May 13, 2022 • 28M

Nowhere Ch. 17 --Dance Goes on a Scout

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Patrick E McLean
An epic fantasy/wild west tale about a town that is ripped from Eastern Arizona circa 1888 and dropped into something very like Robert E. Howard’s Hyborean Age. It is sword and sorcery, gunslingers and steam as the townspeople struggles to survive and a man left behind searches to be reunited with his family.
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As Sheriff John Dance rode down to the river, Miguel, the Stagecoach agent, came up beside him. Dance gave him a skeptical look, and didn’t have time to get to the question before Miguel said, “I have responsibilities…”

Fair enough thought Dance. He cast an eye over Miguel’s horse and rig. It was packed light and well, and Miguel sat his horse easy. He looked like he knew what doing. Probably more than Dance did. Dance was no frontier hand or Indian fighter by nature. But the misadventures of his youth had taught him to travel fast and leave as little trace as possible. 

When they got to the river Dance reined, and without taking his eyes off the other side, Dance said, “We’ll head north along the river, see if we can find a place to ford, and any sign of that ship. First sign of trouble, I’m cuttin’ and runnin’. You understand? This is a scout.” 

Miguel nodded and said, “If I find a way across, I have to go to Bisbee.”

Dance said, “Miguel, you see any telegraph poles on the other side of that river?” 

Miguel shook his head. “It makes no difference, I must go anyway. It is my duty.” 

“It ain’t a duty, Miguelito, it’s just a job.” 

“I may not have a Star like you,” said Miguel, “But I have my duties.” 

Dance shook his head and decided he wouldn’t share his opinions about Duty and Bisbee with Miguel. Duty was just some horseshit made up by powerful people to get the little people to sacrifice themselves when it was convenient. And Bisbee? There weren’t no fuckin’ Bisbee there anymore. 

Give it a few more days, and everybody would see that. It was just that most people, normal people with their settled lives, were slow to adapt to change. They ignored it, argued against it, and tried to resist it. But it was all foolishness. Things changed, the man who changed the fastest was the one who made the best of them. That’s how Dance had wound up as Sheriff in the first place.

Everything on this side of the river was normal for the first mile and even though the opposite bank was an unknown land, the river was peaceful and cool and Dance found himself thinking of the day he had come to Grantham, three years ago. 

He had ridden into town dragging a different name and a streak of bad luck that had felt a mile wide. If Dance was honest, right now, it felt like he was draggin’ something wider and worse. 

At the livery stable, Eli Johnson hadn’t known what to make of him when he handed off the reins to a battered old nag and said, “Take good care of her.” 

“Why?” asked Eli, not afraid of offending this stranger ‘cause any damn fool could see this horse wasn’t fit for anything but the glue factory. 

Dance had flipped him a newly minted silver dollar and said, “‘Cause I owe her.” That settled, he nodded his battered hat at the building made of thick, irregular stone across the street and asked, “Would I be right in thinking that’s the Sheriff’s office?” 

“Yessir, says so right on the sign,” answered Eli, thinking that this man had been out in the sun too long to have retained a grip on the obvious. 

The Sheriff’s office had a wide porch and awning of unpainted, rough-cut lumber. The windows, such as they were were in those rough stone walls, were long and horizontal, with the occasional cross openings. The place was a fortress, gunportd and all. 

Dance glided up the steps and pushed through the door without knocking. 

Inside were two desks - a rolltop stuffed with correspondence and a leather-topped one on the left of the door. There was a table, a few chairs, a half-full rack of long guns on the wall and a pot-bellied stove. What Dance didn’t see were any deputies, or anybody at all. At first. 

On the wall by the door was a collection of wanted posters, and as Dance was checking to see if his face was on any of them he heard the muffled cry of someone calling out through a gag. 

The back of the room was a wall of thick steel bars that was further divided into two cells. In the cell on the right, a man with his hands bound behind his back and a bandanna tied through his mouth looked frantically at him and cried out again. “Mmmmmmm!”

Dance looked around to see if someone was playing some kind of trick on him, but the room was still empty. The man in the cell waved him over with his head. Dance eased across the room. 

