Karl Sommer's first impulse was to just give them the gold. The two outlaws had caught him just as he had forded Cibolo Creek. His horse was still winded and tired from the long hard ride out of San Antonio, and he didn't think he could outrun them. Now even his Winchester was gone. They had taken it out of its saddle scabbard when they first stopped him.
Two or three times every year he made the trip south into San Antonio with a small herd of green-broken mustangs to sell at the livestock auction--such horses were in high demand by the south Texas ranchers who needed them to train for working cattle. After the sale he had left San Antonio at a trot, a handful of gold coins in his saddlebag, heading north into the hill country. When he was beyond sight of the town he kicked the horse into a run and didn't slow down until he reached Cibolo Creek. He was naturally always cautious, but this time even more so. He hadn't liked the looks of the two men who watched him pick up the gold from his sale in the lobby of the Menger Hotel. They must have ridden as hard as he had, or harder, to have been waiting for him on the north bank of the Cibolo. They had appeared suddenly from out of the brush, surrounding him on either side, so close their knees almost touched as one of them seized his horse's reins and forced it to stop. They had spoken softly, and politely, in tones so genial as to seem quite friendly. But they had been anything but friends. Karl's English was far from perfect, but he had understood perfectly well what they meant. Turn over his gold, or die. They were both carrying revolvers--a luxury that Karl had never felt was worth the expense for himself, and one of them, the ugliest one that was also holding the reins of Karl's horse, pointed his revolver carelessly in Karl's direction. They sat on their horses with sneering smiles and waited for him to hand over the gold.
No, Karl thought. He had been saving all his money so that he could pay for the passage of his beloved Magdalena. He had promised that he would bring her across to the new country as soon as he could, where they could begin building a new life together. With this last trip he had enough money to do it, and he wouldn't give it up easily. Their horses must be just as winded as his was, if they had ridden hard enough to catch him. That should even the odds a little. He stammered something in German, pretended not to understand their demand. His hand crept toward the big knife in his belt sheath.
"I guess the squarehead don't understand much English, Joby," said the thin one He was as skinny and leathery as an old whip.
So Joby was the one holding his horse's reins.
"Heh, I reckon not," agreed Joby. His face was greasy with sweat and was covered with pockmarks, and his small, thin mouth looked like an old scar. "I reckon we better just--"
Joby's words were abruptly cut off as Karl dug his heels into the horse and it lunged forward. The reins went taut and they whirled in a wild dance around each other as Joby held on with one hand while trying to aim his revolver with the other. Karl's big knife came out and in two deft strokes the reins were severed. Joby, off balance, dropped his weapon and made a grab for the horse's halter but his hand only closed in the razor-sharp blade of the knife. He screeched and fell backwards, blood spraying out of his mutilated hand onto his horse's face, which panicked, reared, and threw him.
Karl didn't hesitate. He bolted his horse straight into the other one--the horse that the thin one was riding. As the horses collided they both almost went down, but Karl's sure- footed little mustang caught itself just as the other bigger horse went back down the creek bank, rolling over on top of the man and spraying water in a huge splash as it hit the shallow creek at the bottom of the incline.
Karl knew his horse needed rest but there wasn't time for that now. He pointed its nose north and kicked it to a gallop. He didn't slow down for a long time.
The low whicker of his horse suddenly awakened him. He moved cautiously and slowly toward the horse, careful not to make too much noise, thankful that the roar of frogs and crickets would probably cover any slight sound he made. He held the horse's mouth and whispered softly to it to keep it from making any more noise, and in the dim light of the crescent moon watched the two men walk their horses by within fifty feet of him. They were talking.
"I'm tellin' ya Buck, when we catch that bastard I'm gonna cut his goddam hands off! How'm I gonna handle a gun with my hand all cut up like this?" That would be Joby. So the other one's name was Buck.
"Just calm down," replied Buck. "Once we catch up with 'im, you can do anything you want. Guess you'll just have to learn to be a southpaw for a while."
"I don't even care about the gold no more," continued Joby. "I just want him!"
