Happy Halloween! Today we conclude the short story from my compendium "The Illusion Exotic". If you missed Part 1, you can catch up here.
THE CAVE, Part 9
A former Civil War soldier embarks on a quest on behalf of his former commander. He expects to find outlaws and gunslingers in the high deserts of New Mexico, but instead stumbles upon death incarnate.
"The Cave", & "The Illusion Exotic, "Copyright 2016 Brian L. Braden
(One week later)
Covered in a dusting of snow, the gallows stood ready for three days. But the village elders couldn’t decide whether to send for a territorial judge or let Townsend try the case as the justice of the peace.
“No witnesses, nothing to tie Carl to the cave or the bodies, no confession, and no wounds,” Knight told the elders. “I shot him point blank. Townsend, you saw the wounds and the blood. Now, there he sits in shackles, fit as a rattlesnake on a hot day, and laughing. If you send for a territorial judge you might as well release him now.”
The townsmen agreed, but the elders, accustomed to the days of centralized rule from Mexico City, took more convincing. Amado’s pleas, not Knight’s, eventually brought them around.
They held the trial in the tavern. Shackled, Nesbitt hunkered in a dark corner like a rat. Knight had no words, no frame of reference for the beast known as Nesbitt Carl. He beat him only by abandoning all logic and relying on instinct. Now logic and reason were losing badly against Nesbitt Carl.
A railroad bookkeeper with a back-east education represented Nesbitt. The young man correctly stated nothing could tie Carl to the scene of the crime, which Townsend and his party had already destroyed. Carl’s only possible crime was being in Knight’s room, uninvited but unarmed.
Knight knew Nesbitt didn’t play by the rules in the bookkeeper’s back-east law book. They needed a frontier trial, where evidence carried less weight than fear.
Amado beseeched the pueblo chiefs to come and testify, but none did. One sent a messenger to beg the court to appease the demon Nesbitt, lest he devour them all.
“The injun is the only one talking sense!” Nesbitt cackled from his irons. “I hereby absolve the red savages from my terrible vengeance.”
To Knight’s relief, Townsend quickly found Nesbitt Carl guilty of the murders of Sheriff Jackson Wellsby and the Lady Josefita Lucero, as well as twenty six counts of the unlawful death of an indian.
During sentencing, Knight shocked the gallery when he spoke in favor of burning. This statement received Nesbitt’s full attention.
“I’d rather take my chances out there with the savages instead of you ‘civilized men’! Bloody Americans, no better than the French,” Nesbitt protested, visibly shaken.
The bookkeeper stood and tapped his law book. “This, gentlemen, is the U.S. Constitution as well as the territorial charter of New Mexico. It’s enough this is a sham trial, based on superstition and...” he waved his finger at Knight. “...blind fear! My client is right. We are no better than the primitives we’re supposedly here to show the light of reason, law, and Christian love. The legally proscribed form of capital punishment in this territory is death by hanging or firing squad. For all that is right and merciful, at least do this. Or we might as well all live in Texas.”
The bookkeeper carried the day. Nesbitt grinned smugly as they dragged him into the cold sun and onto the gallows in the town square.
In anticipation, a crowd gathered under the bare aspens surrounding the gantry. The fact the disappearances stopped once Knight apprehended Nesbitt didn’t go unnoticed by the villagers.
A gasp went out among the crowd. Villagers crossed themselves with cries of, “El Diablo!” as women turned away. Knight made his way through the spectators to see what the commotion was about.
Nesbitt’s skin darkened and turned purplish-black. It began to split and bleed. Blood trickled from his eyes like perverse tears.
Townsend inched forward. “Nesbitt Carl, you have been found guilty of the murders of Jackson Wellsby and Josefita Lucero. Do you have anything to say before sentence is carried out?”
Nesbitt looked left and right over the crowd. “Knight! Where’s Knight?”
The railroad agent stepped forward.
“Ah, there he is. I have but one request for my new friend.” The crowd fell silent as Nesbitt leaned over as far as his chains allowed, blood and pus dripping onto the freshly cut planks.
“Before I snapped her neck she told me you were coming. Seer of the unseen, she said. The bitch cursed ya, Knight! Cursed ya with old magic, deep magic, and you don’t even know it. So you better bury me deep, old boy. BURY ME DEEP!”
Knight stepped back, hand seeking the reassurance of his pistol grip.
A woman screamed and fainted. Trembling, a young priest from the mission stepped forward. “Do you want me.... do...you...want me to read from the Holy Scripture?” he stuttered.
Nesbitt rolled his eyes and grinned. Black blood oozed from between his teeth.
“If it will get that hood on me, you bet your ass, laddie! Why don’t you read Daniel 9:9, that one is always short and entertaining in times like these.”
The priest fumbled though the pages. “The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him.”
Nesbitt issued a deep, gurgling laugh. “Say, padre, could you bring that a wee closer so I can read it myself? My eyes are a bit watery right now.”