The prisoner waggled his head around, trying to indicate the gag with his eyes. Then he thrust the side of his face up to the bars. Dance took another look around the room, then hooked a finger through the bandanna. Still not taking any chances, he kicked the man's shin hard with his boot. The prisoner grunted in pain and slumped against the cell bars, all balance taken from him. 

As Dance held the man up by the bandanna, he slid his knife under the fabric, along the man’s face, and cut it away with a jerk. The prisoner fell to one knee and spit out the gag. “Jesus Christ Mister, you didn’t have to do that!”

“Didn’t seem right to shoot it off,” said Dance. 

“Are you with THEM?” 

Dance didn’t answer the question. He considered the angry man in the cell who still had his hands bound behind his back. He was lean and sleepy-eyed, with stoop shoulders and a handlebar mustache. He looked strong enough but something about his skin and the set of his chin spoke of a weak constitution. 

His eyes were wide with fear and anger when he spoke, but when he listened they drooped heavy and he might have been mistaken for being on the verge of sleep. Dance thought, he’s some kind of madman. Then he asked. “Where’s the Deputies?” 

“Don’t you know anything?”

“I know I care much for your manners,” said Dance. 

“Deputy. There’s only one deputy left and I’m him. Pete. I’m the DEPUTY, now let me out of this cell. They’re robbin’ the bank.”

“Well Pete, if you’re the Deputy Sheriff, then what on earth are you doing in there?” asked Dance, enjoying himself.

“They got the drop on me,” he said, looking down and away. “And I’m ashamed to say they locked me in my own cell. That enough for you to let me out?”

“How many were there?” asked Dance. 

“Must have been five. Maybe more!”

“Five,” asked Dance, with a raised eyebrow.

“Maybe more!” said Pete, “Now get me outta here. I’ve gotta go stop them from robbing the bank.”

“You?!?” said Dance. “One man against at least five hardened criminals? Dangerous men? Outlaws?” Dance shook his head and sucked his teeth at the thought. 

“Not one man,” said Pete, “one Deputy,” his chest puffing out with pride. 

“Well, I’d like to see that Pete. I surely would. Just one thing. You gotta key to this cell?" 

Pete rolled his eyes and cursed. “I only had the one. T’other was on the Sheriff when he got killed…” he trailed off, wide-eyed as if he had said something he shouldn’t have. 

Dance didn’t bite. He said, “Tell me which bank?”

“Bank of Grantham. Only bank in town. Other end of Main Street. By the wash. 

“I think I’ll go down there and have me a lil’ look. Count up these desperados for you. But I gotta warn you, I’m stopping at 10. That’s all the fingers I got to count on.” 

As Dance strode down the street he whistled tunelessly and checked the load in his pistols, pulling back the hammer and spinning the cylinders to reassure himself that all twelve cartridges were present and accounted for. 

A passerby looked at him with fear, and he holstered a pistol and tipped his hat, breaking neither stride nor musical performance.

From the outside, the First Bank of Grantham seemed just as sleepy as the rest of town on that sunny afternoon. But before John Dance could mount the steps, he heard a series of gunshots and two men exploded out of the front door into the street, carrying what looked to be very heavy saddlebags over their shoulders. 

Dance stood very still as one of them whirled and pointed a pistol right at him. But when the desperado looked at the man in front of him, his eyebrows raised in surprise so much that his hat lifted more than an inch. “John-John, look who it is!”

John-John, who was scanning the other end of the street for trouble, turned quickly and said, “Well, I’ll be damned!” he said as he broke into a smile and let his pistol drop. “Ain’t seen you since that dance back in Albequ-”

But John-John never made it to the end of that sentence. John Dance’s hands blurred into motion and he shot them both down, two bullets apiece just to be sure.

He holstered his guns and the good townspeople came out and declared him a hero. Jean DuMont, the man who had the most to lose from his bank being robbed, gave him a reward of $50, for doing the right thing. 

They rescued old Speedy Pete from his own jail and all repaired to the Morning Star Saloon, where hands were shook, backs were slapped and nobody thought to question where this man had come from. Everybody was just glad that “John” had stepped up and done the right thing. 

The man who brought him his third whiskey said, “Mister, just so happens we’re short a Sheriff.”

“Just so happens, I’m looking for work.” 

