Some days, Jobe wondered which was worse: to be back home with the Confederate army getting his legs blown off, or to be here in Nevada, swinging a sledge to dig a new silver mine.
“Dammit, watch where you’re aiming.” His partner, Louis, threw down the long spike of the iron drill and fell over.
“My apologies. Mind wandered.”
“Shee-it.” Louis spat out dust and stood up. This put his head and shoulders above the opening of the shaft. The hole they were digging was so far only five feet across and few feet deep. He climbed out.
“Come back. We ain’t even put in the blasting powder yet.”
“Forget it. It’s pointless.” Standing out on the rocky mountainside, Louis took off his hat, suspenders, and sweat-stained shirt. The morning sun highlighted the dust in his beard. “That silver must be two hundred feet down. We’ll be old and broken afore we dig that deep.”
Jobe was too weary to climb out as well, so he just folded his arms on the lip of the shaft and rested his head on them. Louis was like a father to him. And Louis had brought them out here to be miners. Now he was just going to give up? “How about gettin’ another stake in one of them older mines? We got us some silver there, we did.”
“A pitiful couple handfuls. And we broke our backs in the mill to extract ’em. Don’t you forget it.”
Jobe hadn’t forgotten. Extraction required fourteen-hour days of standing next to steam-driven rock crushers, whose noise about drove him crazy. And all the while, he never stopped scooping pulp out of pans, shoveling sand out of the drainage ditch and dashing it against an upright wire screen, washing mud from the crushers, and making snowballs of quicksilver mixed with the real stuff to be boiled.
“I suppose you want to go back to gambling, then.”
Louis stared at him. “That’s a low blow.”
Jobe turned his back. He crossed his arms and leaned against the inside of the shaft. A moment later, he heard Louis walk away.
Well, he had a right to talk strongly to Louis. Didn’t he, now?
It was Louis who brought Jobe and his boy, Sammy, out here from Georgia to begin with. Him and all his talk of getting rich. But Louis was always like that. Twenty years ago, when Jobe was just a youngster, Louis took him traveling in his mule cart as he hawked “elixir” cures for everything from impotence to hysteria. When that failed, they returned home. Still, Louis convinced him years later to go to California, where they tried making money as bookies during the white-versus-red-man foot races to prove racial superiority. That also failed.
When Jobe got married and had a son, he announced he was through with such adventures. Louis had seemed angry but acquiesced with a tip of his hat toward Jobe’s wife, Mollie, and son, Sammy.
Louis didn’t return until Sammy was a man. He was full of tales about the silver to be mined in Nevada.
“Please, Daddy,” Sammy had said in response. “He wants us to come along, and I want to be rich.”
“Go,” Mollie said. She spoke with her back to Jobe as she worked at the stove so he wouldn’t see her weep. “Get our boy away from this war. I can’t travel on account of Mother. She’s depending on me.” She sighed, then continued in a hitching voice. “I never liked that man. Don’t let him make Sammy do nothing he don’t want to.”
So they went. But silver mining proved to be hard work. Soon, Louis wanted to make money other ways.
“Give me a few nights at the saloon,” he said one evening. The three of them sat huddled around an oil lantern in their tent. “I’ll make us rich playing Faro, and we can go home. I’ll take Sammy as a shill.”
“Uh huh,” Jobe said. “I suppose you’ll be needing seed money?”
“Ten dollars oughta do it.”
The sum was huge. They would need to pool their resources for sure.
“Come on, Daddy,” Sammy said. “Give it to him.”
No way in hellfire was he trusting Louis with their savings. Sure, Louis’s gambling skills kept them solvent on the way here, but that was no reason to go whole hog like this.
And yet, doing what Louis told him was a hard habit to break. He couldn’t just go back on a lifetime of trusting him–of trying to please him and gain his approval–even if it seemed like a mistake. Louis brought them out here, and Louis by God promised to bring them home.
“C’mon, boy,” Louis said. “Don’t be a sissy.”
Jobe’s blood boiled a bit at that. It always had. He hauled out his money and threw it at the older man.
The next morning, he sorely regretted giving in. That was when he stood looking down into a thousand-foot-deep shaft over the great Comstock mine. His son’s body had landed somewhere down there.
