We’re pleased to be able to bring you an excerpt from Steven S. Drachman’s novel, Watt O’Hugh Underground!
Here’s what the book is about:
THE ADVENTURE CONTINUES!
Watt O’Hugh the Third has been many things in his life: Time Roamer, Civil War soldier, orphan of the New York slums, Wild West dime novel hero, and the only true love of the beautiful socialite Lucy Billings.
But by August of 1878, he is naught but a wanted fugitive, a drunken wreck and an angry army of one. Spending his days in the shade of an abandoned Death Valley shack, poring over maps, imagining a way to destroy his enemies and march out of their city carrying their heads on flaming spears. Plotting a solo military conquest that he knows cannot and will not ever succeed.
Until the day that Hester Smith beats down his such-as-it-is door and offers him his dreams of revenge against the monstrous Sidonian regime that has destroyed his life — and one last chance at redemption.
But first there is the matter of a rather urgent train robbery with which she needs his help, and, more to the point, the help of his ghosts…
Read on for an excerpt!
If in August of 1878, a body were to have climbed up to the top of the Sierra Nevada mountain range and stared down into the desert valley just to the east, and if he were to have squinted with a bit more than the usual level of mindfulness, he might have been able to discern a tiny black spot in the middle of miles of yellow rock and dust. My hope and expectation would have been that he would disregard it entirely as nothing more than a tiny black spot, because that tiny spot would have been the cabin where I lived back then, in that stifling August of 1878. And I didn’t want to be found.
I guess calling that homestead a “cabin” is more than a bit unjustifiably grandiose. It was a sweaty, smelly little sandy-floor shack in the middle of a wasteland, with some whiskey bottles tossed in the back and chew-tobacco stains on the walls, and a rickety lean-to for my horse to hide from the heat. Sometimes, such as during this particular August, my valley was just a boundless, glimmery ocean of heat and death, but even in the daytime, in the worst, blazing 110-degree heat of summer, I called it home. A little muggy shade to lie in, read my dime novels, some of which – the more battered ones – starred an impossibly heroic version of a young man named Watt O’Hugh the Third, which is my name*, though at that point in my life – lying on the dirt and the grit in the dark, an infamous (though framed) outlaw, for the most-part moderately or more than moderately slewed from my magical bottomless whiskey bottle, and hiding from the Pinkertons – well, you wouldn’t think me very heroic, I suppose. I was still tall when I bothered to stand up, and broad-shouldered, and I had my strength left, or most of it, but I didn’t look much like the heroic young buster whose features adorned those book covers. My face was now weathered and bearded, my eyes a little rummy and runny.
My little house also had the air of a temporary home long-deserted, or died-out, something that wouldn’t warrant a second glance from that fellow at the top of that mountain range, even if that fellow were hunting for a fugitive, a slippery rascal who’d eluded the law for some number of years, through all manner of trickery.
And this was, after all, the whole point of my abode. Hiding and, of course, plotting revenge. I was an angry army of one, as I will explain shortly. I spent my days poring over maps, imagining a way to destroy my enemies and march out of their city carrying their heads on flaming spears, shock and surprise frozen to their dead-dead-dead faces. So I was angry, hopeless, drunk in the heat, and ceaselessly plotting a solo military conquest that I knew could not and would not ever come to fruition.
My existence in the desert wasn’t all cruel and unusual punishment, however. Not twenty-five miles away there was a freshwater spring, eking its way out of the Sylvania mountain peaks, which I could see to the North from my back porch even on a dusty day. Sometimes hummingbirds spun about in the back, at night I could sometimes spy a meteor or two if I looked closely, in the Spring I’d get purple wildflowers, and in the winter a little cleansing snow if I were lucky. And life was occasionally tolerable in other ways, mostly as a result of a racket I’d dreamed up, which had turned out to be a good one. (I’ll get to that eventually.)
So I was infamous, certainly, but I was apparently not too infamous for Hester Smith*, who pounded on my door as the sun prepared to set, sweating and hollering in the still-oppressive heat. She had arrived on a conspicuously arthritic mule, which she’d bought in the little town of Penville on the outskirts of the desert, and which had trudged an admirable number of perilous miles till, as dusk loomed, men in black appeared on the horizon not half a mile from my shack.
“Watt O’Hugh!” she called, pounding on the door.
I shouted back at her that I warn’t Watt O’Hugh, that I’d never heard of Watt O’Hugh, and that my name was Hugh Watt, who was an entirely different person.
“I’m Hester,” she said, which is how I came to have learnt her name.
I sleepily criticized her for destroying my such-as-it-was door, but without much passion.
I took another swig from my bottle, and she told me that men were chasing her and were set to kill her if they caught her, and that she was sorry, but now that she was here in my home, they’d probably kill me too, these men who were chasing her.
My gut instinct was that Hester was on the side of goodness and light in this particular kerfuffle, and so I figured that I had no choice but to absquatulate and to take her with me.
