The early winter sun had all but set. The layers of gray-white clouds that congested the western sky were edged with a metallic lemon hue. Moving slowly among the tufts of sagebrush and occasional cedars that dotted the plateau, the small wagon might have been on its way forever from nowhere to nowhere.
The driver of the wagon, though he could have described colorfully and at length where he had been—like many a tinker before him—had only vague notions of where his meandering easterly course would take him. Gallup, maybe. But anyway east.
The tinker was a small round-shouldered man with a large awkward-looking head. His face, large-pored and asymmetrical, might have formed by accumulation, the way wax builds around a burning candle. His eyes were dull brown and curiously unfocused. To most people he encountered their almost constant movement seemed merely an idle, wandering gaze.
Now that gaze kept returning to the thin wavering line of smoke that hung some miles before him above what looked like a group of buildings. Not just Navajo hogans, but real white man's buildings with a windmill among them, an unhoped-for punctuation in the dull immensity between Holbrook and Gallup, maybe even a chance to turn a profit.
Profits had been few lately, and though Fleming had not actually decided on his next course of action, his mind kept circling around the notion of selling his stock and heading farther east, maybe to open a store in a town, somewhere he wasn't known. Too many people were sticking in one place these days, people with a memory for anything that moved, especially a traveling man who might try to squeeze a few extra dollars out of the stops he made.
The game had gone out of it, with distances between houses and law offices shrinking, and people huddling together like prairie dogs. Better now to try a bigger place, where the marks moved instead of him, where he could see a few sights other than the rear end of a mule, get off this desert where a man felt like a tick on a steer's flank.
As the scatter of buildings ahead became clearer, Fleming saw that his chances there would be slight. It appeared to be a town, at least the start of one, but stillborn or dying, its breath of life reduced to the thin exhalation of smoke trickling from the only building that seemed in decent repair. Who could be there? Indian squatters? Fleming doubted it; that wasn't the Indian way. Maybe another traveler sheltering for the night. That seemed more likely. Well, he'd know soon enough.
Fleming began ringing his bell long before the wagon came within rifle-shot of the ghost town, pulling the rope that hung at his left hand with a slow, steady rhythm. No sense getting shot at for want of an ample warning. Nerves could lead to a quick trigger in this loneliness. The flat monotonous ringing lost itself quickly in the thin air and vast space. Fleming, inured to it, scarcely heard the bell's muted clangor, and his mule, after a brief twitch of its ears, gave the sound no further attention. The scene ahead remained unchanged, as if there were no other ears to hear the tinker's approach.
But as he drew closer to the town Fleming's scrutiny shifted from the slowly rising smoke to the building below, and there at last he saw a conclusive sign of life. The front door of the building swung open and a man stepped out onto the wide front porch, one hand shading his eyes against the dying glare of the sun at Fleming's back. With a preliminary movement of his shoulders that might have been a shrug, or a shiver brought on by the chilling air, the man sat down on a porch step, obviously waiting, evidently not eager enough at the sight of a stranger to meet him halfway.
Finally though, when Fleming's wagon trundled within a hundred feet or so of the building, close enough for the tinker to read the sign it bore—Buckley's General Store & Stage Stop, GPO, Sheriff—the man rose. He was of medium height, unremarkable in dress or physical appearance. A battered wide-brimmed hat covered his head, and he wore a collarless shirt beneath a grimy, dun-colored jacket. A pistol rode high on the hip of the rough-cut wide-legged trousers he wore outside his boots. The lines on his face and the gray flecks in his dark sidewhiskers would make him about fifty, Fleming thought. Only one unusual feature marked the man: the five-cornered star he wore next to his left lapel.
"Evenin'," the man said. "At first I thought you might be the Army. Where you bound?"
"Just east," Fleming replied. "Maybe Gallup. I didn't expect to run into much on the way, except maybe Injuns."
The man eyed the sign on Fleming's wagon. "Well, Mr. Fleming," he said, "you wouldn't even have run into me if you'd been a few days later. I'll be gone, whole toot and scramble, soon as the Army gets here.
