(27,000 words - 80 pages)
© by Gary Morton
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Gray dust and crumbling flakes of ash coated the sun-dried turf. It lifted in fine clouds as he walked past the burial mounds. Halting at the edge of the sandstone cliff, he stared at the neat row of small hills running behind the caked mud flats that had once been Deep Woods Lake. In the old days, they’d been forested and topped with rock shelves and boulders. His Mohawk ancestors had used them as signal hills. Now they were dry and barren, and the stones were hot enough to bake corn bread.
Turning left, he studied the largest of the burial mounds. The entire sacred structure was slowly sinking - dropping into a surround of cracked mud, tall grass and timothy. Its grassy side had burst, and from a distance, it appeared as a huge tear. Sand, sparkling minerals and colored stones showed in the gash. Other things were partially obscured by the sand - bones, skulls, jeweled items that shimmered and larger sacred objects.
The sight fascinated him, and then a sudden wind sighed at cliff-side. His vision, his parched throat and lungs felt sucked dry. He was left in a hollow and abandoned state - suffocating, though painlessly. Dizziness staggered him and he stumbled at the edge of the cliff. Withering heat consumed his flesh and his throat began to ache with thirst.
His moccasins moved slowly, precariously along the edge of the cliff. Beyond the sheer drop, the torrid sky stretched to the horizon like a sheet of flame. Below, the dried lake billowed up dust clouds like dragon's breath or netherworld smoke signals.
Reaching the mound he stared at the cracked mud and shivering weeds at its edge. A skeleton part way up the gash drew his gaze. Its jaw hung open in what seemed like hideous laugher. A ring glittered on its hand and he could see that it remained there because in life the medicine man had wired it right through the bone. The other fingers of this skeletal hand were open and the arm was outstretched. Just beyond it in the spilling sand, a rattle protruded. This sacred object was armored with turtle shell and well preserved; the leather, handle and beads were like new, but the feathers on the tassel were slightly chewed and ragged in places. Painted shells patterned out a special face, one that his tribe recognized as the rainmaker.
Deep waters stirred in an inner mirage. He saw the face of the rainmaker breaking on the surface. Then the rattle reappeared and he longed to touch it, though he knew it was forbidden. Thirst came again, and with it blindness. A ghost awoke within, propelling him forward. He felt sand slip between his fingers, and then the weight of the rattle was in his hand. When he shook it, the sound was of falling rain … a gentle and steady sound, which was followed by thunder.
The darkness of the dust-smoked sky moved like the shadow of a great wolf. His feet began to stir in light steps of the dance and heat lightning flashed each time he shook the rattle at the sky.
His motions grew furious as he danced at the edge of the cliff. Messages of old puffed up on the signal hills. The tribes and the drums were calling for a rainmaker.
Below, in the dry lakebed, the mud flats began to split. Earth and sky rumbled like a voice of dread. Darkness consumed the day, but there wasn't any rain.
Rick's tongue slid slowly under crusted lips. Fine blond sand blew on the pocked asphalt ahead and his tinted glasses failed to filter out the white glare of mid afternoon. A glance at the energy gauge told him he had about one kilometer of juice remaining. Since he was approaching a long hill, he decided to roll up to the crest and park on the roadside while the solar cells recharged the Sun Cobra's engine.
Dust blew in fiercely and swirled in harsh heat at the top. The idea of stopping there seemed like a mistake. Then moments after he parked, the wind died down and he got out and walked under a sky of hot brass to the trunk. A bubble of sour air washed over him as he opened it. The metal door of the interior storage box felt like an oven pan.
His fingers deftly spun the combination - then the panel slid left. Inside a large bottle of water rested on weatherproof red felt. It shone like an enormous jewel.
Rick knew he was close to town and a water refill, but he still poured himself only half a cup. Old habits were hard to break. The water refreshed him and his mouth and lips came unglued. He could see his faint reflection in the metal; his tongue slithering across his full lips and the permanent expression of deep deliberation his tanned face conveyed.
Snatches of dust blew in as he locked up. He shielded his face as he walked to the roadside, heading for a hybrid oak clinging to the sandy earth just over the crest. Walking into its shade, Rick sat on a slate boulder thrust out from the soil. Parched bug-chewed leaves rustled like leather on a low bough. He gently wiped the grime from his eyes before looking out at the valley. Heat and glare billowed, but the pale color of the sky showed through. He saw something he hadn't seen for many kilometers - patches of green and blue. The green being farmland, acres of forest and trimmed parkland on the edge of a small town.
A clock tower rose at the centre of the town amid some other tall structures. He knew the town was Tiverton - his destination. Backed by the hot horizon it shimmered, almost like a desert mirage, and adding to the effect was the sight of a small blue lake just west of town. The banks circling it were long and smooth like the rim of a wide bowl, and off to the north he could see the remains of a sister lake. It appeared to have dried up completely, but the blowing dust made the bottom impossible to see, so it was hard to tell.
From a hilltop glance, Tiverton appeared to have a much better chance of survival than many other towns. But that really depended on the drought. Some people said there would be no relief this time. It hadn't rained in nearly a month and the sun grew fiercer by the day.
Near the bottom of the hill, a crossroad branched off to the south. He could see a speck moving on it. It appeared to be a man walking. Heat waves passed over the road in liquid distortion, warping the image. Then the man reappeared and took a few more steps before dropping to a sitting position on the shoulder.
"Probably been taken by heat stroke," Rick thought as he got to his feet. Turning, he walked to the car. The gauge said he had enough of a recharge to get into town so he started the engine and rolled down to the crossroad. The man's blue shirt showed in the glare just up the road so he swung into the dust, drove up and stopped. He could see that the shirt was part of a mailman's uniform and that the man was of Chinese Canadian extraction.
"Need a lift?"
The mailman looked up. "Are you an angel or is this for real?"
"It's for real."
Sweat drops as large as tears ran on his broad face, but he still had the strength to rise and get in the open door. He sighed. "Boy am I glad to get out of here."
"How'd you end up on foot way out here?"
"My mail car broke down about 4 kilometers back. I don't have my phone because the town has confiscated them all as part of the emergency plan. Not a single vehicle came down this road all morning."
"I got water if you need it."
"I drank water on the hike. It's the direct sun that put me down. I can last till we get into town if you want to head back."
"I actually am heading into Tiverton. I saw you from the hill so I turned this way to pick you up."
"Sure would’ve looked funny if I'd died of stroke just outside of town."
"I've seen it before. Seen whole towns dead. There are more bones than weeds lining the highways."
"Bad isn't it? I mean the dust bowl. I've been in Tiverton through the whole thing. We thought we were immune before this wave came in."
"I know the feeling. I'm from Tweedsville originally. The drought came on bad there, starting two years ago. We thought we could fight it but we didn't have the lakes and water sources like Tiverton. Everything dried to the bone. Trouble is that by the time we knew we'd lost, too many people had died. I had a wife and a baby daughter. We were set to leave then some rain came in the spring season. We held on but the heat came back in a killer wave."
"Your wife and kid?"
"They died in the hospital. I was sick but hung on."
"Sorry to here that, man."
"Name's Rick, Rick Shelley."
"Sure. I'm Jim Wong. Tiverton's pony express."
"You know that it's the water that kills you. Once it dries up to a point it's impossible to keep what little there is clean. Few survive once flies and bacterial infections set in during a heat wave."
"We've taken just about every precaution we can. There isn't a lot of livestock now so the problem of manure pollution of the water isn't as much of a danger. Tiverton is mostly a vegetarian town. We're heavy into vegetable crops and other organic stuff."
"I know. My brother Sam has a farm outside of Tiverton. Says he's fighting a hell of a drought. Needs all the help he can get."
"Ah, so you're Sam Shelley's brother. I should have guessed. Guess I didn't because your hair is golden and his is dark. He's always laughing like a clown of sorts. You got that serious look, like you faced off with trouble starting on the day you were born. Looks like it didn't beat you down, like it did to the rest."
"It sure tried hard. It beat my family into the grave, and left me in a burning ghost town."
"Your brother needs manual labour right now. There's a big system for irrigating the crops without waste of water. It's hard to get parts these days so men have to assist in many fields. He'll sure be happy to see you. I mean because you're his brother, and because you're in such good health. So many people are weak and disabled nowadays. Just can't work at all."
The highway into town followed a long slow drop into the valley green belt. As the car rolled along, the dust clouds that always gathered just above the fenders vanished. Ditches of sand flattened and became shoulders tufted with tall grass. Asphalt ahead grew smoother and soon the glare of the sun was replaced by the dappled shadows of leafy maple boughs. They passed two boarded-up motels and a junkyard before houses appeared. The first were cottages, fortified from the heat and jacketed with solar panels. Wild weed gardens and parched grass marked the yards, and the bright sunshine and ghostly emptiness conveyed a familiar feeling. It was born of a world where most people slept during the day and worked at night; a form of abandonment that comes about when the heat bakes the life out of the land.
Some crumpled sheets of reflection paper blew over the road like yellow tumbleweeds as they reached the core. They rounded a bend and the old brown sandstone buildings at the town's centre showed. These aged structures were the civic buildings and the post office was among them. It rested next to the town hall and had a parkette at the front. The few people sitting in it were the only people outdoors. Sidewalks were empty.
"I better get off at the police station. It's at the end of this main square. They can go out and get the mail car. I plan to go home. Maybe you want to wait. I'm on the other side of town. The road there leads out to Sam's place, so I can show you the way."
"Sounds fine to me."
Rick pulled in at the station and he got out and stood in the shade cast by the old stone building. Jim went inside, and during the ten-minute wait, Rick glanced about the downtown. His stomach grumbled again and stung his throat with acid. The upset and heat muted his hunger. An open variety store was just up the street, but he decided not to stock up on anything until he was sure of his exact needs.
After five minutes, an officer emerged from the station. He walked at the head of a group of eight men. They looked emaciated, ragged and poverty-stricken. One of them sucked on a burning marijuana cigarette and none of them said anything as they walked across the square and entered a dilapidated building. A banner that’d been hung like a flag over the door said - Employment Office.
Sunburn seemed to show stronger on Jim's face when he emerged. He looked weak and walked with a slight limp. He grimaced mildly as he spoke. "Nausea is getting the better of me. I'm going to sleep it off at home. I just phoned my daughter, Kim. She's waiting for me and she'll take you out to the farm. I didn't mention it earlier but she does some work for your brother. I don't know if he told you but the farms are now cooperative affairs. Most of the original owners still run the show. Kim has several fields of her own. She's real proud of that."
"Sounds great. I'd like to meet her. Let me help you in and we're off."
Jim's house was of the white saltbox style, but stronger with wind support and invisible solar banks. It had a wide willow-lined driveway with parking spaces for several vehicles. An old dusty mail car took up one of these spaces.
His daughter burst out of the shade as they drove up. She dashed to the driveway to meet them and Rick got a neat picture of her as she hurried around to the passenger side. She wore jean cut-offs and a tank top on an hourglass figure. Her features were of the extremely feminine Oriental variety. She had long straight hair and a ponytail but no makeup or jewelry. Obviously upset, she yanked the door open and pouted as she reached in and hugged her father.
"You look feverish," she said as she released him. "Let me help you out."
Jim did look feverish. He groaned as he got out. Without introduction, Rick also popped out.
A strong breeze blew down the drive, killing some of the effect of the heat. Jim was explaining what happened as Kim listened impatiently.
"I'm calling the mayor and demanding that they return your phone. They must be crazy to have taken it in the first place."
Rick stepped in. "If you don't mind my asking. Why would they confiscate phones in the first place?"
Jim's eyes switched between Rick and his daughter. "This is Rick," he said. "And this is my daughter Kim.
They shook hands lightly, and she held on as they did. "Thanks so much for saving my father."
"I was just driving by on my way into town, so I picked him up."
Kim turned back to her father. "I want the phone back in your mail car before you go back out on the road."
"I don't know. They're adamant that the field workers need extra phones out by the remains of Deep Woods Lake. It has to do with a wild animal roaming out there. The thing howls like a devil and the crews won't go out to the remote fields unless they have phones to call in quick help."
Kim frowned and pulled back her windswept hair. "There isn't any wild beast. I've been out there and haven't heard a thing. The last time I used my gun was more than a year ago to scare off a bear."
"I think it's just superstition," Jim said. "By the way, Rick is Sam's brother. He should have the pull to get us a phone. I'm going inside to rest. You can show him the way out to the farms. Talk to Sam about the phones when you get there."
As Kim helped her father into the house, Rick stepped under the willows and stared out at the hot meadow. Long grass ran off into heat shimmies and near the tree line, the haze rose to the sky. Cumulus towers were parked on the horizon like great ships, and as a whole, the rolling cloudbank resembled a monstrous sponge sucking up precious water in evaporation from the land. The meadow was browning and dying and it was a familiar picture. He'd seen a few years of these heat waves elsewhere in the province. They nearly always broke to cooler spells. But sometimes they didn't. And when that happened, whole towns and valleys perished.
Kim called to him and he saw her up on the porch holding a tray. He walked up slowly and sat with her there, sipping a cold drink.
"We'll go out to your brother's right away," she said. "Dad seems fine. He just needs rest."
Rick nodded and they said little else as they exchanged glances. He found Kim warm and attractive but a touch on the vulnerable side. She confirmed that feeling by suddenly snatching his empty glass and marching back inside. A minute later she emerged carrying a backpack and they went down the drive to his car.
The only paved road to the farms wound around the shore of Lake Wolverton. Putting aside the heat, the scene was idyllic. Wind whipped up small waves on the teal waters, froth broke on long stretches of sand and stony shore, and areas of marsh were spotted with geese and ducks.
Rick found the scene entrancing; his eyes kept straying off the road. "I'm surprised to see so much valuable waterfront property and not even a squatter on it."
"Most of that beach-front appeared over the last three years," Kim said. "Evaporation cut the water level some. Squatters usually gravitate to areas that have been developed and abandoned. Not many head this way. Our population has actually grown, but most of the new people live in housing we built near the fields."
"Why does that lake stay wet while its sister dried up completely?"
"That's because the sister isn't from the same family. This one is more than stream-fed. It has strong underground sources."
"What is it you're doing for Sam, anything specific?"
"I'll be working for him. Wherever he needs me. I have experience with the newer irrigation equipment, plus I have my health. I saw some of the general labor they were picking up at the town employment office. If they were a sample I'd say he needs a healthy man with muscles."