“Well then,” I said with a shrug.
I put on my hat, slipped my bottle into my pocket and, though I had no intention of shooting anyone today, I grabbed my barking-iron just in case.
I stepped outside, where I could see them in the distance, three dusty ink smudges thundering towards me from the hot-hazy far-lands.
The mule lay on his side. He kicked at the air, gasped, coughed, and stopped breathing.
Hester knelt down beside him. She shook her head. She frowned.
“I guess that mule can’t gallop,” I said.
“He was a beautiful animal,” she said. “Not very strong. Not much to look at. But loyal and brave. A mule with a beautiful soul. He died to save me.”
“I have a horse,” I said.
“You don’t want to stay and fight?” she asked me as she stood. “Protect the so-to-speak homestead?”
I pointed out that the homestead warn’t much of one, and Hester pointed out that there was a principle involved.
The distant figures grew slightly larger against a hazy ball of fire on the western horizon.
“You comin’?” I asked, and the two of us leaped onto my bay gelding, who loyally galloped east, and I realize now, as I had known then, that while I had never bothered to name him, he was my only friend, in those days. I’d bought my horse from a little ranching village in the Medicine Bow Range, right after I’d escaped from the penitentiary in Wyoming, a strong warrior beast who seemed to have sprung alive from the imagination of some painter who’d died hundreds of years ago, a steed whose coat was the color of a renaissance palette.*
Pounding on the desert sand and hard rocks, with the mountains looking down on me like a painted backdrop, just shimmering in the distance, the heat crushing down from above and swamping my lungs, Hester holding onto me tight, the sun scorching my skin like fire, this cracked, shimmering-hidden dream world was defined for me only by what was missing: neither the feel of the breeze nor any sounds of life, no motion of the world, of milliseconds born and expiring with each gasp. Scorpions hid beneath rocks, invisible and silent, tortoises burrowed in their burrows, and desert-banded geckos, eyes just above the hot sand, yearned to whisk through the moonlight upon the arrival of night. But all I could feel and all that existed for me was my steed’s heavy fleeting hoof beats thumping together with the whack of my heart, Hester’s nervous cool puffs of breath on the back of my neck, and the vigilance party, adumbral, who bore down on us. My horse was fast, but burdened by two riders, he couldn’t keep up this pace for long. Without looking back, I could feel the smile of greedy anticipation on the point man’s face. We were suspended, soaring, motionless, the yellow desert expanding, breathing, suffocating.
We rode past a homemade tombstone, forgotten, flowerless, cast aside at the foot of a cliff-rise, some miner who’d failed, and who had been lucky enough to have had one friend to memorialize his failure on a rotten piece of gumwood, an epitaph I knew by heart:
Chester Jordan – A Tolerable, Loyal Fellow
Just then, a little town rose into view on the eastern horizon, a slum, a few shackly old stores and houses, some splintery saloons and a dance hall at the very furthest edge, from which I could almost see the music rising, sweeping over me like the desert heat, a guiro scraping, a vihuelo wailing, and a measure of almost blissful, tuneful weeping in that language I still do not understand. This was a hopeless town filled with men from the Mexican border, the men who chased the men who chased gold to the desert. And a few unlucky women, who came along.
We swept past the little barrio, where I was not welcome (due to an incident, so to speak, which time unfortunately prevents me from relating) and then the tents of the Shoshone Indian camp just a few yards from the barrio’s northeast edge, where I was a bit more welcome, albeit in small, carefully measured doses. A few Indians stood about in the sandy alleys between the tents. One was drinking, one was telling a story and laughing. One white-haired man raised a hand and waved as Hester and I passed, and Hester waved back, feigning good cheer.
After another extended stretch of empty desert, we finally hit the one-street mining town of Lida, which was composed of a shaky general store, a couple of liquor shops, a post office, and an assortment of log cabins with canvas roofs that would have flapped in the wind had there been any wind. An empty stagecoach waited at the border. If you didn’t know that this town was spanking new, built on golden optimism less than a year ago, you’d swear it had been standing in this heat for a hundred years, and that the whole sorry place was fixing to collapse from decrepit old age at any moment.
I yanked on the reins, jumped off my gelding and Hester followed. I smacked my horse and off he ran. We dashed into a little doggery called Scott & Fitzgerald’s Saloon*, a little doggery with dust and sand on the floor and a rough, crumbling wooden bar crowded with sweaty miners cussing and crying with the dust in their eyes, and, as he always did at these moments, fat, old Fitzgerald, his hair and face gray like manufactory smog, tossed me a horn of his famous anti-fogmatic (strong and uncouth and so tempting, like the women who lingered in the shadows of his doggery), which I downed on credit as Hester and I ran straight through the back door, which squeaked and rattled and banged on leather hinges rotted near-through.
There my horse awaited us in a world that looked almost the same but felt off-the-reel different.
