Later, in years when the caravans came less frequently, and the last of the springs had dried to dust, men would still sit at the scuffed tables of the Lucky Prospector. Every Tuesday and Friday night, some unseen force would draw them out, to drink and sigh and tell stories to those who would listen, of the old days and the better days and even those days that no one could properly remember: legends as old as the sunset, and just as far away.
Papa had always been a wonderful storyteller. Part of the reason why this was, was because he shared an essential trait with the old pioneers, who dived into the untamed wilds and returned with oral epics and tales that wove themselves into the mind: he not only valued the story over the facts, but he also never much cared for the facts in the first place.
For example: Papa maintained that, as a girl, I had always loved the stars.
I was eight when it happened.
I was helping Ma with dinner, late in the afternoon, when I looked out the
window to see Papa running towards us, waving his hat with crazed abandon,
pelting through the potato patch without a single concern for the seedlings. I
met him at the door, per my mother's request.
"Where's your ma?" My father panted. He tried peering inward, gave up, and put his hands on his knees. Sweat drenched his cotton shirt. "She in there?"
"She told me to ask what was wrong."
"Did she, now." He frowned. "Why's that? Who said there's somethin' wrong? Where'd she go hidin'?"
"In the kitchen, Pa. Cooking dinner." He stumbled past me. I followed, silently, in the way that children do.
"What're you running like that for?" Ma frowned, looking up from her preparations for the night's stew. "Scared the Devil out of me, you running like that."
"Somethin's happened," Pa said.
"Why? What's wrong?"
"Ain't nothin' wrong. Just strange, is all." Father scratched his already thinning hair. "Black man came in from the desert," he said. "No horse. Gun on his belt. We thought him a bandit, at first."
"So?" asked my mother. "We've seen bandits before. No reason to go running through the potatoes for a bandit."
He rubbed a hand against his eyes. He must have run all the way from the square, he was so exhausted. "Well, we don't know what to reckon now," he said. "Had to tell you, 'fore all Hell breaks loose. You know how they are. But . . . ah. See, what we can tell . . ."
"He done turned all the water bad."
There was a brief silence.
Then, Ma laughed, loud and good.
"Just how much have you been drinking?"
"I'm serious, Moll. Turned it . . . turned it all black. Norman had a sip, said it tasted like it'd been dipped in dead men."
"And how would Norman know what a dead man tastes like?"
Papa didn't smile. He had a look about him that I began to dread. He'd always been an extremely certain man - unprofitably so. You couldn't count on one hand, the number of harvests his obstinacy had cost us. He wasn’t certain now.
Ma stopped chopping the carrots. She gave him a long look, first cool, then creased with worry. "You smell like a dog," she said. "Why don't you go wash up, I'll send the girl down, see what's goin' on."
"What if he's dange'rous?"
"Why, then she'll come right back, won't you, Amelia? You're a smart enough girl." I crept around the corner, nodding slowly. Ma smiled. "Good. Hurry on then, the both of you. Come back for supper, hon, you hear?"
I heard. And, being one of those girls who had very little patience for knitting or housekeeping, I had naturally drifted towards what seems to be the only other extreme for young girls. I was fast. Disgustingly so.
In ten minutes, I reached the village square, where a ring of people with torches and half-finished drinks were facing another man, who stood with an air of swaggering humility. He had two guns on his belt, another across his back, and, as father had told us, no horse in sight. This was more important than it first seemed. Our town was in the middle of a hundred miles of sand and cacti and tumbleweed. You didn't get here without horses, or at least a good pair of oxen. Had he walked?
I went closer, first keeping to the edge of the street, then stepping into the light. I knew these men. I relaxed.
Then jumped as someone shouted: "Tell us what you did!"
An aimless shuffling in the crowd revealed the shouter as Clancy John, the storekeeper on the only other street of the town. He did good business, though Papa always complained at his prices. "Admit it," he now snarled. He held a large mug in his hands, which he swirled under the stranger's chin. "Tell us!"
"I have nothing to do with this," he said. He had an odd voice. Almost musical, though not in the sense of banjos and guitars, or even the flowing piano. I did not know what a bass was, though even that was an admittedly poor choice of metaphor. I knew that it rolled, like tides, but that was all.
"You come into our town," someone else said, "and ten minutes later - ten minutes, and then this happens!"
From the back, Larry Carpenter, professional barfly, slurred out something about "black devils" and their "voodoo." The stranger didn't even flinch.
"I'm just here to rest," he said. "It's been a long walk."
"No one walks the desert," said a voice, " 'cept gypsies and witches. Which one 'r
"I'm a traveler. I travel. I am in need of food, and lodgings for three nights. I have money for those who will take it in peace."
There was silence, awkward and long.
