Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Nimitseahpah

If you ask me for a story on a night like this, when the wind howls through the canyons like a live thing, there’s only one I can tell. I know well that when I’ve gone up to bed, some of you will whisper that I’m just an old and crazy widow who should, by rights, be dead by now. How well I understand that there are truths too frightening to believe. But truths these are. The events I recount to you now have haunted me every windy night for more decades than I care to number—since the days when gold and silver mines were the lifeblood of this town, and evil could be recognized and felt and guarded against, or so we thought. Bring me that quilt. Stoke up the fire, and I’ll begin.

• • • •

The year was 1905, just barely, for it was mid-January when Jesse took me on our first outing to the old Pahpocket Mine and its fabulous sentinel.

The mineral boom in Pactolus seemed to be tapering off in earnest, and families were leaving in a slow, steady trickle. Nobody knew whether the community would pull through or not. If the town had been a human being, a doctor would have advised making out a will and setting things in order, for the situation seemed grave.

It was a sad and frightening time for all of us. Certainly, it was for Jesse and me. We had only been married a couple of years. Ten months of that, we had spent here in the desert, eighty miles from nowhere, because Jesse was a mining engineer fresh out of college. He’d had several job possibilities, but Pactolus won because the Double Silver Company offered us a house along with his pay—a big house, and we wanted lots of children. Now the town was dying.

I felt as if I were dying, too. I had just lost the third of our babies, a little boy who had arrived much too early and stillborn. It had left me weak and pale, unable to look into my own heart for fear of what I’d find there. The Pactolus cemetery seemed awash in dead babies, not just mine, but everyone else’s, too, and sometimes their mothers as well. I couldn’t speak to God anymore, though I didn’t understand why. If I hadn’t been trying so hard not to feel anything, I’d have realized I was furious at Him.

On this particular January day, a Saturday, the air was unseasonably warm—“a January thaw,” the old-timers said. And Jesse, shaving shirtless at the washbowl, glad for the feel of fresh air on his skin, turned and caught me up in his arms and said, “Kezzie, let me take you on a picnic. It’ll do you good. You don’t have to work. Just sit. I’ll put up a basket myself, if you’re willing to eat squashed sandwiches.” He smiled like a child. Oh, how we loved each other.

He told me as he sliced bread and spread it with a patchwork from the previous night’s chicken dinner, that he’d heard of a spot that sounded interesting. The abandoned Pahpocket Mine.

So I put on an old skirt. The roads were knee-deep in mud, and I didn’t want to ruin one of my good ones. Jesse saddled up Tailings, our horse, and we rode double and slowly through the sagebrush and junipers to the Pahpocket. As we plodded along with the warm sun on our shoulders, Jesse told me what Davey, an old miner he knew, had related to him about the place.

Forty years before, the Pahpocket Mine had been one of the richest in the country. It was, as well, the deepest in history as far as anyone knew, and there should have been many who knew, for the entire state was aswarm with mining experts in those days. The miners were following a vein of gold ore that seemed to lead down and down, growing ever wider and richer.

Then that thing all miners dread came to pass. Something big went wrong, and almost all of the 150 men in the tunnels that day were killed. The details of the disaster were sketchy, Jesse said. Whatever happened was so unusual that the whole incident lay cocooned in legend and rumor. The survivors (there were very few), spoke of things no sane person believed. The mine had come to life. Or the miners had pierced the heart of darkness, and it had devoured them in retribution. All the machinery stopped at once—the air compressors, the big water pump, the man skips—and could not be restarted. Men were sucked bodily into the void, seven thousand feet down. Rescue parties disappeared. Not a single body was ever recovered.

Clucking softly to urge Tailings over a hillock, Jesse finished the story. “Davey says the owners tried to clean things up and reopen it, but they never managed to. Nobody would go down there anymore, not even the Chinamen, and you know they’re not picky about work. People said the place was cursed. Those Cornish miners, you could understand them hanging back. But the Chinese? Now that’s saying something.”

Tailings trotted us over a rise, and there in a hollow at the foot of a hill, we saw what was left of the Pahpocket mine.

