Patrick E. McLeanAuthor: Patrick E. McLean
06 Oct 2022

Patrick E. McLean

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Short fiction every week and serial novel "A Town Called Nowhere"

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    Nowhere Ch. 22 -- A Stranger Stranger Comes to Town

    If Dance only looked at one side of the street it could almost appear that Grantham had gotten back to normal. There had been a rough few days after the fire, but they’d buried the dead, said words over them, and moved on.

    That didn’t mean that things were good but they could've been a hell of a lot worse. Food and supplies were dwindling, but since Dance had organized hunting parties, supplies were dwindling nice and slow. Sure, they'd have to do something about it, but right now the 203 surviving souls of the Town of Grantham were in need of a respite.

    If they could keep from getting wiped out by the wildlife or savage tribes – and if the coffee lasted long enough — they just might be O.K.

    Having given himself over to a philosophical turn of mind Dance could see how their predicament wasn't any different than any other frontier town. They were on the edge of the unknown struggling to survive. They had plenty of water and the weather, at least so far, was nice. He savored another sip of coffee and he resolved to enjoy what he could while he could.

    Walking up the street and taking his own sweet time about it, Speedy Pete was headed towards the jail. When he got close Dance asked, "Pete, how in the hell is it that you ain't dead? I mean I ain't complaining. I'm just saying, I know which way I lay the odds on that one…”

    Speedy Pete smiled slow and pushed his hat back. “Well sir, my Mama always said I'd be late to my own funeral. So what I reckon is… Death just shows up to where I'm supposed to be and when I’m not there, all punctual-lie, he get sick of waiting around. Goes off finds somebody else to do business with."

    Dance was so stumped by the unexpected elegance of his Deputy’s explanation all he could say was, “Fair enough, Pete.”

    "We step inside so I can make my report?"

    "No, Pete she's in there schooling up them kids. Did you know that little girl can read?"

    "School? But that school Ma’rm ran off. I mean afore we even… wound up here."

    “I know Pete. But the Widow Miller is intent on her children getting an education. And I have reconciled myself to the fact that it's wise to stay clear of the entire enterprise so I don't get my head mixed up with any book larnin’. Somebody’s gotta think straight around here,” Dance said with a wink.

    Pete missed the joke entirely and said, “You takin’ up with that Widder is one thing, but I’m not sure I'm OK with children living in a jail cell."

    “Makes ‘em easy to contain,” said Dance, blowing another joke right by Pete. “Besides, we ain’t got no other use for them cells. They’re for holding people for the Judge, and as the Judge ain’t coming no more. Miscreants are getting fined or hanged.” Dance looked in his coffee and said, “Well, I suppose you could say the one’s gettin’ hanged are just getting fined everything.”

    Pete puzzled on this for a moment then shook his head to clear it of philosophical speculations the same way that people will beat a rug to rid it of dust. Then he said,“Well, we got the watches all figured out, and I think them Polacks know where to be and when. But I can't understand a goddamn word they're saying most of the time.”

    Dance said, “That's OK Pete, nobody can."

    "They was jibber jabberin’ away about laundry! Something about that the Chinaman wasn't doing it for free no more. But I don’t think I heard it right. I mean why would a Chinaman watch a bunch of Polack’s laundry for free? Don't make no damn sense."

    "And anything else around here does?" asked Dance.

    “Well iffn I’m gettin’ any say in the matter, Sheriff, I'll take my mysteries in a language I can understand.”

    Dance finished his coffee and said,”Let’s go down and see what the fuss with the Chinaman is all about.”

    He took his cup into the jail and lifted a rifle from the rack. Penelope was sounding out words from a book and Mac looked up from a calculating slate to glare at the Sheriff. Dance couldn’t blame the boy much for his animosity. He reckoned he’d feel much the same. But Laura smiled at him and that was all that mattered.

    Then she saw the rifle in his hand and her smile faded. Dance said, “Just have to see about a crazy Chinaman,” by way of reassurance, but Laura’s smile did not reappear.

    By the time Dance got back outside the commotion had poured into the middle of the street and was headed right for him. Five thick-necked miners were following the Chinaman as he led a heavily-ladened mule up the middle of the street.

    Dance asked, “Now just where in the hell does he think he's going?"

    Pete said nothing, which, when Pete could manage it, was how Dance liked him best.

    One of the miners, looking about as at home in the sunlight as a freshly upturned mole, seized the mule’s reins. This upset the Chinaman and he shoved the miner, and tried to regain control of his animal. This angered the rest of the miners, and they piled on. Dance had to respect to the little Oriental fella. He didn’t go quietly. He kicked the first one square in the nuts and then started jumping and gesticulating like he had a bad case of the St. Vitus’. It worked well enough at first but there were just too many miners and too few pounds of Chinaman for him to have any real chance.

    The Chinaman dropped a second one with a chop to the throat and got a third with a kick to the kneecap. But then somebody got a hold of the Chinaman’s ponytail and gave it a yank and down everyone went into the dust.

    Dance shook his head at the whole mess. He wasn't getting mixed up in that crap, no sir. Beside him, Pete started forward, eager to do his duty. The Sheriff stopped him with his left hand and raised the rifle over his head with his right and fired. As the report died away all eyes in the pile of men looked to the Sheriff. Dance said, “All right! That's enough rolling around in the horseshit for one day."

    The pileup slowly disengaged revealing the Chinaman at the bottom. He seemed relatively unharmed. He barked a singsong phrase at the men around him and then started to walk off after his well-ladened mule. One of the Miners grabbed his ponytail and yanked him off his feet once again.

    Dance lifted his rifle from his shoulder, stepped in, and clubbed the miner in the back of the head. As the large, fleshy man collapsed to the earth Dance said, "I said enough! And, by God, I meant enough. Now what the hell is going on here?"

    The air was filled with languages that the Sheriff did not understand. He yelled for everyone to speak in English but, everyone could not. The one miner who spoke some English had a dislocated jaw, so Dance couldn’t understand him, even thought he was trying his best. The Chinaman stood with his arms crossed, not saying a word, and managed to be the most dignified party in the entire matter. Excepting the mule.

    As Dance was trying to sort out the mess, Pete went after the Mule, that was quietly plodding up the street, wisely trying to distance himself from this human foolishness. Then, Pete stopped in his tracks. Coming from the East, silhouetted by the morning sun, was a stranger coming in from the wilderness.

