Of Nature and Her Tenants

The dunes of the great Colorado Desert existed in perfect stillness, with the exception of the occasional wagon train, caravan of settlers digging through layers of hardened crusts of earth  for water, or the sandstorms known to roar through that region.  The former lumbered by with the hollow creaking sounds of wooden wheels, while the storms -- they were another matter.  The bluffs to the north were covered in one such storm that day, while the sun was high in the sky.  Those immense shoulders of dark rock that usually rose from the stupendous flatness of the dunes now hid themselves in the mystery of mountainous clouds of sand, and above the storm, a vast ocean of rakish blue, raucously bringing light to the plainness of the earth beneath it.  

Of Man and His Aspirations

If there had been any besides the flash of green cacti plant or the scampering desert prairie dog returning to his hole to find shelter; if there had been any besides the wagon ruts dry and cracked with the memory of water, some man may have seen the lonely figure, the tiniest of dots below the bluffs, the mountains of whirling sand, and the oceanic sky, riding like the thunder of God from the north.  For most, the thunder of his black mustangs hoofs seem easier to hear in the mind, while the howling of the winds behind him so defy the imagination, even in the darker parts, that comprehending them fails.  With the wind at his back, he likely cinched forward in the saddle, over the sinewy neck of the horse, straining in the saddle with every manly muscle to stay firmly astride the rumbling river of muscle a few inches below him.  Someone of keener gaze may have even spied the glint of his Winchester rifle whipping at his back with every tumbling stride or the gleam of the pistol strapped to his hip, dancing pirouettes of silver in the air as its owner attempted to control the rush of raw beast.

But there were no Kansas City dames or hallooing farmers to see David James ride like a man that day, and the sun itself was about to stop looking down upon him, as the mountain of sand tumbled ever forward towards the south.  What drove David James forward across the Colorado Desert was somewhat more important than what drove him away from that which he had left.  To some it comes as a slight feeling in the back of the mind, an itch on the neck, or a pain in the chest.  What drives a man to cross a desert on limited rations, doubtful presence of water, and a horse whose battles were a thousand miles ago, a thousand days in the past, and a thousand cities to the East, in a war most cared to forget?  For David James, it was like a roaring fire in the chest, a nameless feeling, a burning that soaked the limbs at night, as he awoke to view the black blanket of night shine with a hundred thousand pin-pricks of light, what Southron had called “God’s Fingers” reaching downward to us.  He had not known what to say to that, or what to say to the presence of a man named Southron sitting by his fire that night on the trail, standing as still as a post-oak in summer looking upward with silent stillness as David James slept in the open air.  He simply talked of everything in David James that made him wonder, everything that made him thirsty, and the next morning, he had quit work on the ranch in the middle of a trail ride, packed his things, saddled Forte, the aging black mustang, and rode south.  That direction seemed to resonate with the words of Southron, seemed to feel of a certain rightness, and he rode like the wind on the cusp of thunder and light; he rode like the rain thrown in great big drops ahead of a storm, cast forward like the lightning from the fingers of a god.  

Of the Land and Her Settlements

That part of the Californian state had scarcely been colonized, and the likely presence of towns might have caught laughter as the subject of a cowboy’s wager.  Jasper Gulch ran alongside the road, or what seemed to be a trail for horses until it passed by the town of El Centro.  Jasper Gulch had once been a river full of flowing water according to the old-timers, and the town had been founded in the days when the ground was watered and kept fertile by the river.  Now, the river bank had long since gone dry, bearing the same cracks and crevices that only spoke of water’s memory.  Most of the settlers had left, packed up their wagons and what they could of their houses in the year 1852, a few years after California’s grafting into the Union.  They left and went north to greener pastures.  Somehow, the town stayed afloat for all those years, without a railroad, a river nearby, or any particular reason whatsoever.  The nearest rail passed through the city of De La Mare, a beautiful city set on the coast fifty miles to the south, as the crow flies.  It was opportunely  placed a little to the south of the newly minted transcontinental rail-line.  When the wind blew from the west with particular force, kicking up the sands around El Centro, the gusts bore aromatic scents of dried cinnamon from the crops around de la Mare, and the taste of salt on the tongue, fresh and clean from the coast.  These smells served to reinforce the need of settlers to continue along their way to the more fertile lands to the west.  