Even as little time as I’d spent in mining country, I knew the place did not look right, considering the supposed size of the operation. True, there was a conical mountain of gray detritus, steep in its angle of repose, the guts of the Earth brought up yard by square yard. And the vicinity was scattered with the usual array of massive, rusted equipment. But, strangely, there were no intact buildings, just twisted heaps of corrugated tin. Even the head frame lay in ruins.

Because of this the main shaft gaped darkly from the hillside. The main shafts of the big mines I had seen were always obscured by housings and equipment. So exposed, this one appeared obscene somehow, like a dignified old man with his dentures out. I felt as if I had no business looking.

Yet I couldn’t turn my gaze. For directly in front of this huge, empty mouth sat an incongruous, bone-pale figure of tufa stone, twice as tall as a man.

We dismounted from the horse, and I walked up for a better look, so astonished that I forgot to hold up the hem of my skirt, which was quickly soaked in snow melt. It was difficult to say whether the thing was just a piece of rock with an unnatural shape, or had been crudely carved somehow. Though I looked hard, I didn’t find a single mark that could be said, without doubt, to have been made by a tool. I knew that tufa sometimes takes amazing and unlikely shapes with no human help at all, but this defied probability.

It didn’t fit any easy description. Its great knob of a head seemed part lion and part man, though shapes like long, wolfish teeth parted its animal lips. It had a decorated headdress, or perhaps a thick, straight mane out of which peeked small misshapen creatures. Its seated body curved cougarlike, except for its legs, which might have been a horse’s, or might have been a dog’s. Its feet, encircled by oddly incongruous rusted iron chains, were half hidden beneath smaller versions of itself. Wings—which might once have had carved feathers—swept along its sides, though they were lumpish and asymmetrical. It faced not outward, toward the world, but inward, toward the mine, its neck arched back and its gaze turned skyward as if it longed to be gone from the earth.

“What is it?” I said as Jesse came up behind me, carrying the picnic basket.

“They say it’s an Indian version of a gargoyle. Set there to guard forever against the evil in the mine.” He laughed, confident in the silliness of the story. “After the accident, Wuzzie Stovepipe and her tribe hauled it by mule team all the way from Niminaa Lake. Paid the driver in gold, too.”

I knew something of Wuzzie Stovepipe—an ancient local Paiute woman who haunted the streets of town, dressed in a rabbitskin cloak and a hat made of magpie feathers. Many Indians we never knew, because they preferred the cleanliness and freedom of the desert and never came near Pactolus. Most of those we did know spent their time begging outside the saloon or drinking themselves stupid in the alleyways. But never Wuzzie. Wherever she went, she walked purposefully. Something in the way she carried herself, or the look in her black, black eyes, made men doff their hats and women nod in deference as she passed. I had felt the same impulse myself—shivering as we crossed paths outside the mercantile or the butcher shop.

I knew, too, that Niminaa Lake was many miles away. The stone figure was massive, and must have required a dozen or more mules to pull it so far. Where would an old Indian woman have gotten so much gold?

I tried to laugh along with Jesse, but it came out forced. Because a strange certainty was building inside me, a kind of high-pitched resonance that began in the soles of my feet and rushed upward through my heart, a current of compassion for the dead men, or love, and surely gratitude to Wuzzie and her people, because I was convinced at that moment that the monstrous effigy was indeed protecting us from something.

I felt so overwhelmed that black spots swarmed before my eyes, and I lost my footing. The next instant, I found my face pressed against that strange, forbidding figure. The rough stone scratched my cheek. The tufa was slightly warm, from the desert sun I supposed, which can be strong even in winter. It had a disconcertingly good smell, perhaps because it was damp from thawing snow—powerful with potential like soil in spring. Even as I recoiled from it, I felt so oddly comforted that tears spilled down my cheeks.

It was the first time I’d been able to cry since I lost the baby. Jesse rushed to smooth my hair and whisper hushes in my ear, hugging me from behind. There I stood and wept a torrent, pressed between my husband and the palpable shield of the gargoyle, if that’s what it was, finally able to begin the long process of releasing my grief.