Fleming, in turn, inclined his head toward the sign on the building before him. "You must be Sheriff Buckley."
The man chuckled sourly. "Yes. That's me, all right. I'm not resigned yet." Then he forced a smile. "But climb on down and share supper with me, such as it may be."
"Obliged," Fleming said. He got down from the wagon, felt the hard earth under his feet. Just my luck, he thought. One other man in the middle of this waste, and he's not only the law, he's competition, too. But what in hell was going on here? Head tilted, nose twitching, Fleming looked around him. The town was silent, save for the random creakings of sun-dried wood. Like the air in a long-closed room, a parched, antique odor filled his nostrils, then faded with the dying breeze.
"You can stable your mule over there." Buckley indicated a building across the street with a cracked sign on which were printed the words, LIVERY STABLE, GEO. MILLS, PROP. "My two mares are in there. There's water and feed both."
Buckley accompanied Fleming and watched as the tinker tended to his animal. A wagon laden with furniture, crates of hard goods, and roughly-wrapped packages stood beneath the shelter of a lean-to at one side of the stable.
"All set to go." Buckley nodded at the wagon. Before Fleming could ask him where he intended going, the sheriff said, "Let's eat," and led the way back across the street.
Inside, Buckley's place looked much like any other general store, except that its shelves were empty and its pot-bellied stove stood cold and black. A bench ran along the wall to the left of the front door, presumably for waiting stage customers, and a faded timetable hung at eye level next to the door-jamb. The room was dark, illuminated only by the glow from an open doorway in the back wall.
"Back here," Buckley said, walking toward the light.
Fleming followed the sheriff into the back of the store and found himself in what at one time must have been comfortable living quarters, one large and two small rooms, too much really for a single man. Clearly Buckley had stripped the place of all he intended to remove, except for the few bedclothes, dishes, and foodstuffs he would need until the Army, whatever its purpose could be, arrived at the town. But the fluttering brilliance from the fireplace and the softer light from the oil lamp on the main room's lone bare table emphasized that the town, even in its present state of neglect, was nonetheless a refuge from the barren sameness of the great cold plateau.
When the two men were seated at the table, eating a makeshift meal of tinned meat, beans, hard biscuit, and black tea, Fleming finally moved to satisfy his curiosity.
"How do you come to be here?" he asked.
"Well," Buckley said, still chewing but settling back in his chair as if welcoming a pause in the meal, "back about ten years ago this town bid pretty fair to be a going concern, as much as any of those down southwest of here. The story's not so new, not in these parts. A silver town, that's what we were, and thought we would be for a long time to come. We called ourselves Mercer, after the man who made the strike. The mine was in the hills about ten miles northeast of here. But this is where the water was. My wife and I settled here and opened up the store. After we got established, the stage line came through and approached me about running a station. We finally got enough people to be a real town, and folks decided I ought to be sheriff, too. Wasn't any trouble at all. Wasn't a job, really. Give a miner a bed to sleep off the drink on weekends. Break up a fight or two. Things went along fine for about five or six years. Then the mine played out. After that, things just went from bad to worse. An old, old story."
Buckley interrupted the flow of his narrative for almost half a minute during which he stared down at his tin plate, apparently searching for words complex enough to describe simple reality. He finally abandoned the effort.
"I married late," he said, his voice congested. "My wife was young, a good deal younger than me. I wanted children, and it looked as if my prayers would be answered. But it wasn't to be. It was as if when that mine closed down, God's mercy for this town ran out, too. I lost them both. Wife and child." Again Buckley fell silent, turned for a time to look at the fire.
"Not too long after that," he said, "we had an outbreak of fever that took seven people. From then on folks began to leave. The last man, old George Mills, left last year."
"But not you," Fleming said, his sly opaque gaze avoiding the other man's eyes. "What kept you here?"
Buckley sighed and poured more tea for himself, then Fleming. "Everything was here," he said. "I couldn't think of leaving at first. I couldn't leave Willa and the child to lie here in this loneliness."
