Monday, September 28, 2015

Phantom Drive 1869

Phantom Drive 1869
by Douglas Christian Larsen

Wind wailed through the fluted rock configurations, twisting and twining and echoing in a long drawn-out moan. Four men standing near their mules fidgeted and started uneasily, glancing and frowning about them. When the wind surged and the low moaning noise rose above the scrub, the men crowded together, and their mules grew increasingly uneasy. The steadfast animals could pass a buzzing rattlesnake without twitching an ear, but the nervousness of the men increasingly spooked the beasts, and the wind across the red rocks made stranger music still.
“It’s the wind,” Marshal Diego snapped, startling the men as he suddenly appeared around the corner of a rocky tower that resembled two giant hands praying. “I don’t want no stupid talk, boys. You’ve been deputized, and you are official U.S. Marshals deputies, and that’s how I expect you to behave yourselves. I want you all to display some backbone.”
“Ain’t a lawman,” Yon replied, but only half-heartedly, as he gave the marshal a dirty look from beneath his slouching miner cap. He didn’t like being startled that way, especially when he knew he was mostly being spooked by the wind. It didn’t look good to the boys. The boys made their discontent known by spitting tobacco juice in the general direction of the marshal.
“Well you’re a man, aren’t you?” Marshal Diego said, the sides of his mouth quirking out the corners of his huge moustache. He was a tall, thin, hard man, and in the last several days the men had learned not to push him too far. He was tough, and good with his fists, and his guns, and you never know which he would draw. The men did not know if he was laughing at them, or challenging them to some kind of ruckus, but they all felt way too low in spirit to rise to any sort of mayhem. Maybe the marshal was just trying to break their spell of increasing unease. They all just wanted this job to end.
It was the other man, the one in the long black coat, that spooked them most. The fact that he was out of sight spooked them more than his lurking presence. This other man was a Government man from back East, and there was just something frightening about the glint in his black eyes, and this whole scheme just did not settle right with the men. Sounded great in Denver City, at a lowly saloon, half drunk, but out here in Ute country, it got downright eerie.
First they had come upon the massive excavation beneath the twisted rock formations, a man-made arroyo that was a vast canyon when you went down deep inside. Maybe two thousand men could mull around in there without bumping shoulders. A lot of miners had spent a lot of time excavating all the rock and rubble that was now piled high above the excavation, on huge posts now strung with dynamite. This ain’t about cows, Yon thought, sickly. Especially when you considered the vast amount of explosives planted at the end of seven mini-mines—thirty-foot tunnels carved in volcanic rock—you knew there was some Government secret involved. Something they wanted buried, and that would remain buried, forever.
There had been rumors about the horrors at Gettysburg ever since President Lincoln’s assassination, and now with the Government looking to fire President Johnson, it was looking more and more like those rumors were true. Supposedly the man in black worked for the president waiting in the wings, that general from the war, Grant.
When Marshal Diego deputized these miners, they thought they would be setting out as a posse to run down desperadoes—something exciting—instead they spent the day here setting charges of dynamite. And the amount they distributed was enough to bring down a mountain.
When they were finished with their work, and thinking it might be time to head back to base camp, the marshal distributed the shotguns.
“It’s almost night,” Billy said, the youngest man present. He was skinny, raw-boned and burned by the sun, and only sixteen years of age. He generally ran errands for the miners, and now his eyes were jerking about, certain he saw lurking Indians at every bush and tree.
The oldest man, Bert, a yellow-eyed geezer who was unused to being away from a bottle this long, coughed, spat out his tobacco and said with real worry in his quavering voice: “Marshal, it ain’t safe out here at night. The Ute don’t like us here, this be sacred ground.”
Marshal Diego laughed. “Well, I don’t know about Indian superstition, but this will be sacred ground, after the long drive. Gettysburg finally ends, boys, tonight. That’s the plan.”
“They really Johnny Reb, that who’s coming?” old-man Bert said in a low voice. He had not fought in the war, and he did not wish to participate in any delayed closure to it.
The marshal was about to speak when his eyes flicked up and he remained quiet. The men followed his gaze. The man in black sat quietly upon his black horse, watching them from about twenty yards away.
Everyone remained still, watching the man in black watching them. The wind moaned especially loud.
“Guess I better go and see if he needs anything,” Marshal Diego said, not sounding as confident as he usually presented to the deputized greenhorns. They thought they heard him muttering Spanish slings and arrows, things that sounded like pinch hee, or pinchie, as well as some of the more common cuss words that they all new. His jaw jutted squarely and he set off at a brisk stride, hands gripping the butts of his twin horse pistols, calling back to the miners: “Better keep your splatter guns ready, but don’t shoot off any toes.” He might have laughed, or it might have been the wind.
The miners grumbled and lifted up their shotguns, each of them checking their loads and calming their mules and spitting tobacco juice.
Bert said, “El Capitan’s gone dark. It’s night, boys.”
“Pikes Peak,” Stanley, the only educated man in the group, said. “They renamed it after that soldier went up there. The Spanish and Indians still call it Capitan.”
