Clearing the Way

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Deke spat, half to clear the thick scent of the rot grubs from his mouth, and half in general disgust.

“Suppose this’s no different’n usual choices,” he muttered. “But it’s no fun knowing that someone already knows if you’re choosing right or wrong.”

He closed the book and tucked it away in his waistband again, opting for the clearer protection of the gun. The mine tunnel stretched away in two directions, intermittent lights keeping the dark at bay. Deke pondered which way to go. 

The book offered its suggestion with a faint pulse at his back. The glyph for Know loomed in his mind, barbed with teeth.

“Don’t think so,” said Deke. “You said it yourself: that ain’t a price I’m willing to pay. Got this far on my own. Guess I’m gonna keep pressin’ my luck.”

Deke opened the glass on the lantern before him and studied its flame for a few moments, noting which way it shivered. Though its movements were subtle, it indicated a slight wind from one direction, presumably the way out.

“Deeper in or to the surface?” Deke asked himself. Fleetingly, he missed the surety of his guided steps through Porfirio’s labyrinth. After a moment’s hesitation, though, he trusted to his instincts and headed toward the outside.

Deke was rewarded a short while later by the sound of voices in casual conversation. Gun in hand, he pressed himself against the wall, partially concealed by a support timber, and waited.

“…here?’ Say yes here,” came Ray’s rough tones.

“Yes?” Elmer’s voice, slightly questioning. Both men were drawing closer.

Ray continued: “‘Then by jabers!’ says the Irishman. ‘Put me on the scales!’”

Ray laughed long and loud at his own joke, the noise echoing off of the walls. Elmer joined in politely. The two men were still laughing when they rounded the corner. Their laughter died abruptly as they saw Deke, gun drawn, waiting for them.

“Deke,” said Ray. “‘Bout damn time you got here. You don’t look real ready to work, though. What’s with the piece?”

“Been a rough sort of day,” Deke told him.

Through his right eye, Ray looked normal: clothes worn but serviceable, a mild grime of rock dust from the mine, pickaxe carried over his shoulder. Elmer looked much the same, with the addition of a lantern and a helmet. Both looked wary, but not threatening or alarming in any way.

Deke’s left eye, still marked with Reveal, told a different story. The flames Deke had seen on Ray at the bar still wreathed his hands. They flickered and flared up restlessly, looking for something to burn. Down near Ray’s ankle, glowing dully beneath his thick work pants, was a light that Deke knew came from Contain, the symbol he had seen carved there earlier. A similar light shone from Elmer’s left arm, illuminating the fabric of his shirt from within.

Ray took a slight step to the side, subtly positioning himself so that Elmer was between him and Deke. “Well, you can see it’s just us, now. So lower the gun. We ain’t armed.”

“Got them axes,” Deke replied. “So I’ll just keep this up and we’ll all keep our distance.”

“What are you doing, Deke?” Elmer asked, his voice pitching higher than normal. “It’s us! Taylor’ll be along in a moment. You know us.”

“I do know you. I do,” Deke said reflectively. “But I don’t know about that thing you got carved onto you.”

Elmer flinched, left hand rising to brush his thumb against his shoulder. “What—what thing?”

“You got no poker face, Elmer. That symbol on your shoulder, beneath your shirt there.”

“How’d you know about that?”

“Ray told me.”

“Don’t you go pinning this on me!” Ray exploded. “I didn’t tell you nothing. And you’re a fine one to talk about symbols, with that thing creeping on your face. Reveal, ain’t it?”

Ray’s mouth contorted around the alien syllables, and for a moment the world rippled. The silver streak vanished from the mine walls, leaving scarred rock in its place before reappearing. Deke’s finger tightened on the trigger.

“I know what I’ve done, and what it’s cost me,” Deke said. “Say a word like that again and I’ll shoot you before you can finish it.”

Elmer shrank back against the wall. Ray followed him, making sure to keep the younger man between himself and Deke.

“C’mon, Deke,” Elmer pleaded. “It’s us. You ain’t gonna shoot us.”

“I don’t aim to. But there’s something I need you to do.”

“What’s that?”

“Take that symbol off of your arm.”

“I can’t, Deke! It’s not a come-off kinda thing. I carved it.”

Deke pulled his knife free from its sheath, never lowering the gun. He tossed it toward Elmer, letting it clatter onto the tunnel floor. “Then uncarve it.”

“You can’t be serious!”

“I’m dead serious.”

“Deke, I—” Elmer’s frightened eyes tracked the gun barrel as Deke shifted slightly to aim past Elmer’s shoulder.

“Ray,” Deke said evenly, “you’re gonna want to stop edging away.”

“I wasn’t!”

“Powerful glad to hear it. Musta been some kinda error in my sight. Either way, go ahead and add ‘sneaking off’ to the list of things that’ll get you shot right now. Elmer, pick up that knife.”

Slowly, Elmer placed the lantern and pickaxe on the ground and knelt to retrieve the knife. He stood back up, knife in hand and eyes on Deke.

“Deke, it ain’t doing no harm. It’s just letting us work better.”

“That’s as may be. But I’m clearing those symbols out of this town, and I can’t let you leave if you’re wearing one.”

Elmer rolled up his shirt sleeve. Contain glared out at Deke, written in bloody gouges.

“It’s cut deep, Deke. How’m I supposed to take it off?”

Deke motioned to the cuts in his shirt. “Breaking the lines’ll do it. But I want you to mar that up. I don’t want no one recreating it from what they can see.”

“There’s gotta be another way!”

“There is,” said Deke. “But neither one of us wants it.”

Elmer raised the knife with a shaking hand and placed the blade against his arm, flinching. He pressed down with the edge, dimpling his flesh, then stopped.

“Deke, I can’t. I can’t!”

“Oh, gimme the knife,” snarled Ray. He snatched it from Elmer’s hand. With quick, decisive cuts, he slashed the symbol beyond recognition.

Taylor wailed and crumpled to the ground, blood gushing from his arm. It spurted in great arterial gouts, splashing against the wall and pooling on the uneven floor. Ray and Deke both stared in shock.

“Step back,” Deke said, motioning with the gun. Ray took a halting step backward and Deke advanced, awkwardly tearing a strip from his already tattered shirt. He closed the distance toward Elmer in quick, decisive strides.

As Deke knelt to bandage the spurting wound, however, fire flared in his left eye. He whipped his head up to see Ray, fists blazing, swinging his pickaxe in a killing blow aimed straight at Deke’s head.

