taylor standing tall in the evening sun.

Even Elmer looked fresh as a daisy compared to Ray, though. Ray slumped forth with his eyes fixed to the ground before him, too exhausted to even lift his head. He was a man in search of a bed, or any reasonably flat surface that could serve as one.

“Ray?” Elmer asked. “You still with us, feller?”

“I had it,” mumbled Ray. “I had it!”

“I know,” said Elmer soothingly. “I know.”

Ray had been convinced that they were just one well-placed blast away from exposing a large swath of the silver vein and walking out rich beyond their wildest dreams. Nothing that Elmer or Taylor said could dissuade him from planting the dynamite. They tried to counsel reason and patience, but Ray would have none of it.

“You’ll see,” he told them, nestling the dynamite into place. “You were gonna bang around at the edges, getting scraps for weeks. I’m saving you from that. We’re all going home rich tonight.”

Ray lit the fuse, and all three men vacated the area. As soon as the explosives blew, though, they knew it had gone wrong. The initial bang was followed by a long, sustained rumble, one that the miners knew meant that the blast had been anything but clean.

Ray’s face fell. “Maybe it ain’t so bad,” he offered. “There was always gonna be some rock to have to clear away.”

When they trooped back to investigate, however, the extent of the damage became clear. Ray’s blast had, as intended, sheared away part of the wall, but it had also brought down a significant section of the roof. Far from freeing the silver, it had buried it behind additional tons of fallen rock.

The three men stood in silence until Taylor broke the awkward moment.

“Well,” he said, giving his pants a hitch, “guess we’d better get to moving all of this.”

That had been long, exhausting hours ago, and the progress they had made was minimal. To his credit, Ray had worked the hardest of them all, relentlessly pushing himself onward without breaks. Despite that, it was clearly going to take days just to get back to where they had been before, possibly longer if what remained of the tunnel ceiling was no longer stable.

“It shoulda worked,” Ray muttered, bringing Elmer back to the present moment. “I had it all figured out.”

Elmer said nothing. Taylor clapped Ray on the back. “We’ll get it back. The silver’s not going anywhere without us. Go home and get some sleep now before you keel over here in the desert and end up food for the coyotes.”

Ray dragged himself away down the path, too tired to even utter a response.

“It’s sleep for me too, then,” said Elmer bitterly. “And back at it tomorrow.”

“It’ll be all right!” Taylor told him. “Don’t let this setback get you down.”

“Easy for you to say! Some of us are going home beat. We ain’t all got magic keeping us going.”

“I told you, it’s not magic. You’ll find your time to apply the symbol. Once you do, you’ll never run out of energy again. We’ll get through this cave-in in no time, especially if Ray carves his on, too.”

“Ray looks like he’s gonna have to sleep for two days just to raise his status to ‘dead.’”

“And if we don’t see him for two days, and then he shows up marked and indefatigable, that’s time well spent in my book. Can’t rush things, Elmer. Gotta let them take their own time.”

“So long as they start taking their own time a bit faster, that’s all,” muttered Elmer.

When Elmer arrived home, Cora greeted him at the door with a kiss. “Evening, Elmer! How—oh. That kind of day?”

That kind of day,” Elmer agreed glumly, dropping heavily into a chair. “Tell me you got something hearty for dinner.”

“It’s rabbit tonight, Elmer. I’ve been setting snares. It’s getting a little thin without the supply wagon, but I patched together enough for a pot of rabbit stew. It’ll keep us for a few days, at least.”

“I love you, baby,” Elmer said as Cora put a bowl of stew in front of him. “You take good care of me.”

“You only say things like that when you think I might feel like I ain’t getting enough attention. I guess you’re planning on going to bed right after this, then?”

“I’m sorry, Cora, truly I am. But I am absolutely beat. It ain’t fair to you, and I know that, but I promise you it’ll be worth it. We just gotta get through this last bit.”

Cora smiled wryly. “Sure, Elmer. We’re almost through it.”

By the time Cora was done clearing away the bowls, Elmer was in bed and snoring. She picked up his clothes from the floor by the bed and took them outside to shake off the worst of the dirt. They’d be good for another wearing yet, she reckoned, hanging them on the line to let the sweat dry.

Back inside, she glanced in the stew pot. Already lower than she’d expected, and once that was gone, there was nothing left but what they could scavenge from the mountain. Rabbit was only going to keep them going for so long with nothing else to go with it.

Still, she thought as she climbed into bed next to her snoring husband, at least we got each other. And maybe we really are almost through the worst of it.

She was awoken hours later by the feel of Elmer’s hand running down her side.

“What is it, baby?” she asked sleepily. It was still dark outside, with only the barest touch of grey starting to lighten the night.

“Nothing,” Elmer whispered. “Sorry I woke you. I was just looking at you and thinking how lucky I was.”

His hand strayed lower, producing a tingle as his fingertips brushed down her hip and across her thigh. Cora rolled over in bed to face him.

“Yeah? And how lucky are you?” she asked teasingly.

“I got you,” he said with sincerity. “That’ll do for luck.”

She kissed him, sweetly at first, then with growing passion as their bodies pressed up against each other. The sheet was tossed aside as Elmer pushed her onto her back and moved on top of her.

“Guess you got your energy back,” Cora said, running her hands across his body.

