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A COMING DARKNESS
Sometimes the wind blowing down from the mountains made Travis Wilder feel like anything could happen.
He could always hear it coming, long before the first telltale wisps of snow-clean air touched his face. It would begin as a distant roar far up the canyon, nearly and yet not at all like the ancient voice of a stormswept ocean. Before long he could see it, rushing in wave after wave through the forest that mantled the granite-boned ranges that encircled the valley. Lodgepole pines swayed in graceful rhythm, while cloudlike aspen shivered green, then silver, then green again. Moments later, in abandoned fields just outside of town, he could hear the witchgrass rattle a final portent as it whirled around in wild pagan circles.
Then the wind would strike.
It would race down Elk Street--Castle City's broad main avenue--like an invisible ghost-herd of Indian ponies. Past McKay's General Store. Past the Mosquito Café. Past the abandoned assay office, the Mine Shaft Saloon, the Blue Summit Earth Shop, and the faded Victorian opera house. Dogs would bark and snap at passing newspaper tumbleweeds. Strolling tourists would turn their backs and shut their eyes to dust devils that glittered with gum wrappers and cigarette-pack cellophane. Dude-ranch cowboys would hold on to black hats with turquoise-ringed hands while their dusters flew out behind them like rawhide wings.
Maybe he was the only one in town crazy enough, but Travis loved the wind. He always had. He would step outside the buckshot-speckled door of the Mine Shaft Saloon, which he had the dubious distinction of owning these days, and lean over the boardwalk rail to face the gale full-on. There was no way to know from where the wind had journeyed, he reasoned, or just what it might blow his way. He would breathe the quickening air, sharp with the scents of cold mountain stone and sun-warmed pine, and wonder whose lungs it had filled last--where they lived, what language they spoke, what gods they courted, if they courted any at all, and what dreams they dared dream behind eyes of a hundred different shapes and hues.
It was a feeling that had first struck him the day he stepped off a mud-spattered bus--a flatland kid raised between the straight and hazy horizons of Illinois--and drank in his virgin sight of Castle City. In the seven years since, the sensation had come to him with surprising and comforting regularity, never lessening in potency with time. Facing into the wind always left him with an ache of wordless longing in his chest, and a feeling that he didn't have to choose between anything, because everything was possible.
Still, despite his many musings, there was no way Travis could have imagined, on a chill evening caught in the gray time between the gold-and-azure days of fall and the frozen purple of winter night, just exactly what the wind would blow into Castle City, and into his life. Later, looking back with the empty clarity of hindsight, he would sift through all the strange and unexpected events to pinpoint the precise moment when things began to change. It had been a small happening, so small that he might not have remembered it had it not been for the fact that afterward things would never--could never--be the same again.
It was when he heard bells.
Afternoon sunlight fell as heavy as gold into the mountain valley as Travis Wilder piloted his battered pickup truck toward town. Faint music crackled on the AM radio in time to the squawking dashboard. A paper air freshener shaped like a pine tree bobbed on a string beneath the rearview mirror, all the fake pine smell long since baked out of it by years of the high-altitude sun. The engine growled as he downshifted and swung around a curve at precisely twice the speed recommended by a nearby road sign: a yellow diamond so full of shotgun holes it looked like a chunk of Swiss cheese.
"You're late, Travis," he said to himself.
He had spent most of the afternoon on the roof of the ramshackle hunting lodge he called home, nailing on tar paper and replacing shingles torn off by last night's windstorm. It was past time to be getting ready for the snow that the fat, red-furred marmots foreshadowed. When he finally thought to look up, the sun had been sinking toward the wall of mountains that ringed the valley. Travis never had been good with time. But then, he never had been good with a lot of things. That was why he had come here, to Castle City.
The regulars would start straggling into the Mine Shaft Saloon by sundown, and there were usually a few hapless tourists who had taken a wrong turn off the highway and had ended up in Castle City by accident. Legions of them cruised the twisting two-lanes this time of year, to ogle the gold splendor of the mountain autumn from the heated comfort of their rental cars. To make matters worse, Moira Larson's book club was meeting in the back room of the saloon that evening. The topic: Nineteenth-Century French Novels of Adultery. Travis shuddered at the thought of facing a dozen book lovers thwarted in their hell-bent desire to discuss implications of class structure in Flaubert's Madame Bovary.
A nervous whistle escaped his lips. "You are really, really late."
Of course, Max would be at the saloon.
Max Bayfield was Travis's one and only employee. Max was supposed to be working the day shift today, although more likely he was poring over the saloon's books, trying to find money between the lines. Travis supposed that was what he got for hiring a refugee accountant from New York, but at least there would be someone there to pour a drink if a customer asked. Then again, it wasn't really a great idea to let Max wrangle the bar on his own during busy hours. Travis could only hope Max wasn't hovering around the jukebox again, telling customers that while listening to classical music temporarily raised one's IQ, country-western songs--with their simplistic melodic structure and repetitive rhythmic schemes--did just the opposite.