"Where's the mayor?" Snapped Clancy, at last.
"City Hall," someone said. "Told me he wants no part in this."
"Well, damn him, too, then."
"He's not sleeping in the Prospector," said the barkeep, with a deep frown. " Don't do, letting witches in your beds."
"I am not a witch."
"This is not a problem of witches."
"We need him far away. Far away from the town, where he can't do no more mischief.”
"Here, what about the Wiltons? They're someways away."
I blanched. Slowly, the men turned to face me. I considered running, whether into the alley behind the saloon or all the way back home, but their stares pinned me to the wall.
"How about it, Amelia?" asked Clancy John, shambling softly closer. "Would you take
this . . . man, here, to your folks? Make him a bed?"
I swallowed hard. "Papa doesn't like witches, Mr. John. He says the devil drives them, and, and they'll eat your fingers, and"-
"I am not a witch."
"Er . . . right. Right! See?" said Clancy, floundering but determined to twist the situation to his advantage. Nearly two dozen men stayed behind his sweating frame, not entirely sure where this was supposed to be going. "He's not really a witch. I'm sure your folks wouldn't mind giving him somewhere to sleep, in the barn and all."
"But you said he turned the water bad!"
"Well, yes. But . . ." He looked at his hand. The cup had tilted over, and I could see the dark viscosity of what had once been water from the well. Were those bubbles,
or chunks floating in the liquid? I felt sick. "Here now, girl! It's all
right! We . . . er . . . we won't let you get hurt, will we, boys?" Vague
noises of agreement from the assembly. "Right. You'll be all right. Safe
and sound. Safe, sound and happy . . ."
"It's all right," I bawled. "They said they'd keep us safe! They said he isn't a witch!"
"I am not a witch."
"Who is 'They'?!"
"Sir, excuse me, please. I'd just like to say"-
"Mr. John and Mr. Roberts and"-
"Clancy John," said my father venomously, "is a lying, piece-of-shit bastard."
"Henry! Not in front of Amelia!"
"But Mr. Boris wouldn’t let him in the saloon and no one else would either and, Pa, they were all yelling at him! And they said he's not a witch! They promised!"
"I'm actually a"-
"Didn't you see the
water, Amelia? Didn't anyone show you the"-
"Henry, let the man speak, for God's sake"-
"I'm Randall, sir. Mr. Randall Finnigan. I'm from Texas."
"Aren't no witches in
"Yes, sir. That's right." He sighed. "Now, I truthfully do not know what's gotten into
you good folks' water. But I assure you, I have absolutely nothing to do with
it. I've come for rest, and somewhere to eat and stay before I journey on. I
"Witch's gold is worse 'n the leprechaun's, or so they say."
"Henry, witches don't carry gold."
"It is SAID!"
"Sir, I'm a lawman. I am not a witch," said Randall Finnigan, from Texas. He raised his hands in a conciliatory gesture. "Now, I will not deny that this is one fiendish set of circumstances, but it is a coincidence. Nothing more."
"Are we going to die, Papa?"
"You know what? I don't know."
"I am also a priest."
"What church? The Devil?"
"Pastor Dean's First Commandment. That's in Dallas." He pulled out a small cross from the folds of his shirt, and gave a small smile. "Witches can't touch crosses, now can they? Or, at least, so it is said."
Father made sure to get his money's work. We were never a racist town - I've never believed that. We were too far separated from the rest of our kind, to carry on their ideologies, whether of politics or love or hate. Men were men. True, a few held onto the old ways of thinking, but only as empty habit. Things done without any real reason for it, and which left the sender as confused as the recipient, who wondered why in the world anyone would go to the trouble of making a racial attack, only to stumble at the end and dribble off with a troubled little frown.
Men were men. However, it did not take Papa very long to realize that this particular man was stronger than he was, and far abler in the fields. He worked the same hours as we did, in the most difficult tracts of land, and when the rows under his hoe came out straighter than our own efforts, Papa refused his rent for the night. "You paid your share," was all he said, massaging his sore shoulder as Randall
slowly replaced his money. There were places where my father could be convinced
to change, such as on the position of witches. However, as Mr. Finnigan had
very soon learned, he was still a most stubborn man at heart.
That night, Mr. Hartman's crop turned the same shade as the water. Only this time, the radishes didn't just taste bad. He found a brace of rabbits lying dead in the field, their veins starkly delineated and their fur lying in small piles around the corpses. The next day, Mr. Finnigan took his leave.
"I am very sorry."
"You told us you were stayin' three days," said my father. He sounded worried. "I do hope we haven' been too tight to you. Never meant to push a guest, that I swear."
"It has been no act on your own part,” said Finnigan, smiling. “But I'm afraid I can stay no longer. Your town is being plagued by a demon. I know where it will strike next."
