Summary: Things around Burgess Gulch continue to get more and more perplexing.
Author’s Note: This began as my 2006 Nanowrimo Novel.
“Come on Sheriff- it’s the Armageddon for sure!” Little Jack Miller shouted into Cody’s office door. His round face, flushed with panic, popped inside for a moment, “Well, are you coming?” he asked and he popped back outside just as quickly.
Cody looked over at Prentice and scowled. “Don’t that boy have a lick of sense?” But, he got up and headed out the door anyways because round there, you just never did know.
As Cody stepped outside into the relative cool of the street- it had been uncomfortably hot for days, but a storm seemed to be coming in- as Cody left the stifling heat of his office, his ears were battered by a low thrumming hum pulsing up and down from loud to louder and back again. Cody paused there in the doorway- the sound like a wall he was pushing against. Jitters came to the door behind him- sort of bumbled into Cody’s back, which served to pop Cody through the sound-wall and into the dusty street.
In the street he could see more than a few of the fine citizens of Burgess Gulch running in a right proper panic. Little Jack Miller was trying to get his father’s mule- which was loaded down with far too large a pack for the scrawny little thing- to heed and come on with him. Mrs. Carmichael and her brood were rushing round gathering up what looked like several bushels of potatoes that were rolling across the ground and hopping in time with the thrumming- near everything was hoping in time with the thrumming, come to think on it. Thompson Smith, the blacksmith, was chasing a spooked and half unshod mare that had got away from him.
And, there weren’t no way that that there horse was giving way for sweet Lisel Carmichael, who was all of three, and chasing after one of them wayward tubers. Cody snapped into action on seeing the little girl in the path of the runaway mare, breaking into a run, hoping to get there before the hooves came down on that pretty but unaware head of golden curls. Weaving in and out between the rubbish that was jumping around in his path, Cody reached out and scooped the girl up as he stumbled on something or other that he couldn’t quite avoid. He did his best to roll himself over the girl as they hit the dirt hopeful that the hooves would somehow miss his most tender and vulnerable parts and miss the girl entirely as the horse trampled him.
The expected hoof falls to his body never came and after a spell of waiting on the pain of it, he let his head up to see where the mare had gone. She was a few feet away pulling hard against her reins, which were being held fast by the combined strength of the blacksmith and Prentice. Cody got to his feet, bringing the now crying child up off the ground with him (at least he reckoned she was crying from the look on her face- Cody couldn’t hear a darned thing over the thrumming in the air). Mrs. Carmichael appeared next to Cody. She was wearing a worried look and took the child from him. Cody gladly gave Lisel up for she’d been kicking and poking at her rescuer, and her kicks were getting dangerously close to hitting him in some vulnerable places.
It was then that he caught sight of what all the fussing was about- he’d thought it was all over the horrific caterwauling. There, hovering just above the horizon, out past the edge of town, was- well, Cody didn’t rightly have any idea what it was- but it was big and it was a floating there all on its own. It was tall and narrow, like an upright cigar with a band of what might have been a strange kind of lanterns going across its middle like a jeweled belt, but Cody’d never seen lanterns anything like that in all his born days. Maybe it were gaslight or maybe that electric that had back east that he kept hearing about.
What the lights were didn’t matter much seeing as what the entire shiny flying cigar was was not something easily answered, save that Cody could easily decide that it was something he didn’t much want in his town. If he had any choice in the matter, he’d just as soon have it be on its way.
It was likely that thrumming was directly related to the cigar, even though the sound seemed not to come from anywhere, but just to be there spread about in the air like a noisy fog. Them showing up at the same moment wasn’t likely by chance.
“Get the women and chi-” Cody began shouting at Prentice to get the women and children inside, but gave it up seeing as he couldn’t hardly hear himself, so he reckoned Jitters wouldn’t be hearing much of anything of his order. Instead, he got an arm around Mrs. Carmichael and guided her towards Miss Corbet’s, hoping she’d get his intent before turning back around to start gathering up the rest of the waywards in the street.
After a spell, he and Prentice had gotten the last of the folk inside and Thompson had corralled the surly mare. Cody and Jitters took a moment to conference while standing the almost quiet of Cody’s office.