Deke pushed off of the wall into an ungainly somersault, the book digging into his back. The axe slammed into the floor, sending up chips of rock. Deke rose to his feet in time to see Ray rushing toward him, axe already swinging for another strike.

Deke stepped inside of the strike, pressed his gun against Ray’s chest and pulled the trigger. The report was deafening in the confined space.

The axe clattered against the far wall. Ray staggered backward, a look of disbelief on his face. A red stain bloomed on his shirt, cascading downward.

“You…you…” he began. Blood spattered onto his lips, forming a pink froth at the corners of his mouth. “I’ll kill you!”

He rushed at Deke again. Deke stepped backward, picked up Ray’s fallen pickaxe and swung it in a low arc, burying the point in Ray’s ankle.

Ray choked out half of a scream as his legs crumpled beneath him. He hit the ground heavily and lay still.

Deke wrenched the pickaxe free and knelt to examine the wound. His aim had been true; the gash was just off-center of the mark that had been Contain.

Deke stepped over Ray’s body and returned to Elmer, who was still moaning and clutching his arm. With swift moves, he wrapped the cloth bandage around Elmer’s upper arm and patted him gently on the shoulder.

“You’ll be all right, boy. You’re better off without that thing anyway, no matter how it feels now. Go home, get your wife and get out of here.”

Elmer made no reply, but the stern woman that Deke had seen before flared briefly into life in his left eye, standing over him. She shook her head solemnly, then vanished.

“I don’t even know what you are,” Deke told the air where she had been, “and I don’t much care. This boy’s getting to Contrition. And you, and whatever made you, are staying here.”

Deke resheathed his knife, adjusted the book and set off slowly down the tunnel.

“Taylor?” he called. “Just you and me now, son. Time to talk this out.”

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Deke did not look at the book as he drew. He did not think about his steps. He did not consider why the monument had grown so dramatically in size, or why the walls now bled, or why deep purple stains mottled the bony columns. He simply walked and drew, as if there was nothing else in the world but him and the book.

Hours passed, and then abruptly the path opened up into a gargantuan chamber, so tall that the ceiling vanished into darkness. The floor stretched out, empty and abandoned, for what looked like miles. Deke glanced down at his book. His pencil was near the center of the symbol, the line almost looped back on itself. This was the final piece.

Deke stepped forward. His boots sloshed through a thick, bloody slurry covering the ground to a depth of several inches. It smelled rich and rotten, the slightly-sweet stink of infected blood. Deke ignored it and pressed on, stepping carefully in case the liquid hid treacherous ground beneath. His pencil inched ever closer to its final connection.

Ahead of him, two cavernous pits loomed in the wall, each one twice his height. Both were filled with an inky blackness, looking like deep ponds somehow turned onto their sides. An enormous purple mark stretched up along the wall, intersecting the rightmost pit. Its contours were a perfect mirror for the winestain birthmark that was Porfirio’s most memorable feature.

Deke stopped in front of the twin pits, uncertain what to do next. Porfirio had placed his hand against the darkness to activate it, but Deke had no idea how Porifirio had caused it to show what he wanted to see, or how he had made it function as a portal. For that matter, Deke had no real idea what it was that he wanted here. He had been following the path as a method of completing the rune. When he made the final mark, Know would be completely inscribed in the book.

The other escaped runes had vanished from their spots when he had re-added them to the book. Deke was inside of this one, in some sort of space-bending, stretched-out version of reality. Deke wasn’t certain what would happen when he completed this glyph, but he suspected that he would not have hours to find his way back out along the path.

Deke waved at the portals. “Porfirio? Any tips, hombre?”

There was no response, no reaction. Deke frowned, pondering. The book shifted slightly, its leather cover sliding smoothly against his hand.

“Yeah, yeah, I know your solution,” said Deke testily. “Keep getting more dependent on you until I’m just another body for you, like Taylor. Well, you ain’t my only friend here.”

Deke looked around the empty chamber. “So long as I can get him to notice me, anyway.”

Abruptly, Deke swore. He knelt, carefully shifting the book to his right knee again, and freed his knife from its sheath with his left hand. Working the tip into a fold of his shirt, Deke gingerly slid the knife in and ripped upward.

It sliced a ragged hole through the fabric, cutting through several key lines of the Overlook rune Deke had painted onto his shirt to avoid the grubs. The word was severed, and suddenly the room felt less empty, more attentive. The two empty black pits seemed to regard Deke like a tremendous pair of eyes.

“Howdy,” said Deke. “Got me now? I could use a tip, if you’ve got anything for me.”

The pit on the right brightened. The featureless black surface suddenly showed a rock wall framed by thick overhanging timbers, a lantern dangling from the crossbeam. The lantern’s light glinted off of a dingy vein of silver streaking the wall, threading through the rough-cut rocks. The tunnel appeared empty, but the presence of a still-burning light suggested that the miners were still nearby.

At the same time, dim light poured from the left pit. This one showed Bucephalus plodding slowly along a winding mountain path. White patches stood out on his sides, thick rectangles where his cuts and gouges from the fight with Father McCaig’s congregation had been patched up. He looked none the worse for wear, though, still moving steadily along, solid and reliable.

Clarinda Blaumer was on his back, dressed in what looked like an old pair of her husband’s pants for riding. She looked tired but focused. The rocky expanse of Cerro Muerte loomed behind her. Ahead of her rose the buildings of Contrition, mere blocky shadows against the near-dawn horizon.

Deke broke into a grin. “That’s something, at least.”

“The paths are open,” said a familiar voice, startlingly close. Deke jumped, grabbing the book and rising to his feet. The grey-suited man stood at his left shoulder, smiling his wolf’s grin. “Which will you choose?”

Deke regarded him with distrust. “So it’s a trap, then.”

“A choice, is all.”

“And one is wrong?”

“Both lead to different results.” The man’s grin grew wider, enjoying Deke’s irritation.

“Which one do I want?”

“The correct one, of course.”

“And which would that be?”

“This one,” indicating the portal on the left, “takes you to Contrition, as you can see. You leave. You escape. You rejoin Miz Blaumer and make of that anything, or nothing. You move on with your life.”

“Carrying the book with me to tempt and taunt me until I finally give in, I imagine?”

The grey-suited man shook his head. “No, you’ve already turned that option down. You would leave the book here. You complete my word, you close the book, and you leave it here as you make your exit. The word is drawn into the book, and the book is still inside the word. It all wraps up into a very neat package. You never see it, or any of this, again. As I said, you move on.”

