Halloween is quickly approaching, and today is Part 3 & 4 of a short story from my compendium "The Illusion Exotic". I'll run an installment each day leading up to Halloween. If you missed Part 1, you can catch up here.
THE CAVE, Part 3
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 serving wench hadn’t brought his whisky. He turned to go back inside when the sound of drunken singing, clear and hollow, echoed out of the night. Without thinking, Knight placed his right hand on the butt of his revolver and slowly turned.
The singing drew closer.
When logs about the house are stack’d,
And next year’s hose is knit,
And tales are told and jokes are crack’d,
And faggots blaze and spit;
Death sits down in the ingle-nook,
Sits down and doth not speak:
But he puts his arm round the maid that’s warm,
And she tingles in the cheek.
Death is master of lord and clown;
Shovel the clay in, tread it down.
Death is master of lord and clown,
CLOSE THE COFFIN, HAMMER IT DOWN!
The refrain repeated as the smell of rye, stale and rotten, floated from the darkness. The form materialized, leading a donkey and cart. As the shadow drew closer, light streaming from the windows illuminated a fat, bloated face covered with stubble.
“Good evening to you, kind sir!” The portly man bellowed with a slight Irish brogue. He removed his top hat and bowed deeply, revealing a few thin strands of hair over a bald pate.
“Mr. Nesbitt Carl at your service.”
Knight nodded but kept a hand close to his revolver.
“If I may be so bold, you must be the railroad agent Amado spoke of, sent here by the General himself to put this fair village back in order. Mr. Knight, I presume?” He thrust forward a meaty hand.
“The same.” Knight nodded, but didn’t accept Nesbitt’s hand.
Nesbitt withdrew his hand and smiled. “I see, a man of few words; a man of action and justice.” He lifted his finger and waved it vigorously. “I salute you, Mr. Knight. The General is most serious and must be determined in his resolutions to send a man such as yourself. I, too, am a man of action and recognize a kindred spirit. Men like us are driving the American Empire to the Pacific and taming the red savage. I, for my part, soothe and give comfort to tired working men with my assortment of tonics and spirits.” He motioned to the cart pulled by a dead-eyed donkey.
Knight first took the crates for coffins, but a second look revealed whisky crates. The man he took for an undertaker was nothing more than a carpetbagger, probably driven west when the spoils of war dried up. He sensed something very wrong in this village, something beyond the influence a common rapscallion like Nesbitt Carl could bring.
Knight held scavengers like Nesbitt Carl in disdain, but such cowardly creatures had their uses. He would deal with Nesbitt later, but for now he would keep an eye on him.
“I take it, Mr. Carl, you have business here with Señor Lucero?”
“I come this way every few months. He has a good eye for fine liquor and his patrons expect only the best. I must ensure my customers have enough inventory to last them through the brutal territorial winter. In fact...!” Nesbitt’s eyes grew wide as a smile sprung to his face. He bounced to the back of the cart to retrieve a fresh bottle of whisky.
“As a distinguished representative of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, please accept this complimentary bottle of my finest wares. It’s Kentucky sour mash, only the highest quality. I reserve this for my white customers, being too strong for the weak constitutions of the red race. Only a few drinks and they become delirious.” Nesbitt leaned in and tapped his head. “Tenderizes the savage brain, you know. Amado tells me it’s fit for the tables of the Spanish court. Please take it with my best regards, Mr. Knight.”
“Much obliged,” he said and took the bottle of amber fluid. “You said you come this way every few months. What other towns do you frequent throughout the territory?”
Nesbitt’s eyes darted left and right. “Well, as a businessman I must keep a wide variety of customers stocked. If I tarry too long my competitors, numerous and not known as scrupulous men, will swoop in and prey upon my clientele. This is why I am a man who moves...”
The front door opened, spilling light and noise onto the porch. Isobella emerged holding a shot glass and a half-full bottle and placed them on the rail next to Knight.
“I am sorry, but we are running low...Señor Carl! The cellar is almost empty; take your wares around to the kitchen. Miguel will see to your cart and donkey.”
“Sweet Isobella, I have a better idea. YOU take my cart and ass to the back. This is Amado’s entire order. I will join the patrons in the saloon presently. Mr. Knight, I must see to my customers. Perhaps you will join me in the inn for a drink and a conversation?”
“It would be a pleasure.” He began to roll another cigarette. “I’m going to take in the night air for a spell longer, then I will be in directly.”
“As you wish,” Nesbitt handed the reins to a reluctant Isobella, lifted a few bottles of whisky from one of his cases, and entered the inn. Muttering curses under her breath, the girl led the donkey and cart around the corner. Knight heard a few men cheer as the vendor entered the room. Laughter penetrated the walls and carried across into the night. Knight found himself alone again on the porch, pondering the events of the evening.
