Copyright (c) 2017 by Randall R. Peterson ALL RIGHTS RESERVED This is a work of fiction. All persons, locations and actions are from the author's imagination or have been used in a fictitious manner.
By R. Peterson
Driven insane by the poison lake water, Zachariah’s eyes blazed like Foxfire as he thrust the rifle barrel under the barely conscious Indian holy man’s chin. Blood poured onto the ground from a gunshot-wound in Ghost Bear’s stomach.
“What do you want?” Sheriff Thomas Lang asked in a conversational tone, even though he thought the Mormon Bishop was beyond all reasoning, but he had to try something. The one-hundred furious Blackfoot warriors surrounding the immigrants were unmoving for the time being but they wouldn’t be for long. If their spiritual leader was killed there would be a massacre.
“I want to lead all the lost lambs to greener pastures and the Lamanites to the eternal works of God!” Zachariah thundered. “The good Lord has made this body of water appear in the desert as a testament to his righteousness … we who are blessed among men must not scorn his everlasting gift!” Defiantly, the Bishop lifted the canteen hanging by his side and took another long drink without moving his finger from the rifle’s trigger.
“An earthquake released this water that’s probably been trapped inside a rock cliff for millions of years,” Tom told him. “I don’t know what’s tainted it … but it ain’t good. Look around! Do you see any animals drinking this vile liquid? They won’t because they sense something wrong! My own horse shied away and I trust her more than I do your demented visions of holy gifts!”
He Who Jumps and several other Indians rushed forward ready to thrust their spears through the Mormon leader’s stomach but Crow Feather’s held them back. “While He Who Talks to Ghosts still breathes we must listen to his council!”
Ghost Bear’s wrinkled face was so pale he almost looked like a white man as he raised his lethargic head. The fingers covering the smoking hole in his unadorned buckskin shirt were saturated with blood. His wheezing voice was firm, but often interrupted by coughing.
“For many years I have wandered through these hills looking for the horses and the lodges of our people who have followed the buffalo spirits. They are many … even before the great battle with Yellow Hair. At night the wind brings the smell of their fires but they are too far away and no longer walk these lands. The white man digs in the ground for gold but the Indian knows that in the earth is a place of the dead where the bad spirits linger. Anything of value that comes from under the land has been touched by the demons.” His head drooped for a moment and then he stared at the lake. “Many Devils live in this water and they swim past your tongue when you drink. Your body becomes their lodge and when one is torn down they move into another. To destroy the demons you must burn the lodges where they sleep and all things that they touch. My lodge is old and torn. I don’t think a Devil would like it … but I’m not sure. Today is a good day to die … I can smell the smoke and it is not far. I can hear the buffalo meat sing as it roasts on the fire!”
Ghost Bear stretched out his bloody fingers and grasped the Bishop’s hand that held the rifle trigger. After a brief struggle the gun blasted.
Zachariah was as surprised as anyone when the Indian’s head exploded in a large fan spray of bone, brain and blood. He turned and ran into the lake slowing only when it became waist deep. “Oh God! The eternal father! Bless and sanctify this water to all the souls who partake of it …” he thundered.
All the warriors rushed forward but Crow Feathers was one step ahead. He bashed the Bishop in the head with a rifle butt and knocked away the smoking gun. Zachariah floated for a few moments then began to sink. Crow feathers dragged his arms under the water but could not find him. Within minutes all the Mormons on shore were pinned to the ground. “Do not kill them with knives, arrows or spears,” Crow Feathers ordered. “You heard He Who Talks to Ghosts. They and all their belongings must be burned!”
“I thought they were going to let us go!” Belinda was almost laughing as four warriors bound her and Tom’s hands behind their backs. Tom thought fear does strange things to people.
“Crow Feathers said that from this moment forward our fate and the Mormons would be bound together,” Tom told her. “The chief is a man of his word.”
Tom and Belinda were tied to the same wagon wheel as the Indians gathered wood, dried grass, broken crates and barrels, piling the debris in a mountain around them and the remaining Mormons. “I want to thank you for coming into my life,” Belinda whispered to Tom.
“It looks like we’re going to be nothing but ashes in a few minutes,” Tom said. “Why thank me?”
“I don’t think it was really the water that changed me,” Belinda told him. “I think it was you. I’ve been around a lot of mortal men but I’ve never met a real one before. There is something different about you, some quality deep inside that makes me want to take you with me forever.” Tom didn’t see her turn her head and spit the rotted tooth out of her mouth.