It was a little hotter, but that warn’t all.
Different decades feel different on the skin, and this was a different decade.
Hester noticed it too, and in spite of her fear, she was excited. This was, I guess, what she had expected when she’d knocked on my door, something like this.
“Are we roamin’?” she asked, her face alight. Sweat glistened frantically on her brow. “Are we roamin’, Watt O’Hugh the Third?”
I nodded, and I asked her to keep her voice down.
“The desert looks yellower in the future,” she marveled.
“We just need a little Time,” I said. “A little Time to think, to plan. To understand how you know my name, what you know about my ghosts, what you need with me, and who that posse are. And how in the Hell you know about roaming.”
She nodded, but she was still not serious, scared someplace in the back of her mind, but still giddy.
“They’ll be waiting for us when we get back,” I cautioned her, “still galloping after us, still thinking about doing whatever it is to you that they were thinking about doing when we left. Even if we stayed here in the future for fifty years, they’d still be right there when we got back.”
I grunted at my horse, and he followed Hester and me up over the top of a little dune-like hill, and then back down to the bottom on the other side.
I stopped walking.
A paved, two-lane interstate highway lay few yards ahead of us, and, about a quarter mile to the east, the highway forked, and a narrow side road wound north, ending at a gleaming white building, two stories, with reddish blue trim that matched the sky. In the far west, a red horseless carriage sped towards us, just a dot in the distance now, like a tiny coronal loop on the setting sun. The horseless carriage was one of those sporty little convertibles, and this was 1981.*
I tried to smile, and I explained briefly about automobiles, and then we patiently awaited Hester Smith’s first automobile sighting. A few moments later the little red car swept past, stirring up sand and dust. The top was down, and the bald man in the driver’s seat had a peeling sunburn on the top of his head. A woman sat in the passenger seat, and her hair flapped about. Her nose was red like the car.
Hester watched the convertible vanish into the east, her eyes wide. She watched and watched till it was a dot again, and then it vanished.
“When you cross the street in the future,” I cautioned, “always be sure to look both ways first.”
We crossed the highway and trudged along at the edge of the side road, Hester and the horse following my lead.
“Horseless carriages,” Hester mused. Then she said, slowly, syllable-by-syllable: “Aw-toe-mo-beel….”
And now she smiled, and just as I had recognized her desperation when she kicked in my door, this smile I recognized too, an indescribable, ineffably familiar something-or-other, a longer-ago, many-years-lost-friend, the smile of hopeful joy. How I have missed you, hopeful joy.
She laughed, and she looked over at me.
“Car,” she said, and she laughed again.
The little desert resort across the road was called the “Death Spa,” jarringly named for the desert valley in which it sat. A future owner was destined to rename the spa some years later, in 2003, after its bankruptcy, corporate takeover and reorganization. But I was always happy to visit the Death Spa, because this was 1981, and in 1981, I was (or rather, I will be) quite completely dead, and even utterly decomposed for decades, and what other establishment so heartily welcomed the long-dead as customers? This was the only one, as far as I knew, and so I was really at home here.
We passed the little one-room gift shop, the gas pumps, and the quarter-full parking lot. Hester touched a silver 1971 Pontiac Catalina, and it burned her hand. She looked sheepish, and she reddened, but then she touched it again, gingerly, and it burned her again. She looked away from me and didn’t meet my gaze.
A man with a monocle and a silver-tipped cane hobbled out of the front entrance of the spa, handed me a manila envelope- such things as manila envelopes are quite common in the 1980s – and walked across the street, never speaking a word to me nor casting me a meaningful glance. In the distance, he faded into a glistening mirage. He was not a man of the 1980s and had no desire to make any pretense of it. I had never seen him before, and I would never see him again.
I folded the envelope and stuffed it into my jacket pocket.
“Do you want to see what that is?” Hester asked.
“I know what it is.”
Pete was a thin uncomfortable young man in a thin uncomfortable old tie.
Pete had the kind of beard that made him look from a distance as though he were smiling, even though he was frowning, and the kind of beard that, when he was smiling close-up, made him look as though he were frowning. So whenever I entered the Death Spa tunnel, I met a false friendliness, and when I reached the front desk, he rebuffed me with an unintended surliness.
Pete’s beard frowned.
“Mr. Darcy!” he exclaimed happily and, it seemed to Hester, inexplicably. “Room for two?” he asked, through his beard’s frown.
Astonishing. Without even a disapproving glance Hester’s way. Times would change, between 1878 and 1981. And then more and more and more. And even more. Just wait.
I shook my head.
“Just want to tie up my horse, let the lady and me splash our faces and drink some beet juice inside. We’ve got some plotting and scheming to attend to. Evil is at hand.”
I whispered to Hester not to worry, beet juice would taste passable with a whisper of whiskey past the whiskers, and Pete laughed, as though I were joking (which I warn’t). I asked him how much credit I had left, and he quoted to me a bulger of a figure that made Hester gasp, though I noted to her that it didn’t buy as much beet juice in 1981 as it would have done in 1878, and Pete laughed again, just humoring a paying customer with a bit of credit.
