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The moon overhead was mockingly bright, filling the land with strange shadows. In Deke’s left eye, though, the way ahead was as clear as if it had been laid out in a painted line. Every piece of scrub that had been touched by Ol’ Sal’s tainted corpse, every rock knocked out of place stood out like a bleeding wound on the landscape.

Deke followed it deep into the desert, step after relentless step, refusing to be slowed by the exhaustion dragging at him. The book seemed to have grown heavier with the weight of the words added back to it. It pulled at him, attempting to slow his pace. Deke gritted his teeth and pressed on.

Hours passed. The moon rose higher and the stars slowly wheeled overhead. Still Deke followed the gruesome trail. Its wrongness never eased, but at one point Deke caught himself wondering: what if this was how things were supposed to be, and it was everything else that was wrong?

The idea was strangely compelling. Deke couldn’t fix this path, couldn’t change it back to the way it was. But he could bring everything else into alignment with it. The book would let him do that. A few simple words, some inscriptions—

Deke shook himself. “I don’t do your thinking for you,” he told the chill night air. “Don’t try to do mine for me.”

A dark shape loomed ahead, a black silhouette blotting out the stars behind it. Porfirio’s twisted monument drank in the night around it, refusing to reflect the moon’s light even as Deke grew closer. It had grown larger than when Deke had previously visited, and now stretched sixty feet or more into the air, its stones piled up in seemingly precarious towers.

Nothing about it felt haphazard, though. Every rock was exactly where it needed to be. Like the words from the book, the monument sat on reality like a heavy weight, slowly bending things around it.

Deke squinted at the structure, trying to grasp the shape of it. Even with the bloody shape of Reveal overlaying his sight, though, the total aspect eluded him. He paced around the base, considering it from every angle, but the parts did not add up to a coherent whole.

“Shoulda known I wasn’t gonna get this one from the outside,” Deke muttered. He hesitated for a moment, then slapped the book firmly against his thigh to spur himself forward. “Nothin’ for it. Let’s go on in.”

Hidden within the pillars of stone, Deke found the same narrow passage that Porfirio had led him along previously. He stepped inside, one hand trailing along the shadowed wall to keep from walking face-first into a rock.

Two steps in, Deke stopped, considered, and stepped quickly backward to the entrance. He opened the book, its blank page practically glowing in the moonlight, and set the point of his pencil against the page. He did not stop to consider where he should start. Beneath the weight of the monument, he could not have drawn it incorrectly if he had tried.

Forward Deke walked, book in his left hand, pencil in his right. Every step he took advanced the pencil a miniscule amount, tracing the shape of a word that was both map and territory, guide and location. He walked on, shoulder rubbing up against the wall for stability, light from the moon overhead illuminating the page. Deke kept his eyes fixed on the darkness ahead, letting his pencil trace its own slow dance across the page.

Slowly, the path lightened, shadows fading as a muted red glow began to come from the walls themselves. The torso-sized stones of the outside gave way to the large sandstone slabs Deke had seen before, the bone-white pillars rising between them like the arches of a cathedral.

The walls were redder than before, and wetter as well. A thick red liquid oozed slowly down them, causing strange ripples in the light. Channels scored the walls at erratic intervals, deep, wrist-thick gouges as if a monstrous chisel had bitten into the stone. Deke kept pencil pressed to paper and continued walking.

The path forked, then forked again. Deke chose directions at random, retracing his steps when he felt that the pencil was too eager to move with him, anxious for him to make a mistake. The words still did not want to be returned to the book.

Onward Deke walked, step by steady step. Time passed, or possibly stopped. The rooms and hallways Deke walked through grew gargantuan, cyclopean pillars supporting ceilings thirty feet or more above his head. The doorways dwarfed him, the lintels so far above his head that he would have had to jump to touch them. Each one was splashed with purple, a deep wine-colored stain marking his path forward.

A familiar stench hit Deke, the olfactory assault making his eyes water and the hallway ahead blur. It was the smell that had come from Ol’ Sal, the smell of the rot grubs. One of them was coming.

Deke dropped to one knee, balancing the book carefully across his thigh, pencil never leaving its place on the page. He reached awkwardly over the book and drew his gun with his left hand. He pointed it down the hallway and waited.

The smell grew worse, and finally a grub trundled into view. Like its surroundings, it had grown. It stood as tall as a horse, a rippling, doughy mass of pale flesh. It sped up as Deke watched, charging down the hallway as fast as he could run, intent on making him its next meal.

Deke fired, but the bullet simply vanished into its pulpy mass without even slowing the grub down. He shot it again, producing nothing but a slight spatter of pus from the back of the grub. It rushed onward.

The distance between them closed rapidly. Deke held his breath, steadied his aim and focused on remaining calm. When the grub was less than a dozen feet away, Deke fired his remaining four shots directly into the monstrosity’s blank face, each shot tearing the hole wider.

The beast’s momentum still carried it forward, and Deke stumbled backward, dropping his revolver to maintain his grip on the book. The grub slid to a stop, unmoving. A chunky, unhealthy goo drooled from the ruin of its body. Deke prodded it experimentally with his foot, but it gave no response.

He breathed a sigh of relief, then gagged and almost retched. The stench was overpowering. Deke quickly retrieved his revolver and hastened down the hallway, the smell lessening as he went.

A few corners later, Deke judged it safe to breathe again, at least shallowly. He knelt to balance the book again and checked his pockets. Only three bullets remained. Working with just one hand, Deke awkwardly loaded his gun and snapped the cylinder shut.

The stench began to rise again. Deke snapped his head up, searching out the source. It was coming from ahead of him, so at least the grub he had killed was staying dead. With only three shots remaining, though, it seemed like Deke might soon be joining it.