• • • •

A few weeks later, the clergyman from the Episcopalian church, Father Marshall, came to call. I invited him in.

Balancing a cup of tea and the last of our sugar biscuits on his knee, he said, “Mrs. Mayhew, I know you’ve had a difficult time these last few months. You’ve been in our prayers. So you needn’t answer my question right away. But the mayor has sent me to ask if you might consider becoming our school teacher.”

I was silent for a minute. The request was so unexpected it took a while to sink in. “But I thought we already had one,” I said.

“Well, we did, but it seems the winter was too hard for her.”

Yes, I thought. Deep snow and wind like a bitter fist. Half the mines played out, and nothing in the town to show for it except widows and fatherless children. People too depressed to speak to each other. The doctor gone. No library. No culture. The arrival of a single bolt of calico at the mercantile was cause for celebration, and the mail took two weeks, sometimes three, in each direction. Oh yes, I understood how a woman might find the winter too hard.

“What makes the mayor think I’m suitable for the position?” I asked.

Father Marshall smiled. “I approve of your modesty,” he said. “But we understand you’ve been to college in the East. You are undoubtedly the most educated woman in Pactolus. And, well, it did occur to me that you might welcome some occupation just now. To keep from dwelling on your troubles, perhaps.” He tilted his head in a friendly way.

I found myself returning his smile. Though I’d never taught before, the idea appealed to me. “I’ll think it over,” I said.

“We’d be grateful.” Father Marshall stood to leave, and as I showed him to the door, he added, “It needn’t be permanent unless you want it to be. I hope you’ll accept.”

I did think it over, but it didn’t take me very long to arrive at a decision. He was right. Having been educated at Barnard and having traveled a little, I was an unusual woman in this remote place. I had no children of my own. I had nothing to do with my time but fuss around the house, bake things that used too much of our precious sugar, and replace the occasional lost button. It would feel good to be useful. And we could certainly stand the extra money, given that I’d married for love against my parents’ wishes, so Jesse’s modest income was all we had.

The next morning, I agreed to take the job, and a side of Pactolus I’d never seen before opened up to me.

• • • •

I doubt there is any better way to know a town than to spend your days rubbing elbows with its children. The Pactolus school house was built to accommodate thirty students, but there were only eighteen that spring. Just as well, since I was as busy learning as they were.

The youngest was six, and the oldest a towering sixteen. There were eleven girls, most of them well mannered and eager to please. And there were seven boys, all of them problems of one kind or another. There were Jesus and Xavier, a sheepherder’s sons who barely spoke English and seemed never to have touched books before. There were Phinney, Doyle, and Quince, who ranged in age from ten to thirteen, full of wild energy and thoughtless cruelty. Phinney’s father ran a bar, Doyle’s was a wild-eyed prospector, and Quince’s—formerly a miner—was dead.

Then there were Nev Treleaven and Jacques Dechain, whom this story is really about—whose fates, as it turned out, were enmeshed with each other’s, with the Pahpocket Mine, and with its strange guardian.

Nev looked to be thirteen or fourteen years old, dark of hair but fair of skin, with eyes like the sea off the Côte d’Azur. He sometimes sat outside the schoolroom and listened beside the window, but refused to come in. He told me once, after half an hour’s coaxing, that he didn’t like being in the school. It was too hot and small and full of people’s smells. He couldn’t breathe. Claustrophobia, I suppose. Indeed, he seemed half feral. More than once, I saw him running through the brush like an antelope or a mustang, for no apparent reason beyond the joy of it.

I asked about him at the mercantile whose proprietor, Mr. Oxoby, seemed to know something about everyone. It was there I learned, to my astonishment, that Wuzzie Stovepipe was the only mother Nev Treleaven had ever known. Oxoby said Nev’s mother died giving birth to him. Nev’s father, Dub, a taciturn miner raised in the hardrock country of Cornwall, was so entirely shattered by her death that he became a recluse, spending most of his time alone in the nearby hills. He was often gone for weeks at a time and would reappear in town with a bag of gold nuggets, or a wagon full of high-grade silver ore. Most people thought he must have a rich mining claim somewhere, but no one knew for certain.

