May 28 • 28M

Nowhere Ch. 18 - Up in Flames

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Short fiction every week and serial novel "A Town Called Nowhere"
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Dance crawled until he passed out. He couldn’t say how long he slept, but he was brought back to consciousness by the peaceful sound of his horse cropping grass close to his head.

At this he spasmed in fear, rolled onto his back and crab-walked backwards, scrambling for his pistol. His horse looked at him evenly, knowing him for the fool that he was. When Dance realized his situation, he replaced his half–unholstered pistol and said a prayer of gratitude. Then he started looking for his hat.

He saw it a few hundred yards out on the prairie next to a burned black circle. He raised his eyes to the horizon and saw the black tower stabbing into the sky. He shook his head and said, “I never did like that hat, anyway.” Then he caught his horse and rode back to town.

With Archie in the lead McAllister and ten of the Teamsters crossed the street and made for the Morning Star mine. But before they could get to the mine yard, Jane Siskin stormed into their path. Gone was the dress of the night before and now she was in dusty leathers again. She planted her hands on her hips and said, “Now just where in the hell do you think you're going!?!”

Archie said, “And just whom in the hell you imagine you are addressing?"

"Oh, I ain't talking to you, your highness. These boys in on my payroll and that means they should have the courtesy to inform me before they go off getting in some foolishness. I mean, Clod there don't know no better, but I expected more from you MacAllister."

"Enough wi’ your haverin’ woman! My head’s not havin’ ’t this mornin. It’s bright and loud already and your man here is invited us to go for a walk in a nice, cool, quiet cave. So we've decided on a wee stroll."

Jane turned her skeptical eye towards Archie.

Archie told her of the disappearance of the silver deposits and their replacement with an ancient temple of unknown origin. Jane tried to look tough and unfeeling as he explained, but the memory of the darkness and the vision he had seen there were so fresh in Archie's mind she was captured by his retelling.

"Besides," concluded Archie, “since the road to Bisbee, and for all we know the entirely of the outside world, is gone, it appears you are out of the freight business and must seek a new line of employment. Might I suggest Archaeology?”

"Oh my sweet prince," at Jane with a smile. “It's you who don't get how the world works. Roads and towns come and go, but there is always – always – something that needs hauling. But let's have a look at what's in your root cellar. Then she hooked her arm through his and Archie escorted her across the street as if she had been a guest at the season’s finest ball.

As they assembled torches in the yard, Archie looked askance at the miners who stood around in small groups, muttering to themselves, “Bloody fools.”

“Why are you so angry at them,” Jane asked, “they're just afraid.”

“Superstition offends me. Right to my very core."

"You mean to tell me you don't believe in ghosts and spirits?" Asked Jane.

"Certainly not. I am a natural philosopher. I believe in what I can see with my own eyes, what I can verify with my own senses."

“What of God, ye English heathen? Have you seen him?” Asked McAllister good-naturedly as he tied a rag around a length of shattered board.

“Carefully recording the wonder of his creation so that we can better understand it, is that not worship?” asked Archie.

MacAllister smiled and answered, “Laddie, I’m just grateful when I walk in a church that the roof doesn’t fall in on top of me.

They filled a wagon with torches and rolled it as far as the mine tracks would go, then they all lit two torches a piece and advanced into the chamber. The twelve of them spread out in an attempt to fill the chamber with light. But there was something about the darkness. It retreated, but begrudgingly, stubbornly, as if still fighting to clock the secrets of the ancient Temple.

Jane asked, "then what was that nasty ol’ DuMont digging up this whole time?"

Archie said, "the Miners assure me that there was silver here yesterday.”

Jayne said, “Just like the river."

McAllister said, “I’ll take a clean river over a foul pit any day."

Archie walked along the edge of the room where a great arch opened onto nothing but dark, natural stone. "The curvature of this vault is quite sophisticated, and the interlocking arches would be quite unnecessary if this was merely an underground structure. Which is to say…" Archie trailed off in thought.

McAllister chimed in, “Which is to say nothing makes sense to me."

Archie outlined what parts of the arch she could reach with his torch and asked, “Doesn't this seem more like a window to you?"

“Aye, but it’s daft to build a window underground.”

“But it’s not quite underground, is it? Or at least it might not have been when it was built. If we dig away the rock here, this would be open to the sky. We have merely gone into the hill without descending appreciably.”

Jane said, “Darling, I love the way your brain is always working, but I don't see why it matters. There ain't no silver here, ain't nothing of value. Just a room we're savages used to kill other savages."

"Oh no," at Archie, “Here there is the most valuable commodity of all. Knowledge. And the entertainment of a true mystery. And if your only concern is avarice then what I am saying is that this structure must assuredly have lower levels."

"And we’ve a shit–ton of useless miners out there," said MacAllister.