"Those were probably transients you saw at the employment office. The labor they do doesn't even cover their housing and food costs. This town has a few thousand people who are disabled or partially disabled. Due to the heat waves and resulting bacterial infections, they have a greatly reduced life span. We don't leave housing empty. The spaces are opened up to transients. They do some work but the real bulk of the labour is done by healthy members of the co-operative."
"Guess I'll be doing real work. But that's okay. It's better than standing around, worrying about the heat."
"You have a car. I need you to work with me. The last while I've been using my father's extra mail car and borrowed labour."
"What is it you do?"
"I have my own fields, controlling and producing organic crops. Mine are the most remote fields. Including some of the land over by the dead lake, where the wild beasts are supposed to be roaming. They're automated fields - irrigation equipment of the newer sort. But it's not fully functional so it requires some work."
"It's a deal then. I'm experienced in repairing that sort of equipment. If I'm going to work here, I might as well do what I do best."
Kim smiled broadly. "Okay - it's a deal. Just remember that you're committed. I say that because we won't be out there long before other members try to steal you from me. There's a shortage of skilled workers here, like everywhere."
Rick saw fast running shallow water below as they crossed a bridge, then the road turned away from the lake and entered a long stretch of open fields. A wide variety of crops showed in numerous fields, including hay, corn, assorted vegetables and potatoes. The fields had attached cottages and some livestock, mostly cows and horses. A few farmhouses, barns and silos appeared then they passed through a deep, forested ravine and emerged approaching a large ranch-style spread.
On Kim's signal, Rick turned in, went up the drive and parked with several other cars under a huge rain roof. Massive shade trees covered the grounds of the main house and a number of people were socializing on a terrace.
"I haven't seen Sam in over ten years," Rick said.
"You mean you two didn't get along?"
"We got along but lived separate lives. We kept in touch. Right now, he's on a guilt trip. The heat killed us off in Tweedsville - my wife and daughter died. He thinks the deaths are his fault. Keeps saying he could have got us out sooner. He's wrong of course. The decision to stay was a mistake most of the people in Tweedsville made."
"It's nobody's fault. Heat tragedies are everywhere. Some of my relatives and my brother died, too. But not in Tiverton."
"Maybe we'll win the battle here."
"As well as mentioning the phones, I want to get you one of the better cottages. Sam has one open on Wolverton Lake. It has a beach area and fertile land we could develop."
Kim stayed close to Rick and helped him settle into the cottage on Wolverton Lake. He began to work with her on the crops at night. On day four, he picked her up well after nightfall and they headed off to service three fields. The first two assignments went quickly and uneventfully. They headed out by the dead lake to work on the third.
Mixed crops of vegetables had been planted in segment number ten, which was one of the most remote fields. It needed the least attention of all the fields and they drove out expecting to do little other than check the water/nutrient charts.
Rick had the radio on the local station, which displeased Kim, and she switched it to loud pop music as the car turned down the winding gravel road. Open pasture showed between patches of forest and they saw the rays of the rising moon streaming through a line of firs. The moonlight worked to soften the night, slightly illumining the boughs and the duff of the forest floor. It reached inside the windshield, throwing a tint on Kim's long hair as she turned to speak to him.
"So how do you like Tiverton? I mean so far?"
"It's not as nice as Tweedsville, when my wife and daughter were alive. But it's better than any other place I've been. Some places were just failure and death. Down in Quinte I spent a year working with broken men on various projects that failed. The local government was like a dictatorship. That was bad. Most of those men would’ve been better off dead. The body lives on when the spirit is broken. Here I've got you for a partner on the job and that makes it a lot better."
"You mean because I'm a woman?"
"I mean because your soul didn't evaporate into the heat. You're alive and expect something more than your own survival from life."
"Ever see the old TV shows, the big expectations people used to have?"
"I have, and I've seen some of those old people killed by mobs. I was in Brighton when they got Mel Andersen. He was 85 years old. Used to be the president of Mercurcor, a big-time greenhouse gas polluter. He managed to hide there under an assumed name for two decades. Never did get to trial. The mob tore him limb from limb."
"I'm glad I've been here all my life and didn't see the killing. In the USA it was a bloody civil war of sorts."
"Yeah, and big expectations from life led to it. People of that period cared only about themselves. They knew they were killing future generations with greenhouse gases and pollution. They poisoned their own children and just didn't care. We're lucky to have a portion of the civilized world left."
"History says a lot of people cared, and a lot of people just didn't know what was happening. Even more were powerless against a corrupt system."
"I think they knew. Most of those who cared didn't care enough - not enough to fight back. They kept issuing warnings and demonstrating peacefully. They should’ve known the world offers only death and revenge when it goes off its axis with pollution. Now we have the killer weather, but in some ways, the world is better. Every town that survives does so because people do care and cooperate, and they reach out to work with other towns. The survivors are all people who have formed genuine social units."
"I agree, and the dead aren't just due to the weather. In most cases, they tried to keep society functioning under the old models of resource destruction and naked capitalism. It didn't work for them. The days of corporate chieftains, greedy dictators and hijacked democracy are over. The new laws of nature quickly weed those sorts of systems out. Everyone has to play a caring role for society to work."
A bright spotlight on the field monitoring post showed as they turned out of the trees. Rick drove slowly up the dirt drive and stopped under the light and a swirl of moths. Remaining silent, they got out and Kim ducked back as Rick swept cobwebs away from the door. They went inside, turned on the lights and the computer monitor. Kim checked the screen map of the field.
"Four more days and a work team has to come in to pull weeds. Looks like the system is working nearly perfectly. There are two rows that we'll have to do manually a fair distance out."
Back outside they went to the shed and opened up. A full tank of feed water stood in front of two empties and a tow motor. Rick banged the side then turned to Kim. "I can pull it out. Let's not bother with the tow. Just lead the way."
The spotlight and the moonlight provided enough light so they didn't use the floodlights. Rick looked down at the straining muscles on his thighs as he began to pull the tank, and then back up at Kim's graceful form walking slowly ahead on the narrow sand path. The leafy green of the vegetables, the plastic shielding of the feed system and the damp odors of growth gave him a pleasant feeling. It made him forget the exercise and the heat. He was happy enough to start whistling.
At the trouble spot, Kim brought out the nozzle. On one row, they managed to unplug the system, but the second was a no-go so they took the time to spray each plant individually. A half-hour later, they were just finishing up. As they prepared to walk, back with the tank a strange sound echoed in the night. It was a distant howl, but not of a dog. It sounded almost human and seemed to convey an emotion that existed somewhere between blood-thirst and fright.
"What was that?" Rick said, staring over the field toward the source of the sound
"Don't know," Kim said. "It must be that howling we've been hearing about. It's been spooking the workers for the last couple of weeks."
"Yeah, that's right. When I heard the story, I assumed it was just a wild dog. But that's no dog. Has anyone tried to trace it to the source?"
"No. They're too afraid."
"I guess we should check it out."
"The dead lake is in that direction. It may be some kind of sick animal if it's coming from there."
A second howl echoed as Kim spoke and Rick looked in the direction of the sound again. Sickly yellow haze bearded the full moon. Its face was growing brighter as it rose, adding a glow to the soft earth under their feet. To the north, the crop UV filters curved like long segmented worms over the rows of plants. The field came to a dark end at a ditch. Scrub and an abandoned rail line stood beyond it.
"I want to take a look," Rick said. "It could be something that’ll damage the crop equipment."
"Okay, let's go."
They began the trek over the field with Kim leading the way. Rick followed, feeling anxious. Expecting at any moment to hear another monstrous alien cry. None came - they leapt the ditch in silence and found themselves climbing the bank to the rail line in unnatural quiet.
"Spooky out here, isn't it?" Rick said.
Kim turned and looked down the line. Rusted metal shone faintly and vanished into a dark wall of foliage fifty feet away. "There should be at least some night buzz. Whatever that cry was it sent the wildlife into hiding."
"Maybe we got a problem. I mean in that we aren't smart enough to hide."
"Stop trying to scare me." She punched him in the shoulder, and the moonlight reflected in her brown eyes as she grinned. "The lake is off the line, just around that bend ... or what's left of the lake. We can take a look, but unless things have changed we won't be able to see anything but mud flats and blowing dust."
Foul breeze-born odors of the mud flats came on strong as they reached the bend. Rick coughed. It smelled like the worst seafood market in the country. Kim sniffed, as though the odors were a personal thing, thrown at her by some unseen and rude stranger. Putting her right hand on her tilted hip, she scrutinized the line of sumac and trees. "The Point is just through those trees. We used to swim there when the lake was alive. It runs a fair distance out, so if there's anything to be seen we'll see it from there."
As they descended into the sumac, Kim gasped and jumped. Rick caught her as she stumbled back, and he got a view over her shoulder of a snake sliding quickly through some rocks. They waited for it to disappear into the weeds, and then they moved on.
The moon showed as a bright coin behind the last line of trees. They swept some brush aside as they passed through, then they were facing the Point. Lumpy ground populated with boulders, thistles and tufted grass stretched before them. The remnant of a shore of crushed rock and driftwood remained at the edge of the mud banks. Out on the lake the clouds of dust had settled, allowing a view straight across to the hills and stars beyond.
There wasn't a drop of water left in the lake, just dried bottom mud, lifeless reed stubble and the odd object protruding in the dark. Heat and blowing dust had done such a thorough job that the bottom had been leveled into a huge rippled disc. Nearly everything had been buried by the shifting sand and mud. Moonlight opened it to view, and it was a weird scene. They looked around a bit more before their eyes fell on a huge object that stood to the north, just off the point's end.
"What's that thing?" Rick said.
"Beats me. Looks like some kind of boat wreck that's been uncovered."
To get a better look they followed the path out to the end of the point. It was crusted with leaves, twigs and dust and wound into the darkness cast by a line of huge boulders. They emerged facing a carpet of moonlight that ran across the lakebed, seeming to end at the mysterious structure.
At first glance, it had the appearance of a boat wreck. A series of ribs rose around a square central edifice. Yet the structure was almost certainly made of metal or stone. So it wasn't a boat but some strange ark or temple that had existed all along at the lake bottom.
Rick hopped from the edge of the turf to the stony shore. Turning, he reached up and caught Kim as she followed. Swinging her around he put her on her feet and she turned and faced the lake.
The driftwood massed at the shore was so bleached it looked like bone sculpture glowing in the moonlight. Pieces were scattered on the stones and all the way out to the ark-like structure. The lakebed was dry sand and mud in that stretch. They could see no boggy ground.
"I can't picture any animal emerging from that thing," Rick said.
"Neither can I. Maybe it attracted a wild dog or a wolf through its odor. I think this horrible smell is more than just the mud."
"Guess we need a closer look."
They took a few apprehensive steps across the rippled sand and once they were sure they were on solid ground they walked ahead confidently. Humps of mud-sunken driftwood, masses of tiny shells fused like concrete and clumps of desiccated weeds formed obstacles in their path.
As they grew closer, the ribs gleamed even brighter - almost a sparkling look. They stopped at the first one, which tapered like a tusk and rose just above their heads. Dried mineral salt coated most of its surface, creating the gleam. Patches of dried algae clung to all of the tusks and hung like cobwebs in places. The central structure resembled a large box or coffin that rose five feet above the surface. A similar mineral substance coated it, giving it a jeweled or metallic gleam. It was impossible to know how much of it was submerged.
Rick was definitely spooked, and he felt Kim squeeze close to him as they walked under the tusks. Reaching out, he touched the wall, and then pulled his hand back as some of the loose substance fell to the mud. A tiny carved symbol showed in the cleaned area. This interested him so he picked away more of the salt scales and studied the image he'd uncovered.
Kim knocked the area with her knuckles. "I think it's made of wood that's become petrified. It must be older than even the lake. Otherwise it would have rotted."
"I don't think it can be that old. Most lakes in this part of Ontario are four to six thousand years old. That image is definitely an Indian thing. It resembles some of the older paintings of coyote. This segment shows a beast like coyote, a fire symbol and something being sacrificed."
"Do you suppose this whole structure is a work of ancient native art?"
"Looks like it. Maybe more - an entire story is underneath the salt."
"What do you think is inside it?"
"I don't know. Maybe it's a tomb. It's definitely an archaeological find. We shouldn't really be touching it at all."
"We should get out of here. This place makes my skin crawl."
"Doesn't seem to be much else we can do."
Though the discovery of the ark was an amazing accomplishment, Rick found himself turning to leave with the feeling that their investigation had been inconclusive if not outright unsettling. Remaining silent, they headed back to the point, getting a short distance before the wind sighed and lifted.
They heard paws beating a fast tattoo on the mud and halted with the sensation of something fast and nearly invisible sweeping past them. Then a gust ripped around the point, playing through the boulders like an off-key violin stroke. The force nearly bowled them over and as they regained their balance, they heard a howl. It had obviously come from the ark, yet when they looked back, they saw nothing.
Without saying a word, they began to run, and didn't stop until they were off the point. Jogging down the tracks, they got back to the field and halted at its edge. Winded, Kim leaned against him. She hugged him and breathed deeply.
"What do we do now?" she said.
"I think I saw a ghost animal pass us back there. And that howling is from it. The shape was like a large coyote of some sort. We'll report the find to Sam and let him decide what should be done. That's if he believes us."
The Town Meeting
Frightening tales of supernatural occurrences came on the coattails of the ark's discovery. Sam and the town brought their best people in to look at it, and they found it to be strange but lacking in supernatural emanations. Rick continued working with Kim at night and the heat wave roasted the land for a few more days. They did not encounter anything else strange and the animal ghost they'd seen began to seem like a distant delusion of moonlight and firewater.
Mayor Arnie Gus got involved and took over the ark investigation. Shortly after that, they found themselves driving into Tiverton for a town meeting. The gathering was to be about the ark and strategies for dealing with the lingering heat wave.
Snapped branches caused a delay on the road. Rick pulled up late. Tiverton's town hall was a heavy edifice composed of the same rough-hewn sandstone blocks that made up the other civic buildings at the centre of town. It had been rebuilt after meeting head on with a twister and was broader and stouter because of it.
Sunset light fell on a crowd of townspeople gathered at the front parkette and steps. The scene had a glow of summer beauty that made forgetting the heat almost possible. They could see a farmer, Carlos Rivers, gesturing and talking excitedly to a group of field workers. Behind them, a group of town officials walked up the entry steps to the hall. Kim's father was among them and on seeing him her face shrank to a pout.
"Looks like my dad isn't talking to us."
"We're late. He couldn't wait any longer, that's all."
"He strongly disapproves of us staying together at the cottage."
"Stop worrying. After he hears some of the scary stories people are telling, he'll approve of you being with a man every place you go."