“I guess I do,” Elmer agreed. He blinked suddenly, startled, as if something had just occurred to him.

“Everything okay?”

“Yeah! Yeah, absolutely. You stay right there. I gotta do something real fast.”

“What?” Cora sat up and looked at him in confusion.

“I ain’t gonna get you fired up and leave you unsatisfied, baby, but I gotta do this real quick. Just you lay there and think about what we’re gonna do in just a minute. I promise this won’t take no time at all.”

Cora lay back in bed, nonplussed. She heard Elmer rustling about in the small house and twisted her body to see what he was doing, but in the darkness she couldn’t make it out. She heard a hiss of pain through clenched teeth, the clatter of something metal on the counter, and cloth ripping. Then Elmer was back, tying a knot in a rough bandage around his left upper arm.

“Elmer, what was that?”

“Just something I had to do. Come on, where were we?”

“No, you can’t just do a thing like that and expect me to leave it be.” But his hands and mouth were on her body again, and hers were on his.

“You’ll tell me what that was about, Elmer Everill,” Cora whispered, biting his shoulder.

Elmer nodded fervently against her. The bandage on his arm slowly reddened, the blood seeping through in a surprisingly contained pattern, a perfect image of the eldritch symbol he had carved into the flesh beneath it.


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Preservation

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“Taylor,” Elmer asked, gnawing on a piece of salted meat. “What’s your secret?”

Taylor, Elmer and Ray were seated outside of the Cerro Muerto mine, eating their lunches in the shade of a rock outcropping. A desultory wind stirred the dust around them, but did little to cool their sweaty bodies.

“How do you mean, Elmer?”

“Well, look at us. We’ve all been in there doing the same work. I know I’m beat half to hell. Ray there is asleep under his hat.”

From his slumped position against the wall, Ray waved a hand in a dismissive gesture, but did not lift his hat from where he had tilted it down over his eyes.

Elmer continued. “But you look like you’re still raring to go. You got some kinda patent medicine in that lunch of yours that keeps you pepped?”

Taylor laughed. “I’m just excited by the mine, that’s all. Ain’t you looking forward to being rich?”

“Sure as shooting I am, but that don’t stop me from being tired right now. Excitement don’t make energy, not over any kind of long haul.”

“Well…” Taylor hesitated. “Hell. You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

“Sure I would, Taylor.”

Beside them, Ray lifted his hat and straightened up, never one to miss a secret.

“All right, look. I’ll tell you. You ain’t gotta believe me, but I don’t want to hear no mockery out of either one of you. You asked, I’m telling, so here it is. You don’t like it, you don’t gotta listen.”

“Lay it on us already, Taylor,” Ray said irritably.

Taylor pushed his shirt sleeve up his arm as far as it would go. At the top of his arm, almost to his shoulder was a blackened symbol, a thick rune etched into his skin. It was unpleasant to look at, and yet Ray and Elmer both unconsciously leaned forward, drawn to it.

“That some kind of tattoo?”

“Pretty much, Ray, yeah. It says Contain.”

Taylor’s mouth did not say “contain,” though that was the word that Ray and Elmer heard. They nodded regardless. They had already known what it meant, though they could not have said how they knew.

“It’s a word from an ancient language. Back when words had real meaning, and real power. It fell out of the world long ago. But things like that, it’s hard for them to stay buried forever. They got a way of waiting until their time comes around again.

“An old man taught me this one. I saved his life in the desert, found him and brought him back when he thought he was going to die out there. In exchange, he told me this word, and how to use it.”

Elmer was enraptured. “What else do you gotta do besides draw it on you?”

“First, you can’t just draw it on. It’s gotta be part of you, forever. A knife’d do, though. Or a brand, if you had one. Anything that’ll give you a deep enough mark. You don’t want to let this thing fade. There’s a price to be paid for messing with power like this, but you’re safe as long as you don’t screw it up. So if you’re doing this, you be damn sure you’re doing it right.”

Taylor hitched his sleeve up another inch to give them a clear view of the entire symbol. The lines that made it up were uncomplicated, though somehow they gave an impression of interlocking in a way that a crudely inked diagram should not have been able to do. Each line crossed both in front of and behind each other one, as well as passing in some other dimension that neither man had either previously noticed. Despite that, both were certain that they could draw it from memory, with their eyes closed if necessary. It was not the sort of thing that one forgot. It stamped itself into their minds, its weight almost a physical ache.

“Got that? Okay, second: when you do it matters. It says Contain, right? So if you were to do it right now, this is all the energy you’d ever feel. It don’t add nothing. It just keeps in what’s already there. So you want to wait until you’re feeling great, real flush with life. That’s when you want to mark it on. It’ll keep that feeling in you then, keep it in your bones. I ain’t had a bad day since I got this on my arm.”

“And that’s it?” Ray asked. “Wait til we’re feeling good, put your magic word on our arms, and bam?”

“It ain’t magic. It’s power.”

“Does it have to be our arms, though?” asked Elmer.

“Cut it into your foot for all I care. A body’s a body. Put it wherever you like.”

“Hell of a leap of faith we’re taking here,” Ray said. “Turns out you’ve lied to us, we’re stuck with this damn mark forever.”

“Now why would I lie to you?”