“And the other?”

“That one leaves you in the mine, as you can see. You take the book back where it came from, and you make your own way out from there as best as you can, as far as brains and brawn can take you.”

“Which one is better?”

“I’ll tell you this,” said the man. “Porfirio opened one of those paths. I opened the other.”

“Which is better?”

“For you, personally? My path. Though Porfirio obviously meant well.”

Deke suppressed a snarl. “And which path is yours?”

The man shook his head. “You don’t want to pay the price that answer requires.”

Deke turned away from him, regarding the choices before him. The option to leave called to him, buoyed by the promise that it would truly end if he took that choice. The book and all of its madness would be left in the past. Life would resume.

It was appealing, too appealing. It felt like a trick. He turned his attention to the mine.

The silver shone like a mocking smile, the reality of everything Deke had tried to fake. The book had been unleashed from there somehow, released by his actions. He had the opportunity to go back and set it right, to fix what he had made wrong. He could beard the monster in its lair, defeat it once and for all, then ride off or die with a clean conscience.

It was appealing. Too appealing. Just like the other, it felt like a trick.

“Some kinda choice you gave me here,” Deke muttered. 

The grey-suited man grinned, his eyes dancing. “Complete the rune and choose.”

Deke took a deep breath, then choked. A wave of stench rolled into the room, drowning out the warm tang of blood. His eyes snapped to the doorway, where several colossal grubs were jostling for space. They spilled into the room, their odor of filth a dark herald of the danger to come.

“Time’s short. Choose now.”

“Will you tell me whose I picked after I go through?” Deke’s pencil hovered over the page. The man merely smiled.

Deke hesitated for one final second, then stepped firmly toward the mine. As his body passed through, his pencil completed the rune. A rush of foul air shot past Deke as space contorted, collapsing in on itself, and the lantern before him swung briefly, its flame dancing.

Deke stood in the mine. Behind him was nothing but a blank rock wall. The book sat open in his hands, Know leering up at him. A final sentence rang mockingly in his head, the last words delivered by the grey-suited man as Deke made his choice:

“I will not.”

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Behind Porfirio, the ground shimmered in the rising heat. For a moment, the scrubland behind him disappeared in a mirage, replaced by the fleeting image of a dark, still lake. Its vivid appearance brought a memory to the surface of Deke’s mind unbidden.

In the memory, Deke stood on a path in a well-manicured park, a place of solitude and tranquility. It was a cool and peaceful day. Puffy white clouds drifted languidly across the sky. Lush grass grew on either side of the path, a thick green carpet completely unlike anything in the desert. It stretched down a gentle hill on each side of the path, leading to a pair of lakes.

Each lake was alive with fish, tiny darting shadows flitting briefly in and out of view. In one lake, the fish were silver, their scales bright enough that they reflected the sun back in sudden glints when they came close enough to the surface. In the other, every fish was black. Their subtle shapes were harder to see in the murky waters, but they were no less lively for that.

As Deke had stood there watching the fish, a man in a neatly tailored grey suit had approached him. The man’s poise and bearing spoke of an easy confidence learned through years of practice. His smile was open and friendly, his manner warm. Everything about him was welcoming. Deke liked him immediately, and trusted him not at all. He recognized too many of his own attitudes in this stranger.

“Hail, fellow,” the man had said, a smile resting lightly on his lips. “Fellow artist.”

Deke had raised an eyebrow, and the man had shrugged. “Artisan, if you prefer. We know our own.”

They had looked at the lakes in silence for a while before the grey-suited man spoke again. “Amazing that they can contain so much life, is it not? And so much more beneath the surface, so many we’ll never see.”

He had paused reflectively before continuing, “And yet—every one is the same. Seems almost a shame, does it not? No variety, not truly.”

Deke had noticed then that the man carried with him a metal pail filled with water. Inside it was a jet-black fish twice the size of Deke’s hand, swimming in slow circles. Its body curved to avoid the edges of the bucket, but even so its fins and tail regularly bumped up against the sides. The container was far too small for it, and Deke had felt an urge to seize it from the man and release the fish into the lake.

Instead, he had asked, “You get that from that lake over there?”

“No,” the man had said, surprise tingeing his tone. “Rather the other way around, in fact.”

“You saying that the lake got the fish from you?”

“Indeed, but there are more interesting questions to be asked here.” The man had cast his gaze up and down the path, as if searching for someone. Finding no one, he had shrugged.

“Well, let us force the issue.” The grey-suited man had indicated the lake full of silvery fish with a tilt of his head and a slight heft of his bucket. “Do you mind?”

“Ain’t my lake.”

“You’d be surprised.” With that enigmatic statement, the grey-suited man had stepped lightly down the hill, heading for the lake. He had closed to within a half-dozen feet and was lifting the bucket to dump it in, when a sudden turmoil in the water caused him to stop.

Silver fish had scattered in every direction as Porfirio strode forth from beneath the lake, water cascading off of him. He had come to a halt before the grey-suited man, his body a physical barrier separating the man from the lake.

“Porfirio,” the man had said pleasantly. “Or did I leave you even that? No matter. We all must be called something.”

Porfirio had simply stood unmoving, giving no sign that he had even heard the grey-suited man.

“I wasn’t going to trade him, you know,” the man continued. “We made no deal. He would have gotten this for free.”

The grey-suited man had twisted around then, calling back out to Deke, “You still could! Would you like this?”

He indicated the bucket again, and added, “It’s a simple thing, this one: knowledge of how you survive Cerro Muerte. I can give it to you. Free of charge.”

Deke had shaken his head slowly. “In my experience, there’s nothing that costs more than a stranger’s free gift.”

The man’s smile had slowly expanded, revealing sharp white teeth that seemed to stretch farther back into his mouth than they should. For a moment, though nothing obvious changed, he had looked more wolf than man.

“You would know, fellow artist. Fare thee well.”

Still smiling, he had turned his back on Deke and Porfirio and walked away, bucket swinging at his side. Deke watched him until he disappeared into the forest surrounding the park. As the man had entered the wooded area, Deke swore he saw him drop to all fours, but between the distance and the shadows he couldn’t be sure.

Deke had turned back to find Porfirio sitting on the far side of the path, looking down at the lake filled with black fish. He had felt he should say something, but was unusually at a loss for words. So instead he had simply taken a seat next to him, and together they had quietly watched the dark fish trace patterns in the water.