“It was an accident,” Louis explained as he stood next to him. “We lost all but one dollar gambling, and Sammy got himself liquored up with it.”
“And where were you?” Jobe was surprised at the evenness of his voice.
Louis used his toe to push a pebble into the shaft. “Talking to a damsel. Thought I was getting somewheres. She turned out to be a whore.”
Jobe waited for him to continue. He couldn’t take his eyes off the open shaft.
“A cowboy come in. Said he saw a youngster with a whiskey bottle fall down a shaft. I asked what he looked like, and he said torn blue trousers, thin beard, and a red kerchief.”
Jobe closed his eyes. That described Sammy to a T.
Miners searched the galleries beneath all the open shafts, but Sammy’s body was never found.
So, here they were, one month after Sammy’s death, penniless and desperate. Jobe had written the sad news home to Mollie, but he had no idea if she received his letter.
A few minutes after walking off, Louis returned. Jobe kept his back to him, arms crossed as he leaned against the inside of the hole.
“Well?” Louis said. ”You gonna come out, or ain’t ya?”
“Can’t go home yet. Ain’t going home both poor and without my son.”
“Sometimes things just don’t work out, Jobe.”
Jobe spun around and gripped the edges of the hole. “Don’t tell me it ain’t going to work out. Sammy…did not…die…for nothing!” With each phrase, he pounded his fist on the rock, sending up little plumes of dust.
“All right, all right.” Shaking his head, Louis sighed and prepared to climb back in. “But you hear me, and listen good. I ain’t gonna spend my last breaths digging some well to nowheres. I’ll work with you till the end of the day. But if we ain’t found nothing, I’m done.”
“Just till…? Fine. Just fine.”
Shaking his head, Jobe hoisted the sledge and waited for Louis to pick up the drill. They wouldn’t find anything in just one day, and they both knew it.
Jobe hated his partner just then–hated him as passionately as if Louis and not liquor were responsible for Sammy’s death. Hell, if it weren’t for Louis, they wouldn’t be here, and Sammy wouldn’t be dead.
It would be so easy to swing a foot to the left, split the bearded man’s head open like a watermelon.
Jobe grit his teeth. He brought the sledge down on the drill with a resounding clang.
Mines in Virginia City weren’t known for their modest names. This one was no exception. They had named it Monarch of the Mountains. That was on the day–after a week of wearing holes in their shoes searching–they chanced on this lifeless stretch of mountainside. Louis had broken off some rocks and examined them with his eyeglass before announcing it was full of quartz with trace bits of silver. They staked their claim by hammering a notice into the ground, then filed a copy with the mining recorder’s office. As required by law, they returned within ten days to begin digging so their claim wouldn’t be forfeit. Starting that shaft was the first happy thing they’d done since Sammy died.
But now the mine was about to die, too, just as soon as the sun went down and Louis declared it a bust.
Jobe stood outside the shaft. At his feet, Louis lay on his stomach with his head and shoulders in the opening, applying the hot end of a cigar to a fuse. It trailed into the hole and sank into a quantity of black powder, sand, and gravel.
“Fire in the hole!”
Jobe helped him to his feet. They ran like hell.
The explosion shot rocks and smoke into the air.
As they walked back, Jobe knew they would find just a bushel of loose quartz at the bottom and nothing more. As sure as shooting, there’d wouldn’t be no gift-wrapped boulder of silver sitting down there, if that’s what Louis was waiting on. Jobe mentally composed a speech to ask for few more days.
But his thoughts derailed as he peered over the lip of the hole. There was no quartz waiting at the bottom of the Monarch of the Mountains mine shaft.
There wasn’t anything down there at all.
Where once had lain a rocky floor now yawned a dark hole. The men dropped to their stomachs to look in.
“Hellfire,” Louis said. “We hit a cavern.”
“Is that good?”
“How am I supposed to know?”
As Louis slithered farther inward, Jobe was obliged to grab the back of the older man’s trousers.
“I can see the bottom. It ain’t far. It’s a tunnel. Goes left and right. And…damn!”
Louis was too far in. He screamed as he started to fall.
Jobe clawed at his clothing. A suspender twanged as it snapped loose. “Hold on!”
“I’m all right. Just let me…let me turn.”
Louis reached up and grabbed a ledge. Once his feet were hanging below his head, he let go.