“How should I know? Maybe someone sold you on this lie when you got that tattoo, and you just don’t want to be the last idiot to fall for it. Maybe it’s some mark that’s gonna get us in trouble with the law somewhere. Maybe you’re just heat-crazy.”

Taylor shrugged. “Like I said, you can believe me or not. But here.” He hunted around on the ground for a minute and came up with a rock about half the size of his head. He passed it to Ray.

“What would you say that weighs, about ten pounds?”

“Sure,” Ray said. “So?”

“So hold it out in front of you. One arm, straight elbow, shoulder height.”

Ray held the rock out as instructed. After a few seconds, his arm began to shake. He gritted his teeth. “How long am I doing this for?”

“You can drop it whenever.” Ray let the rock thump to the ground, and Taylor continued. “So that was real hard, yeah? But it was easy for the first coupla seconds, when you first stuck your hand out there.”

“What’s your point?”

Taylor bent down and picked up the rock, holding it out in front of him the same way he’d showed Ray. “That’s ‘cause you spent that energy. But mine stays contained. This doesn’t make me any stronger than I ever was, so I can’t do anything I couldn’t do before. But anything I can do, I can do forever.”

He continued to hold the rock casually as he talked. His sleeve was still rolled up, proving that no trickery was occurring. Seconds ticked over into a minute, and still Taylor showed no signs of exertion.

“It was easy at the beginning, so it’s easy now. I could stand like this all night. Well, except that I’d get bored, hungry and probably sunburnt. But I wouldn’t get tired.”

“I still ain’t convinced that this ain’t a trick,” grumbled Ray.

“Then don’t do it,” Taylor said, dropping the rock and rolling his sleeve back down. “Ain’t no nevermind to me. Elmer asked, so I told him. What y’all do with it is on you.”

Contain,” said Elmer, reflectively. He did not see the way his mouth moved to make the alien sound. Taylor did, though, and hid a smile.


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Words of Power

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“Whatcha kicking at there, Pa?” Taylor emerged from the boarding house and breathed in the rapidly-warming morning air.

“Nothin’. The padre was showing me part of why he thinks the path out is tangled like it is. I’m kicking it out so it don’t confuse nobody else.”

“Confuse ‘em how?” Taylor knelt to peer at the strange symbol, still half-visible despite Deke’s efforts to efface it.

“Confuse ‘em like wondering why someone’s drawing pictures in the street outside the boarding house, that’s how. Don’t ask so many questions.”

“I believe that’s the first time you’ve ever told me to question things less, either as father or in your ‘business capacity,’” Taylor said, making the quotes with his fingers.

Deke bristled. “You shut your damn mouth,” he hissed. “We are barely off the porch and the walls here just ain’t that thick.”

Taylor stood and brushed off his knees. “Hardly matters much since there’s actual silver after all.”

“Matters to me. And I ain’t seen this silver yet, so I ain’t convinced.”

“You think I don’t know what silver looks like? Or what, you think I’m conning you? Think I threw in with Ray and Elmer to pull one over on you?”

“I think you’re getting careless, boy.”

“Looks Arabic,” said Taylor, ignoring the insult and Deke’s dark look.

“What?”

“That thing in the street. Looks Arabic.”

“You don’t even know Spanish, and you can recognize Arabic?” Deke glanced back down at the broken symbol, then immediately looked up again. Even damaged as it was, it still nudged at him, insisting his attention and obedience.

Taylor shrugged. “Sure. They use ‘em in the drawings in the dime novels. Strange mystics from the East, and the like. They do that curly writing across the top and as borders and stuff.”

“So you think that curly writing made the path out all curly, too? How does that make any sense?”

“Makes as much sense as anything else, don’t it?”

“You got a point there, I suppose.”

The two men stared at each other in silence. The moment stretched out until Taylor finally spoke again.

“Something’s for sure going on,” he said, turning away to look at the mountain. “It ain’t normal, and it ain’t right. So why not magic words?”

“No such thing as magic words, that’s why.”

“No such thing as demons, neither, but Ol’ Sal’s still dead and your arm’s still weeping.”

Caught off guard, Deke had no response.

“I read a story once,” Taylor continued, “‘bout one of them books of power. Necronomicon, it was called. Written by a man name of Abdul Al-Hazred. The power book, I mean, not the story. Al-Hazred went grasping for knowledge and found something so true it drove him insane. It was too big for sanity. It nearly killed him outright, but he lived. He lived and he wrote it down.

“They say the book was a horror. It was half poetry, half spells and half a continuous, written scream. All of that got packaged up and crammed into the pages, and it overfilled them. Al-Hazred was crazy, but the book was crazy, too. It had its own madness, separate from his. The truth drove even the book crazy.

“The story kinda followed the book at that point. Books can last an awful long time, and this one was canny, made sure it was well taken care of. So it turned up over and over throughout history, letting people see bits of the truth, warping the world with the weight of its knowledge.”

“So you’re saying that a made-up book from one of your books is here, with a truth so heavy it’s bending the mountain into a pretzel,” Deke said dryly.

Still looking at the mountain, Taylor shrugged. “I’m saying that all books got a bit of truth to them.”

After a moment, he added, “You really oughta come out to the mine, Pa. See the silver vein, set your mind at ease, know for sure that I ain’t looking to rip you off.”

“Nice of you to look out for me.”