    “Sheriff…” said Pete.

    The commotion of men arguing and incompatible languages continued behind him, so Pete tried again, louder.

    "Sheriff!"

    This time everyone looked up and saw the figure in his strange red robes, strolling into town as if he did it every day. All argument ceased. The Chinaman helped the clubbed miner to his feet. The miner, thinking that this meant the fight was still on, raised his fist to attempt a wobbly blow. The Chinaman slapped the fist away and pointed at the stranger coming into town. The miner forgot all about the fight.

    Dance, held his rifle loose in both hands, stood beside Pete and squinted at what was coming. He said, “Pete, run go get that Englishman. He's gonna wanna see this."

    Pete looked at the Sheriff, then at the stranger, then back to the Sheriff. He tried to get the sheriff the reins of the mule, but the Sheriff didn't take his eyes off the stranger. So Pete just dropped the reins and headed off with all the hurry he could manage.

    * * *

    By the time Archie arrived, limping in on his bad foot as fast as he could manage, the Stranger was standing at the end of main street. He was dressed in red robes and held a staff of plain wood in this right hand. Around his shoulder we wore a satchel, something like half a saddlebag on a leather strap. He had sandals and if he was scared by the crowd of townspeople that had assembled, he did not show it. His face was worn and his beard and hair were flecked with grey. He could have been anywhere from 50 to 80 years old.

    Archie said, “What do we do now?”

    The Sheriff said, “We go see if you and he have any languages in common.”

    “I’m not much of a translator,” said Archie, “Especially when I’m nervous.”

    “Relax. I’ve about half made up my mind to shoot him anyway,” said the Sheriff, and started walking.

    Archie hobbled along behind.

    As the Sheriff came closer the Stranger smiled and raised his hand in greeting. Dance gave him a thousand-yard stare.

    The Stranger said something that no one understood. Archie said something back in a different language. In response, the stranger reached into his satchel and pulled out a skin of water. He took a swig and then offered the bag to the Sheriff and Archie. When no one moved, the stranger shrugged. Then he said, “Orlap Bechtanar thrunce dak.”

    Archie shrugged.

    The stranger repeated the words then nodded to himself. From his satchel he removed a cut red gemstone, the size of a small melon. The Sun glinted off its facets and as he held in front of him it seemed a thing made of light rather than mineral.

    The Stranger took another step forward. Dance cocked the rifle and stepped forward to meet him.

    The stranger stopped and smiled again. Then he slowly set his satchel and staff on the ground. He removed his robes and revealed his weathered body, as gnarled as piece of long-dried driftwood. And written in scar tissue across his chest were the remnants of a cruel wound. The ribs of one side of his chest were partially caved in and gave the old man a disturbing asymmetry.

    Dance remained unmoved by any of this. And only moved his eyes to scan the horizon in case this was some kind of prelude to an ambush.

    Clad in only a loincloth the stranger held the red stone out in front of him with both hands and walked slowly towards the men.

    Beside him, Sheriff Dance felt more than saw people reaching for weapons in the crowd behind him. “Easy,” said Dance, “Ain’t no showdown. Worst he’s tried to do is kill us with a bad striptease.” He said it so well he almost managed to convince himself.

    The stranger spoke again. This time just a single word, “Mobruk. Mobruk. Morbruk.” He held the stone out to the Sheriff, encouraging him to take it, using the same tone of voice a Mother might use to get a toddler to take a mouthful of food. He looked directly into Sheriff Dance’s eyes and nodded encouragingly. “Mobruk.”

    The Sheriff reached out his hand and took the stone. He felt a shiver run up his arm and into his brain. He shook his head and then he understood what the man was saying.

    “Take. Take.”

    “What the hell!?!” said the Sheriff.

    “Good, we have connection,” said the Stranger. “We can now understand each other.”

    “But, I…” said Dance. He looked back to Archie and asked, “Can you understand him?”

    “Not a word. You can?”

    “I can. I don’t know how, but I can.”

    “Please share the gift of Ba-El with others. So that all may understand and peace may be on the world."

    The Sheriff looked at the stranger in his loincloth and said, “Yeah, I got a peacemaker too. Never seems to work like I want it to though."

    Archie said, “What does he say? If you can understand him, you must translate."

    Sheriff Dance handed Archie the glowing orb. Archie touched it and his eyes went wide.

    "Yes," said the stranger, "you see now, his peace will spread. Glory be to Ba-El father of Harmony!"

    Archie said, “Wait. Run that by me one more time. Ba-El is some kind of deity? What is this then?” He asked holding up the orb,“and by what source is this powered?”

    The Priest of Ba-El said, “Please, I will answer all questions in time, but first spread Ba-El's gift, so that all may speak the same language."

    Dance took the orb back from Archie and asked, “You think everybody knowing what people are really sayin’ is going to bring peace?"

    "It is a consummation devoutly wished," said the Priest of Ba-El.

    "Well, let's just see about that.” Dance turned to the battered Miners and beleaguered Chinaman. He threw the orb to the Chinaman who caught it deftly. Dance said, “Pass it round!”

    The Chinaman’s eyes went wide with the shock of understanding the words. He looked at the orb, then back to the Sheriff. "How can you be speaking Chinese?!?"

    "I don't know, how are you speaking English?"

    "It is Ba-El’s gift,” said the Priest of Ba-El as he smiled at the wonder of shared understanding.

    “Yes you’ve said that,” said Archie.

    “Chinaman, give it over to them Polacks,” said Dance.

    “My name is not Chinaman, it is Liu Sung.”

    “Alright Loose Un’, give it over.”

    Liu Sung offered the orb to the Polish Miners. First, none of them wanted it, but finally the man Dance had hit with the rifle stretched out his hands and took the orb. Dance asked “Can you understand us?”

    “He stole our silver!!!” said the Miner

    “I did not. You try to rob me!" countered Liu.

    As the argument continued, Sheriff Dance looked back at the Red Priest and said, “Yeah, all sorted out. Happily ever after.”

    The Miner said, “His mule is full of silver. This crazy Chinaman was washing clothes for free. We didn’t pay him no silver. He didn’t mine no silver. The only way for him to get it was to steal it.”

