Monday, February 18, 2019
(After playing the Call of Cthulhu Down Darker Trails Catastrophe Engine Campaign original scenario “A Night at Black Knoll” based on “A Night in Black Knoll” in Adventures into the Unknown #13 Saturday from 1 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. with Kyle Matheson.)
Marshal Clayton Pierce had left his companions on Sunday, November 14, 1875, heading back down the trail that followed the Arkansas River with Jack Parker while the rest took the buckboard and the Crescent and headed off into the wilderness. They had told him they were going to take the thing to Jacali’s cabin, which lay where the territories of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico met. They said they were going to hide it there until they could figure out what better to do with it.
He and Jack Parker traveled along the road until they reached Canyon City after only a couple days. Then they boarded the railroad, which took them back up to Denver, north to Cheyenne, Wyoming, and finally west, all the way to San Francisco.
On their long journey, Clayton Pierce had a long time to think about what to do about the man. His quest for vengeance had been cooled somewhat by Parker’s seeming complete change of personality.
They talked extensively on the week-long journey.
When asked, Parker told him he was unsure how he got the powers. All he knew was the Crescent affected people and it had affected him. It didn’t talk to him so much as impress upon him certain ideas and sometimes thoughts or images. His first use of whatever the Crescent had done to him had come when he had dragged himself out of the river. He had continued to clutch the device and had walked some little ways away from the river before he had lifted off the ground and floated away. He wasn’t sure, however, as his memory of that time was fragmented.
He had kept the Crescent close while he had recuperated from the bullet and the fall. Over time, he was able to manipulate things with his minds. Sometimes he could even read minds and take the measure of people with uncanny accuracy. Later, he could move things with his mind, manipulate objects, and even push bullets off their course as they came at him. He was unsure how it all happened or how it could happen.
When he first started to feel the changes, he was terrified. Then he was excited as he could use the strange powers to rob banks and destroy people. However, over just a short period of time, he started to come to the realization of the terrible things he’d done with his life and the terrible things he’d done to people. He felt as if he had been forced to confront the things he’d done in his life, things he had ignored before. He felt the Crescent forced him to confront the life he’d led and come to terms with it. That had been the defining time with the device and that was what had changed him.
When Clayton Pierce asked why John Valentine had not changed from his exposure to the other Crescent, Parker was unsure though he knew something was terribly wrong with Valentine. He hazarded a guess it might be due to Valentine’s madness. Parker noted he, himself, was not insane, or at least he didn’t think he was. He had seen some terrible things but they had not broken him. Valentine, on the other hand, had gone mad when he found the damaged Crescent. He might have been mad before that; he was a pretty awful person. He also wondered aloud of exposure to the intact Crescent might help Valentine, but he didn’t know.
Parker noted something else was off about Valentine, something that had gotten worse in 1874, not too long after he found the damaged Crescent. He was not sure what.
When Marshal Pierce asked if he should expose himself to the Crescent, Parker was not sure. He knew it affected different people differently but he was still unsure why. He thought the thing intelligent and said he sometimes got impressions or ideas from it as to where to go and even what to do. He talked about the device like it was a person sometimes.
They discussed whether or not the Crescent had its own agenda or purpose. Marshal Pierce wondered if it had given Jack Parker what it had given him as it otherwise would have been trapped in the river he’d fallen into. Parker was unsure.
Parker was also unsure why it had chosen him. He had been a terrible person and had thought himself unredeemable. He had heard the stories of the men who had first encountered it being turned to dust. They had been prisoners and criminals. If the Crescent destroyed those who were terrible people, he figured he should have been turned into a pile of ash, like they had been. He thought if the Crescent had just been using him to get out of the river, it certainly would have left him behind and chosen someone else he met along the way, he thought. He ran into other people after a few days and it could have easily, from the powers it was said to have, have eliminated him during that time and chosen someone better suited for it. But he didn’t know.
He also told Marshal Pierce the initial train robbery had been commissioned by a rich fellow from San Francisco. The man had hired them to rob the train and steal the Crescent, though he was unsure exactly who it was. He thought it was the man who owned the mine where the Crescent was initially found but he had not talked to him and he’d not met him; he’d only communicated to Valentine and then through letters brought by some woman from San Francisco.