We settled into my regular shadowy candle-lit table overlooking the “Olympic-sized swimming pool” (whatever that means).
“Why are you known as ‘Mr. Darcy’ in 1981?” Hester asked me now, and I replied that while it wasn’t a long story, it was a story that I was nevertheless disinclined to tell her, but I didn’t even manage to spike the beet juice before Pete ran back in, his beard smiling and his brow furrowed with worry.
Well, as it turns out, the point man of the posse had swept the whole gang of soaplocks through Time and was now right out front of the spa, installed in the parking lot and determined to import to the 1980s the sort of peck of troubles typical of old-timey Western malefactors.
I hurried from the bar, beet juice clenched in my left hand, Hester close behind me.
There he was, on a black stallion, dressed in a long black frock coat, black pantaloons, black boots. He had white white skin, taut and smooth and hairless, and bright-red smiling lips. His eyes were pink and beady, plaguily evil. Between cusses, he chanted in some sort of foreign tongue. His gang sat on their horses, cackling and spitting, and every once in a while shooting into the air. Whooping, at appropriately dramatic intervals.
“He’s the devil that’s after you?” I asked Hester.
She said that she was afraid so. He’d tracked her from Utah, up through California, and here he was, even chasing her into the future. She had spotted him once in Cripple Creek, and he had frightened her. When she saw him again in Bodie, this worried her more. He was not a man who faded into the Western sun.
“I don’t think he took a decidedly urgent interest in my actions,” she said, “until I headed in your direction.”
I shook my head angrily. This black-white beast was one of the chief nightmares I had mizzled to the desert to escape.
Pete put a hand on my shoulder.
“Look, Mr. Darcy,” he said. “This can’t go on.”
He liked a bit of harmless character and a little inoffensive mystique around the Death Spa. But he had customers coming in on a charter bus in 30 minutes, looking forward to two days of carrot juice, massages, clean air, heat-cure and whatnot.
I had never heard of a “charter bus,” but regardless of that, I could not disagree with his concerns, and I turned to Hester.
“I recognize him too,” I said to her. “His name is Monsieur Rasháh. But he may not really be French. I suspect he’s from Hell, not Paris.”
A couple of kids, a boy and a girl of about ten years of age, now jumped from between two parked cars, laughing and pointing, smiles appropriately gap-toothed, not a bit skeary of the dangerous gang. Bathing-suited, shiny-greased with lotion and sloppily wet, holding their pudgy little stomachs with glee. Who could have believed such a thing in 1981 as a villain on horseback? I wished that those kids would run away, as sensible 1878 rapscallions would have done. I tried to think of a plan to pull them out of harm’s way that wouldn’t result in all of us dead as winter tore, but nothing came immediately to mind, and so I figured I would improvise, shoot a few bullets, maybe kill a couple of gunmen, and drag the kids to safety without incurring any mortal wounds myself. I opened the door a crack, prepared to dash into the thick of the chaos, when Rasháh pointed a finger at the children, then at his sickly white forehead. In a blur and a whoosh, the children swept through the dry air and vanished into the creature’s skull.
The sun beat down.
Monsieur Rasháh began calling out again, this time in a different, heavily accented language that I didn’t recognize, something that didn’t sound exactly human. His face changed; became old, wrinkled, and scheming; then became very young, childlike and impish; then re-settled into his inscrutable, waxy mold.
“At any rate,” I said. “He’s a really ghastly lout.”
“Should I just call the police?” Pete asked, I said that no matter what he did, he shouldn’t call the police, and then Hester exclaimed that calling an officer of the law was entirely unnecessary given that, as she put it, “Watt O’Hugh is one of the 19th century’s most acclaimed shootists!”
Pete wondered aloud who was Watt O’Hugh?; and, dodging the question, I said that one’s skill or lack of skill as a shootist wasn’t the issue, it was that only special extra-Magic bullets would do the trick with Monsieur Rasháh.
“And even the Magic bullets don’t actually do the trick,” I admitted. “He catches them in his left hand, and he eats them like peanuts. Exhibit A of his invincibility being, you see, the fact that he is alive out there in the parking lot. I emptied a few barrels worth of Magic bullets at that bastard back in ’75. And there he is, good as gold, in the parking lot.”
“I give you five minutes to fix this, dude,” he whispered angrily. (That’s what men will call each other in the waning days of the 20th Century: dude. In the 19th century, this referred to a nattily attired dandy. In the 20th century, it means precisely nothing.) “Then I’m calling the police. And listen, Darcy – I like you. But fix this. Whatever you do fix this.” Then, expressing the 20th century’s overriding capitalist impulse, he added, “This will prove bad for business, and we cannot have this kind of thing here.”