Tom was only half listening to her. He could see Crow Feathers and the others talking in a circle. Most of the Indians had finished and were now waiting with lit torches. It looked like every bit of scrap wood and every burnable twig for a square mile had been piled around those about to be consumed by fire. He could feel the unfired 45 cartridge bouncing on a chain around his neck. It gave him a strange hope. Dr. Descombey’s aged mother had told his fortune from the back of a gypsy wagon years before and this special bullet was supposed to cause his death. All the other details of his future had come true. Even though he’d drained the cartridge of all its gun-powder … he still thought it best to keep it close. Belinda was humming contentedly.
Crow Feathers unsheathed an elk-bone handled knife and walked toward Tom and Belinda holding a lit torch in his other hand. “This woman appears to have driven the Devil away that was inside her,” the chief said, “and you were a fierce enemy and friend to He Who Talks to Ghosts” He reached out and cut the rope that bound them to the wagon wheel. “We have decided to kill you on another day … but the others … those who insist on calling us Lamanites must be burned!”
“Let us go?” Tom was surprised by the angry hissing sound of Belinda’s voice. When he turned Belinda’s eyes were once again the yellow/orange glow of insanity. Her claw-like fingers dug into Tom’s arms. “I’ve waited centuries for this moment,” the demon inside her wailed. “To return to the underworld with you as my prize. Fire is not just something to cook your flesh, it is the doorway to Hell and we’re going to open it together!”
Tom suddenly realized that the demon had never left the young girl … only hidden. “I thought Woman with Rock looked everywhere … where were you hiding?”
“Inside the bitch’s shoe,” the demon said making Belinda stomp her foot. “I only swallow blood and whiskey so I bit one of her toes off!”
Before Tom could react, the Demon Child wrestled the torch away from Crow Feathers and rising into the air like a banshee swept it around her in a circle. Within minutes, the entire outside ring of the burn pile was an infernal vortex of rushing air and swirling flames.
The heat was blinding and the hot windstorm instant. A flock of birds filled the sky with wings made of fire. Tom covered his face with his hands and tried to stumble through the flames. He felt the demon child grasp his shirt and pull him upward. Her laughter reminded him of the residents of an Abilene sanitarium running onto the streets after a black tornado funnel cloud began plowing a hay field and stock pens just behind the building. On that long ago day he’d ran from a saloon and then clutched a stone well casing as he watched several of the mentally ill get sucked into the air … screaming like delighted children.
“All the heat is up here! Come play with me!” The demon lifted Tom higher into the air.
Tom forced his eyes open long enough to see the Indians below fleeing in all directions. The screams of the immigrant women and children sounded strangely like pipe organ music.
All Tom could do was clutch the bullet on a chain in his fingers and try to believe the old woman knew what she was talking about. That’s when he felt the first splash of cold water on his face and then another. He thought it might be raining but no rain he’d ever been in dropped water drops as big as barrels. Tom opened his eyes and looked down. The lake was shaking and casting huge walls of water twenty feet into the air. It was another earthquake, bigger than the first and twice as terrifying … but exactly on time.
The demon’s screech sounded like a Union artillery shell falling on the city of Vicksburg. Tom was too young to remember the War Between the States but his father had described it in exacting detail. What was left of Belinda let go of his shirt as she fell. Steam rose in plumes like the water was growing living thing as it covered the banks and doused the flames.
When a dazed Tom landed on the ground he was instantly thrust into a human stampede. Men women and children some still slapping flames from their clothes, ran in all directions most moving their arms and legs furiously even as they were tossed into the air.
With a mighty tearing sound the land under the lake was ripped open swallowing the poison liquid in seconds like a zigzagging serpent. Tom watched as first one wagon and then another rolled into the widening earth mouth along with flailing arms and legs clad in overall denim and calico. Dirt, flames, wind and water, it was as if all the elements of the Earth were being ferociously mixed in a giant desert bowl. Tom closed his eyes this time from dust and flying debris. From somewhere far off he thought he heard a horse whinny and then another. The pounding of hoofs sounded like rolling thunder as Comanche led the stolen Indian horses into the bedlam.
Tom instinctively grasped Comanche’s flying mane as the high spirited mare charged past. It was a good thing he did. The gaping chasm that swallowed the lake closed up again like a giant cellar door slapped shut by the wind. There were several smaller tremors like muscle spasms from a dying man but slowly a reverence came over the land.
In the stillness that followed, Tom could only hear the anguished sounds of injured men and women and the crying of children. Comanche stopped two hundred yards from where the lake had been and Tom limped back. There were no more than a handful of survivors from the Mormon immigrant party and one partially burned but still intact wagon. The demons seemed to have left with the bad water … the Indians did not return. Belinda and the thing that was inside her were never seen again.