Valentine had sent Parker and some of his men, along with the dragons called down by an Indian shaman who Valentine knew in Southern California. They had attacked the train in the attempt to rob it and get the Crescent back. Valentine had no intention of turning the device over to the man from San Francisco though. He had planned to keep it for himself.
Marshal Pierce also asked what they could do to take down John Valentine. He thought Valentine was much like Parker. Parker disagreed and didn’t think he had the same powers as he did, but was more someone who was meddling with magic and strange books and papers. He didn’t think Valentine was invulnerable and guessed if he was struck by enough bullets, the man would go down. He also didn’t think Valentine’s magical protection from bullets would stop someone from grappling him to the ground, though he was a good brawler.
He said he thought Valentine had certain magical talents, making him very dangerous. He was also quite mad, which was also dangerous. Nothing seemed to bother him or change his mind. He, personally, hoped Valentine would be brought to justice as he was, but he was certain that was going to be difficult. He also thought it would be harmful to Pierce or those who killed Valentine outright rather than bring him to justice.
When Marshal Pierce asked if he wanted to help, Parker was not sure how he could. He did tell Marshal Pierce where a couple of his hideouts, those he hadn’t recently raided for the money to pay people back, were located. The places had caches of money, weapons, medical equipment, gear, and the like. When Pierce asked if he wanted to come with him to find Valentine, he said he would if that was what a jury or judge decided. He felt he had to pay his debt to society one way or another before he could make any of those kinds of decisions.
* * *
They arrived in San Francisco on November 22 and Marshal Pierce turned Jack Parker in to the police there. The day after it happened, an article appeared in the local newspapers. Marshal Pierce also gave a statement asking for leniency in Parker’s sentencing as the man regretted his actions and seemed genuinely remorseful of the things he had done.
* * *
The next day, Marshal Pierce went to Frederick Rotheschilde’s office in San Francisco. He talked to the man’s secretary and, after about a 20 minute wait, he got in to see the man.
Frederick Rotheschilde was a robber baron of no little power or fortune. He was an older man, clean-shaven, with graying hair and a rugged and handsome face. He wore a fine suit and was smoking a large, pungent cigar, sitting behind a massive desk made of mahogany and teak.
On one side of the room was a long table, probably used for meetings, with a few papers and the like on it. On the other wall, under the window, was a sideboard with decanters of alcohol upon it. A fireplace was in the wall next to the door Marshal Pierce had just entered. Large windows allowed a great deal of light into the second-story office and fine paintings and a map of the western United States hung about.
“C’mon in, marshal,” Rotheschilde said.
Marshal Pierce stopped at the door as he entered the room and looked around at the opulence. He closed the door behind him and, seeing a latch to lock the door, reached over and turned it. He didn’t break eye contact with the other man, who looked directly into his eyes.
He looked over at the sideboard.
“Mind?” he said.
Rotheschilde stood up.
“Allow me,” he said.
He walked over to the sideboard near the window and turned over a couple of glasses, pouring a little whiskey from a beautifully carved decanter. He lifted both glasses, taking them to the desk, and sat himself behind it, putting one glass across from him where two leather-covered stuffed chairs stood. Marshal Pierce crossed to the desk and picked up his glass.
“To manifest destiny,” he said, holding the glass up.
“I’ll drink to that!” Rotheschilde said.
The whiskey was delicious and smooth and perfect.
“And money,” Rotheschilde, raising his glass again and taking another sip.
Marshal Pierce looked around the room, taking his time and giving Rotheschilde time to wonder why he was there. There were a few papers on the desk and he saw Rotheschilde had a copy of the San Francisco Daily Morning Chronicle as well. He saw the story about his bringing in Jack Parker on the front page.
“I guess you heard the news,” Marshal Pierce said.
“I did,” Rotheschilde said. “Congratulations, marshal. Well done on getting a criminal off the streets.”
“To Clayton Pierce.”
Rotheschilde took another sip of the whiskey.
“You gotta drink when your name’s said,” Marshal Pierce said, taking a sip.
“That’s the name my secretary gave me,” Rotheschilde said. “That is you? Right?”
He pointed at the newspaper. Pierce nodded.
“Have a seat,” Rotheschilde said. “What do you need? Always happy to help the law.”
“Well, that’s good to hear,” Marshal Pierce said.
Rotheschilde sat down behind the desk. Marshal Pierce took a seat on the other side.