    “Ah,” said Archie, “Deduction.”

    “I never steal,” said Liu.

    “Then how’d you get it, Chinaman!”

    “Liu. Liu Sung!”

    Dance stepped between them. “Easy Loose Un’! Let’s just take it one step at a time. Pete, fetch that mule over here.”

    The mule, who somehow was the most even-tempered party in the whole matter, was freighted with heavy panniers on each of his flanks. Sheriff Dance looked inside and found them filled with small leather sacks. He opened one of the sacks and found it filled with silver dust.

    “Alright. He’s got a shitload of silver. Mr. Chinam— I mean Loose ‘Un, you want to explain how you got all this silver?”

    “I did not steal,” said Liu Sung.

    “And I ain't saying that you did, but I am curious as to where it came from, and where you think you might be going out into that savage wasteland with it?”

    “I go back to the middle kingdom, back to civilization."

    "Ain't no civilization left, or ain't you noticed? We're on our own son,” said the Sheriff.

    "Sung, Liu Sung. Sung is a proud name. The Sung do not steal.”

    “If I may promote harmony...” said the Priest of Ba-El.

    “Little harmony be real nice for a change around here,” offered Pete.

    “He looks as if he comes from the Kithai people, a vast empire far to the NorthEast of here.”

    Liu Sung said, “There has always been a middle kingdom. There will always be a middle kingdom."

    "An empire you say?” asked Archie. “There is a civilization? More than one? Then why? And who attacked us? And the tower that he saw?”

    The Priest of Ba-El smiled again and asked, “Which question would you have me answer first?”

    Dance said, “Now, just hang on. Let's get one thing straight before we go bending all the rest. Loose Un, where did the damn silver come from?”

    “These men work in the mine, chip, chip, chip, all day. They bring clothes to Liu Sung,” he said with particular emphasis on Sung, “and I wash them. End of day I pour out the water and save all the little pieces of silver I find. Why else I no charge them for laundry.”

    “We just though you vere crazy,” said one of the Miners.

    “I told you that was our silver!” said another.

    “If it's anybody silver it's DuMonts’, and that useless son of a b***h is dead. Loose Song,” said Dance, sincerely trying to get his name right. “You ain’t broken any law and as far as I’m concerned I wish you’d stick around. We need all the smart people we can get. But I suggest you stick around long enough to see what we can learn from our new friend." Dance turned to the Priest of Ba-El and said, "and you, new friend, you're gonna draw us a map.”

    This is a public episode. If you would like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit patrickemclean.substack.com

  • Posted on 22 Aug 2022

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    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.

    "The Sheriff?”

    "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.

    This is a public episode. If you would like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit patrickemclean.substack.com

  • Posted on 30 Jul 2022

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    Nowhere Ch. 20 - All Against All

    The town burned through the night and when the glow of dawn finally overpowered the glow of the embers, the townspeople who were still alive collapsed to the Earth from weariness. Exhaustion granted a temporary reprieve from the crush of defeat.

    Half of the town had burned. The north side was spared only by the direction of the wind and the unusual width of the main street. The Morning Star mine works, the Morning Star Saloon, The First Baptist Church, the Miller General store and countless odd shanties, tents and hovels had been incinerated. In the grim dawn, no one picked through the ashes to find the bodies.

    Somehow, Saloon #3 had survived. And, grateful for it, Laura Miller slumped against its east wall, clutching Mac and Penelope to her. The children slept, but Laura’s worries would not let her sleep. She leaned against the wall, feeling the air warm as the sun rose, and tried not to move. Let the children sleep, she thought. That they were still alive was victory enough… for now.

    Mac shifted in his sleep and the rifle he clutched to his chest pressed into Laura’s cheek. She pushed it away and shifted. But that upset the delicate equilibrium. Pen’s weight shifted off Laura’s leg and it tingled back to painful life. She groaned and moved out from underneath the children. Pen muttered something, wrapped her arms around her brother, and fell back to sleep. Mack lolled his head to the side and began to snore.

    As they slept they looked so innocent, but Laura feared that innocence had been lost. What they had seen last night — things as horrible as what she had seen during the war and on the run — the things that she and Virgil had tried to protect them — these things could never be unseen.

    Mack had grown so big, yet in some ways, he was still just a foolish, beautiful boy. When the mine exploded, they had all come out into the street to see what happened. Then they realized the church was also ablaze. As they watched the flames jumped to the saloon and then the mine. The next time they looked they saw the store, their home, was on fire.

    Then Mac was away, running into the burning building. Laura screamed, the one time in that whole night that she did. But she could not reach Mack to stop him. He plunged into the building and she clutched Penelope to her and waited in terror. In those long seconds, the roof caved in and flames rushed forth from the second-story windows. She said her jaw and willed – willed – that foolish boy to emerge from the flames.

    There was a clatter of hooves and the rattle of an empty wagon coming down the hill. A woman bellowing like a man for everyone to get out of the way. Laura turned to see Jane Siskin, the woman who hauled much of their freight, standing in the bed of a cargo wagon, reins in one hand, whip in the other, driving a team of oxen hard towards the river.

    When the wagon had passed, she saw Mac, his hair badly singed, running towards her clutching the ancient buffalo rifle that had decorated the wall above the weapons rack.

    She shrieked at him, then slapped him, then clasped him, gun and all, in a powerful hug.

    “Pa’s coming back, and he's going to need it!"

    Laura nodded, not giving a damn about the gun, tears welling up in her eyes. And then the tears burst forth as she realized, with the town ablaze around them, the Virgil was never coming back.

    "He's gonna need it to put things right. Don't you worry Ma, you'll see.”

    When the fire had started John Dance had forgotten all about the Burdock’s. They had scattered into the smoke and chaos. Dance organized a bucket brigade even though it seemed hopeless. But then that crazy Siskin woman had come driving up the hill with a wagon full of water.

    "Drove it right into the damn river," she proclaimed proudly. Buckets and hats and spittoons and any other damn thing they could find to hold water went in and were used to try and douse the flames. The Church was a total loss, so they had focused their efforts on the Morning Star saloon. But it was no use. It went up like a match. Rats, drunks, gamblers, and w****s poured forth coughing from the smoke.