While the settlers had left El Centro, Jasper Gulch, Comanche Bluffs and the great Colorado Desert behind, the occasional drifter made his way into town, men of the likes of David James.  Some seemed to be just passing through, while others had a look of steely determination in their eyes, as if some dark business drove them.  Others looked to be on the run away from their fate, not knowing that men can do naught but run forward to such.  Any passerby might have noted in those days the unusual prevalence of the fairer sex in El Centro, with only a few men left behind: Alfred Jorgensen, the warehouse manager and oftimes barkeep; Frederick Denison, the hotel and saloon keeper; and one man who was always seen with the former two, whose name was never mentioned publicly.  He was obviously of great wealth, as he wore the fine accoutrement of men back east, and shaved his thick beard and sideburns with practiced precision.  He always wore a large pistol just inside his coat flap, strapped against his torso, hidden, but visible enough to warn the would be assailant.  Somehow and someway, the town of El Centro maintained solvent while most towns would have shuttered their windows, sealed their doors, and left the decaying buildings to the encroaching winds of the desert, possibly to be found one day by men of the future, who would then comment on how the ancients once lived.  

Some said the Man With No Name was a rich Jewish banker who simply loved the desert and that he kept the town open as a personal winter retreat.  Others said he was there because the dry air was good for his lungs and general good health.  The tribes of that area said otherwise.  They called him Diabolus, doubtless some pinch of latin or spanish they had learned when the Spanish priests and imperial conquistadors had kept some semblance of order in the region.  The folk of the town had been glad that the tribes called him such a name, for a raid had not occurred since the Last Year of the River, in 1848, and the only enemy with whom they had to strive was Nature Herself.  

Of the Region and Its Pleasures

The law and order of the Union seemed to stop at a certain point on the Great Plains, before it reached the Continental Divide and headed into the western lands.  The horse soldiers in those days occupied themselves in countless skirmishes and Indian Wars that ravaged homes of white and native alike.  Thus, towns in places like the Colorado Desert received little attention, which perhaps allowed the town’s leadership to build the system which stands to this day.  With neither crops to farm in the barren wild of the dunes, nor a hostile tribe in the area for a radius of one-hundred miles, the pursuits of any inhabitants never failed to defy easy delineation.  There were, indeed, many rumbling wagon trains to and from El Centro, in addition to the lonely drifter; some went south into Mexico, while others went west to the coast and the town of San Cristobal, where the nearest railroad forked south from the recently finished Transcontinental line.  The contents of these great shipping trains went unnoticed by most, yet their occurrence was regular, at the end of every month.   If there had been anyone in the desert trails to see and take note of the passengers, he might have noticed the prevalence of the fairer sex, but the desert looked upon the wagon trains with careless eyes of dusky brown, and the shoulders of rock stood still and monothithic like the ruin of some ancient race long since passed from the pages of time.  

Jasper Gulch and any few inhabitants merely thought of the need for water, while the great Comanche Bluffs whistled and droned in the winds, their flutey rocky formations creating an organ-toned song that could be heard in the distance from the streets of El Centro, as if a war party was always just a few miles away from civilized Man.  Any who have seen the desert in all of its grandeur, know the queer juxtaposition between utter, barren loneliness and breathtaking majesty, still and empty as the vast tracts of space.