“Obviously, I have come here because I am in need of a few things,” Marshal Pierce said. “Jack Parker─”
“Investment?” Rotheschilde said. “You need some help investing that ten thousand? I can double that in a year, possibly less.”
“I’m sure you could, but I’m afraid that full ten thousand is not all mine. I do have constituents that I need to meet up with and pay for their … part in the retrieval.”
“Ah. I see. Well … they were just helpers though. They don’t need to paid much.”
“Well … I’m good but I’m not that good. They did play a significant part.”
“But you got your name in the paper. You got the credit.”
“You should keep most of the money. Trust me on this. It’s how I’ve made my living.”
Rotheschilde puffed on his cigar. A cloud of blue smoke was starting to fill the room. He smiled.
“Well, I appreciate the sentiment and the advice, but I believe I will do what I feel is right,” Marshal Pierce said.
“It’s your money,” Rotheschilde said.
“It is. But, you know Jack Parker was only the tip of the iceberg, as they say. From what I understand, there’s quite a few men attached to John Valentine. Not just the outlaws. Not just the degenerates. But some people are funding his expeditions.”
“Why, that’s scandalous! Scandalous!”
He’s obviously involved, Marshal Pierce thought.
“I do believe that,” he said. “A man as wealthy as yourself, you must have some suspicions of who it is.”
“There are a few lawmen who are probably on the take,” Rotheschilde said.
“You think so?”
“Do you have their names?”
“I don’t have enough information to give their names yet, but when I do, I can contact you if you tell me where.”
“Yeah, we can probably work that out. I’ll see your secretary on the way out.”
“Very good. Is that all?”
“Well, I did have some questions for you.”
“I don’t know how I could help with this kind of thing.”
“I don’t know how much the paper got into it but Jack Parker was … very helpful … after I apprehended him. He gave a lot of information.”
“That’s good. The more the better.”
“He … uh … he had some notes between John Valentine and a contact here in San Francisco about robbing the Sequoyah Star, which, as you know, was the train I was on with the Crescent, trying to make sure it got where it was needed.”
“No, I didn’t know that.”
Rotheschilde stood up. He gestured towards Marshal Pierce’s empty glass and the man nodded. He took it and went to the sideboard, pouring them each a fresh drink. Marshal Pierce kept an eye on him but didn’t see him do anything suspicious. The glasses were in view the entire time.
Rotheschilde brought the glass back over and put it on the desk. He stood on the side of the desk rather than sit, glancing out the window.
“So, he handed over some documents to me that I do not think will take very long for me to find the origin of who the writer is,” Marshal Pierce said.
“Do you have an idea?” Rotheschilde said.
“Not at the moment.”
“None at all?”
“No. I came to you because I do understand the Crescent was your property.”
“Indeed, it was.”
“And that it─”
“It should be my property. You found him! Did you find the Crescent?”
“I would be willing to pay for its return.”
“Oh, I’m sure you would.”
“That’s five Jack Parkers.”
Rotheschilde laughed a little too loudly.
“Yes, marshal,” he said. “If you bring it to me, it’s worth that much.”
“Well,” Marshal Pierce said. “But the government says it’s their property.”
“The government thinks they own everything in this country, don’t they?”
“The ground beneath our feet. You can’t even own a piece of property … without the government claiming that it’s theirs. Money … talks. And if you bring me the Crescent, it will be worth a great deal of money to me and it will be a great deal of money for you.”
Marshal Pierce looked at him.
“What do you want the Crescent for so badly?” he said.
“It has certain qualities,” Rotheschilde said. “That I wish to explore further.”
“What if I told you that on my trip back to San Francisco, Jack Parker told me that he doesn’t think anyone should investigate those properties of the Crescent. It had fully changed this man.”
“Well, he is a criminal, after all.”
“Yes, but I would … advise you to maybe go see him in the jail and see how much it can change a man before you … try to investigate something I don’t think you quite understand fully.”
“Oh, I understand! I understand it quite well. And I need it. Do you know where it is?”
“I wish I did but I do not. But, I just wanted to come here to see if you knew who contacted John Valentine to rob the Sequoyah Star. I am not one for allegations or to apprehend somebody without hard evidence but … the Crescent was your property. Your property was taken, lawfully or not. Depends on how you see it or which side of the line you play. And then the Sequoyah Star … is robbed. Now, if I was a bettin’ man, I’d say that the person who would try to get the Sequoyah Star robbed … number one suspect would be you.”