The book rustled slightly. Deke glared at it.

“Don’t think you’re pulling one over on me,” he said. “I know you ain’t on my side.”

Reluctantly, he flipped back through the pages, careful to keep his pencil exactly where it was. As the smell of the grub intensified, Deke reached up and rubbed his left hand against the bloody, oozing wall. It came away with a thick, clotted handful.

Eyes on the book before him, Deke carefully smeared the shape of Overlook across his chest. He finished, wiped his hand on his pants, and stood just as the grub came into view.

Deke pressed himself against the wall as it squirmed by. It was close enough that he could feel the heat from its pustulent body, but it never paused in its motion or registered his presence at all.

The symbol in the book was half-done. Breathing carefully through his mouth, Deke continued on, deeper into the monument.

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The assembled rocks seemed solid enough, and they had held up under Porfirio’s weight, but Deke still gave them a tentative kick before taking the first step into the structure. Nothing budged, and so he plunged in.

The passageway was a narrow cleft between the towering rocks. It was lit well enough from the sun overhead, but shadows gathered and seemed to move at the base of the pillars. The passage twisted and turned, making it impossible to see more than a few feet ahead. Porfirio was nowhere to be seen, but as there had been no branches off of the path, he still had to be somewhere ahead.

A small spiral staircase built of flat rocks took Deke to a second level within the structure. He had no idea how far into it he was, his sense of direction tangled by the tortuous path. The walls were smoother now, large slabs of stone that looked far too heavy for even Porfirio to lift. They were a reddish sandstone, their colors seeming almost liquid in the shadowed light.

Step, turn, twist. Long minutes had passed without a sign of Porfirio. Deke was starting to question whether he’d missed a turning after all. The sandstone slabs in the walls were interspersed with enormous white pillars embedded in between the slabs now, great towering structures as broad as Deke’s waist that looked like nothing so much as tremendous bones. The red in the walls had deepened. The floor was slightly sticky underfoot. Deke looked down, but saw nothing but darkness. He could barely make out the shapes of his own feet.

“Porfirio!” Deke called again. In the narrow confines of the rock, he expected his shout to ring in his ears, but instead there was no echo at all. It was as if he were in the middle of an endless void, with nothing anywhere to hear his voice. Deke touched a wall for reassurance, and found it warm and slightly yielding to his touch. His fingers came away sticky and red.

Up ahead, the path split at last. Deke paused at the three options, unsure which one to take. He started down the leftmost, only to hear a strange squelching sound from ahead.

“Porfirio?” he called, drawing his gun from its holster. Again, his voice returned no echo. Deke stepped cautiously forward, gun at the ready.

Four steps took him to the next twist in the passageway, where he was hit by a stench intense enough to make his eyes water. Through the haze of tears he saw some sort of white, dog-sized creature rearing up at him from the ground. He staggered back a step, thumping his back into the semisoft wall, and the creature advanced. Deke fired two shots at it and was rewarded with a squeal and a thud.

Wiping away the tears and covering his nose and mouth with his hand, Deke knelt to examine the thing he had shot. His bullets had torn through it like soft cheese, splattering the walls with a pulpy white mass. The creature itself appeared to be some manner of grub, only grown to incredible size. Deke had never seen anything like it. The smell, however, reminded him of the rot that had festered inside Ol’ Sal. Deke wiped his hands on his pants, spat on the ground, and turned back to try another path. It seemed unlikely that Porfirio had simply stepped over this thing.

The next option Deke tried also had a grub, but this one was dead, its body split open from where it had been kicked into the wall. Deke covered his mouth again and hurried past, glad to be on the right track again. He had lost track of both distance and time, but it felt as if he had been in here for half an hour or more. He glanced up to see where the sun stood in the sky, only to realize that the walls now closed together in a vaulted ceiling overhead. The light within was unchanged, seemingly coming from the walls themselves. The sandstone was redder than ever, its swirled patterns standing out against the stark white pillars still appearing at regular intervals.

Up ahead, the path forked again, but this time one wall was marked with a smear of lumpy white pulp from a grub. No dead grub was visible nearby, so Deke assumed that Porfirio was simply carrying a handful of that with him. He imagined the smell and nearly gagged. A man might never get that stench off of his hands.

Deke followed the path, dependent entirely on his unseen leader. At one point he had thought to turn back, and had retreated to the previous junction only to discover that he did not know which tunnel he’d come from. Deke pictured being lost in here among the endless red walls, day and night unchanging, eating rot grubs to survive. His stomach lurched, and he turned back to follow Porfirio again.

For miles, the path seemed to stretch on. Deke simply followed, eyes alert, hand on his gun. The red walls were soft enough to yield to a finger’s touch now, bending like a thick sheet of rubber. Even with his knife, though, Deke couldn’t manage to make a scratch, and the white pillars were as hard as any granite. From deep within the walls, however, Deke could hear a slow grinding noise, a steady chewing. He did his best to shut his ears against it.

Without warning, the path opened up into a large, dimly-lit chamber. Deke couldn’t make out the ceiling or the far wall, but he could see in front of him clearly enough. The main feature of the chamber that Deke could make out was a pair of pits carved into one of the walls, a dozen yards ahead on the left. One was packed full of the oversized grubs, a restless, squirming pile of them which seemed about to spill out onto the floor. The other was a smooth, inky black, flat like a mirror.

Porfirio stood in front of the pit with the inset black disc, staring at his dark reflection. Deke hesitantly approached him.

“So,” he said. “I came all this way with you. Want to tell me what I’m looking at?”