    Dance diverted the brigade to the next building. "Wet it down! Keep the fire from spreading!” But soon the wagon was dry and Jane rode off to the river again. Everyone stood around looking at each other, looking hopeless. From out of the darkness a figure wearing a suit, and flourishing a cane like a dandy, emerged into the light of the burning town. It was Jean Dumont, followed by a large contingent of miners. But he was not stooped or coughing. He stood ramrod straight and his voice was clear and commanding when he said, “how dare you abandon my building to the flames! I demand that you…"

    Dance said, “What! What exactly do you want me to do? We ain't got no water at the moment!"

    DuMont had no response.

    “That Saloon is a lost cause. What we need are men and buckets to stop the spread. Lend us your men, DuMont.”

    “That is your affair!”

    “My AFFAIR! For Christ’s sake DuMont, the town is burning!”

    From the dark, on the other side of John Dance, Burdock rode his horse into the light of the flames. The shadowed forms of his cowboys were visible behind him.

    “Burdock, get buckets in them men’s hands!” said Dance.

    “No,” said Burdock, “I don’t think I will.”

    Dance, silhouetted against the flames, looked back and forth between the two of them. "Good God! Can’t either of you see?"

    "I see a town problem,” said Burdock.

    Dance pleaded, “But we’re all we have left! You’ve been out there. You’ve seen! The world, everything we knew… it’s gone!”

    Burdock sneered, “Civilization is gone, with its weakness and its decadence. If you can't live out here in the frontier, you shouldn’tve come. Hell of a way to larn it.”

    From somewhere in the burning chaos a man screamed in pain. It was a sharp noise followed by a grunt and a bellow ending in a higher pitch scream. Then, entering like a chorus, the sobbing of a woman, the timeless song of grief.

    From down the road, John Dance heard Jane Siskin cursing at her oxen as she drove them back from the river. He looked and saw the axle break and all the water slosh from the wagon.

    Dance turned to DuMont and said, “Give me your Miners at least! Please!”

    "This town has been nothing but an obstacle to my operations. My silver remains safe underground, and my men are employed in protecting what remains of Company property.”

    Burdock snarled, “You always was a greedy, shortsighted, Son-of-a-B***h,” as what was left of the saloon collapsed behind him, “Ain’t even willing to defend the town you blighted this fine landscape with!”

    The haggard people waiting for the wagon to return with water stood with their buckets dangling from their hands, staring at this conflict in disbelief.

    Dance held his arms outstretched, imploring them both. “Maybe more of us survive when we work together. That’s all I’m saying.”

    “You should have thought of that before you framed my poor boy Charlie for murder,” said Burdock.

    “You should have thought of that before harassing my miners and taxing our operations,” said DuMont

    Nearly in tears, Dance cried, “For the Love of God, do you men have no souls!”

    Up the street, Laura Miller had stopped to watch the confrontation, clutching her children to her. As Dance held his hands high, and pleaded with the stubborn Rancher and the greedy Miner, she saw Charlie Burdock emerge from an alley on the North side of the street. He raised his pistol. As Laura cried “No!” he fired several times, hitting Sheriff Dance in the back.

    Dance grunted and fell forward to his knees. Charlie fired again.

    Dance coughed once, looked at all of them, and said, “You stupid sons-of-b*****s. You know not what you do.” Then he felt forward into the street.

    Another shot rang out — Laura could not see who fired it — and Charlie was knocked off his feet. Then both the Miners and the Cowboys opened fire.

    Laura fled with her children, as gunfire rang out and the town burned.

    This is a public episode. If you would like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit patrickemclean.substack.com

  • Posted on 17 Jul 2022

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    Nowhere Ch. 19 - Virgil Strikes the Earth

    Virgil had sat in the Nothing with the Shaman for an amount of time he could not identify. He asked, "I saw you dead. How is any of this possible?”

    “It would be more polite if you asked me a question I could answer,” said Shaman, running his colorless fingers through the colorless grass on which they sat. “I am what you see, but I am not what you see. Your mind makes sense of it with the symbols it has.”

    Virgil stared at him in mute confusion.

    The old Shaman that was No One tried again. “All things have a symbol or a name, all things but me. I am no one. I am no thing. I am only that I am."

    "Is this a riddle?"

    "No,” said No One. “But because the truth is the wrong shape to fit into your head, you try to make it into a riddle. Some men try paradoxes. I like those best of all, they never go anywhere either."

    "My wife… I came seeking…"

    “Yes,” said No One, “I've tasted your desire on the smoke now for seven days – but here it feels like forever and still just an instant. See, paradox!"

    “Where have they gone?” demanded Virgil, his hand on his gun.

    "They have gone out of this world, to another. I think this not often done. Someone made a bridge. Someone made a tunnel. Someone made a tunnel through a bridge."

    "Who? And how do I find this bridge?"

    "Tunnel."

    "Fine, tunnel…"

    “It’s a bridge, you look up. But if it’s not a bridge, it’s a tunnel!” The old man who was No One laughed. “At least I’m pretty sure it is.

    With an effort, Virgil removed his hand from his gun. He tried again, saying, “Who has done this?"

    "One from here, one from there. From here the ones dug the tunnel to escape. From there, I think they built a bridge. No One shrugged. “Jave you seen anyone strange? Travelers, I mean?"

    Virgil shook his head, no.

    "Then perhaps someone has set a trap on the other side."

    "How do I get there?"

    "You would run into a trap?"

    "I would ride into hell."

    The Indian shrugged, “It is somewhere, I guess. But it all becomes nothing in the end.”

    Virgil turned his head and spit. No One was shocked at this. He stared at the moisture hanging from the pigmentless grass and dripping on the colorless earth.

    Virgil asked more questions and the Indian gave more unsatisfactory answers. This went on for an hour or an eternity, and Virgil had no way of knowing which it was. Virgil left, feeling that the Indian in the colorless place hadn't told him anything worth knowing.

    Virgil did not remember leaving or even deciding to leave. It seemed that he had simply closed his eyes one moment, and opened them the next, to find himself riding on his horse, blinking against the profusion of colors he saw in the muted, eastern Arizona desert.

    As he rode back from the Nothing to Nowhere the old Shaman’s words rang in his head, nothing could pass from one place to another without leaving a connection. But where would this connection be? What form would it take? A bridge, a tunnel? How might Virgil use it to return to his family?