“What’s your name? Your full name, I mean. So we can swear you in.” 

Of course, John couldn’t give his real name. He was trying to outrun that name; the name of a man with a price on his head who, among other things, had robbed a dance back in Albuquerque with a nefarious character known as John-John and the Allen-Elder gang. 

So he smiled his best smile and said, “Dance, John Dance.” Sometime that evening, somebody pinned a star on him, and from that moment on, he was the Sheriff.

What better place to avoid the law than to be the law itself? 

At first, he thought he'd stay six months, maybe a year, but it had been three years since he’d stopped the bank robbery. He'd become accustomed to sleeping indoors and people smiling when they saw him on the street. Sure, Speedy Pete was enough to drive any man crazy, but though he wasn’t the sharpest tool in the sack he was loyal and honest and that made up for a lot. 

But as much as he liked the town and the people he hated the feeling of being trapped. It was one thing to choose to stay when he knew he could just melt away at any time. But to stay when you weren’t allowed to leave, that was prison. And Dance figured the whole point was to stay the hell out of prison.

Dance was jerked away from his memories by the sight of an abrupt line up ahead. On one side of this line the ground was the harsh, rocky desert of Eastern Arizona. On the other side was lush thick grass. He and Miguel stopped just short of this strange line and looked at it for a long while. To his right, Dance could see where the line had split a rock in half. He said, "Miguel…" and pointed.

“Estoy perdido,” answered Miguel, not even aware he was speaking Spanish.

Dance’s horse lowered his head and took a bite of the grass. The horse didn't keel over dead or burst into flames. He just nibbled the grass is if he did it every day. It was thicker and crawlier than any grass Dance ever seen. But if it tasted all right to the horse, Dance supposed it might be OK.

Dance caught a flash of movement out of the corner of his eye. He looked up and about 200 yards away he saw a giant, bear-like creature, rise up out of the grassland and grab a hold of a tree branch with a paw impossibly long fingernails twisted and turned in wild, unpredictable ways. Like a gypsy woman's fingernails he once seen in Galveston. 

The creature lifted its long, teardrop-shaped head and began stripping the wide leaves from the tree and eating them. Dance looked to Miguel. Miguel stared at the strange creature with his jaw hanging open. In a voice that he hoped wouldn't carry, Dance asked, “You ever seen one of them before?"

"Nunca. ¿Quieres ir a ver?"

“No I do not,” said Dance, easing his rifle out of the saddle scabbard. 

The sight of the weapon gleaming in the sunshine snapped Miguel back to himself. He said, “You are going to shoot it? It eats plants.”

“I’m just being cautious. I been known to eat vegetables from time to time, but we all know what I prefer.”

Miguel nodded. Then, before Dance could say no, he spurred his horse towards the strange creature. Dance cursed under his breath and touched his horse with his heels and followed. 

“I think he likes that tree,” said Miguel of the gigantic creature, which was happily munching away. With chomp and a sweep of its neck, it denuded half the tree, taking no notice of them. As it ate, it made low, whuffing grunts. 

“Can we go now?”

“Is there no wonder in your soul Sheriff Dance?"

"Oh there's plenty of wonder Miguel," he said, surveying his surroundings. "Right now I'm wondering what the hell we're doing provoking this animal?”

"Don't be like that. I think he's friendly."

"If you put that to the test, I'll shoot both of you and ride off I swear."

"I think you did not grow up on a farm or a ranch, Sheriff Dance. Maybe you did not grow up in nature."

Suddenly, the creature jerked its head up. It looked at the two men on horses and made a sharp bark of alarm, showing more and sharper teeth than John Dance felt a herbivore ought to be allowed. Dance brought the rifle to his shoulder, but the creature did not charge. It looked around frantically, sniffing the air so rapidly its long snout seem to vibrate. Dance, in fact, had not grown up outdoors or on a ranch, but he didn’t need to be a native guide to see that this thing was goddamned terrified. 

"Come on, let's ease back,” said Dance.

Miguel nodded without taking his eyes off the creature. From fifty yards to the right, something came rushing through the tall grass. The air was shattered by a tremendous roar. The sound was so loud Dance felt like a great hand had reached into his chest and squeezed the air out of his lungs. The horses reared and screamed. As Dance fought to stay in the saddle he heard the creature that was eating the tree make a frightened, bleat-like sound. 