He dropped into the tunnel and landed hard. Jobe cringed as Louis rolled onto his side.
“You all right?”
“Sure, I’m just…”
“Good Lord. Go get my lantern–and my hammer and eyeglass.”
“And a rope?”
“Yes, yes–just git! I think we have us a treasure here.”
By “treasure,” Louis didn’t mean a pirate chest overflowing with gold and rubies. But what he reported up sounded nearly as good.
“Silver, by God. It’s covering the walls of the tunnel.”
“You’re putting me on.”
“Come and see for yourself.”
All the rope they owned was only ten yards, but it was long enough for Jobe to tie around a boulder and drop in. He lowered the lantern and tools and then descended, praying the rope wouldn’t slip and trap them both down here.
The tunnel–more like a tube–was about the height of a man. Its surface curved all the way around and reflected the flickering lantern like water. Jobe touched it and found it smooth and cold.
“What did this? A river?”
Louis knelt on the curved floor and used his hammer to chip a piece off the wall. “Not unless that river was molten silver.”
Jobe frowned. “What are you getting at?”
Chuckling, Louis squinted through his eyeglass at the rock he’d broken off. “You sure are a dumb cuss sometimes.” He held the rock up to Jobe. “Like I said, it’s silver. Pure.”
Jobe took it and bit down. He searched it for teeth marks, but the light was too poor.
Jobe shook his head, still not believing. He wished Sammy were here. God knew that boy had sometimes been an even dumber cuss than his father, but he was quick to set a situation afire with happiness. Jobe, however, would check a gift horse’s teeth two and even three times before accepting it.
“Don’t need to dig it out,” Louis said. “Don’t need to mill it. Just scrape it off, and take it somewheres to melt into bars. We’re rich. Rich!”
As Louis stood up and danced a jig, Jobe ventured a smile and tried to set his doubts aside. They had found an underground tunnel lined with pure silver like it was painted on with a brush. But what could have done such a thing?
Jobe peered uneasily past his whooping and hollering friend into the darkness.
They agreed to keep their discovery secret, but they knew that once they hauled in their first wagonload of pure silver–the metal just lying there like handfuls of loose clay–they’d be swarmed with shysters and villains.
They talked it over as they used shovels to skin large chunks from the walls. The sun went down, but they were too excited to call it a day.
“We need us armed guards out here, ’round the clock,” Jobe said. “First load of silver we melt down and cash in, we buy guns and good tools and maybe a winch so we can haul up pallets full of–”
“Since when did you get all God-derned smart?”
Jobe stopped working to gape at his friend. Silver shavings lay in piles around them, twinkling in the lantern light. Louis was covered in white dust, head to foot, and resembled a ghoul.
“I been leading your skinny ass around since afore you was old enough to reach mine,” Louis said. “So let me handle the details.”
Jobe used his hat to mop the sweat from his brow. He was too tired to argue. Of course he could see what Louis was already doing: trying to take control, just like always. Next, Louis would argue he deserved more than half of the profits.
His gaze alighted on a strange shadow over Louis’ shoulder. “What’s that?”
Louis stared at him a moment before looking away. It made Jobe uneasy. “Another tunnel, looks like.”
They investigated and discovered a branching tunnel a dozen yards down the passage. It angled gently downward. It was also lined with silver, but the coating seemed even thicker. Jobe wondered how far it descended. He had a vision of men digging a mine at the center of the Earth.
The light here looked peculiar, as if the silver were glowing and not just reflecting their lantern’s meager flame. His uneasiness deepened.
“Let’s go back for the night.”
“Louis, please. Let’s just…I’m tired, is all.”
A cloud of fury covered the older man’s face, then vanished. “Fine. I could use me a drink.” Louis turned on his heel and led the way to the exit.
But he halted when a tremor passed through the walls. “What’s that?”
“No, I…I think it’s a train. Is it a train?”
Jobe listened and decided he agreed. It was a rumbling noise, all right, shaking and clacking like wheels passing over iron rails. Except there wasn’t a horn nor a hiss of steam–and for that matter, there wasn’t yet a train line anywhere near Virginia City.
He placed his hand and then his ear to the tunnel wall. “It’s coming closer.”
The two men stared at each other.
“Oh, shit,” Louis said. “It’s down here, ain’t it? With us.”
