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Chapter OneThe Water Indian Steve Hockensmith
Mr. William Brackwell c/o The Sussex Land & Cattle Co. Somerset House London, England Dear Mr. Brackwell:
I trust your journey back to Merry Old was a smooth one, and you met with fewer of the, shall we say, surprises that were so commonplace during your stay in Montana. (By "surprises," of course, I mean dead folks.) I do hope you won't let the carnage you witnessed at the Bar VR color your view of the American West. Such goings-on are hardly the norm, no matter what your experience (or the dime novels) might lead you to believe. I mean, here my brother and I are in Utah, and we haven't witnessed a murder in minutes!
Not that our travels have been boring. Nope, that would hardly do it justice. Tedious-now that hits closer to the mark. Monotonous, wearying, and mind-numbing too.
Except for when it was bloodcurdlingly, hair-raisingly, pants-fillingly terrifying, that is. And for about twenty-four hours up in the Rocky Mountains, that's exactly what it was.
When we parted ways a couple months back, you asked that I keep you apprised of whatever progress we might make toward my brother's goal. But I didn't bother writing before now, as there was no progress to report. And there's still not. In lieu of news, though, let me present you with this: something you can trot out the next time you're in need of a spook story to entertain your friends of a dark, stormy evening by the fire. You can tell them one of your American cowboy pals passed it on to you, and such men aren't given to balderdash or exaggeration. Ever. Any of them. Why, the last time a drover was caught in a lie was 1876, and the scoundrel was immediately stripped of his spurs and sent east to become a banker.
Anyway-on to the yarn.
As you'll recall, Old Red and I planned to hit the trail in search of jobs as Pinkertons. And we've succeeded! In hitting the trail in search of jobs as Pinkertons, that is. As for actually finding jobs as Pinks ... there we've utterly failed. Believe it or not, when a couple dusty saddle-bums stumble into a Pinkerton office intent on joining the payroll, they are not received with open arms. (Though when one of said saddle-bums tries to explain that he's actually a "top-rail deducifier" thanks to all the Sherlock Holmes stories he's studied on, the pair is greeted warmly indeed-with gales of laughter.)
As if this wouldn't be tiresome enough, it took us days and sometimes weeks to reach each fresh humiliation. Hailing from Kansas Grangers as we do, we were raised to view the Southern Pacific as Satan, the Union Pacific as Lucifer, and the Central Pacific as Beelzebub-different names for the same great evil-and my brother refused to bankroll the bastards with even a penny from our meager kitty.
Conscience rarely comes without a cost, though, and in this case it was paid mainly by our backsides. After leaving the Bar VR, we journeyed first west across Montana, then southeast through Idaho, all of it on horseback. By the time we were skirting around Bear Lake into Utah, my saddlewarmer was bruised black as an anvil.
Now, this wasn't just Utah Territory we were riding into-it was Mormon territory. And given the clashes of years past, a couple drifting Gentiles like ourselves could hardly assume we'd be welcome ... or even tolerated. So we kept to ourselves as we wound down through the Bear Lake Valley, steering clear of the main towns thereabouts.
I didn't mind missing out on the saggy, smelly, lice-infested boardinghouse beds we'd have no doubt found in places like Pickleville and Fish Haven. Once you've been on a few cattle drives, camping out seems like a positive luxury when there's no night herding to do and no belly cheater waking you at the crack of dawn banging a stew pot over your head. And the Bear Lake Valley made "roughing it" none-too-rough, what with its well-worn trails, ample trees for shade and tinder, and teeming cutthroat trout practically fighting each other for the honor of gracing your frying pan.
In short, the place was Eden without the serpent ... or Eve. Or so it seemed.
Our first clue that all was not paradisical came as we rounded the southwestern corner of the lake. Just off the trail was a rotten, falling-down fence and, beyond it, what might have been a field of alfalfa before weeds and grass were allowed to overtake it. It wasn't long before we spotted an abandoned farmhouse-and then another soon after with its own fields choked with wildflowers and thistle.
This was beautiful country, good for grazing cattle or raising crops either or, and it was a puzzlement to me that farming folk should ever give it up.
"There ain't never been no Indian troubles up thisaway ... have there?" I asked my brother, eyeing the tree line nervously.
Of course, the only "Indian troubles" these days are suffered by the Indians alone, and they run to starvation and disease rather than raiding and killing. Yet the bloodshed isn't so far behind us that the thought of braves on the warpath can't still chill the blood.
"Nothin' but Shoshone and Ute 'round these parts ... provided you could still find 'em. Friendly ones, they are." Old Red leaned out from his saddle and spat. "Too friendly for their own good, I expect."
"Well, then ... where'd everybody go?"
"What you really mean is why'd they go. And you know what I say to that."