Marshal Pierce drank down the whiskey and put the glass back down on the desk.
“Who else would benefit from the Sequoyah Star being robbed?” he said.
“Well,” Rotheschilde said. “That’s quite an accusation, marshal.”
“Well, we’re just speaking hypothetically.”
“But I hate to disappoint.”
He leaned towards the man as if to get his glass, but instead he leaned further down towards Marshal Pierce and put a hand on his shoulder.
“So, I won’t,” he said.
With a strength impossible for a man of his size and age, he grabbed marshal pierce by the jacket, vest, and shirt, clutching him by the front and the shoulder, and flung him up and out of his chair to crash against the wall across the office between the fireplace and the door. Pierce fell to the ground and the man moved across the room with impossible speed. He grabbed Marshal Pierce once again by the shirt, pulling the pistol out of his holster and flinging it away. Then he lifted the man up by a single arm and held him against the wall, grinning.
“Do you understand the power of that thing!?!” he said. “I only touched it for a few moments … and look what’s it’s given me! I’ve never felt more alive or stronger or healthier!”
Marshal Pierce grabbed the man’s arm. It was a solid as steel.
“The power of the Crescent is not what you think it is!” he said. “If you are exposed to it for too long, it will swallow you whole! What it has done to you now has made you a stronger individual, but I promise you, you do not know its full potential.”
“It has given me a new life!” Rotheschilde said.
He flung Marshal Pierce across the room again and the man crashed onto the long table on one side, knocking papers off it. Then he was moving towards him again, a maniacal grin on his face. Marshal Pierce rolled over backwards and landed behind the table, grabbed its edge and flipped it over to block the man. Rotheschilde leapt over the three-foot wide table like it wasn’t even there, grabbing Clayton Pierce by the collar again.
“I’ve never enjoyed myself so much!” he said to the man.
He flung him across the room again and Marshal Pierce landed on his desk as man came running around the fallen table at him again. He looked around desperately for his pistol and saw it in the corner of the room. Rotheschilde was between him and it and was then on top of him. He grabbed Marshal Pierce by the lapels of his jacket and started slamming him down on the desk. Marshal Pierce suddenly noticed dark bags under Rotheschilde’s eyes. He didn’t know if they had been there before. His face also looked sunken against his skull. His hair looked like it had gotten suddenly thin and appeared to be whiter as well.
“You do not understand the power of the Crescent!” Rotheschilde said, punctuating each word by slamming the man against the desk.
There was a knock at the door.
“Is everything okay in there?” a woman’s voice called.
Marshal Pierce pushed the man off him and ran over to the corner where his pistol lay. He picked it up and spun around, pointing it at Rotheschilde.
Rotheschilde came at him but he was now moving much slower and even stumbled as he walked. Marshal Pierce could see a distinct change in him. His skin had gone pale and was tight against his bones and his hair had turned completely white and was thinning and falling from his head. His clothing was hanging off of him like he had shrunken perceptively.
“How old were you when you found the Crescent?” Marshal Pierce gasped.
Rotheschilde struggled to breathe. Something fell from the man’s pant legs onto the floor and Marshal Pierce saw what looked like gray dust pouring out. The man looked more like a walking corpse than anything as he lurched towards Marshal Pierce, gasping and choking. His left arm fell, there was a strange rattle, and out of the jacket sleeve fell a skeletal arm, the flesh and muscle turning to dust.
Rotheschilde stumbled to his knees and fell forward onto his face. His hair had fallen out and turned to dust, leaving nothing but a skull which crumbled to gray powder, leaving nothing of the man apparently. There was another knock at the door as the suit seemed to shrink even more.
“What’s going on in there?”the woman’s voice called again. “Is everything okay? Hello?”
“The law’s got it under control, ma’am,” he called out in a shaky voice.
The doorknob rattled again and the sound of a flustered woman came from outside the door.
“Mr. Rotheschilde, are you all right?” the woman’s voice said.
Ignoring her, Marshal Pierce walked over to the suit and nudged it with his foot. It felt like it was full of dirt or dust. He knelt down and lifted it up. It was empty. Only the dust remained within. Rotheschilde was gone and left nothing behind.