"You kiddin'?" said Buck. "Those mustangs brought him six months worth of mendin' fence and workin' cattle, and I ain't never been one to work too hard if I could help it."
"Well, anyways, I'm tuckered," said Joby. "Let's bed down and pick up his trail in the morning."
For a moment Karl heartily wished he still had his Winchester. At this distance it would be so easy to just shoot them down. Buck first, then Joby, because Joby wouldn't be able to handle a gun very well...He shook his head. Wishful fantasies wouldn't help him at all. He would have to elude them for a couple more days. The two men moved farther away and melted into the darkness. Karl breathed a sigh of relief and slumped back onto the ground, reassuming his position against the bole of the oak tree. His horse, still exhausted, had already gone back to sleep. A plan began to form in his mind...
The caverns. If he could get them into the caverns he could take their horses and ride away. They would never be able to follow him without horses, and if they weren't entirely stupid they would be able to live off the land until they could get to the nearest town. He wasn't the only one who knew about the caverns, but very few knew them as well as he did. A quarter-century before, the Confederate Army had used the bat guano there to make gunpowder during the war; in one cavern there were still a few empty kegs left behind from the cache that had been stored there. He had heard the story of the famous outlaw Sam Bass, who had died in those caverns. He had used them for a hideout, and when the law finally tracked him down he had been trapped there. It had been easy for the posse to just sit outside and wait, and they had shot him down when he tried to fight his way out. It was because of this that most people thought the caverns were a dead end. The only problem was, Sam Bass hadn't gone far enough...
There in the distance, maybe two, two-and-a-half miles away, he saw the shapes of two men on horses top a hill. They must have found his trail again. He cautiously crept back down to his horse, mounted, and trotted down the hill.
The next two days were almost torture--a seemingly unending nightmare of long rides and little sleep. He went northwest, up into the craggy hills around the headwaters of the Blanco River, then more riding back to the northeast and down into the dales where he swam his horse across the broad clay-colored expanse of the Pedernales. Still farther to the northeast, until midafternoon of the second day when he reached the massive, towering, sprawling dome of pink granite called Enchanted Rock.
"Verzauberter Felsen," he whispered to himself as he pulled the horse to a stop for a few minutes and looked up at it. "Enchanted Rock." He had heard stories about this place, stories that other settlers had picked up from the Indians. It was supposed to be haunted. Oftentimes at night, strange flickering lights could be seen fluttering like small silver ghosts across its hulking expanse. It served as a prison, the Indians said, to an old god who lay half-slumbering, half-dead, inside it. Sometimes there were strange sounds heard here also. Dull booming noises that seemed to come from within the rock itself. Yes, said the Indians, that was the old god awakening and trying to escape.
But in the clear light of midafternoon with the sun overhead it looked safe enough, though eerily impressive as it glowered above him. Today it would serve Karl a very practical purpose.
He rode his horse around to the north side where he tethered it within reach of a small pond and then began to laboriously clamber up the long, slow slope of the towering mound of granite. It took him nearly an hour to reach the top. He found a hollow in the rock where rainwater had collected and paused to take a swallow and run a few drops through his hair with his fingers.. The water was warm, almost hot from being exposed to the sun all day, but still refreshing. A few feet away some soil had somehow gathered in a crack and a tiny cactus was pushing its way through, appearing to almost magically grow out of the solid rock. Looking back down the way he had come, he could see the small pond winking in the sunlight like a tiny blue diamond several hundred feet below him, his horse an ant-like brownish dot near its edge. He crept the few feet to the very top of the mound where he lay and surveyed the country to the south. From this vantage, it seemed the entire state of Texas was spread out beneath him.
The rock was hot and uncomfortable to lie on, but he didn't want to expose himself by standing or sitting where he could easily be seen. After a few minutes of squinting into the distance through the glare of the sunlight that bounced off the rock, he could see a thin tendril of dust and then once more saw the shapes of two men on horses as they topped a hill less than two miles away.
"Gottfluch!" he cursed to himself. They were still following him. No matter. He would make it to the caverns soon. He hastily crept down from the peak of the mound and began scrambling back down to his horse.