In fear, it leapt onto the tree and climbed. Leaves and small branches and hunks of bark showered down as it scrabbled up the tree with its strange claws. 

Behind the tree, Dance saw a bear rise from the grass. It rose until it was the size of a large grizzly, and it still kept coming. It stood on its hind legs, dangled its claws at the end of its too-long arms, threw its strange bulldog-like face back and and roared at its prey.

Miguel wheeled his horse around and cursed in Spanish. Dance could feel that his own horse was on the verge of bolting. In the interest of staying in the saddle, he fought to stay calm, but wheeled to the right and let the animal have his head. 

When they had gained some distance, Dance reined up on a small rise. As they watched Miguel said, “You see, now the bear, he will climb the tree and eat our tree-eating friend.”

Dance spit. “Ain’t no friends of mine.” 

The bear roared again, and reached up and placed its paw on the tree trunk. Above him, nearly at the top of the tree, the sad-faced herbivore clutched the trunk and bleated in distress. 

But the bear did not climb. He put his forepaws on the trunk and by heaving his bulk forward and back, began to rock the trunk. High above, the top of the tree swung back and forth wildly. The herbivore tried to hold tight to the trunk, but with each swing, it seemed that a new appendage came free just as it had replaced the last one. 

The tree trunk snapped off about 2 feet above the ground. The trunk fell over, slowly at first, but by the time the top of the trunk hit the ground, the herbivore was slammed into the earth at a hideous speed. Even at this distance Dance felt the impact in the seat of his saddle.

The poor creature tried to raise up and flee but fell to the ground after a single wobbly step. In a flurry of claws and teeth, the bear was on it, its short, punched–in snout, rooting deep into the creature's soft white underbelly. The bear pulled its bloody snout and face out from the still-living animal which was screaming in pain. The bear raised its head to the sky and roared again.

"Magnificent animal," said Miguel.

Then, and Dance would swear to this until the end of his days, the bear looked right at them and roared.

"Is that thing gonna follow us?" asked Dance.

"No, don't be silly. He has just killed and will eat his fill and take a nap, for a few days most likely."

"He's looking right at us." 

Miguel considered this for a moment, then said, "No, Senor, his eyesight cannot be that good."

They headed north away and when they had put a hill between them and the carnage, they eased up on the horses. They decided to head farther north before circling back to town. "One more rise between us and…" said Dance.

Miguel nodded in a way that said he knew nothing about the great outdoors, and they rode on.

As the crest of the next rise, the grassland ended in front of them in a steep drop. The slope was steeper than anybody not being chased by bloodthirsty savages would want to ride down, thought Dance. But then he was torn from his geological and equestrian considerations by Miguel's soft gasp, "Madre de Dios."

Dance raised his eyes to the horizon. The plain before him was marked by irregular black circles in the green as if the land itself had been afflicted with some kind of pox. He could see the river cutting back in from the left, and following its course, he's could see a harbor of sorts that had been cut into the riverbank. And above it, on a small hill was a tall tower of dark stone that taper to a point high above the plain. It made Dance feel uneasy to look directly at it. Resting in the river, in the shadow of the tower, was the warship that had attacked the Town of Grantham. 

Dance grunted. At least something had gone right about this scout. But the thought was interrupted by a strange, snuffling grunt. Dance looked over his shoulder and there, perhaps 30 yards away was the bear that was supposed to be sleeping off his meal. Before he could say anything to Miguel, the beast roared and charged them.

When dance saw the bloody maw of the bear rushing towards them, he realized they were not going to escape. He yanked his horse around and together they plunged over the edge.

The descent was so steep Dance had to lean back in his saddle -- stirrups jutting out alongside the animal's neck -- to keep from going over the horse's head. Dance thought the only way to descend faster would be to fall, but then Miguel came galloping past him on the left side.

As they hit the plain below, he heard the roaring of the Bear on the hill behind them, and his horse needed no encouragement to gallop. Dance chanced a look over his shoulder and saw the bear coming down the crumbling dirt hill behind him. The bear tried to slow, but he could not keep his weight off his front paws. He slowly came over, crashed into the slope and started to roll.

