The following short story was presented at the Jersey City Writers’ monthly genre event–Whiskey Saloon. Please enjoy.
On the third day I knew we were going to die. My captors seemed to know it too. Their pugnacious expressions had changed to something softer, wider-eyed. I tried to keep my own eyes closed as much as possible, wincing against the cruel vista, sweat dripping down my eyelids.
The demonic stillness of this place was like nothing I had ever experienced. All around us lay an endless expanse of glittering white, tempered by cracks that raced one another to the horizon. When we’d first come here, the Sheriff had picked up a handful of the stuff and let it drain softly through his fingers. “Salt,” he’d snarled, grinning at me as though we were participants in some secret joke.
It was frighteningly quiet, no sign of life in any place but our abominably creaking Conestoga wagon and our pitiable team of oxen, panting as they carried their own deaths across this landscape.
We must have fallen out of time, I marveled. I thought of Lot’s wife, turned into a pillar of salt for her disobedience, and wondered if our wagon-wheels tread upon the corpses of thousands of others, unmarked by history, similarly punished by the angels for their earthly sins.
I thought about how the remains of my captors and I would soon be mixed among them.
I’d never seen myself as a woman of valor. For how honorable could a woman possibly be, her family all dead from vice or pestilence, unmarried at the age of twenty-three? So my role on this Earth lay in a town of tents along the westward trail, plying men with liquor and charms, and parting them from their gold. I wore ruffles around my waist, but no flowers in my hair. I wore cheap trinkets and cheaper rouge. These men were weary from ferrying ungrateful greenhorns from fort to river-valley and back again, and my affectations said to them, I’ve got just what you need. And usually, I did.
But he was different. When he first walked into the saloon with his buckskin boots and his Stetson and that fussy string tie, like a dandy playing at Manifest Destiny, I wondered what he was trying to prove.
“What’s your name, hon?” I asked, big red smile on my face.
“Who wants to know?” he asked. His droopy blond mustache hid any emotion.
“Why, I do,” I pressed on.
“Well, round here, most people call me the Sheriff. Now how’s about some whiskey?”
I had to stop from laughing in his face. Everyone knew that this was a town without a sheriff. We never had much need for one, considering our town was the last post for supplies and firearms between here and nowhere. This man was putting on a play for himself.
When I left at the end of the night and found him waiting for me, I wasn’t even surprised. I can read men like an Indian can read the stars. Now another man stood beside him, smaller and less noticeable.
“We’re settin’ out on the trail tomorrow, and we sure are hankerin’ for some female company,” the Sheriff said, his mustache spreading apart as he grinned.
“I think you’ve got the wrong idea, sir,” I said.
I took two steps before I felt the barrel of a gun pressing into my back. “No, my dear,” his voice snarled. “You have.”
“I told him not to take this trail,” the second man half-whispered to me. It was the first I’d heard him speak. The second man barely even seemed real to me, like the phantasms one sometimes sees in the desert. I found him hard to figure out. He hadn’t taken advantage of my charms and the desolation of the trail, the way the Sheriff had. He could have done whatever he wanted with me. But when the Sheriff came too close to me, he disappeared.
“Where are we?” I whispered hoarsely. We were trying to ration the water, a sip every couple of hours. Each of us knew without saying that taking too big a gulp was bound to provoke the ire of the Sheriff.
“Salt Flats,” the second man gulped. “This probably ain’t the right time to say this, but the Donner Party–”
“Took this trail,” I said. “But why are we here?”
“I don’t know,” the second man said. “I think maybe…that the Sheriff came here to die.”
“It’s the only explanation,” he said. “Sheriff was always a bit of a romantic.”
We both looked back into the wagon, where the Sheriff lay unmoving, his eyes squinting against the whiteness.
“Mountains,” I whispered, pointing to the masses hulking in the distance. We were down to two oxen. The others had run off in the night. I hoped to God they’d found a better place than here.
“They might not be real,” the second man said.
“But they might be.”
“It’s not like it was back when the Donner Party was here,” the second man whispered. “They’ve got towns past here now. Tents, but still.”
“Maybe we should leave him.”
The idea hung between us like washing on a clothesline.
I woke up to the second man tapping my shoulder.
“Oxen’s gone,” he said. “Gotta walk.” He looked behind me and his eyes widened. I turned around. The wagon behind us was empty.
The Sheriff had left his boots, so I put them on, and we carried what we could on our backs. We walked hours in silence, the sky windless, the only sound our shoe-soles crunching across miles and miles of packed salt.
“He’s my father,” the second man finally said. “He ain’t — he wasn’t a good man. He went to Salt Lake to get him some sister-wives. A lot of people did. But he didn’t take kindly to the religious part. He wanted to start something of his own. Be a leader of men, like.”
“Why didn’t you stop him?” I asked softly.
“Couldn’t,” the second man said ruefully. “He had that gun pressed into my back just like he had it pressed into yours. But you know, I keep thinkin’. He didn’t take his boots. Walkin’ away like that, dyin’ out here with his shoes off…maybe he was tryin’ to make his peace, in a way.”
“Fine way to do it,” I said.
“Know what he used to say to me?” the second man said. “He used to say, ‘Dawn is high noon for me, because every day’s a gunfight with yourself.’”
“How about that,” I said.
We’d been walking in silence for a couple of hours when the second man jumped and grabbed my arm. “Lord Almighty!” He pointed, and I froze at what I saw.
Something was racing past the horizon, faster than a bird or a locomotive, faster than I’d ever seen anything move. It was redder than a tomato and screamed like a creature from the depths of Hell.
As it roared closer to us I squinted my eyes. It was a carriage of some sort, but with no horses to pull it. It moved completely of its own volition, possessed. There was a rectangular glass porthole in front.
“There’s a person in there!” I shouted, pointing to the helmeted face I could barely see beneath the darkened glass. I wondered whether to wave hello or run away.
The carriage was not two hundred paces from us when it suddenly screeched across the salt in a massive circular turn. Then it screamed across the horizon, out of sight, and all sounds dissolved once again into silence.
“What in God’s name was that?” the second man whispered.
Pinpricks hit my arms and back. I raised my face to the sky and watched the raindrops fall.
“Providence,” I whispered.