Taylor laughed. “I told you yesterday, we need all the hands we can get to move them timbers. So even if you only got one hand to spare, bring it on up. That’s one more than we had.”

“I’m healing, boy. You don’t rush healing. That’s how you end up unhealed.”

“Well, heal faster, old man.”

“Your book got curly writing to do that for me?”

“Ain’t my book! But you know, yeah, I saw old Abdul up at the mine yesterday. He said come on up and he can heal your arm. He was just behind that rockfall, so we’re gonna have to clear it out and put a few more timbers in before we can get to him to heal you.”

“Clever, boy. Sure, I’ll just pop right up there today.”

Taylor laughed again and clapped him on the back. “Do things in your own time. I’ll try to save you some silver.”


The mid-morning sun was streaming into the boarding-house room. Taylor had long since left for the mine, carrying what he needed for the day in his pack. Most of his possessions remained behind in the room, where Deke was methodically going through them.

He made note of the location of each bag, box and book before moving it, and was careful to replace each one exactly where it had been when he was done examining it. The books he flipped through with a gentle but practiced hand, checking for loose paper, sewn-in pages or handwritten notes. The boxes had their contents removed, sorted through and set aside. Deke then tapped every side of each box checking for hidden compartments before re-packing them.

Deke didn’t know exactly what he was looking for, only that he would know it if he saw it. He was beginning to believe that there was nothing there to be found—and then he opened up a weathered leather satchel to reveal a large book bound in leather that he was sure he’d never seen before.

Gingerly, Deke lifted the book from the bag. Its cover was scratched and mottled, but the binding was solid and overall the book appeared to be in good repair. It had three interlocking circles branded into its cover. The bottom two had been stained with some dark ink.

Aside from the circles, the outside of the book was featureless. It bore no title, no author. There was no writing on the spine or on the back. Deke turned it over in his hands several times before finally opening it.

The pages were a thick vellum, yellowed with age. They were still supple and strong, though, and turned easily beneath Deke’s fingers. They were also completely blank.

Deke flipped through the book with increasing confusion. What was Taylor doing hiding a blank book? He held the book up to the window, letting the sun shine through one page, but it revealed nothing. No scratched-off ink, no hidden message, not even an impression in the page where a writer might have pressed too hard on a page above. As far as Deke could tell, this book was and always had been completely blank.

After subjecting the book to every examination he could think of, Deke finally admitted defeat. He replaced the book in its satchel, placed the bag back in Taylor’s trunk along with the rest of his possessions and relocked it. He then sat down on his bed, chin in his hands.

He’d been so sure that he’d find something in Taylor’s trunk that would explain what was going on. Instead, he’d just found a new mystery. Questions without answers were piling up, and Deke did not care for it at all.


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Behind Closed Doors

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“We won’t make it the week.”

“Won’t make it the week doing what?”

Clarinda turned away from the mirror on her vanity to smile at her husband. “Sorry, John. I was just talking to myself.”

“I’d still like to know your thoughts.” John propped himself up on one arm in the bed.

Clarinda sighed—not at him, but at the situation. “The larder, John. I made up that list earlier, like I said. By the end of the week, we’ll be out of basic staples.”

“So soon?”

“Well, every day we’re feeding myself, Deke, Taylor and Father McCaig. Though he hardly seems to eat at all anymore. I swear he’s thinner by the day, the poor man.”

“And me.”

“Hm?” Clarinda wrinkled her brow in confusion.

“We’re feeding me, too,” John clarified.

“Oh! Of course. Yes, obviously you as well.” Clarinda stared into a corner of the room for a moment, trying fruitlessly to recover a lost thought. “Regardless, the point stands: by this time next week, I’m not going to be setting a full table. Or much of any table at all.”

“What can be done about it?”

“Hunting, I suppose. We can supplement it with rabbits, grouse, whatever we can snare. Not much grows out here, but there’s onions at least. Might be I can get Cora to help me collect some of those. Though she’s got her own problems, I’m sure.

“And of course, there’s always the hope that Father McCaig will find his way back to town, or that the supply wagon will come through. It’s eerie, isn’t it? Being cut off like this. We were never convenient to town, I suppose, but it was always good to know that we could get there if we needed. I haven’t left the Hollow in a year or more, but now that I can’t—”

John cut her off. “But what can we do about it right now?”

“Now?” Clarinda looked over her shoulder at her husband. “Not much we can do at night. We’ll start in on this tomorrow.”

“If there’s nothing we can do about it right now, then quit fussing and come to bed.” John lifted the edge of the sheet. “I can think of things we can do at night, though I confess they do not directly address the problem you’re describing.”

“Mr. Blaumer!” Clarinda put a hand to her lips in mock horror, though the blush in her cheeks was real. “I am a married woman.”

“And I’m a lucky man.” He raised his eyebrows and smiled. “So come to bed.”

“In just a minute.” She turned back to the mirror.

Desire, said John, though that was not the shape his lips made. With his thumbnail, he scratched a bleeding sigil into his opposite palm, then pressed it to his chest.

A wave of emotion swept over Clarinda, powerful enough that her knees would have buckled had she not already been seated. Lust was strong in it, the kind of hungering need that demanded to be sated, but there was a complex mix of others as well. Love was there, that heart-filling kind where Clarinda knew that her life was more complete with John in it. Not that he provided what she was missing, but that he allowed her to fully become herself. If lust was the ignition spark, this love was the enduring flame that the spark set.