Marshal Pierce examined the suit and found Rotheschilde’s wallet. There was a wallet within filled with money and his identification. He left them.
He searched the desk and found a small panel in the back of the bottom right hand drawer. He removed it and found a few short notes signed “V” that seemed to connect him to the train robbery. They were not dated and vague enough that they would probably not hold up in court, but the man was dead, so it didn’t really matter.
He thought on what to do.
The official papers didn’t seem to be of great important though there were some telegrams and receipts for the Pinkerton Detective Agency. They seemed to indicate someone in one of the richer sections of San Francisco had been put under surveillance by Rotheschilde about two months before. He recognized the address as Professor’s Stalloid’s house. The telegrams were vague but he found one that noted “THE TARGET HAS ESCAPED IN GRANITE STOP ATTEMPING TO FIND STOP.” The date on it was November 18, just a few days after they had captured Jack Parker in Granite, Colorado. It was sent from Canyon City, Colorado. Other earlier telegrams noted the “target” was travelling and seemed out of sorts. The dates coincided with the dates Professor Stalloid had traveled to Colorado. The only signature was the initials “MF.”
It looked like Rotheschilde hired the Pinkertons to follow Professor Stalloid and the telegrams were from them. They went quiet until after the incident in Granite. The last was well over a week old. He was unsure if they might have gone through Rotheschilde’s secretary.
Other letters and telegrams seemed to indicate others were looking for something noted only as “the object” which he guessed was the Crescent. Rotheschilde apparently had people all over the west in search of it. There was a pair of newspaper articles with one letter. One noted a murder in the town of Grant, Oregon, on October 1. Another newspaper article told of an arson that took place in Canyon City, Oregon, on September 30. The letter with them noted “This might be a lead.” He wasn’t sure what the connection was as the letter merely said someone was investigating what had happened there.
He collected all of the documents, planning on presenting all of them as evidence.
He looked out the windows. The office was on the front corner of the building on the second floor and it looked down into a courtyard with a wall and open gate that led out to the street. It was a decent drop to the ground below but not an impossible leap.
He shook the dust out of the suit and hid it in the liquor cabinet. He opened the front window of the office. A cold breeze blew in.
“What’re you doing!?!” he yelled.
He waited a few moments and then quickly went to the door, opening it.
“He just jumped out the window!” he said.
Rotheschilde’s secretary gasped and swooned as he ran past her and towards the stairs. A few men called out in alarm ran into the office. He ran out of the front of the building and looked up to see the two men peering out the open window.
“Wait!” one of them called to him. “You! Lawman! Did he kill himself? What happened? Where is he?”
“He landed on his feet and started running!” Marshal Pierce called. “Where’d he go?”
“What!?!” one of the men said.
Marshal Pierce looked around and then headed off with speed, as if in pursuit of a criminal.
* * *
Marshal Pierce took the letters and telegrams to the San Francisco Police. He wanted an investigation into the man, who he said had fled when he had confronted him. He was met by doubt but, after looking over the things he had turned in, was told they would look into it. He thought they were sincere in their possibly investigating it. Marshal Pierce also told them Jack Parker had admitted that he was an associate to Rotheschilde, who was doing illegal activities. He was assured they would talk to him and look into the situation. Though they couldn’t just arrest the man, they would investigate it.
Marshal Pierce told them he had confronted the man about what he thought he had done, there was a commotion, and Rotheschilde had flipped a table and then fled through the window. He noted he had his suspicions but when the man got violent, it made him more certain of Rotheschilde’s guilt. The officer at the station took down all the information and assured him they would investigate the incident.
* * *
Marshal Pierce, still injured from Granite, went to a hospital for a couple of weeks. He was advised by the doctor to leave the bullet in his left arm as it was embedded in the bone and he didn’t want to risk removing it.
In that time, articles appeared in the Daily Morning Chronicle about Rotheschilde’s disappearance but nothing was mentioned about any police investigation.
* * *
Once he was out of the hospital, he decided he would travel to the place where the four territories met in hopes of finding Jacali’s house and his companions. After seeing what had happened to Rotheschilde, he was worried what contact with the Crescent might do to them.
It took him a couple weeks to get to the area. He was able to take the train to central Utah, but had to go overland by horse after that. It was mid-December before he even got in the right area and started searching for her cabin. He looked for two weeks before he headed back for civilization as best he could figure, traveling south east, which seemed to be where the closest towns were. The nearest was some 200 miles away. It took him a week to get there.