Deke shook himself, scattering the memory. He still stood sweating in the heat with Porfirio, not sitting on a hill by a calm lake. Around them was scrubland, not manicured grass and carefully arranged paths. And above him still loomed the earthen monstrosity whose shape he could not quite fix in his mind. He was not at the park, no matter how vividly he recalled it.

In fact—had he ever truly been at the park? He could not recall where it was located, how he had gotten there, or what he had done after. It was a disconnected moment in time, unattached to the rest of his life. And surely impossible, for he had only met Porfirio after arriving in Rosin’s Hollow. None of it made sense.

An image from the park briefly resurfaced in his mind: the lake full of silver fish. And in between them, almost unnoticed among their glinting scales, a single tiny black fish swimming with the school, pretending to be one of them.

“Porfirio,” Deke said. “The park. Was that—were you there?”

If Porfirio was listening, he gave no sign. He was turned partially away from Deke, staring up at the monolith before them. He seemed to be waiting for something.

And then, without warning, Porfirio stepped forward, closing the final distance between them and the towering rock edifice. He walked to its edge and then into it, disappearing into a previously hidden crevice between its stones.

“Porfirio! Porfirio, hey!” called Deke. There was no reply.

Deke hesitated, cursed himself and followed Porfirio inside.

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Luck of the Draw

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Ray frowned down at his cards. The cigar in his mouth had burned down to a nub and gone out long ago, and he chewed on it worriedly. So far tonight, luck had been very nearly with him, which was significantly worse than luck simply being against him. When luck was against you, you could tell that nothing was going to work out. You could cut your losses and run.

But when luck was nearly with you, it was constantly promising, teasing you with the idea that things were almost within your grasp. That kind of luck was like one of the barmaids here, flirting with little glances but never planning on delivering. That kind of luck could ruin a man.

Ray knew all this. He was fully clear on it. And yet: he was looking at the 10, jack, queen and king of spades in his hand. Any nine or ace would give him a straight. Any spade would give him a flush. And the ace of spades would set him up with the best hand in the game.

That was practically half the deck that would make things turn out well for him. A man would have to be an idiot to walk away from this opportunity. Even if said man was down to the last of his stake. Hell, especially if. This was his chance to win it all back.

The saloon was winding down for the night. The piano player had packed up, and the other tables were all empty. Will was cleaning glasses behind the bar, getting set up for tomorrow. This game was going to end soon one way or another. Failing to chase this opportunity almost certainly meant that Ray would end up a loser for the night.

The barmaid, passing by, asked, “‘Nother beer?” She offered him a wink, but stayed well out of reach of his hands.

“Yeah,” said Ray. “Yeah, let’s do it. Gimme a beer, and you fellows—” he threw down his fifth card and tossed one of his few remaining promissory notes toward the center of the table “—gimme a card.”

The dealer slid him a card. Ray picked it up and steeled his face into rigidity, determined to betray nothing. It was the ace of spades.

As the others took their cards, Ray plotted out his play. He would allow others to lead the betting, keeping it low at first to get them all on the hook. Cautious calls, feigned reluctance. His nearly-depleted funds would be a lure. They’d be looking to knock him out of the game. But Lady Luck was finally with him again, and they’d be in for a rude surprise.

A few minutes later, three of his opponents had folded and Ray was staring across a pot of respectable size at the remaining man.

“Last chance to fold, Ray,” said his opponent, tossing in a few coins.

“Not this time,” grinned Ray, pushing in the last of his notes. “I’m all in.”

His opponent revealed a hand with five hearts. “Flush.”

Ray dropped his cards face up on the table, displaying his royal flush. “‘Fraid you never had a chance.”

He reached for the pot, but was stopped as his opponent pressed his hand down onto the pile of money. “What are you doing, Ray?”

“Taking the pot I won! Get your hand offa me!”

“Ray, that ain’t nothing but a straight. This pot’s mine.”

“The hell you say!” Ray looked down at his cards, at the ten, jack, queen and king of spades. And sitting atop them all: the ace of clubs.

He looked wildly around the table. “What is this? That was the ace of spades. Which one of you swapped it?”

“No one’s touched your cards but you, Ray. You musta seen it wrong.”

“Horseshit! I know what I had. This is some kinda setup! You’re all in on it!”

Ray made a grab for the pot, and was rebuffed with a strong shove. He staggered back from the table, knocking over his chair and colliding with the barmaid. She shrieked and dropped his beer, which smashed on the floor. Ray went for his gun and chairs clattered to the floor as his fellow card players either dived out of the way or grabbed at their own pistols.

In the frozen moment before anyone fired, Will’s voice boomed out. “Every one of you put those away right now.” He stood behind the bar, seeming to loom all the way to the ceiling. In his hands was a long-barreled, wide-mouthed shotgun. To Ray’s eyes, Will appeared to have it pointed directly at him.

“They’re cheats, Will!” Ray whined. “I had that pot. One of ‘em swapped my card!”

“Guns down. Now.”

Slowly, eyeing each other warily, they lowered their guns. Will, the shotgun still in hand, crossed to the table. He flipped over the deck of cards and fanned it out in front of everyone.

There in the middle of the fan, still a dozen cards from the top of the deck, was the ace of spades.

“He—he musta sneaked it back in.”

“That’s some damn fine sleight of hand. Man like that could be traveling Europe as a magician, not playing cards in some backwater slump.”

“Admit it, Ray,” said his opponent, his flush still displayed on the table before him. “You lost.”

Ray sputtered and snarled wordlessly. Will looked on without pity as the other man cleaned up the pot, leaving Ray with nothing.

“I’m guessing I’m putting that beer on your tab,” Will said.

Ray ignored him. “Fine, enjoy it. I can get more from the mines now! I didn’t sell my stakes. Not like you suckers.”

“We’ll be here tomorrow, Ray. Feel free to come try to win it back.”

“Sure, laugh. Laugh all you want. You’ll see who comes out ahead in the end.”

Ray stalked out into the cool night air, steaming. He pulled a match from his pocket and scratched it into life, attempting to relight the stump of his cigar. As the match flared up, the reflection of its flame danced weirdly in the saloon’s window, briefly seeming to wreath the interior in fire.

Then the match died, taking the illusion with it and leaving Ray with an uncomfortable feeling in his stomach and an unlit cigar butt. He stared at the saloon for a moment longer, then dropped the butt onto the dusty street and ground it underfoot, swearing.