Porfirio looked at Deke intently, then reached out and placed his hand against the blackness. The disc bulged slightly, and then suddenly Deke was staring at Father McCaig, as close as if he’d been sitting in the first pew at church. The padre was in the middle of a sermon, his face red and the scars around his eyepatch burning as he preached.

“‘But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect! And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell. And the Lord said unto Cain, “Why art thou wroth? Why is thy countenance fallen? If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? And if thou doest not well: sin lieth at the door!”’

“Wonder not to whom I speak, Deke Dambacher!” Father McCaig thundered. Deke started, hand twitching for his gun. “I speak to you, for though you be distant, I know ye be listening. All is revealed to me now. All!”

Father McCaig reached up a hand and tore away his eyepatch with a flourish, revealing that horrible, marred hole where his eye had been, and the terrible word carved into his flesh. As if to make sure that Deke could not avoid it, the picture zoomed in, allowing Father McCaig’s ruined eye to fill the entire disc. Its pustulent streaks and tarry ichor loomed large in the cavern, and Deke stumbled backward as the eye enlarged.

Porfirio, however, reached out and into the picture itself, his hand reaching into Father McCaig’s magnified eye to scoop out a thick handful of the black tar. Father McCaig roared, a booming sound that shook the cavern, and then the picture went black, the disc returning to a dim, featureless mirror.

Porfirio advanced on Deke, his hand dripping with black ooze.

“Oh, no,” said Deke, backing away. “You keep that away from me. I don’t need no part of that.”

Still Porfirio came, closing the distance with large strides, and Deke pulled out his knife.

“I don’t want to hurt you, Porfirio, but I ain’t letting you touch me with that.”

Deke held the knife in front of him, and when Porfirio stepped into range, lashed out. He intended to score a hit down the outside of his forearm, a cut designed to hurt, not to damage. But Porfirio stepped into it, grabbing Deke by the upper arm and causing the knife to stab him in his side.

Deke felt it glance off of Porfirio’s rib and winced, trying to pull the knife free. Porfirio clamped down on his arm and held him in place, making it bite in deeper. With his other hand, he reached out and smeared the black goo from Father McCaig’s eye across Deke’s face, slathering it across both of his eyes.

“Hell! Get it off!” Deke cursed, staggering away as Porfirio released him. He reached up to wipe his face clean, only to feel his wrists seized in two giant hands. “Let go of me, you big damn idiot!”

Deke opened his eyes to aim a kick at Porfirio, but what he saw froze him in his tracks. Were it not for the winestain birthmark covering what remained of his face, the man in front of Deke would have been unrecognizable. Half of his face was missing, all the way down to the bone underneath. The eye sat loosely in its bony socket, staring unblinking at Deke.

The rest of his body was no better. Skin, muscle, even organs were gone, ripped away in large chunks. At his feet sat a large wolf, its muzzle buried in the calf muscle of Porfirio’s right leg. It tore it away as Deke watched, blood spurting to cover the wolf’s face. Ice-blue eyes locked with his above a bloody grin, and Deke recognized the eyes of the grey-suited man from the park.

If any of this hurt Porfirio, he gave no sign. His skeletal hands still held all of his usual strength, and he dragged Deke across the floor. Deke followed numbly, unresisting, trying to piece together what he was looking at.

Before he could find the words to ask the question, Porfirio pushed him through the black disc, and Deke fell into darkness.

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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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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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Twists and Turns

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Though the path twisted and turned, some quirk of the mountain kept carrying the sounds of the priest’s mortal struggle to Deke’s ears. Deke hurried on to the best of his ability, making the most of Father McCaig’s inadvertent sacrifice. If the man was going to die for him, the least Deke could do was make it worthwhile.

To distract himself from the distant sounds, Deke told himself the story of what had happened, the version he would share when asked. He and Father McCaig had gotten lost on the path—no. Everyone knew you couldn’t get lost on the path. Father McCaig had returned to town claiming that there was an obstruction on the path, and Deke had gone to help him clear it. That didn’t square exactly with what Clarinda had heard, but it would be close enough that she’d think she’d misremembered. This version made more sense than the truth, anyway. Deke found that this was often the case. Lies were simple. The truth rarely was.

On the way to the obstruction—maybe a rockslide?—Father McCaig had argued with Deke that it would be too difficult to move, and they would do better to find an alternate route. Deke had been swayed by the holy man’s arguments, and had agreed to climb down the cliff in order to bypass the fallen rocks, trek into town and come back with enough men and equipment to clear the path.

The sounds of the fight continued to echo above him. How long could the priest hold out? Deke figured it couldn’t be much longer. He reloaded his gun in readiness for a second attack by the creature.

That thing. How would he paint it in the story? A vulture, maybe. Condor? Didn’t matter, some sort of large bird. He’d been climbing, hadn’t seen it well. It had knocked him for a loop, but the padre had distracted it long enough for Deke to finish his descent.

No, that still left Deke abandoning Father McCaig while he was under attack. It painted him in a bad light, even though there really had been no other choice. Better to have left with the padre in good health, and to simply be surprised when they returned to discover him dead.

Deke examined his story for holes. Why had he climbed down the mountain? That part was clear; the path was impassable. Of course, they’d find that there was nothing wrong with the pass, but Deke had taken Father McCaig’s word that there was. He’d never gone to look for himself. Why would the priest lie about something like that? It would be an odd mystery, but life had plenty of those.

How had he gotten so banged up? In this version, the rope climb was uneventful, so he needed another reason for the injuries he’d sustained. Deke pondered for a moment, then spoke aloud, narrating the scene.

“So there I was, still a mile or more outside of town. I round a bend in the path and there, standin’ in the middle just as bold as brass, is the biggest damn coyote you ever saw. He looks at me, I look at him, and we just stand there for a minute. I got my hand creeping slow toward my gun, and he’s dropping his head lower while his hackles go up.