Need was there, too, the uglier side of love. This was the fear that she wasn’t enough, either for him or without him. It was a gnawing question that defied logic to persist, lurking at the edges and waiting to strike. With it was loneliness, a heavy crushing weight of time. It was empty beds and a lack of human contact and a fear of dying alone and forgotten. These added urgency to the equation, a demand to seize the opportunity now before it passed.

And woven throughout was romance, big and small. Long walks to nowhere, touching hands. Their wedding day. John’s half-bashful, half-business-like proposal to her. A thousand small things from their courtship, and the fact that those gestures had not stopped into their marriage. His attention. His respect. His love. His desire.

As the crash of emotion subsided, Clarinda realized she was gripping the edge of the vanity hard enough to bend her short nails. Her vision swam, and she caught a glimpse of her reflection in the mirror. Eyes half-lidded, lips slightly parted, chest heaving—she was the picture of a woman entranced.

“Come to bed,” John said again, and this time Clarinda obeyed without further argument. She started to slip beneath the covers, but at a glance from John, she stopped and let her nightgown fall to the floor before joining him in the bed.

John’s mouth was on her neck, his fingertips tracing thin trails of fire along her skin.

“John,” Clarinda whispered, her hands on his back. His skin was smooth and cold. A memory tugged at her mind. It was something important, something she’d forgotten. She reached for it, sure that it was nearly within her grasp.

Desire, John whispered in her ear, his lips writhing in impossible patterns against her cheek. He pressed the hand with the bloody sigil to her left breast, and Clarinda moaned under the onslaught. The thought fled, lost in the night and the need.


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Shifting

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The saloon doors swung open again and Raymond swaggered in. Like Taylor, he was caked with dried-on dust from the mine. However, where Taylor appeared exhausted, Ray seemed to be energized. With a thick cigar clamped between his teeth, he exclaimed, “Who wants to try to win some of this ore offa me?”

At the far table, one of the men involved in the card game kicked a chair out from the table. It scooted away, a mute invitation. Ray ambled over to the open seat and dropped into it.

“Deal me in, boys.”

The piano music rolled on, competing with the rising chatter. At the bar, Taylor stolidly worked his way through his beer.

“How’s your arm, Pa?”

Deke thought again of Ol’ Sal, and shuddered. “Better’n it might be. Healing up. Give it a week or two and I’ll be joining you up in the mine.”

“Good. Good. We can use you up there. It’s just me, Ray and Elmer right now, and we ain’t got enough hands for all we’re trying to do.”

Deke cast a glance over his shoulder at the card game. “Looks like Ray’s doing all right so far.”

Taylor waved his hand dismissively. “Ray’s picking up hunks of gravel from that cave-in, is all. The vein’s behind that and we ain’t even got the roof stabilized yet to clear it out for real. The three of us are putting in the work, but we could surely use more hands up there.”

“How come Porfirio wasn’t with you?”

“Damned if I know.” Taylor shrugged. “I asked him to come to the mine, but you know how he is. He gave me that big cow-eyed stare for a time, then said some kinda nonsense and wouldn’t look at me again.”

“It ain’t nonsense, boy. It’s Spanish. It’d do you well to get at least passingly familiar with it out here.”

“What he says’d be nonsense in any language, Pa. His head ain’t screwed on right.”

“Yeah, but it ain’t like him to refuse to do work. I never seen him turn down no one asking for help. You say something stupid to him?”

Taylor shrugged again. “I just told him to come on up to the mine. I don’t know, maybe I said it wrong. Maybe I just said it too fast and he didn’t understand me. Who knows with him?”

“I’ll ask him,” Deke said. “If you’re putting in new timbers to brace the tunnel, you’re gonna want him there.”

“Especially since we’re cannibalizing the old parts,” agreed Taylor. Deke shot him a look. “What? I don’t know if you noticed, Pa, but we ain’t exactly got a lot of large trees around here. The old tunnel’s played out, so we’re repurposing.”

“You’re gonna repurpose the tunnel right down on your heads,” muttered Deke. He looked around and dropped his voice. “This was never supposed to be about actual mining. Now that the town believes there’s silver there, we’ve got all we need to get out once we can find a clear path.”

“But since we haven’t got a path out, I might as well sweeten the pot by mining out some silver, don’t you think?”

“Don’t get greedy, Taylor.”

“Don’t get chicken, Pa! Besides, what’s the worst that could happen. A cave-in? I already came out of one of those just fine. Cerro Muerte can’t touch me.” He finished his beer with a look of disgust. “‘Death Mountain.’ See, I know Spanish.”

“‘Cept that it actually means more like ‘Mountain Death’ or ‘Mountain Dead.’ Named by some fellow like you who thought he knew more than he did and got a bunch of other idiots to follow along. This whole situation’s off in a hundred little ways. I didn’t live this long by wandering past warning signs.”

Taylor regarded Deke coolly. “You think you’re immune to everything, huh? Think you’re an outside observer here?”

“I make my trade on it.”

“All right. Well, you find an exit, you let me know. Meantime, I’m gonna keep digging for that silver. If that’s getting too greedy for you, then hell—maybe I’ll buy your stakes and give you the way out you’re looking for. Assuming the padre finds a physical way out, anyway.”