Crazy, Fleming thought. Grief and isolation. But maybe not too unbalanced to know truth from fantasy. If so, there might be a way yet to make something out of this encounter. Buckley had to be leaving something out. "But what about the Army?" he said. "You mentioned the Army."
"The Army." Buckley repeated the words tonelessly, as though distracted from other thoughts. But haltingly he spoke again. "Uh, they're coming—to move us."
"Us?" Fleming repeated. Then, without waiting for Buckley's response, he continued. "But why? What does the Army want out here?"
"Nothing." Buckley rose and crossed to the fireplace, where he stirred the burning brushwood awkwardly with the toe of his boot. Then he turned back to face the tinker. "A few months ago," he said, "a fellow came out here on a wagon. He was some kind of government man—'horticulturist,' he called himself. He said he'd heard about Mercer and wanted to come and look for himself. Said the fact we already had a well made the place ideal for what he wanted to do. Some kind of project, growing things in the desert."
Fleming shifted in his chair. "Wouldn't that bring the town back to life?"
"No." Buckley shook his head. "Oh, Morecambe told me he was authorized to pay me for the property, the well and all. But I didn't rightly feel I could take anything. That well was the town's, and we failed. Yes, we failed. Least we can do now is step aside for somebody else."
Fleming stared in disbelief, but Buckley seemed not to notice. "You mean you didn't set any terms at all?"
Buckley turned again toward the fire and began to speak in a voice so low that Fleming had to lean forward in his chair and strain to hear. "Yes, I set terms—I suppose you could say that. I couldn't stand to leave Willa and the child out here. Then I got to thinking about all the rest of the folks . . . I'd be deserting, too. So I asked Morecambe if there was some way I could get the . . . dead moved . . . to a cemetery in some thriving town, where they could be near the living. He said he thought the Army could do it. So . . . we're waiting."
Buckley crossed to the table and picked up the oil lamp. "Out here," he said, walking toward the back door. Fleming, responding automatically, rose and followed.
Outside, Buckley held the lamp high, spilling light over and among the coffins. At least Fleming supposed they were coffins. They lay in three irregular rows, narrow oblong wicker baskets, like long wasps' nests. Here and there among them were ordinary wooden coffins. But by far in the majority were the curious basketlike contrivances. A dry ancient odor hung in the cool desert night. Fleming, his skin tightening, noted dark patches in the lids of the things, apparently openings of some sort.
"What the hell?" he said.
Buckley, who had been standing immobile, turned to him, the movement of his lamp causing abrupt siftings of light and darkness among the dead. "Wood's scarce around here, you know. Some people were able to afford wooden coffins, but not too many. We had some Indians around town, and Kinney the undertaker had them weave these others. Come closer and look."
Fleming approached the coffins and stood at Buckley's shoulder. As he had dimly perceived in the gloom, the coffins were partially open at one end, where the basket fibers widened into a sort of latticework just above the faces of the corpses. Through the lid of the nearest coffin Fleming caught a glimpse of wizened, mummified flesh and, as Buckley's lamp swayed, the flash of a gold or silver tooth. Fleming felt vague stirrings within, a sense of something unreachable lying before him. His throat felt dry, constricted. The tooth winked again from the shadows.
"Why?" The tinker's voice sounded disembodied and without resonance in the night.
Gazing down steadily Buckley spoke. "The Indians done it. They couldn't see burying the dead in the first place. They said it held their spirits back from Heaven. Kinney did get them to weave the coffins, though. But he couldn't make them close those openings. They were stubborn. They said if the dead ones had to be kept from the sky, they should be able to breathe with the earth. Damned stubborn. Most folks gave in to it."
Fleming looked sharply at the other man. "You surely didn't let those heathens tell you how to bury your wife and child."
"No," Buckley said. He inclined his head toward one of the wooden coffins. "There they are, together."
They stood in silence for a time. The enormous bright haze of worlds and suns in the blackness above seemed to be pressing almost physically upon them.
Fleming finally broke the spell of quiet. "Do you really mean to say you're not getting anything out of all this?"
"I'm alive," Buckley said.