“What do you figure, Sheriff?” Prentice asked, looking excited in a strangely wrong fashion, as if he was too fascinated by the strange thing out there to be scared of it.
“The hell if I can guess what that thing is, but we got to go and have a look see, now.” Cody replied grimly. “You with me?”
“Of course,” was the answer, but Cody didn’t see how there could have been a call for it- he was the Sheriff round these parts, this was his town and he’d be the one to face anything that came at it, but Jitters had no strong affection for the people or place yet. Cody wouldn’t have been in any way surprised if Jitters had cut and run.
“Good.” Cody checked that his Smith and Wesson was loaded and reached for the door.
“Wait, Sheriff. What’s your plan?” Jitters asked, putting a hand on Cody’s elbow to hold him back. Again, Prentice didn’t look so much a feared but, well- almost eager.
“Go out there and see what it is,” Cody said blankly. There weren’t any other answer to give until he had a better look at the darned thing.
Outside, the cacophony wasn’t showing any signs of lessening and neither had the flying cigar done anything beyond the confounding, unnatural hovering that it had been doing before, so at least things weren’t looking worse. By use of a set of entirely un-ingenious hand signals- that is to say, waving at each other frantic-like, they made their way to the edge of town together, keeping to cover wherever they could. Once they passed the farthest buildings, there was no cover, and for that there was nothing to do but step up. So Cody did. He strode out into the open and up as close to the thing as he could without getting right underneath. It was a might higher than it had appeared from the center of town- maybe a hundred yards up at the bottommost point. He could see up into it- the bottom being a great circle of metal with other smaller circles fit inside it shining down at him. Now, what they did or even how they might have been put together was more than a mystery to him, but he reckoned it was best to keep his distance.
Cody debated with himself about taking a shot or two at it with his six-guns, but there didn’t seem too likely a chance he’d do much more than gain the ire of who or whatever was working the thing- for that was the one conclusion he could make for certain- it were some kind of machine and cast of metal, just with much more skill that any normal smith could manage. Instead of wasting his bullets, Cody gave try with the only other weapon he had- his mouth.
“How do,” Cody began by shouting up at the cigar before realizing that he hadn’t any idea what else he might say. He blundered on anyhow. “Uh- I’m Sheriff round these parts and- uh- I reckon I’d like to bid you welcome to Burgess Gulch.” He cursed softly to himself, but again kept on. “We’re a mighty friendly town, really we are, but- well, I wonder if you might see about keeping the ruckus down a bit. It’s scaring the womenfolk.” Immediately, the thrumming stopped and the silence was so clear and strong it almost hurt.
Just behind Cody, Jitters muttered, “Have I gone deaf? Oh- guess not.”
“Thank you kindly,” Cody shouted with a nod and holstered his guns because he figured he’d better give tit for tat. Behind him, Prentice gave a short snorting laugh. Cody wondered if he was laughing at his attempt at being polite to the machine or just his relief at the end of the noise.
They got no further response from the thing, no matter what they said to it, which Cody didn’t know whether to count as a blessing or a curse, but either way, there wasn’t nothing a body could do about it being there. So they didn’t do anything about it being there. The Mayoress gave order that someone was to be on watch over the thing every moment so that they might have word if it did decide to do anything, be it good or ill and, for the first few days, Cody took nearly all shifts of the watch and those he didn’t he assigned Prentice to (just so Cody might get some sleep). After a time, it seemed that the thing in the sky, as most of the townsfolk had taken to calling it, was not going to do anything to or for them- just hang there silently, so Cody let some of the other men in town take shifts- Jeb Carson, the undertaker, and Thompson Smith, the blacksmith, and Vinnie Carmichael, who’d been so grateful to Cody on account of him saving Lisel from getting trampled. And, life in Burgess Gulch went back to a strange kind of normal.
Cody woke in the dead of night with the strange feeling that he was being watched. Lighting the lantern and searching the room brought him no evidence that anyone else had been there for days- not since Nannette had come round with pie and sympathy. He poured himself a glass of something wet, drank it down and got dressed. He figured on checking in with Vinnie Carmichael, who was on watch over (or might that be under?) the thing in the sky.