    He remembered the old Indian’s lopsided grin as he told him that the world was filled with women and that Virgil should go find another wife and have some more children. The Shaman said he was too old to try himself, but he had never stopped wanting to.

    Virgil had cursed him then, saying, “If you can't do anything to help me then what are you good for?"

    The old Indian had told him that People weren't supposed to be *for* anything. They’re just supposed to be. And added that people forgetting this fact was the source of most of the problems in the world.

    He remembered setting seven fires to get to the Nothing. It only took him one night to return. The next afternoon, he spotted smoke on the horizon.

    As he urged more speed out of his horse, he realized the shapes of the hills were familiar. He dropped the pack horse and spurs his tired mount into a weary gallop. But when he crested the hill and looked down at the spot where Grantham had been he saw that it still wasn't there. But he was faced with an even more puzzling sight. From the hill where the Morning Star mine had been, a column of black smoke rose into the sky.

    At first, Virgil thought that the hill was somehow on fire, but when he approached he realized, even though the smoke smelled of burning hair and flesh, that it was no flame or even heat. The smoke emerged cool and thick, from the dirt itself. He scratched some of the dirt away until he got to rock. And from a crack in the rock itself, the smoke poured forth.

    The next day, Virgil began to dig.

    The loose dirt on the face of the hill fell away with ease and he had his first cave-in before he had cleared away the bedrock, a simple, but demoralizing landslide. He dismantled the wagon and used its wood to shore up the entrance.

    That night he slept under the stars instead of under the wagon and as he fell asleep he whispered a message to his wife Laura. "I know not which one of these bright specs of light you might be by hiding behind, but if I have to search every one I am coming for you all the same. Tell the children I am coming.” Then weariness overtook him.

    The next day he took a bag filled with ore and dirt and rode off to Bisbee. There he filed a mining claim. When the registrar asked him if the claim was in Grantham, he said “No,” explaining no further. The ore was rich and the assayer said the claim was promising. Virgil grunted and went on his way.

    He bought a wagon and loaded it with mining equipment. Then he made the trek back to the town that wasn’t there anymore. When he arrived, he took a plank, painted the word “Nowhere” on it, then nailed it to a post.

    The next day his work began in earnest. He dug with pickax and shovel. And before him as he worked was the always tantalizing crack. It rose and fell, widened and narrowed, but never opened. He got no more whiffs of smoke but by the guttering light of his miner's candle, he could see a thin layer of soot lining the bottom of the fissure.

    At the end of each day, he would fill sacks with what he dug and carry them to the wagon. At the end of the first month, the wagon was full and he took it to the mills in Bisbee. It was assayed and sold and with the money, he bought more supplies and hired men. By the end of spring, a new settlement of tents had sprung up around the Nowhere sign.

    Now, instead of digging, he supervised. He ran two shifts of miners and eventually hired a foreman. Another outfit came into town and filed a claim off to the South. Men built houses and saloons and stores and warehouses, but Virgil, the richest man in town still slept in a tent. And he might've stayed in that tent until the sun and wind had shredded the canvas.

    But it was not to be. One night two desperados thought Rob him as he slept. The next morning, as Virgil stood over their bodies, his six-gun hanging hot and heavy on his hip, he decided it was time to build a house. But moving indoors changed nothing. He rose before dawn, worked all day, ate dinner, and then, as the last of the minors left, he would take a lamp and inspect the day’s progress.

    When the Foreman, a barrel-chested man from Aberdeen, had first arrived, he expected Virgil would meddle in the mine operations. But when he asked Virgil if he had any instructions, Virgil turned to him with hollow-eye intensity and said, "I don't know anything about mining, but follow that crack wherever it leads." The foreman had raised an eyebrow, but since that crackled through the richest seam of ore, there was no point in arguing.

    In five years, the Lost Girl mine was played out and Virgil had become a very wealthy man. So had the foreman, a few miners, store owners, saloon keepers, and w****s. But even as the mine waned in productive output, Virgil ordered the men to keep digging. The foreman, whose compensation was based on the output of the mind, moved to another Silver Mine farther north.

    Yet still, Virgil paid the man to dig. The mills in Bisbee stopped buying the wagonloads of dirt and ore, so they just piled it up on the surface. The Lost Girl mine became surrounded by an ever-growing field of tailings and rubble. Someone named it "Miller's Castle" in mockery of the waste and foolishness. But as Virgil was willing to expend his considerable fortune to keep the mind operating, the Castle continue to grow.

    The digging continued for years and men in the last open saloon placed wagers on how deep the useless mine would go before crazy old Virgil Miller's fortune ran out. But even the boldest wag held his tongue every evening when Virgil made his nightly walk to the mine.

    In another three years, the money was all gone, the saloon was closed and Nowhere had become a ghost town. But still, Virgil rose every morning and went to the mine. He worked with pick and shovel, digging deeper and deeper into the earth, still following hope of a crack in the rock that had yet to open yet still hadn’t closed.

    When he had first struck the earth, years before, he had swung his pick in anger. When he had men working for him, he swung his pick with confidence. When the silver had played out, he had tried to strike with confidence but had lashed out at the rock in fear and desperation. But now that he alone worked the empty seam, Virgil Miller struck the rock as if he was trying to ring the Earth like a bell. He swung with the patience of the wind wearing away rock. Digging not for a certainty, but for a chance.

    And for Virgil, a chance was enough.

    This is a public episode. If you would like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit patrickemclean.substack.com

  • Posted on 18 Jun 2022

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    Nowhere Ch. 18 - Up in Flames

    Dance crawled until he passed out. He couldn’t say how long he slept, but he was brought back to consciousness by the peaceful sound of his horse cropping grass close to his head.

    At this he spasmed in fear, rolled onto his back and crab-walked backwards, scrambling for his pistol. His horse looked at him evenly, knowing him for the fool that he was. When Dance realized his situation, he replaced his half–unholstered pistol and said a prayer of gratitude. Then he started looking for his hat.

    He saw it a few hundred yards out on the prairie next to a burned black circle. He raised his eyes to the horizon and saw the black tower stabbing into the sky. He shook his head and said, “I never did like that hat, anyway.” Then he caught his horse and rode back to town.