Fleming shifted his weight impatiently. "But damn it, man, you should take some profit from it. Look at those coffins—there must be a deal of precious metal to be had there—rings, watches, teeth—something."
Buckley swung around abruptly, so that the tinker had to shade his eyes against the lamp's glare. "I spent a good many years watching over these folks while they were alive and didn't really need me." His voice had taken on a hard edge. "The least I can do now is see them safe through these last few days."
A brief uneasy silence followed. Then Buckley, in the tone of a final pronouncement, said, "The night's cool. You're welcome to bed down inside."
Fleming cursed himself for his impulsive outburst. The man was deranged. Profit meant nothing to a crazy man. It was always best to keep your own counsel. Indoors would be nice. But not now. And a notion was beginning to form.
"I'm obliged," Fleming said, "for the offer. And for the meal, too. But I'm better under the sky, used to it. I'll probably get an early start, and I don't want to rouse you."
Buckley nodded shortly. "Good night to you then." He began to walk toward the house, then stopped. "Will you need the lamp to see the way to your wagon?"
The tinker shook his head. "Thank you," he said grudgingly. "I see well enough by the stars."
After Buckley was gone, Fleming remained, staring at the dark squares that screened the dead faces before him. They had no eyes to see in the night. He shivered as the air moved, cold, around him. Better to sit in the wagon and think.
At the livery stable Fleming left his bedroll tied up. Half-squatting, half-sitting, he balanced against the bedroll behind the seat of his wagon. Looking diagonally across the street at Buckley's place, the tinker could see the movement of light through the side window as Buckley presumably readied himself for sleep.
When at last the light went out, Fleming sighed audibly and sank forward on his knees, poised to rise. But he remained in place for almost a quarter of an hour, waiting. The only slight sounds to disturb the silence came from the animals shifting in their stalls. Finally satisfied that the moment was right, Fleming rose and climbed down from the wagon, his joints and muscles aching from the long spell of motionless crouching.
Realizing he'd better be ready for a quick departure, he hauled his mule from its stall as quietly as he could and hitched it to the wagon. "Keep quiet," he said, clapping the animal's flank.
The proper course was obvious. Goods were of no value to a crazy man, and Buckley's laden wagon stood invitingly nearby. No need to be greedy, Fleming thought. He'd take only what he fancied. His wagon was too small and too full of his own trade goods to carry much more. But together with what he'd accumulated through sharp trading and thimble-rigging, this haul might allow him to think seriously about settling somewhere and opening his own general store, becoming an upright town-dweller. Maybe even get elected mayor.
The trick, he thought, was to disturb the load as little as possible. The job proved to be easy. Buckley had stowed things snugly and methodically, and Fleming was able to unload them with a minimum of effort. Smiling, he transferred several packages from Buckley's wagon to his own—tinned peaches, a small box of bone-handled cutlery, a bolt-end of silk.
But something nagged at him. His satisfaction was incomplete. He paused, forearms resting on a box of tinned salmon he has just deposited in his wagon. A tiny point of light hung in the darkness of his mind.
A silver tooth.
Suddenly decisive, he leaned farther into his wagon and groped for a few moments in a wooden tool chest. He withdrew a small slender crowbar. Hefting the implement in his right hand, he glanced up at the river of stars, then moved off deliberately across the street.
Fleming had no need to search among the coffins. The tooth might have been burning in the night like a beacon. Time enough for the other bodies later. And a man vain enough to pay for an ornament like the tooth might well have more to offer.
After only a momentary hesitation, Fleming slipped the crowbar under the fastenings of the cocoon-like basket. He was able to pry the coffin open with surprising ease. Then he reached down and pushed back the lid.
The timeless face of death lay before him, eyeless and voracious. Amid dusty tatters of clothing and wrinkled smears of flesh the color and texture of spoiled fruit, Fleming saw planes and anges of bone thrusting like bedrock through eroded earth. And gleaming in the starlight a silver tooth. The tinker bent forward as if in a trance, his hand outstretched.
"What in God's name are you doing there?"