"What do suppose they'll do about it? What can a town do about supernatural stuff?"
"Beats me. You know the key players here better than I do."
"Looking at the players, my guess is that since Mayor Gus and his mighty force of three police officers have seen the ark, they aren't likely to believe stories about ghosts, demons and animal sacrifice. There’ll probably be a lot of talk to calm people down, then all they'll do is continue to watch the ark and hunt for poachers."
Rick eased the car into a space near the parkette. They got out and strolled under the trees. Sunlight mirror-flashed through the boughs and sprinkled shadows on the dead grass. Following the walkway, they reached the steps. The crowd was moving inside, and it looked to be about four hundred people, which was a heck of a lot for a town meeting.
On the inside, most of the seats were taken. Overflow people stood in the side aisles and at the back. Air conditioning brought the temperature to a tolerable level, but it was still hot. And hotter up on the platform as the officials there already had sweat polishing their faces. These dignitaries included Mayor Gus, his three councilors and Kim's father. Police Chief Sawyer sat with the tiny group of ark archaeologists, and it was the fire chief, Chris Hassan who was at the podium and in control.
Hassan did the introductions, drew some applause and launched into a speech on dealing with heat emergencies and water contamination. Since the townspeople had heard all of this before, he nearly put them to sleep. It was also very uninspiring to find that there weren't any new tactics in heat defense. Praying for rain was about all a person could do.
Mayor Gus was a better speaker. A wrinkled man with a huge jaw and gangly frame, Gus exuded personal warmth and that appeared to be the root of his success as a politician. Being a smart cookie, he didn't hog the platform. Instead, he told the crowd that the details on the ark and strange occurrences would be revealed by townspeople who had experienced the events. That got him some applause, and he continued by pulling out an old pair of glasses to read the first name on the speakers' list.
A farmer introduced as Jose San Martin rose to talk about livestock deaths and strange occurrences. Jose was a short swarthy man with a winning smile. His warm expression switched to one of painful remembrance as he began to speak. "All of you know I'm the only farmer in Tiverton still specializing in livestock. Though a number of you have experienced equipment and barn damage, I'm the only person who's suffered killings from poachers. It is certain that there are violent trespassers, but who or what they are isn't known. I can tell you how my bull was killed and maybe you'll understand just what I mean.
Last Saturday I was up in the late hours, working outdoors as usual. I took the tractor over to the west perimeter and began an inspection to make sure manure containment was secure - as per the clean water rules. The summer night was miserably humid. Nothing out of ordinary, so I was surprised when Rowdy, my hound began whining and baying. I tried to calm him and he responded by sitting in the grass. He stayed quiet for a minute then his eyes started to roll. He let out a loud howl and bounded off in the direction of the house and barn. Figuring he'd heard something, I got on the tractor and followed. When I got there, Rowdy was baying in the dark near the barn.
I checked the house first to make sure my wife Ellen was okay. It was locked up but after I yelled, she let me in. She slammed the door as I entered and told me that something was in the barn. It had just got in there and had made noise like something wild and dangerous. Maybe a wolf or a bear. At least it was big enough to scare the daylights out of the animals.
She looked jittery and scared, too. I didn't hesitate, but got my Colt shotgun out of the lockup in the cellar and went out to the barn. The dog was still howling outside and the lock had been torn off. I used my pocket organizer to turn on the lights then went in cautiously, noting a repulsive odor like dead fish and that the dog wouldn’t follow me.
Some of the cows had gotten out of their pens. They were very restless and noisy but otherwise they were okay. I checked everywhere, even looked to the rafters, but saw no intruder. Eventually I reached the bull's pen near the back, entered and found my prize bull dead in the straw. Blood had pooled around him. Bear-sized claw marks were on his side and his head was completely gone.
I looked twice when I saw that. I just couldn't believe it. Not only was the head gone, the cut was a clean swipe. When my astonishment passed, I noticed a big hole bashed right through the wall.
For some moments things started to get to me - strong odors of blood and stale urine, dryness in my throat. Sweat and gooseflesh covered me, my hair stiffened and I could hear the dog barking and the wife yelling. My head got so light I fell on my knee next to the dead bull. Some moments later, I recovered, got up and went over to the hole. I peeked into the dark then I crouched and passed through it.
I rose in a defensive posture and tried to look around. Some light filtered out from the barn, but the sky had gone totally dark. The few faint rays of light there were seemed to vanish into a trough of black night.
Though I had a really bad feeling about it, I still moved forward. A hot breeze touched me as I reached the nearest tree. It came with a rustling sound in the bushes that led me to turn left and nearly fire.
There was some movement in the foliage from a vague shape that was human and not an animal. The figure vanished and I felt some tiny raindrops hit me. At that point, it dawned on me that it was pitch dark because rain clouds had rolled in. I looked up quickly, saw the underbelly of cloud cover and felt mixed emotions sweep me. I was scared to death and at the same time, I felt like shouting with joy over the raindrops.
Then the moon suddenly broke through the clouds, I saw a man ducking out of sight and fired. This was a shotgun blast. It tore up the bushes and though it couldn't have missed, it had no effect. Almost like I'd shot a ghost and the projectiles had simply passed through it.
The man continued to move away from me on my left and he looked back just before he disappeared. Moonlight caught his features and the sight of them nearly turned me to stone. It was a dead face, almost like a skull. Dried and wrinkled flesh, and some kind of war paint marked it. The hair was braided and the eyes were radiant like cat’s eyes when they catch the light. He looked like an Indian warrior come back from his grave, and he seemed real and not just a poacher wearing a mask.
I lowered the gun as he faded into the dark. In the moonlight, I could see my arms and that the raindrops dribbling on them weren't water, they were droplets of blood. That was shock enough. Horror and confusion swelled with the heat in my head and I blacked out. Next thing I knew my wife had me in the house. The police arrived shortly after and as the news reports say, they think a wild animal and a poacher got on the grounds. But I never saw any wild animal or tracks, and that poacher looked like he was from a cult of devils."
People began to shout questions. Jose looked nervously at the restless crowd and before he could select someone, Mayor Gus took the microphone. "There are going to be questions and more speakers on this at the end of the meeting. Before that happens you are going to be informed on our town investigation of the mysterious ark found in the dried bed of Deep Woods Lake."
Rick put his arm around Kim and pulled her close. "What do you make of Jose's report?"
"We saw a ghost of our own, but it had no extreme effects. Jose may have encountered more than a poacher. It gives me the creeps. Someone extremely cruel and dangerous is out there."
"What’s the motive for stealing the head of a prize bull?"
"I'm not sure. Use it in some wicked ritual . . . or maybe sell it as an aphrodisiac."
A willowy redhead named Lynn Meyers took the podium after being introduced as the town's only archaeological expert. She made nervous gestures with thin hands and spoke with a weak voice that tended to fracture. "There are a number of thorny issues around the ark. The first is that it is technically the property of the federal government and we have no real power to investigate. Since we are studying it, we could end up in trouble if it gets damaged. It will likely take the federal government months to respond, and that is why the town has initiated a preliminary look.
Please stop laughing, people. Don't forget about the national crisis the federal level is dealing with. I do have some results from our first look at the artifact and I hope you don't find them humorous.
In examining the tusk-like objects surrounding the ark, we find them to be an ivory-like material. We are not sure how they were formed. An animal bearing such a tusk would be bigger than a house. We can't prove they were carved either, and we are awaiting results on tests done to the surrounding mud in hopes they will give us a clue.
The central box is another conundrum. We couldn’t chip off a fragment with the toughest tools. Initial chemical tests on a tiny area failed to identify the substance or its age. It resembles petrified wood, though it would be an unknown type if it is that. The images on its surface were carved at a time when the substance was softer. They bear a likeness to Cree, Iroquois and Mohawk work, but are substantially different, indicating an unknown tribe. A story is told by the images though we haven't unraveled it yet. It has to do with a rainmaker and a series of sacrifices he makes.
The box is hollow. Sonar tests show nothing inside it at surface level. It runs deep into the lakebed, meaning it is mounted on a column. Objects of its type have never been seen in burial mounds. We don't know whether it is a coffin or a totem object of spiritual magic. Since it exists at the bottom of a glacial lake, it may have been carried there by a glacier. If that is the case, it is the oldest significant find in existence in regards to native culture in North America. Without a doubt, it is priceless. In the future, when the weather settles and world travel resumes at a busy pace, the ark could be a major tourist draw to this area.
To finish let me say that we did study it at night, and though local supernatural occurrences are attributed to it, we found no evidence of that. The find may have inspired unethical people, who are using it to cover their own dastardly actions. At present, we have roped off the point to keep the curious back and we will be returning from time to time to conduct minor tests. We are asking people to please keep away from the area."
Polite applause rose as Lynn Myers returned to her seat. It was obvious that some people in the crowd were not convinced by her statement in regards to supernatural occurrences. They were standing and waving desperately, trying to get questions in as Mayor Gus came back to the front. He silenced them with a gesture and looked to Police Chief Sawyer. "If there are culprits out there, Chief Sawyer is going to bring them into custody. Right now I want to bring him up for a question and answer session."
Rick felt Kim nudging him. "Looks like my land may be valuable."
"You mean you own that field by the point? I thought the co-op owned it?"
"I bought it from them two years ago. I also own the forested area near the ark and the point."
"You better watch out, Sawyer will see you as a suspect in the supernatural occurrences."
"Why would he think that?"
"You could gain from it. If the place becomes legendary it’s you who profits."
Their whispering got buried as Dan Sawyer's voice boomed over the speakers, and Sawyer didn't deliver a speech but opened saying he welcomed any evidence on recent criminal happenings. The first person to respond was the local exterminator, Anna Polee, and she excitedly stated that she had evidence proving the ark to be an alien spacecraft.
"I'm going for a walk," Rick said. "I can't stand an hour of this. Want to tag along?"
"No. You go. I'm going to collar dad and see if he wants to talk."
"Sure, go ahead. I'll be back before the meeting's over."
Rick eased his way down the aisle and exited the hall through a fire escape that had been propped open at the side. He emerged in a wide empty alley running between the hall and the post office. Lights from the front partially illumined the alley, revealing it to be a dead end. Turning right he strolled toward the lights and the parkette, kicking up pebbles as he went.
Stagnant night air assaulted him like sticky flypaper. He stepped under the maples and passed a handful of teens gathered at a bench. The faint din of the hall crowd and the PA could still be heard. Checking his watch, he decided he had time for a short walk around town.
A night bird caroled as he cut across the empty square. The slow humid breeze lent the quiet streets the ominous airs of a ghost town. Stores had been shut up neatly and circular patterns from the lamps pooled on the sidewalk. A number of taller, widely spaced streetlights glowed like phosphor, adding to the lonely feeling.
Summer heat still radiated from the store walls and the concrete. It brought moisture to his skin and he swept damp locks of hair from his forehead. Since the heat wave had blown in, he'd had the daily sensation of being browned in a very large barbecue.
A derelict car sat out front of Andy's Hardware. Feeling queasy, he wiped the dust off its fender and sat for a few minutes, reflecting as he studied the window display. The solar weed clipper and the miniature cultivator were brand-new. A rack of refurbished tools sat behind them. The tools had flaws and chips but they meant more to him than something new would. Everything had value in current culture. Products were made to last for resale. It was universally accepted that belief in throwaway things led to belief in a throwaway environment. Yesterday people had disposed of everything. They nearly disposed of the human race ... and one concept Rick couldn't grasp at all was the one of disposable cars - the pollution machines people used to purchase every few years. Rick's Sun Cobra had been designed to last a lifetime. It’d taken nearly all of his savings to purchase it, and since it guaranteed him work and the ability to flee killer heat waves, it was worth it.
There were a couple small problems with the engine of late and he remembered passing a garage a block from the square. Stopping by to ask a couple of questions would be a good idea. He noticed his reflection as he got up. In the glass, he looked much better than he felt. In his travels, he'd seen many men that looked like ghosts while they were still alive. Shoulders bent, pushed by the wind and heat like tumbleweeds. It hadn't happened to him and he hoped it never would.
Rick headed for the garage. He saw hungry bugs swirling under the neon lights of the station as he walked around the corner. A big rig sat at the dusty pump area. The stocky driver stood beside it chewing on a tobacco stick.
"Where are you headed?" Rick said as he walked up.
"West … at least I'm trying to head west," the driver said, one eye closing to a suspicious slit.
"Problems with the rig or is it the roads?"
"Both. Those last windstorms caused tree falls. I got detoured this way and got lost on the back roads. A crazy man nearly ran me off the road back by that dead lake. I had to stop here to check the suspension."
"Did you get his license number?"
"He wasn't driving. This nut was chasing a woman right down the road. Nearly put me in the ditch when I swerved. Some kind of domestic dispute I think. I didn't stop."
"Think you'd know them if you saw them again?"
"Maybe not. I got just a flash look. Tall blond woman, chased by a guy dressed like a cigar store Indian - a pretty ugly Indian if what I saw of his face was accurate."
"You should report it to the police."
"No way. I'm carrying a big load for the government and I'm not going back to that lake to see more strange lights and crazy people. I'll be heading west and I won't be stopping. You report it."
"There aren't any strange lights out there. Those are spotlights for the night workers in the fields."
"I passed the spotlights. The strange lights came before them and the near accident. They looked like blue balls of fire floating across the lakebed to the hills. I saw a flash like lightning, too. I even stopped on the roadside and got out to see if it would rain. It didn't and I got edgy and drove off."
A minute later, the rig was refueled. Rick got a drink from the machine and sipped it, watching as the driver pulled away. The guy's story had him so puzzled he didn't bother to talk to the station staff about the Sun Cobra. He just walked away shaking his head. When he got back to the town square, he found Kim waiting for him at the edge of the parkette.
She looked pale but radiant in the semi darkness. A calm romantic mood had replaced her earlier restless state. Taking his hand, she glanced back at the small gathering of teens near the hall steps. "Let's go over there and talk," she said, pointing at the trees.
They passed the dry fountain and went around some lilac bushes to an isolated picnic table. "I had a few words with my father," she said. "It looks like you were right. He's forgotten about old fashioned morality and only seems to be worried about my safety."
"Really. Then here's to safety."
They embraced, kissed and were drawn into something more. Her passion eclipsed his rambling thoughts. Forgetting himself, he reached up and began to caress her breasts, and she moaned softly as he lifted the fabric and began to kiss her nipples. He felt them harden in his mouth and the touch of her fingertips as they slipped over and closed on his erection. The heat was now like a fire; its smoke rising as dizziness and ecstasy. He longed for completion, and then he heard the chatter of people and realized that the hall was emptying. They broke apart and quickly rearranged their clothes.
