by Joseph Devon
Under the shadows of the trees it was still cold. The far side of the stream, where the morning sun had been shining for some time, was beginning to warm and the sounds of melting snow mixed with the trickle of the stream as it ran its sandy course.
Nick looked up the hill towards the ridgeline, just barely visible through the naked trees and snow patched landscape.
He was sweating from the hike, breathing heavy plumes of vapor into the cold air, but he kept his shirt buttoned tight and his hat on low as he slid his ruck off of his back. The snow might be melting but it was still cold, no matter what his body was telling him.
Cotter’s claim was still further downstream and he knew he was up above the falls. That meant that he was on the government’s land, somewhere near their failed mine, and their claim on all of this was about to expire.
He had let it be known in town that he had to head back east due to a family matter. He had even arranged for a letter to arrive from a solicitor’s office and gone so far as to take the evening coach east until it stopped at Breach Willow. Then he had disappeared into that town and made his way back. When the government’s claim expired, the mineral rights for this whole hilltop would be split into lots and sold at auction. Nobody but the government had any knowledge of the specifics of the area and they were being overly secret about the entire thing.
But Nick wasn’t one to wait for information, and now he was in the heart of government land ready to see for himself what information he could gather.
He knelt down and cupped a handful of water to his mouth. It was near freezing and it hurt his chest as he swallowed. He smiled and glanced around once more, eyeing the landscape again and confirming his whereabouts.
The government hadn’t been able to make their mine pay. But the whole thing had been one high-and-mighty poodle screw as far as Nick had been able to see. Right from the get-go the army men had begun patrolling the area more than needed, a waste of manpower. What was someone going to do, walk off with their mine? There were easier ways to keep a lode secure than patrolling the forest all around and keeping everyone out.
At first things had seemed to be going well, but then the mine stopped producing. There was nothing coming to market from this hilltop. No crushers built to extract ore, no wagons leaving town loaded and guarded. Nothing.
And then the mine had caved in. The whole damn thing had collapsed was the word in town, and no townsmen had been allowed to volunteer to help. It was a military matter, they had said. There were some civilians up at that mine, everyone had argued. But nobody was allowed up and the army kept the incident to itself.
Nick tugged his ruck towards him and unbuckled a strap. He took his pan and stepped into the bed of the stream. It was shallow and there were strips of dry sand to stand on. He crouched and dipped his pan under the water and collected some silt and sloshed the water out, careful to keep the dirt inside.
Nick swiped a finger along the streak of sand and mud at the bottom of the pan and held it up to the sunlight. He turned it back and forth, squinting, and saw the occasional glint. There was something here, any fool could see that. Something more valuable than some army-man could manage.
Nick lowered his hand and looked up and downstream, pondering his next steps. He heard something making its way through the woods and he turned to see a man, Mallard, a friend of his, standing a few feet away. Before Nick could even say anything, Mallard turned and, swaying almost to the point of falling over, began to tromp off through the woods.
Captain Alden sat in Mayor Eberhar’s office. The lacquered wood of the mayor’s desk was still so fresh it felt slightly tacky to the touch. The windows of the office looked out on the road through town, really just a muddy gap between buildings. The windows themselves were still on order and the great open squares in the walls let all the noises and goings on of town seep into the room.
Mayor Eberhart was eying the Captain warily. The two had a good working relationship, but this current matter was hard for the Mayor to get past. He set two glasses on the desk and poured a drink of whiskey into each. Outside the morning noises of the town continued.
“You have to give me something to work with here, Captain,” Mayor Eberhart said.
Captain Alden didn’t answer and the Mayor looked him over again. The Captain’s face was sallow, and his eyes were rimmed in red. There was a hunted look in his face that was unsettling.
“Captain,” Mayor Eberhart said. “Just give me something I can take to the people. Now the army has been working the land, and that’s been fine, but if you want to pull up stakes and stop working that hilltop, you have to give me a good reason why the land shouldn’t be put up for auction.”
“I’ll be back with enough men soon,” Captain Alden said, his voice pleading, “but until then…” his eyes went slack and he trailed off pondering something dark. Slowly he came back to his senses. “You have to keep the people off of that land,” he begged.
Nick splashed through the stream, straining his eyes to look through the trees in every direction.