Mr. Treleaven had made arrangements with Wuzzie shortly after his wife’s death. The woman was to care for little Nevlin and mother him to the best of her abilities, in return for which she was compensated with gold, though Mr. Oxoby whispered behind his hand that there might be compensations other than gold, if I took his meaning—which I did, with a grain of salt.

The fact that Nev had been raised by a Paiute explained a lot about his behavior, and also about the way the other children treated him. They seemed frightened of him. I say this because they never teased him or made him the brunt of jokes to his face. They kept a rather respectful distance. But whenever they thought he wasn’t looking, they called him a half-breed and a queer duck. They blamed every outbreak of head lice on him, even though he never had any physical contact with any of them and smelled better than some. They said his Indian mother had taught him black magic. Every piece of bad luck was a “Nev’s curse.” Nev was even blamed for big storms.

In short, he was an outcast, though he was probably the kindest and most attentive child in Pactolus. I have thought often about the reasons for this ostracism, down through the long years I’ve spent here. People always fear the unfamiliar, and Nev was certainly that—unknown and unpredictable in every way. But now and then, generally in the dark hours after midnight, a conviction rises in my mind unbidden: perhaps Nev Treleaven was outcast with good reason, for he was not entirely human. How else could the events I’m about to relate be explained?

• • • •

Jacques Dechain, on the other hand, was more human than most.

His family did not arrive in Pactolus until March of that year—two months after I began teaching. They were from Paris. Professor Dechain had taken a leave from the Sorbonne to do archeological research on a group of unusual petroglyphs someone found in a narrow canyon on the far side of Niminaa Lake. Jacques was at that time the Dechains’ only child. He was twelve, though I guessed ten when I first met him, not because he was small—he was about average height, and somewhat stocky—but because of the way he behaved. He had a quality of sweet dreaminess that led him to see the distant mountains as sleeping dragons and himself as a brave knight in exile. And he wept easily.

He and Nev had one thing in common, their difference from the others. Jacques spoke technically perfect English, though with a heavy, florid accent. The girls liked it, and Jesus and Xavier, who struggled with English themselves, didn’t seem to notice it. But Phinney, Doyle, and Quince pranced around imitating it and roaring with laughter. In fact, they mocked him at every chance. They implied that he was a pansy because he wrote in lovely, well-practiced script. They made fun of his lunch, which his mother packed beautifully with linen napkin, silverware, and china plate. They even made fun of his name.

Boys of this sort seemed entirely outside Jacques’ experience. He had no idea how to deal with them. He had virtually no sense of humor, and what he did have was utterly foreign to the other children. He didn’t know how to fight, or how to deflect a taunt with sharp wit. So he became angry, or so upset that he cried.

Egged on by this ideal and hoped-for response, the bullies stole the leather-bound books of French philosophy with which he tried to impress them. He wore an unlikely hat of heavy, pale felt with a dandyish curve to the brim, and this they gleefully grabbed and threw into the mud. They sniped at him with tiny, stinging pebbles from their slingshots. They put horse manure inside his desk. Their imaginations knew no bounds when it came to tormenting Jacques.

I tried my best to protect him, but I couldn’t hover over him every minute of the day, or keep watch when school was not in session. Besides, that only embarrassed him further. I did speak to his parents about the problem, over tea one afternoon, but it didn’t seem to help much. In the end, the best I could do was forbid the taunting during school hours, teach the children a little French, and hope the boys would work things out among themselves.

• • • •

Meanwhile, I had discovered that Father Marshall knew what he was about. The twin balms of time and preoccupation with other people were at work within me, as I’m sure he suspected they would be. My grief over the loss of our son, which I had carried in my heart all winter like the wound from a dark, bloody bullet, began at last to heal.

Healing is a strange thing, sometimes painful in itself, and sometimes hard to recognize for what it is. As spring progressed toward summer, and the days lengthened, urges that I could neither explain nor understand overcame me. I felt a great need to wander the hills alone, where I could weep and wail as much as I wanted without fear of discovery.