* * *
It was January 6, 1876, when he rode into the tiny village in northern New Mexico called Riolo. He was stocking up on food and supplies for himself and his horse when the local marshal asked him for help. A prisoner had escaped from the jail there and the local marshal asked if he was a tracker. When he said he was, the man asked if he could help them find the man. Marshal Pierce agreed.
He was told the man escaped from jail, where he was being held for assault and battery. He called himself Alabama Bob Bishop. He was also wanted for bank robbery. During his escape two night before, he took a couple of bullets from the men attempting to stop him. The marshal asked if he could help, noting there were several posses out looking for him, but they’d had no luck so far.
Marshal Pierce was told Alabama Bob Bishop was 20, solid, with short-cut blonde hair, and blue eyes. He was wearing a striped prison shirt.
He set off to the north to search.
* * *
He found tracks some miles north of Riolo, despite two days having past. He followed them to a low area and then entered a swamp. Checking the map he’d been given of the county, there was a forested area where he was and a mark for someplace called Black Knoll. It was marked with only an “x.”
He entered the swamp at dusk and it was soon dark though he found his way through the swamp easily enough. As it got darker, the birds of the swamp started to call. It sounded like they said “Letha. Letha. Letha.”
* * *
Unfortunately, he soon lost the tracks of Bishop and it was close to midnight when, exhausted, he spotted a little shack built on a dry spot in the swamp. Even his horse, Arion, was slowing down and obviously tired.
He tied Arion to a tree not far from the shack and crept up to it. It was dark inside though there was glass on the windows. He guessed the little shack had two rooms, a main room and an added on room that was probably used for a bedroom. The shack stood a foot or so off the ground. No smoke came from the crumbling chimney.
He finally knocked at the door. After a few moments, he heard movement in the house and someone within struck a light. The flicker of candlelight grew in the main room and the door creaked open a crack as someone within thrust a candle out. The withered hand shook as it held the candle.
“Eh … can I help ye?” an old, cracked voice said. “Yeah?”
It sounded like a very old man.
“Sorry to bother you in the middle of the night, there, sir,” Marshal Pierce said. “But I’m looking for an escaped prisoner.”
“There was a man,” the old man muttered. “He’s gone now.”
“Well … can you tell me where he went?”
“Nope. Don’t know. Don’t know.”
Marshal Pierce gave the man a description of Alabama Bob Bishop.
“Yeah,” the old man muttered. “Yeah.”
He took a breath.
“You should go to Black Knoll,” the old man muttered. “He probably went to Black Knoll.”
“Where─?” Marshal Pierce said.
“There’s plenty o’ room at Black Knoll,” an old woman’s voice came from behind the door.
“Well … uh … which direction is Black Knoll?” Marshal Pierce said. “I seem to be a little bit lost.”
“You’ll find it,” the old man muttered. “You’ll find it.”
“Well … uh …” Marshal Pierce said. “I wouldn’t … I wouldn’t suppose y’all would have a spot for me in there just to give my eyes some rest before I go try to find this Black Knoll?”
“We … we gotta room t’ spare,” the old man said. “But … but there’s …”
“There’s plenty o’ rooms at Black Knoll,” the old woman said.
“You can stay if you want,” the old man said.
“I have a little bit of cash to give you if you wouldn’t mind,” Marshal Pierce said.
“Oh … okay …” the old man said.
He withdrew the candle but didn’t close the door. The light in the house moved away.
Marshal Pierce pushed open the creaking door. In the dim light, he could barely make out the two old people who hobbled towards the other door. The room appeared to be fairly dirty with little within aside from the cold fireplace and a table with a newspaper upon it. A few little trinkets decorated the room but it was otherwise very bare. He shut the door behind him and followed them to the back room.
The old people prepared the bed for him.
“Y’all don’t need to do that,” Marshal Pierce said. “I can fix it up myself.”
“Oh,” the old man said. “No … no … it’s all right. It’s okay.”
He left the candle in the bedroom and exited, his figure little more than a shadow.
“You … you can rest well here,” the old man said.
“Everyone rests well at Black Knoll,” the old woman said.
He entered the room and found there was only the bed within. The candle sputtered on its wick and smelled like animal fat.
“It’s all ready,” the old man muttered. “You can rest.”