“Mallard?” he called out. His voice sounded too loud amid the trees so close all around. There had been only two civilians working with the army up here. Mallard and Doc. They had been reported missing the day the cave-in had occurred and nobody had heard anything since. Were Doc and Mallard up here still?
Nick’s foot skidded out from under him on a slope and he swore as he grabbed at a tree to brace his fall. Catching his balance he decided to take a break. Mallard was nowhere in sight.
He turned to get his canteen and suddenly saw a soldier dressed in army uniform, brass buttons and blue coat, standing not five feet off. Nick yelped, startled.
The soldier didn’t react. He only stared out into space. It was like he was acting a part. Then, as if he had heard a voice in the distance, the soldier turned and began to walk away through the trees. His gait was stilted and wobbly, something wrong with his legs.
“Mayor, I am quite serious here,” the Captain said.
Eberhart paused, his glass half-raised to his mouth, and shot an exasperated look at the ceiling. He set his glass down on the table. “Captain, I am not so much questioning your seriousness as I am your sanity! You come to me with some tales of black sand and ask me to break the law?”
“I need time,” Alden pleaded again. “I will be back with more men and a statement from the governor for permanent rights to that land. But I need time.”
Eberhart shook his head. “Rules are rules,” he answered. “The people won’t just let you slide on this. They will demand the town charter is obeyed.”
“I am trying to save this town,” Alden begged.
“From what?” Eberhart yelled.
Nick was out of breath and a stich in his side was burning. By the time Nick had gathered his pack up the soldier had been off into the trees. Nick had tried yelling to him, but the soldier hadn’t responded, he had just kept walking that weird walk like Mallard had, and eventually Nick had lost him.
Nick glanced around and noted where the sun was. He debated heading back to the river.
He opted to cast around a bit more, see if he could pick up the soldier’s trail.
He stepped off into the underbrush.
There was a small hole under some trees a few yards from where he had been standing. The sleeve of a soldier’s uniform was dangling out of it, wriggling, slowly being pulled under the earth.
“You knew Doc Stebbins to be a good man?” Captain Alden asked.
“Sure I did.” Eberhart answered.
“I’m asking you this because, were I you, and you me. And you were sitting here about to tell the tale I am, I wouldn’t believe you for a moment.”
Eberhart didn’t respond. He sat still, watching the Captain with concern.
Alden took a journal from his pocket and dropped it onto the table in front of Eberhart. “Doc Stebbins’ notes,” he said by way of explanation.
Eberhart opened the journal. He flipped through a few sheets. He looked up at the captain, looked at his pained face. “Show me,” he said, ready to listen.
Alden reached across the desk and rifled through the pages, squinting at them upside-down as he searched for what he wanted. “There,” he said, jabbing a finger at the journal. “The first disappearance. Doc took notes but didn’t have a lot to say. Just that PFC Svenson went into the mine and never came back. Then Hayden went missing a few days after. But Hayden…Hayden comes back out of the mine, nice as you please. Only his arm has this tremor. And his eyes…”
Mayor Eberhart waited patiently as the Captain seemed to forget he was in the room.
“His eyes?” the mayor prompted.
Captain Alden took a breath and shook his head. “Course we didn’t know it then, but we were watching Hayden die right in front of us, dying while he told us that we all had to get down into the mine. What wonderful things there were in the mine.
“See the way Doc figured it, the black sand would get into you, and then it’d start to control you. But to do that? Well to keep that up it’d have to start devouring you. A grainy little bit of dirt would crawl into someone’s ear, or a scratch on their hand, and they’d start with some tremors. Or shakes. Or walking funny. But that was just the black sand taking control. Taking control from inside. It’d need to keep eating and eating, pouring through your blood, spreading into you. Someone got far enough along? You could see patches wearing through their skin. No blood though, that was all ‘et up. Just holes in their skin with black sludge running to and fro underneath, like they were filled with tar. And after a while they’d just completely disappear. Nothing but the sand left.”
“So you’re telling me what? Your men were infected with something?”
“I’m telling you that there’s something inside that hill that will crawl inside a person’s skin and eat him from the inside out.”
“Like a bug?”
The captain shook his head. “Smarter.”
“So why not infect you all?”
“That’s what it was trying to do, but it couldn’t unless it got us to the source. That’s what we figured out at the end. Things started moving fast after Hadley got Mariner and Johnson down into the mine. Hadley must’ve told them about gold, or platinum, or anything they needed to hear. But that wasn’t Hayden. It was some lesser part of whatever is down there leading anyone it could back to the source, back to the black sand.”