Of David James’ Arrival in El Centro

As the hoofs of Forte pounded the sand and rock with every straining stride, David James’ thought and remembered.  He remembered the night a fortnight ago when on the trail ride in the San Juanita valley he had awoken to hear the voice of Southron.  As pillars and arches of stone whipped by on every side, opening the way like some great church of Nature, he remembered.  As the rhythmic pound and clack of the hooves rattled him into a trance, he remembered.  

“Your fate burns within you, soon it claims you, to the end it lights the way.”  

There was a strange incantation present in the simple phrase, and if David James had been a man of letters he might have detected the poetic cadence, but all he knew was that man -- white, indian, or otherwise --, spoke the truth.  For direction, he had naught to assist but the name of the man: Southron.  After speaking the strange words to him in a low-toned voice, he glided behind the last dying embers of the fire and disappeared.  Perhaps he disappeared into the ground or flew upwards to the finger-points of light in the sky, but he was gone either way, leaving the emptiness of the wild to be the only companion of David James in his journey to the south.  

As he muttered the phrase to himself like a mantra, Forte slowed the rhythm of his gallop to a canter and stopped at the top of a small dune overlooking the town of El Centro.  Most of the lights in the town were gone, with the exception of what appeared to be the saloon and hotel, set prominently on the main street of the town.  The other buildings stood seemingly vacant, with their windows dark and empty, or similarly shuttered with wooden boards.  Doubtless, the keepers of the saloon would soon be unable to maintain their own lights, as the storm would darken all, even the artificial light of electric lamps, which in those times only received use in the largest factories in the boondocks of eastern cities, where they lit the sweat-gleamed muscles of every Irish, Italian, and Ural new to the land of opportunity.   Everywhere else still bore the weight of submission to Night and its world of poetic grandeur, complete with its fearful wights and memories.  This Night would hold a special kind of darkness, and the time before the storm hit in its full fury was drawing ever on with terrible fate.  

The horse panted in deep, ragged breaths, and the pulse of its blood throbbed against David James’s legs.  He patted him on the flank lovingly and dismounted, leading him gently toward the hitching post outside the saloon, where a water trough kept watch in a swirling cusp of sand.    David James checked the contents of the watering trough.  Dry.  Dry and filled with sand like an old chief’s tomb.  He tied Forte to the post and walked slowly towards the saloon door.  

Screee.

Screeeeee.  Scree.

Screee.  Screeeee. Scree...

The door creaked in ragged metallic scrapes, adding to the eeriness that wreathed the whole place.  David James stopped in the middle of the road as sand began to whip into his face.  He checked the windows of every building, gazed into the empty dark holes of each story to see if any human moved within or if perhaps other ghostly figures awaited his arrival as Southron had seemed to wait for him on the trail.  Assured of the lack of citizens for an ambush or bandits for a robbery, he walked slowly to the saloon with the measured clink of his spurs lining out the beat of his stride,  adding to the minimalistic music of the town.  

Chapter 1:  Water for Horses and Other Assets

“Hullo there, stranger!  Just passing through?”

Alfred Jorgensen observed the gaunt appearance of the man who entered his saloon with his spurs still on his boots, always a move to annoy the old-timers.  Why did the young cowboys insist on wearing their spurs after a hard day’s work?  No matter.  This fellow could be trouble.  A second glance up and down showed Alfred that the boots worn by the drifter were soft, deformed, and blended to the color of the pink dust of the desert, where once they might have been black.  With every step they released small clouds of sand.  Alfred lit a cigar and moved from his writing desk for balancing accounts to a position behind the bar, where a beautifully engraved double barrel shotgun was hung in a likely location if any patron decided to get fresh with the management.  The drifter’s chaps hung limply at his side in the cowhide style of ranchers from the north of the country, also black at one time.  The man’s hat covered his eyes and the important parts of his profile in a worrisome manner, a move known to be implemented before a bandit drew his pistol to let loose a storm of lead and attempt to make a payday.  

“Stranger, you passin’ through, or stayin’ awhile?”  All our rooms are full up.”