He retreated to the front desk, where he sat, tapping his fingers, doing not much of anything else, waiting to call the police. His beard beamed.
“A plan?” Hester asked, and I said that I had not only a plan, but a plan that might work. The best kind, in my opinion, I noted, and Hester said she’d always had the notion that I was drawn to the absolutely just but hopeless cause, and she looked at me significantly and with some sadness, and looking into those dark, grum eyes, I thought I could understand why, but my introspection was cut short, because just then, in the parking lot, Rasháh screamed, a loud bloodcurdling scream, and an army of red-winged demons descended from the sky. They looked just as one might imagine demons would look: gaunt, hungry, small and menacing. They had pointed ears, slits for nostrils. They laughed and smirked.* The gang spread out, Rasháh remaining out front, and the other members of the posse taking up position at each exit, a demon or two buzzing protectively above each of them. The demons screamed along in unison with Rasháh (in that sing-song language with its sharp cutting-knife edges that wasn’t Chinese and wasn’t German) bouncing off his shoulder, rippling into the angry hot air, fluttering for a moment with little, high-speed hummingbird wings, then alighting again, a thousand on his left shoulder and ten thousand on his right.
Now that we were trapped, the gunmen started shooting out the windows. The lights in the game room exploded, spraying shards of broken glass down on a middle-aged man playing chess with his teen-aged son, the father of the two missing children, unaware of their fate. This nicely lightly tanned man with “hair plugs” that looked almost-real and thousand dollar tortoise shell spectacles, dived under a billiard table, dragging his son with him.
I shot through the broken window at the henchman to Rasháh’s left – pretty much knowing it would do no good – and a red, blistery demon caught the bullets and tossed them to Rasháh, who swallowed them. Then they both laughed.
Hester and I dashed to the front desk; I told Pete that I needed the back door, and I assured him that the moment Hester and I abandoned the spa, the Rasháh gang would leave him alone. He should then feel free to call the constable, if he wished, but I imagined the police report would reflect rather poorly on his sanity. He took my elbow and drew me behind the desk, through a narrow doorway that led to a winding windowless hallway that smelled of mold and hummed and buzzed with fluorescence, a form of future-world lighting that seemed to discomfit Hester even more than the demons had. We passed a hunched old man, a rusty guts with pallid, puckered skin, who dragged a cleaning pail and gasped and groaned as he walked. We came to a hard metal door, which Pete unbolted with a large key before sprinting away to relative safety at the front desk.
I peered outside through the keyhole. A rangy, jittery young man stood a few feet away in the hot sun, a rifle in his hand, which was peeled on the door, a red demon cackling over his left shoulder and a black demon hollering over his right shoulder. The gunman was just waiting. He had a terrible purple scar, which began at the top of his forehead, drizzled over the front of his face and disappeared behind the collar of his blue shirt. Tortoise tracks ran behind him in the sand, and the sun vanished in a slow explosion back of the mountains on the horizon.
I smiled at Hester.
“You can swim?” I asked, and she said that she couldn’t, and so I asked whether she thought she could hold her breath and float for a spell if I held onto her tight, and she shrugged and nodded, though she wondered why it mattered.
“Our escape route,” I said. “Along the very bottom of the ocean. Quite an idea, if I do say so myself.”
Hester asked me where the ocean was, and I said, “Right on the other side of this door.
“On three,” I said. “Breathe in deeply, shut your eyes, hold your breath, please do not panic and breathe by accident (because then you will assuredly die in terrible pain) and do not let go of me.
She agreed. I took both her hands firmly in mine.
I counted to three.
I opened the door.
A moment that felt like millennia later, all went dark, and we stood on solid ground in an airless void, ears popping, lungs collapsing. I pushed up, kicking through the water and holding onto Hester with all my strength. I could see a light far above, flickering and floating in the haze. Seaweed drifted through my field of vision. Bony-armored, jawless fish eyed us quizzically as we passed. A creature like an octopus with a coiled shell flittered above us.
Hester seemed to go limp in my arms.
After some time, we crashed up into the air like rockets, gasping and coughing, and then a while later we washed up on a sandy beach like a couple of pieces of driftwood, still gasping and coughing, though less urgently. Glistening before us was an ocean like any other, and behind us, a gentle forest of giant ferns and conifers.
“Welcome to Pangaea,” I whispered wetly to Hester. “No one calls it that now, because there is no one here to call it that, but that’s what it is. Pangaea.”
Some kind of flying insect buzzed my ear, a prehistoric sort of gallnipper, and I swatted it away, being careful not to kill it.
“My little desert valley is a dead ocean floor,” I said. “It used to be an inland sea.”
We lay down on the beach. The sand cradled the back of my head. Her hand still held mine tightly. Her hand was wet and sweaty. She was still out of breath. She squinted up at the sky. The sky was blue, a little cloudy. The sky looked like any sky, except that it was birdless. And because the sky was birdless, because this beach had no gulls, the ocean didn’t sound like an ocean. The clouds in the sky, like any clouds, looked like sheep, like cotton, things that didn’t exist yet, but there they were in the sky.