I spent many afternoons that season walking through the brush fast and hard with only the most trivial of goals—a glitter on a distant hillside, an abandoned shack rising from the yellow-tipped scrub, an interesting rock formation. All the while my pain broke and rose like river ice in a thaw.

One such afternoon, I found myself obsessed by thoughts of the “gargoyle” at the Pahpocket mine. Though I had recalled the figure often since January, I had only seen it that once with Jesse. I think I was half afraid of it, or of the black hole it guarded.

But on this day, I felt an almost lunatic need to find it again, to touch it, and to reassure myself that we were still safe and life would go on, for some of us at least. So I set off for the Pahpocket. I was tight and desperate inside myself at first, as always when I began these walks. But the day was bright and warm, the air tinged with the resinous scent of sage blossoms and the hum of hardy bees. I could see for miles with perfect clarity—desolate gray-green hills, stark shadows, stone outcroppings—and the longer I walked, the more beautiful it all seemed.

By the time I reached the Pahpocket, I was in what I had come to think of as my desert state of mind—calm, and almost eerily aware of my surroundings. I came over the crest of the hillock before the mine and discovered, to my surprise, that I was not the only one thinking of the stone figure that day. Jacques and Nev stood beside the thing, talking.

I wasn’t quite close enough to hear what they were saying. And it seemed probable that Nev would fade away like smoke if he knew I was anywhere near. So, curiosity overcoming scruples, I crept among the boulders and clumps of sage till I reached a hidden rocky niche perfect for eavesdropping.

“It has a powerful name. Nimitseahpah. The Paiutes never say it aloud. They only whisper it, same as the old miners,” I heard Nev say.

Jacques slapped the statue with the flat of his hand, as one might slap the flank of a favorite horse. He jerked away slightly, as if surprised at the way the stone felt, but unwilling to show it. “I’ve seen a lot of these. It’s just a gargoyle, and rather badly made. A piece of stone with a silly face. They’re everywhere in Paris.”

Even from my distance, it sounded like false bravado. Or maybe I was just biased, for I remembered well the last time I had touched that pale figure. Nimitseahpah, I whispered to myself, savoring it, only at that moment realizing that I had been yearning to call the guardian by name.

“You’re wrong,” said Nev. “It’s more than a stone. They put it here to hold back the darkness the miners disturbed. It has power. Can’t you feel it?”

Jacques blinked and hesitated a moment before shaking his head almost stubbornly. “Feel it? What am I supposed to feel?”

Nev chewed at his lip, trying to explain something that seemed difficult for him. “The place where the light meets the darkness. The balance. It feels like . . . like the afternoon before a storm. A hum. Inside you.”

With another shake of his head, almost disdainful this time, Jacques said, “Is this a joke?”

Nev gazed at him calmly. “No.”

Jacques kicked at one of the chains that adorned the figure’s feet. Nev’s cheek twitched.

“Phinney and Doyle say you’re crazy, Treleaven. Maybe it’s true.”

Laughing softly, Nev answered as he often did—with a question of his own. “They say you’re a mamma’s boy. Is that true?”

Jacques’ face turned bright red, and he clenched both fists at his sides, his mouth working though no words came out.

Nev regarded him with an odd expression, somewhere between a frown and a smile. “They know you hate them. So they hate you back.”

Words burst from Jacques at last. “I wouldn’t hate them if they treated me better! Can’t you see?”

“Doesn’t matter. You can’t make them do anything. You can only stop hating them.”

“You are crazy!” said Jacques, and he laughed. It sounded almost like a bark. “They hate you, too, you know.”

Nev looked off into the far distance, where the Desatoya mountains rose, purplish in the afternoon light. There was no longer any trace of a smile on his face. “No. They don’t hate me. They fear me. I’m not like them. I’m not like anybody.”

“I don’t fear you,” said Jacques, pulling himself up straight, looking insulted.

“You will,” said Nev.

Without another word, he turned and began to walk away, out into the brush.

“Where are you going?” cried Jacques.

But Nev did not respond. His easy pace turned into a lope, and within seconds, he was gone from sight.