Deke shook his head. “You’re changing the plan in the middle, boy. It’s unsafe.”

“All rewards come with risk. I ain’t dragging you along with me. You want out, I’ll buy you out. Otherwise, I’ll keep a spare helmet set aside for you out at the mine.”


“Cora? Tell me you got dinner ready, honey.”

Cora smiled up from the corner chair where she’d been sewing. “Now how would I know to expect that you’d be coming back hungry from the mine?”

Elmer groaned. “This is no time for joking, baby. I feel like my stomach is just about to start grabbing the rest of my guts and eating ‘em direct.”

“All right, calm down. I’ll feed you before you eat yourself. Sit down, sit down.”

Cora crossed to the stove and ladled out two bowls of stew. She carried them to the table along with a small round of bread which she broke in half, putting one half next to each bowl. She added several strips of salted, dried meat and handed Elmer a spoon.

“Jerky for dinner?” Elmer asked plaintively, though he was already tucking into the stew.

Cora sat down across from him. “It’s what we got, baby. Supply wagon hasn’t come, and we got no money to give him even if he did.”

“We got silver, though!” Elmer grinned. “This one’s gonna be good. We’re just picking at the edges right now, but when we get through, we’re all gonna be rich as Rockefellers.”

“What did you do with the ore you got so far, anyway? I got the cooker all cleaned up, so we oughta be able to start processing some of it.”

“Oh, I dumped it in the tanks.”

“The what?”

“You know, the company’s big processing tanks.”

“Elmer—there ain’t no company here no more.”

Elmer looked uncertain, then rallied. “Well, the tanks’re still there. And they’re up and running. I guess maybe Taylor got ‘em working? Anyway, we’re all tracking the splits, we know who gets what. And it’s a sight easier than trying to cook it all down ourselves.”

Cora tapped her spoon on the table, frowning. “Elmer, I’d swear the company took all that stuff with ‘em when they left.”

“I don’t know what to tell you. They’re there, and they was sloshing around half an hour ago when I left the mine. So I guess you musta be mistaken.”

“I guess,” said Cora, unconvinced.

Despite Elmer’s complaints about jerky for dinner, he left none behind. After his bowl was mopped clean, he leaned back and put his feet up.

“So what’re you gonna buy first, Cora?”

Cora smiled. “Before or after we get that little house away from here?”

“Before, I guess. We gotta stay here to get the silver first, after all. And if it’s a big vein, that could be a while.” Elmer looked around the house. “It ain’t so bad here, right?”

“Anywhere’s good so long as I’m with you, Elmer.”

Elmer took her into his arms. “You’re worth more to me than all the silver in that mountain.”

She snuggled up against him, content.


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Long Dry Spell

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The rancid smell of what had been inside of Ol’ Sal still haunted Deke’s nostrils, even after a brief rinse in the creek. After a short deliberation, Deke decided that the best way to remove the ghost of a smell was with more spirits, which led him directly to the saloon.

Will Long looked up from behind the bar when Deke pushed his way through the doors. “Howdy, Deke.”

“Busy afternoon, I see,” Deke greeted him. The saloon was empty except for Will and the piano player in the corner, picking out some tune Deke didn’t recognize.

Will shrugged. “You know how it is.”

He stood up from his stool, his gangly body seeming to stretch as he rose. “Long” was an appropriate surname for Will, who tended to have to hunch over to walk through doorways or stand in the smaller buildings in town. Here in his bar, he fit in just fine, though if he ever hired another bartender he was going to have to install some lower shelves. A normal man would need a stepstool to reach up to what Will considered head-height.

“What’ll it be?”

“Pour me a beer.”

Will made a face. “You sure? It’s bitter stuff.”

“I got a smell to forget. Bitter’ll work.”

Will shrugged and drew a glass from the tap, passing it to Deke. Deke took a deep swallow and grimaced.

“Bitter, hell. You been drowning lizards in this? Tastes like something died in it.”

“Did it chase that smell away for ya?”

“It did at that, though I might need something to remove this one, now.”

Will gestured, the sweep of his lanky arm incorporating the array of bottles behind him.

“Not yet,” said Deke. “I’ll go through this one first.”

He took another drink and made another face. “Damnation, that’s awful.”

“I did warn you. You get what you get out here. My options were this barrel or nothing.”

“How much was the nothing?” Deke took another drink. “I ain’t sure you made the right choice.”

“Nobody’s making you drink it.”

“I’m no quitter. I start something, I see it through to the end.”

“Hm,” said Will noncommittally. A silence grew between them for several seconds. Deke took a long pull at his beer, then another. Finally, he broke the silence.

“All right, speak up. What do you mean by that?”

“Nothing. I was just reacting to what you were saying. Letting you know I was listening. Folks like to know they’ve been heard.”

“They like to know they’ve been agreed with, too, and I can’t say as how I caught a whole lot of that in your answer.”

“I’m not looking to pass judgments here, Deke.”

“I told you to speak up, so speak up.”

Will fiddled with a glass before finally meeting Deke’s eyes. “You made it to Contrition yet?”

This time it was Deke who dropped his gaze. “Father McCaig’s got that handled. He’s taken it on as some kinda holy mission.”

“So you’re just gonna step aside and let him finish that for you?”