I did indeed. I'd heard him say it often enough. "It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence"-my brother's favorite quote from his hero, your famous countryman, Sherlock Holmes. Most drovers want to be Charles Goodnight or Buffalo Bill Cody if they have any ambition at all, but Old Red's always been a contrarian (or just plain contrary, anyway). The Holmes of the Range-that's what he's set out to be.
We were to rendezvous with ol' Holmes shortly, as it turned out ... and be in need of his particular brand of wisdom, as well.
As we were passing our third deserted farm, the sun was sinking below the mountains behind us, and my brother made a most sensible (though not entirely welcome) decision. We would spend the night in the abandoned homestead visible just off the trail.
It felt a little like a violation, a desecration even, settling into someone else's house. They hadn't been gone long-no more than a couple years, Old Red judged by the cobwebs and dust and dry rot-and they'd left some of their furniture behind. A table and chairs hewn from local pine, a bed with a finely crafted headboard of mahogany, even a battered foot-pump organ. I half-expected the rightful occupants to barge in any minute, slack-jawed to find a couple presumptuous cowpokes lighting up kindling in their fireplace.
Yet I might actually have welcomed the intrusion, provided nobody felt the need to shoot us. Old Red's far from the chattiest man around-very, very far-and whatever topics of conversation we had to chew over had been gnawed down to the bone weeks before. Fresh company would've been mightily appreciated. As it was, we had to rely on the old, dog-eared variety: my brother's stack of Holmes stories.
Old Red requested a rereading of A Study in Scarlet, no doubt because it takes as its backdrop a bloody feud betwixt Utah Mormons. I obliged him, like I always do (my brother, you'll recall, being unable to tell A from Z unless they're in a cattle brand).
Round about the spot in the story where Doc Watson gets to writing about "The Country of the Saints," my brother interrupted me-with his snores. So I put down the magazine I'd been orating from and closed my eyes myself.
Even stretched out there on the floor by the hearth (for the bed frame had no mattress) I was more warm and snug than I'd been any night in weeks. Yet sleep didn't come. I still had that creepy feeling we didn't belong there and that someone might come along to confirm it, loudly and forcefully, at any time.
After what seemed like hours, I finally drifted off to the Land of Nod-only to be yanked back to the Land of Here and Now by a noise outside.
Something was moving in the woods a stone's throw from the front door. And not just moving in it. Crashing through it and tearing it down, by the sound of things.
"Hey," I groaned groggily.
"I hear it," my brother said, sounding so crisp and alert he might've been polishing off a pot of coffee at high noon.
We lay there a moment, listening to the creaking of tree limbs and the shush-shush of movement through the brush.
"Big," I said.
"Maybe." Old Red sat up, ear cocked. "Horses ain't spooked."
There was a snap outside, loud.
"Yet," I said.
My brother reached down for the Winchester lying next to him on the floor.
"Better have us a look."
Together, we crept to the nearest window and peeked outside warily, careful not to create silhouettes against the ember-glow from the fireplace. Mighty good targets, those would make. And if what we were hearing outside was horses-from a party of the faithful come to root out Gentile squatters, let's say-targets we could well be.
Our own ponies were stabled in a dilapidated barn about a quarter mile off, and that's where we directed our squints first. My brother and I were safe enough from bear, puma, or wolf long as we stayed inside, but we couldn't just cower there while something big and hungry made a midnight snack of our mounts. We might yet have to venture out for a face-to-face with who-knew-what.
There was just enough moonlight to make out a shimmying in the trees near the barn, branches dancing in the half-darkness. The movement was high up-nine or ten feet off the ground. Beyond it, a single star flickered in the nighttime sky.
Only it couldn't have been a star. It was too low on the horizon, not in the sky at all.
Then I saw the other star-another perfect pinprick of yellow light, right beside the first. And that's when I knew what they were.
Glowing eyes, at least a foot apart. Eyes that were staring straight at us.
"Sweet Jesus," I gasped. "If that's a hoot owl, it's got a wingspan as wide as Texas."
"Ain't no owl," Old Red growled, and he moved to the door, threw it open, and stepped outside.
I came out behind him, Colt in hand, as he took aim.
The lights jerked downward, then disappeared entirely. There was another rustle of quick movement in the trees, and then ... nothing. No eyes, no motion, no sound for the next two minutes.
"Well," Old Red finally sighed, "we'd best pass the rest of the night out with the horses. Just in case."
I looked back wistfully at our cozy spots by the fire.
"Can't we bring 'em in here with us?"
My brother just went inside and started gathering up his bedroll.
We split the hours till dawn into watches, but we needn't have bothered. You try sleeping with only a few planks of knotty, warped barn wood between you and some monstrous whatsis stalking around in the dark. Not that we ever heard the beast come back. But one visit was more than enough to keep me jumping at every cricket chirp all the way to daybreak.
"Well?" I said as my brother and I finally stepped out into the orange-yellow light of early morning.