"They say a lotta things," replied Buck. "Besides," he continued, "I been thinkin'. I been thinkin' that this fellow prob'ly lives up around here somewheres, and this prob'ly ain't the first time he's been down to San Antone to sell horses. I reckon wherever he lives, he's prob'ly got even more gold than what he's carryin' on him right now. We follow 'im to where he lives, we're gonna get us enough gold to live mighty high on the hog for a while."
Realization dawned on Joby's pockmarked face. "I hadn't thought of that," he said.
"Guess that's why I do all the thinkin'," replied Buck. "Now shut yer yap and hurry it up. He cain't run from us forever."
"His tracks are clear enough, all right," muttered Joby. "He musta gone right into that cave there."
"It ain't just a cave," answered Buck. "It's a whole bunch of caverns down there. This is where they caught ol' Sam Bass--remember him?"
"Why, heck yeah!" replied Joby. "In that case, we got 'im! There ain't no way outta there except the way he went in. We still got a quart of coal-oil from that fire job we did a while back--we can make torches with it. All's we gotta do is go in and take 'im."
"Yep," agreed Buck. "Poor dumb bastard prob'ly thinks he got away from us. Almost makes me feel sorry for 'im."
"Aw shucks," said Joby. "I didn't know you were such a sensitive fella, Buck."
They leered at each, amused at their own humor. They dismounted and scrambled down the steep, rocky bank toward the yawning mouth of the caverns.
It was uncannily quiet. Karl had never been able to convey the sensation to anyone. The surface of the lake was perfectly still and smooth as polished glass. There were no tiny waves to lap reassuringly at the banks, no quiet splashes as water slapped against a piece of driftwood--it was simply still. For the first few feet, as far as he could tell, the water was only a few inches deep and he crawled to the edge on his hands and knees to peer at strange, almost-transparent crayfish that scuttered across the sandy bottom of the shallows. After inspecting the ceiling above him he had found a narrow, cylindrical tunnel through the rock, boring straight up. It was close enough to the wall that after a few failed attempts, he managed to clamber up the few handholds he could find and wedge himself into the tunnel. Cursing his own curiosity, he had left his lantern behind and continued upward into the darkness, keeping himself from falling back by bracing himself against the tunnel walls and feeling carefully for each tiny crevice that could afford a purchase for his questing hands and feet. After a time--he was uncertain exactly how long, but was surely no more than a quarter of an hour--his head had emerged from a tiny sinkhole that was entirely concealed from above by a bushy prickly-ash tree. Several seconds later he was lying upon the solid ground, tired but otherwise none the worse for his long climb up the almost vertical tunnel.
He had returned the next day, bringing with him a long cane pole which he maneuvered carefully through the series of caverns and finally pushed it ahead of himself through the last crevice. Once again he stood on the edge of the water, this time pushing the pole down into the lake. As he had seen before, the first few feet near the bank was only a few inches deep, but then it dropped off abruptly to an unknown depth; he could feel no bottom at all with the long pole.
He had had to bring another lantern, since he had left the one behind the day before. He moved carefully along the narrow strip of dry rock to where the other lantern was and found it, but he stared at it curiously when he saw that it was lying on its side and appeared to have been scuffed and the glass broken. He looked up into the dark hole of der Kamin--the Chimney, as he had begun to think of it. He had left the lantern almost directly beneath the Chimney to provide light for his initial climb. Of course, he thought, he must have knocked some loose rocks down during his climb that had knocked the lamp over and broken the glass. That was it.
He had then opened a small leather bag that was tied to his belt and pulled out a length of string to which was attached a fish hook. He fastened the string to the end of the cane pole. It was easy to catch one of the weird, transparent, and apparently blind crayfish and drive the hook through it. With a sidearm throw, he flung the line out into the water. There was a small splash which echoed eerily away into the distance, and a few seconds later the tiny ripples came back to him out of the darkness and lapped silently against the smooth rock where he stood. He sat on the rock and waited. The line was at least 20 feet long, and it didn't feel as if it were touching the bottom. He had only waited a few minutes when there was a tug on his line that suddenly became a sharp jerk as the hook sunk home. It was difficult to pull the line back in with such a low ceiling, but after a few minutes of work he pulled his catch out of the darkness into the dim light of the burning coal-oil.