They ran for the rope.
Ahead of them, a mass moved at the far end of the tunnel. It bore down like a storm front. They wouldn’t be able to climb out in time.
Jobe skidded in his tracks and plucked at Louis’ shoulder. “The other way!”
Jobe wanted to avoid the new passage–something about it still bothered him–but it was the best choice. It branched off the main tunnel. Chances were whatever was coming would stay on the higher track.
He barreled in, and Louis piled in after him.
The noise shook their insides. Louis poked his head out–then quickly drew back, not believing what he’d just seen.
It passed by, filling the tunnel they’d exited with a whirling grayness. A blast of wind slammed into them and snaked inside their oil lantern to blow it out.
Soon the noise receded. Jobe fished a Lucifer out of his tin matchbox and scratched it on the wall. His hand shook as he re-lit the lantern.
It took Louis a couple tries before he could sputter, “Holy Mary, God, and all the angels. What in the name of Heaven was that?”
“Let’s get out. Just get out.”
“What did you see?”
Jobe began walking. He figured since he held the lantern, Louis would have no choice but to follow.
Still, he paused to marvel at how the tunnel had transformed. Its walls were covered with a fresh coat of silver, as if their labor of the past few hours never occurred. The silver they’d piled below the access shaft was gone. Their rope still hung, except now it was coated with silver.
“Confound it, Jobe. What did you see?”
Jobe didn’t answer as he handed him the lantern. He seized hold of the rope with trembling hands. Pebbles of silver fell off the strand as he climbed up.
He knew he would eventually reveal what he saw. But he would have to be good and drunk first. For now, he needed to concentrate on survival. That meant climbing out as fast as possible. He didn’t know if he’d ever have the courage to return.
Because what he’d seen hadn’t been a train at all.
It was the head of a massive, gray worm. It filled the tunnel from side to side. Its skin glittered like quicksilver. A great maw slit its head. It opened and shut once in the time he observed it, exposing rows of pointed, silver teeth. But that mouth, as ugly and deadly as it appeared, wasn’t what he found most disturbing.
A bulb jutted from the top of the worm’s head, looking a bit like a clown’s nose. Except Jobe knew it wasn’t a nose just as surely as he knew his own name. The protrusion, resting on a stubby neck, had been a human head.
And its face, oh God, its face…
When Jobe said he was sick the next morning and didn’t want to get up, Louis returned to the mine alone.
Louis tied a bucket to the rope and lowered it in.
They hadn’t yet purchased the pallet and winch they would need to haul out the massive quantities of silver. They didn’t have the money yet.
As he climbed down, huffing from the effort, he spoke to the air to keep his courage up. “My age, won’t have more than one trip down and up in me. Gotta make this a good one.”
The tunnel was quiet and still, which suited him fine. He would never admit it to Jobe, but what happened last night scared the dickens out of him. The cool air was also welcome. The heat outside was already unbearable.
He set to work throwing chunks of metal into the bucket. Just this small amount, right here, might be enough for him to retire–or at least ensure he could stay the hell out of the Confederacy until the war was over.
If only he’d had this much money when he returned to Georgia the first time…
Light flashed in the bucket. He thought sunlight was reflecting off the silver–then realized it was coming from the silver itself.
He reeled backward, fearing an explosion. They should’ve kept a canary on hand. But again, there was no money, and…
The light continued to flash silently. What was going on?
Louis inched forward and peered in. White sparks swirled across the metal. As he leaned closer, they intensified.
He experimented with this until deciding it was safe. “Damn strange,” he muttered and leaned in again.
Abruptly, the silver flattened and became reflective, like the surface of water. Louis gasped as silent images appeared: faces, the inside of a cabin, firelight.
He recognized himself. He was seated in the main room of Jobe’s house. He was speaking, excited about something, making grinding motions with his hands.
His audience was Jobe and Mollie and their son Sammy. Sammy said something to Jobe, who stroked his chin thoughtfully.
It was the day he returned to Georgia earlier this year. He remembered it now. He’d told Jobe about all they money they could make mining silver. And he’d spent the whole time harboring secret fantasies about Mollie, about how he wished he could take her away.
The images shifted to later in the evening. Mollie was showing him to the door, then watching him as he walked into the darkness.
Suddenly, Mollie hawked and spit. She glared at his receding form, then shut the door.