“Buncha lowdown cheats,” he muttered to himself as he walked home. “Probably had Will in on it, too. The whole thing’s a setup. Not like it matters, anyway. They can cheat me all they want. Won’t change a thing when the silver starts rolling in. I could lose every night and never put a dent in my funds.

“Anyway, now I know their game. I’ll catch ‘em at it. Try to make me look a fool? We’ll see who’s smart in the end.”

For a fleeting moment, Ray smelled smoke, and that uncomfortable, guilty feeling surged again. He looked around for the source, sniffing, but the scent was already gone, replaced by something subtle and rank.

Suddenly, Porfirio appeared out of the darkness, his winestain birthmark staining half of his face black by the moon’s light. The smell rippled around him, moving like a physical thing. It was oily and unpleasant in a way that was impossible to name. It carried hints of sweetness, but it was the sweetness of rotten fruit. It smelled of body odor and fungus and sulfurous dirt.

“Jesus, you stink!” Ray covered up his startlement with anger. “I smelled you before I saw you. Go clean yourself off before you wake up the whole Hollow.”

Porfirio stopped in front of Ray and looked him carefully in the face, as if searching for something.

“Go, you big idiot. Git.” Ray gave him a shove.

Porfirio blinked at him, then walked away without saying anything. The smell ebbed as he left.

Ray shook his head. “Probably found something dead and rolled in it like a dog.” He resumed his short trek home, picturing the look on the men’s faces when he finally caught them cheating at cards. Everyone would know he was right then, that he’d been right all along. He’d get them eventually.

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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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As Deke made his own, much shorter walk back to town, he spotted Cora Everill out foraging among the scrub.

“Miz Everill!” he called out, causing her to turn. She carried a large wicker basket which was stacked high with gnarled wood. “Need any assistance?”

Cora rubbed the sweat out of her eyes with the back of her hand. “I wouldn’t say no to a hand, if you’re of a mind.”

Deke nodded at his bandaged arm. “I’ve only the one, but you’re welcome to it. Powerful little to do in town without going to the mine.”

Cora handed him the basket and set to work on a nearby shrub, using a hatchet to cut it down, trim off its branches and convert it into transportable sticks. “Really? Cain’t say as how I’ve ever found that to be the case. There’s plenty to be done to keep a household running.” She added the fresh pile of sticks to the basket. “Specially now that we’re gonna be refining on our own without the company’s equipment.”

“Y’all set up for that?” Deke looked at her, surprised.

She shrugged. “We can get by. Easier to sell ‘em our ore to dump into their tanks, sure, but since the tanks ain’t here we’ll cook it ourselves. Ain’t the easiest or most efficient process, but it’ll work to get it started. I reckon we’ve got enough materials on hand for a batch or two.”

“And then what?”

“And then we’ll trade that for some more and keep going. Or the company’ll roll back in, more likely.”

“What if they don’t? What if we’re stuck here?”

If Deke was hoping for a reaction, he was disappointed. “Nothing I can do about that at all, so I might as well not worry myself about it. Nothing ever got fixed by fussing, my mama always said.”

“Downright pragmatic.”

Cora smiled. “She was. I suppose I am, too. Elmer’s the dreamer. He’s always got the big ideas. I just try to make them work.”

“That what brought you out here?”

She nodded. “We didn’t have any plan when we left town. It was just time to go. Everything we heard about out here sounded so free, you know? And Elmer can paint a mighty fine picture with his words when he wants to. So we came out this way to see for ourselves. The company’d just started settling in to Rosin’s Hollow when we got to Contrition, and they were handing out stakes to anyone who’d come up to work the mine. All independent, so you got as much as you worked for. It sounded real nice, and it worked out pretty good, too.

“Except then the silver dried up, and we waited a little too long to pull up stakes. I tried to talk Elmer into it a few times, but he always begged me for one more day, one more chance to go look. He was sure there was a new vein there just waiting for him.”

“Well, looks like he was right,” offered Deke.

Cora laughed. “I suppose he was! Truth be told, I think he’d lost hope of ever finding it. We just didn’t really have nowhere else to go now.”

Deke nodded. “Kinda the feeling of the town.”

“‘Course, then there’s you, coming in and buying when everyone’s selling and going.”

“I’m a gambling man. I had a feeling this bet’d pay off.”

“Sure, when you fleeced the people desperate to get out.” Cora’s smile took the sting out of her words, but Deke still held up a hand in protest.

“I paid more’n anyone else would for claims they thought were played out! I put ready money in their hands and gave ‘em a ticket out when they thought they were stuck. I’m no saint; I did it to make money, and I ain’t ashamed of that. But I’m no devil, neither.”

“You never offered to buy out me and Elmer.”

“Would you have taken it?”

A pause. “No. No, I suppose not. What kinda price can you put on a dream?”

“That’s why I never offered. You wouldn’ta taken it, and if you had, it woulda torn you two apart in the end.”

“Well, then I thank you for looking out for us,” Cora said, her tone gently mocking.

“Given that your silver dream looks to have come true, ma’am, you’re welcome.”

As they arrived back at the Everill’s house, Deke offered Cora the basket. “You need anything else?”

“I believe I’ll be fine from here, but thank you for asking.”

Deke tipped his hat and ambled off down the street. Cora entered the house and dropped the basket by the hearth with a sigh. Now all she had to do was check the kiln for any cracks, find out how many of the necessary elements they actually still had to smelt the silver, and get the process ready to go. Oh, and sweep the day’s sand out of the house, plus prepare dinner out of whatever scraps of food they still had around. At least the clothes were already washed.

Cora snorted. Not much to do around town without the mine, indeed. Men clearly thought half of what went on in their lives was magic.

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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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Ray Ewart’s voice rang out loudly through the church. Father McCaig paused in his retelling, staring down at the man.

“I’ll thank ye not to use that language in the house of the Lord,” he said. His mild tone was at odds with his fierce appearance. With his left hand bound up and inflamed red scratches peeking out from behind the strip of cloth covering his right eye, McCaig looked more pirate than priest.

“Then don’t tell us horseshit stories,” Ray retorted, undeterred. He looked around at the gathered townsfolk for support. “Y’all can’t be believing this, right? The path outta here’s gone magic and points back in on itself? Demons dropping out of the sky? Come on.”

He sat back against the pew, crossing his arms over his chest.

“Twas a sign from the Lord,” Father McCaig intoned. “For were we not attempting to stray from the path? There are no shortcuts on the road to righteousness. We sinned, and were punished for it. The Lord has plans for this town, and we are all part of them.”