    With Archie in the lead McAllister and ten of the Teamsters crossed the street and made for the Morning Star mine. But before they could get to the mine yard, Jane Siskin stormed into their path. Gone was the dress of the night before and now she was in dusty leathers again. She planted her hands on her hips and said, “Now just where in the hell do you think you're going!?!”

    Archie said, “And just whom in the hell you imagine you are addressing?"

    "Oh, I ain't talking to you, your highness. These boys in on my payroll and that means they should have the courtesy to inform me before they go off getting in some foolishness. I mean, Clod there don't know no better, but I expected more from you MacAllister."

    "Enough wi’ your haverin’ woman! My head’s not havin’ ’t this mornin. It’s bright and loud already and your man here is invited us to go for a walk in a nice, cool, quiet cave. So we've decided on a wee stroll."

    Jane turned her skeptical eye towards Archie.

    Archie told her of the disappearance of the silver deposits and their replacement with an ancient temple of unknown origin. Jane tried to look tough and unfeeling as he explained, but the memory of the darkness and the vision he had seen there were so fresh in Archie's mind she was captured by his retelling.

    "Besides," concluded Archie, “since the road to Bisbee, and for all we know the entirely of the outside world, is gone, it appears you are out of the freight business and must seek a new line of employment. Might I suggest Archaeology?”

    "Oh my sweet prince," at Jane with a smile. “It's you who don't get how the world works. Roads and towns come and go, but there is always – always – something that needs hauling. But let's have a look at what's in your root cellar. Then she hooked her arm through his and Archie escorted her across the street as if she had been a guest at the season’s finest ball.

    As they assembled torches in the yard, Archie looked askance at the miners who stood around in small groups, muttering to themselves, “Bloody fools.”

    “Why are you so angry at them,” Jane asked, “they're just afraid.”

    “Superstition offends me. Right to my very core."

    "You mean to tell me you don't believe in ghosts and spirits?" Asked Jane.

    "Certainly not. I am a natural philosopher. I believe in what I can see with my own eyes, what I can verify with my own senses."

    “What of God, ye English heathen? Have you seen him?” Asked McAllister good-naturedly as he tied a rag around a length of shattered board.

    “Carefully recording the wonder of his creation so that we can better understand it, is that not worship?” asked Archie.

    MacAllister smiled and answered, “Laddie, I’m just grateful when I walk in a church that the roof doesn’t fall in on top of me.

    They filled a wagon with torches and rolled it as far as the mine tracks would go, then they all lit two torches a piece and advanced into the chamber. The twelve of them spread out in an attempt to fill the chamber with light. But there was something about the darkness. It retreated, but begrudgingly, stubbornly, as if still fighting to clock the secrets of the ancient Temple.

    Jane asked, "then what was that nasty ol’ DuMont digging up this whole time?"

    Archie said, "the Miners assure me that there was silver here yesterday.”

    Jayne said, “Just like the river."

    McAllister said, “I’ll take a clean river over a foul pit any day."

    Archie walked along the edge of the room where a great arch opened onto nothing but dark, natural stone. "The curvature of this vault is quite sophisticated, and the interlocking arches would be quite unnecessary if this was merely an underground structure. Which is to say…" Archie trailed off in thought.

    McAllister chimed in, “Which is to say nothing makes sense to me."

    Archie outlined what parts of the arch she could reach with his torch and asked, “Doesn't this seem more like a window to you?"

    “Aye, but it’s daft to build a window underground.”

    “But it’s not quite underground, is it? Or at least it might not have been when it was built. If we dig away the rock here, this would be open to the sky. We have merely gone into the hill without descending appreciably.”

    Jane said, “Darling, I love the way your brain is always working, but I don't see why it matters. There ain't no silver here, ain't nothing of value. Just a room we're savages used to kill other savages."

    "Oh no," at Archie, “Here there is the most valuable commodity of all. Knowledge. And the entertainment of a true mystery. And if your only concern is avarice then what I am saying is that this structure must assuredly have lower levels."

    "And we’ve a s**t–ton of useless miners out there," said MacAllister.

    "Exactly, now let me see if I can catch a glimpse of the ceiling." Archie strode over to the center of the room and, with a shudder, stepped up on the sacrificial altar. He lifted the torch as high as he could above his head. At first, he thought the darkness was stubbornly congealed above him, like some strange pool of evil night, but as he moved the torch and looked at the shape of the darkness from different angles, he began to see that there was a large mass hanging in the center of the room.

    “Scaffold, ladders, something to stand on!” cried Archie.

    Two wooden ladders were brought and lashed together at the top and tethered by rope at the sides. Teamsters held the feet of the ladder on either side of the altar. Torch in his right hand, Archie ascended the shaky, makeshift ladder, white-knuckling the rungs with his left.

    Perversely, the shape seemed to recede into the darkness above. And Archie felt queasy. He had the feeling that the scale and geometry of this space were wrong, somehow becoming larger the more he advanced into it.

    “What is it?” cried Jane from below.

    Weakness washed over Archie and he swayed on the ladder, nearly losing his grip. He pulled himself close to the rungs, and ground his teeth together, forcing his breath through his nose.

    Without looking up, he climbed the last three rungs and lifted the torch again. The shape was bigger now, and he could almost make it out — almost understand the meaning of its silhouette. If only he could get closer. He stepped even higher on the ladder and now his hips and center of gravity were above the top of the improvised a-frame. His bent knees shook with fear, but he forced himself to stand, holding the torch as high as he could above his head.

    It started to make sense. There were two long triangles on the bottom, black and covered with tendrils of mold — or was they fur? it was difficult to know because the blackness of this thing swallow the light. He swung a leg over the top of the ladder and put his foot on the topmost rung on the other side.

    “Be careful!” cried Jane.

    “I’ve almost made it out…” said Archie as he stood on the wobbling ladder, raising his torch as high as possible into the darkness. The flames from the torch licked one of the corners of the triangles, and there was a sizzling noise, then aroar as the thing caught fire.

    Flamed rippled up the side of it, and, with a creaking noise, the thing turned its face at Archie and screamed. By the light of his torch and the light of the creature’s own immolation, Archie made out that the thing hanging in the center of the vault was a gigantic bat.

    It let go of its perch and spread its burning wings, crashing into Archie, shattering the ladder, and sending all of it crashing to the stone below.