His sense of urgency redoubled, Travis punched the accelerator, and the truck flew out of the curve like a rock out of a slingshot.
He was about a mile from town when a dilapidated shape flashed past the truck's cracked windshield. Hulking beside the road were the remains of a house. Although he had passed it countless times, like always, Travis found his gaze drawn toward the ruin. The old place had burned years ago, long before he had come to Castle City, yet somehow he knew that even before it caught fire, this had been an ugly building. It was squat and sprawling, with rows of small windows that stared like hateful eyes at the beauty of the mountains. Now the structure was nothing more than a shell, the husk of some gigantic beetle that had died next to the road.
According to the stories Travis had heard, the house had been an orphanage once. Built during the days of the Great Depression, the Beckett-Strange Home for Children had endured for decades as one of the largest orphanages in central Colorado, but about twenty years ago the place had burned. By then orphanages were well out of fashion, and the Home was never rebuilt. Travis couldn't say he was sorry. There was something . . . wrong about the ruin. He wasn't sure what it was, but often when he passed it he found himself thinking dark thoughts. Thoughts about fear, or suffering, or mayhem. Maybe it was just that he knew people had died in that fire. Not any of the children--they had all escaped--but several of the Home's workers had been trapped in their rooms, and they had all been burned alive. At least, that was what the rumors told. Travis didn't know if the stories were true, but if there was ever a place for ghosts, it was the remains of the Beckett-Strange Home for Children.
The old orphanage slipped out of view, and Travis fixed his gaze on the road ahead. This was the time of day when deer were inexplicably compelled to leap out and fling their bodies in front of moving cars. He kept his eyes peeled. Except a moment later something caught his attention, and it wasn't a deer. He downshifted, his hurry forgotten. Gears rattling in protest, the pickup slowed to a crawl.
It was a billboard.
Tires ground on gravel, and the truck rolled to a halt on the shoulder of the road. Travis peered out the driver's side window. Like so many wooden artifacts in the high country, the billboard was bleached and splintering but curiously intact. The thing had to have seen a good sixty or seventy mountain winters in its existence, and even the most recent advertisement plastered across its face was long faded. However, he could still make out the ghostly shapes of people wearing clothes that had been fashionable two decades ago, laughing as they sucked smooth, delicious smoke out of white sticks propped between long fingers.
Hinges groaned, and the truck's heavy door swung open. Travis climbed out. Cold air sighed through clumps of dry weeds, and he was glad for his thick sheepskin coat. Beneath this he wore faded blue jeans and a tan work shirt. Travis was a tall man, just on the lean side of big, but he had an unconscious tendency to hunch his broad shoulders. At thirty-three years his face was boyish, and when he smiled, his crooked grin suggested a mischievousness that was not altogether misleading. His hair was the exact color of dull yellow sandstone, but his beard, which he sometimes let grow against the winter cold, or simply out of sheer laziness, had sparks of copper and gold in it.
Travis adjusted the wire-rimmed spectacles that perched in front of his pale eyes. Jack Graystone had given him the spectacles a few years back. Jack owned the Magician's Attic, an antique store on the west side of town, and he was one of Travis's oldest friends, maybe even his best. The spectacles were over a hundred years old, and once they had belonged to a young gunslinger named Tyler Caine. Jack always said the best way to understand the here and now was to gaze at it through the eyes of a distant time and place. Sometimes Travis thought Jack was the wisest man he knew.
Travis approached the billboard, his scuffed boots crunching against the hard ground. There--that was what had caught his eye. Last night's gale had ripped away a piece of the old cigarette ad. He drew in a cold lungful of air. Through the hole in the advertisement he could see what appeared to be a painting of a rugged landscape. Only it didn't quite look like a painting. It was too real, more like a photograph, breathtaking in its perfect clarity. He could just see the edge of a snow-covered peak, and beneath that the hint of an evergreen forest. Without even thinking, Travis reached a hand toward the billboard, to peel off more of the ad's colored paper.
That was when he heard them.
The bells were faint and distant, yet clear all the same, and crystalline. The sound made him think of sleigh bells on a winter's night. His hand fell to his side, and he cocked his head to listen. Now all he heard was the low moan of wind over granite. He shivered and remembered he needed to get to the saloon. Whatever the sound had been, it was gone now, if he had ever really heard it in the first place. He started back for the truck.
The wind shifted and brought with it, fleeting but clear, the chime of music.
Travis spun back around. Once more the bells faded into silence, but this time he could tell from which direction the sound had come. His gaze traveled across a sere expanse of grass until it reached a dark hulk a few hundred yards away. You don't have time for this, Travis. But he was already walking across the field, hands jammed into the pockets of his coat.
A minute later the orphanage loomed above him, taking a bite out of the blue-quartz sky. He had never been this close to the ruin before. Now the windows seemed more gaping mouths than staring eyes. Lichen clung to scorched clapboards like some sort of disease. Even after all these years a faint burnt smell emanated from the place, acrid and vaguely menacing. Travis held his breath: the eerie voice of the wind, and silence, that was all.