Cody’s boots crunched loudly on the grit and gravel of the Earth as he walked towards the lights at the edge of town. His lantern didn’t light the way very well, but he didn’t have much need of it- he’d walked the route in the dark more times then he cared to think on- he knew the way. Vinnie was there at his assigned post, a shotgun at his side and a dazed look on his face. A look like that wasn’t a new sight on Vinnie’s face- he weren’t the smartest of fellas, so it was a moment before Cody came to see that there was something a might wrong with the man.
“Sheriff round these parts,” Vinnie said with a peculiar emptiness sounding in his voice- as if he were talking from inside a metal barrel.
“Uh- Vinnie? You all right there?” Cody asked cautiously.
“Vinnie- not Vinnie. Bronto,” came the echo-y response.
“Bronto,” Cody repeated slowly. “You mean that’s you? Bronto?”
“Not a true name, but one that will serve.”
“Ah. Would I be amiss if I took you for someone associated with the- uh-” Cody raised the hand holding the lamp in a gesture meant to indicate the machine in the sky.
“Bronto,” BrontoVinnie supplied. “Yes. I am the essence of Bronto.”
“Oh. So machine is Bronto and you’re Bronto, too- his, uh- its essence, I mean.”
“Yes. Sorry about the noise.” Cody was caught strange at that- such an ordinary thing for a great machine that has taken over the body of a half-simple family man to say.
“Ah- well, you did make that right just when you were asked,” Cody conceded. Then Cody and BrontoVinne stood there a spell in awkward silence, each seeming to be waiting for the other to speak. When Cody couldn’t stand that anymore, he asked, “So uh- anything I can do for you? I mean, there must be a reason you put your- uh, essence- into old Vinnie here.”
“No. I just wondered how it felt to be trapped in such a small, soft vessel. It is interesting. I don’t care for it,” BrontoVinnie said.
“You don’t- You mean to say you were just trying Vinnie on for size? And, you’d rather be Bronto the big metal- uh- floating machine than a soft, squishy man?” Cody asked astonished.
“Yes. I do prefer my true form.” BrontoVinnie seemed to shrink just a might without moving at all before he fell forward. Cody stepped up and caught him before he went down face forward in the dirt and let the man down gently before rolling him over to face up.
Vinnie’s eyes were pale and dead for a moment before he blinked up at Cody and said, “We have to move!” and he scrambled to his feet and took off at a run towards town. Cody gave chase, afraid that Bronto might still be in there. A moment later, a burst of heat slammed into Cody’s back, knocking him forward. When the wave of it finished passing over him, Cody rolled over to see the machine- Bronto, flying higher at great speed, fire coming from its great circular bottom.
Come morning, there were a good number of astonished townsfolk staring up at the place where Bronto had used to be, but old Vinnie Carmichael seemed just fine and dandy- better even, for he and the Mrs. were a sight more attentive to each other from that day on.
Then there was the day that Jack Miller wished for a bigger swimming hole for the heat, and he got it. The heat that had gone when the thing in the sky had come to Burgess Gulch returned with a vengeance within a day of if leaving and not more than three days went by before the swimming hole was more a wallow than anything else. Doc Smith was treating those fool enough or determined enough to keep on in the heat during the worst of it. Miss Corbet’s was doing swift business as many of the townsfolk without a summer kitchen had little want of keeping a fire lit for the evening cooking. Cody had taken to sleeping in the cool of the small jail cell in his office instead of his rooms above it. And, the wee ones were running wild with the irritableness that comes with small, uncomfortable children.
Cody and Prentice were just setting down to their lunch- a bit of cold stew left from the kettle of it Nannette had brought on by the night before and the last of the bread Cody had- when Mrs. Carmichael come in all in tizzy, her great breasts heaving as she breathed hard and harsh. “Darn it! Sheriff, I can’t stand for this a minute longer. Now, I have every appreciation for what you done for me and mine- for Lisel and my Vincent, but I can’t keep quiet no more.” She stopped to catch her breath a minute and mop first her brow and then her bosom before going on. “There ain’t now way it’s safe for them young’uns to be playing in there- why we don’t even know where it came from! Now what, pray tell, are you going to do about it?” she demanded. Then she picked up Jitters’ mug of beer from the table, swallowed half of it at one gulp and flopped down in the empty chair between Cody and his deputy.
