Ely came awake with a groan, and the smell of his own filth, caked and smeared on his clothes and skin, made him gasp for breath. He clapped a hand over his mouth, his rising gorge felt like a rock, and his bloodshot eyes fell on a large, fresh pile of human excrement, steaming and fly-blown in the rising summer morning and a groan escaped his lips as he lost his battle. A gout of vomit leaped out and splattered the ground, the rusted iron bars of his prison, his bootless left foot, and his mangled and bloody right.
He lay curled over the wooden slab that had served as his bed and spit and coughed, one hand clamped on his large, lumpy nose to keep from puking again and he breathed hard and deep, trying to get a handle on his leaping stomach. He lay in his agony inside the large, iron dog cage. Through the bars, another man was also imprisoned, just a few feet away.
Both cages were bolted to the outside wall of the ramshackle Sheriff’s office, right on the front porch. They had a full view of the crossroads – dry and rutted Main Street, a piss-poor description of a lumpy dirt path and Church Street, which was barely 15′ wide and speckled with holes, ankle-turners and hoof-breakers alike.
Dominating the center of the crossroads was a massive well, its thick and waist-high apron of fired bricks held up a heavy timber roof on two thick, old support beams. The well shaft was hidden in shadow, but even from here Ely could smell the sweet, cool water at the bottom and he rasped a sour tongue over his bloated and bloody lips and immediately winced and sucked his breath in pain.
Ely looked over at Vern in the other cage. Vern looked dead maybe, or just battered into unconsciousness, and he was draped across the hard wooden slab in the middle of the cage.
One of Vern’s boots was missing, just like Ely’s, and two blackened stumps, crusted with blood and being sampled by huge black flies, stuck out on his right foot. The missing toes were nowhere to be found, and Ely looked at his own mangled foot and remembered the posse from last night and how they tortured him and Vern for awhile before pissing and shitting into buckets and throwing the contents over the two prisoners, all the while laughing and poking them with sharpened sticks until they bled.
The knives soon followed and he had blissfully passed out after they cut off his big toe.
Ely shivered. He felt worse than dead. His whole body, inside and out, hurt and his head ached until he thought he might scream. Vern was the lucky one, he thought. At least he was asleep. Or dead. He couldn’t be dead, could he? He thought again of the raging mob, and he began shivering violently.
He tried to call out Vern’s name, but all that answered him was a throaty croak, that sounded nothing like “Vern” but Vern didn’t stir anyway.
Ely tried again. He managed a grotesque squawk. “Hey Vern.” Vern did not move.
Ely squinted at his friend, seeing if he could tell if he was still breathing, but his eyesight was swimming and keeping his head still was proving difficult. He lay down again, just breathing, with his eyes half-way closed and tried to ignore the relentless black, biting flies. He just needed to catch his breath and then he would shout for Vern. He just needed to rest. Just for a minute.
Within seconds he slid into sleep, unbidden, in the sweltering heat of the day.
Ely awoke again with a start. It was dark. The moon was up, big and bright, and a cool wind was blowing.
He shivered and sat up gingerly, holding his aching head. His stomach roiled and his mouth felt like some dog had used it for a toilet. Everything was swimmy, and he groaned quietly aloud.
“’Zat you, Ely?” came a voice from the darkness. Ely turned his head. His croak had worsened. It was a deep and almost inhuman bark of a sound – “Vern?”
Vern laughed, and drawled, his voice broken and crusted with pain, “Hells fire, who else woodit be locked up with yore sorry be-hind? I feel like toasted shit, I shorely do.”
Hearing Vern speak shook the crust from Ely’s throat and he hawked loudly, spat, and said, “I thought you was dead, Vern, for sure and damnation, I thought you was dead as dogshit.”
Vern said, “I might feel dead, but I ain’t, and neither are you, so shut up awhile and lemme think.”
A minute passed. The moon did not move.