Most of the townspeople lingered and gossiped in the parkette, but Kim didn't feel like socializing so they slipped through the trees to the car. Remembering the truck driver's story, Rick decided to a take a detour out past Deep Woods Lake. The cruise was down an empty highway past a line of roadside lights that grew thinner and vanished just outside of town. He slowed the car as they entered the narrower section of blacktop near the dead lake. His headlights tunneled into deep darkness but revealed little other than asphalt and the silhouette of the brush lining the roadside. The car rolled ahead for a quarter kilometer more, then Rick spotted skid marks, slowed and stopped on the shoulder.
"Grab the flashlight from the glove compartment," he said. "We'll take a look around."
They got out, finding their surroundings cloaked by heavy night. Most of the road was plunged in darkness. In the distance, the indigo sky stretched over the bleak lake like a lightly spangled flag. Just back of the shore a soft fan of light from field spotlights back-lit a section of forest and revealed a hazy portion of the point.
Kim flicked the flashlight on and shone it on the road. They were facing back toward the skid marks but couldn't see them. A sweep of the beam from one gravel shoulder to the other revealed nothing other than a few tall weeds.
The chatter of crickets drifted in the air and they heard another buzz that grew in intensity as they walked down the shoulder of the road. Kim turned the beam left toward the noise and after several more steps, a bulky outline showed in tall roadside grass. A cloud of flies hovering over it created the buzz.
"Looks like someone dumped a sack of garbage," she said.
Rick remained silent for a moment. She moved the beam and he saw a faint trail of red in the grass. "It's not trash. It's a body. Hold the light on it while I check it out."
Kim followed him for a few more steps. She held the light steady as he got up close. He leaned over, batting at the flies. "There's a lot of blood and it's a woman. I think she's been hit by a car. Wait a second. Her hair is gone! There's nothing but blood! This woman has been scalped and she's unconscious but still alive. Let's get back to the car and phone for help."
They dashed down road and Rick waited impatiently while Kim made the call. "An ambulance is coming straight out. It'll be a few minutes," she said.
"I better get back and see if there's any way we can help her," Rick said. Then he looked up and saw lights rising at the point. They were bright blue balls and fiery, just as the truck driver had said. Rising in the heat, they drifted off toward the distant hills and vanished.
In the Hills
A crazy dream about headless animals and tomahawks raining from the sky caused Rick to roll out of bed at noon. He thought about waking Kim but she appeared to be in deep sleep so he didn't bother. The air conditioner sputtered softly, covering the jangle he made while grabbing a bite in the kitchen. As he finished his juice, he looked out at the blistering day. Hazy clouds drifted in the sky, giving the sun the look of burnished metal. Bright sunbeams penetrated his thoughts and an idea rose.
He closed the front door quietly as he left, and as soon as he hit the walk radiation from the blazing sky touched him. In moments, he was sweating, even though he was standing in the shade. He aired the car out, but the hot upholstery still stung him as he got in.
Rick planned on researching the path of the strange lights of the night before, and that meant exiting the Tiverton green belt and heading over to the hills in back of Deep Woods Lake. The lights had moved in that direction and dropped at about the centre point of the hills. If they were anything more than an atmospheric effect, some evidence would be there.
He pushed the Sun Cobra to higher speeds and just beyond the last green belt cottage, the land slowly became parched wilderness. Evergreens held up surprisingly well in this area. All else was dying. In one long stretch the trees and foliage had been burned off. Even the road was smoke blackened and blowing with ash. Rick recognized it as the result of a controlled fire set to create a ring of protection around the green belt. When the rain came so would the lightning and forest fires. The tinderbox wilderness would burn.
He passed land that’d been fertile farmland in the past. Heat wasted, it’d grown over with scrub, wildflowers and weeds. These meadows were mostly dead. The evergreen scrub had gone rust colored and spots of disease covered even the hardiest weeds. In the back of his mind, he pictured the old native inhabitants of this land as they chanted for rain. He could see their dismay as those dances got answered by a hot hand of doom that seared and wilted everything. They would’ve frowned and muttered as the crops died. Hating the curse as their livestock perished. Hope must’ve vanished when the water sources dried up. Fear and panic would’ve set in as people began to drop from stroke and bacterial infections. Some of them would’ve hung on stubbornly until they died. In the end the rest likely fled, most of them dying on the trails. And then it happened again, only yesterday.
The heat waves often caused whole families to succumb to madness and delirium. Men thought it was raining when it was only a mirage. They'd wander and die in the fields and on the roadsides; bones picked clean by the ravenous flies.
People longed for rain and begged for rain. They cursed the stubborn sky that would not obey. With their last breaths, they'd whisper a plea for rain. But the only raindrops that fell were tiny tears on the cheeks of the grief stricken and dead. Like other legends and gods, the rainmakers had died long ago.
The dead meadowland ended at skeletal forest lining the edge of the hills. It was rough going on the road in this section as ruts, rocks, deadwood and weeds nearly choked it off. At the second hill, he got out to drag a branch aside. The exertion dizzied him and his head spun slightly as he gazed up the hillside. A shelf of dead turf hung precariously above. It was lined with deciduous trees that were so broken they looked like they'd been blasted by dynamite. Above them, an even deader scene rested in sunlight and silence. He knew nothing could be living on the boulder-strewn top.
By the fourth hill, the road became impassable and he had no intention of going in farther on foot. He turned the car around and as he did, he noticed green hillside just beyond the blockage. A glimpse through the web of boughs revealed sparkling water and fluttering insects.
Rick stopped and got out. He knew that an underground water source had to be the reason for the green strip. Deciding to investigate, he cut through some dead brush and found himself near the bank of a stream.
A dragonfly buzzed him. He walked down a ways, staring at the running stream, moss and water bugs as though they might be a mirage. A healthy willow towered over other dead trees and as he passed it, he saw a shack nestled in some trees on a ledge above.
A packed earth path angled up the steep side to the shack. Rick climbed it at leisure, rising in the filtered glare to the open sunshine above. At the top, he stepped out at the shack's rear. Thick weeds and grass surrounded the structure. He could see that it’d been a solid cabin at one time. The tough weather had stripped its paint and left the boards bleached and swollen. Rusted siding of the type used on walls composed a dented and dipping roof.
It was a shabby deal in general but there were signs of recent habitation. A compost mound and trash stood at the side, releasing an odor of tea and rotten vegetables. Flies assaulted him as he passed it.
He moved around to the front and another overgrown lot. A deadwood fence marked the perimeter, and beyond it, he could see a dirt road heavily choked by growth. The front door was ajar so he walked up and knocked gently. When no one answered, he pushed it open and looked inside.
The interior was musty and dark. Some light filtered in at the windows, which were covered by heavy sheets of opaque brown plastic. As his eyes adjusted a one-room cabin was revealed. A single table and chair, an icebox, and a bed in the back corner made up the furnishings.
He blinked as he studied the bed. There appeared to be someone sleeping on it. He stepped in thinking the person to be a woman. Then the body rolled over and he saw that it was an old man - an Indian, with a deeply creased face and braided gray hair.
"Are you all right?" Rick said.
"About as all right as a person my age gets."
"You don't look too well."
"I haven't looked well for years. In this heat who would? Who are you, anyway? No one's been out here in more than four years."
"Name's Rick. I'm from Tiverton. We've been seeing some strange lights in these hills. I came over to investigate."
"I'm Bill Brant. Lived out here all my life. When the others decided to move, I remained so I'd die near the burial grounds. As far as the lights go, don't bother to investigate. Go back and keep inside when you see the lights."
"I have to know what the lights are."
"The lights are evil. If you attract them they'll strike as lightning and steal your spirit. I know because they took my grandson."
"If his spirit is gone, then where is his body?"
"Taken by the rainmaker and scattered into the wind as blood and ashes."
"That's not possible."
Rising on the bed, the old man exposed stained teeth as he laughed. His watery brown eyes mocked Rick from the gloom. "My son did a rain dance out at the mounds. The lightning took him and the rainmaker came to me. This rainmaker has risen from the dead and he’s as old as Coyote. He showed me his spirit house rising in Deep Woods Lake. His rain will be the blood of the living and the dead. He took my grandson and he’ll take all men when he brings his storm."
"If that’s so, why didn't he take you?"
"I've been saved because of the rattle," he said, nodding towards a feathered rattle on the table beside him. "My grandson found it in the burial grounds. It provides protection but its powers can't be fully harnessed unless the Great Spirit enters its owner. My grandson tried to dance away the evil of the rainmaker and failed when the spirit abandoned him. Now he's dead and the rattle remains with me."
"Can I borrow that rattle - just to study it?"
"No. I’m charged to live and pass it on. If the Great Spirit returns, he’ll dance and destroy the rainmaker. If he doesn’t return I’ll have no one to pass it to and the end will come in a rain of blood."
The Garden of Night
Rick stepped out of the car in Sam's driveway. Kim followed and they stood by the hood. He spotted some deflation of the right tire, kicked it and sighed. Turning, he saw Sam walking down from the house. A light breeze cooled them as they waited. A night bird filled the air with lonely cries, and as Sam grew closer, Rick noticed that his characteristic smile was missing. A new troubled look as dark as his hair governed his face.
"You don't look happy, brother," Rick said. "It must mean more problems from the direction of the ark."
"It is. The police had to push back a mob the other night and cordon the area off. Later it rained near the ark. The rain came again last night."
"Rained?" Kim said. "There wasn't any rain. We were in the fields nearly all of both nights. It was dusty and dry."
"It rained, but only at the ark in the small area of lakebed around it. The police can't keep the crowd away now. They're there twenty-four-seven, staring at that damn thing, and stirring up all sorts of trouble. Some of them want to attack it while others want to harness its powers to make it rain. It's for sure that they aren't doing any work. At least half the co-op members are out there right now."
Kim frowned. Her nose twitched. "I've been keeping Rick away from the ark. We spent the last two days with each other. Good thing it wasn't a week or the whole world would’ve changed. I suppose we better go out and see what we can do."
Sam pursed his lips as he thought something over. "I'm going to drive out, too. I really need to see some rain."
An unknown light source back-lit the sky in the direction of the hills. Spreading from it, a luminous stain poured through the cloud cover over the dead lake. It melted the darkness at the lakebed and ark, creating a peculiar glow that grew in intensity just off the end of the point. Dust motes sparkled with near magic effect in the dusty air and the ark itself gleamed like a gem.
A stranger effect than the lighting surrounded the ark itself. Plant life had sprouted where only mud crust had existed two days before. This growth was nothing short of incredible. Ferns and tufts of grass had reached a height of two feet in one day and other smaller plants bloomed with fragrant white flowers. The new greenery was thickest at the edges of small pools of water, and under the orange radiation from the sky, the surface of these pools shimmered with gold. The largest of the pools was right near the ark and they could see a gaggle of town officials standing there staring into it.
"I rubbed my eyes and it's still there," Kim said. "I guess it must be real."
"The genetic properties of that plant life must be something new - and invaluable. Let's go over and see what's up."
Stepping through the roadside grass, they tried to decide on the best approach. From their spot on the shore, they could see the point. Spotlights mounted in the trees illumined most of it, including a shack that’d been recently constructed and several portions that’d been cleared of scrub and deadwood. A crowd of workers and townspeople had gathered at its end and police had roped it off at the shoreline. Two officers stood on the lakebed side of the rope, blocking access to the ark.
Driving around to enter near the mob didn't seem like a good idea. They locked up the car and went down the steep bank to the lakebed. The walk out enhanced the otherworldly feeling created by the brightened sky. It grew with every step and became paramount when they reached the ferns and the first pool.
Fascinated by the water, they stared at the glazed reflection of sky on its surface. Subtle ripples appeared as the colored backs of turtles appeared. Near the middle, they splashed under.
"There shouldn't be any turtles," Kim said. "I remember seeing thousands of them marching across the road when the lake dried up. They all went to the sister lake and ponds near it."
"Maybe some of them trekked back."
"In one day?"
"Hey, there's Sam over by the ark. Looks like he beat us here."
They felt the delicate brush of ferns against their legs as they strolled to the ark. Sam, Lynn Meyers and Mayor Gus met them at the tusks. The mayor's face was puckered with wrinkles and discontent, like the last couple of days had aged him greatly. With Lynn Meyers it was the opposite. The find was a big thing to her and she was in her element, growing younger instead of older.
"Welcome to the Twilight Zone," Lynn said.
"You mean welcome back," Kim replied.
Mayor Gus cleared his dusty throat. "Sam says you were talking to an old Indian in the hills. Do you think he could read some of the artwork on the ark?"
"Bill Brant is his name. He probably could read the art, but he's a crazy old doomsayer. He has a magic rattle he says protects him and he's afraid of the ark. Says it's the abode of an evil rainmaker."
Lynn raised her eyebrows in interest. "The images do tell the story of a rainmaker and it did rain right here at the ark. So far we can interpret some of the story. The rest of it is done in symbols belonging to an unknown tribe that appears to predate all others. My students are on the other side of the box there, finishing photos and sketches of it all. We're nearly done, but at present we're stumped. We do plan on sending copies of the sketches to experts that may be able to read them and let us know what is happening here."
Kim appeared puzzled by Lynn's statement. She glanced at one of the sketch artists standing near the north corner of the box. "Do you really expect to solve this with an academic answer? I can't imagine any expert even believing us when it comes to the sudden greenery, strange lights and rain."
"You do have a point. That's why we wanted to know about this local Indian Rick found. If he’s remained near the burial mounds he's likely an old medicine man."
"He is," Rick said. "But maybe we should use our heads before we bring him in. How about the date of this story on the ark. It must be something that took place long ago?"
"No. It's not a time capsule story. The events written on it are taking place right now, using art and symbols from long ago. It tells the story of a rainmaker doing certain things and gathering power and ritual objects. Yet we don't know the ultimate goal of it all. One drawing shows the ferns around the ark. Another the lights. The pools and turtles are on still another. Then there are the older images that we can't read. They are in symbols and hidden from us. I believe they depict events, or else power objects the rainmaker must gather."
"It all sounds impossible, doesn't it?" said Mayor Gus. "Trying to govern that mob is impossible, too. So far, we haven't even seen a rainmaker. Unless he's that evil poacher some people have encountered."
"I think I'll talk to Bill Brant again," Rick said. "Other than just watching as things unfold, he's about the only lead we have."
"Sounds good," Lynn said. "I'll get some copies of the sketches you can take out to him."