THE CAVE, Part 4
He placed the fresh bottle on the rail and filled the shot glass from the bottle of rye Isobella brought. A mystery formed in his mind, fed by the look of desolation in Amado’s eyes and the fear festering inside the inn. He wanted to talk further with Josefita, somehow sensing she held the key to this mystery. First, he would hear what Amado had to say, and then seek out Wellsby. Something in Espanola spelled trouble for General Palmer’s ambitions.
He nursed the whisky and waited for the inn to empty.
As midnight approached, he heard Nesbitt laughing and lifting the spirits of the gloomy crowd with raunchy jokes and bawdy songs. Eventually, men drifted away, but never alone. Once they stumbled into the darkness, silence and sobriety fell upon them. They scurried away like children racing to the outhouse at midnight, their need barely outweighing their fear of what lurked in the shadows.
Knight slipped back inside carrying both bottles of whisky. Only a few men remained at the long tables. He found a dark corner and sat with his boots up on the table. A few women cleaned up, but Josefita had yet to reemerge from the kitchen. He poured another shot from the near empty bottle of rye and continued to nurse it. Nesbitt laughed loudly with two Mexicans almost too drunk stand. Knight watched him closely. Nesbitt caught his gaze and smiled back with large yellow teeth that reminded Knight of a coyote.
Amado emerged from the kitchen, sweaty and obviously exhausted. He wiped his hands on his apron and approached a group of men drinking near the fireplace. Amado nodded and motioned over to Knight. A stocky, Dutch-looking cowboy with a red beard, scowled over his shoulder at Knight.
Perhaps this fellow is Wellsby.
He looked younger than expected, perhaps only in his early 20’s. Amado and the bearded man approached. The cowboy glanced side to side, not meeting Knight’s steady gaze. A Colt hung awkwardly by the man’s side.
“Señor Knight, thank you for waiting so long. The matters at hand will not wait for morning. Let me introduce Sheriff Townsend.”
Knight put his boots down and leaned forward. “I was expecting to meet the acquaintance of a Mr. Wellsby.”
“Let us sit and talk. Much has transpired since the General dispatched you.” Amado called for more whiskey.
Townsend immediately poured a shot of whiskey and downed it, then poured another. What Knight first took for cockiness, he now recognized as fear.
Whatever is going on here, Townsend wears the badge reluctantly.
“A few weeks after snows cleared from the lower passes to Santa Fe, the crews resumed work on the rail line. It was shortly thereafter when people started vanishing,” Amado began. “Indians, mostly.”
Townsend spoke up, “Strong backs are hard to come by ‘round here. Injuns are poor workers...if and when they show up. They come ‘round when they’re hungry or want liquor and vanish as fast as they’re paid. Some foremen won’t use ‘em, claim they steal more than their worth.”
Amado looked irritated at Townsend’s interruption, but continued, “I am on good terms with the chiefs from the various pueblos. They came to me first. They did not trust Wellsby, perhaps for good measure. At first...” his voice broke and he looked away. “At first I thought it was simply a matter of intoxicated indians wandering away. Sometimes they mix strong drink with peyote in their kivas and are overtaken by madness; but after a few weeks there were too many men missing for this to be the only explanation. I knew some of them, young Zuni and Navajo men. Good men, fathers and sons. Some were my friends. Yes, maybe they drank too much, but that is the curse the white man brought upon them.”
“How many indians are we talking about here?” Knight asked.
Amado paused and took a drink, his hands shaking. Townsend stared at his glass and remained silent.
“By the time the monsoons came, I counted two dozen indian men vanished. Maybe more, it’s difficult because the indians soon ceased leaving the pueblos.”
“When Wellsby found out, he told me it was indian business as long as it didn’t interfere with the railroad. It became railroad business when the chiefs forbade their men to work on the railroad. Wellsby rode out to the pueblos to strong arm the chiefs to release their men back to the lines. I believe he knew you were coming and he didn’t want the problem to get back to General Palmer before he could resolve it.”
“He asked me to ride out with him that day, along with Richard here.” He nodded at Townsend. “We also took Father Garza from San Marcos and rode twenty miles northwest, along the Chama, to the Zuni settlement on the river. They were the first to refuse workers.”
“Father Garza came, I think, not to convince the chiefs, but to protect them from Wellsby. They are a proud but peaceful people. Not like the southern Apache or bloodthirsty Comanche. They protect themselves with desolation, high on the mesas or deep in the malpais, the badlands. They thrive where others only find death. Death is their friend because he takes care of their enemies before their enemies can find them.”