“Only plan he’s got is for you to get outta the sun, padre. You seen a vulture and turned it into some sorta religious experience. There’s a time and a place. This ain’t Sunday, that ain’t no Bible story I ever heard of, and I ain’t gonna listen to no more hors—”

Abruptly Father McCaig was in front of Ray, his right finger extended and pointing sternly into Ray’s face.

“‘Hear, and understand!’” he bellowed, his Irish accent thickening in his anger. “‘That which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.’ You are in the house of the Lord and you will behave as such! Have I made myself clear?”

The padre’s visible eye blazed. The gouges marring his face seemed almost to pulse as blood suffused his face. Ray cringed backward in the pew, trying to press himself into the wood. Even Deke, seated at the far end of the row, leaned away to distance himself from Father McCaig’s wrath.

“Clear, father,” Ray managed after a moment. “Forgive me.”

Father McCaig stared him down for a moment longer, then relented. “In the Lord’s name,” he said, straightening back up and returning to the small pulpit.

Deke frowned. Even in this small church, it was still four steps from the ambo to the first pew, and that was only if you stepped off the edge instead of taking the stairs, as the padre was currently doing. Deke had been watching the whole exchange, so his eyes had been on Ray while he was talking, but the padre had covered that distance impossibly quickly.

For that matter, Deke was impressed that Father McCaig was standing at all. Ol’ Sal was currently lying in the stables, still intermittently shaking from yesterday’s ordeal. She’d lain down on her uninjured side as soon as they’d gotten back and refused to move since.

Deke had seen the padre’s wounds, and they were far worse than what Sal had gotten. Yet he was up and hectoring the town this morning, going door to door to summon them to this meeting. Far from slowing him down, they seemed to have infused him with fresh energy.

“I understand that you find this difficult to accept,” Father McCaig told the assemblage. “I cannot fault you for that. It is the nature of miracles to be incomprehensible. Those who witness them are changed. Those who are merely told about them face a crisis of faith. You must choose to believe, or to doubt, on your own. I can only tell you what I was shown. I cannot tell you what is in your heart.

“Even Deke,” the padre continued, gesturing in his direction. Deke startled slightly, but attempted to hide his reaction. “Deke, who was with me, doubts that this was a miracle. Do you not, boyo?”

“Miracle’s a powerful word, father,” Deke said carefully. “But what I can say is this. What I saw weren’t no vulture, for sure. And whatever’s up with that path plain flummoxed me. So the meat n’ bones of your story is completely true. Y’all can make of that what you will.”

An image suddenly popped into Deke’s head of himself and Taylor, just a couple of days earlier, seeing the padre off for the first time. It’s funny what you can build with the same parts, Taylor had said. That certainly was the case when it came to stories.

Deke shook his head. Now he was the one seeing life as metaphors. Soon enough, he’d be following Father McCaig’s footsteps completely and calling things miracles. Facts were facts, and Deke had always found life complex and complicated enough without adding on more layers. He’d leave the miracles to the credulous.

The man next to Clarinda spoke up. “Interpretations aside, we find ourselves faced with a problem, do we not? If we can’t get out, it’s reasonable to assume that no one can get in. We’re meant to be getting our monthly deliveries this week. I can’t say for certain what food you all have stockpiled, of course, but I know my own inventory. If that wagon can’t get in, and we can’t get out, we’re going to have some lean times ahead.”

No one seemed inclined to respond, so Clarinda added, “That goes for the hooch as well.”

Every head turned to look at her. “What does, lass?” asked Father McCaig.

Clarinda’s thoughts stuttered. She couldn’t recall what she’d just said that had prompted the padre’s question. Her eyes flickered to the seat next to her. She was surprised to find it empty, and confused that she was surprised.

All of this tangled in her mind as she attempted to reply. She opened and closed her mouth several times before leaning back with an expression of confusion on her face, shaking her head. “Never mind. It’ll come to me.”

“So what are we supposed to do?” asked Cora, looking worried. Next to her, Elmer patted her hand.

“Seems to me this don’t matter much right now nohow,” Elmer said. “I been out to the mine yesterday and seen that new vein with my own eyes. It’s bigger’n anything. We’re bout to be so busy mining all that out that we couldn’t leave even if they sent us a horse-drawn carriage and a handwritten invitation. So I don’t see how it matters much if the pass is closed, open or some kinda loop-de-loop. I ain’t going nowhere.”

“Precisely,” boomed Father McCaig, gesturing with his good arm. “The Lord has seen you remain when others fled, and you are now being rewarded. ‘He that gathereth by labour shall increase.’ Work the mine, and when the time is right, the path will be reopened.”

“How’re we gonna know when the time is right, though?” Cora persisted. The dismal inventory of their house weighed on her mind.

“Just as Noah sent forth birds to learn when the time was right to leave the mountain, so shall I walk the path each day to learn when the time is right for our departure. Each day will I set out. If I am unsuccessful, I will return to you with anything I have learned. When you do not see me again, you will know that the time has come to return to the world.

“‘It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.’ We will be sustained through this. Have faith. Work humbly. Do what is asked, take what is offered, and you shall be rewarded.”

“Well,” said Taylor, leaning in toward Deke. “Sounds like we got God on our side. Ain’t that a thing? And don’t tell me you planned for this one. This is outside of anything even you could have imagined.”

“It’s a wrinkle,” Deke agreed quietly as they got up to leave. “But this vein—it’s really there?”

“Bigger’n anything, just like Elmer said. I weren’t sure we were gonna find it, but we moved a coupla them caved-in rocks and saw it back there. Ain’t gonna be no easy trick getting to it, but it’s real, sure enough.”

“Ain’t that a thing, indeed,” said Deke.

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The Past and the Future

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Raymond rapped his glass on the counter. From the other end of the bar, Clarinda frowned at him. Ray, either not noticing or not caring, knocked with his glass again.

“Another, por favor, señora.” Ray’s twang butchered the foreign syllables as he slid a sly glance at Porfirio. The giant was seated several stools down from Ray, his head bent over his drink. He did not look up at the sound of Ray’s voice.

Clarinda walked the length of the bar to stand before Raymond. “Don’t you think you might want to call it quits, Ray?”

“I do not, Miz Blaumer. I do not.” He tilted his glass at her, nodding his head meaningfully at it as he held it out. Reluctantly, she poured another measure of whiskey into the glass.