He retrieved his guns from our umbrella stand. "Chances are, I will even be able to kill it."
"And then, you will return?" Ma asked.
"Oh. Oh, no. I cannot. It has allies, you see. Such things often do."
"Why didn' you tell us there was a demon? Could've spared ye'self a load of trouble, if the town knew there were a demon. Wouldn'a flogged at you so hard, for one."
Mr. Finnigan smiled, and shook his head. "You are kind, my friend. But no. Some things . . . it is safer never to know. I am gone. It is better for all of us, that it ends like this."
So he shook with my father, kissed my mother's hand, and pressed into my palm the deck of cards with which he'd shown me the games he played, alone beneath the desert stars.
I watched him go, long after
Ma and Pa went back into the house. I was still watching when, two hours later,
he shot back towards us, sprinting from the south, where our house had no
windows. I blinked. Had he changed his mind? Perhaps the demon had gone, and,
safe now, he'd come back for a while, before he resumed his travels. I went
down to the barn, smiling. I'd rather grown to like the man, and was eager to
lead him back to the house.
He hadn't entered through the front doors, which were strangely ajar. Instead, I heard him scrambling up the smooth side of the south wall, into the hayloft. I eased through the doorway, keeping to shadows. The smile faded from my lips. What was he doing?
The air felt cold. Outside, the sun still shone, sweltering and bright. In here . . .
Ice crackled against the beams. My gasp inverted, plumed outward, and I hunkered behind a bale of straw, heart pounding. Feet on the ladder. He hadn't seen me. Good.
I wasn't sure why I was hiding - only that I had to. Again - the incalculable brilliance of children, which they are never really aware of using. My instincts have never been sharper than they were when I was a child.
Finnigan was breathing loudly, in what seemed to be the center of the barn. I risked a peek, just as he drew the cross from his vest, and held it out before him. Strange words billowed from his lips. Latin, though I did not know it.
Now I was properly terrified.
And of course, on cue, bright red letters, blasphemous to the eye, stung my
vision and shocked me into horrified silence. I stepped backward, and stepped
in a pile of black ooze. Stuck.
Pulling desperately, I fought to remain silent. On the walls, the letters grew darker, even more alien. They seemed to speak into the air. Syllables like broken glass to the ears. Words that knew what they meant, even if no one else did. Words that are read to be written.
Finnigan drew his revolver.
"It ends now, specter! You haunt me no longer!" Even in the midst of
eldritch horror, he spoke like an actor. Propriety and grammar. It was insane.
I couldn't stop the humor of it from infecting my lungs, and I laughed. Laughed
and laughed and felt the eyes of Finnigan drifting away from the shadows, to a
little girl who he had taken the utmost precaution to keep away.
"No. Nonono. Amelia!"- He took a step. The letters flared. Now black cawing, chaotic
and wild and spinning with the barn, roared in synchrony with my own growing
insanity. Finnigan stumbled, fired his gun at the letters, which barely wavered
in the impact, before resuming their shape. His cross flared dazzlingly in the
cold, with a light brighter than the sun. The painful notes came again, but now
sank to a dark, bubbly voice, and spoke:
YOU THINK BELIEF WILL SAVE YOU?
"God will save me. And the girl. Release her! Release her and go!"
he pumped the cross into the air, accomplishing nothing.
BELIEF IS POWER. BUT YOURS IS THE STRENGTH OF A MAN. CONSIDER, WHAT IS MAN, TO THE SCALAR OF THE VOID?
"Begone!” The barn swirled above us, the ceiling disappearing, replaced with clouds, now sky, now a black infinity that peered not devoid of stars, but beyond them. Far, far beyond. And I still was laughing. The universe was a marble. For past the stars we see, are more stars, and more, and more, until we live not in darkness, but in
perpetual, maddening light. Light we are never privileged to see. But past that .. . .
I woke in the Papa’s arms. Outside, the night was dark, and full of crickets. It was a human darkness. I had no idea what that meant, nor do I now, it was the first thing to occur to me, and I drank the thought like a drunkard takes his spirits.
"Amelia. What happened? You're safe now,
you hear? Papa has you. By God, you're so cold . . ."
The house was warm and cheerful. And I wept
into my father's arms, and the tears were tears of blood. That was another
favorite, in the later years when he sat at the bar. The cowboy and his demons.
The daughter who cried blood.
I could never have corrected him. How would I explain? I never did watch the stars. They seemed empty, somehow. No . . . I had always looked between them. At the darkness that was not darkness at all, but a marble of shimmering lights . . .
We never saw Finnigan again. What is there to say? What even was done? One night, long ago, I thought I heard the whisper of a scream, coming from the stars. I tossed in my husband’s bed, and fell back into slumber.