Jacques bellowed. It wasn’t a word; just an angry shout. Stooping to seize a rock the size of his fist, he threw it into the mine shaft with the might of blind fury. The bang and rattle of its fall lasted a long time.

• • • •

The next day was May 2, 1905. A Tuesday. The date occupies a permanent place in my mind, as if burned there, or incised with a chisel. The dawn was clear, the morning unseasonably warm. The birds were silent and invisible, the noise of insects incessant.

Even before I rang the school bell, I knew it would be a difficult day. Tessie Penryn and her best friend Beth Young had a highly uncharacteristic hair-pulling fight on the playground over possession of a carved wooden horse.

I discovered Phinney hunched behind the fence in tears. His father, who slept late because of the hours he kept at the bar, had beaten him for making too much noise at breakfast. I helped him clean up at the hand pump, but no amount of soap and water could wash the bruises from his face, let alone from his angry young heart.

He took it out on Jacques. Phinney began by needling him about his accent, an old refrain to be sure, but on this day there was a new twist to the cruelty. Phinney swore at Jacques in French. This he had learned to do from Jacques himself, which I’m sure added injury to insult. Moreover, given Phinney’s gift for mimicry, he did it abominably well. Quince and Doyle took up the chorus with great relish.

Everyone was out of sorts. The children bickered like sparrows at a feeder, and my patience gave way to sharp retorts more than once. I felt the tension, too, as if static electricity were building everywhere—in the rocks, in the sky, in the air between people, headed for the inevitable shock of discharge.

By two o’clock, a bank of ugly black clouds had appeared low in the sky southwest of town. Not long after, the Terrible Trio smeared a wad of juniper pitch into Jacques’ hair. I made each of them stand in a separate corner of the classroom while I tried to get the sticky mess cleaned up. Jacques was in furious tears, and I had just resorted to scissors, when the door flew open with a crash.

We all looked toward it, shocked at the sudden noise. There stood Nev, the clouds gray and swirling behind him. The smell of dampened dust and sage drifted in on the breeze, an odor peculiar to the high desert, and one that makes the hair on my neck rise to this day. It means there is rain not far off.

Nev was trembling visibly. “Big storm coming,” he said. “Take shelter.” Then he was gone again, running fast toward the center of town.

Before the door had closed, many of the children leapt from their desks into the aisles, babbling. There were even a few shrieks. I picked up a ruler and smacked it against my own desk. The noise got their attention, at least for a second or two.

“Students! Take your seats this instant,” I said in my firmest teacherly voice.

“But Mrs. Mayhew, when Nev talks about storms, he’s always right. Even my dad says so,” said Sally Deidesheimer. She was usually so shy and quiet that this was the longest sentence I had ever heard her say.

Jesus, the sheepherder’s towering son, stood up then. Gazing steadfastly at the floor, he removed his crumpled felt hat from his back pocket, pulled it onto his head, and said, “Meesus Mayhew, I gotta go tell Aita. I big sorry.” With that, he grabbed his little brother Xavier and ran outside to find their horse.

After that, there was no stopping any of them. In moments, the room was empty. I stood in the open doorway, looking out. The breeze had picked up, and the temperature was falling rapidly. The sky was a deep, bruised gray. The scent of coming rain permeated everything. The air was so charged with tension that it lifted my skin into goose flesh.

On the playground, Jacques Dechain, still nearly blind with fury, his hair sticking up in wild, pitch-stiffened spikes, had chosen this moment to exact revenge. He had managed to grab Quince’s slingshot from its accustomed spot in Quince’s back pocket. And he was shooting stones at his three enemies as quickly as he could pick them up. Most of his efforts went astray. I don’t think he’d ever held a slingshot before, let alone practiced with one. But one pebble nicked Phinney on the cheek, leaving a shallow, bloody trail there below the eye his father had blackened that morning. It was more than Phinney could bear.

“I’ll kill you, you little pansy bastard!” he screamed.

“Try it! Try it, I dare you!” cried Jacques. He took one last wild shot at Phinney with the slingshot. It went wide, but before it landed, he was already running off through the brush.

Phinney yelled, “Get him!” And he and Quince and Doyle sped after Jacques in a way that looked serious indeed.