Now the man lifted his eyes to regard Alfred with cool blue eyes, without a word.  He smiled a slight mile reminiscent of a clear Alaskan morning when the fish jumped in the streams.  Alfred had always loved the fly-fishing in the Alaskan streams.  As long as one avoided the bear-mothers and their cubs, the roving wolf-packs, and fled bandits, one could catch food for weeks on end.  But that was long ago for him now, and the need for great income, if the word “need” is permissible, drew him ever further south.  On that trip he had met the man known to the tribes as Diabolus in a Paris style cafe in San Francisco.  He had told him everything he had wanted to know and more, and he had signed on the dotted line that night.  Diabolus had been particularly pleased with Alfred’s mercenarial work in the Crimea against the Brits.  The pay was substantial, albeit the work was rather distasteful.  No matter, another drifter needed trouncing.

“Hey, Denison, come check this fellow out, will you?” Alfred hollered in a clear voice to the second story of the saloon, which was unlit, leaving the gambling tables and leather chairs out of sight till someone lit the old-fashioned torches on the walls.  A figure rose from one of those dark leather chairs, his brown trench coat surrounding his tall, Germanic figure in mystery.  He slowly walked down the rickety staircase to the ground floor, that Alfred had always called the “watering hole.”  David James’ followed the man with his eyes the whole way down the staircase, gently removed his thumb onto the hammer of his Colt six-shooter in advance of the event of a dust-up.  

“Stranger, my partner asked you a question, and I expect an answer.  You stayin’ or passin through?”

“What’s it to you?”  David James’ low, quiet voice pierced the interior of the wooden saloon, despite the increasing roar of the sandstorm outside.  “If you haven’t noticed a storm’s a-blowin’ through outside and passin’ through might make me pass through life itself.  Does that answer your question?”  The tall German called Denison looked at Alfred with a question in his wide blue eyes, the only young part left on his muscular but aging form.  Alfred simply puffed on his long Cuban torpedo, wreathing his elegant mustachios in a white haze.  

Screeee. Clack. Scree. Clack.

Clack. Scree. Clack.  

The music of the saloon doors had increased to a higher urgency.  David James continued, “Whisky.  Neat.  And where can I get water for my horse and a place to billet him so he doesn’t become a permanent fixture of the desert? You boys seem mighty eager to see me on my way when you don’t got  any business.”  At that, Denison nodded to Alfred, who strode quickly from behind the bar to a small cast iron bell that hung from the wall closest to the saloon’s entrance.  He rang it vigorously three times and returned to the bar.  

“Does that mean you’re letting me stay?  That’s a queer sort of celebration.”

Denison removed himself to the corner of the room on the first floor and sat at the only gambling table on that level, a large table carpeted in the softest, cleanest green imaginable, with polished rosewood chairs and table legs.  The cards were already perfectly arrayed for a game of poker. Alfred returned to the bar and poured David James his glass of neat whiskey, who stood perfectly still with his hand still on his weapon, regarding the glass of fire-water with a cocked head and a narrow gaze.  Alfred motioned to it as he waved away the smoke that had begun to accumulate around his head.  “Sit.  Drink.”  Slowly, David James did so, turning the chair at the bar ever so slightly to maintain awareness of the fellow called Denison over his shoulder.  “And water?”  

“Aye, we hear ya.  Such comes at a price in these parts.  Diabolus will tell you.”  

“Who?”  David James returned his hat to its obscuring position.  

“No worries as to his name, merely the boss in these parts.”

“If you haven’t noticed, friend, the time is short.  The storm will end any hope of us sheltering my mount.”

At that point both Alfred and David James ceased from conversation at the low rhythmic thud of toughened leather against planks of wood.

Thump.  Thud. Thump. Thud. Thump.