“Shut up, perfesser,” Yon snapped. He kept pacing, shaking his head, glowering and spitting.
The irony was that Stanley actually was a professor in New York City before he came to Colorado to try his hand at finding silver and gold. Now, shivering, glancing nervously up at the peak above them, he wished he had never left New York.
They could hear the sounds of horses and the marshal and the stranger were no longer in sight, and the night was now coming on very fast. They thought they might hear shots, carried on the wind, both rifles and pistols. At the base of the impossibly tall mountain above them, it was growing cold, and the twisted shapes of the red rocks seemed to emanate a baleful glow in the twilight.
“What is it we’re supposed to shoot at with these shotguns?” the kid asked. “I don’t wanna kill nobody, even bandits.”
“You know what they said happened at Gettysburg,” Stanley suggested, timidly, as he did not wish to rile Yon again.
“You mean about them angels?” Billy said, wide-eyed.
“No! He’s talkin’ bout the Rebs, how they wouldn’t stop fightin’,” old-man Bert said in a low voice. “Even after they was dead, they got back up again. They couldn’t kill Johnny Reb. Sumpin about the slaves they was tryin’ t’keep, and a curse from Africa.”
“You are talking about Voodoo,” Stanley said, trying to keep his voice low so as not to provoke Yon again. “I think that’s what you mean. Voodoo.”
“It’s cows, idiots, cows we gunnin’ for, that’s all, that’s what the marshal said, sick cows they drivin’ over from Kansas,” Yon said. That is what they were told, and Yon needed to cling to the explanation, even though everyone knew it just wasn’t so, because the boys were giving him the willies, and it was spooky out here in this weird, twisted landscape. There were many legends about the Ute in these parts, and Yon did not want to be here, shotgun or no. “The cows keep fallin’ over, been goin’ on for a while, and they say people who eat’ em start walkin’ funny, then they die too.”
“Someone’s comin’!” the kid squeaked, backing into his mule.
They all heard it, the sounds of horses, jingling spurs, creaking leather, and as the cacophony of sounds intensified the ground shook, and then up over the rise where the marshal had gone to meet the stranger came a looming wave of riders on galloping horses, the riders hollering and whistling. The four men with shotguns shouted in surprise and backed into their skittering mules, and within seconds the riders went pounding by, Mexican vaqueros many of them, all shouting such frightening urgings as: “Cora! Rapido! Arriba!”
Strangely, as the riders passed beyond earshot, one last word came drifting back.
Even though none of the men spoke Spanish, they each had a smattering of miner-speak, and knew that last word. That was not a good word to hear in this alien landscape of rocks the color of blood.
“We should go,” Billy whispered. “I feel something bad, something real bad!”
The mules, as one, pulled loose from their inept handlers, and sped in the direction of the retreating riders, and Billy, yanked off his feet was dragged for more than ten feet by his mule, the boy lost his shotgun and screamed in terror and pain.
The men stood around, waving their shotguns, peering into the night, and nobody went to help the boy as he continued to lie screaming in the scrub brush.
“Get up here, muy pronto!” came the voice of Marshal Diego. They could not see him, but it was distinctly his voice, and he sounded panicked, something they had not witnessed as yet. “You men, up here now, fast! Rapido! Rapido, you idiots!”
They started up the rise. Even Billy shut up, scrambling around to find his weapon with bleeding hands, and was up dashing behind the men in the dark. There was no way he was going to wait out here in the dark. He thought he saw rattlesnakes at every step. And something that was not an owl was making a weird noise, like a siren calling in the night. As they broached the short knoll they spotted Marshal Diego with several Union soldiers. Several lamps revealed two shiny Gatling guns, great big machine weapons on wheels that looked like nothing more than rings of death, big impossible monsters that could spit the bullets of a whole army, just two men could do that with these things, with another two men to load up the bullets.
“Spread up here,” Marshal Diego commanded, miming with his hands to the four miners, instructing them to point their shotguns. “If any of the—cattle—get within ten feet of the big guns, here,” he said, patting the wheel of a Gatling gun, “you use your shotgun. One shot per cow, comprendo? Push it back in with your boot, if it gets up this high. Don’t touch it. Not with your skin. Understand?” In his obvious nervousness, he said skeen, don’t touch it, not with your skeen.
They nodded, swallowing nervously. Already, they could hear the approach of something new, echoes of something terrible, reverberating through the ground.
“You better understand,” the marshal continued, drawing one of his extremely large horse pistols, “because if you disobey, or turn to run. I shoot you.” He nodded at them and snapped the pistol back into the holster. “Stay and do you duties, deputies.”
Many lamps glimmered down in the excavation, and though nothing could be seen the length of the channel for about fifty yards, strange shadows flickered in the dark cavern. There should be crickets, loud symphonies of crickets, but there was nothing, except for a low moaning noise just at the edge of your hearing, and everyone was jumpy, eyes huge and rolling. Eyes played tricks in the haunting light. Shadows seemed more real than the small lights.