Louis was surprised to see this. He’d had no idea she disliked him so much. And this answered the question of whether he ever had a chance with her. It wouldn’t have mattered if he came there rich already.
He shook his head and backed off. The silver resumed its normal appearance.
“No. I’m drinking too much. Seeing things.”
That had to explain what was happening. He’d always been a hard drinker and a user of whatever else he could get his hands on–peyote, cocaine, opium–and knew he always would be. One time, in fact, he’d had an entire conversation with the angel of death before realizing it was just a cactus.
The alternative–that the silver could grab your thoughts right out of your head and show you things–was simply too terrible to accept.
He began to climb back out of the tunnel. The sooner they could cash in and get out, the better.
For the next two days, Jobe couldn’t summon enough courage to return to the tunnel. Instead, he busied himself with other tasks. As he fell asleep each night on his cot, he hoped he could spend the rest of his career immersed in them. Anything would be better than facing that worm again.
Melting down their first load of silver was one. Oh, sure, it raised eyebrows. The muddy boys and Chinese in the mill about fell over with astonishment when Jobe and Louis rolled in, their mule cart brimming with silver chunks like they were maharajahs. Louis didn’t seem to think it was a concern. In fact, he appeared to enjoy the attention. Jobe, though, hoofed it to a gunsmith and used their new money to purchase a pair of Colt six-shooters, one for each of them.
Jobe also made an appointment to see an official with the Sawtooth Mining Company, an established operation. He planned to discuss using their facilities, labor, and security in exchange for a percentage. If he played it right, Jobe figured he might never have to enter the tunnel again.
Despite all his earlier blustering about staying in charge, Louis merely nodded when Jobe told him what he’d done.
He did say, however, “Doings like that take time, and there ain’t no use in wasting any.”
They were walking together down the wooden sidewalks of C Street, little splashes of dust pluming beneath their footsteps. Jobe paused to touch his hat brim at a lady passing by. “What are you saying? We should go on risking our hides in that tunnel?”
Louis hesitated, appearing to argue with himself before reaching a decision. “All I’m saying is what if that worm thing you saw eats it all up afore the Sawtooth takes over? Then we got nothing.”
“Preposterous? Why don’t you just leave the heavy thinking and the big words to me?” Louis smiled, showing blackened and crooked teeth. “Now let’s go move our tent out to the mine hole. That way, we can guard the silver when we ain’t digging.”
The first night back, Jobe woke in the four o’clock hour, unable to sleep. Sammy and Mollie were never far from his thoughts, but the image of Sammy’s face, especially, was what pulled him from his cot. He stoked up the camp fire, set the kettle to boil, and chewed on his worries.
Sammy’s face. The worm had been wearing Sammy’s face.
It had taken the boy’s head as a trophy.
Jobe stabbed a stick into the camp fire and then surprised himself by sobbing.
Louis was right. He would return to the underground lair, not a dozen feet from where he sat. And if he couldn’t kill that monster, he would at least take what he could from it.
He didn’t mention these thoughts to Louis as they descended the rope after breakfast. He’d never told the older man about seeing Sammy.
Once they reached the tunnel, Jobe asked, “What will we do if the worm returns?”
Louis rolled his eyes. “Hide in the side tunnel again.”
Jobe shook his head. “We don’t know which direction it’ll go. It could pass us, or it could run us down. Last time, we got away by dumb luck.”
“Then shoot it,” Louis said. “And pray you’re lucky again. You already got dumb.”
Jobe shook his head with disappointment as he set to work.
The plan for the morning was to pile silver near the entrance. The afternoon would be spent setting up a tripod winch over the hole to raise pallets.
After a while, Louis announced, “I’m going out for a piss and smoke my pipe. You all right here by yourself?”
Jobe stared at him.
“You ain’t a sissy now, are ya?”
Jobe set his jaw. Bastard, he thought. He picked up his shovel and the spare lantern and trekked into the darkness. Louis’s chuckle followed him the whole way.
Jobe wasn’t surprised to find a second tunnel now branched off, not far from the one they hid in before. The worm must have dug it when it passed by. Like the others, it was lined with silver.
What are you? What did you do to my Sammy?
He was about to start scraping when something drew his gaze toward the darkness.