The rhythm of the stride denoted a confident man of muscular build, in no fear at the onset of Nature’s raging whims.  His boots echoed with some dullness, due to the increasing amount of sand obscuring the street, but his steps clearly were heard in the saloon.  David James stood to regard the swinging and clacking  saloon doors with trepidation.  Alfred’s cigar finally went out as a strong gust of wind blew through the door, carrying a carton of sand with it.  At first glance as the man emerged into the portal to the saloon, his facial features were obscured in the dark, while his wild hair and thick, cleanly kept beard wreathed him in further mystery.  He stood as still as a statue of Washington before the doors, clearly regarding the man on the other side, and then moved into the saloon, where the light revealed his face, a face wealed by a scar on one side, but strangely clean of any other deformities; a black beard sprinkled with salt and pepper; a man of average height; garb reminiscent of the Confederate cavalry, complete with knee-length riding boots, were it not for the massive pistol strapped to the inside of his accoutrement, hid to the handle by a blue jacket.  All previous presuppositions of the fellow and his origins were dashed as he spoke.

“Hello, David James.  I invite you to a game of cards.”  He spoke the word of invite as if such a word meant require or demand, or some other strong word of command.  Every syllable was wreathed in a dark timbre, as if he loved slurring and jarring every consonant with an almost arabian color.  Yet his features were clear and bright, lacking any darkness that his voice declaimed, with the exception of his eyes.  Those eyes were dark holes of dark water in the lost deserts of time, where no man had ever tread without injury.  

“Well, Senor Diablo, or whatever you wish to be called.  My horse will die without water.  While I’m fine with whiskey, my horse needs more care.”  The sound of David James' voice was now supplanted by the gravity of Diabolus’ own voice.

“I have seen to your mount.  Come.  Let us to the table.  Mr. Frederick has prepared our hands.”  

The crew of men left the first two floors quickly, as the winds of the north howled against the wooden walls of the saloon, whistled through the streets of the town, and created a hellish music.  David James remembered the sound of a hunt in the northern Californian forests.  The hounds cornered a boar in a thicket and yelped and guffawed with spittle around their soft muzzles, Adam Feldman, a friend, tumbled off of his horse into the thicket, having used his spurs to slow the mount at too late an interval.  He flew headlong into the thicket where his screams denoted his likely goring.  The hounds, hearing the sound of death and smelling the scent of blood, went into a frenzy and rushed into the thicket, where they took no notice of any friend or foe but toar and thrashed with their limbs.David James had heard noises of a terrible kind, but few equaled the storm.  Gradually, its howls receded as they descended a staircase into what once had been a wine cellar, but now had a stone tunnel recently hewn in one of its walls.  The stone tunnel lead through a long, perfectly straight corridor, lined with torches, to a well-lit and unspeakably ornate room that glimmered in a sheen of white at the end of the hall.  After the darkness of the pre-storm sky and the dimness of the saloon, its brightness stunned the senses.  

Nevertheless, Diabolus lit a torch and motioned for the men to follow.  “We will spend the night below ground.  The storm should move through before dawn, and then we will begin digging ourselves out as we see fit.  Mr. Denison, are all assets below ground and furnished with water and other accoutrement?”  Diabolus had a clean, unadorned way of querying those who seemed to be his subordinates in some enterprise of note.  He simply stared directly ahead and moved towards the golden room of light.  David James recalled that a certain word described such a man.  His young school teacher with beautiful, golden curls had told him so many years ago in the land he cared to forget.  He always wondered what happened to her and if she had got out okay.  The cannonade never failed to kill indiscriminately.  

“Yes, sir.  All are accounted for.”  Denison replied with some reverence and a darker note, a note that seemed to indicate the tremolo of fear.  It was a strange note to hear in the low growls of the tall, Germanic man, a man who might have looked better in a Baroque portrait astride a horse or a portrait hung in the mansion of some aristocrat back home.  Alfred looked at both of them inquisitively.  For some reason, it seemed David James’ presence was a mere side-show to greater happenings, and he felt safe to take in the approaching room, his eyes beginning to acclimate fully.  Directly ahead stood a large set of shelves, upon which many varied liquors were placed.  To those who frequent such locales, it surprises little to say that there was a bar, an ornate poker table with golden trim, and two inconspicuous doors on either side, to the right and to the left, as if secretive entry and exit were a necessitude.  Arrange the scene as it seems best.  A man of Diabolus’ monolithic qualities felt at home in such a room, and his black beard and poised bearing filled the room like the warlike King Ahab of old tales.  