“We both make a move at the same time. My gun clears leather, he charges. The Remington says its piece, and the yelp I hear says it made its point clear, but the coyote’s already in the air and he plows into me, all nails and snapping jaws.

“We scuffle for a minute, the two of us rollin’ and slidin’ down the gravel slope and getting all tore up. Finally we fetch up at the bottom and I lay a haymaker on him, knocking him clear. I’m up and leveling my piece, but he’s turned tail and run. I don’t see fit to waste the bullets.”

Deke nodded to himself, satisfied. The story stank of exaggeration and self-aggrandization. Some would take him at face value, but most would assume that the truth went like this: he had seen a coyote, fired, missed, panicked, turned to run and tumbled down a short slope. Satisfied that they had seen through his face-saving lies, they wouldn’t consider that the entire thing might be invented.

In Deke’s experience, people liked to feel smart, but they also liked not doing work. So if you gave them an easy success, they’d never hunt around for a second option.

The only question left was why hadn’t Deke just grabbed a few more of the men from Rosin’s Hollow to clear the rocks, instead of taking the hard route to town. Deke pondered that for a moment, then realized that the answer dovetailed with the truth, or close enough: they’d all been out at the Cerro Muerto Silver Mine, soon to be re-opened for business.

That fact alone ought to be enough to bring half the population of Contrition up the hill to see if it was true. And then once they found Father McCaig’s carcass, those two stories ought to drive anything else Deke said out of everyone’s heads. Hell, Deke could tell them he’d stepped off the side of the mountain and floated down light as a daisy, and he’d still only get third billing. Nothing was going to beat out a new vein of silver and the gory death of a holy man.

Assuming, of course, that Father McCaig died. Deke had been walking for several minutes now, and he could still hear the padre’s shouts and the braying of the mule. If anything, they sounded closer than ever.

Deke rounded a sharp corner and skidded to a halt, his ankles screaming in protest. Ahead of him stood Ol’ Sal, braying her lungs out and desperately trying to run away. She was prevented from doing so by Father McCaig, who was lying on his back at the cliff edge and clinging frantically to her lead with his left hand.

The nightmarish bird-thing crouched on Father McCaig’s ample stomach, battering his head with its wings and tearing at him with its teeth and talons. Blood and ichor stained the ground around the two, but it was clear that the padre was on the losing end of this fight.

“Hey!” shouted Deke. The sound was completely lost in the cacophony of Ol’ Sal’s brays, the creature’s shrieks and Father McCaig’s imprecations. So Deke drew his gun, aimed past the terrified mule and shot the creature squarely in the shoulder.

It reared up just as Ol’ Sal, panicked by the shot, kicked backwards with both legs in an attempt to free herself from whatever was pinning her in place. Her hooves connected solidly with the creature’s face and chest, sending it tumbling backward off of the cliff in a blur of feathers and black blood.

Seconds later, a thick squelch announced its impact with the ground.

“Padre! You all right?” Deke asked.

“I’ll be fine. Calm Sal down, please,” said the priest. Despite his words, he looked anything but fine. His cassock oozed with blood, and several deep rents marked his face.

“She can wait, Father,” Deke said, attempting to edge past the struggling mule.

“She can’t, boyo. Another pull like that last one and she’ll take me hand clean off.”

Deke glanced down to see that Ol’ Sal’s lead was tangled firmly around Father McCaig’s wrist. His hand was purple and swollen, and blood dripped from beneath the rope. He hadn’t been holding her in place intentionally. He’d just been completely unable to let go.

“Shh, Sal, shh. You know me. Look, it’s quiet now except for you. You’re the only one makin’ noise now, girl. Nothing to be afraid of. Calm. Calm.”

The mule’s eyes were still wide, but after a final uncertain bray she quieted down, and stilled enough to allow Deke to stroke her face. Although she leaned into his touch, she was visibly shaking. Large gashes in her flank showed that the creature had not solely focused on Father McCaig.

“It’s all right, girl. Shh. Now, just back up a step here so the padre can keep on holdin’ the crucifix and the collection plate at the same time without putting one or t’other in his mouth.”

On the ground, Father McCaig half-laughed, half-moaned. “Taking advantage of a man’s plight to force your commentary on religion on him? I thought better of ye, Deke.”

“I am who I am, Father,” said Deke. “T’ain’t on me what stories people tell themselves about what they think I am. I always said it plain for those who’ll listen.”

He knelt down and freed the priest’s hand from the mule’s lead. The rope had bitten deeply into his wrist, leaving a thick purple-and-black abrasion seeping blood.

“Can you bend it? Can you move your fingers?”

Father McCaig sat up painfully, wincing when he saw the damage. His fingers fluttered toward his palm before falling open again.

“Aye, though I think I’d much rather not. It’ll heal, Lord willing.”

With Deke’s help, the padre rose unsteadily to his feet. His shredded cassock revealed long gouges in the flesh beneath, and the slashes in his face crossed his right eye in a concerning manner.

“Can you open that eye, Father?”

“Again, boyo, I’d rather not at the moment. I think the lid might be holding it in just now.”

At the priest’s direction, Deke retrieved a roll of cloth from the mule’s saddlebags to use as bandages, and the two men set about patching up the worst of the wounds. The job was mediocre, but would at least keep the dust out as they traveled.

Deke helped Father McCaig back onto Ol’ Sal. “Which way do we ride, m’lad? Back to the Hollow or on to Contrition?”

Deke thought of his attempt to continue down the mountain. “I’m not sure it matters.”

“Then we’ll go as the the Lord sees fit.” Father McCaig coaxed Ol’ Sal down the mountain at a slow pace, Deke at their side.