Ray took a sip of the drink and exhaled heavily. “Tomorrow I expect I’ll be working like a dog in the mine, and there ain’t no room for whiskey down there. So today I’m drinking for tomorrow. And maybe the rest of the week too if that Dambacher boy ain’t as dumb as he looks.”

“Why put it off until tomorrow? What’s stopping you from going out there now?”

“This is the Lord’s day,” Ray said cockily. “You’d have to be an idiot to be working on the day that even God took off.”

He cast a critical glance down the bar at Porfirio. “I take it back. Even the idiot’s not working.”

“You’ve got no call to be cruel to him, Raymond Ewart. He’s done nothing to you, and he’s more welcome in this house than you are.” Clarinda reached for his glass, and Ray hastily pulled it away.

“All right, I’m sorry I called him an idiot. Just because his head—”

“Ray,” Clarinda said warningly, her face darkening.

“All right, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Ain’t mean nothing by it. I’m sorry.” He waited while Clarinda stared him down, satisfying herself that her point had gotten across. She held his gaze for several long seconds before finally breaking eye contact and moving away down the bar. It wasn’t until she was several steps away and Ray was sure that she couldn’t hear that he muttered, “Like he can understand what I’m saying anyway.”

Through this entire exchange, Porfirio had kept his gaze on his drink, as if divining secrets in the last swirls of the amber liquid. As Ray spoke, however, he drained the last of his glass, setting it carefully back down on the counter with barely a clink. He turned his head to look at Ray and said quietly, “Yo entiendo.”

“The hell’s that mean?” asked Ray, leaning forward belligerently.

Porfirio made no response. He stood up from the bar stool, his bulk unfolding like a geologic event. The late afternoon sun shone off of his birthmark, the purple glowing on his face like paint, a deep royal color. The floor creaked beneath him as he walked toward Ray.

Ray shrank back as the towering man approached and began to stammer out what might have been an apology. It died on his lips, though, as Porfirio walked past him without a glance and exited the boarding house through the front hall.

“Damn giant imbecile is what he is,” Ray remarked once Porfirio was safely gone. “‘Bout as safe to keep around as a cigar in a coal mine. Hey!”

This last comment was directed at Clarinda, who had snatched away Ray’s still half-full glass.

“I recollect warning you on this behavior not a minute gone, Ray.”

“What? Y’can’t say I’m wrong. He could walk right through one of these walls if he had a mind to, and he ain’t barely got a mind at all. So who knows what could happen?” He made a half-hearted grab for his drink, but Clarinda moved back out of reach.

“He ain’t never done no damage around this town. Which is more’n I can say for you.”

“I’m just saying I don’t know that I’d give a man like that alcohol.”

“I give you alcohol.”

“Yeah? Then give it to me!” Ray reached his hand out for his drink again.

“You planning on paying for this one today?”

“I’m planning on letting you tally it against my tab, and paying for it tomorrow in silver.”

“Well, then I suppose I’m planning on letting you drink it tomorrow when I see that silver.”

“Now that ain’t hardly—”

“Choose your words with care, Mister Ewart. You ain’t got no more options for drinking establishments in this town if I kick you out of here.”

Ray scowled, his mouth working as he searched for a retort. Finding none after a moment, he said, “I believe it’s about time I was retiring home in any case.”

He pushed back from the bar, knocking the stool over, and stomped out of the building, leaving Clarinda alone. She poured his whiskey back into the bottle and sighed. In a town as small as Rosin’s Hollow, neighbors could hardly afford to turn on each other. She considered it a part of her job to provide neutral ground and to keep everyone talking, but Ray surely did not make it easy.

Clarinda walked around the bar and bent down to pick up the fallen bar stool. A hand beat hers to the stool, though, and a voice said, “I got that, ma’am.”

The speaker, a tall man in drab, dusty apparel, suited action to word as he righted the stool and returned to his seat at the small table.

“I’m sorry you saw that,” Clarinda told him. “I usually aim to keep a kinder tone.”

“From where I’m sitting, it looks like you did a fine job of standing your ground while keeping that man from boiling over. I got no complaints about what I saw.”

“Kind of you to say. You need a refill? Food won’t be on for an hour or more, but you’re welcome to stay for it.”

“Not tonight, I think,” the man said speculatively. “But I got plans to be here for a bit, so I expect I’ll be joining you for dinner eventually.”

He tapped his glass. “I will trouble you for that refill, though.”

He smiled, and Clarinda found herself smiling back in response. She turned away to get his drink, but also partly to hide her reaction. The man had an easygoing manner about him that was attractive, but it wouldn’t do to go fawning over every stranger that came into town. Men like that were used to getting their own way, and that made them dangerous.

The front door opened and footsteps sounded in the hall. “Afternoon, Miz Blaumer!” Deke called. “You need any help getting supper on?”

“You’re a bit early, Deke!” she called back. “I appreciate your enthusiasm, though. Does me good to see you attend to my cooking.”

Deke stuck his head into the bar room. “Everyone up at the mine?” he asked, glancing around at the empty seats.

“Ray just left, and poor Porfirio. I’m sure it’ll do him good to be back to work.” Clarinda put the bottle of whiskey back on the shelf, unsure why she’d been holding it. “The mine working again! Can you imagine?”

“I never saw it in full swing, so honest truth? I suppose I truly can’t imagine, no.”

“Rosin’s Hollow was a sight in those days. Couldn’t half hear during the day for all of the hammering of new buildings going up, nor at night for the piano music and general ruckus coming out of the saloon. Mules and horses and people all shouldering for space, everyone coming home filthy but everyone coming home rich.

“And then everything just sort of dried up. Some folks had made their piece, and they were fine. Some saw it coming while there was still time to get out, and they did fine, too, or at least fine enough.

“And some of us had just sunk everything into a brand new boarding house to keep all of the people, who then all of a sudden dried up just like the silver. So here we are,” Clarinda finished, unexpectedly bitter.

“I didn’t mean to pry, Miz Blaumer.”

“It ain’t you, Deke. I made my choices to get here. I just think about them sometimes, is all.” She glanced out of the window and sighed. “It’ll be good to see the mine working again. I aim to make different choices the second time around.”

“That’s the dream,” Deke agreed.

“Well. No sense dwelling on the past when there’s supper to be made. I’ll get started in on—”

The sound of slow, plodding hooves came from outside, growing louder as it approached.

“Well, what in heaven’s name?” Clarinda said, looking out the window. “That’s Father McCaig. What on earth is he doing back?”

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The Everills

[Welcome to Y’all Hazred, a tale of the Weird West! You’re joining a story already in progress. To start at the beginning, click here.]