The priest held the Bible closer to Nesbitt, who promptly spit a wad of black juice on its pages.
“Damn you to hell!” the priest recoiled.
“Too late. That forgiveness shit didn’t play too well in my case,” Nesbitt chortled as Townsend placed the hood over his boiling, disfigured face.
“Ahh, that feels so much better!” With a cackle, Nesbitt broke into song.
“Death is master of lord and clown;
Shovel the clay in, tread it down.
CLOSE THE COFFIN, HAMMER IT DOWN!”
Snarling, Townsend yanked the lever and the trapdoor fell away, sending Nesbitt to a sudden jerk three feet above the New Mexico clay. Nesbitt’s feet kicked wildly.
His neck didn’t snap.
Knight had seen enough hangings to know when they would linger. He pulled a Colt and fired one bullet into the hood and one into the abdomen. Nesbitt ceased struggling.
The bookkeeper looked up at the body in horror and disbelief. Knight bumped him as he turned to walk back into the tavern.
“I guess he gets a hanging and a firing squad today,” Knight said. “I figure justice must be plum happy ‘bout that.”
THE CAVE, Part 10
(Two days later)
“You were right, we should have burned him. Will he come after us?” Amado asked.
Knight chewed on a piece of grass, and kicked at splintered planks surrounding the grave, which was now a gaping hole dug from the coffin up. It reeked of sour mash whisky.
“Maybe not today or tomorrow, but he’ll come,” Knight answered.
“I fear Nesbitt Carl, whatever spawn of hell he may be, is too big, too strong for us to fight,” Amado said.
“I’ll find out what he is and I’ll find a way to kill him,” Knight replied, Nesbitt’s final words clouding in his mind like hot gunsmoke.
For several minutes they contemplated the empty grave in silence.
“I wish I could have met your wife, Amado.”
Surprised, Amado looked up at Knight. A faint smile touched the corner of his mouth. “Why do you say this?”
Knight looked upon the distant mountains ringing the Valles Caldera, the season’s first snow lightly brushing its rim. Even against a slate gray sky, they were vivid and beautiful.
“A beautiful woman once told me there was magic in this land. I didn’t know what she meant at the time, but now I do. She said it was old magic, bigger than us, bigger than Nesbitt.”
Amado shook his head. “I don’t understand.”
Knight looked him in the eye. “She said fire and steel won’t serve us against this enemy.” He spit the piece of grass into the disemboweled grave. “But in the end, fire and steel is all I got.”
Knight removed the turquoise crucifix and silver chain from his pocket.
“Townsend brought this back from the cave. He thought you’d want it.”
Amado extended a trembling hand, and then pulled back.
“Her precious memory will live with me forever, in our home, in our tavern...and in the village she was so loved. In this respect, I will always be a wealthy man. I’m not sure why, my friend, but I think she would want you to have it. Perhaps it will give you more than fire and steel.”
Knight nodded in thanks and shook Amado’s hand. Silas Knight, railroad agent, soldier, and man of consequence and purpose, rode south and never looked back.
He spent the rest of his days trying to forget the smell of the cave.
THE CAVE, Epilogue
The bobby trailed the big man since spotting him entering the Whitechapel an hour earlier. He wore a long trench coat and a wide brimmed hat. The stranger’s boots sounded oddly foreign on the London cobblestone. These slums were the domain of dregs and destitutes. This man, neither beggar nor gentlemen, didn’t belong here.
The stranger slipped through the fog with purpose, but without obvious direction.
This bloke is looking for something, and I suspect that something is trouble.
Trouble plagued the East End these days and the policeman wasn’t about to let this stranger cause any more. He picked up his pace, determined not to lose the big man in the foggy darkness.
The big man turned the corner at Miller’s Court, followed by the bobby a few moments later.
And then he vanished.
The bobby ducked into the side alleys, searching each in detail, unwilling to believe this stranger could give him the slip on his own turf.
Yet, that’s exactly what happened. After ten minutes jogging up and down the nearly empty streets, the bobby gave up. He briefly considered blowing his whistle for reinforcements, but decided against it.
He’d keep an eye open for the big man tomorrow night. He walked backed to Whitechapel Station, his shift almost over.
The big man materialized out of the fog and watched the bobby turn the corner. He held a crumpled copy of The Penny Illustrated Paper and Illustrated Times, which detailed the recent murder of a local prostitute, Miss Catherine Eddowes.
The bobby was right; the man in black was looking for something. He smelled the cave in London’s East End, and came with fire and steel to put a stop to it.
He opened his black oilskin drover, revealing two Colt .44 pistols. Each black as night, one he named Consequence, the other Purpose. But he knew they weren’t enough to stop the evil he followed across the Atlantic. He needed more.
The street lamps shone down upon his chest, reflecting off a turquoise cross hung from a silver chain.
Happy Halloween! I hope you enjoyed THE CAVE. You can get The Illusion Exotic here, featuring The Cave and other short stories. Please browse all my titles here.
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