    The Preacher had done a brisk trade all day. Townspeople were flat rattled by the appearance of a river from nothing, then the attack, and the disappearance of the outside world. By now reports had come in of a line surrounding the town beyond which the terrain was different. What was the meaning of this? Was this God’s work or the Devil’s? The End of Days or an unfathomable beginning?

    In ones and twos they had trickled into his small church all day and by the late afternoon his conversation had turned into an impromptu sermon. The Preacher had never had an experience like this before and can only attribute the words that flowed forth from him as inspired by the Holy Spirit itself. Where there was fear, he sowed hope. Where there was doubt, he sowed faith.

    "Even the Devil is doing the work of the Lord," he began. "For what can exist without it serving God? That's a hard truth to accept sometimes — may be hard to accept all the time. But God gives us troubles so we can grow. It's might be the end of the world but it’s not the end of God’s plan for you. And you don’t want the end of days to catch you and you be unsaved. ‘Cause you want to be in that number, Lord, when the Saints come a marchin’ in!”

    “What do you think is going to happen to us?” asked a young woman whose brazen clothing contrasted with her timid manner. A young Magdalene thought the Preacher, cowed by the majesty of a simple chapel.

    “in this life? Trial, pain, suffering, and death. All that is guaranteed. What is not guaranteed is that you find love and fellowship in the model of Christ. But you can have it. You grow in the world and in Christ to have a full life. But what is an absolute certainty is that you will be tested and then you will die. And after that, well, what happens it's up to you. Eternal damnation or eternal salvation. And as Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.’

    “so the question to ask, my lost and bewildered sheep is not, are we going to die? The question is what happens after that. Are you saved? Have you been saved? Do you want to be saved?"

    And so it was the Preacher led a procession down to the river’s edge to baptize 13 new souls for the Lord. As he did, he felt proud to be a mighty warrior for Christ.

    He took off his jacket and waded right through the weeds into the depths of the river. There he raised his hands and cried, "Brothers and sisters, don’t be afraid of the water! Who among ye will go first?" But no one followed. So the Preacher said, "for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son so that you might have life eternal. Compared to that wondrous miracle, that most stupendous of gifts, I ask you, why would God not send a river into the desert so that your soul and your soul and your soul might be saved.”

    The young Magdalene stepped forward shyly then stopped.

    The Preacher beckoned her, “Come closer dear. There’s no reason to be afraid. The good Lord parted the Red Sea, saved Moses from the Pharaoh, and he said water into the desert that you might not die, but live eternal."

    Then Preacher looked down at his leg with some alarm, something had brushed by him under the water – a large something, but conscious of the eyes of his flock upon him, he tried to be brave. With a confidence he didn't feel, he called out to the young Magdalene again. "Come on down here, time to accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior. He’s ready for you darlin’ I promise,” said the Preacher, forcing a smile across his face.

    She made her way through the reeds and the cold, sucking mud, smiling at the crowd on the bank, then looking down and frowning at what the river was doing to her expensive dress. When she finally stood next to the Preacher he said, “Cross your arms across your chest darlin’.” Then put a hand on her forehead and another hand on the small of her back. “Are you ready to receive Jesus Christ as your personal savior? To receive the gift of Life Everlasting and the eternal love of God?”

    She nodded.

    “Are you ready to be born again in the Holy Spirit?”

    “I am — ahhhhhhhh!” She screamed as something in the water grabbed her leg and dragged her under.

    In the silence after that horrible scream, the Preacher stood in the water, not knowing what to say. He looked to the believers on shore and saw that they did not understand. And why should they? They had never seen a river baptism. Maybe this was what was supposed to happen. For a moment the preacher found himself, like any desperate performer trying to figure out how to salvage a bit from disaster. Then the creature in the river surfaced in its death roll, flinging the young woman's body into the air for long enough for her to scream in agony and for all to see her broken body washed with a thin mixture of blood and river water. As the screaming began, the Preacher splashed for the shore.

    Dance had given his horse his head and slumped weakly against the animal’s neck, drifting in and out of consciousness as the horse found his way home. All Dance wanted from the world was to eat some of Speedy Pete’s beans, crawl into the number two cell, lock the door, and sleep secure in the knowledge that the iron bars were enough to protect him from the giant bear of his nightmares. But as he rounded the corner on the main street he saw a group of cowboys on horses in front of the jail.

    At the head of them sat Nathan Burdock with his hands crossed over his saddlehorn. He yelled into the jail, ”You let my boy out, or this is gonna turn ugly.”

    Well, thought Dance, at least the jail ain’t on fire.

    From inside he heard Sleepy Pete's slow drawl, "the sheriff will be back anytime now, you'll see. Then you'll be in all kinds of trouble."

    "Paw, you get me out of here!" Came Charlie Burdock’s thin cry.

    “Now, Pete, the Sheriff’s just one man and I don't…" said Nathan Burdock, trailing off when he saw what was left of Dance.

    Without a word, and without his hat, the Sheriff rode right through the Cowboys, right past Burdock and hitched his horse to the post.

    “Jesus Christ,” said one of the cowboys.

    “Fresh from the tomb,” said another, because Dance looked like 20 miles of bad road.

    Dance paid them none of them any mind. He dunked his head in the horse trough, shook like a dog, then slurped greedily at the water.

    Nathan Burdock cleared his throat. Then he drew his pistol, cocked the hammer and said, “Sheriff?”

    Dance turned slowly, holding his hands away from his sides and said, “Why Nathan, I didn’t see you there.”

    Nathan Burdock smiled and said, “You got my boy in there and I'll be having him."

    "Don't worry Sheriff, I got a bead on him,” said Sleepy Pete from inside the jail.

    “Pete, that ain’t reassuring, I know what kinda shot you are,” Dance yelled back at the jail. Then he turned wearily back to Nathan Burdock and said, “Sorry for the interruption, I didn’t want to get accidentally shot.” He swept his gaze across Nathan’s sour-faced ranch hands in front of the jail. “Or on purpose shot, either.”

    “Just give me my boy and nobody gets shot.” Dance, swayed a little with fatigue and added, “I don’t know what you want that kid for. He’s a real a*****e, I can tell you that.”

    Nathan Burdock said, “My line’s not long on charm, but I’ll be havin’ him all the same.”