Sam joined Rick and Kim as they walked through the ferns to the shore. They stopped halfway to watch the turtles swimming in the pool. Rick looked back at the ark and a young redheaded woman taking photos. "I didn't see Sawyer around," Rick said. "I wanted to ask him a few questions about Brant and the burial mounds. Like whether there's a local history of strange stuff."
"There's a history," Sam said. "See that shack near the end of the point. That's Sawyer's new command post. Take a walk over if you want."
"I'll wait at the car," Kim said. "I don't feel like talking to Sawyer. I've always hated the man."
"No problem," Rick said. "I won't be long."
Rick got halfway to the point and thought about turning back. There were hoots and catcalls from the mob and they pushed forward at the rope. "Rain, is it going to rain?" one man shouted loudly and continuously, until Rick shouted back that he didn't know.
Getting through the mob was also difficult. The police helped him past the rope then the people jostled him and surged around him. He remained silent as bad breath, insults and questions got in his face. Fortunately, they did not stick with him but put their attention back toward the ark as he passed through. It was a short walk down the path to Sawyer's command post. And when he reached it he found the door open with Sawyer sitting inside on a chair by a portable fan. He had his rifle on his lap and if anything, he looked bored.
That boredom lifted when Rick asked if there'd been a local history of strange occurrences. Sawyer ripped into the subject like a professional taleteller, reciting spooky facts about local houses, strange disappearances and lights near the burial mounds. According to Sawyer the locals had always been afraid of the First Nations people, especially old Brant and other medicine men. Most of that fear had ended three years ago when the heat forced them to move to a healthier area further north. No one knew that old Brant was still around, but Sawyer speculated that even if the mob found out, they would be too afraid to go over and cause him any trouble.
By the time Rick left, twenty minutes had passed and his head was full of details that seemed irrelevant. He'd heard a lot of crowd noise while listening to Sawyer and now he saw that it had been the reaction of the mob as Lynn Meyers and Mayor Gus returned with the sketch artists. They were arriving at their cars near the command post and the mob was still surging around them
Since he had to cut over the lakebed to his car, he decided the time was right to get through without many people noticing him. He went down to the ropes and one of the officers blocked him. Only Sawyer could let him through according to the cop, so he turned back toward the shack.
Sawyer was outside now but he couldn't help as he was busy throwing two men he'd arrested into the back of his cruiser. "Just walk around the long way," Sawyer said. "I'm sure your girlfriend will wait."
Rick did that, following the taillights of Sawyer's cruiser down the road a stretch before cutting into a dark swath of weeds to an area of abandoned shoreline. He began the walk along the stony shore but didn't get far before bright lights rose and the mob started shouting. Stopping next to a boulder he looked back at the people on the point then out at the ark and the descending lights.
They came to ground like strange balls of fire and disintegrated in implosions of blue light. It took a moment for his eyes to readjust, and when they did he saw shadows draping a ghostly male form. This ghost wore native ceremonial dress, and as he moved through the ferns, flashes of light flickered from the large gemlike stone he carried. Stopping at the edge of a pool he held it chest high and let its light dapple the surface of the water. The gem also lit his face, which from a distance seemed sunken and tinged with blue-black.
It was the lingering image of his skeletal face that awoke the point crowd from its state of amazement. Dave Castle from the hardware store shouted, "He looks evil!" Then a person near him yelled, "Hey rainmaker, you gonna make it rain tonight?"
At the pool, the rainmaker remained unmoved. He showed no sign of being aware of the people and that agitated some of them. The shouting mob surged forward to the rope and town's two police officers held out their arms to block them.
That action stopped everyone but Castle. He managed to squirm left and vault over the rope's post. He began a dash across the flats. An officer turned to pursue him, then he turned back to stop more people from surging through.
Rick watched as Dave Castle sprinted to the edge of the ferns. A glance back to the rainmaker showed him absorbed in his gem and the pool. As Castle approached slowly, the rainmaker reached out and lightly tossed his gem into the water. Brilliant beams flashed up into the night, and they were followed by moments of absolute darkness.
It was almost like reality switching on and off. There were gasps in the crowd and Dave Castle continued to walk through the ferns. He was saying something to the rainmaker but Rick heard only garbled words. This time the ghostly Indian did notice and respond. He turned to Castle, pulling an object from his pouch as he moved.
The close-up of the rainmaker's face had an immediate hair-raising effect on Castle. He stopped in his tracks and began to back away. Fright lit his features.
Loose feathers, beads and rawhide strings showed as the rainmaker raised his rattle. He began to shake it slowly and his lips moved in an ancient chant. An almost imperceptible shifting of his feet marked the beginning of his dance, and the effect was immediate and powerful. Heat lightning flashed in the sky. Shadows swept down like vultures.
Scared out of his wits, Dave Castle began to run back to the point. The crowd there was also starting to retreat as the people backed away from the shoreline.
Turning to the four winds, the rainmaker continued his dance. Shakes of his rattle sent gusts roaring in the trees at the shoreline near Rick. Lightning flashed again, highlighting Castle as he raced out of the ferns. A swing of the rainmaker's arm sent thunder rolling, then a black bolt shot down and the mud around Castle curled up in a wave of lava and fire.
Blast furnace heat consumed Castle as he flew forward into hellish distortion and curtains of flame. He emerged with his hair on fire and the flesh of his face swelling outward like a hot balloon; a moment later it exploded from his skull in a hideous display of blood and savaged tissue.
Thunder rolled again as Castle vanished into an eruption of steaming mud. Then the sky began to calm and it started to rain softly.
The panicked crowd noticed that the rainmaker had somehow vanished along with Castle. Then they observed something else - the rain was red, filled with drops of blood.
Chaos ensued as people screamed and ran. Blood smeared on their faces as they tried to wipe away the drops. It was too much for even the police. One of the officers collapsed on the shore, while the other stood babbling with blood dribbling on his lips.
Concerned about Kim, Rick pulled his eyes from the point and began to run across the lakebed. Gusts of wind gave him great speed, and when he arrived he was relieved to find her standing on the dark shore with Sam. She looked stunned but she was dry, having been out of the range of the rain. He embraced her and felt her shiver. He knew that she'd seen the same hideous death he had.
Clouds blew across the sky in dappled steam patterns that coalesced as a fleece of fool's gold in the sunset light of the horizon. Rick sat chin in hand at the picnic table, viewing an isolated stretch of Wolverton Beach. The picture was almost tropical, like deserted island shores. Kim moved in the scene, and she was naked, walking carefully over the gray stones to the edge of the water. Streaks of perspiration glistened on the small of her back and buttocks; the evening being so humid that faint wisps of steam rose at her feet.
He watched as she splashed out in the shallow water, then he stripped off his shirt and brushed his sticky hair back with his fingertips. Swimming overhand, Kim broke the smooth blue surface farther out. Beyond her thick columns of haze hid most of the far shore.
Stray sunset beams swept the mist like divine searchlights, revealing strips of shoreline. Haze blew like faint smoke in the filtered light, creating sketches of a strange netherworld. Perhaps a place in the future the miserable heat wave had created. In that torrid land the burning sun existed as the only god; a deity of flies and vultures that had ascended and burned off the roots of his life. His wife Ann and baby Susan were gone. Now he had Kim and the evil eye aimed flash fires at his life again. It raised demons as it cracked the earth, and they brought shadows of death by delirium. Even the ark and the ghostly rainmaker were products of the evil eye. And if they weren’t, then they were preordained by some elder spirits … tricksters who had known that a time would come when only demons and rainmakers would survive.
Rick's head cleared as he reached the shore and dived into the water. The cool splash led to fifteen minutes of playfulness with Kim, then they emerged dripping and she yelped as the sharp pebbles bit into her softened soles. Jumping to his hips she let him carry her to the grass. She wrapped her wet body around him and kissed him before they toweled off, and as the heat began to rise on their skin again they returned to the picnic table and the shade.
A message waited on Kim's pocket phone, which she picked up as Rick opened the cooler. The interruption left him standing, holding dripping cans of juice in his hands, listening to a recording of Lynn Myers talking in near hysteria about an attempt to blow up the ark.
They didn't want to leave the beach but Meyers left them with little choice. Fortunately it was only a ten-minute drive. Sunset colours were fading to twilight on the point as Rick turned into the widened parking lot. He powered down, they got out quickly and strode towards Police Chief Dan Sawyer's makeshift command post near the point's end.
Sawyer had driven his cruiser all the way out and he had its red spinner on as he stood beside it exchanging heated words with Lynn Meyers. More bright lights were flashing out by the ark, and they were spotlights held by Sawyer's two men. They illumined Chris Hassan, the town fire chief, as he arranged some bulky objects by the ark walls.
Sawyer and Meyers fell silent as they stepped up. Kim was the first to speak. "Who came up with this explosion plan?"
"It's my idea," Sawyer said, looking almost surreal in the sweeping lights. "The town council didn’t approve it - they can't do it legally."
"I don't approve either," said Lynn. "Legally or illegally."
"Neither do I," Kim said. "You can't set off charges next to my land without notifying me well in advance."
"What about the feds?" Rick said. "If you blow up an archaeological find that belongs to them, they'll have you arrested."
"That's not true. I have the power to declare a local state of emergency under federal law. And I have done so."
Rick frowned. "Those powers are only supposed to be used to deal with weather-related disasters."
"Yes, and this is one. The heat has caused Mayor Gus and his council to go soft in the head. Donny Armstrong is leading a spooked mob around town and they're threatening to take matters into their own hands. If I don't act to end this the social order will break down completely."
"I know about Donny Armstrong," Rick said. "But there's no guarantee that blowing up the ark will stop him. You may be dynamiting the ark and the social order."
"Chris isn't laying dynamite sticks out there. These are special charges for a controlled explosion. The fury of the blast will implode the ark, reducing it to pebble-sized fragments. Take if from me. That spook medicine man is going to pay for his crimes in this town, because we're going to blow him to kingdom come."
"So, it's revenge is it?" Rick said.
"If you people try to stop us you'll be arrested and jailed. Now clear back off of this point. We're blowing that thing before nightfall."
Sawyer drew his Glock pistol. His pupils flashed with red reflections from the spinning cruiser light and his thin lips firmed up and formed an arrogant grimace. Rick decided they better pull back. He nodded to Kim and she took Lynn's arm. They walked away in silence, but near the car Kim started to curse under her breath. "I hate that man. I opposed the decision to put him in as police chief."
"He's going to destroy a priceless find," Meyers said, still partially in shock over the turn of events.
"We'll watch it from the highway," Rick said.
Night closed like a hood over the last of twilight as they pulled off the roadside. A small spotlight remained lit out by the ark, but the men had left. Rick spotted them over by the command post, preparing to detonate. And he knew the blast was coming when Dan Sawyer and Gus ducked down behind the cruiser. Chris Hassan held the detonator behind the shack.
The initial explosion came as a powerful yellow flash, and the blast itself had a miniature nuclear look to it. A column of brilliant dust rose at the ark and hung high above it for several seconds. Like a strange tornado, it rolled in on itself, the collapse initiating a terrible rumble and a second explosion. This thunderous blast shot up like an incredible series of fireworks that rained stones, earth and other flaming debris down on the lakebed and the point. As the last streamers fell, darkness and dust settled in, hiding the ark from view.
The rolling dust sped the arrival of complete darkness, but they could still see the lights on the point. Sawyer, Gus and Hassan had come out of hiding and they were trying to see through the cloud with binoculars.
"I hope that bastard is happy," Kim said.
"I'm sure he is," Rick said. Then ferns came into view in the settling dust.
"Looks like they failed to destroy everything," Lynn said.
And they had. More of the scene cleared, showing the plant life and pools intact. Moments later the outline of one of the tusks appeared, then the ark itself showed. It didn't appear to have a scratch on it. The explosion had failed to destroy it. It had failed to do anything other than raise dust.
Though it seemed bizarre and unbelievable, Rick couldn't help but grin. Kim broke away from him and began to whoop with laughter. Lynn Meyers stared but didn't move … an owlish look of amazement on her face.
An animated argument broke out between the men on the point, and it got interrupted by large objects raining down from the sky. Several of them crashed near the command post, and after a quick look up the men ran for cover inside. None of the objects landed out on the highway, but some fell close enough to be identified. They were birds. Gulls to be exact. Sawyer's explosion had somehow led to a rain of thousands of dead gulls.
Dan Sawyer's failed explosion led to a loss of confidence in his abilities as police chief. By the next day, Donny Armstrong and his mob had control of the town. As Sawyer cruised about the countryside trying to rally support, Rick decided to head off in a different direction. That being back out to Bill Brant's place. He took Kim and the sketches with him, and they found Brant in much better health and willing to help.
The old Mohawk stood in the tangle of weeds at edge of the rise. "We have to go to a spot over there," he said, pointing off into the distant hills. "My people have known about those images for hundreds of years. They exist in cave paintings at the underground Wolverton stream. Recently my grandson did some work on them. He said he translated the images in his own paintings at the cave mouth."
"We really need to find a solution in the interpretation," Kim said. "Since the explosion, Donny Armstrong and a mob have taken control in Tiverton. They're meeting at the town hall right now. Probably coming up with plans even crazier than Sawyer's."
"I don't think there is a solution to the rainmaker," Bill said. "It's more like he's a solution to us. People like Armstrong and Sawyer only aid him."
"Let's go," Rick said.
Brant nodded then a frown creased his brow. He appeared to be contemplating something he couldn't quite explain. They walked silently down the rise to the car and as they wound their way out of the tinderbox forest, they saw smoke from a forest fire raging in the distance. Strong winds carried the blaze away from Tiverton; it moved east like a hungry predator, soon to devour farms and greener lands with its fiery fangs.
A trip through the hills took them to the location Brant had pointed out. He told Rick to slow as they approached the turnoff. Acres of dead meadow ran to either side of the old road. Faint tire ruts were all that remained of it, but the track was smooth. Rick turned in and rolled slowly down it, heading for an area of dead forest at its end. As they grew closer to the trees, the magnitude of the heat devastation became apparent. A jungle of sticks and straw gleamed under heat-magnified sunlight, and in many places it had banked into reefs of debris. Only the largest trees remained standing, though they were also dead. Shattered trunks and stumps were all that was left of the rest.
A solid line of debris blocked the track into the forested area, and the road came to end at a helter-skelter tumble of sun-bleached logs. At that point a limestone outcropping rose from the meadow and Rick stopped in its shadow.
Kim looked back at the old Indian, and he broke his silence. "The cave entrance is on the other side of this rock. We won't have to go in far. My grandson's paintings are near the surface."