After an hour’s ride, they saw a black shape in the path up ahead. A dozen feet later, the smell hit them, and Ol’ Sal balked. She refused to move forward until Deke, gun drawn, closed the distance to the corpse of the creature that had attacked them and shoved it over the next cliff. Even then, it was several minutes later before they could convince her to cross the spot where it had been.

The two men traveled on. A few minutes after they’d passed the spot of the creature’s demise, Father McCaig said, “Thank you for coming back for me, boyo.”

Deke wondered if the padre had noticed that the only footprints leading away from the creature’s corpse had gone down the mountain. “How could I not have, padre?”

“Indeed. The Lord must have plans for me yet.”

They rode in silence as the sun lowered around them, the rocks casting long shadows. It was nearly dusk before they emerged from the mountain path to see Rosin’s Hollow before them.

Sighing as one, Deke and Father McCaig headed back to Miz Blaumer’s boarding house.

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Thoughts and Preyers

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After the first few feet of descent, Deke started to relax. As long as he kept his focus on the wall itself and not on the magnitude of the drop beneath him, it wasn’t that bad. The rope was strong and sturdy, the mountain was crossed with thin diagonal ridges that provided acceptable toeholds, and on the whole it seemed like a very clever solution to escape whatever was going wrong with the trail.

“You’re doing fine, Deke!” Father McCaig called down from above. “Nearly there, more or less!”

Deke grinned. Sweat dripped down his face, and he leaned into his shoulder in an attempt to wipe it away. The motion knocked his hat off the back of his head, and though Deke made an automatic motion to try to catch it, his hands were both firmly gripping the rope. He twisted his head to watch it fall, but the hat’s dizzying descent put uncomfortable images of his own mortality into his head. Deke turned resolutely back toward the wall and continued making his way down the rope, slightly faster than before.

“It’ll be waiting for ye at the bottom, lad! Just keep climbing!”

Father McCaig’s well-intentioned comments were beginning to sound like mockery. Deke gritted his teeth. “Wouldn’t be so loud if you was the one on the rope, padre,” he muttered to the wall.

Suddenly, a distressed bray from Ol’ Sal split the air, followed by a shocked “Jesus in heaven!” from Father McCaig. Deke glanced up to see what was wrong, and for a split second had the impression that the padre had thrown something off of the cliff at him.

Then it hit, and any idea that this was an inanimate object ceased. It slammed into Deke in a confusing blur of oily feathers, sharp talons and leathery skin. It shrieked like an eagle, clawed like a puma and smelled like a week-old corpse. Deke was knocked flying from the wall, spinning wildly as he clung to the rope.

The creature followed along with him. It battered his face with its wings as it tore at his stomach with its talons. The stench was an assault all on its own, leaving Deke reeling. Unable to cover his nose, he held his breath and kicked wildly at his attacker.

One foot connected solidly and the thing was sent reeling back into the air, plummeting as it struggled to regain its orientation. Deke seized the momentary reprieve to tangle his left forearm in the rope. He let go with his right hand and pulled his Remington from its holster, trying to draw a bead on the erratically flying creature.

His first shot went wide as the thing flapped past him, gaining altitude. Deke hesitated, unwilling to fire toward the top of the cliff without knowing where the padre was. When the creature screeched and dove at him, however, his reticence vanished and he fired a shot directly into its onrushing form.

Deke was sure that the shot hit, but it didn’t even seem to slow his assailant down. Its thick gash of a mouth gaped wide, revealing an interior stuffed with edged teeth. It bit down on Deke’s left bicep, shredding the shirt and the skin, muscle and meat beneath.

Pain shot through Deke’s arm and his hand automatically popped open. For a moment, the rope he had wrapped around his forearm held him in place, but as Deke grabbed frantically for a new grip the creature shook its head viciously. The wound tore wide and Deke’s arm was ripped free from the rope. With nothing to hold him up but the creature itself, Deke fell.

For all of the careful plans Deke had made in his life, it was sheer luck that saved him now. His ankles tangled in the rope as he fell, swinging his body around to catch him upside down, dangling painfully from one foot. He crashed painfully back-first into the rock wall, cracking his head hard enough to make stars explode in the edge of his vision. His gun went tumbling away to the distant ground. From Deke’s dazed perspective, the gun seemed to be falling upward, floating away.

The creature was also knocked free, falling tail over head in an ungainly mass as it straightened out its feathers again. Deke shook the haze clear of his head, grabbed the rope and worked his foot free. Upright again, he wrapped his legs around the rope and began to slide recklessly downward, heedless of the friction burning his palms or the thick fibers tearing off in his skin. He was desperate to gain the ground before the creature was on him again.

Deke’s left arm throbbed, blood pouring freely from the wound. It stung with sweat and with the creature’s noxious saliva, its thick burning pain a counterpoint to the fire in his hands from the rope. Deke heard a screech above him and slackened his grip, sliding even faster. He could feel the heat in his knees and thighs now, burning through his pants.

A quick glance downward showed Deke that he was still a dozen feet or more from the ground. The path below looked relatively flat, though, and so he released the rope entirely and dropped. A wave of foul air swept over him as the creature dove at where he had just been, missing him by inches.

Deke hit the ground to a flare of pain in both ankles, causing him to drop and roll awkwardly. He fetched up against the cliff wall with something metallic glinting next to his face. It took only a moment for Deke to realize that it was his gun, largely undamaged from the fall. He scooped it up and aimed for the sky, not bothering to stand.

A black shape wheeled high above him, screaming. Deke fired three shots at it. It shrieked its defiance and dove—not at him, but at the black-clad figure at the top of the cliff. Father McCaig’s fearful shouts carried down to Deke, barely audible beneath the constant terrified braying of his mule.