    “Well, the thing is, I’m supposed to hold him until the circuit court judge comes through from Tuscon. But seeing as Tuscon ain’t there anymore, I guess… s**t… you can have him.”

    “Whaaaaaaat?” drawled Speedy Pete from inside the jail.

    “Pete, go on and bring the prisoner out here!”

    “Sheriff, I don’t think…”

    “Deputy, it has been a long day and I’m in no mood for an argument.”

    Burdock lowered his pistol. He looked confused and slightly disappointed to have gotten his way so easily. He was all keyed up for a fight that hadn’t come. He said, “You know, and I know my boy ain’t gonna see no justice from a crooked judge from big-city Tuscon.

    “Jesus Nate. Take yes for an answer why’dontcha?”

    “That’s Mr. Burdock to you.”

    Dance nodded, waving a dismissive hand and said, “Pete, hurry up in there.” Then back to Burdock, “You see, his nickname is of an ironical nature.”

    Pete unbarred the door. It was a hollow, violent thump that caused the horses and men jump. Burdock’s men were especially skittish with their easy victory, wondering if all this weren’t some kind of strange trick.

    Pete emerged from the jail with a shotgun and Charlie Burdock in handcuffs. "You sure about this Sheriff? It don't seem right."

    "Pete, Miguel is dead. And we are in Arizona no more."

    "Oh no how do you die?"

    "You wouldn't believe me if I told you. So if this old hatchet face b*****d wants to take his jackass kid and ride out of town to get killed – well, saves us tying a noose.”

    "What are you carrying on about?" asked one of Burdock’s men.

    "Don't pay no mind to his foolishness boys,” said Burdock, not sure what the play was here.

    "I want to hear what he has to say," said another adding, "maybe he can tell us why the little bunkhouse disappeared."

    "If I had answers, I wouldn't share them with a pack of thugs like you," said the sheriff and he took the shackles from Charlie Burdock's wrists. Charlie grinned at Dance and said, I told you that so I wouldn't hold me, Sheriff." Then he started down the steps.

    Sheriff Dance’s kick got Charlie square in the right ass cheek and sent him sprawling flat in the street. He turned in the dirt and got up with his fist clenched, mad as hell. But dance just stood on the top of the steps with his hands held out from his sides, smiling like he had won a prize at the fair.

    "Easy boy," said Nathan Burdock.

    "Yeah boy, easy,” said Dance.

    "That's enough out of you!" Burdock snapped at Dance.

    “Somebody lend me a gun," Charlie said his face red with embarrassment.

    "No,” said Nathan, trying to put a final word to it.

    One of the ranch hands brought a saddled horse to the front for Charlie.

    “Sheriff, you cain’t just let him go!”

    “Pete, there’s no point. There’s no Judge comin’ from Tuscon.”

    “But he killed a man in cold blood. You cain’t let him get away with that!”

    Why not, Dance wondered? Hadn’t the man who became John Dance gotten away with it? He's gotten away with killing men all the way here. To this town where everybody smiled when they saw him. Where he had respect and found a way to use violent talents for good. This town and these people, even the roughest of them, generally weren't bad men, and they were still ignorant of how the world had changed around them. Of what they were facing and how lost they really were. This town was gonna fall apart when the truth landed.

    Charlie snarled, “I didn’t kill nobody in cold blood, he drew first and I shot him.”

    “You’re that fast, hunh?” asked Dance.

    “Yes sir, I am! And iff’n you hadn’t blindsided me, I woulda got you too!” said Charlie, ignoring the waiting horse.

    "Let's go home,” said Nathan Burdock.

    Dance said, “’ cause it's one thing to be steady shooting a man in the back, as you did. But it's another thing entirely to aim and fire when they're shooting back."

    "They don't get a chance to fire back on account I'm so fast."

    "Oh boy, you're real scary."

    "Enough," said Nathan Burdock

    "Mister, you're lucky I don't have a gun."

    “is that a fact?" Asked the sheriff. Then he reached out to Speedy Pete’s belt pulled out his pistol.

    “I forbid this,” said Nathan Burdock.

    “Forbid what? He’s a free man, just like you wanted. If you got some regrets about his unfortunate character, it's far too late to start raising him now. Here you go, little Burdock,” said Dance as tossed the pistol to the boy.

    As it flew through the air, there was a tremendous explosion and everyone flinched. Forgotten, the pistol landed in the dirt as everyone turned to see a tremendous cloud of smoke rising up from the Morning Star Mine.

    The congregation at the water’s edge had recoiled in horror at the gruesome spectacle of the young girl who had tried to give her life to God, but instead had wound up being food for some horrible and still unseen river monster. They pulled the preacher ashore and looked to him for answers, but he had gave none. He ran right through the crowd and kept running up the hill towards the church lost in terror and despair.

    What was this? The preacher wondered. Oh God, why hast thou forsaken me? That young girl, so beautiful, not innocent of course, but not deserving of this. He remembered the feel of her flesh beneath her dress as she was torn from his grasp. The whole of it was incomprehensible to him. He saw the humble church and ran towards it seeking to take refuge in prayer in the house of the Lord.

    There was a peal of thunder and black smoke filled the sky. Behind him he heard the screams and cries of the faithful. A cloud of roiling black smoke filled the air and threw it rose a conflagration with wings. As it rose it screamed hatred at all of God's creation. With two mighty wing beats it climbed towards the heavens like something from John of Patmos’ nightmares. On the third beat one of its wings shredded to ash and it spun downwards, out of control, headed right for them.

    The preacher stopped running thinking that his doom was upon him. He cast his arms out to his side and cried aloud “Take me Lord,” ready to meet his maker.

    The fiery beast crashed into the church in front of him, pulverizing the chapel with furious beats of its ruined wings. As the steeple fell it burst into flames. The agony of its death throes it screamed at the sky and thrashed what remained of the church to splinters. The scream was so loud it drove the preacher and his followers to their knees, where they clutched their heads against the noise and pain.

    The bat fell dead in the ruins of the destroyed church. In the silence that followed the smell of burning hair and flesh filled the Preacher’s nostrils.

    Then the fire leapt to the next building.

    This is a public episode. If you would like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit patrickemclean.substack.com

  • Posted on 28 May 2022

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