Old Red moved off toward the trees, eyes down, scanning the ground.
"Well, what was that thing?"
"I have no earthly idea."
"You got an unearthly one?"
My brother glanced back just long enough to shoot me a scowl. "You know I don't believe in spooks."
"Me neither ... usually. And last night sure as hell wasn't usual."
Old Red knelt and picked a broken branch out of the underbrush. It was maybe three feet long and still studded with fresh, green pine needles. One end was splintered, and in the middle was a notched groove cut into the bark, as if the branch had been torn down by one powerful, clutching claw.
My brother looked up, then pointed at something above him.
A broken stub stuck out from a pine tree a dozen feet up.
"Spooks don't tear down tree limbs."
"All right, granted," I said. "So what does?"
"'It is a capital mistake to-'"
"Oh, for chrissakes!" I spat. "You wanna make a capital mistake? Quote Sherlock Holmes to me after I spent the night lyin' around waitin' to be eaten by the bogeyman."
Old Red put down the branch and moved farther into the brush. "Ain't no such thing as ... hel-lo."
He stopped cold. "What is it?"
"What kind?" I asked, already feeling relieved. If it steps with paw, hoof, or foot, my brother'll know what it is. I've seen him identify not just a cow's breed but its age, weight, and brand from one long stare at the pies it left behind.
"Never seen the likes of this," Old Red announced. He started off again, still crouching low. "Bogeyman tracks, maybe."
"Har har. Thanks a lot," I grumbled, following him into the forest to have a look for myself. I assumed he was guying me ... till I laid eyes on those tracks.
There were two footprints pressed into the soft, mossy sod beneath the tree, right where we'd spotted those eyes shining in the night. They were side by side, a right and a left, plain as day. What wasn't plain, though-not plain at all-was what could have made them.
Whatever it was, it had big pads and claws, like a bear. But there was something stretching from toe to toe, mashing the earth down into little humps. Webbing, it looked like, as one might see on a duck or frog or beaver-a water-critter.
"There's more over thisaway," Old Red said. "Coming and going."
He stopped, but his gaze kept on moving along the forest floor, following a trail I was blind to. Soon he was staring straight into the sun streaming down through the trees.
To the east. Toward the lake.
Old Red started off again.
"Uhhh ... shouldn't we be movin' along?" I called after him. "Salt Lake City ain't gonna come to us, y'know."
"Salt Lake City ain't goin' nowhere," my brother muttered.
I sighed, then started after him-but only after dashing back to the barn to collect the Winchester.
It was a comfort having it at hand, for the deeper we went into the woods, the stronger the feeling grew that we weren't alone. And we weren't, of course: There were chipmunks and squirrels and songbirds all around us. But they went on about their business in their usual jumpy, oblivious way, whereas the presence I sensed was steady, quiet, watchful.
And purely imaginary ... or so I tried to tell myself.
It wasn't long before the lake came into view ahead of us. I hadn't spied much more than the occasional dimple in the sod or trampled twig after the first set of prints, but that changed but good as we approached the shoreline. There were tracks in the bank so deep and well-defined even a bottom-rail, bat-blind sign-reader like myself couldn't miss them.
One set led one-two, one-two straight into the water.
The other led out of the water.
"You know what I just realized?" I said.
"Whatever made them prints ... it walks on two feet."
Old Red shook his head sadly, as if-through my keen powers of observation and deducification-I'd just surmised that mud is brown and water wet.
"You don't say," he mumbled.
The tracks ran parallel to a big, rotten cottonwood that looked like it had toppled into the lake a half dozen years before, and my brother stepped up onto the trunk and walked along it, using it as a pier. The water was crystal clear back toward the bank, but the farther out Old Red went, the more it deepened and darkened until you couldn't see what might be beneath the surface.
The tree dipped under my brother's weight, tilting farther forward with his each step until the water was swirling over his feet.
"You wanna know what else I just realized?" I said.
"I wanna get the hell outta here."
"What are you still doing here, then?" a voice boomed out behind me.
I jumped so high I was wearing the sky for a hat.
"Easy," the voice warned when my feet touched ground again. "Put the rifle down and turn around ... slow."
I did as I was told and found myself facing a big-boned, potbellied man of perhaps fifty-five years. He had a long, white, wild beard and even wilder eyes, which were glaring at me, incidentally, over the leveled barrels of a scattergun.
"You," he said to Old Red. "Keep your hands where I can see 'em."
"Ain't got nothin' to do with 'em anyways," my brother said.
We'd left our gun belts back at the barn.
"Listen, mister-you wanna do us all a favor?" I said. "Point that cannon of yours at the water. Cuz you won't be gettin' any trouble out of me and my brother ... but that there lake I ain't so sure about."
Excerpted from GHOST TOWNS Copyright © 2010 by Kensington Publishing Corp.. Excerpted by permission.
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