Fleming's head snapped back, and for a dizzying instant the night sky was a vast black and spangled hole into which he might plunge forever.
Then, righting himself, he spun around to confront Buckley, who stood over him in a long white nightshirt, a double-barreled shotgun held across his body, looking like an improbable avenging angel.
Without pausing to think or speak, Fleming swung his crowbar in a tight arc at Buckley's head. Buckley raised his arm instinctively, trying to ward off the blow with his shotgun, but the crowbar struck him solidly just above his left wrist. Face contorted, Buckley fell back onto one knee, still holding the shotgun in his right hand, his left arm rigid with pain, pressed against his body.
Following his advantage, Fleming lunged forward, driving the sharp end of the crowbar at Buckley's chest. The implement tore a ragged gash down Buckley's ribcage and lodged in his stomach. Grunting with the effort, Fleming pulled the crowbar free.
Still clutching the shotgun, Buckley fell heavily on his back. And as if triggered by the impact, both barrels of the weapon discharged, their thunder a brief focal point in the immensity of the plain. One charge sprayed harmlessly past Fleming's head. The second smashed into his right shoulder and lower jaw, showering blood and bone fragments into the night in a momentary black explosion, spinning the tinker's body completely and slamming it to the earth where it lay half-propped against the open coffin.
Buckley, his ripped nightshirt soaked with his own blood, struggled to his knees, then fell forward. He half-crawled, half-dragged himself to where the tinker lay and, turning, sat down heavily, his legs splayed, his back braced against the coffin. For a few moments he looked in turn at each of the two ruined faces flanking him. Then his head sank forward.
The slight shifting jarred the tinker's body, which slipped sidewise, the head coming partly to rest on Buckley's right thigh. Fleming's eyes briefly took in the great shiny flood of stars above him, and he realized that he'd be settling in a town after all. Then the stars faded and the night sky bore down on him.
The sound of gunfire had long since died away.
* * *
Lieutenant Van Epps was perplexed. Sweat tickled his legs behind the knees. The detail had been singular and unpopular from the beginning. The men had grumbled steadily throughout the trek to Mercer. Even sighting the town this morning had failed to raise their spirits.
Sergeant Quillen had put it succinctly as a sergeant could, part explanation, part complaint. "Regular cavalry on a civilian burial detail—and not even a military connection. It's a strange business."
And now this. Van Epps looked down at the bodies, the one cradling what was left of the other's head, as if in a pose of comfort. The shotgun. The bloody crowbar. The open coffin. And all of these strange basket affairs ranged about them like something out of an Egyptian tomb.
The lieutenant found himself considering the scene as he would have a classroom tactical problem in his days as a cadet at West Point. What would he write in his report? What had been won here, what lost?
He looked around at his men, at Sergeant Quillen, who pursed his lips, waiting. Somehow, Van Epps felt, the answer lay as much with the town and these strange . . . sarcophagi . . . as with the two more recently dead men. The simplest course, as usual, was action.
"What do you think about this?"
The sergeant rubbed at the stubble on his chin. Then he said, "I'd guess it's like the man that wanted to start him a dog-fightin' ring."
Some of the men were listening now. So long as he wasn't out to get you, the sergeant was always good for a story.
"Well," Quillen went on, "the fella ordered two pit bulls to be shipped to him, and when the crate arrive it was empty. He says to his partner, 'What d'you suppose happened to them?'" His partner says, 'Hell, they must of ate each other.'"
The men guffawed, and Van Epps felt himself reddening. "Very funny, sergeant," he said. "Have two men wrap these bodies in blankets and close up that . . . coffin. Have the rest of the detail pair up and load the wagons. Let's get this damn business over and done with."
Satisfied that he'd reasserted his authority, Lieutenant Van Epps moved off at a leisurely pace toward the livery stable. Sooner or later the goods on the wagons there would have to be inventoried, for he knew the men weren't above pilfering.
As he walked, the lieutenant glanced up at the sky. This morning the great blue void was obscured by a gray wintry haze so close to the earth it seemed a man might reach up and touch it.