I called for them to stop, but they either didn’t hear me or didn’t care to.

So I hitched my skirt around my knees in a way that probably would have made Father Marshall apoplectic, and ran after them through the rising wind.

Jacques was a fairly good runner—not in Nev’s league, but a good runner nonetheless. He ran with balance, dodging whatever clumps of sagebrush he couldn’t leap. And at first he was swift, opening a considerable gap between himself and his pursuers. But he didn’t have their endurance. Slowly the distance narrowed. I was becoming winded, too, when I realized where he was leading us.

I lost sight of Jacques first. Then Phinney, Doyle and Quince, who were well ahead of me, too. But it didn’t matter. I knew where they were going. I topped the now-familiar hillock above the Pahpocket Mine.

Jacques stood beside the misshapen stone figure, so out of breath that his sides heaved. Above his head, he held a rock so big I wondered how he’d ever had the strength to move it, let alone pick it up. His face was contorted with the effort of holding it aloft.

The other boys had stopped a respectful distance from him.

I shouted at them as I slipped down the hill toward the mine, but by then the wind was blowing in earnest, grabbing at our hair and clothes, peppering us with grit. And it carried my voice in the wrong direction.

As I got closer, I heard Doyle shout at Jacques, “Are you crazy?”

Jacques was in such a state that he was screaming at them in French. They couldn’t understand him, but he didn’t seem to notice, and even if he had, I think he was beyond caring. But I knew French well from my studies at college and from traveling abroad. And Jacques’ words sent ice through my blood. Roughly translated, he was saying that he would fix them once and for all, and they would see who killed who.

“Stop it at once!” I shouted as I ran toward them.

Phinney turned toward me, his mouth open, and said, “Mrs. Mayhew?” clearly shocked to see me there.

“Yes! Jacques, put the rock down!” I said.

But poor Jacques Dechain had been driven far past his breaking point. Tears streamed down his cheeks, and he laughed crazily. “I’ll make you so sorry!” he cried, still in French. “I’ll set it free. I’ll make you so sorry!”

He turned toward the statue and all at once I saw clearly what he meant to do. There was something in the mine that could kill people in a moment. And Nimitseahpah was all that stood between Jacques and that power.

Who knows where Nev came from. Maybe he was watching from some hidden place, as I had done before. Or maybe he knew somehow what was happening at the Pahpocket. The children said he spoke the language of the wind, and it told him things no one else could understand.

Quite suddenly, he was lunging toward Jacques, shouting, “No! No!”

He literally flung himself through the air. I had already launched myself in Jacques’ direction, too. I fell short, tumbling into the wind-blown dirt. Nev did not. He hit Jacques broadside, knocking him off his feet. But he was an instant too late. The massive rock had already left Jacques’ hands. There was a hollow popping sound. I felt a sharp pain somewhere behind my eyes. I watched as the porous tufa of our guardian shattered, the anguished head leaving the obscene body, the body severed from the legs and their heavy shackles, in a spray of pale dust and inexplicable, brilliant light. Grief pierced me like a spear. I swear, I heard Nimitseahpah roar. I hear him roaring still, on nights when the wind blows into this valley, and I can never tell whether it is the sound of jubilation or of pain.

I didn’t realize it, but a piece of the broken figure had hit me hard in the head. All I knew at that moment was that the world seemed oddly wrenched from its usual state.

Something as cold as a January night seemed to be dragging me through the sand toward the main shaft of the Pahpocket. I stretched out my arms, grabbing for an anchor point, and I found Nimitseahpah’s heavy, broken base. I saw Phinney, Doyle, and Quince slide past me on their bellies, screaming. It felt exactly as if the ground around the shaft had tilted and risen upward like the sides of a funnel.

“Catch hold of me!” I cried.

The rest of it is very difficult to remember clearly. I have only a series of disconnected impressions to guide me. There was a terrible howling. The air was so cold. One of the boys caught my ankle. I had bruises from it later. I suppose it must have been Quince. I couldn’t see him. I could only feel his white-hot grip and hear him screaming. I remember Phinney catching my elbow, and working his way up from there, so that he, too, held onto the remains of the statue. I had a glimpse of Jacques’ face, slashed with horror, that made me think, poor Jacques. He hadn’t thought far enough ahead to see his own danger, or he didn’t care about it in the moment of his passion. Every child his age has such moments, though few are made to die for them.