Cody waited a moment for her to finish drinking and did his best to speak calmly. “Betsy, I’m sure that what you’ve come here to report to me is of the utmost importance and I have every confidence that your feeling that it’s a danger to those young’uns is valid and reasonable, however, I can’t rightly help out if I don’t have any idea as to what you’re talking about, now can I?” Cody poured Jitters another beer as he was talking. “Now, start again from the get go, would you?”
Betsy Carmichael gave Cody such a look. “You can’t mean you don’t know about it, Sheriff?” she asked flabbergasted.
Cody gave her a small smile and a shrug. “Forgive me. I reckon I don’t.”
Betsy stood again, her countenance growing dark with anger. “Come on, then,” she ordered and pulled Cody out of his chair and along behind her out the door by the wrist. She kept on dragging him down the street, past Jeb Carson’s and then out of the town proper. Cody held his tongue, not sure where she was taking him, but fairly amused at her indignant attitude. They passed the last outbuilding and went sharply round to the left. Betsy Carmichael dropped his arm (which was a blessing as she’d been cutting the blood flow from his hand all that time) and said, “Well, have a look!” and pointed in front of her by unfurling both her arms until they were straight.
Cody looked. Then he blinked a moment, rubbed at his eyes and was about to speak-
“Zwounds! Where the heck did that come from?” Prentice exclaimed from behind him (having followed Cody and Betsy, him being such a stellar and stalwart deputy and all).
There, round back of the schoolhouse, was a sight more surprising than the thing in the sky was- if only for the sheer preposterousness of it. First off was the border to it. The dirt in front of Cody was the same simple hardscrabble dust that all of Burgess Gulch sat on, but a few feet further on, the dirt was- well- for one thing it didn’t seem to be dirt at all, more a thick line of purple-glowing light that put Cody in mind of the maybe electric ones on Bronto. The line went fair and straight across maybe a hundred yards before arcing upwards at each end into the air and meeting to form a circle high up in the sky.
The other side of this borderline of purple light, was like a different country- Cody suspected it might be Switzerland. He’d seen pictures of mountains like that, of clear, cool lakes set up high in the Alps, once. The picture had made him cold just looking at it. The mountain inside the purple, with its lake and cooling breeze did the same thing to him now. Cody cussed under his breath.
Down in the lake, Cody could see near every one of the children of Burgess Gulch all but buck naked and frolicking in the waters. And, sure enough, as pleasant as it looked, Cody could see Betsy’s point about the young’uns. They didn’t know how this thing had happened, where exactly it was on the other side of it or when it might end.
“You’re right, Betsy. We ought get them back to this side of things and away from the border of it. Prentice, you stand guard here- keep anyone who comes by a good ways back and most certainly keep them from coming through. I’ll be in there to round up those children.” Cody stepped through and started being the mean old sheriff who spoils all the fun.
To the other side of the border felt as different as Cody had imagined it might. It was cooler and the air was soft with the water in it- it felt lush and welcoming. No wonder the children had come in. He started the walk down an incline that wound maybe a quarter mile down to the lake’s edge. The greenery struck him. It was so different, so thick and dark, like nothing he’d ever seen in the West. As he journeyed on, the happy hollering of the children reached his ears. Maybe he should have brought Betsy along to help. Not being a father, nor having had much of a childhood, he didn’t rightly know the ways there were to make a child heed. It might take some doing.
As he got closer to the lake, Cody started to notice that all the greenery wasn’t just one shade of green, but many- more greens than Cody could have thought possible (and lately, what with all that had been happening in his town, what he thought possible had been expanding almost daily) and there were flowers- little blooms tucked into the lushness that he hadn’t noticed before because his eyes were still blinded by the overly aggressive greenness of the place.