Nick stared up at the mass of roots and dirt that rose above his head. A tree, a huge tree, had toppled recently. Must have been the storm that hit the night before he rode out. The length of it ran as far as he could see up towards the top of the hill. It had been big enough to crash all the way to the ground, anything that got it in its way hadn’t broken its fall, it had been taken down with it. The root system had pulled up a disc of earth that was twenty feet tall if it was an inch. Nick walked around the towering mess of dirt and roots, gaping up at it. He came around and stared down into the hole it had yanked out of the ground. He blinked, then craned his head forward, trying to make out what he was seeing. The dirt was still settling, bits of it. But there was something down there. A human hand?
He placed his ruck down and stepped onto the edge of the hole. The smell of wet earth filled his nose and as soon as his weight was fully on his feet he began to slide down. He turned to balance himself, but he soon realized that he wasn’t stopping, and as he got lower he grew more panicked and began to try to climb up and claw at the dirt walls but found no purchase. And then the bottom of the hole fell away as roots snapped apart and he crashed through into an open space below.
“But it was getting smarter. That’s what Doc figured out. The first few? Svenson? I bet Svenson was done ‘et up like that,” Alden snapped his fingers. “Then it got Hadley, got some of it into Hadley and got Hadley to walk around, had Hadley talk some other boys down there. See? And it’s getting better and better, and making more and more of itself to send out but the source…the source was still too weak.
“Only then a whole mess of my men went down there with Doc. Only a few of us stayed up top. Doc made me stay. Tried to pull rank with him but…I tell you Doc was a good man. I think he knew. And of course we needed someone up top. We had already taken the precaution of rigging dynamite at the mine’s entrance.
“Next thing I knew there’s screaming and Doc’s coming back out of the mine, only he stops, and I see that his arm is thumping against his side and he can’t control it, and that look is in his eyes. He had seen the source he said. He was fighting what was in him as best he could but it was starting to take over and the other men? They were already done for, already under its control and they were coming up behind him. The source was strong enough. It was on the move looking for a fresh body. That’s when Doc called for the dynamite. We blew the entire mine in on itself. Trapped them all inside. Trapped it inside.”
Nick came-to and remembered where he was. He felt around in his pockets, nervously looking at the pitch black all around. He felt stone at his back and could feel blood, warm and tacky, between his fingers. He found his matches and lit one, blinking in the burst of light. His hand was bleeding and he was in a narrow cave. The tree must’ve pulled up enough dirt to expose a crevice. He made his way in the darkness, feeling along the rock wall, and was starting to get panicked when he turned a corner and saw a spot of sky above. Then his match went out.
He struck another one, wincing as it flared up near his fingers. He opened his mouth and gasped at what he saw.
“Eberhart, every man who made it out of there will protect that place with their lives. They will kill anyone seen in the area on sight. I can guarantee that. But problem is, we don’t have many men left. I need your word that you will keep that area off limits with every bit of power that you have.
“I will be back. I will have more men. I will have more help. But if you let the town up there, that thing might very well come to the town.”
Nick sat against a tree until he caught his breath. The front of his body was caked in dirt. His clothes were one brown stain. His face was streaked with brown, the sweat from climbing out of the hole had washed rivulets in his skin. Every crack in his fingers was dark brown.
He sat with a bemused smile on his face. Finally, when he felt rested, he stood up. The sun was well past noon. He had been unconscious inside that cave for at least an hour. He hefted up his ruck and arched his back, smiling. They would never believe what he had found. He debated who he should even tell. With a glance back down at the hole he turned and began walking towards the stream.
He smiled and held up his hand as he walked. He was holding a rock, granite mostly, but streaked through with gold, bright as day.
There was gold under this hilltop.
He smiled again and listened as he paused and heard the far-off sound of running water. Not far to the stream, and then straight back into town.
He glanced at the rock again. He noticed a smudge and he spit on it and polished it with his thumb. His spit seemed to make it worse, though. Now the rock was covered in a black sand, and he felt a bit disgusted at how grainy it felt against his thumb. He didn’t notice, as he cleaned the black specks off of the rock, that his left hand had begun spasming.
He smiled again and headed back into town.