Near the ancient well a tiny blob of greenish-white light appeared from nowhere, as if it always was. It was spun from the darkness, coalescing from Elsewhere, maybe. A pinprick of luminescence. Neither prisoner noticed.
Ely, impatient, broke the silence, “We gonna die here, Vern. Ain’t no way round it, I figure. We dead as dogshit!
Vern spat, “Shut up, boy. I ain’t dying in no goddamn dog cage in fucking Bodie, evil motherfucking sheriff or not! We are getting the hell outta here. I just gotta think, so shut yer hole and quit pissin in my ear!”
Like a mutt, freshly booted in the bollocks, Ely groaned his battered body back down on the wooden slab to try and rest, but he knew that he was gonna die here, and he couldn’t still his racing thoughts.
Once, he opened his eyes, and his gaze fell in the direction of the old well. A long, thin line of greenish light, stretched, nearly twice the height of a man, and illuminated the shadows cast by the weathered bricks in the moonlight with a pale phosphorescence.
Ely frowned. He struggled to push himself up to one elbow, and mock-whispered, “Vern?”
Vern whipped his head around and winced at the sloshing pain that followed, barked, “I told you to let me think, damn you! Can’t you just shut up for a spell, dammit?”
The line of light shimmered and pulsed, stretching out, it became thicker, and soon was the width of a wooden plank. Ely’s eyes were wide and he was breathing heavy through his mouth. He began shouting, “Vern! Vern! Vern!” and pointed at the street beyond.
Vern opened his mouth to chew Ely out again, when he saw the younger man’s face and turned his head to follow Ely’s shaky, pointing hand.
Vern whispered, “What the hell…?”
Ely started to moan, shaking his head back and forth in denial, eyes wet with terror.
The thick bar of light thickened again, and again, become the size of a large door. The light pulsed and flickered. It hung there, impossibly, a foot from the dusty ground.
After a moment, dark silhouettes could be seen against the eerie luminescence.
Vern had never before in his life desired a belt of whiskey more than he did at this moment.
Ely’s terror had markedly increased, his voice rising into a keening wail, as small shapes passed through the curtain of light and lithely dropped to the street below.
A half-dozen appeared, then another six a moment later. A huge silhouette followed on their heels, nearly blocking out all of the shimmery light, and then it passed through the curtain of light. As the huge figure crossed the threshold the unquiet light winked out, returning the crossroads to the gentle dusting of moonlight.
A dozen reptilian figures, the height of a barstool (Vern’s best estimation), were crowded around the feet of a huge black shape, featureless and rapidly changing shape or so it seemed to Ely, who was rocking on the slab, both hands clamped over his mouth, elbows askew. His screams were barely stifled amid the animal stink of having pissed his dungarees, and all his mind could process was the urge to rabbit away, far and fast, and hide forever.
Vern, already weak with shock and fear, sought salvation in denial. His mangled feet forgotten, he scrabbled backwards off the slab and lost his balance, arms flailing, he cracked his skull on the cage bars and brained himself senseless, and for a minute he blacked out.
On the street, the small hellkine, winged and taloned, scattered before the black shape that was now resolving itself into the form of a nondescript white man, average height, average build, with dirty, drab clothes and a sun-faded hat. He wore no guns and carried no gunny sack. His face was dull.
He looked like a stranger, instantly forgettable.
The stranger turned and looked at a few of the hellkine, and something passed between them, leader to pack, and a few of the greenish-black creatures hopped up onto the old well’s thick and well-worn rim.
The rest took a few steps, hopped and flapped their large bat-like wings and vanished from sight.
Vern woke up with a cuss-laden groan. He caught a glimpse of the hellkine on the rim of the well. His head was swimming and his eyes couldn’t focus, but he knew that something was terribly wrong. He began to bellow hellfire and damnation, straight from sunday morning, and panicked spittle flew from his bloody and bruised lips.
As Vern raved, and Ely rocked and rocked, shrieking behind his hands, the stranger finally noticed them.
The creature-dressed-as-man watched them, silently, though Vern was making a mighty racket.