Cody came up to the water’s edge to see the pale streak of Jack Miller crossing his path as he ran up and jumped off a rock into the lake. The consequential splash covered Cody head to foot with cool, fresh water and he resisted the urge to follow the boy in and get himself the first set of goose bumps his skin had seen since February. He stepped up on the same rock the boy had leapt from, cupped his hands round his mouth and called out, “Attention Young’uns! This is Sheriff Burgess so now you all better heed. This here lake is off limits, so you best come on out and we’ll head back to town. Your mamas are missing you.”
The response was far less enthusiastic than Cody had hoped for. In point of fact, aside from Jack Miller, who sent a spray of water out from his mouth at Cody, there was about no response at all. Cody tried again, “Come on, now. You take heed and come out of that water. All your daddies will be wanting to tan your hides for disobeying a lawman. It’s against the law not to, now.”
Little Lisel came up behind him, dripping and crying and pushing on Cody’s leg. He bent and picked her up. “What’s the trouble there, pumpkin?” he asked, but she didn’t answer. Right. Saved her life, trying to do it again, and all he gets is her rubbing her running nose on his shirt. At least she weren’t kicking this time.
“Looks like you could use some help, Sheriff,” called a sweetly familiar voice from behind Cody. He turned to see Nannette standing a few feet behind him, a large basket hamper sitting at her feet.
“What ever gave you that idea?” Cody asked as Lisel decided that she’d had enough of being kind to Cody and tried to climb up to the top of his head (succeeding only in threatening to remove large chunks of his hair).
She gave him a smile and a wink, before hollering, “Molasses candy and sarsaparilla for anyone wearing right proper clothing!”
Not five minutes later, Nannette was leading the children up the path to the border with Burgess Gulch like a much prettier version of the Pied Piper. Cody stayed to the rear to help keep the stragglers moving along, a sticky Lisel Carmichael getting molasses candy in his hair as he carried the tot back to her mother.
Much like the time when the thing in the sky was hanging over the town of Burgess Gulch, the Mayoress ordered that there be a watchman set at the borderline to keep both children and foolish grown men and women from going through to Maybe Switzerland. Strangely less alarmed than he had been by Bronto, Cody split up the shifts to a larger number of townsmen, taking only one shift at it every day or so. And, much like the time when the thing in the sky was hanging over the town of Burgess Gulch, life went back to a strange kind of normal.
A few days on into this new kind of normal, Prentice was standing his watch over the border to Maybe Switzerland and Cody come by after a nicely satisfying lunch at Miss Corbet’s to take the afternoon shift. “Jitters,” Cody said with a nod as he approached.
“Cody, I want to you to see something,” Prentice called excitedly as a greeting. So, Cody quickened his steps to come see what Jitters was going on about. “Come, come,” Jitters ordered, getting Cody by the elbow and pointing him towards the mountain lake. “Watch the water.” He pointed out into the bright greenness of Maybe Switzerland, which was heading towards sunset (Maybe Switzerland was about four hours off from Burgess Gulch time, getting dark round 2 in the afternoon and light just after the middle of the night.) Cody looked at the sunlight glistening off the water and pushed down the desire to head down there and dive into its coolness. “There- did you see?” Prentice asked, pointing to a slightly different spot in the lake.
“See what?” Cody questioned, trying to follow the angle of his deputy’s pointing arm and finger better, but still not seeing more than he had before.
“The head. Sheriff, there’s something in the lake- something big,” Jitters said warily. “Look! There she is.” He moved his hand again and this time Cody saw a blur of movement in the spot he’d indicated.
“She? Just what do you think is in there?” Jitters might have been out in the heat a might too long.
“I’m not sure, but- have you ever heard of a place called Loch Ness? It’s in Scotland.” How Jitters managed to say that with a face as sober as a priest, Cody didn’t know, for he burst into laughter before the man even managed to say the word Scotland.
Wiping his eyes, Cody managed to catch his breath before he spoke. “Didn’t know you had it in you, Jitters. Very nice.” He laughed some more, slapping Prentice on the back.
“Sheriff, I’m quite serious. There is something there in the lake and it does seem to fit the descriptions that have been given of the creature that lurks there.”
“Yes, yes. Lake monster out there. As if this weren’t a big enough piece of strange having a hole to Maybe Switzerland out here behind the schoolhouse. Go on and take your time off, Jitters,” Cody dismissed him.