Amado paused and rubbed his eyes. “Wellsby...Wellsby,” he smiled and wagged his finger. “The indians did not trust him. Wellsby threatened the tribes. Father Garza always tried to mediate, but Wellsby only made the indians more stubborn.” He shrugged. “I could not blame them, Wellsby was a hard man.”
Knight continued to listen, poker face firmly set, unsure where this tale would end. He wanted to like Amado, obviously a shepherd of a man and the center of this community. This inn reflected his spirit, a light on the edge of a dark frontier. He also saw turmoil swimming in innkeeper’s haggard gaze.
Townsend took false solace in the iron strapped to his side, not from any inherent mettle in his spirit. Knight knew Townsend’s gun would more likely get him killed than save his life.
“So we rode out that morning, before the sun,” Amado continued. “We wanted to get as far as possible before the late season monsoons rose above the mesas. I sent young Miguel ahead to inform chief Lai-lun-kia of our arrival. The chief is wise and patient, but I feared Wellsby’s arrogance would test him. I wanted him prepared for our arrival. Garza is especially trusted in that pueblo.”
Amado took a long drink of whiskey and wiped his mouth.
“We rode up the Chama till mid-morning. It was hot, very hot. Not a breath of air stirred. We started up into the high country when we saw him.”
He paused and shivered.
Something is terribly wrong here.
“Gentlemen!” Nesbitt boomed from behind. He slapped Amado and Townsend on the back. Knight didn’t notice his approach from the other side of the room, and that fact chafed his mind like a sandbur in his boot.
Knight looked about and realized, save Isobella, the patrons and barmaids were gone. She sat quietly in a rocking chair beside the fire. All the lamps were extinguished, leaving only the fireplace to cast long shadows across the room.
Amado rose and shook Nesbitt’s hand. “My friend, did Isobella see to your payment?”
Nesbitt smiled widely and grasped Amado’s shoulder. “Of course, all our accounts are settled. As usual, your hospitality and generosity are without equal.”
Amado stood with rigid formality, an honorable old world man. Nesbitt, however, gushed over Amado the way sycophants do.
Nesbitt removed his hat and bowed low. “Gentlemen, the night is no longer young and neither am I. There is much business to attend to on the ‘morrow. I bid you goodnight!” As he turned to go, Knight saw something in the liquor monger’s eye, something sharp like an unexpected shard of glass. Nesbitt’s eye lingered too long on Knight, sizing him up.
“Amado, how long has Mr. Carl been in your acquaintance?”
“He came with the melting snows. His prices are fair and the customers like him, especially in these dark days. He is quick with a joke and is very generous with the samples.”
“I see,” Knight replied. “Continue your account. Who did you see?”
Amado took another drink and continued, “We saw a frightened young boy from the pueblo, running north up the riverbank as if being chased by the devil himself.”
Stone faced, Knight listened to Amado’s tale into the early morning. When he finished, only the lamp at their table lit grim faces. Isobella had long ago retired to bed. Orange embers popped and floated out of the dying fireplace. Knight remained silent for what seemed an eternity.
“Townsend, I want you to accompany me to this place first thing tomorrow. We leave with the sun.”
Ashen, Townsend stood. “Then I best be getting along. I’ll meet you here at sun-up.”
Knight stood as Amado grasped his hand. “Thank you. I hope you understand why I cannot accompany you, I must tend to the inn.”
Knight almost opened his mouth to inquire if Josefita could keep an eye on things while Amado accompanied them. She struck him as an intelligent and competent woman, but instinct held his tongue. Experience taught Knight when in doubt, remain silent lest you unintentionally reveal a weakness to an unknown enemy.
“Amado, I must clarify one more detail regarding your account. You said Wellsby returned with you to Espanola, then vanished the day after your return. How many days now has he been missing, and have you or Mr. Townsend told anyone this account except for me?”
“It will be two weeks tomorrow since he vanished. Townsend and I made a pact to tell no one until your arrival. Trust is a hard commodity these days.” In that moment, Knight sensed Amado wanted to tell him something else. Instead, the innkeeper blew out the lamp, slumped into a chair next to the dying fire, and bowed his head.
“Goodnight, Señor Knight.”
Silas Knight lay in bed, boots on and Colt by his side. His thoughts lingered on the beautiful Spanish Lady before he fell into a soldier’s sleep. Branches scraped a dry rattle against the window as muted sobs floated down the hall from the tavern chamber.
(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.
#shortstory #horror #halloween #spooky #western #serial
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