A blaze of sun lit the dead land as they trekked over the outcropping. Rick struggled with a heavy canvass pack and trailed the others on the clay path. Kim was in front of him, carrying the folio of sketches and a camera. Bill Brant walked in the lead, carrying only his pouch.
A boulder chiseled into the shape of a Mohawk bear's head marked the mouth of the cave. The opening itself had been enlarged to a rectangular shape, giving it the appearance of a mineshaft. They moved down the outcropping and Rick dropped his heavy pack as they paused at the entrance.
"We'll need lights, but we won't need any of those tools," Bill said. "We're not going in deep to the risky sections."
"Doesn't matter. If an emergency does come up, I want to have the tools to get us out."
Though they had to enter by ducking through in single file, the interior immediately widened. The first hundred feet of the slight incline came with a low ceiling, but after that it reached a height of seven feet.
The temperature drop was at least ten degrees and that provided tremendous relief. Yet the place was still dusty and dry like a mine. Even the slightest movement set huge dust motes floating in the beam of Rick's lamp.
The floor suddenly leveled off at a wide section and the lamp revealed paintings on the coarse stone walls. These ran on for a distance in a broken mural style and farther down heaps of bones were scattered beside them on the floor.
"Many animals retreated here and died. My grandson cleaned up the skeletons. Probably a lot of smaller beasts are still alive in the lower portions."
"What would they live on?" Rick said.
"Listen carefully, tell me what you hear."
"A faint rushing sound. Maybe wind or water."
"It's both. There are caverns and an underground stream nearly as big as a river below. It's the source that keeps Wolverton Lake alive. The original paintings are down below, but we aren't going to try to go down there. That would be a major effort even for the best of cavern explorers. The paintings here are copies my grandson made. He took nearly all of the major features and used a system he invented to interpret the unknown symbols."
"If it's all here, putting together the unknown elements of this sketch should be easy."
"Maybe not that easy. We'll see."
Rick dropped his pack in the centre of the floor and walked over to the wall. A huge painted eagle rose beside Kim as she placed her lamp and folder of sketches on the floor.
"Something about this place gives me the creeps," Rick said, turning to Kim. "Those stalactite knobs belly in the centre. Maybe this portion of roof is unstable. Let's do this fast. I light up the sketches, Bill finds the relevant portions of painting, and you take the photos."
"Sounds fine," Kim said. "Show him sketch one while I load the film."
Rick pulled out a small flashlight and shone the beam on sketch one. The image on the heavy paper looked like a cross between an animal likeness and a math symbol. Bill squinted at it with watery eyes, and then he carried the lantern as he walked along the wall. Kim followed with the camera and about ten metres down Bill squatted and drew an invisible circle with his finger. "Guess it's an older version of the Mi'kmaq symbol for a child," he said as Kim moved in to take the photo.
They had the photos inside of twenty minutes but waited while Kim made a small set of test prints. "They look okay," she said. "We'll blow them up on a tablet at Rick's place to piece it all together."
Bill nodded, Rick picked up his pack and they turned to leave. Kim flashed her light down the tunnel, they took about five steps then they heard a morbid howl echo through the cave. It was a beastly cry that invoked images of a prowling predator.
"That's the same howl we heard the night we found the ark," Kim said. "It has to be that animal that raced by us then. The rainmaker's invisible pet."
Rick patted her on the shoulder. "Let's get out of here before it comes up from below."
Bill seemed reluctant. He didn't move. "Hold on," he said. "That howl is similar to a coyote cry, and I think it came from the entrance, not below."
"What choice do we have," Rick said. "There's no other way out unless we go deep underground. And speed wise we couldn't escape it anyway. I have a gun in my pack. If it's at the entrance we'll confront it there."
Moving slowly through the dusty darkness they made their way to the entrance. Kim shone her beam about nervously, sweeping it into every dark area. But they saw nothing other than dust motes, lumps of rock and bones. A distant pinhole grew to a doorway of sunlight and at that point the cave narrowed. They would have to file out.
Rick dropped his pack and they switched off their lights. He'd already drawn his gun, and it was a snub-nosed Remington with a computerized ammo attachment. "I'll leave the pack here and go first," he said. "If anything tries to block us I'll shoot it."
"Wait," Bill said. "I want to try something." He undid the clasp of the pouch he wore at his side. Pulling out a black cloth bag he opened it, revealing contents that looked like gold dust. Scooping out a large handful, he opened his upturned palm and blew long and hard, sending a cloud of the stuff sailing toward the sunlit entrance. Particles glittered and spun as they traveled into the beams. These were light like seed fluff and they stayed afloat. Air currents carried the cloud out of the cave and the particles drifted at the mouth. One spot remained clear of dust, and a shape was revealed - it was a large body, an invisible animal form crouching in wait.
It suddenly moved and paced toward the entrance. Rick raised his gun and fired two shots. The projectiles hit the creature's shoulder and created a dizzying flash of silver light and sparks. No wounds appeared but the predator turned its head, revealing a canine maw with huge rippling teeth and eyes like bright ice. A moment later it roared and leapt away from the entrance, its shape flowing like that of a large coyote.
"It loathes being seen," Bill said. "Coyote spirits are like that."
Rick stared at his gun like it was a useless lump of coal. "Think it's safe to exit?" he said.
"Somewhat safe," Bill said. "It will be watching, but it won't attack if it means giving up invisibility. Your gun won't stop it if it does."
They moved forward toward the exit, and Bill took the lead this time. Moments later they emerged in the sunlight and looked around. Rick saw movement like wind in the grass on the rise, and it was quickly gone.
"Let's keep moving to the car," Bill said. "We won't be safe until we’re out of here."
This time they walked quickly, in spite of the heat. Rick felt sweat bead on his brow and he kept checking his back. As they descended to the car a dead tree suddenly crashed in the forested area and they heard an animal snort. More debris cracked as it raced off to the south. Moving quickly Rick packed the stuff in the trunk, and then they were off, speeding down the dirt track to the highway.
Foam-capped waves rolled in softly near Rick's cottage on Wolverton beach. Bill sat next to him at the picnic table and they both watched as Kim delicately carried the sketches, photos and an eighteen-inch display tablet back to the cottage. She returned with a cooler, her hair lifting and flying in the wind as she walked barefoot on the path.
"So what do we tell Lynn Meyers and Mayor Gus?" Rick said.
Bill shrugged. "We need to come up with a plan to stop the rainmaker and pass that information to them."
Kim placed the basket on the table. "Let's have a quick recap, Bill, and see if we can figure anything out."
"Good idea," Bill said. "Keeping it simple and not picking at details may help. The ark images show Coyote, the rainmaker, the ark rising, the townspeople, the grasses, ferns, water, turtles and a series of tasks and animal sacrifices and ceremonies with power objects. Rain is depicted but often as blood. According to the cave paintings, our rainmaker wears the ancient symbols of life and death. He has come back from the dead. In the depictions of ceremonies, the end of the chain or goal is to raise the dead in the burial hills surrounding the lake. He will give them life by stealing it from others through his rain of death. He is even staying alive himself in the same way. The man you saw killed by his lightning in fact had his life force stolen by the rainmaker. Most troubling are those images of the dead rising. His tribe rises from the dead, and the final ceremony he must perform shows his rain dance sending a rain of death across the lands to gather the life force he needs."
"In other words," Rick said. "He plans on killing us all with some kind of rainfall of death. Could he possibly do that?"
"The images on the ark line up with what the rainmaker told me when he visited me in spirit form at my cabin. He can make it rain. He has Coyote, an ancient Indian god as his assistant, and you've already seen him kill. Whatever the magic is it raised him from the dead. Without a doubt we’ll all die and soon, if he finishes."
"What's left for him to do?" Kim said.
"The ceremonies involving the power objects are probably completed. He had to make it rain and then make it rain blood and that is done. The symbol of death appeared a couple times over images of men and he has killed. The last image before his final rain dance shows a foreign tribe making a sacrifice to him. The people of Tiverton would be that tribe and as far as we know there hasn't been a sacrifice. We must make sure it doesn't happen."
"What about his final rain dance?" Rick said. "Can that be stopped?"
"In all magic there is counter magic," Bill said. "The image of two rattles is there on the ark. One is the rainmaker's rattle of death and the other is the rattle of the Great Spirit. I believe the second rattle is the one that I have. But I can't use it because the image shows the counter magic as a dance by the Great Spirit. If the spirit dances, the power will somehow end the rain of death and destroy the rainmaker. Our only hope is to stop the sacrifice. I don't know of any magic that will return the spirit to earth to take human form and dance. If I did I’d be as powerful as the rainmaker. My grandson already tried and died when the spirit refused to enter him. There’s one symbol in the depiction of the spirit in human form that I couldn't interpret. Perhaps if I could figure it out we'd have an answer."
Rick started to speak then Kim's phone jingled out a tune and he stopped as she answered. Clicking it off she looked to the others. "Dan Sawyer has gone missing. Gus needs our help. They're going to search the woods south of Deep Woods Lake. They found his cruiser on the roadside near there."
"Bill can wait here," Rick said. "Knowing Sawyer, my guess is he's either up to no good or he's come to a bad end."
Rick reluctantly left the cottage to aid in the search for Sawyer. Kim sat silently beside him as he gunned it down the empty stretch of highway to the Deep Woods turnoff. The dirt road came to an abrupt end at a ditch and windbreak of tall firs. Mayor Gus and about twenty men, all of them armed, were already there. Beyond them, through gaps in the firs, sunlight baked an area of dried deciduous forest. Tree falls blocked much of it and just at a glance, Rick could sense the hostile spirit that governed it. In any prolonged search, they'd be more at risk of losing people than of finding anyone.
Rick parked among the line of vehicles then fiddled with his pack while Kim jumped out and went ahead of him. By the time he reached the group conflict had developed between Kim and some of the men.
"You should mind your own business," Al Rourke said. "We need these guns. The rainmaker might be out here."
"You won't shoot the rainmaker," she said. "Once you fan out in there you'll shoot each other."
"She's right," Mayor Gus said. "The weapons are to remain here with me. George and I will stay behind and keep in touch through the handsets. If at any time weapons are needed, George will carry them out. Ronny is designated as the canary. He's got a touch of asthma and is the weakest. When he reports signs of fatigue you all turn back."
Al nodded, and some of the others grumbled, but in spite of their objections they filed up and handed in their guns. Gus laid them out in a neat row in the shade of the firs, and then he sat on a log and watched as they shouldered their packs and walked to the other side of the ditch.
They spread wide, entering the forest wherever obstructions were the least. Deciding to stay together, Rick and Kim took a position at the southern end of the line. It proved a wise choice. They ducked around a section of loose brush that’d been blown into a barricade and found the dry bed of a stream. Following it they were able to move some distance quickly. In spite of that a proper search was impossible. Huge trees lined both banks - dead as scarecrows they creaked in the hot breeze and blew with fading cobwebs and dry rot. On most of the stretch fungus-covered logs clogged the forest …many of them bursting with spores and mould that filled the air with dust motes and a foul odor.
A tumble of boulders marked a sharp turn of the streambed, and as they rounded the bend they were greeted by a human skull grinning from a clump of crisp weeds. A clearing in the forest stretched behind the skull and it was mostly open and carpeted with wind-beaten brown grass.
They walked up to the skull then stepped over it into the clearing. It was empty but a few trees sprinkled its far end and one of them stood next to a mound. It looked quite odd, having no limbs but a fattened trunk.
Sun glare put spots in their eyes as they moved across the field. In the back of his mind Rick saw the ugliness of scorching summer rising as another skull. He wished he hadn't come out on this search. Dead lands were too depressing and Police Chief Dan Sawyer was a person he didn't want to find alive or dead. His gut feeling was that Sawyer had perished, though he didn't realize just how close he was to the truth of that feeling. It rose up like a cliff only a moment later as Kim said," Oh my God - that's a corpse fastened on that tree!"
Rick's eyes went to the mound and to the tree, but sun glare and spots washed in and he saw little other than a dark patch near the top. "I can't see. We'll have to get a little closer," he said. Then he got on his handset and called Mayor Gus. "We found something out here. South end of the line. Follow the streambed. We're investigating it now."
Kim grimaced and turned away. "I can't look at that horrible thing. It's doing stuff to my mind."
But Rick's vision hadn’t settled and he continued to step forward. His brow was in a tight squint and in the haze the sun seemed almost in eclipse. The corona blinded his view of the top, but the bottom was visible. Stripped of branches and bark the partially rotted tree trunk had been carved with totem-like images. A pattern resembling bird tracks stretched up from the withered weeds. Larger and more intricate carved feathers were above it, ending at an owl-like face that was hideously distorted. Rings of rot formed a division and the higher section was smooth and stained red.
His focus returned and he could see that the darker patch contained a body. Lashed to the pole with numerous strings of leather, it was naked from the chest up and covered with reddened sores. Flesh puffed up blue like a rubber mask covered the face, the eyes were swollen closed and a wig of dark feathers crowned it.
Rick was sure it was Sawyer and that he'd been dead for some time. Then he saw the swollen lips move and realized that Sawyer was still alive. The vision caused him to quiver with horror; being alive in such a state was so ghastly that he couldn't stand to look any longer. He knew how Kim felt. A wheel of sun glare spun to splashes of blood in his mind. Shaken, he turned away and nearly vomited.
Gus and some of the others were walking into the field, and he saw Kim dashing to them. A few words were exchanged then he saw them look to the totem. Confusion ruled their brows; he knew they weren't quite sure what they were seeing. Only Gus stepped forward, walking toward Rick and the totem. His mouth opened in surprise and shock, and he nearly dropped the rifle he'd been holding lamely at his side. Gus took a few more steps then he shivered in the heat and a mixed expression of horror, pity and revulsion warped his face.
But Gus didn't turn away; his arm came up slowly with the rifle and before anyone could say or do anything he opened fire on the totem.
Blood showered in the sunlight as the bullets impacted on Dan Sawyer's chest and head. Then Kim gasped and Gus collapsed slowly into the dry grass. Rick and the other men ran to him. "Let's get him out of here," Rick said. "We'll come back later and cut the body down."
They stopped briefly at the cottage, talked to Bill then left to visit Sam. Keeping the farms running remained a problem and the social visit was shortened as Sam was called out on business. Left behind, they sipped drinks on the patio and talked little. Kim wanted to shake off the grisly images of Dan Sawyer's death and her face remained troubled as she stared at the darkening horizon. Inky patches at the tree line frightened her and the rolling waves of heat distortion kept folding the scene into a rippled wall of dead flesh. She was beginning to recover when they got a call from one of Mayor Gus' staffers.