A horse came charging up the channel, the iron-shod hooves sparking on the red rocks. It was the stranger, the Government man, all dressed in black with his great coat flapping behind him, his big black hat pulled low over his eyes. He reined the horse up rearing, and fired back behind him with a very loud pistol, and then he was riding forward again, toward the group at the top of the knoll. The Union soldiers began cursing, hunkering down around their guns.
“Exciting times,” Marshal Diego laughed, drawing both his pistols. “It comes, amigos, it comes.”
The black horse came up the steep rise and the man in black erupted over the cusp at the top. Again he reined in his horse, and dismounted. He led the large stallion back to a supply wagon and tied the reins there, and came slowly back with a rifle slung low in his arms
Everyone peered into the pit.
“What is that?” Stanley, the ex-professor, inquired as the first shapes came stumbling into the light of the first lamp below. The other men grumbled, and even the soldiers at the big guns began a low-pitched complaint.
“Just wait, and remember these are cattle,” Marshal Diego said, weighing his pistols up at about neck level, nervously thumbing the hammers halfway back. He looked excited, almost happy, pretty much up on the pointy tips of his cowboy boots.
Figures moved in the shadow, some of the shapes looked like people, just people, but every additional glimpse revealed the wrongness of the figures, the unnatural movements, the darkness clinging to the shapes, and now you could hear, it was them, the figures of shadows, making the noise, the terrible growing noise, it was voices, inhuman voices, cloying, cold, devoid of all empathy and feeling, it was a noise, a hunger, hunger craving and calling like a siren, come to the dark, come to the teeth, come.
“That’s not,” Stanley began, gesturing with his gun. Then retreated a few steps, only mumbling: “No. I want to. I’m. I’m sorry. But no.”
Stanley the ex-professor dropped his shotgun and turned and fled back down the path, away from the lights and the guns and the things below. A shot rang out, deafening, and the fleeing man dropped to the ground.
Two soldiers appeared from the shadows and lifted Stanley up, dragged him to the top of the knoll, and tipped the still squirming man down tumbling into the writhing darkness below. The man became a scream, and then a violent rush of sounds that was not screaming, but the edges of sanity where human voices cannot go. And it seemed he screamed on an on.
“You can’t just—” Yon began, taking a step backward.
“You are deputies,” Marshal Diego told them and they stood frozen in their boots. Yon stopped, and stepped forward again to the edge of the precipice.
The soldiers began firing, finally, and the impossible mass below kept coming, stumbling, falling, rising again, hardly impeded by all the gunfire. There were shapes that must be children, and shapes stumbling forward on stumps, waving stumps. Like a great creature composed of many parts it crept on thousands of bare feet up toward where the Gatling guns bucked and fired, the spirals of smoking barrels clanking around and around, blasts of smoke accompanying the whirring bullets.
The Gatling guns fired, each weapon blasting away continuously at 150-180 rounds per minute, soldiers on each side of the guns loading bullets into the gravity-fed hoppers. The deputized miners huddled together, lifting their shotguns more like shields than offensive weapons, and now they could not look away from the faces turned up to them, the moaning, yearning faces of the shadows.
After an hour of continuous firing, the squirming mass of things were only fifty feet from the top of the excavation. Then the miners fired their shotguns at the beings attempting to scale the almost sheer cliff face. Mechanically, the miners loaded, fired, and reloaded, working as if locked inside a night terror from which they would never awaken.
A streaming flare shot up into the sky, lighting the whole area, but briefly.
The churning things below looked up with blank hungry faces. Eye sockets seemed hollow and cavernous.
The strange Government man in black stepped forward.
“The last one is in,” he yelled. “Roll in the stones and then fall back. The other end is being sealed right now. We have to get around the standing stones before detonation.”
Soldiers rolled forward a massive stone taller than a man, and it clumped noisily down and boomed against rock face as it half-slid and then toppled into the massed death below. The moaning continued, unbroken, unchanging, hungry and sad and inhuman.
Everyone ran, the miners and soldiers and even Marshal Diego. Last came the Government man on his black horse. Within moments of rounding the towering wafer-thin rock formation, the ground seemed to inhale. Men cast themselves face-down upon the ground. The Earth shuddered. And only then was the blast of tons of dynamite heard, exploding mightily. The ground lifted again, and then slammed down, as if a giant were rattling the very world.
Then a rain of stones dropped from the sky. Thankfully, the shower of rubble was well beyond where the men lay against the sheltering rock formation.
“Is it done?” Marshal Diego yelled, leaning against the rocks, his face pale and weary, his fingers massaging inside his ears. It seemed they could all still hear the moaning of the damned, but if so, it was not with their physical ears, which echoed from the blast. This was something deeper, the knowledge of what squirmed buried beneath tons of rock and gravel, something yet yearning, something still struggling hungrily, forever squirming, shadows in the underworld.
“It’s finished,” the man in black said. “In a year or so, this might be a National park.”

Marshal Diego laughed. “They should call it The Garden of the Devils.”
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