The walls glowed faintly. He’d seen this the first day in the other branch but assumed it was reflected lantern light. Today, the old branch no longer appeared to be any different than the main tunnel. But this one was newer.
He gasped as a burst of color flared along the wall. He leaned closer.
The colors responded to his proximity, bunching as if to touch his nose. He reached out and hovered his hand over the surface. Below it, a corresponding white palm print appeared. He waved over the rock, and the glimmering reflection followed him.
He laid his hand on the cool stone. The wall responded by erupting in a silent explosion of color. The light spread outward and covered the tunnel walls in all directions as far as he could see.
It focused and organized itself until the tunnel became a great mirror. Jobe saw himself in it, kneeling with his mouth agape. His distorted reflection smeared around him. The white light of the walls intensified until the tunnel was as bright as a snow-covered mountaintop.
“Dear Lord,” he whispered.
His reflection vanished, replaced with the blackness of a night sky sprinkled with a thousand stars. The stars blurred in a series of jumps and starts. A great white and orange ball appeared, ringed with a vast debris field. It looked like the planet Saturn, which he’d once seen drawn in a book. It moved past him–or rather, he moved past it–and it disappeared.
Jobe was surprised at how calm he felt. He could still feel the rock under his palm and understood he was still in the tunnel–so that helped. These were images, nothing more, something spied through a strange window. He didn’t feel threatened. Rather, a warm feeling of peace and comfort suffused him. He knew that this, too, came from the rock, right up through his arm–so maybe it should worry him. But for the life of him, he couldn’t pull away, only watch. The warmth flowing up his arm from the rock finally reached his head. With it came the understanding that these images were only shadows from the past.
Soon, the progression through the stars slowed. Ahead, starting as a speck and then filling his vision, he saw the great worm from the tunnels. Long and gray, it was a cross between a night crawler and a snake. Like the tunnel walls, it glowed faintly. It floated languidly in space, stretched straight out. The bulb jutting from its face, where he’d fancied seeing his son’s head, now looked like the head of a horse, with a long, pointed nose and mouth.
Suddenly, the worm’s body snapped like a whip. The space around it distorted like it was rushing through water. The stars blurred and then stopped. The worm now fell toward a vast, pink planet so close it filled half the sky.
The worm disappeared for a moment as it fell through clouds, then Jobe’s perspective closed on it. He rode its back as the surface of a pink and yellow desert rushed up to meet them. The worm hit the ground and vanished in an explosion of dust.
A second later, it recovered and leapt across the surface of the desert world. It dove into the sand like a fish into water, then breached to soar through the air. A geyser of dust and rock trailed from it, turning silver in the sunlight. The worm dove back into the ground and repeated the process.
A man stood upon a plain, watching the creature. But he was like no man Jobe had ever seen. He had a head and two arms, but he had six legs, which folded and fanned around him like a spider’s. A hard-looking, black shell covered his body. His face was flat. He had no mouth, and he watched the worm with a single eye in the center of his forehead. A plume of spikes descended from his brow like an Indian chieftain’s war bonnet. He looked magnificent and savage, and Jobe couldn’t tear his gaze away. As the worm drew near, leaping and diving, the strange man crouched. His spikes stood on end.
The worm emerged and jumped. It swallowed the man whole before disappearing into the ground again.
Jobe cried out, but there was nothing he could do.
The worm erupted from the ground and shot into the sky. Jobe followed as it ascended through the clouds. The horse-head appendage retracted into the worm’s body but soon slurped back out. Now the face was flat, one-eyed, and wore a headdress of spikes–just like the man it had swallowed.
In the blackness of space, its body snapped. The stars blurred around it, then returned to normal.
The worm was falling again, this time toward a blue planet swirling with white clouds. The moment before it hit the ground, Jobe saw cactus trees, mountains, and glimpses of faraway buildings and streets.
Virginia City. Had to be. He was seeing how the worm came here.
Night time. As before, a man stood out in the open–but this time he was human, with torn trousers, a thin beard, and a red kerchief.
Jobe gasped as he recognized his son.
Sammy looked angry. His face was pinched, his shoulders hunched, his arms crossed. He was staring down into the open hole of a mine shaft not far from the edge of town.
A mine shaft? Oh, no.