“Go on now. Miss Angelina’s got lunch waiting for you over to the restaurant. Nanette made some fine vittles today. Don’t you miss out,” Cody said in a tone that told Prentice that he’d had enough of the foolishness and he really should get on now. Prentice scowled at Cody hard, but went on his way.
Sometime later, Jack Miller came by to stare out at the water. He wanted to go closer, go to the other side, but Cody made it clear that this time if he did that, it wouldn’t be candy and sarsaparilla he got as his reward, so the boy just stood there next to Cody, watching the lake. Before the sun went down in Maybe Switzerland that afternoon, more children and a few foolish men and women were gathered there, as well. All of them watching for Prentice’s lake monster, but all of them keeping peaceable, so Cody didn’t drive them off. It was nice to have the company, to tell the truth of the thing. Funny that Jitters himself wasn’t there.
Jeb Carson came out round dinnertime- the crowd had gone home by then what with it being dark on the Maybe Switzerland side, so there was nothing to see.
“Howdy, Sheriff.” The undertaker came up with an unlit lantern- it was too light to have need of it just yet, but he’d be wanting it soon enough.
“Jeb.” Cody nodded at his friend. “Bit of excitement today. Best look out for bodies trying to get across in the darkness.”
“Yes, I heard about it. Jitters has some kind of theory about Scotland, but the other side doesn’t look like Scotland to me- not rocky enough, nor foggy enough,” Jeb offered. “You reckon it might be Scotland?”
“I reckon it ain’t Loch Ness- there’s towns there. I looked it up in a book in Mayoress Litchfield’s library once. But, that don’t matter none- what matters is that there ain’t no lake monster in there. Also, Prentice just might be out of a job over this.” Cody looked into the blackness inside the purple circle and shook his head.
“Now, don’t be too hard on Jitters. He really does think it’s there and between Maybe Switzerland and the Thing in the Sky, why is it so hard to consider?” Jeb asked.
“Not you, too,” was all Cody could manage in answer and he strolled off towards town shaking his head.
By cock’s crow the next day, the crowd was larger than it had been the day before- the news of the lake monster having spread to the surrounding farms and Cody had to have a few trusted men standing watch to keep all the fools from trying to get closer. Every now and again, someone in the bunch would let out a holler and claim to have seen Gulchy- the name they has decided to give the darned thing and the whole crowd would serge forward a little until Cody and his men got them settled down and moved back again. There were a few attempts to run across by some young men (trying to impress their sweethearts with their bravery), but none had gotten farther than a few feet past the borderline before being pulled back. At the end of the day in Maybe Switzerland, the people went on their way and Cody hoped that they’d forget to come back with the midnight dawn.
Cody’s hopes were dashed when a good hour before the next Maybe Swiss dawn, there were already at least a dozen people setting up picnic blankets and building cooking fires a few yards from the line he’d drawn in the dirt to tell folks where they couldn’t pass. Jitters, who Cody had let stay on on account of his previous service and loyalty- which was a hair’s breath better than any of the other deputies he’d had in recent years- Jitters was making his camp at the front of them. Cody resisted walking up to the man- that would only fuel the fires of the thing. Some in Burgess Gulch had painted Jitters and Cody as enemies over this preposterousness and Cody seemed to be cast as the Blackhat, even though he was the law and he was only trying to do right by these people and keep them from any trouble. Prentice showed some sense in that once it started getting light in Maybe Switzerland, he stepped up and took a place along the borderline with Cody’s men and Cody was mighty please with him for doing it.
It was a good solid week of watching Maybe Switzerland before anything different happened, which, while tedious, Cody counted as good. The borderline hadn’t expanded to swallow the town, the imagined lake monster hadn’t come out from the water, up the mountainside and into Burgess Gulch to eat their babies or their livestock or all their metal objects- all that the whole strange thing had done was cause Cody no small amount of pestering and work.
Of course, when something different did finally happen, it weren’t no small thing…
Author’s note: This is the conclusion of the section, but not the end of the story. Burgess Gulch continues in July 2009.