“A great inland sea,” I repeated. “This is the desert valley, which used to be a great inland sea.”
“A long time ago, I suppose,” she said quietly.
“A long time ago,” I said. “Or right now. Depending on your perspective.”
“What is ‘now’, anyway, to a Roamer?” she asked, with a laugh.
The laugh sounded nice here, in this peaceful world, and I was glad that Hester had given mother Earth her very first laugh.
Behind us, a roar, a great earth-rattling din, then silence.
“Dinosauria?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “Dinosauria haven’t evolved yet, Hester. It’s a peaceful planet. Plant life, bugs. Some small animal life. Maybe that noise was the earth moving. Or a bit of thunder, quite a distance away.”
“Good,” she said, and she laughed again. The Earth’s second laugh.
I propped myself up on my elbows, scanned the horizon and sighed. This land would see so much in the thousands of millennia to come, very little of it good. But right now, on this shore, it was possible to believe in a God who would know better than to create fearsome giant lizards, and then malevolent humanity.
Walking together down the beach, our feet just bouncing on the sand. Hester pointed out that we were not making any footprints, and I said that Time Roamers can change nothing, not even the sand on a beach.
“If a Roamer tries to change the Past,” I said, “and there’s any chance he’ll get away with it, he’s removed from something called the interlinear Maze, which is something you don’t want to try.”
“Could you always roam? Were you born with it?”
“No. Someone showed me how to do it.”
This brought back a memory that I wanted to forget. Hester didn’t ask me anything else about it. The sun was starting to set behind me, my third sunset of the last couple of hours.
Ahead of us was a bend in the coast and a little inlet, a pretty, picturesque thing, shining red in the sunset and descending into an inland lagoon. We zagged from the shoreline, plunged into the primitive forest, and then we climbed a small, scrubby hill that overlooked the sea and the lagoon, and we sat in the sand and small tufts of rough grass. I kicked off my boots and let my feet dry out in the arid Triassic air.
There was no sign of M. Rasháh, and I wondered what that meant. I kept looking out to sea, expecting to see him rise from the depths, laughing.
“So where is he?” Hester asked me. “When does he fly back here with his gang and kill us?”
“Watch the ocean,” I said. “I assume they followed us and perhaps, not knowing exactly where they were going, they failed to grab for themselves a lungful of air. So maybe they’ll come floating to the top, drowned. But is it possible to die when a body’s roaming? If a Roamer cannot change the past, can he leave a corpse? I’m not so sure. When they ran out of breath, maybe they shot back to Pete’s spa. Or maybe right back to Lida. Or, again, maybe they will float to the top of the ocean.”
“Maybe they’ll just disappear under the depths, the moment they drown, and float off into some dark cloud, somewhere in a dream.” I smiled. “Leave the interlinear Maze forever.”
“And the children?” she asked. “What of the little boy and girl?”
“I am hoping,” I mused, “that if Rasháh and his gang die in a prehistoric sea, their actions in 1981 will be undone, because they will have died long before they are ever born, or, in Rashah’s case, created. (I cannot imagine such a creature having been born of a woman.) My other thought is that if they leave the interlinear Maze, perhaps they will cease to exist. It also occurs to me that if they followed me into the future – roaming into 1981 using Watt O’Hugh’s frequent flyer miles, so to speak (and forgive the futuristic slang, Hester, I can no longer help myself) – then they’d be entirely unable to inflict any permanent damage.”
Hester explained, quite succinctly I thought, why none of these theories held water. I nodded, but she had no better ideas, so we were stuck with mine.
I didn’t really know how that worked, the Maze, but it was something a friend had said to me in Weedville, moments before vanishing into a gaping hole in space and time, perhaps forever, and so those words had taken on more than a little profundity. I thought about it a lot, that Maze.
“I wish you could have shot them, Watt,” she said. “I traveled through the desert to find the world’s greatest shootist in his hideout, and you haven’t shot anyone.”
“Are you a fraud? Can you shoot people at all?”
I fished into my pocket and pulled out the bottle, offered it to Hester.
“Bourbon whiskey from the future?” I asked.
She sat up, took the bottle, lifted it to her lips, took a slug.
“I can shoot people,” I said, while she drank. “I’m even good at it. I’m just not particularly enamored of it.”
The sea stayed placid calm. No corpses bobbing, no guns blazing.
Stars began to flicker, the night descended, the world turned a dark friendly blue, a cool wind blew off the water, and Hester and I were getting warm and tippled from my bottle of corn juice. It was nighttime, and still no one had come to kill us, and no one had washed up on the shore drowned. We were starting to get hungry, but our nerves had stilled, and we were enjoying the respite from fear.