“Hellfire, son, it was his trip to begin with! I only joined in because he asked me too.” Deke finished the beer and slammed the glass onto the wooden counter.

“Like I said, I’m not passing judgment.”

Deke scowled. “You’re asking a mighty pointed question for a man who don’t hold opinions about the answer.”

“You asked.”

“I made a comment about the damn beer, Will! You coulda just agreed with me and let this lie.”

“Sorry. You’re right, you surely did finish that beer.”

“Bit damn late now.”

The two men stared off in different directions, studiously not making eye contact. The tinkling piano music drifted between them. Finally, Deke spoke again.

“So you think I ought to try again. You don’t think the padre’s got this handled.”

“I’m not pa—”

“Will, if you say ‘judgment’ again I swear to you you’re gonna feel some. Answer the question.”

“All I’m saying is that I’m surprised you’re comfortable with trusting someone else’s information on this.”

Deke snorted. “You think the padre’s lying to me? To the town?”

“I just think you’ve never been one to accept the common wisdom that something can’t or shouldn’t be done.”

“I tried it for myself! Got tore up by some kinda vulture, fell halfway down the damn mountain, didn’t make no progress despite that.”

“And you tried it again? Doing something different?”

“I tried it a half-dozen different ways, changing—” Deke stopped. “You think the padre is causing this.”

“I got no opinion on the topic.”

“He was there every time. Him, me and Ol’ Sal were the constants that day, and he’s been the only constant since.” Deke shook his head, frowning. “It don’t make no sense. Why would he do that? What would he gain?”

“Sometimes people got hidden motivations.”

Deke leveled a wary glance at Will, but Will was already looking over Deke’s shoulder at someone else entering the saloon. “Evening, Taylor.”

“Will. Pa,” Taylor greeted them, striding into the bar and slamming down onto a bar stool. “Beer, Will, I am fit to die.”

“Things going well at the mine?” Will passed him a beer.

“It is a powerful load of work, but it’s looking better by the day.” Taylor took a swig of the beer and spit it back into the glass. “Jesus, Will! Is this straight mine run-off, or did you cut it with piss?”

Will reached for the glass, but Taylor pulled it away. “I just asked a question. I didn’t say I wasn’t gonna drink it. I finish what I start.”

Deke snorted. “Looks like I managed to teach this boy of mine a thing or two, for better or worse. Will, pour me a whiskey. I gotta flush that so-called beer out of my mouth.”

Taylor looked hurt. “You had one of these and didn’t warn me, Pa?”

“Sorry, boy. You gotta learn from your own mistakes.”


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Recovery

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Deke couldn’t shake a growing concern that something was wrong, above and beyond the obvious. The residents of Rosin’s Hollow had been surprisingly calm in the face of the knowledge that they were trapped by unknowable forces. On the one hand, it was good that no one was panicking, since there really wasn’t anything to be done about it. On the other hand, Deke really felt like the situation called for a bit of panic. He considered himself something of a student of human nature, and in his experience, this was not the sort of thing that people were generally okay with. Since everyone here was okay with it, that meant that he was missing something.

In Deke’s line of work, missing something could get you killed.

Deke knew that the worst thing he could do before he figured out what was going on was to call attention to himself. So while the town bustled around him, caught up in a fresh wave of silver fever, Deke bustled right along with them. He drank in Miz Blaumer’s common room. He laughed along with the jokes. Every morning, he helped load up the equipment for the day’s work in the mines.

But more than ever, he held himself apart, watching every situation with a stranger’s eye. Something didn’t add up, and for his own peace of mind, he desperately needed it to.

Taylor, meanwhile, seemed to be genuinely enjoying himself for the first time in months. Discovering actual silver where they’d intended only to run a scam had buoyed his spirits tremendously. He was the first one awake each morning, often downstairs with the rising of the sun. He had taken to helping Father McCaig pack for his journey each day. Most of Deke’s mornings now began with the sounds of the two men’s parting well-wishes drifting up through the floor.

Father McCaig’s wounds were healing with astonishing rapidity. They were scabbed and scarred, and he still wore the bandage over his eye, but there was no apparent sign of infection. Under any circumstances, his recovery would have been incredible. Given that the wounds had been inflicted by a creature that smelled like a slaughterhouse drainage pool, and that the closest thing to antiseptic the town had to offer was whiskey, Deke was willing to upgrade the recovery to miraculous.

His own damage from the encounter was healing as one would expect: slowly, painfully and with a deeply unpleasant amount of pus and suppuration. His left arm, where the creature had torn away the flesh with its mouth, was the worst of it. Deke was mostly certain—but not entirely—that he’d keep the arm and regain full use of it eventually. Each morning, he wrapped it in a clean cloth bandage. Each night, he unwrapped a horrible yellowish ribbon of cloth that looked like it had been unearthed from a damp tomb. He left it uncovered while he slept in the hopes that the cool night air would speed the healing process. It had left an unsightly stain on his sheets, but as Miz Blaumer was already washing his bandages, he hoped she wouldn’t mind.

And though his healing process was much slower than Father McCaig’s, Deke still counted himself lucky. Ol’ Sal had never stood back up after she lay down on their return. For two days, she lay there in the straw, panting. On the second day, while Deke had been checking on her, he noticed movement in the gashes on her side, a slight rippling beneath the flesh.