"Exactly, now let me see if I can catch a glimpse of the ceiling." Archie strode over to the center of the room and, with a shudder, stepped up on the sacrificial altar. He lifted the torch as high as he could above his head. At first, he thought the darkness was stubbornly congealed above him, like some strange pool of evil night, but as he moved the torch and looked at the shape of the darkness from different angles, he began to see that there was a large mass hanging in the center of the room.

“Scaffold, ladders, something to stand on!” cried Archie.

Two wooden ladders were brought and lashed together at the top and tethered by rope at the sides. Teamsters held the feet of the ladder on either side of the altar. Torch in his right hand, Archie ascended the shaky, makeshift ladder, white-knuckling the rungs with his left.

Perversely, the shape seemed to recede into the darkness above. And Archie felt queasy. He had the feeling that the scale and geometry of this space were wrong, somehow becoming larger the more he advanced into it.

“What is it?” cried Jane from below.

Weakness washed over Archie and he swayed on the ladder, nearly losing his grip. He pulled himself close to the rungs, and ground his teeth together, forcing his breath through his nose.

Without looking up, he climbed the last three rungs and lifted the torch again. The shape was bigger now, and he could almost make it out — almost understand the meaning of its silhouette. If only he could get closer. He stepped even higher on the ladder and now his hips and center of gravity were above the top of the improvised a-frame. His bent knees shook with fear, but he forced himself to stand, holding the torch as high as he could above his head.

It started to make sense. There were two long triangles on the bottom, black and covered with tendrils of mold — or was they fur? it was difficult to know because the blackness of this thing swallow the light. He swung a leg over the top of the ladder and put his foot on the topmost rung on the other side.

“Be careful!” cried Jane.

“I’ve almost made it out…” said Archie as he stood on the wobbling ladder, raising his torch as high as possible into the darkness. The flames from the torch licked one of the corners of the triangles, and there was a sizzling noise, then aroar as the thing caught fire.

Flamed rippled up the side of it, and, with a creaking noise, the thing turned its face at Archie and screamed. By the light of his torch and the light of the creature’s own immolation, Archie made out that the thing hanging in the center of the vault was a gigantic bat.

It let go of its perch and spread its burning wings, crashing into Archie, shattering the ladder, and sending all of it crashing to the stone below.

The Preacher had done a brisk trade all day. Townspeople were flat rattled by the appearance of a river from nothing, then the attack, and the disappearance of the outside world. By now reports had come in of a line surrounding the town beyond which the terrain was different. What was the meaning of this? Was this God’s work or the Devil’s? The End of Days or an unfathomable beginning?

In ones and twos they had trickled into his small church all day and by the late afternoon his conversation had turned into an impromptu sermon. The Preacher had never had an experience like this before and can only attribute the words that flowed forth from him as inspired by the Holy Spirit itself. Where there was fear, he sowed hope. Where there was doubt, he sowed faith.

"Even the Devil is doing the work of the Lord," he began. "For what can exist without it serving God? That's a hard truth to accept sometimes — may be hard to accept all the time. But God gives us troubles so we can grow. It's might be the end of the world but it’s not the end of God’s plan for you. And you don’t want the end of days to catch you and you be unsaved. ‘Cause you want to be in that number, Lord, when the Saints come a marchin’ in!”

“What do you think is going to happen to us?” asked a young woman whose brazen clothing contrasted with her timid manner. A young Magdalene thought the Preacher, cowed by the majesty of a simple chapel.

“in this life? Trial, pain, suffering, and death. All that is guaranteed. What is not guaranteed is that you find love and fellowship in the model of Christ. But you can have it. You grow in the world and in Christ to have a full life. But what is an absolute certainty is that you will be tested and then you will die. And after that, well, what happens it's up to you. Eternal damnation or eternal salvation. And as Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.’

“so the question to ask, my lost and bewildered sheep is not, are we going to die? The question is what happens after that. Are you saved? Have you been saved? Do you want to be saved?"

And so it was the Preacher led a procession down to the river’s edge to baptize 13 new souls for the Lord. As he did, he felt proud to be a mighty warrior for Christ.

He took off his jacket and waded right through the weeds into the depths of the river. There he raised his hands and cried, "Brothers and sisters, don’t be afraid of the water! Who among ye will go first?" But no one followed. So the Preacher said, "for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son so that you might have life eternal. Compared to that wondrous miracle, that most stupendous of gifts, I ask you, why would God not send a river into the desert so that your soul and your soul and your soul might be saved.”

The young Magdalene stepped forward shyly then stopped.

The Preacher beckoned her, “Come closer dear. There’s no reason to be afraid. The good Lord parted the Red Sea, saved Moses from the Pharaoh, and he said water into the desert that you might not die, but live eternal."