“But not as well as you would rest at Black Knoll,” the old woman intoned.
The old man pulled the door closed.
Marshal Pierce climbed into the bed, which smelled of dust, but was otherwise comfortable enough. The birds outside continued to call: “Letha. Letha. Letha.” He thought he heard a panting and then a gasp from somewhere.
* * *
Marshal Pierce awoke some hours later, in the middle of the night. A tall woman stood over the bed. She was quite beautiful and had long hair and a tiny skull on her choker. She seemed unnatural and otherworldly.
“Rise!” she said in a deep, hollow voice. “Rise! I have come for you!”
Startled, Marshal Pierce rolled out of the bed and backed up against the wall it stood again. The woman stared down at the bed.
“Rise!” she said again. “Rise! Letha knows the way under the black sky, past the black pools to Black Knoll.”
A rustling came from under the bed and a man crawled out from under it. He had short blonde hair and white eyes. He wore a striped shirt. Marshal Pierce grabbed his pistol from his gun belt, hanging on the headboard. He wondered if the gasp he’d heard before had come from under the bed. The man didn’t look completely solid and that worried Marshal Pierce.
Outside the birds called “Letha. Letha. Letha.”
She backed away from him towards the wall and the ghostly man followed. Then they were suddenly outside.
“Follow!” the woman said. “Follow! You came here as a last refuge. You died here. And you will stay here forever with the living dead of Black Knoll.”
They headed across the swamp.
Marshal Pierce pulled his boots on and grabbed his gun belt before climbing out the window, hatless, and following them in a more roundabout path to try to stay on dry ground as best he could. He soon lost sight of them but bore on in the direction they’d disappeared in. It was as if he knew where they were going.
* * *
Marshal Pierce soon found himself facing an old but somewhat lavish cemetery. Marble pillars flanked an iron gate. An iron fence three feet tall and topped with spikes ran around the area. There were a few dozen gravestones surrounding a high place in the center where a single mausoleum stood. Four marble pillars stood at the front of the mausoleum, the door of which was ajar.
He pushed open the creaking iron gates and made his way up to the mausoleum. The name above the doors read “Black Knoll.”
He realized the old woman had been talking about the cemetery the whole time.
He headed up the side of the low rise to the mausoleum and pushed the door open fully. The mausoleum was small, with only a single casket visible in the dim moonlight that came through the iron-barred windows on either side. A flower holder with wilted flowers was over the casket. The bottom of the flower holder had a spike sticking out of it. On a brass nameplate on the casket was the name Letha Michaux.
The birds outside cried out “Letha. Letha. Letha.”
Marshal Pierce opened the casket to reveal the terrible, mummified form of the woman. Her skin was pulled close to her bones and her eyes were open and stared at him. Her mouth writhed into a bloodless smile and she reached for him. He slammed the casket lid closed.
A scratching came from the casket.
“Let me out!” Letha’s hollow voice called. “Let me out. Join us at Black Knoll. Let Letha out.”
“What do you want?” Marshal Pierce said.
“Let me out!” came from the casket. “Let me out! My curse holds Black Knoll! My curse!”
The casket lit pushed up as he held it down. He looked around.
“Let Letha out!” the hollow voice came again. “Let Letha out!”
Then the voice became a harsh whisper.
“You can stay at Black Knoll …” it said.
She gasped and grunted.
“Let me out!” she said. “Letha will keep you at Black Knoll. Letha … Letha needs warmth!”
Marshal Pierce ran out of the horrible building, the casket lid flying open with a crash as he fled. He pulled the heavy door closed but there was no lock or latch upon it. He looked around desperately, trying to see some sign of Alabama Bob Bishop. He noticed one of the tombstones was very new and clean.
He went over to the new tombstone. It read: “Alabama Bob Bishop. He is mine now.” The dates on the tombstone were 1853 and 1875. There was no shovel around and grass grew on the grave as if it had been there for years, but it was obviously very new.
The mausoleum door creaked open slowly. He watched the door, pistol pointed at it. After less than a minute, the thing that had been in the coffin moved towards him more quickly than he had wanted. She almost seemed to be floating. The hand that held the gun started shaking.
He shot her, the bullet striking her in the left ankle. Some black liquid spewed from the shattered ankle and she stumbled as the rotten foot slid away from the leg.
