Halloween is one week away. I'd like to start a tradition on the Illusion Exotic, by featuring a short story from my compendium "The Illusion Exotic". I'll run an installment each day leading up to Halloween. I hope you enjoy it.
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
The man in black leaned against the porch railing, patiently contemplating the purpose of his summons. Twirling his handlebar mustache, he admired the late spring maelstrom raging high above on Pikes Peak. Snow erupted off the upwind slope in sun-gilded plumes, blending into rolling clouds above the summit. The turmoil above contrasted to the calm where he stood a mile below. He understood the illusion of tranquility, of how quickly death could descend and deliver an unexpected blow.
Squinting against the morning sun, deep creases etched his weathered face with shadows as dark as his drover coat and broad hat. The man in black seemed to soak the light from the morning air, testifying to the civilized world here stood a man of consequence, a man of purpose. He merely thought of himself as a man of duty.
Duty drew him to the eastern Rockies, the slopes just coming back to life after a bitter winter. Most of the snow across the plains had already melted, transforming the streets of Colorado Springs into mud, confounding wagons and soiling the finest petticoats.
He noticed quite a few petticoats and top hats, strangely out of place in a new frontier town. English tourists and English money saturated the city, driving prices as high as Pikes Peak. As the fresh scars of the Civil War began to heal, gentlemen and ladies from the finest eastern families and European nobility came west, deposited in Denver by the Kansas-Pacific Railroad. They journeyed the rest of the way courtesy of General Palmer’s Denver and Rio Grande Railway. Some came to see the vanishing frontier and gaze upon the majestic Rockies. Others came to hunt the plentiful trophy game in the high country.
The one thing not plentiful here was liquor. General Palmer didn’t tolerate alcohol in his new town. He harbored deep respect for his former commander, but still brought enough good rye to keep him warm during his stay. He had some fine tobacco in his hotel, too. As bad as he wanted for a cigarette, he supposed this would be a bad place to roll one.
The covered porch wrapped around a spacious whitewashed building, which could have been mistaken for a fine resort hotel. Perched between worlds, the majestic mountains formed the hospital’s backdrop and the plains fell before it like an endless gown.
Frail, wispy figures clad in white robes surrounded the man in black like morning fog encircles a granite peak. They, too, existed between worlds; living ghosts slumped in wheelchairs across the porch. Nurses drifted among the pale figures carrying blankets and hot tea. Occasional coughing spasms racked the silence. The patients deflected their gazes away from him. Perhaps he’d dealt death for so long, he’d come to resemble it.
During the war, General Palmer once confided why he always kept him by his side. Palmer believed the man in black could sense when death lingered nearby, attributing this gift for keeping the General’s feet firmly planted in this world. He told the General it wasn’t a gift. When you got the smell of death deep in your lungs day in and day out, it eventually stuck there like molasses on the inside of a barrel. After a while, you could smell it coming. Just when a man thought he’d exorcised death from his mind for good he’d get a whiff of it again, strong and fresh.
Most men who fought the war, like the General, spent the rest of their lives trying to avoid death. Thinking it a fool’s errand, the man in black quit trying long ago. In fact, he’d gotten so damn good at smelling death coming he made it his profession.
Death permeated the clean, crisp mountain air. It wasn’t the hot, violent smell of the battlefield or a gunfight, but the cool, sterile odor of antiseptic decay. While expensive and beautiful, this place wasn’t a fine resort hotel and these weren’t English tourists. The patients came for a second chance at life and hoped to find it here at Craigmor Sanitarium. Neither stricken with consumption, or visiting a patient, he had an appointment with his former commander General William Jackson Palmer.
Palmer’s personal secretary, a small man with a penchant for small details, emerged onto the porch and whispered to the man in black, “Mr. Knight, the General will be out shortly.”
Silas H. Knight nodded and resumed chewing on a toothpick as the little man scurried off. A few moments later, a group of well-dressed men emerged onto the porch, Palmer at their center.
“Gentlemen,” the General addressed them. “I feel certain I’ve laid to rest any doubts this grand institution, nestled here amidst our Lord’s natural beauty, is at the forefront of modern medicine. I am confident this glorious place of healing can only prosper and thrive under the stewardship of such a distinguished board of trustees. Now, if you will please excuse me, I must attend to other matters. I leave you in the hands of Doctor Edwin Solly, with whom you are already acquainted, to field any further questions.”
He shook hands with each and bid them thanks and farewell. His smile cooled as he turned and made his way across the porch to Knight.
“Sergeant, it does please me to see you again.”
“General.” Knight touched the brim of his hat in a ghost of a salute.
“How was your journey? Are you hungry? The kitchen staff here is excellent.”
“No thank you, sir. The hotel has a fine breakfast, even if it is a bit rich for an old soldier.”
“Ah, yes,” Palmer agreed. “The Antlers is the finest hotel west of St. Louis. I hope you find it agreeable.”
Palmer motioned off the porch. “Well then, Sergeant, will you do me the honor of accompanying me in a stroll across the grounds while we discuss why I asked you here?”
The two men made no small talk as they strolled in silence down the hill, past the garden toward the open prairie. Palmer stopped and surveyed the wide-open rolling grasslands stretching east, interrupted only by the distant town nestled among the foothills. A gust of wind stirred the late morning calm as the mountain storm behind them began to draw energy from the warming grasslands.