Tom stayed for two days and helped the immigrants gather their belongings and catch the horses. They offered him a ride to Gilmore but he declined. When the overloaded wagon pulled away Tom could hear singing from those who walked behind.
He almost went back for the saddle and the bags of stolen gold ore that he left when he’d tried to warn the wagon train but somehow he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Ghost Bears had said that anything the water touched it corrupted. Come to think of it when Tom recovered the gold ore it was lighter than what had been stolen. Tom reasoned that Dillard and Dodd Cole had probably smashed the ore by the lakeside and then panned out the pure gold in the water. He was sure if that was the case he didn’t want anything to do with it. What was the old saying Money is the Root of All Evil … in this case it was almost surely true.
Tom rode bareback toward South Fork and tried to forget about everything that had happened and tried not to think about what he was going to say to the citizens that elected him.
When Tom rode over the crest of the Centennial Mountains he was looking down at the valley where Elisabeth Walker grazed her herds during most of the summer. A cloud of fine dust sifted into the August sky as a group of ranch-workers drove a few hundred steers to where there was better grass and more water. Several of the smiling herders took off their wide brimmed sombreros and waved them in the air as Tom rode passed. One extra fat vaquero mounted on a cantankerous overloaded horse laughed out loud. "La señora del jefe le preocupa que tal vez los forajidos mala te tiro y te dejan en el desierto para buitres comer, pero decimos no! El sheriff es demasiado como un zorro!"
“Perhaps Elisabeth is right and someday I will be killed,” Tom returned the laugh. “Pero no esta vez!"
Elisabeth was helping a young Mexican girl hang wet pants and shirts on a clothes line when Tom rode into the ranch yard. The girl smiled broadly and seemed to dance. "Vemos las declaraciones del sheriff! No murió después de todo!" Elisabeth stared openmouthed at Tom for a moment showing the chipped front tooth that she forgot to cover with her tongue before she dropped the basket she was holding and stomped into the sprawling two-story house slamming the door behind her.
Tom dismounted leaving Comanche to trim the carefully tended Kentucky Bluegrass lawn and walked into the large barn where he could hear a hammer ringing against an anvil. One of the Mendez brothers, who had taken up blacksmithing after he’d injured his leg and lost his brother in a mining accident, limped over as Tom walked through the wide double doors. Paco was holding a red hot horseshoe with a pair of metal thongs. “Gracias a la Santa Madre que cobró nuevamente vida,” he said. “La señora del jefe estaba a punto de cerrar el Rancho … and send everyman out to look for your body!”
“She didn’t look all that happy to see me,” Tom took off his partially burned hat and fanned his head from the heat coming from a stone forge, “and I’m afraid she’s going to be even less happy when I tell her what happened on the trail.”
“Did you get very drunk and marry some whore who works in a saloon?” Paco gave the sheriff an accusing look.
“No nothing like that,” Tom told him.
‘Then everything is fine!” Paco laughed.
They talked for several minutes mostly about the Mendez family back in Mexico and about the amount of money Paco was able to send to them every month and then Tom decided he’d better talk to Elisabeth another time. He caught Comanche and was just about to climb on her back when the door to the house opened. Elisabeth had put on a frilly yellow dress that looked like it had to have come all the way from the east. Her face looked fresh washed and scrubbed and her long auburn hair was pulled back and tied in a ribbon. “As long as you’re here you’d better come inside for a bite to eat and coffee,” she said. “I’ve never turned away a traveler yet and I’m not about to on your account.”
Tom took off his hat and followed her into the house. The inside was furnished far better than the governor’s mansion in Bannock where he got his sheriff job. “I’m sorry but I’ve got some bad news,” Tom told her as they sat side by side at a long table.
“Oh, and what might that be?” Elisabeth poured coffee into a fancy China cup and placed it in front of Tom along with a bowl of sugar and crème from an ice-house.
Tom shook his head. “Them outlaws won’t be robbing anymore of your ore wagons,” he said. “But I lost the bags of gold they took!”
Elisabeth grinned without opening her mouth. Her eyes seemed to dance. “Tom, women lose hairpins and men, especially you, lose track of time … but nobody misplaces twenty pounds of gold ore in heavy leather bags!”
“I didn’t really lose your gold,” Tom said miserably. “After everything that happened I just didn’t want to take the chance to go back after it!”
“And all this time I thought you were stubborn and would never learn! I think there might be hope for you yet!” Elisabeth smiled as she leaned forward and kissed him.
THE END ?