“Why!?!” she shrieked. “Why would you hurt Letha!?!”
She stood and hobbled towards him on one foot, the other leg coming down on the bare bone.
He backed up, stumbling over another gravestone and crashing to the ground on his back. Letha moved for him as he stood up and shot her again, this bullet hitting her in the stomach. The blast seemed to go right through her but didn’t slow her down.
She hesitated for a moment, looking down at the hole in her belly. She smiled horribly when she looked back up at him.
“You will be Letha’s new husband!” she said.
She lunged at him and he tried to fight her off, pistol-whipping her.
“Get away from me!” he cried out.
He moved off from the woman and shot her again. This time the bullet struck her in the knee of her right leg and she stumbled and fell. She kept crawling towards him and her foot caught on something but she pulled herself ahead with both hand. With a ripping noise, the lower half of her right leg came loose at the knee. Black liquid spilled out but she kept coming for him!
Oh God, he thought.
“You can’t slow down Letha!” she hissed at him. “Letha needs her husband! Letha wants your juices!”
He moved up to the woman and put his pistol to her head, firing. She swiped the gun away and the gun went off. Then she tried to grab him again but he pistol whipped her, striking her repeatedly in the head. Her skull cracked and black liquid came out. One of her eyes burst from the socket but she kept coming. She hissed and made grunting noises from her throat. Black blood coated her hair.
He put the gun to her head again as she swung wildly at him. He fired and the bullet blew off part of her skull and more black blood spewed out. He could see her pulsing brain and she cackled like a madwoman and swung madly at him. He leaned back out of the way and put the gun to her head again. She struck it, but there was a snap and her hand went completely limp and hung at an impossible angle. Then he shot her in the forehead, blowing off most of the top of her head. She collapsed, face down and spread eagle on the ground.
He stood over the corpse and reloaded the pistol with shaking hands.
He heard a sound off to one side and looked to see the old man and the old woman standing over two of the gravestones.
“Okay then,” the old man said.
The two of them faded away.
He turned back to Letha’s corpse and put another bullet through her skull. Nothing was left of her head but the lower jaw.
He returned to Alabama Bob Bishop’s grave and tried to dig there but found the dirt was frozen and hard. The earth had not been moved in a very long time. He looked up and the tombstone was gone. He got up and returned to the mausoleum, running in. Nothing looked changed there. The casket was there, standing open, but was empty. He noticed, for the first time, his footprints in the dust of the floor and saw her barefoot prints leaving the casket.
He went back out, confused.
He went to the tombstones where the old couple had disappeared. They were simply marked with names and dates: “Amos Chaney - 1800 to 1858” and “Susanna Chaney - 1804 to 1862.”
He left the cemetery.
* * *
It took a little longer to find his way back to the shack he’d slept in earlier. Once there, he lit the candle in the bedroom and looked over the place. He found some paperwork that indicated the shack had belonged to Amos and Susanna Chaney. He also looked at the newspaper, which was dated 1846 and read:
Violent Death of Letha Michaux
According to a report from the county sheriff, Letha Michaux was poisoned by her neighbors.
She had terrified the countryside as a conjure-woman, enslaved the people by threatening them
with curses. On her deathbed, the victim vowed to take her revenge in the afterlife, saying she
would control forever the spirit of those who died under the shadow of hanging moss.
He also found the corpse of Alabama Bob Bishop under the bed. He guessed the man managed to get to the bed and died there. He might have still been alive when he was sleeping in the bed earlier that evening. He wondered if the man had hidden from him when he’d arrived. It looked like he’d died from his gunshot wounds.
He was not going to spend any more time in that swamp.
* * *
It was before dawn when he returned to Riolo, only a few miles away. He roused the marshal and told him where he’d found Alabama Bob Bishop’s body in the house in the swamp. When he mentioned Black Knoll, he was told there used to be a town in the swamp but it the water went bad in 1846 and most people had left.
That afternoon, he took a posse out to the swamp and found the house and the body. They returned with it to town.
Though there was no bounty on the man, he was given a free place to stay in Riolo and kept well fed.
He slept the rest of that day and into the next.
* * *
He returned to the area he was looking for Jacali’s cabin, taking another week to get there and then searching for another three weeks, until early February. He didn’t find the cabin and so decided to return to San Francisco. He wouldn’t get back there until mid-February.