His voice carried a strong sense of urgency as he informed them of an emergency meeting in town. The rest of his message convinced them that the rainmaker and the curse of the ark hadn’t faded. "Sawyer's death has panicked the town," he said. "Now Donny Armstrong has found out about Gus firing the shots that finished him. He's made the news public. Though in his version it’s cold-blooded murder and not a mercy killing. Chaos is the controlling force here. Gus says it's impossible for us to warn people about the rainmaker's plans."
Though it was short notice they left immediately, heading for town at high speed. The car hurtled through hot sooty darkness and burst into bright highway lights ten minutes later at the bend leading into town. Rick slowed on spotting a roadblock ahead. Sawhorses and pickup trucks formed the barrier beside the turnoff into the Lakeside fuel station.
Slowing and rolling onto the shoulder, Rick turned into the station lot. The entire area ahead was congested by diverted vehicles and people that’d emerged from them. About twenty cars were parked in the open field beside the station and a noisy crowd had gathered out front of the variety store.
Several armed men loitered near the garage doors and four more thugs walked around the pumps to approach the car. Garish light from the big station sign glossed their sweaty faces as they walked up. Three of the men were burly and unshaven. They wore rumpled work clothes and the apparent leader, a tall gaunt man, wore a summer suit. His eyes were big though shadowed and hungry for trouble.
"Those are some of Donny Armstrong's friends," Kim said. "Keep the engine running and don't get out."
Stepping up next to the window, the lean leader glared in at Rick. He didn’t bother to holster his handgun.
"What's going on?" Rick said. "We were called into town for an emergency meeting."
"Meeting's been cancelled by the new police chief."
"Really. Who is the new police Chief?"
"How'd he get the job?'
"We voted him in."
"Yeah," Kim said. "How'd you vote, by firing shots in the air?"
"What's done is done, and you two have the same choice as the others. Either side with us or be arrested."
"Before I side with Donny Armstrong I want some idea on what he plans to do. Sawyer already tried using force on the rainmaker. It didn't work. We need intelligence and a plan."
"Donny's got a plan. The rainmaker came to him in a dream. Told him what to do. I don't know exactly what the plan is but it's already in motion. It's supposed be a deal that saves us all. The rainmaker is going to make it rain everywhere this time."
"Where exactly is Donny? Why isn't he here?"
"Donny's in town right now. He's gone in with a few men to arrest Mayor Gus for the killing of Dan Sawyer. Gus will be taken to the police station. The two remaining officers that served under Dan will be ordered to stand down."
Rick raised his eyebrows slightly and he didn't reply. Instead, he hit the window control, rolling it up. Caught by surprise the gunman tried to stop the glass from closing and nearly got his fingers jammed in it. He pounded it with his left fist as Rick hit the shift, then the car lurched forward, brushing him aside.
Following a clear path through the pumps, Rick accelerated as guns fired from behind. Slugs and a shotgun blast hit the rear windshield and were deflected by the Sun Cobra’s weatherproof glass. The crowd ahead dispersed in panic and more gunmen charged out and fired as they raced past the pumps. Gunshots continued to slam the car like sledgehammer blows, but Rick managed to turn out to the open highway and they were free and racing off in the insect-swirling lights.
"They aren’t following us," Rick said.
"They'll call ahead to Donny and see what he says. He'll know we're coming."
The first stretch of houses flew by, then faint smoke blew across the road and a denser cloud drifted through a field by the old dance hall on Water Street. The odors of a house fire blew in as Kim lowered her window and they suddenly spotted thick tongues of flame and soot licking beyond the rooftops on the next block. Turning in the direction of the fire, they encountered a gang of teenage kids running across road.
"Think those kids started the fire?" Rick said.
"No. They're terrified, running from something else. I'm pretty sure those flames are from Gus' house, too. Maybe Donny wants to kill him, not arrest him."
The car squealed into a turn, headed directly for the fire. The street had large yards and new houses of the simple brick and frame variety. Only one burned and it was completely ablaze, spitting dragon's breath from shattered windows and the front door. It looked to be abandoned and though neighbouring houses were endangered by the blaze no one was out on the lawns.
"It's Gus' house," Kim said as Rick slowed and stopped at the edge of the property.
Dogs barked furiously in nearby homes. Hungry flames licked at the tall firs in Gus' yard and Rick's guess was that if they ignited the fire would spread and burn a few more houses down. A ball of fire suddenly blew through the roof, sending ashes raining down on the yard. They drifted in hellish light illuming the grass and began to land on the windshield.
"Gus can't be in there," Rick said. "Everyone in this neighborhood is out. They must've left for the meeting or else were scared away by Donny and his men."
"The rest of the people would have got to the Town Hall for the meeting," Kim said. "If Gus is under attack my guess is he ducked out and is at the police station with the town's two remaining officers. Donny likely set the house on fire as a revenge thing. It's his style. He's the only person in town meaner than Dan Sawyer was. That's why people didn't vote him in as police chief in the first place."
Rick backed up then turned and drove right up on the lawn of the next house. Jumping out he ran to the bay windows at the front, grabbed a stone from the garden and smashed out the glass. Two collies that’d been barking inside jumped through the break and ran off into the night.
Back in the car he hit the accelerator and headed for the town square. Lights were out in the houses on the adjacent streets and his guess was that they were mostly not home or were pretending not to be home. Going in on the main drag would be risky so he drove around to a side street and crawled up, coming to the corner near the hardware store. Nosing out with the headlights off, he looked in the direction of the hall and saw a mob milling out front. More of Donny's armed men were in control. They roamed in the parkette and though the hall was lit its doors were blocked by four men.
"Looks like they've penned their opponents inside," Kim said. "Back up before they see us. Gus might not be in there. Circle around and check the police station first."
They rolled down a bumpy alleyway, keeping the lights off as they tried to get a spy's view of the street. The alley broke onto the sidewalk a half block from the station and they spotted activity near it. Four huge trucks blocked the street out front and Donny and his armed men were behind them. On the other side of the road the lights in the station were off, meaning Donny had cut the power or else the officers inside were keeping it dark to avoid bullets.
Before Rick could backup into the alley, Donny spotted them and began to run down the street. The hot breeze blew his red hair had into wild tufts and his impish face twisted into a nasty mask of dust and perspiration. He stopped before running clear of the last truck and raised his shotgun to fire.
Rick accelerated and the blast took out a mailbox as the car bounced down the alley in reverse. The right rear fender took a nasty scrape on a garbage bin, but they made it out and sped away.
Rick glanced at Kim, noting the fury on her face. "It looks like Armstrong just got there and he's tied up in a standoff. He may not have the back exit of the station covered yet. I'm going to try driving around."
Speeding around on the side streets, Rick got to the blocks behind the station. He followed an alley at the rear of the shops and knocked the headlights off. At its end they could see the back wall of the police station. The building was plunged in darkness and a lone car was parked near the door. Two large men lurked behind the fogged windshield.
"Two of Donny's men," Kim said.
"Yeah. It means Gus must be trapped inside. He can't escape when the police vehicles are in the lot over behind Donny's barricade. I'm going to try something."
Switching the headlights on, Rick accelerated into the street and breezed past the parked car. His wheels released a short screech as he turned in at the side of the station. Tire ruts, thick grass and thistles filled the narrow space between the buildings. Bushes and a flower garden blocked the track at the front. Beyond the foliage, lights flashed from Donny's barricade.
"Toss me the flashlight in the glove compartment," Rick said as he stopped by the side window. A moment later, he was blinking the beam at the glass.
"They’re pulling in to block our exit," Kim said, and then the station window slid open and Bill's face showed in the beam of the flashlight.
Gunshots whistled off the side of the Sun Cobra. Bill ducked back then reappeared, and Gus showed beside him holding a shotgun.
"How many people are in there?" Rick said.
"Five of us," Gus said. "Two officers are guarding the front and my wife is with me. We can't shoot our way out, but we do have flash grenades that can stun an entire crowd. Dan brought them in for crowd control just before he died. Problem is we can't get near the doors or windows to throw them. Maybe you can do it."
"I'll try. Toss them."
"They're out of the car, coming up after us," Kim said.
Catching the package, Rick handed it to Kim, looked in the mirror and hit reverse. The car tore up weeds as he zoomed towards the two approaching gunmen. Caught off guard, they dropped their weapons. Desperately retreating they lunged over the hood of their car to safety.
Rick braked and they were jolted as they bumped the front of the other vehicle. "Get behind the wheel," he said. "I'm going to try to use these flash bombs."
A quick switch of seats, then Rick opened the package and studied the flash bombs. He found the design simple. Each had a computerized timer and an enable switch. He looked to Kim. "Accelerate straight ahead through the bushes and garden. Turn for the road and barricade and I'll open the window and bounce one of these under the trucks to Donny."
Sweat glued Kim's bangs to her forehead. She grimaced like she was about to murder someone, then she hit the accelerator. The car raced down the narrow space, rocked on a bump at the end and slashed through the lilac bushes. Its wheels slid and threw dirt as they crossed the flower garden, and the swerve out to the road became more reckless as Kim tried to dodge a lone gunman running straight for them.
The fender grazed him and he tumbled toward the sidewalk, then they were at the barricade of trucks and she braked. Rick managed to bounce explosives under the belly of a truck. He thumbed the window closed as the sudden stop knocked him forward.
They skidded to the end of the barricade and spotted Donny Armstrong moving into kill position on the sidewalk. He dropped to one knee and was about to open fire with a launcher when the stun bombs suddenly blew. A curtain of yellow light flared up from the barricade of trucks. It released tremendous force and an ear-splitting roar of sound. Shock waves swept the street. Glass shattered, rubbish flew, doors pounded on their hinges, and as the explosion died Rick tossed two more of the devices down the sidewalk.
He held on as Kim sped forward. She slowed and swung around, putting them in the face of the second explosion. Donny Armstrong and five of his men were backing off, then they were bowled over and tumbling in shock starbursts.
Kim hit the breaks. The gunmen were down and out. Some sprawled in the street, others in the grass. The town's two remaining police officers rushed out of the station, followed by Bill and Mayor Gus.
Gus and the two officers dashed around the barricade but Bill headed straight for the car and quickly got in the back. "We've got to get out to the ark to stop the sacrifice," he said.
"Donny sent people out there?” Rick said.
"He sent people out to do the sacrifice. We picked it up on the radio. It may be too late to stop them."
"The road's barricaded. I don't know how to get out of town."
"There's another way," Kim said. "It’s a side road. It won't take us all the way. We'll have to jog the rest of the way in on the trail."
Twilight hues melted to satiny black in the sky. Stars glittered and an ordered alignment of the planets brightened. Red spokes of light emanated from Mars and spread to a haze of light showing just beyond an upcoming break in the trees.
Kim's feet pattered close at Rick's rear, but Bill had fallen far behind. Rick's feet were light and pumping with great strength. He felt charged, feeling the spiritual energy of the planetary powers suffusing his flesh.
The path suddenly widened at a break in the brush and the shoreline of Deep Woods Lake appeared. A huge fir rose in the moonlight on the bank and they stopped beneath it to rest. Kim threw her hands to her knees as she stooped to catch her breath. Rick had control of his breathing, but he felt like gasping as he looked out from the shore.
The ark's carvings were lit up like silver filaments and the box was blinding bright. The beams it spread in a fan to the lakebed and the point illumined the area like a strong form of starlight. Just over the ark, a long intense beam curved to the sky in tracer fashion, training on the belt of planets. It existed as the last link in the chain, though at an earthbound position.
A flicker of firelight drew Rick's eyes from the dazzle of the ark to the point. A bonfire burned at its end and a rabble of faces swam in the drifting smoke. This crowd formed a half moon around a few shadowy figures moving next to a four-meter-high protrusion of gray stone. The firelight created a play of distorted shadows on the rock wall, touching the scene with a sinister effect that strengthened as he distinguished one of the shadows as falling from a man holding a long knife.
Echoes drifted across the lakebed, re-mixing the crowd noise to a strange blend, like the roar from some distant stadium event. Though individual voices couldn’t be distinguished a sense of pandemonium was conveyed - a scene of evil was being played out and with great speed.
"I think we can still get there in time to stop it," Rick said.
A rustle of foliage startled him. Turning he saw Bill jogging out of the trees. Catching his breath quickly the old Indian gazed open-mouthed at the ark and said, "Have you spotted the rainmaker?"
"No, but look at the point," Rick said. "The mob has a ritual of some sort underway."
"If the rainmaker hasn’t arrived the sacrifice isn’t complete."
Rick leaped to the lakebed, Kim followed then Bill. Being the superior runner, Rick quickly left them behind. The mud flats pounding under his feet were dry and cracked and the celestial illumination pooled on them like water in some places. It was almost like he was running on the moon, only gravity had thickened to slow him.
Getting to the point was taking forever. He entered an area of rustling ferns that gleamed with silver knife-edges and slapped at his thighs as he dashed through them. The high bank of the point rose like a shell curl beside him. Ahead it sloped, became almost level with the stony shore and turned gently to the firelight and the crowd.
The general clamor of the mob lifted like a slow bellow from the throat of some mad underworld behemoth. He began to pick up the cruel shouts of spectators. Shadows rose as wicked caricatures of giants on the rock backdrop. Within the flow of shadows he saw murky visions rising - evil spilling like black water across the centuries and continents. The planets, the stars, the flickering flames swirled in his mind and grew to a hideous vortex. Then his feet began to fail him - like they were made of lead. He slowed, finding that a foul powdery taste had settled on his tongue. Spasms kicked in his stomach and the muscles locked, forcing him to his knees at the edge of the sand.
Something vast and black spread paralyzing wings across his mind. He was going under, and then he heard Kim's gentle voice and felt her hand on his shoulder. Her touch was tremendously warm and soft; it spread through him like healing magic and broke the spell on his mind. He looked up into her eyes at a special radiance that he hadn't seen there before. It strengthened him enough that he rose and turned to face the point.
Just beyond the shore the mob had fallen momentarily quiet and the planets hung in temporary suspense as the largest of the Baker brothers appeared. He brought a bound woman from behind the fire then led her through the parting crowd and up the slight incline to a patterned circle at the edge of the rock wall. The blindfolded the victim was identifiable as Melanie Kemper, daughter of a grocery store owner in town.
Her hair had been braided; coloured strings of wooden beads decorated her neck. A long ceremonial dress dropped from her hips to the ground. Reddened skin and welts showed on her lower back, indicating that she’d been injured in some type of preparatory ritual.
"They don't look merciful. They'll turn on us if we try to reason with them," Kim said.