Knight watched his former commander out of the corner of his eye. The steely look on Palmer’s face transported him back to battlefields long ago, and a thousand miles away. He knew deep inside that Palmer still fought the war. The general would fight for the rest of his life to purge the smell of death from his nostrils.
“Silas, I trust you are in good health and your constitution is as firm as ever.” Palmer looked him up and down and nodded.
“Yes sir, still fit enough.”
“If my telegram was sufficient to lure you here then I can rest assured Kansas City holds no special bond for you?”
Knight nodded. He had no bonds, other than to some inner code of honor he shared with a few men. Palmer was and would forever be his commander, loyalty bought and paid for with blood.
Palmer nodded quickly and grinned. “Excellent."
Palmer stretched his arm across the open grasslands, the way he did when he surveyed battlefields. Knight followed him, because unlike most Union generals, Palmer was a man of thought and action. A spy, the commander of the 15th Calvary Regiment, a former prisoner of war, and nemesis of General Lee, he was the most daring man Knight had ever encountered.
“Colorado Springs is going to be the next St. Louis. I’m building railroads, but not out west, Silas. No, that is already happening.” He turned and motioned toward the giant peaks. “Instead, I’m building narrow gauge lines throughout the Rockies from Mexico to Canada. Not around them, mind you, but through them! In Washington, they see these great mountains as obstacles to uniting the continent. I see them as a source of wealth, the very backbone of the continent.”
Knight listened as Palmer went on, detailing his plans for the Denver and Rio Grand Railway. To his former commander, it was simply a matter of breathing life into events already played out in his mind a thousand times. An engineer, the General visualized the end-state, and then applied scientific principles to make his vision reality. Now Palmer visualized pushing the American Empire across a virgin continent.
“Science now allows us to engineer railways in places the ancients couldn’t have scraped a goat path. I have work camps scattered up and down the Rockies. These are lawless places, beyond territorial justice. If I can’t keep order, I can’t build the railroad.”
Knight now understood why he’d been summoned.
Palmer continued, “The camps are filled primarily with Mexicans, but there are some white men, mostly foremen and engineers mind you, at each location. There is liquor and whoring, I can’t prevent that. However, I can’t have these vices inducing strife with the local indians. The tribes, especially in New Mexico territory, are very different than those across the plains. They’re generally passive unless stirred to trouble. That, my old friend, is why I requested your services. Are you equal to the task?”
“I understand, sir.” Sergeant Silas H. Knight, former scout of the 15th Pennsylvania Calvary Regiment would ride forth once again at the bidding of his general.
“Very good. I knew I could count on you. I’ll pay well above what you earned in Kansas City. My personal secretary will handle the details.”
“Yes, sir.” Ordinarily a hard man when it came to contract negotiations, Knight simply accepted his former commander’s word.
“I hope your instincts are as sharp as ever, for I must request that you depart immediately. I received word this morning of trouble near the railhead in Espanola, in northern New Mexico. There is a territorial marshal there, a certain Thomas Wellsby, but he is a drunkard and a liar. I’m making you a deputized agent of the railroad. Under territorial law you’ll have jurisdiction in all matters regarding the Denver and Rio Grande Railway.” Palmer leaned toward Knight in confidence. “Espanola is the lynchpin for the Chili Line, the railroad stretching from Raton across northern New Mexico. Therefore, all matters in Espanola are in some regard the jurisdiction of this railroad.”
“Will Wellsby be a problem?” Knight inquired.
“He’ll see your mettle and likely stay out of your way. However, he is not above backstabbing, so tread carefully. Ascertain the situation in Espanola and, if he is involved, deal with him as necessary. And I suspect he is involved.
“I want law and order established there, one way or another. When you are through in Espanola, move north or south along the rail line from Santa Fe as you deem fit. Let your reputation move ahead of you, if you take my meaning.” Palmer gestured to the well-worn grips of Knight’s .44 caliber Colt pistols.
A cold gust of wind suddenly blew from the west, rocking Palmer slightly. Knight’s heavy black oilskin drover barely ruffled. The general turned and looked back at the sanitarium and the gray mountains beyond. The storm slowly descended onto the plains, darkening the blue morning sky and casting a shadow over Palmer’s face.
“I have enemies. Not just the railroad barons in Denver, but in Washington. They want to see my narrow gauge railway fail. Lackeys in Congress try to block me and I suspect the work camps are filled with saboteurs. I believe Wellsby is one of them.
“I fear the old world is here, its sins and demons have followed us to the New World. The war showed us that, Sergeant. We must shine the light of freedom and faith into the all the dark corners. We must not let those demons gain a foothold in this clean, bountiful land.”
Knight did what he always did when his general waxed philosophically: nodded and kept quiet. He’d never been to the Old World, but he knew people were the same, whether white, negro, indian, or Mexican. Most were bad, few were good.
And some were damned.
(to be continued tomorrow)
I hope you enjoyed this installment of THE CAVE. It will continue tomorrow on The Illusion Exotic and conclude on Halloween! Can't wait to find out what happens? You can get The Illusion Exotic here, featuring The Cave and other short stories.
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