“Look,” Hester said suddenly, staring me straight in the eye. “If you want to go underground, Hugh Watt isn’t the alias to choose.”
I shrugged and took another slug.
“I never said I was creative,” I muttered. “I’m just a cow herder, gone into retiracy. And you know, part-time….”
“If I was framed, am I still an outlaw?” I asked. “If I am utterly, completely innocent, am I still an outlaw?”
I shrugged. I’d heard this before.
“Anyway,” she said, “you’re living off the spoils of the Lervine job, if I’m not mistaken, which was not entirely legal.”
“Sure,” I agreed. “But that’s not what I’m wanted for. I’m a wanted man for a crime I didn’t commit. No one cares about those things I really did.”
“The coast is clear,” I said. “You understand, Hester? Come clean.”
She had interrupted what should have been a perfectly peaceful, more than slightly fuddled afternoon, and in my view it was long-past time for her to give me some sort of an explanation.
To begin with, I wondered aloud how’d she’d located me, and Hester replied ambiguously that she’d always been good at finding treasures hidden in the sand; when I asked why Rasháh was after her, Hester surmised that it probably had more to do with me than with her, though it might have something to do with J.P. Morgan, come to think of it, as a matter of fact. (This was a name that I knew, but which I had hoped not to hear again.)
“The root of this is your skill at being simultaneously alive and not-alive,” she said. “This is a supernatural wile that J.P. Morgan wants and will pay for. Quite a story,” she laughed, “that one.”
She lay back on the hilltop, swimming in the stars.
“You know how to do this,” she said flatly, staring at this long-ago sky, not at me. “You know how to be alive and not-alive.”
I grunted in affirmation. I said that there were a few different ways, and that I thought I could demonstrate all of them, if I wished it. Witnesses would swear they’d seen my dead body in the Wyoming mountain snow, and yet here I was, so the fallacious case could be made convincingly that I was now something of a ghost. (In truth, I was alive as could be, and not even a little bit dead; my death was nothing but a very good parlor trick – but more on that later.)
Still, J.P. Morgan and I had something of an unpleasant history, and I thought it unwise to help him. He had at one time promised me a fortune to run a Wild West show into New York city, but he had instead framed me for murder, shot me off the top of a tenement building (which had really hurt like a sonofabitch) and incarcerated me in a Wyoming prison, which was, to say the least, something of a breach of contract.
Hester said she understood, but in spite of all that had happened between J.P. Morgan and me in the past, he was an enemy of the Sidonians, and our enemy’s enemy was our friend, and we could not afford to spit on a friend like this.
There was also the matter of a rather urgent train robbery to reckon with, she added, which she had neglected to mention earlier, and with which she needed my help, and, more to the point, the help of my ghosts, and, further to the point, the help of Mr. Morgan, but it again all came back to me. I wondered how she’d gotten herself wrapped up in train robberies and resurrection of the dead, and that crazy millionaire robber baron, and she said it was a rather long story and asked me how much time I had, and, though I no longer owned a pocket watch, I pretended to look at one, and I said that if my watch were correct, we had a few hundred million years till the dinosauria would evolve on this particular stretch of land and eat us, and she laughed again, but this time it sounded a little false, as though she were trying to flatter me.
“People die,” I said, “when you rob a train.”
Hester nodded in the starlight. She rolled over on her side.
“Many people will certainly die if you don’t rob this particular train,” she said. “And everyone aboard is a Sidonian.”
So maybe it would not be so bad if all of them were to die, was the point she was making, I supposed. And I supposed I might not shed many tears for a dead Sidonian, depending on which Sidonian we were talking about.
“Foot soldiers?” I asked.
“Maybe there are a few cogwheels, but they’re filthy, rusty cogwheels. They know what they’re doing, whom they’re serving. I don’t imagine anyone who came West seeking a job as an office clerk will be on that train, Watt. They all have dirty hands; they’re all ugly customers.”
She paused, hesitated.
“You know all about Sidonia, don’t you?” she asked. “The Sidonians?”
“I hate it,” I said, “and it hates me. Of course I know.” It was the reason I was hiding in the desert, I admitted. It was the reason I drank whiskey every second of the day. An ostensible social movement designed to make the world a better, fairer, happier place, it had destroyed everything I had ever cared about, and I hated it. I didn’t know whether I needed to forget it or let my yearnings for vengeance rule me for the rest of my life.
She touched the side of my face, affectionately, seriously.
She left her cool hand there, and I didn’t mind.
“There’s more than money on that train, Watt.”