No neighbors came to investigate. No heads appeared in curtained windows. The streets were deserted in the moonlight save the two prisoners and the newcomers to Bodie.
The stranger walked slowly across the street, with deliberate slowness, and he raised his arms, spread wide as if in welcome, his eyes dull and cow-like.
As he approached, the man turned his face and spoke to Ely, a jagged, horrifying spill of syllables that had the effect of stopping poor Vern’s heart, sad bastard that he was in life, the look on the old drunk’s face one of rigid and unrelenting terror.
When the Stranger spoke in Ga’gok, he did nothing more than curse the bloodline of Ely’s kin for eternity, a standard taunt to one chosen as Witness. Ely’s mouth filled with blood and he shit himself when he heard the Hellspeak, and he goggled at the stranger, his mind fracturing.
“The Stranger” was an appellation that would fit, though his name was unpronounceable by human tongues, the closest approximation was made by a diabolist in the early 12th Century who called this particular pit fiend, “K’Ker’taal’unsundisYggk’llamss”, a pathetic translation of a proud and noble line, worthy of respect and obsequious fawning and fear.
The demon-dressed-as-man reached through the iron bars and physically touched The Witness on his head, transferring to him the gift of Sight and protecting him from all that was to follow. When Ely died, and his soul was taken into captivity, he would be transformed into a common lemure, mere food for the damned, but not before the Sight was extracted and used as evidence against the renegade the Stranger had come here to hunt.
Back in the street the well’s weathered rim was crowded with perched hellkine. They were facing outwards, wings furled, and The Witness saw them start to rock, in time, back and forth, making strange echoing sounds, like fading, twisted birdsong, full of rawk and gibber. Minutes passed, with only the alien sounds filling the night air, until slithery, organic sheaths appeared between the hellkine’s legs, grey and twitching with peristalsis, and they hung, dripping, over the black, cold shaft of the town’s ancient water source.
The Stranger left the dog cages behind, walking away from the Sheriff’s office, which was shuttered and dark, and off down towards The Eucalyptus, a once-famous casino and cathouse, now the sad and tattered headquarters for most of the town’s scum, which were plentiful, but not present in The Eucalyptus, or anywhere else in town, orders of the Sheriff.
Sheriff Merrick was a right bastard and a mountain of a man, with a tempestuous manner to match. Curfew at sundown, no exceptions, all business and homes to be locked and shuttered, with minimal light as needed only, and there had been plenty of violence over this sudden announcement when the town, lawless and in danger of disappearing altogether, found itself with a different kind of stranger in town almost two years ago, before the blizzards that swept through here in January, 1853. The year of the white death and smallpox epidemic.
Disease and fear had wiped out most of the people and livestock in the area, and this whole region was dying of an ever-shrinking populace, so when a hulk of a man named Clement Elijah Merrick arrived on foot from the direction of the pine woods, it caused a stir, and folk talked, mostly because folks in small towns got nothing else to talk about.
They stopped talking when self-declared Sheriff Merrick hung three men for rape from The Eucalyptus’ balcony, while loudly and drunkenly declaiming any and all who dared defied the justice that now reigned in Bodie. To make his point he shouted, “Justice!”, “Law!”, “Order!” and punctuated each shout with a lash, from the long-handled whip that he constantly carried, to one of the dangling corpses, and this went on for almost an hour. By the end the three hanged men were little more than shredded meat twisting in the chilly night wind.
The new sheriff went door to door the next day, telling folk how things now worked in the new Bodie. All firearms were to be surrendered. Sheriff Merrick used a loaded shotgun to enforce these rules, and had to shoot a few men to make sure the rest of the town understood the severity of the offense. The drunkards, vagabonds, old farts, and too-dumb-to-leave were also required to report for “A Full and Complete Tally of census for Any and all Persons Residing in Bodie proper”, and no one was allowed to leave the town without expressed permission by Sheriff Merrick, now called Bastard Clem by most in his absence, but none dared go against him, and the town knuckled.