Deke rose to a crouch and stared up the cliff at the distant fight, the struggle occasionally visible as the creature took to the air or the combatants neared the edge. If he had been close enough to be of any help to the padre, he absolutely would. But from down here, all that heading back up the path would do would be to potentially get him lost in its strange loop again.

With his left arm streaming blood, his hands and thighs burned raw, his ankles bruised and bloody and his whole body aching, Deke took one last look up the mountain path. He picked up his hat, turned away from the cries of Father McCaig and Ol’ Sal, and began to limp down the mountain path toward Contrition as quickly as he could.

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No Path to Contrition

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Deke frowned over Clarinda’s shoulder. The two watched from inside the boarding house as Ol’ Sal ambled down the street, burdened by the unmistakable figure of the padre. “I seen him on his way this morning. Maybe a rockfall closed the path?”

Clarinda looked worried. “I hope not. We’re due for resupply in two days. We’re not in a position to go an extra month in between.”

“Well, I can take Porfirio and th’others to clear what needs clearing. If it’s a bad enough job that we cain’t do it in two days, at least we can meet him at the block and figure something out. Worse comes to worst, we’ll find a new way down and make our own supply run into town.”

“You know full well there ain’t no new way down, Deke. ‘Less you got wings you ain’t been telling me about, we got the one path and that’s it.” Despite her words, Clarinda did look comforted by Deke’s declaration.

“Well, we’ll clear what needs clearing, then. One thing you can say about folks round here is that they’ll do what needs doing.”

Outside, the padre hitched his mule to a post and slowly maneuvered his way off of the animal. He made his way inside with a stiff-legged gait and greeted the pair.

“A surprising evening to ye, Deke, Clarinda. Clarinda m’lass, tell me I haven’t missed your fine supper?”

“There’ll be plenty for you, Father.” Clarinda excused herself to the kitchen, leaving the two men alone in the bar area. Father McCaig sank into a chair with a sigh and rubbed his legs.

“Hell carries no punishments half so fierce as a day’s ride on a mule,” he complained. “And I suppose I’ve got it to look forward to again tomorrow.”

“Is the path blocked, Father? We’ll go with you tomorrow to clear it.”

“Well, not exactly. Not exactly blocked, nae. I more got turned around.”

Deke snorted. “Sorry for laughing, Father. But how? Ain’t the easiest path to traverse, true, but it’s pretty damn hard to get lost. So long as the mule’s front end is lower than its back end, you’re pointin’ downhill. Keep going like that and you’ll be off Cerro Muerto. Don’t take no navigation. Just gravitation.”

“Sure, and that’s what I’d swear on the saints I did. But somehow I found meself coming around a bend t’see the Hollow laid out in the distance, as if I’d just come down off the peak itself to find you.

“Course, that was early in the day. I didn’t understand what happened, but I could see the path down well enough, complete with Sal’s hoofprints. So I passed on through and tried again, retracing my steps and looking for where I’d gone wrong.

“I never found it, though.” The padre stood, crossed to the bar and poured himself a drink. He raised the glass to Deke. “I’ll tell Clarinda to add this to me bill at dinner, but I can’t wait til then to drink it.”

“So you got turned around twice?” Deke asked, disbelieving. There simply wasn’t any way to accidentally head up Cerro Muerto when you thought you were going down. He’d ridden that trail plenty of times. There were ways for a man on foot to scramble down if he cared to press his luck, but for a man on a mule there was only the one path.

“Twice?” Father McCaig laughed. “I’ve made it me calling to bring the word of the Lord to the remotest parts of this fine land. Do you think I’d let a trail beat me after two failures? With the medallion of St. Christopher in my hand, I set out a third time.

“I watched every step Ol’ Sal took. Kept me peepers peeled for any possible turn or branch. I tell you with a certainty that we traveled downhill the entire time.

“And when I found meself facing Rosin’s Hollow for a third time, that’s when I admitted the trail had beaten me.”

The padre took a long pull from his drink, then shook his head slowly. “I’ll be back on the mule tomorrow, I suppose. For now, would you help me unload her? For certain she’d like her supper as much as I’d like mine, and we’ll both need our strength and our wits about us come the morn.”

Over supper, Father McCaig related his tale to Clarinda and Taylor, who reacted much as Deke had: with polite incredulity. Though the desire to accept the holy man’s version of events was strong, his tale was just unbelievable. There was simply no way to get lost leaving Rosin’s Hollow.

Hurt or killed, certainly. Though the path had been widened for the wagons traveling to and from the mine, a misstep in certain places would still send you tumbling hundreds of feet down sheer cliffs. Even a broken ankle out there likely meant death by exposure long before the next traveler came along. But though the trail wound back and forth down the mountain like a snake with a broken back, it never split or fed back into itself.

However, there was no polite way to suggest that Father McCaig had fallen asleep and let the mule lead him where it would, or that he was simply lying for some unfathomable reason. So instead, Deke simply offered to ride along with the padre the next day, an offer which was gratefully accepted.

“You want me to come along too, Pa?” Taylor asked through a mouthful of food.

Deke pretended to consider this, then shook his head. “Nah. You’ve got work to do at the mine, finding out if’n you can follow this silver without dropping no more of the mine on your thick skull. You keep to that while I see the padre on his way.”

Though the excuse he gave was valid, in truth Deke was still avoiding Taylor as much as possible. Experience told him that when a situation got out of his control—and certainly killing a partner only to have him come back from the dead counted as out of control—he should cut and run. This instinct warred with the fact that the finish line of this con was in sight, and looking like it would pay off with no repercussions, a definite rarity. With the mine actually producing, Deke’s con would turn out to be a legitimate business deal. No amount of careful planning could match the security that came from actually not having anyone after you.