“Drink, Mr. James?” Diabolus proffered smoothly.  Alfred and Frederick eyed their boss with some astonishment as he began to pour a beautiful, brown liquid for the cowboy from the top shelf of the bar cabinet.  “Of course, you must drink whiskey.  Most men of your kind do.  Alfred, the cards, please.”

As if it were some rehearsed church performance, the gent quit himself to one of the hidden doors, opened it, and disappeared, leaving Denison, Diabolus, and David James alone for some time, drinking in the stoney quiet of the subterranean vault.  The German fellow was visibly sweating at this juncture, while Diabolus sat quietly smoking and sipping some unknown beverage from a copper cup.  Denison had been poured a drink but had yet to lift it to his mouth.  Naught but the stoney silence greeted the hearing, until the soft footsteps of Alfred echoed on the other side of the door.  He swung the door open and shut quickly, carrying a rosewood box of ornate make under his arm.  As he walked, he looked upon Diabolus with some intent, approached him very closely, and whispered something into his ear.  David James could view Diabolus' face and Alfed’s mouth from the small wooden table at which he had established himself in the corner.  One word was clear from Alfred’s silent movements: “Dead.”  Diabolus' face showed no sign of any emotion or even evidenced a response. He continued smoking and took another sip from his copper jug.   “Mr. Denison.  Why have you taken no sip from your glass?  I poured it especially for you.”  David James felt some surprise at this.  The whiskey was most certainly of British make and very fine, too; the Brits had sent little else but a couple barrels of their finest when the cannonade finally reached Atlanta.  It had helped him sleep at night as he rode away with the rest of the regiment tale-tucked-between the legs.  

“I’m not thirsty.” The man replied, and a truer reply there possibly never was.  At that moment a clatter and a bang resounded from one side of the door which Alfred had recently vacated, and a woman in tattered garb burst through with a look of horror in her eyes.  David James stood in shock and viewed her with surprise, while the other men simply looked upon her with bored annoyance, with the exception of Diabolus, who approached to lift the woman’s face from the stoney ground, which she looked upon and wet with her tears.  “What is it, my sweet?  Has the storm disturbed your slumber?  Did not Mr. Denison take you to the quarters below ground?”  She looked at him with feverish eyes, blue and clear, darting back and forth.  Her ragged breaths hollowly clung to the walls of the barroom.  “He di’n’t mean nothin’, suh.  Leave him be, I pray ya.  Leave him.  Le’us go teh the desert.”  David James started at the tattered remains of the woman’s voice, a voice which might have once soared in genteel refrain over an entire room of gentlemen and their ladies.  Now, it rasped hollowly with life.  Denison had stood from where he was at the bar, and his fear was replaced by a look of warlike rage, reminiscent of the Germanness he no doubt claimed so proudly.  He did not lack the fighting spirit, and his hand was clasping his pistol with scarcely withheld rancor, a rancor directed against Diabolus.  His blue eyes shot fire.  Diabolus, if he noticed, did not respond or look to acknowledge him.  “Well, my sweet, you are under my protection.  Do you insult my hospitality so much that you ask for the dunes instead?  Doubtless you wish to join us for a game of cards?”

There was a swift movement, a flash, a resounding crack, a woman’s shriek of fear and David James dove behind the bar table for cover

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  • Before I waste time undergoing a project, I have one question:  Does this short excerpt work for you as a beginning, as in, does it draw you in and make you want more?  If so, why?  If not, why not?