As a matter of fact, she noted, a two thousand year old secret was buried in that train’s safe. If it were to reach New York City and fall into the hands of a certain band of previously harmless subversives – these were gentlemen and the occasional lady who, burdened and misled by a bit of theoretical high-class education, thought it possible to construct a Utopia that included humans, and who thought that the Sidonian secessionist movement in Montana was building in earnest the theoretical Utopia they’d studied in school – if this cargo reached the innocent, well-meaning hands of that group of subversives, many people would die, devastation would reign over New York City, which would burst into flames, hatred, death, war and utter destruction, and when the smoke cleared, millions would be dead, and the city would be a Sidonian police state. As a fascistic political movement ate the continent like a swarm of locusts, the subversives would stand by, powerless and aghast, wondering what their beautiful and perfect dreams had wrought. Watt O’Hugh – of all people! – should remember the havoc the Sidonians could loose on the world, Hester pointed out, and also, by the way, the terrible anger of an unfettered New York City mob.
I was silent, mulling this over.
“If the secret on this train makes it East,” she said, her voice flat, “it will bury New York, and then it will put Darryl Fawley on a throne, and then he will bury the world. Can you live in a world ruled by Darryl Fawley? J.P. Morgan will help you stop them. Will you stop them?”
Hester’s eyes were sad.
“My dear,” she said. “I’ve given you an excuse.”
Watt O’Hugh, she noted, always needed to know that he was doing good. All the dime novels insisted on it.
“And your ghosts expect it, nay? If you don’t do good, they will leave you. They will no longer protect you. They will no longer steady your aim.”
She told me that I should feel reassured that I would be doing good, essential good. I would be saving many people, the way I had failed to save so many people, back in those dark days of ’63.
She leaned in closer.
“You mourn the little ones you failed to save in ’63, but there is one you failed to save in ’75 who haunts your waking dreams.”
I could feel my face darkening.
“These are the men,” she whispered, “who killed Lucy Billings. They lured her with dreams of a perfect world, they played with her conscience – their leader, Darryl Fawley, even went so far as to marry her! – and they used her as bait to trap you. And then they killed her. You loved her so much, and this man, who loved money and power more… this man, Darryl Fawley, had the blessing to marry this jewel, this flower, this treasure that belongs to you, a blessing whose value he didn’t even recognize. And he threw that away, and he let her die – like dropping the world’s most beautiful and valuable diamond into the middle of the ocean – and he went on with his life without a care. She died with his child in her womb, in a lonely abandoned jail in a Nebraska ghost town.
“Lucy Billings, whom you loved, who walks the earth upon rare occasion as a deadling, a shadow of what she once was. Darryl Fawley eats ostrich pâté en croûte in a castle in a Montana valley, while Watt O’Hugh, the greatest shootist in the West, hides out drunk in a smelly shack and does nothing to bring Fawley to justice, nor to stop his success from growing. Nothing. Watt, I ask you, is that right?
She placed a locket on the soft grass beside me. I recognized it. I didn’t know how she’d acquired it. I didn’t need to open it. I imagined the smooth white skin that had once warmed this locket, and the heartbeat that had once enlivened it, this little locket. It made me angry that this locket had no owner to wear it and to cherish it, and to become even more beautiful because of it. The locket lay in the grass beside me, and my anger grew.
“What’s in the envelope, Watt?”
I opened it, and I showed her. Troop movements, weaknesses in Sidonia’s defenses, proposed or perhaps even actual maneuvers on a day not so far in the future – that is, the future back in the 1870s – when the U.S. cavalry would attack. “I know exactly what will happen every second of that day.” I imagined myself there. I imagined myself killing men responsible for the death of the woman who had once worn that locket. But were I to show up on the day of battle, an angry, cursing Watt O’Hugh, whom all Sidonia recognized, I wouldn’t make it one inch inside the city gates. I would die, bloody and angry and cursing the murderers within the city.
“Watt. Once the train is robbed, J.P. Morgan will send his soldiers over the Sidonian mountains, and I will put you beside Darryl Fawley. Watt O’Hugh, right next to him. As close as I am to you. To do as you will. To set things right. I will put you there beside him. I promise you this, Watt. This is our deal. This is our covenant. I am giving you an excuse for your vengeance, something to tell your ghosts.”
I could feel Hester’s breath. I could hear fear in her silence.
A fish splashed in the tranquil sea, and a hairless beast, the size of a dog, scurried into the baby forest behind us.
She ran a hand gently through my hair, and she brushed my brow.
“Tormented, storm-tossed, unloved Watt,” she whispered. “I am the one who consoles you.”
“I didn’t really need much convincing, truth be told.”
I told her that if she could really promise to put me next to Darryl Fawley – so close to Darryl Fawley that I could put the barrel on his skull and squeeze the trigger – then I would rob her train for her.
In the distance, a small black cloud formed on the very far horizon, casting a small shadow over our perfect, star-speckled ocean. Hester squeezed my hand, as rain and even hail pelted the far sea-edge. “Well,” I whispered, “we cannot stay here forever,” even though, right then, I wished that we could, and so we stood. I bent a few saplings to form a makeshift and highly temporary doorway to crawl through, and we drifted softly back to our world, where we landed with a gentle thud on the angry-hot sand of the dead valley this paradise would become.
[End of excerpt]