"I know. But we might be able to stop them. They've prepared the victim in a certain way so the sacrifice must be a ritual. If we interfere with its execution, it might not work. Stay here for a moment. I'm going to try to creep up on them."
Rick moved silently in the semi darkness, but he didn't get more than a few steps before a brief cry came from his rear. Turning quickly he saw Kim and beyond her on the flats Bill was tumbling into the ferns. Something large and invisible rippled through the greenery, moving in to attack him again. Knowing it had to be the rainmaker's coyote Rick began to run to Bill's aid.
Kim ran with him and as they approached, Bill was on the ground and being shaken. The beast had bitten into his shoulder and from the movement Rick was able to generalize its position. He dived and felt a solid hit. The creature howled as he threw his arms around it, then it threw him off and leaped away.
It had felt smooth, dry and muscular, like a very large snake. A creepy sensation that caused his hair to rise to tufts as he rolled to his feet. He could see Bill on his knees, bleeding heavily from his shoulder. Bill grimaced then opened his pouch with his free hand and began blowing clouds of his special dust into the air. It glittered magnificently in the light from the ark and as it spread it revealed the coyote crouched in the ferns. Blood dripped from its maw and its eyes showed like burning coals. It stirred and began to move forward and this time it seemed unafraid. Rick was the target and he was ready as it ran up and jumped. Ducking back he threw it over him, feeling the rip of claws. As he spun around and staggered, he saw Kim striking at it with a large piece of driftwood.
It snarled and turned on her, but she stood her ground, a strange power radiant on her face. Fear showed in its eyes and it began to back away. She charged at it and it drew back further, turned and fled towards the ark.
Bill held his bleeding shoulder and groaned. "The point," he said. "Get over there and stop them now!"
In the excitement Rick had forgot about the sacrifice. Kim was stepping back to aid Bill so he turned and ran for the point.
He saw shadows swarming on the wall as the excited mob surged forward. A knife blade flashed in the circle like some strange stroke of the hand of time. Sprinting hard along the pebbled shore, he turned, dashed through a fringe of tall grass and plunged into the mob.
The crowd didn’t part willingly, but the power of his surge knocked people aside and he managed to wedge his way to the middle. A thin wall of excited spectators still blocked him. He got pushed from behind, jostled, elbowed at the side. A furious woman turned and yelled. Spittle sprayed from her lips, her twisted face had a green pallor yet her eyes burned with reflections of fire.
Rick staggered back a couple steps. The wall of flesh began closing in on him. He saw no escape then he noticed a high boulder to his right. Turning in that direction he socked a big man who was about to swing at him with a chunk of stone. The man went to his knees and Rick used him as a stepping-stone as he jumped for the rock. Catching the edge, he kicked away hands grabbing at his legs and pulled himself up.
At the top he rolled on his side and caught his breath. The crazed mob was shouting from below. He saw another man on the rock, though he stood at the front staring down at the ceremonial circle. Rising slowly, Rick targeted the man then rushed him - sending him flailing into the crowd.
Standing at the edge, he focused on the circle below. Veils of smoke darkened as dizziness swept his mind. The shadows on the wall formed an evil face. He saw drops of blood and heard a woman scream. Then the large man looming over her came clear; he held a knife, ready to plunge it into her chest.
Though Rick's head was spinning, he stepped back then ran forward and jumped. Sailing over the crowd and through rings of smoke he slammed into the target. Hitting the huge Baker brother was like hitting a fat slab of hanging beef - a hard blow that took the wind out of Rick as he took the big man down for a crash against the chunks of rock at the edge of the circle.
Rick rolled back in the dirt, twisting his neck horribly. He managed to throw himself into a sitting position and he remained like that as he gasped for air. Smoke stung his nostrils and choked him. Bullets of pain exploded up his spine to his neck and his vision was momentarily electrified. A waterfall of light rushed then vanished into the roar of the crowd. He leaned forward and moved on his knees while rubbing at his eyes with his hand. His vision cleared to a blur and he saw blood. The body of the girl lay prone before him in the circle. A dagger had been planted in her chest and thick blood oozed at the spot.
Crawling to her he seized her arm and checked for a pulse. "She's dead," he said.
No one spoke. Reflections of fire burned in feral eyes as the crowd watched him. He stared open mouthed at soot-streaked faces. The night masked them with shifting shadows and he knew that their peeling lips and parched throats thirsted for blood more than water. "I hope you've got what you want," he said.
But he was talking into silence as heavy as lead . . . then the thunder boomed and the mob screamed with joy. They forgot about him as they began to dance madly around the circle and the corpse.
Nerve pain bit like rows of fangs at Rick's back and chest. Drained, he rose and staggered into the crowd. Pushing his way through he reached the shore and halted, taking deep gulps of the smoke-free air. The pain began to subside and there was another rumble of thunder. Fog cleared from his vision and he saw Kim hurrying across the mud flats toward him. Her face was troubled and when she reached him she embraced him, brushed his hair back and ran her fingertips over the bruises developing on his right cheek.
"I couldn't stop them."
"The thunder already told me that."
"Not well. There's too much bleeding and it's getting into his lungs. He can barely talk. He needs a doctor."
"Pretty soon we may all need doctors."
They looked up at the gathering clouds. The planets were obscured, yet an eerie haze of light still filtered through. Another low rumble shook the point, seeming to come from the ground and not the sky.
Kim bit her lip. "I'm not sure if it's a storm or a quake that's developing."
"Let's get back and check on Bill. Then we'll decide what to do next."
The glowing ark began to shift colors. Drifting from silver to red it caused a visible change of atmosphere as they dashed to Bill. He hadn't moved but remained at the edge of the ferns where Kim had left him. His head lolled but he managed to look up as they approached.
Kim had used a strip of cloth from his pack to bind his wound and it was heavily soaked with blood. His lips moved as he tried to speak. Choked syllables were all that came out. Putting a hand on his uninjured shoulder Kim tried to calm him. "He's been trying to tell me something, but he can't get the words out."
Rick saw Bill's hand moving weakly, clawing at the dust. The rattle rested on the lakebed beside a sketch Bill had scratched in the mud with a stick. "What's that drawing he's made?"
"It's of the one symbol we couldn't translate. He drew that while you were gone and kept pointing to it and me - like he's trying to tell me what it is."
Rick reached down and picked up the rattle. Its handle felt cool to the touch, but no magic seemed to emanate from it. "That symbol is tied to the rattle. If he's figured out what it is we might be able to use it to stop the rainmaker. Maybe we can get him to write his message in words in the dirt."
"He's going under," Kim said. She slapped his face gently, and then cushioned his body as he collapsed back into the ferns. Exasperated, she looked up. "He's out, and in this heat he'll stay out."
A bitter expression formed on Rick's face, then the sky behind him became active and he turned. Rings of red light expanded as they pulsed through the clouds in a hypnotic fashion. Dark roiling mist fringed the pulses and a high shriek of the wind warned of the approach of a terrible storm.
The storm's evil eye morphed into a bright orange ball of gas and it drifted down in a parabolic path to the ark. Thunder rolled across the mist-smoking hills like a tune of ancient drums and ended in a terrible boom as the luminous ball touched the lakebed.
Tendrils of gas wound like snakes in the light as the orb dissipated. The rainmaker emerged from the smoke, his skeletal face partially hidden by full paint and ceremonial dress. He walked at the edge of a pool that shone with the color of blood and for the first time his coyote became visible in the light; his jacket of fur aglow with a hellish aura as he followed his master.
The din of the shouting mob on the point echoed over the lakebed, but the rainmaker ignored them as he turned to the ark. He walked through the ferns into the brilliant glow. Rays blasted his skeletal form and the light bent and formed like a headdress of rainbow colors around him. At the ark wall he knelt and took an object from his pouch. It was dark as night and appeared to be a stone or puzzle piece. He pushed the piece into an indentation in the wall, there was a blinding flicker and then darkness descended on the entire area.
Rick grabbed Kim's arm. As his eyes adjusted, spinning clouds showed in the sky and shouts of terror from the point came to his ears. A long slow rumble followed and the ground began to rock. As he held Kim and tried to remain standing an incredible explosion took place at the ark. It went up like fireworks and lava. When the plume of flame died, a column of black liquid shot up.
Huge cracks and steaming fissures split the ground, sending Rick tumbling with Kim in his arms. The force of the explosion was so great that the gush of liquid raced up into the clouds for ten long seconds before it stopped abruptly, leaving nothing but a small bit of boiling liquid pouring near the hole.
The ark had been blasted into oblivion. Light streamed in from the hills. On the point the awed crowd stared up at the storm clouds, anticipating that the liquid would begin to shower down. But none of it did, and a second explosion of liquid followed, ringing the earth like a gong. This flow ended, and then there was silence
Rick pulled Kim with him as he slowly got to his knees on the shaking ground. He watched the terrified crowd of people at the point as they screamed at the sky. Saying nothing he drew Kim close, feeling great strength flow through him from her touch. He looked in her eyes and found that the magic he'd been unable to find in the rattle shone in them.
"I love you," he said.
And as she began to whisper a reply, another blast of liquid shot up from the hole.
Thunder and lightning smashed the area like a fist and dark rain streaked in the sky, slashing in on the point crowd in strong winds. Dreadful cries of pain echoed and the boiling end came for the townspeople as the raindrops burned into their flesh. Rick saw smoke rising from the panicked mob, and hissing bodies that were melting like wax. A tall man threw himself from the rock wall, his flesh falling away like burning rags, leaving nothing but a skeleton to bounce on the ground below. Faces poured with blood and horror and when they could no longer scream they dropped like broken birds.
The rain didn’t fall on the lakebed and one small group managed to dive off the bank at the point and get out of range of the drops. Burned and in agony they were stumbling over the flats toward the ferns.
A peripheral flash drew Rick's gaze back to a pool of water near the blasted ark. A web of shadows and tinted light from the hills lent an alien appearance to the area. The rainmaker and his coyote were there in the grasses and ferns, stepping slowly toward the wounded people.
He stopped, looked toward Rick, then turned and began to approach. As he moved a beating of invisible wings filled the air. Across the flats, the earth began to boil and creatures started to rise -- skeletons, corpses, and the dead monsters of the lake dripped with ancient mud. Lightning and thunder boomed in the hills and Rick knew that more of the dead were rising by the thousands in the burial mounds there.
Kim clutched his arm; her head nestled on his shoulder. "This must be the end," he said. "His people are rising and he's seeded the clouds. As the rain moves across the land it’ll kill us all."
"Should we run?"
"I don't think we can. I have the rattle so I'm going to try to use it. Wait here. I'm going to approach him. If it doesn't work we'll try to escape."
"Don't," she said, but he eased her away, rose and paced toward the rainmaker. The ancient Indian stopped in the ferns, and behind the running paint, new veined flesh was forming on his face. Off to his right the people who’d escaped the point were releasing their final screams as the walking dead fell upon them. Vile rot-dripping mouths snapped hungrily into living flesh and the sight of it sent Rick's mind whirling. Images of thousands of dead faces soared across his mind, mingling with his memories of the living. A waterfall of earth poured. Bodies spilled as an endless stream of the wretched dead returned to life.
"No!" he said, seeing the rainmaker's face swimming at the centre of a ghastly flow of death. He grasped the rattle and held it up.
"Yes," the rainmaker replied, his voice a long hiss. He lifted his rattle and began a slow dance.
Rick heard the rattle beat like the sound of falling rain. Jaws clicked, skeletal corpses crunched the bones of victims. A storm and the rain were descending. He was about to collapse, then a memory flashed in his mind. He saw Bill and the drawing in the mud. He remembered Kim saying, "He drew that while you were gone and kept pointing to it and me - like he's trying to tell me what it is."
Falling to his knees, Rick turned. Kim's eyes flashed in the dark as she approached, and he saw the power of the spirit in them as he lifted his arm and tossed the rattle. It tumbled in air and in that long slow moment, its secret rose like an eagle in his mind.
The final symbol was of a woman. And the woman was Kim.
She reached out and caught the rattle. White light showered down like rain and coalesced in a glowing aura around her. Spun by the silk of the glow a painted mask gained definition and opacity as it covered her charged features. At her feet the sand fused to smooth glass, and at her first movement a cool wind rushed through the ferns.
The coyote howled. The rainmaker wore a cloak of night as he danced furiously, and in the chaos beyond his rattle, his army of the dead marched in all directions toward the shore.
A cocoon of powerful light surrounded Kim as her limbs moved slowly in the first steps of a graceful dance. Pulsing and replicating, the spirit face on the mask radiated copies that trailed every turn of her head.
Stunned, Rick rose, feeling a cool breeze touch him. At his back the rainmaker, darkness and the dead closed in. He turned, seeing the creeping shadows and twisted figures approaching. A corpse with a sucking mouth and eyes of pulsing blood reached for him and he lunged, shouldering it down. Bones, rot and rags, it spilled into the dirt. But more were walking in on stiff legs so he drew back in self-defense again.
Rick took a deep breath, knowing it would be impossible to fight them all. He prepared to strike, and then as his fist snaked out and connected with a corpse, it began to rain … heavy rain; big wet drops that splattered on his face as he staggered back. The purest most refreshing rain he’d ever experienced. His vision blurred; water poured over his nose and lips. Rainbows and dawn-bright lights ignited in his mind and he could see the walking dead taking their last sodden steps and then falling. The raindrops tore at them, creating craters and exploding flowers of decay. In moments they were bursting and sinking into the earth like melting sludge.
Storm clouds raced across his mind. Moonbeams and visions burst through from an image of the spirit mask in the sky. Rick found himself carrying Kim's limp body to the stony shore. Her flesh felt cool and her features were drained. She mumbled something feverish about the crops as he put her down in the grass.
Spring water gushed steadily, rising high in the air where the ark had stood. It ran through the cracks in underground streams as it filled the deeper parts of the lake bottom. Nothing remained of the rainmaker, his coyote, the risen dead or the people who'd been at the point. Debris and driftwood bobbed in the gushing water and Rick could see Bill where they’d left him in the ferns.
He walked out to rescue Bill. The clouds were gathering again, and he felt a spirit walking near him in the moonlight. Halfway there he saw Bill's face sweeping across the clouds.
The old Indian had died, so Rick left him there for burial by the spirit waters of the lake. A ghost remained and he heard the sound of Bill's rattle as he returned to Kim. She had silver raindrops and a gentle smile on her face, but she was still unconscious so he picked her up and started on the long walk down the path to the car.
The trees shivered with raindrops, and he knew it would continue to rain and the rain would fall everywhere.
The drought had broken.