Nowhere Ch. 21 - From The Ashes
Laura looked out over what was left of the Town of Grantham. Smoldering buildings. Bodies scattered across the street. She realized that this was the reality. This was the natural state. There would be no rescue. Not by Virgil nor anyone else. She felt an urge to lay down with the dead and be at peace. Then she looked back to her children, asleep in each other's arms, huddled against the wall of Saloon #3. She resolved to go in search of hope even if she no longer believed in it.
She walked around the corner of the building and entered the saloon. The dead and the wounded lay scattered on tables and on the dirt floor. The place smelled of blood and whiskey and tobacco. On a table in the middle of the room lay John Dance, his legs dangling off the end.
In the darkness, the Doctor staggered around drunk and covered with blood, seeming like another one of the wounded. She touched his arm. He shook his head and came back to his senses, shamed by her loveliness in this awful place. He wiped his bloody hands on his bloody shirt and straightened his collar. "You're not hurt, are you?" He asked with real concern.
"Gutshot,” said the doctor, "and at least one of the bullets is still in him.” He pressed his lips together and said, "there's nothing I can do."
She went to Dance and laid her hand on his face. She felt his strong jaw, noticed the wrinkles from smiling in the corners of his eyes, and felt the fever raging through him. Dance moaned and turned uncomfortably on the table. "Is there nothing that can be done?" she asked.
The Doctor shook his head and looked away. He stepped to the bar and took another pull from a bottle of brown liquor that was covered in bloody handprints. He swallowed hard and then looked at the wounded around him. The burned and the crushed and the shot and said, "God dammit… There's nothing to be done. Nothing to be done for any of ‘em.”
Laura realized he was wrong and walked out of the grisly saloon.
She headed South to where the freight yard had been. The flames had ravaged the wagons and their cargoes. All that was left was the metal of the wheel hubs and tackle and whatever metal implements have been in the cargo. Scattered here and there were the charred bodies of the unfortunate who had not escaped the flames. What she sought was gone.
She had not forgotten the miracle that it saved her child from the arrow wound. The snake oil salesman and his seemingly worthless product had somehow become the elixir of life itself. Now it seemed lost forever. Except for DuMont.
She had overlooked it in the chaos, but now she remembered DuMont. He had not been bent over coughing in pain. He had stood straight with vigor in his spine and spoke with a thunder in his voice. Somehow he had become a healthy man. And Laura had never known or heard of a man with consumption who had been cured.
She walked up the hill, her sights set on DuMont’s strange Victorian house that stood untouched on the rise above her. She shuddered as she approached through the carnage of the night before, but it did not stop her from checking the bodies. Many of their wounds seemed small and innocuous, blood stains in the shirt, more to be fretted over in the washing rather than a cause of death. But after the shock of looking at dead men had passed, she found them to be peaceful and they generated feelings of love and acceptance rather than pity or fear. A strange thought, born of fatigue: she preferred men this way. How much more docile and well-mannered, they were, non-threatening.
But among the dead she could not find the man she was searching for. She continued up the hill and found DuMont slumped on his own porch, bloody like the rest but unlike them, with a shattered bottle of Ol’ Bartloeermere the 2nd’s Magic Elixir next to him on the steps. Nothing more than a few pieces of shattered brown glass held together by paper and the glue on the back of the label.
At first, She thought he was dead, but then he coughed and rolled to his side. "Inside," he said, pointing at the fragments of the bottle. "Inside, another bottle."
As Laura looked down on him, the whole story became clear. There was a bullet hole, right through his breast pocket, into his chest. Right, where one might keep a small bottle. What a particularly inconvenient place to get shot.
He held the fragments of the bottle out towards her like a talisman. "You stupid woman," DuMont rasped, "on my desk, a bottle like this…" He gasped.
Laura smiled. “You're saying that you have another bottle of magic elixir. And you're asking me to get it for you so that I can use it to save you just like it was used to save my daughter. Do I have that right?" He nodded and waved his hand as if to say, get on with it.
"All right. I'll go fetch it.”
In a moment she returned with the bottle. DuMont managed to smile through the pain of his body shutting down.
“Now,” said Laura, “What will you give me for it?"
“Anything, money, silver. anything…"
"Well Mr. DuMont, that certainly would've been a tempting offer a few days back, but we're fresh out of places to spend money. I can't even imagine who I would send silver ore to."
“That’s mine," rasped DuMont, pointing at the bottle.
"You come and take it then, otherwise we're in a negotiation. You got anything I might want? No, that ain't hardly a fair question to put a man in your condition. I’ll just tell you what I do want. A man who is a good enough neighbor to put aside petty differences during emergencies. One who could be counted upon to help with hands needed for a bucket brigade. One that would've known better than to start a fight in the middle of an out-of-control fire. Save you from death? I ain’t a thief. I wouldn't dream of taking something from you you worked so hard to earn."
And then she lifted the hem of her dress, stepped carefully over the pool of blood leaking from DuMont, and left him to die.
She took the bottle of elixir and walked back to Saloon #3. She checked to see that the children were still sleeping. Then she paused in the doorway and passed the elixir from hand to hand. It was a miraculous and unlikely thing she held – a second chance.
She wondered if she should keep it for herself. Or hide it away until she or Mack or Pen were badly hurt. But it was a false sense of security. Unless the sad, struggling little town pulled together it would soon be whisked out of existence in this great unknown nowhere where they found themselves. The fools, the madman, fighting amongst themselves as the town burned. Everyone who was left needed to work together, and for that, they needed the Sheriff.