Sammy turned when Louis approached. The older man made a sweeping, dismissive gesture. Sammy shouted and pointed at him. Jobe couldn’t hear the words, but he could guess: It’s your fault we don’t have nothing. You brought us out here, and now we lost all our money playing Faro.
Spittle flew from their mouths as they stepped closer to each other. They bunched their fists.
Sammy shoved him.
Louis recovered and punched his face.
Sammy fell backward into the open shaft.
As Jobe watched his son disappear, he let out a breath. His vision blurred so much with tears, he almost didn’t catch what happened next.
He saw Sammy fall a thousand feet straight down. He saw the terror in the boy’s face as a long shape leapt out of the darkness and swallowed him in mid air.
Jobe strained and tore his hand from the wall. It felt as if it had been stuck to fly paper. The vision flashed and disappeared, and the silvered tunnel resumed its muted glow.
Screaming with rage, Jobe ran for the exit.
Exhaling pipe smoke, Louis watched the sun climb through the morning sky. Things were looking good for the first time since they came here–for the first time ever, if one counted all the other failed ventures he’d attempted in the past. He just had to keep quiet about what happened to Sammy, was all. And if he played his cards right, he could get Jobe to do all the work, as he was right now.
He turned at the sound of Jobe’s shout.
Jobe was advancing on him, gun pointed. His hand trembled, making the barrel wave this way and that.
No, no. How did he find out?
As if that wasn’t bad enough, Louis felt a telltale shaking in the ground.
“What are you doing, you stupid boy?”
“Oh? How you figure that?”
He beat his pipe against his shoe to knock out the tobacco, then put it away into his pocket. Have to stay calm.
Jobe stopped ten feet away. His trembling, however, had not. Louis figured that was a good thing. It meant he might survive.
Behind Jobe, a cactus shivered as the disturbance in the ground strengthened.
“Why don’t you re-holster that, and let’s jaw it over some?”
“Tell me why you killed my boy.”
There must have been a witness, but that didn’t matter now.
“I only punched him. It was an accident. The fall killed him.”
“Don’t you tell me that pack of lies. If it was an accident, you would’ve told me about it.” Jobe pulled back the hammer on his six-shooter. The trembling in his hand increased.
Louis could hear the shaking in the ground as a low rumble now, like the coming of a train.
“All right, then. The silver killed him, Jobe. How about that? It killed him the moment you and him decided to come out here for it. It kills a lot of good men, it does.”
Jobe furrowed his brows, trying to muddle through Louis’s words. Louis watched carefully, waiting for Jobe to take his eyes off him to look away into his own thoughts.
When he did, Louis drew his gun and shot him.
It had been a few years since he’d carried a gun, so his aim was off. The bullet plowed through Jobe’s thigh. Crying out, Jobe staggered back and fired into the air.
Louis shot him again. This time his aim was better. The bullet went through Jobe’s shoulder.
Jobe dropped his gun and fell onto his face.
Louis ran forward, ready to shoot again. But Jobe was moaning and clutching his wounds, so it wasn’t necessary.
Tears stung his eyes, but he quickly blinked them back. He told himself he’d been through too much to become sentimental. He’d known Jobe forever, sure, but Jobe was nothing more than a horse he’d always ridden. And when a horse was old, lame, or trying to bite off your hand, it was time to put it down.
But there’d be a body to deal with.
The whole mountainside swayed with the rumbling. In a burst of inspiration, Louis grabbed Jobe by his shirt and dragged him.
“Yellow whoreson,” Jobe spat out. He was too enfeebled to do more than clutch Louis’s leg.
Louis pushed him into the hole.
He didn’t see Jobe hit the ground. His body seemed suspended in the air–then he vanished in a swirling rush of gray skin. A column of air blasted up out of the mine and drove Louis back.
A moment later, it was gone. The rumble receded. Louis looked down into the hole and saw only the empty tunnel.
He spat and began to repack his pipe.
Louis tried to work in the mine for a while, but his strength rushed out of him with every movement.
Jobe was dead, after all these years. That warranted at least a full day of hard drinking. Maybe two.
When he spied a faint glow emanating from deep within the tunnel, he decided that settled it. Time to head to the saloon. A day off wouldn’t make any difference.
He dropped his shovel and scrambled out into the daylight.
