Halloween is two days away, and today is Part 7 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 7
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
A grim calm settled over the dark man as he straightened and turned toward the entrance. He had his answer, but the answer didn’t make sense.
The sun peeked under the top lip of the cave. He rolled down his sleeves and donned his coat. Before he stepped over the woodpile, something made him look back. He didn’t know why, because he didn’t want to. During the war the same inner voice made him duck right before a bullet whizzed by, or compelled him to advise General Palmer contrary to sound intelligence reports, thereby saving the division. Sunset now bathed the back of the cave in crimson light, highlighting every fly with crystal clarity. A ray of orange sunlight settled onto the gap in the pile where he removed Wellsby’s body. Something twinkled like starlight amongst ghoulish arms, legs and bones.
Leave, his heart told him. Go see, something else whispered.
The stink of rot and sour mash whisky enveloped him as he returned to the pile once more, careful not to block the sunlight from the sparkling place.
Tangled black hair spilled over the body’s face, and Knight hoped he’d uncovered a freshly slain indian at the bottom of the pile. But the shade of black wasn’t quite right, and a few strands of gray stood out in the ruddy light. He kicked away another body to reveal white cotton and blue velvet. A silver chain wrapped around a delicate hand, which grasped a turquoise crucifix.
As if watching someone else, he removed one glove and gently brushed away the black hair, uncovering pale, olive skin.
Knight reeled backwards and fled the cave.
Cleansing sunlight warmed his shoulders as he fell to his knees beside the stream. Knight stripped off his coat and splashed water over his face and arms. He kept scouring his forearms with water and sand until they bled, sucking in breath after breath, trying to purge death from his lungs.
Townsend meekly approached. “Mr. Knight, are you okay?”
Knight rinsed the bandana and folded it neatly in his pocket. He donned his coat, adjusted his hat and collected himself.
“It’s just like Amado and I told you, isn’t it? Like something from hell,” Townsend said.
Knight snapped his Colt up into Townsend’s forehead and shoved him against the ravine wall.
“Where is Josefita Lucero?” He screamed into Townsend’s face.
“You crazy som’bitch! Put that damn thing away!”
Knight grabbed Townsend’s face and raised him off the ground with one arm. He shoved the black Colt up against the sheriff’s temple. “Tell me where Josefita Lucero is or I’ll shoot you dead now!”
“Amado sent her to Santa Fe three days before you showed up! She went on the weekly coach. When we came back from the cave he said he was scared and didn’t want her ‘round. Yesterday he got word the carriage never made it. Amado was organizing a search party this morning.”
Knight dropped Townsend into a dusty heap, turned and walked to his horse.
“Señorita Lucero is in the cave, dead by two days near as I figure. Wellsby is in there, too. He’s been dead longer.”
Townsend sat in the sand, face in his hands.
Knight mounted up. He wasn’t going to tell Townsend, or anyone else, about his encounter with the Spanish Lady last night.
“You still think I had something to do with this, don’t you?”
Knight reached into this saddlebag and pulled out the unopened bottle of sour mash whisky. He cracked the seal, pulled the cork and took a whiff. Knight grimaced before his face solidified into a mask of determination.
“There’s not a man alive with enough evil in his soul to do this. If there was, you ain’t him. The poor souls had their blood drained. They were feasted upon.”
Townsend shuddered. “Probably some damned redskin.”
Knight remembered General Palmer’s words: I fear, Silas, the old world is here, its sins and demons have followed us to the New World.
“Get on your horse and ride hard back the way we came. Get back before sundown. I’m circling north via the rail line.”
“Hell, I’d have to kill my horse to get back that fast!”
“Then kill it. What did this knows we’re out here. If he catches you before you get to Espanola, you’ll end up stuffed under that pile with Wellsby and Amado’s wife.”
“Well, tell me who done it. I’m the sheriff, and I’ll take care of ‘em!”
“I suspect Wellsby left here with a good idea, too. I think he kept his suspicions to himself until he could confirm them. He underestimated this enemy and paid for it. I suspect the Lady Lucero knew who did this, though I don’t know how.”
Knight reeled his horse around. “A good deal of what’s transpired here remains a mystery, but my gut tells me Father Garza may be dead, too. The faster you get back, the better the chances are you’ll find Amado still alive.
“Now this is important, so listen carefully. When you get back, organize a party of about five men to come back at first light. Drag all that timber into the cave, soak it with kerosene and burn it to ashes. Then dynamite the cave and collapse the bank. As for tonight, stay at the tavern.
“Don’t be alone, not even for a minute. If Amado hasn’t gone off looking for his wife yet, then.... well, tell him what I saw in there. I, for one, think he already suspects as much. Watch over each other, or you may not live to see the dawn.”
Townsend swallowed hard. “I’ll bring the padre to bless the grave.”
“If it makes you feel better, but this ground is cursed...deeply and forever.”
“Are you going after who did this?”
Knight jiggled the bottle. “I’m going to drink this, all of it till I can’t feel or smell anything else. I’ll see you back at the tavern. Tell everyone I plan on being mean and drunk, so stay the hell out of my way. In the morning, I’ll ride for the monster who did this.”
“Who’s gunna watch your back?”
Knight patted his Colt and rode off to the north without another word. He followed the cart tracks he scouted when they arrived at the river. He didn’t tell Townsend about the tracks, the less he knew the better.
THE CAVE, Part 8
As darkness crept across the high desert, the wind howled up the Chama Valley. By the time Knight darkened the tavern door, the wind switched from the north, carrying flurries foretelling the season’s first storm.
He swayed as the wind blew out the oil lamps. His glazed eyes swept the room until they fell upon Townsend. The lawman and the aborted search party sat quietly in the tavern, somberly nursing beer and whisky. Stumbling in, he slammed the empty whisky bottle on a table. The railroad agent raised his head and squinted at the wailing drifting from the upper rooms.
“I take it Amado and his daughter know,” Knight slurred.
Townsend nodded. “I caught ‘em just before he set out for Santa Fe with the search party.”
“You did everything I asked?”
Townsend nodded again.
“I’m going to bed. There’s killing needs doing come dawn. Wake me before first light.”
With that, Knight stumbled to his room and slammed the door shut. A barmaid closed the tavern door, but not before another slipped in unnoticed from the windswept darkness.
Knight lay fully clothed, boots on, on top of the sagging mattress. Motionless and eyes closed, he breathed deep and ragged like a passed-out drunk. Townsend and his men’s muffled voices floated down the hallway and mixed with the branches rattling the window.
Something slinked across the floor in the pitch-black room.
Alert and cold sober; Knight’s senses were fully engaged. Eyes closed, breathing unchanged, he knew hell shuffled only a few feet from the end of his bed.
He smelled the cave in the cramped space between the bed and the washstand.
It’s deciding whether or not I’m really asleep.
Like a spider, the enemy needed to ensure the venom was fully engaged before it wrapped the fly.
Suddenly, the dark presence seemed to expand.
The Colt blasted from under Knight’s right leg. In the muzzle flash, Knight saw a man slam against the opposite wall. Knight sprang up and discharged another cartridge where he calculated the body fell. Through the ringing in his ears he heard a groan.
Townsend and his men exploded into the room brandishing guns and lanterns. Through oily gun smoke and dingy light Knight saw the motionless form of Nesbitt Carl against the shattered washstand.
("The Cave" concludes 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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