What I recall most clearly is a brief impression of Nev. He stood miraculously upright, arms spread wide, his neck arched back in a posture for all the world like Nimitseahpah’s. The black power of the mine drew his clothing and his hair toward it, but some other force held him where he stood.

I am certain he called, “Help me!” I thought at first he was calling to me, or to one of the children, or to God. A moment later, the air became opaque with flying objects—boards, branches, boulders, pieces of metal—and I realized he was speaking to the storm.

• • • •

There begins a gap in my memory. I awoke in my own bed. It was morning. The world beyond the window made me think of a china cup, brilliant white, and brilliant blue. It had snowed, but the sky was vivid and clear. The branches of the little plum tree in our yard drooped, the spring blossoms ruined.

Jesse told me there had been an accident at the Pahpocket. Jacques and Doyle were missing. The gargoyle was gone. There seemed to have been a cave-in. People were hoping I would know what had happened.

I knew in an instant that Jacques and Doyle were gone forever, down the throat of what Nimitseahpah had guarded so diligently, to lie beside the 150 men who already slept there. I knew as well that Nev Treleaven had saved my life, and Phinney’s and Quince’s. And that it was true what he’d said. He was not like anybody. Sooner or later, everyone who knew him feared him.

• • • •

It was a long time before I could speak of it, or even think of it without great pain, and longer still before I could weather a storm without weeping again for all that year’s dead children.

A few weeks after Pahpocket, I begged Jesse to take me away or send me home. He said, “Kezzie, mines are all I know. I could take you to Tonopah or Goldfield, but I don’t think it would help much. They’re bigger, sure, at least for now. But every mining town is boom or bust and full of death. If you left and went home, I . . . ” He stared at the floor, then out the window. I watched the muscles of his jaw tighten and bunch, marring its fine, strong line. After a time, he cleared his throat, looked into my face, and said, “Stay with me. I promise I’ll make you happy here.”

I thought of mornings in our kitchen, his hand on my waist as he waltzed me across the floor, beaming at the sunrise. I thought of waking in a lonely bed two thousand miles away from him, in a clean and civilized place that never smelled of sagebrush and never contained his smile. And I thought of my schoolroom, and the sixteen children remaining, who might never learn to read or figure sums without their teacher. I kissed him and stayed.

Not that it was easy. It was two more long and sorry years before the 1907 bonanza strike at the Double Silver Mine turned things around for Pactolus. Jesse and I never did have children, much as we wanted them. But by and by, I grew to love all the children of Pactolus save one as if they were my own. And it sufficed.

That one, of course, was Nev Treleaven, who fended off love as if it were hailstones. He grew to manhood, and married a Paiute no one in Pactolus had ever seen before—a beautiful girl as strange and wild as he. They had four children together, all named after trees, seasons, and other elements of nature. One died young, two moved away, and the other one, River, everyone knows. You can see the little house Nev built for his family still, near the river, across from Moffat’s ranch. It is made of bottles mortared together with the necks all facing out. And when the wind blows through them, it moans like a sad, sad living thing.

Listen. You can hear it now. It’s not coyotes; it’s the wind in Nevlin’s house. Please an old woman, do, and throw another stick or two of wood on that poor fire. It’s cold tonight, inside and out.

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Nancy Etchemendy

Nancy Etchemendy

Nancy Etchemendy’s novels, short fiction, and poetry have appeared regularly for the past twenty-five years, both in the U.S. and abroad. Her work has earned a number of awards, including three Bram Stoker Awards and an International Horror Guild Award. Cat in Glass and Other Tales of the Unnatural, her collection of short dark fantasy, was named an ALA Best Book for Young Adults. She lives and works in Northern California where she leads a somewhat schizophrenic life, alternating between unkempt, introverted writer of weird tales and gracious (she prays) wife of Stanford University’s Provost.