She had been tempted to do a bad thing with him once. The sin of that was on her, she thought. But the fact remained, Dance was a man who had tried to do the right thing when others wouldn't. He wasn’t a good man. But he was good enough. She hoped.
Archie coughed himself awake. The sound was explosive in the confined space and even before he could open his eyes the headache came. The air was thick with dust and when he tried to see his eyes burned and he shut them again. There was no point to sight, he was in utter darkness.
Fear grabbed ahold of him and he thrashed about, throwing his body from side to side against the rubble. His left foot was pinned and pain spiked through his knee as he rolled.
He was aware, logically, that he was out of control, but logic could obtain no grasp on his psyche. He screamed at the top of his lungs and beat his fists against the rock. With anger alone he tried to stable his fear and master his mind.
Memories came flooding back to him. That horrible bat, the presence of it in his mind, the raw power of the creature as it broke forth from the vault of stone, dropping the roof upon him.
He grabbed the rubble beneath his hands until the pain of clenching it brought him back to his senses. He found himself clutching a flat rock, nearly a foot in length in his right hand, and a vaguely triangular rock in his left.
With some difficulty he worked himself onto his side and curled in a ball. He felt around his trapped foot and ankle to get a picture of the stone that pinned it. He wedged the flat rock into the gap between the stone and the floor then he slid the triangular stone underneath it, forming a fulcrum. He pressed down on the lever as hard as he could and the rock holding his foot moved — infinitesimally, but it had moved!
He worked patiently, pressing the lever until he could advance the fulcrum, and little by little the pressure on his foot diminished. He could feel the rock lifting from his leg, but when he tried to pull his leg free, it ground cruelly against the stone. He thrashed in frustration this time hitting his head on the slab that formed the roof of his prison. When he regained consciousness again, returning to his task and trying not to be alarmed by the powerful and rising thirst that he could do nothing about.
Laura stood over John Dance watching him die, surprised that he didn't look the least bit concerned about it. So unlike Virgil. Her husband worried about everything. She had almost forgotten there were men who would joyfully throw the chip of their existence around in the game of life.
Dance was unconscious but looked peaceful enough despite his horrible and poorly bandaged wounds. Flies swarmed in the lone shaft of Sunlight that had dared to enter Saloon # 3. As the day wore on sunbeam would lose its courage, and realize that this was not a place where the light was welcome and retreat with the coming of night.
John Dance, that damnable man, thought Laura. He looked so carefree as he lay in his own blood that she wondered if she should let him go. But the town needed him if it was to survive. And if her children were to stand any chance at all they needed to town. And finally yes, she needed him. She wanted him and that was the sharpest pain of all.
She put her hand to his face and caressed him. Then she shook him but he did not wake. So she uncorked the bottle and poured the elixir between his lips. Then she kissed him, pressing her mouth to his so that he would not spill even a drop. At least that's what she told herself as she felt the life stir in him and her hot tears baptized his battered face.
After hours of trying, Archie had still not freed his foot. His primitive lever was long enough to move the stone that had trapped his ankle but not long enough for him to get free. But since contemplating his full predicament was horrifying, he had devoted himself to his hopeless task. Then the stone broke into three useless shards.
Archie slumped in defeat, too tired to even sob.
He felt his breath stir the dust next to his cheek. He let his whole body go as if it were a burden that someone else had asked him to carry that he was now glad to be rid of. Now Death, he thought.
And from the depths, something answered.
He felt a distant pulsing in the rock, the intimation of mighty roaring subterranean engines, far, far below.
A sense of power filled him and he underwent a dizzying shift of scale. The horrible bat creature had called to him, trying to draw him out, trying to drain him, but this was something else. A pure sending – a gift of… what it was, he could not say. It felt like a gift from God, but it came from below.
He seemed mighty to himself, not in the way of giants but mighty in knowledge of the secrets of the world. His thirst, hunger, and cold were gone. He saw his predicament as a silly thing: A man trapped inside a room, thinking the door was locked when all he needed to do was to stop pulling and push instead.
He felt the rocks beneath him grow less substantial. It started as a buzzing feeling in his fingertips. He opened his eyes and saw that the darkness had been replaced. What had been so solid, now revealed itself to be glowing infinitesimals around which tiny particles revolved at fantastic speeds. These particles moved so fast that each iota of rock only seemed solid, but was in fact, nothing more than the pressure of frantically whirling tendencies.
He saw, for the first time, that had been foolish to think of stone as solid and weighty. Even more foolish to be trapped by stone. In time with this thought, his leg slipped free and drifted upward through what had been solid rock. And then Archie swam through the rubble of the collapsed vault, surprised to find that it was a kind of water and even more surprised to learn that he was a kind of fish.
Among the angular shapes that he passed through Archie was surprised to find a sleeping form of MacAllister, encased in the sandy rubble of the collapsed mine tunnel. He gathered the large Scotsman in a wave before him and carried him from the mine.
They coalesced onto the ground in the open air amid the charred rubble of the mine yard. MacAllister settled to the ground and Archie landed on his feet. A sharp pain spiked up his leg and he fell to the the sooty ground next to the large Scotsman. MacAllister coughed and spit sand on him.
"Bloody hell,” said Archie.
MacAllister open his eyes and asked, “We are named dead yet?"
Archie stared at him fascinated and terrified at the absurdity of seeing very whirling infinitesimals that the man was composed of.
As his vision faded back to normal, Archie answered, "I don't know what we are."
"I'll tell you what we are lad," MacAllister said with a wink, "we're thirsty!" MacAllister rose and helped Archie to his feet. By leaning against the Scotsman, Archie was able to ease the weight of his injured foot. And so they staggered together, into what was left of the town.