That ought to slow him down, thought Dance but when the bear reached the bottom, it rolled to its feet and kept running. Some days you et the bear and other days, well the bear et you. Dance was afraid he knew which one of those days this was going to be. 

He heard the bear getting closer behind him and could smell the hot copper of the blood on his breath. He tensed his back anticipating the swipe of a claw, but it did not come. Instead, his horse stumbled and he fell hard onto the prairie. The bear continued on in pursuit of Miguel and his horse. Dance struggled to his hands and knees and realized he was in a blackened area of the plain, a shallow crater, the lip of which had caused his horse to tumble. The burned area in the prairie was about 10 feet across and on the other side of it, he could see his horse getting back to its feet.

He looked beyond his horse, hoping to see that Miguel had gotten away. But he was not surprised to see the monstrous bear pursued him still. 

There was a strange crackling noise in the air, from far away yet from all around. In the distance, he noticed the tower was shimmering. Waves of crackling electricity swept up the sides of the spire and gathered at the top in furious bands. 

In the distance Miguel still rode for all he was worth, trying to outrun the monstrous bear, but still, the bear gained. Miguel cut the horse hard around a crater, and the bear couldn't make the turn. It had to veer off and go the long way around the depression. Dance clenched his fist in excitement. It was a longshot, but with a few moves like that, Miguel might just survive. The bear was fast, but it didn't have endurance and it certainly couldn't turn like Miguel's fine quarter horse. Maybe, just maybe Miguel would get away.

There was a blinding flash, a bolt of lightning seared an arc from the tower to the plain in front of him. It came to rest directly on Miguel and his horse. After the sizzle and flash came a clap of thunder so deafening Dance thought his teeth had been turned to powder. Then the ground where Miguel and his horse had been erupted in chunks of burning earth. Hunks of dirt and grass rain downed all around him, but Dance heard nothing but the ringing in his ears.

His vision came back slowly and he did not like what he saw. There was nothing left of Miguel. The bear was off to one side, dazed, sitting over on his haunches, shaking his head like an old man who had gotten a hold of some bad moonshine. 

Dance turned and walked away.

He had gone a few steps when he heard the bear running towards him. This time he did not turn. He thought to himself, Welp this is how I die. 

He resigned himself to it, lowering his head as he walked, but then he thought of Laura and the promise he had made to her. He thought of Mac and the angry spirit in that boy, the courage to defend his mother against a full-grown man. He wasn't sure that all the fighting he had done in his life had gotten him anywhere he had wanted to go, but inside him, the fear turned to anger once again.

He spun on his boot heel and pulled his pistol with a fluid, long-practiced motion. The bear was now moving slower than before, but somehow it was more horrifying. The hair had been burned off half its face and snout and now it howled in rage and pain as it advanced.

"Yep," said Dance as he raised his pistol, "fuck you too." Dance took his time with the shots cocking the trigger with his thumb and carefully sighting before each pull. All six shots went home. The last one hit the bear in the head and glanced off the beast’s skull, leaving a red, angry canal along its brainpan. And still, the beast came. 

That was the moment he knew he was done for. He dropped his pistol and put a hand to his knife. Then he heard it again – that strange, sizzling, crackling sound – now coming from all around him close by. The beast was there charging not more than 10 feet away. At the last moment John Dance threw himself to the ground. The bear stopped short and reared up on its hind legs, roaring in triumph. It raised its paws, each as big as an anvil, and Dance had time to see the strings of carrion dangling from its claws. 

The world went white again. 

Dance’s body convulsed with electricity as hunks of bear meat rained down upon him. When it was over he lay very still and moaned quietly for a long time. The bear had been disintegrated by the lightning. From where Jon Dance lay he could see the burn marks in the grass where the bear’s feet had touched the earth. 

Without lifting his head, he scanned the horizon as best he could. There was nothing but open prairie, and when the wind blew the stench of cooked bear away he could smell the river. The tower on the horizon remained dark and motionless.

He crawled like a snake, very slowly back towards the bluff. For an hour or so, he inched way along the ground in mortal tear of that sizzling sound he was certain would be his end.