Deke told himself that perhaps tomorrow, after leading the padre down to the town of Contrition, he would just keep going. He’d pack the essentials so that he could make the call once he was there, and not here where inertia was holding him back. But in his heart, he already knew his answer. The Cerro Muerto payoff was almost in his grasp.

“Well, don’t that beat all,” said Deke, staring out at Rosin’s Hollow. The mountain loomed behind him, a solid and implacable mass of stone. Before him was the pass leading down to Contrition. But although he and the padre had set out down that path hours before, heading downhill the entire time, they’d just emerged to find themselves exactly back where they’d begun.

“I knew you weren’t believing me yesterday, but I imagine you do now,” Father McCaig said, a hint of satisfaction in his voice.

“It’s not that I meant to doubt you, Father. It’s just that I couldn’t rightly figure how a man could get lost going down a slope and end up at the top.”

“You see my confusion.”

“Well, and I still don’t understand it, but at least I can see it happening, and that’s something. I like to think of myself as a pragmatic man. We can figure out a way through this.”

The two men set out again. Deke dragged a long stick behind him as he rode, cutting a shallow furrow into the sandy dirt of the path. If they crossed their own path now, or came anywhere in view of it, he’d know it by the distinctive mark.

Several hours later, Deke snapped the stick in half in disgust, throwing both pieces to the ground. Ahead of him sat Rosin’s Hollow. To his left, the only path out led down the slope of Cerro Muerto, a shallow furrow cut into its center. He looked back at the trail behind him leading up the mountainside, that same furrow stretching out until it vanished around a corner.

“Something’s wrong,” he said unnecessarily. “We’re gonna have to figure something else out.”

They sat in silence for a moment as Deke considered and discarded options as implausible, unworkable or suicidal. Finally he found one that was not quite any of the three. Or so he hoped.

“All right, padre,” he said. “Let’s try this one more time. This go-round, we’re looking for two things: a nice long cliff-face down, and something sturdy to anchor a rope to at the top of it.”

Father McCaig looked skeptically at Deke. “Boyo, in what world do you see me climbing down a rope?”

“I’ll do the climbing, padre. If it works, I’ll come on back up the path to you and we’ll find out where we went wrong. If it doesn’t, you head back to Rosin’s Hollow and bring me some help. I don’t aim to die out here.”

A short time later, Deke found himself standing at the edge of a hundred foot drop, staring down at the rocks far below. His hempen rope was knotted to a gnarled tree, but it looked thin and precarious dangling down the unyielding rock wall. He sat down on the edge and took a firm hold of the rope.

“God be with you, Deke,” said Father McCaig.

“Him and whoever else you got,” Deke answered, stepping off the edge. He looked up to give the padre a grin, and saw a vulture circling far overhead.

“Well, ain’t that a fine omen,” Deke muttered, lowering his eyes to stare at the rock wall before him. Hand over hand on the rope, feet seeking precarious holds on the rock face, he slowly lowered himself down the mountain.

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Stick to the Plan

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“Well then,” said Father McCaig. “‘Tis once more upon the creaky floors of good lady Blaumer’s establishment, and I’ll be on me way. Farewell, Deke! May you do well and live proper.”

“Don’t go blessin’ me out just yet. Taylor and I’ll help ya load up Ol’ Sal, and we’ll see ya to the edge of town, at least.”

Father McCaig glanced down the short street, his eyes twinkling. “Well, I wouldn’t want to be putting you out any.”

“I think we can just about manage it, padre. Tell you what: we’ll even go with you to the pass proper.”

“Well, now that is a parade indeed!”

“A full quarter of the town to see you off, padre. How many can say that?”

“Saints, martyrs and thieves. Those that people can’t believe are leaving, and those who they want to make sure won’t come back. So which am I to you, Deke?”

“I’d be lying if’n I said it weren’t a bit of both, padre,” Deke laughed. “You’re a good man and I’m fortunate to have someone like you t’care about my soul, but it’ll be good to sleep in on a Sunday morning again.”

“Well, I’ll take your honesty so long as it comes with a strong pair of arms to load up Ol’ Sal. I never can get her to hold still during the process.”

“She’s an ornery old cuss,” Deke agreed, “but I reckon she sees a kindred spirit in me. Taylor ‘n me’ll get you set.”

“What d’ye figure them trunks weigh, Deke?” Taylor asked reflectively as they watched Father McCaig disappear slowly down the winding mountain path.

Deke shot him a look, and Taylor sighed. “What d’ye figure them trunks weigh, Pa?”

“Sixty all told?” Deke shrugged. “No big fuss to pick up. Why?”

“To pick up, sure, but say you’re Ol’ Sal there. Pile on the padre there, and you’ve got to be talkin’ near half her weight.”

“Nothin’ you or me couldn’t carry. Half our weight, I mean.”

“Lift, maybe, but carry? For ten, twenty miles at a go?”

“She’s a mule. S’what she does.”

“Sure, but I’ve seen a mule’s bones. They’re no different’n ours.”

“What’s your point, Taylor?”

“No point, really. Just ruminating. It’s funny what you can build with the same parts, is all.”

The two men stood in silence for a moment, the hot sun beating down on their backs.

“So what’s yer bluster, Pa?”

Deke turned to regard Taylor curiously. “How d’ye mean?”

“Well, you made sure I came out here with you to see the padre off, which means you were looking for an excuse to get me alone away from the town’s ears. And you got irritated when I didn’t call you Pa, which means you’re feeling on edge. Combine that with the way you were pressin’ me with questions last night, and it seems pretty clear you got something on your mind.”