Merrick was not just a sadist, he was a tyrant with a cunning and greedy nature. After he locked the town up tight, he proceeded to consolidate the women into his lair. All the towns women, 22 females ranging in age from 19 to 61 were moved at gunpoint into the rooms at The Eucalyptus. They were not abused. They were fed, and kept pliant with alcohol and morphine, which Bastard Clem seemed strangely well-equipped to have brought an amount large enough to sedate half the town’s population for over ten months.
A few of the brighter scum were chosen as Deputies to enforce the peace, but really they were there to make sure no one ever escaped. The roamed the streets at night, armed with enough firepower to take down the entire town three times over, and that was for each of the three Deputies.
The women slept, mostly, and talked through the walls of their shabby rooms, which were only ever unlocked for meals, delivered by one of the Deputies, usually the quiet one the others called Gizzard. He was a boy, really, but with a quick mind and he did whatever Merrick told him to, a bootlicker to be sure, but he had a spark of cruel wit about him, and often left the ladies in tears after delivering their meager fare once a day and whispering some horror in their ears.
Slack Danny, sometimes called Sack, was the most sadistic person Ely could remember seeing in his stupid, short life. He was dull as a milk cow and completely forgettable as a human being. Until you saw the glint of the murderer and cannibal in his eyes.
The last was a dunce named Supper Tophin, a shambling flab of a man, jug-handled ears and a bald head, he was bowlegged and short, and had a fondness for butcher’s knives and axes of all kinds. He personally had chopped Grunder Finch’s leg off from the knee down when he refused to turn over his wife and daughter to the unknown machinations of the Sheriff and his flunkies. He liked to masturbate in public and he thought it was hilarious to pick his nose and fling the contents at well dressed ladies and gentlemen, whenever his travels brought him into contact with such fine people, which, thankfully, was not often.
The Deputies were nowhere to be seen in the full-moon night of the crossroads where Ely’s wide-eyed, open-mouthed, seemingly-frozen stare could Witness. Nothing to see and only the heavy, measured footsteps of the Stranger walking down the sidewalk deeper into town and the rhythmic gollicking of the hellkine huddled over the well could be heard in the quiet town as midnight approached.
The Witness saw no other folk, not in the streets and not in any windows, as all was shuttered and dark.
Only the full moon saw the end of the hellkine’s labors.
One-by-one, at a steady, organic pace, the ovipositors between the scaly legs began dropping leathery looking eggs into the dark hole of the well. Ely could not hear them, but he imagined the pattering splash of them in the cool darkness. For minutes it seemed to the Witness, the monsters dropped dozens of small grey eggs and then all at once their efforts stopped, their voices suddenly silent and they stood as one, and leapt, large translucent wings flapping hard and they vanished from view. The footsteps of the Stranger were now almost too faint to hear. There was nothing else left to Witness.
Overcome, the breakdown of Ely’s mind was held together by the arcane bindings laid upon him by the Stranger. Like a barbed wire net, heated to a scalding burn, his mind was kept from dissolving, and all sense of Self was preserved against the onslaught of images and knowledge being encoded into his brain right now, but when the street suddenly cleared and became quiet again, Ely was able for a moment, to take a quiet breath, close his now-aching jaws and, more importantly, finally close his eyes.
There was grit and crap in them, and they hurt and itched, but just the relaxation of the muscles was enough to anchor him for a moment. Ely knew that he was no longer Ely any more. He knew that whatever part of him that used to be him, but was now gone, was part of a time that could never be recaptured, and he knew, instinctively, that Hell would claim him for the things he had seen tonight.
He wept, and this stung his eyes terribly, rubbing them just made the grit move around and now his eyes gushed, and in his mind he was whipped by his fear and his tormented body gave no surcease for many minutes, until finally he was able to lie quietly and as he tried to sleep, knowing he wouldn’t, knowing he couldn’t, knowing that he could never rest, and maybe never sleep again, then he finally did.
END OF PART ONE