Then Preacher looked down at his leg with some alarm, something had brushed by him under the water – a large something, but conscious of the eyes of his flock upon him, he tried to be brave. With a confidence he didn't feel, he called out to the young Magdalene again. "Come on down here, time to accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior. He’s ready for you darlin’ I promise,” said the Preacher, forcing a smile across his face.

She made her way through the reeds and the cold, sucking mud, smiling at the crowd on the bank, then looking down and frowning at what the river was doing to her expensive dress. When she finally stood next to the Preacher he said, “Cross your arms across your chest darlin’.” Then put a hand on her forehead and another hand on the small of her back. “Are you ready to receive Jesus Christ as your personal savior? To receive the gift of Life Everlasting and the eternal love of God?”

She nodded.

“Are you ready to be born again in the Holy Spirit?”

“I am — ahhhhhhhh!” She screamed as something in the water grabbed her leg and dragged her under.

In the silence after that horrible scream, the Preacher stood in the water, not knowing what to say. He looked to the believers on shore and saw that they did not understand. And why should they? They had never seen a river baptism. Maybe this was what was supposed to happen. For a moment the preacher found himself, like any desperate performer trying to figure out how to salvage a bit from disaster. Then the creature in the river surfaced in its death roll, flinging the young woman's body into the air for long enough for her to scream in agony and for all to see her broken body washed with a thin mixture of blood and river water. As the screaming began, the Preacher splashed for the shore.

Dance had given his horse his head and slumped weakly against the animal’s neck, drifting in and out of consciousness as the horse found his way home. All Dance wanted from the world was to eat some of Speedy Pete’s beans, crawl into the number two cell, lock the door, and sleep secure in the knowledge that the iron bars were enough to protect him from the giant bear of his nightmares. But as he rounded the corner on the main street he saw a group of cowboys on horses in front of the jail.

At the head of them sat Nathan Burdock with his hands crossed over his saddlehorn. He yelled into the jail, ”You let my boy out, or this is gonna turn ugly.”

Well, thought Dance, at least the jail ain’t on fire.

From inside he heard Sleepy Pete's slow drawl, "the sheriff will be back anytime now, you'll see. Then you'll be in all kinds of trouble."

"Paw, you get me out of here!" Came Charlie Burdock’s thin cry.

“Now, Pete, the Sheriff’s just one man and I don't…" said Nathan Burdock, trailing off when he saw what was left of Dance.

Without a word, and without his hat, the Sheriff rode right through the Cowboys, right past Burdock and hitched his horse to the post.

“Jesus Christ,” said one of the cowboys.

“Fresh from the tomb,” said another, because Dance looked like 20 miles of bad road.

Dance paid them none of them any mind. He dunked his head in the horse trough, shook like a dog, then slurped greedily at the water.

Nathan Burdock cleared his throat. Then he drew his pistol, cocked the hammer and said, “Sheriff?”

Dance turned slowly, holding his hands away from his sides and said, “Why Nathan, I didn’t see you there.”

Nathan Burdock smiled and said, “You got my boy in there and I'll be having him."

"Don't worry Sheriff, I got a bead on him,” said Sleepy Pete from inside the jail.

“Pete, that ain’t reassuring, I know what kinda shot you are,” Dance yelled back at the jail. Then he turned wearily back to Nathan Burdock and said, “Sorry for the interruption, I didn’t want to get accidentally shot.” He swept his gaze across Nathan’s sour-faced ranch hands in front of the jail. “Or on purpose shot, either.”

“Just give me my boy and nobody gets shot.” Dance, swayed a little with fatigue and added, “I don’t know what you want that kid for. He’s a real asshole, I can tell you that.”

Nathan Burdock said, “My line’s not long on charm, but I’ll be havin’ him all the same.”

“Well, the thing is, I’m supposed to hold him until the circuit court judge comes through from Tuscon. But seeing as Tuscon ain’t there anymore, I guess… shit… you can have him.”

“Whaaaaaaat?” drawled Speedy Pete from inside the jail.

“Pete, go on and bring the prisoner out here!”

“Sheriff, I don’t think…”

“Deputy, it has been a long day and I’m in no mood for an argument.”

Burdock lowered his pistol. He looked confused and slightly disappointed to have gotten his way so easily. He was all keyed up for a fight that hadn’t come. He said, “You know, and I know my boy ain’t gonna see no justice from a crooked judge from big-city Tuscon.

“Jesus Nate. Take yes for an answer why’dontcha?”

“That’s Mr. Burdock to you.”

Dance nodded, waving a dismissive hand and said, “Pete, hurry up in there.” Then back to Burdock, “You see, his nickname is of an ironical nature.”

Pete unbarred the door. It was a hollow, violent thump that caused the horses and men jump. Burdock’s men were especially skittish with their easy victory, wondering if all this weren’t some kind of strange trick.

Pete emerged from the jail with a shotgun and Charlie Burdock in handcuffs. "You sure about this Sheriff? It don't seem right."