Deke shook his head slowly. “I heard of people getting knocked stupid by a hit on the head. I ain’t never heard of no one getting knocked smart before.”

“C’mon, Deke,” Taylor grinned. “You wouldn’ta picked no one dumb to partner up with.”

I wouldn’ta picked no one smart, neither, Deke thought. He regarded the young man before him for a moment. Washed up and dressed in clean clothes, he didn’t seem much the worse for wear from yesterday’s adventures. Aside from a few scrapes on his face and the bandages on his forearms, he appeared totally unscathed.

But Deke knew that beneath those bandages, long slashes criss-crossed Taylor’s arms. He’d put them there himself, knocking the boy’s guard aside so that he could bury his knife in Taylor’s heart. It wasn’t anything he’d wanted to do, but it had had to be done, and so he’d done it. And Deke wasn’t in the habit of doing a job badly. Bad jobs left loose ends, and those could come back to trip you up at inconvenient times.

Taylor standing before him now, a day after he’d been dead and buried, was one hell of a loose end.

“Gimme the straight answers, Taylor,” Deke said, lowering his voice. “No one to hear us now. What’s yer plan?”

Taylor furrowed his brow. “Same as it’s always been. Show ‘em the silver, let the world know, sell our stake and head for the hills. It’s your plan, Deke. Why are you asking?”

Deke sighed. “Taylor, you’re telling me you don’t remember nothing of Friday night?”

“Drinking away our bad luck, same as usual. Maybe more’n usual, since next I can recollect I was groaning in a mine with a load of rocks on my noggin, and it turns out that was Saturday night. I figure that was probably more the boulders than the bourbon, though. I had the seed stuff with me, so once I dug out I figured it was as good a time as any to get things going.

“You’re telling me you didn’t know nothing about this?”

“Taylor,” Deke started, then stopped. He sighed again. “Hell, boy. If we’re doing it, let’s do it. That cave-in what trapped you makes good sense of why no one saw this vein before, and the padre leaving when he did might get us an early start on the rumors of new life in the mine. So you’re right, let’s do this.”

“You’re holding something back, Deke.”

Deke squinted at Taylor, staring into his eyes. If the boy was pulling one over on him, Deke couldn’t see it in his face. He spoke slowly, choosing his words carefully, sticking to the truth wherever he could to give his words the ring of sincerity.

“Here’s why I’ve been hounding you, boy. Friday night, you got drunk. And you got impatient. ‘Bout the time we shoulda been retiring to our room, I was out in the desert halfway to the mine, having a hollerin’ match with you. You said we was wastin’ our time, and we needed to get started. You wanted to go plant it then and there, I think, and middle of the night be damned. And you told me that if I wouldn’t help you, then you’d do it yourself.

“I reasoned with you. I argued with you. And when you turned to go anyway, I knocked your daylights out.”

Taylor snorted a laugh. “And then what?”

“And then I dragged your snoring carcass back to the damn boarding house, that’s what! I had to sneak y’upstairs like some damn Lothario to avoid answering any questions from Miz Blaumer or anyone else who mighta been awake. I chucked your sorry ass into bed, draped a blanket over ye and thought we was done with it. So when I woke up yesterday morning to find you gone, I cursed you for a fool and got ready to deal with the fallout.”

Deke liked to think of himself not as a liar, but rather as someone who told the truth as it should have been. In a good world, a fair world, that would have been how it happened. Taylor never would have pulled a knife on Deke, standing there swaying in the desert as he threatened to cut Deke open and see if he had any guts. He never would have sworn to kill Deke if he got in his way. And so Deke never would have had to pull his own knife and make sure that Taylor’s threats never came to fruition. He should have just slept it off and come to his senses in the morning. It would have been a better way for life to be. And it certainly would make a lot more sense out of how Taylor was standing here now.

Taylor slowly shook his head in bemusement. “I don’t remember a bit of this, Deke. Not the fight, not going to the mine, nothing. I don’t even remember getting the seed silver to plant.”

“Well, and that’s the funny thing. Y’didn’t.”

“But I had it in my bag!”

“You had some kind of silver in your bag, sure. But I checked the trunk after you came back, and every one of our chunks is still there. I was wondering how you’d managed to get the key off of me, but seems the answer is you never did.”

“So hold on. You’re saying that rock I found ain’t the seed silver?”

“That’s exactly what I’m saying. I’ve still got every piece we brought.”

“Then…this is actually from the mine?”

“Looks like, son.”

Taylor broke into a grin. “Well, don’t that beat all. You got a contingency plan for this one, old man?”

“I’ll tell you straight,” Deke said, returning the grin. “I do not.”

“Well, hell! We came out here to sell a dream, and damned if we didn’t find it was true after all. We still gonna sell?”

“I reckon so. Make our profit, split our shares and go our separate ways. Never try to ride the game past the ending.”

“So what’s next for us after that?”

Deke raised an eyebrow at him. “Nothing’s next for ‘us.’ We go our separate ways, like I said.”

“I thought that was only the plan for when they might be lookin’ for a father-and-son duo.”

“The plan was good when there wasn’t silver. It’ll be good if there is silver. Stick to the plan.”

Besides, Deke didn’t add, I ain’t keen on being around if you suddenly remember some of them cuts didn’t come from the cave-in. He still wasn’t sure how Taylor was up at all. But Father McCaig had spoken about stranger happenings just about every Sunday, so Deke allowed how it was possible.

Miracles or not, though, he knew one thing was true: stick to the plan. Talk up the silver mine, sell the land in the boom, get out of town. If there was actual silver, that just lowered the odds of anyone coming looking for him later. And if the mine was bringing people back from the dead, Deke was just fine leaving that for someone else to handle.

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