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“So what do you think, Elmer?”

“I think you look prettier’n a picture with your face all lit up from that smiling.”

“Oh, you!” Cora playfully swatted Elmer’s arm. “I mean about the mine.”

“Hmm.” Elmer crossed his arms and assumed a thoughtful expression. “I think we should leave the silver in there. Looks real pretty there underground, and it’d be a right shame to go moving it around just so’s we could get rich.”

“El-mer! Be serious. You know the company’ll come back. You want to sell when they come asking? Or should we stick it out and do for ourselves?”

“Well, they’ve got the fancy machinery and equipment to get it all hauled out and processed, that’s for sure. An’ they got the men to work the mine. Not to mention all kindsa ological experts to tell ‘em when and where to dig. So with all that, I suppose a man’d be a fool to think he could go against ‘em.”

Cora’s face registered surprise. Elmer continued with a grin, “Which is why I guess it took that fool Taylor causing a cave-in to find what all them missed. So no, we ain’t selling. This is our silver. We put in the time, we stayed here when no one else did, and now we’re gonna reap our rewards.”

“What’re we gonna buy, Elmer?”

“Everything! Anything we want. I’ll buy you shoes and ribbons and bows. Heck, I’ll buy you every dress in that Sears catalog. You’ll have ‘em all.”

“Where are we gonna put all them dresses?”

“We’ll buy us a house, someplace with a little bit of land. Not like this, real land, something that ain’t just dust waiting to blow up into your eyes. It’ll be close to a town where we can just walk in and buy whatever we need, so’s we don’t have to wait for no weekly delivery wagon.

“And I’ll get myself a suit for when we go into town, and a proper hat for tippin’ at the ladies.”

“You sure are gonna look fancy in your new suit,” sighed Cora, her eyes sparkling.

“We’ll go out hand in hand, walking. All the men calling me sir, all the ladies talking about your fancy dresses. And we’ll never work ‘cept for how we want to. Just sit comfortable in our home and enjoy life.”

Elmer took Cora by the hand and twirled her around, her feet stepping lightly across the rough wooden floor. Her patched, faded dress swirled around her legs, and in both of their eyes it seemed rich, silken and vibrant.

Cora spun back and leaned against Elmer with a happy sigh. As he wrapped his arms around her, she leaned back and met him for a kiss. With their eyes closed and their lips pressed together, they held themselves in their fantasy for a long moment before letting it fade away.

“All right,” sighed Elmer. “All right. First we need to get the silver, I suppose. No good drawing up grand fantasies involving a buncha rocks we don’t even have yet. We’re gonna need to do a full count of what we got, find out what’s still good and what ain’t. Them rocks Taylor brought back ought to be good enough to get us a loan from the bank, so long as we get there before the company tells ‘em not to lend to us to try to squeeze us out. So we gotta make haste.”

“He’s not a fool, y’know,” Cora said.

“What? Who’s not?”


“Who ever said he was?”

“You did, just earlier. You said ‘that fool Taylor caused a cave-in.’”

“Oh, so what if I did. It was just a figure of speech. And what do you care anyway?” Elmer raised an eyebrow at his wife, one side of his mouth raised in a slight smile. “You sweet on him?”


“Good, ‘cause you better not be! You got me, and that’s all you need.”

“Oh yeah? Does that go both ways? ‘Cause I’ve seen you looking at…at….”

“At who, Miz Blaumer?” laughed Elmer. “She’s Ma’s age.”

“Yeah, well.” Cora turned away from him. “I seen you looking when there was other women here. Loose ones. You looked plenty.”

“And that’s all I ever did,” Elmer assured his wife, crossing to her and wrapping his arms around her waist. “You’re all I need or want.”

“And you’re all for me,” murmured Cora. After a moment, she added, “But if you get to look, then I reckon I do, too.”

“So you are sweet on Taylor.”

“Elmer!” Cora huffed and pulled free of his embrace. Elmer let her go, laughing.

While Elmer busied himself making an inventory of their mining supplies, Cora sat down at the table and tallied up the costs of replacement parts, lamps, chemicals and more. She used old receipts where they had them, her memory where they didn’t, and occasional guesswork when even her memory came up empty.

Looking at the numbers, Cora bit her lip. The total was grim. The fact of the matter was, they were stone-broke. Worse than that, actually. Elmer’s talk about getting a loan missed one key point: they already had a loan with the nearest bank, which they hadn’t paid back in a year or more. Chances were that if they went into town to ask for a new one, the bank would just have them thrown in jail to work off their debt.

Cora looked over at her husband who was happily humming to himself as he sorted through their dented and decrepit equipment. She shook her head and refocused on the numbers. They’d make it work. This wasn’t the first time life had tried to kick them while they were down, and they’d always managed to get through. They’d sell what they needed to, borrow what they had to, because once the silver started flowing again it would all be simple.

A knocking at the door caused them both to look up.

“Elmer! Cora! Y’in there?” came Taylor’s voice.

Elmer crossed to the door and opened it, beaming. “Taylor! Man of the hour. Welcome!”

The two men clasped hands briefly and Taylor stepped into the house, doffing his hat. “Miz Everill. Pretty as always.”

Cora turned her face away to hide her smile, flipping her slate facedown as she did so. “So you’re bringing life back to Rosin’s Hollow?”

“I aim to! Actually, that’s why I’m here. Elmer, you got time for a quick sojourn? I want to take you out to the mine, show you what I found. You can see what’s what, figure out how you’re gonna set up business, get everything set.”

Elmer looked at the piles of equipment stacked haphazardly around his small house. “This ain’t that time-sensitive, is it? I’m right in the middle of something right now. If we could do it maybe tomorrow morning, that’d suit me better.”

“Elmer,” said Cora, “I think maybe you oughta take opportunities when they come literally knocking at your door.”

“I’m right in the middle of this, Cora.”

Taylor raised his hands placatingly. “We can do this tomorrow morning. Tain’t no skin off my nose.”

“Don’t be silly. You’re free now, we’ll go with you now. If Elmer’s too busy, I’ll take a trip out to the mine with you, Taylor.”

Elmer frowned. “Let me just get my hat. I’ll finish this up when I get back.”

He shot a glare at Cora as he and Taylor left the house, which Cora returned. She rolled her eyes as the door shut behind them. Here they were in debt past their eyeballs, and her husband was too busy to go out to see where their salvation was about to come from? She loved the man, but he was thicker than a river of bricks sometimes.

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