Louis was still flush with cash from the first load, enough to take him through several hours of Faro and Texas Hold ’Em. When he wasn’t concentrating on cards, he drowned his feelings in whiskey.
As he grew drunker, he fancied he heard a rumble in the ground. He asked his fellow players about it, but they claimed to hear nothing. Just the same, he decided against going outside.
“I oughta stay in heres, night and day, till that company can take over,” he announced to no one in particular. He was so drunk he couldn’t read the cards.
The fat fellow on his left swayed in his chair. “What’re you blubbering about? You ain’t got nothing worth taking. I done took it all in the last game!” He roared with laughter before vomiting onto the floor.
Everyone stood, muttering in disgust.
Forgetting his decision, Louis pushed through the batwing doors and went outside for fresh air.
The only rumblings now were those of wagon wheels and horse hooves traveling dusty C Street. The sun was setting, making the temperature drop, but he was too drunk to feel it.
What did bother him, though, was the feeling of being watched. Most folks felt that sort of thing on the backs of their necks. With Louis, it was a tingling in his whiskers. He vowed that just as soon as he could work out a deal with the Sawtooth Mining Company, he’d leave this godforsaken place.
Until then–he again swore this to himself–he would always, always, stay around other people. Indoors, if he could help it. Otherwise, he suspected the tingling in his beard would one day turn into a great stream of darkness, flowing up from underground, ready to take him to wherever he’d cast young Sammy and his father.
For now, though, he knew he better find a whore or another card game. He couldn’t take any more thoughts of Jobe and Sammy.
Louis hurried onto one of the streets, heading lower on the mountainside from the main thoroughfare. After a several twists and turns, he found himself on Wang Street in Chinatown.
The Chinese had built their quarter to suit themselves. Their streets, too narrow to admit carriages or wagons, were lined with dingy huts that smelled of strange foods and burning Josh lights. In one, he found three Chinamen lying on mattresses arranged around a hooka. They smoked opium through long tubes and stared at him.
“What do you say, partners? Ain’t this better’n whiskey?”
They didn’t answer. Their faces remained blank but serene. Their gazes didn’t follow him as he sat down beside them.
Louis waited for someone to offer him a tube. When no one moved, he pried one from the nearest man’s grasp. The man didn’t even glance at him, although after a moment, he picked up his long, braided ponytail and stuffed it into his own mouth.
Louis ignored him and began to smoke.
A pleasant warmth suffused him. He felt like he was floating. At one point, he was sure he had a conversation with Jobe, but that wasn’t possible because Jobe was dead. Louis forgot their words as soon as they were spoken, but the conversation left him with a deep sadness.
He may have fallen asleep–he wasn’t sure. Presently, he became aware it was full night out. He was in the hut alone.
He got up and stumbled outside. Wang Street was empty and dark. A cool wind blew against his cheek.
A voice said, “Got a chaw, mister?”
The speaker’s closeness startled him, but Louis recovered quickly. He wheeled on his questioner. “No, I ain’t got a chaw, you vagrant. Now go off and–”
He screamed and fell backward, landing on his butt.
It was Jobe.
Jobe’s eyes and mouth glowed with silver light. Louis looked down and saw that the gunshot wounds he’d inflicted that morning were plugged with silver.
The head of a giant snake thrust up out of the ground and reared behind Jobe. Pointed, silver teeth lined its mouth. The opening was fully ten feet across. From the top of its head jutted a human face Louis recognized all too well. Sammy.
It dove over Jobe and swallowed Louis whole.
Afterward, it retracted back into the ground like an arm withdrawing into a coat sleeve.
Jobe smiled wide. The glowing light in his eyes and mouth faded away.
He turned and walked into the desert, headed east.
Matthew Warner had a close encounter with Ec’h-pi-el himself twelve years ago when he coordinated the republication of Lovecraft at Last by Willis Conover & H.P. Lovecraft. At the time, Warner was the assistant to former Nixon White House counsel Leonard Garment, executor of Conover’s estate. When Cooper Square Press contacted them about reissuing Conover’s 1976 World Fantasy Award-nominated memoir of Lovecraft letters, Warner embarked on an exciting (for lawyers) journey into the non-Euclidean catacombs of Lovecraft copyrights. Warner has also authored several horror novels, screenplays, and short stories.
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Story illustration by Nikos Alteri.