He pushed his way through a patch of dried thistles and walked around the side of the house. Behind the place was a pair of outbuildings. They were far enough away from the main house that the fire had not gotten them. Dull paint peeled from their walls, and their doors were sealed shut with rusted padlocks. Storage sheds of some sort. Between the buildings was a narrow run, almost like an alley. Had something moved there in the dimness?
He took a step into the space between the sheds, and in the murk he glimpsed a pile of scrap metal and an old rain barrel. That was all. He was about to turn away when he noticed a glint of light by his feet. He squatted down and saw tracks in the ground. Water had seeped from the earth to pool in the tracks and reflect the waning daylight. The prints had been made by small, cloven hooves, probably a mule deer. They wandered all over the valley. With a shrug, Travis stood and turned to head back to the truck.
This time the bells were closer. Much closer.
Travis whirled around. There. Something had moved--a dim form by the rain barrel.
"Who's there?" he called out. No answer. He took another step, deeper in. Shadows closed behind him, and a new sound drifted on the air, a sound almost like . . . laughter. It was high and trilling, the mirth of a child, or that of an ancient woman. The rain barrel rocked back and forth, then toppled. Water gushed onto the ground, dark as blood.
Travis's heart shriveled in his chest. He started to back out of the alley. The mocking laughter rang out again. He bit his lip to stifle a cry of fear, turned, tripped over his boots, and broke into a run.
He was brought up short by a tall, stiff object, and this time he did cry out. He stumbled backward and looked up.
"Can I help you with something, son?"
The man standing before Travis looked like he was eighty years too late for a funeral. His black suit of moth-eaten wool was archaic and oddly cut, with a long hem and a high collar. The suit hung loosely on the man's spare frame, while the shirt beneath had turned the yellow of old bones, its neck bound with a limp string tie that flapped on the air. The man snatched a hand up to keep his broad-brimmed hat from taking off on a gust of wind.
"I said, can I help you, son? I mean, are you in need of some aid? Forgive my saying, but you look as white as Lot after he slipped on out of Sodom."
The man's voice was dry, like the rasp of a snake's belly against sand, but coated with a sticky Southern sweetness. This was a voice to invoke dread and devotion in one fell swoop. A grin split the man's face. His teeth were the same dull yellow as his shirt, and his eyes glinted like black marbles.
"You aren't simple, now are you, son? You can talk, can't you?"
Travis managed a nod. "I'm fine, really. It was nothing, just an animal by the sheds."
Instinct told him to get out of here. The man gave Travis the creeps, him and his papery skin and that skeletal smile. He had to be some sort of vagrant, what with those thrift-store clothes. And there was something foreboding about him. Not violent, but perilous all the same.
Travis swallowed hard. "Listen, I need to get going. I have . . . I have something I need to do."
The man watched him with those black eyes, then gave a solemn nod.
"So you do, son. So you do."
Travis did not reply. He hurried past the other, kept his eyes fixed on the ground, and hoofed it as fast as he could across the field without looking like he was out and out running. To his great relief, he made it back to the truck. He climbed inside, then cast one last glance over his shoulder. The man in black had not moved. He still stood in front of the ruined orphanage and clutched his hat while waves of grass surged around him. He gazed at the horizon, like those dark marble eyes of his could see something coming, something other eyes could not.
Travis shivered, shut the truck's door, and cranked the key in the ignition. With a spray of gravel the pickup launched itself down the road.
Travis laughed as the oddness of his encounter at the orphanage evaporated in the mundane task of piloting the truck. Now that he thought about what had happened, it no longer seemed so strange. There had been some sort of animal between the sheds, and the man in black was just a drifter, peculiar but harmless. As for the sounds--he could chalk those up to wind and imagination. Either that or he was going insane, and there was nothing at all special about that. He hummed along with the radio as he drove.
A pointed shape came into view up ahead. As he drew closer, Travis saw it was a big circus tent pitched in a field next to the road. Its canvas roof was patched in countless places, and parked to the side was an old school bus covered with a blotchy coat of white paint. He slowed down as he passed the tent. In front was planted a crude sign. As always, it took a moment of concentration to stop the words from roaming, then he reined them in. The sign read: BROTHER CY'S APOCALYPTIC TRAVELING SALVATION SHOW
Ailments Cured--Faith Restored--Souls Redeemed
Come on in--we want to save you! It was an old-fashioned revival. Travis hadn't thought these sorts of things still existed. He shifted into fourth, and the tent vanished behind him. At least now he knew where the strange man had come from, and he had been right on one count. The old guy was a nut, although not the kind he had thought.
The battered pickup cruised down the road, and he turned his attention to everyday matters--how many kegs of beer he needed to order for the bar, who he had to call to get rid of that skunk holed up under the saloon, and when he was going to find time to patch the leak in the storeroom's roof.
Yet all the way into town, Travis couldn't quite forget the far-off music of bells.