Already knowing what he would find, Deke put his good hand on her flank and applied steady pressure. A thick gush of fluid poured from the wound, running down her side to soak the ground beneath her. It was accompanied by a stench of rotting meat so strong that it left a taste in Deke’s mouth.

Mixed in with the fluid, writhing madly, were thousands of maggots. Most were smaller than a grain of rice, but some were the size and general shape of kidney beans. They were fishbelly-white except for the tiny black dots of their eyes. They squirmed desperately on the stable floor, trying to make their way back into their meal.

Ol’ Sal shuddered and rolled her eyes, but did not raise her head. Fighting against the stench, Deke leaned over to stroke her head.

“I’m real sorry, ol’ girl,” he told her. Where his hand rested on her neck, he could feel tiny, writhing motions beneath the thick skin. Sal blew out her breath in a huff, held it for a second, then resumed panting.

“Yeah. You understand what I gotta do.” Deke drew his knife, thankful that it wasn’t his right arm that was mangled. He wanted this to be clean and quick, and trying for that with his left hand would have been an uncertain proposition at best.

Painfully, he moved his left hand forward, covering Ol’ Sal’s eye so that she wouldn’t have to see the knife. In one decisive move, he stabbed it forward and down, opening a thick slice through the center of the mule’s neck.

The cut was clean, but what came out was anything but. Blood, certainly, in a torrent, but the blood was blackened, discolored and thick. The dark tide carried with it a river of maggots, pouring out of the mule as if she’d contained nothing but them. Deke staggered backward in a half-crouch, afraid to let them touch any of his wounds.

Sal stared sightlessly upward. Though her limbs were still and she no longer breathed, her skin still twitched and rippled. The horses in the nearby stalls stomped nervously, unnerved by the stench of blood and rot.

After trying for a moment to find a good one-handed grip on the mule to drag her out of the stable, Deke gave up and went back to the boarding house to look for help. As he approached, he was relieved to hear Clarinda carrying on a conversation. He couldn’t tell who she was talking to, but it meant that someone was back from the mine, and he wouldn’t have to leave the mule there until evening.

He was a little surprised when he entered the house to find that she was talking to Porfirio. The large man sat in his usual posture, hunched over his drink as if he was trying to make himself smaller. Clarinda’s back was to them, and she was mid-sentence.

“—right, of course, but I’m just saying that when it does come we’ll need to have a list ready. I can’t believe that I’ve become the practical one here.”

Deke raised an eyebrow. “What’s Porfirio done that’s impractical, Miz Blaumer?”

Clarinda turned, a surprised look on her face. “Him? Nothing. I was just—”

Her gaze flitted around the bar, and her brow wrinkled momentarily in confusion. “Just doing inventory, I suppose. Porfirio doesn’t mind listening. Right?”

Porfirio looked slowly around the bar, and said nothing.

“Well, I hate to take your listener, ma’am, but I’m afraid I need his help. Ol’ Sal didn’t make it.”

“Oh, no.” Clarinda looked upset. “Poor Father McCaig will be so upset tonight.”

“So you don’t think we’re likely to see the supply wagon come ridin’ in today, then?”

“No, I was just saying to—” another fleeting look of confusion crossed her face “—Porfirio that we’ll just have to make do with what we have. I hope it’ll get here, of course, but if you and Father McCaig couldn’t get out, I don’t think we’re likely to see anything come in.”

“And speaking of things getting out, I really do need to go move that mule’s carcass before it riles the horses too bad. Porfirio, would you help?”

Porfirio unfolded himself from the bar stool. As he stood, he caught Clarinda’s eyes. “Yo lo vi,” he mumbled.

“What was that?” she asked him, but he turned away without repeating himself.

Out at the stables, Porfirio looked down at the dead mule without expression. He turned a questioning eye toward Deke.

“Just somewhere outta here,” Deke said, giving a one-armed shrug. “Away from the creek, I suppose.”

He reached down to take hold of one of Ol’ Sal’s legs, but Porfirio simply reached past him and wrapped his right hand around both of the mule’s back ankles. Straightening up, he strode forward without apparent effort, dragging the corpse behind him. Deke winced to see Ol’ Sal’s head bouncing loosely across the dirt, half-severed from her body, but since he had no better solution he simply followed mutely.

A few hundred yards away, Deke said, “All right, that’s probably far enough.”

Porfirio continued his steady pace forward.

“You hear me? You can put her down anywhere here. The animals’ll take care of her.” Deke thought of the grimy blood and the maggots and added, “Probably.”

Porfirio still continued to walk.

“All right, look. You want to go walk a dead mule across a desert, I ain’t gonna stop you. But I ain’t going with you, neither.”

Suiting action to word, Deke stopped. Porfirio did not even spare him a glance, but simply moved on, dragging his burden behind him.

“Damn idiot,” Deke muttered, turning back toward the stables. He looked at the clear path that the mule’s body had dragged through the scrub. “Well, at least he won’t have any trouble finding his way back whenever he figures out it’s time to stop.”

Eventually, Porfirio found a small hollow in the ground. He looked at the surrounding area and, satisfied, settled Ol’ Sal into the dirt. A number of sizable rocks littered the ground nearby, and Porfirio slowly piled them up until she was covered by a makeshift cairn. Only then did he begin the long walk back to town.


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