"Pete, Miguel is dead. And we are in Arizona no more."

"Oh no how do you die?"

"You wouldn't believe me if I told you. So if this old hatchet face bastard wants to take his jackass kid and ride out of town to get killed – well, saves us tying a noose.”

"What are you carrying on about?" asked one of Burdock’s men.

"Don't pay no mind to his foolishness boys,” said Burdock, not sure what the play was here.

"I want to hear what he has to say," said another adding, "maybe he can tell us why the little bunkhouse disappeared."

"If I had answers, I wouldn't share them with a pack of thugs like you," said the sheriff and he took the shackles from Charlie Burdock's wrists. Charlie grinned at Dance and said, I told you that so I wouldn't hold me, Sheriff." Then he started down the steps.

Sheriff Dance’s kick got Charlie square in the right ass cheek and sent him sprawling flat in the street. He turned in the dirt and got up with his fist clenched, mad as hell. But dance just stood on the top of the steps with his hands held out from his sides, smiling like he had won a prize at the fair.

"Easy boy," said Nathan Burdock.

"Yeah boy, easy,” said Dance.

"That's enough out of you!" Burdock snapped at Dance.

“Somebody lend me a gun," Charlie said his face red with embarrassment.

"No,” said Nathan, trying to put a final word to it.

One of the ranch hands brought a saddled horse to the front for Charlie.

“Sheriff, you cain’t just let him go!”

“Pete, there’s no point. There’s no Judge comin’ from Tuscon.”

“But he killed a man in cold blood. You cain’t let him get away with that!”

Why not, Dance wondered? Hadn’t the man who became John Dance gotten away with it? He's gotten away with killing men all the way here. To this town where everybody smiled when they saw him. Where he had respect and found a way to use violent talents for good. This town and these people, even the roughest of them, generally weren't bad men, and they were still ignorant of how the world had changed around them. Of what they were facing and how lost they really were. This town was gonna fall apart when the truth landed.

Charlie snarled, “I didn’t kill nobody in cold blood, he drew first and I shot him.”

“You’re that fast, hunh?” asked Dance.

“Yes sir, I am! And iff’n you hadn’t blindsided me, I woulda got you too!” said Charlie, ignoring the waiting horse.

"Let's go home,” said Nathan Burdock.

Dance said, “’ cause it's one thing to be steady shooting a man in the back, as you did. But it's another thing entirely to aim and fire when they're shooting back."

"They don't get a chance to fire back on account I'm so fast."

"Oh boy, you're real scary."

"Enough," said Nathan Burdock

"Mister, you're lucky I don't have a gun."

“is that a fact?" Asked the sheriff. Then he reached out to Speedy Pete’s belt pulled out his pistol.

“I forbid this,” said Nathan Burdock.

“Forbid what? He’s a free man, just like you wanted. If you got some regrets about his unfortunate character, it's far too late to start raising him now. Here you go, little Burdock,” said Dance as tossed the pistol to the boy.

As it flew through the air, there was a tremendous explosion and everyone flinched. Forgotten, the pistol landed in the dirt as everyone turned to see a tremendous cloud of smoke rising up from the Morning Star Mine.

The congregation at the water’s edge had recoiled in horror at the gruesome spectacle of the young girl who had tried to give her life to God, but instead had wound up being food for some horrible and still unseen river monster. They pulled the preacher ashore and looked to him for answers, but he had gave none. He ran right through the crowd and kept running up the hill towards the church lost in terror and despair.

What was this? The preacher wondered. Oh God, why hast thou forsaken me? That young girl, so beautiful, not innocent of course, but not deserving of this. He remembered the feel of her flesh beneath her dress as she was torn from his grasp. The whole of it was incomprehensible to him. He saw the humble church and ran towards it seeking to take refuge in prayer in the house of the Lord.

There was a peal of thunder and black smoke filled the sky. Behind him he heard the screams and cries of the faithful. A cloud of roiling black smoke filled the air and threw it rose a conflagration with wings. As it rose it screamed hatred at all of God's creation. With two mighty wing beats it climbed towards the heavens like something from John of Patmos’ nightmares. On the third beat one of its wings shredded to ash and it spun downwards, out of control, headed right for them.

The preacher stopped running thinking that his doom was upon him. He cast his arms out to his side and cried aloud “Take me Lord,” ready to meet his maker.

The fiery beast crashed into the church in front of him, pulverizing the chapel with furious beats of its ruined wings. As the steeple fell it burst into flames. The agony of its death throes it screamed at the sky and thrashed what remained of the church to splinters. The scream was so loud it drove the preacher and his followers to their knees, where they clutched their heads against the noise and pain.

The bat fell dead in the ruins of the destroyed church. In the silence that followed the smell of burning hair and flesh filled the Preacher’s nostrils.

Then the fire leapt to the next building.