"Mein Gott!" His exclamation echoed around him like a thousand mocking voices until it faded into strange reverberating whispers into the far unseen distance. It was a catfish. It was definitely a catfish, but its pallid skin was almost translucent in the yellow light of his lantern, and it had no eyes. It writhed blindly and helplessly on the end of the line. He quickly extracted the hook and dropped it back into the water. Somehow he couldn't bring himself to even think of eating such a strange looking creature. He sat, debating with himself about whether he should try another cast and see if there was anything else to catch in this subterranean tarn, watching the ripples cast off from the fish as they died away and the water was once again perfectly still.
As he sat in the near-darkness where the only sound was his own breathing, a disturbing thought suddenly came to him. He looked again over to where the other lantern was lying on its side, broken and bent. He had dismissed it as having been hit by rocks that fell during his climb up the Chimney, but now he realized that there were no loose rocks lying about--nothing that could have fallen and broken the lantern. As he looked around, peering into the darkness, large swells suddenly rippled toward him and splashed against the rock where he sat. It was only then that he had realized there was a breeze, a cold breeze that tugged at his hair and made his breath come out in moist clouds. He stood up to leave and the breeze turned into a wind that pulled at him, almost throwing him off balance into the water. Leaving the old lantern and the fishing pole, he crammed himself into the crevice and scrambled through into the outer cavern. The wind was whistling eerily through the crevice and he shielded his good lantern as it guttered and almost went out. It pulled at him as if with cold, unseen hands as he made his way back toward the entrance, failing in intensity as he went through one cavern after another, until it was hardly noticeable when he finally stood blinking in the bright sunlight in the gully at the cavern's mouth.
He would wait until he heard them coming before he slipped through the crack into that last vast cavern of the lake. He had never intended to go there again, but now he thought it would be the best way to elude them. He had no idea what it was in there that had broken his lantern and caused such huge wave-like swells to ripple across the otherwise still waters of the lake, but he thought that he wouldn't be in there long enough to arouse it again anyway. Just slip through the crack and go straight up the Chimney.
A faint sound in the distance followed by the echoes of a curse alerted him. He hurriedly wedged himself through the crack into the last cavern.
"Just keep goin'," answered Buck. "It cain't go on forever. He's got his whole stash of gold back in here, I'd just bet."
Their makeshift torches guttered and flickered, throwing uneven light that highlighted strange, shifting shadows along the walls and over their heads.
"Well, I sure wish we'd find the end of this thing, anyway," muttered Joby.
He stooped to look at it more closely. Some kind of footprint, he mused. There was another one--farther out just where the shallow sloped away into the unplumbed depths of the lake. They were unlike any footprints he'd ever seen. A peculiar, large, rounded footprint with...five toes? But the toes were arranged around the circumference of the central print, almost like a star, it seemed. There certainly were many strange new wonders in this America, he thought, but he didn't have time to stop and investigate it now. He climbed into the Chimney and feverishly scrambled toward the waiting daylight above.
"Hot damn!" said Joby, also whispering. "We got 'im now!"
"Let's give him a warning," said, Buck. "We'll let 'im come out on 'is own."
"All right," Buck spoke loudly. "Come on out and you won't get hurt." He looked at Joby and winked, and they both chuckled silently as the echoes died away and the bats above them rustled and shifted restlessly, disturbed by the unusual noise.
"I guess he ain't comin' out," said Joby, after waiting a minute or so and hearing no response. "I guess we'll have to go in and get 'im."
"All right, go ahead," ordered Buck.
Grumbling under his breath, Joby handed his torch to Buck and crammed himself through the narrow crevice. "Okay, I'm through," he said after a few seconds. "I don't see him nowhere, Buck. He musta doubled back on us somehow or somethin'."
"You want somethin' done right..." muttered Buck, and began pushing his way through the crack into the room beyond.
"You just come on out now!" he heard one of them yell. "You cain't hide from us no more! Come on out and you won't get hurt!" Now! More! Hurt! Their echoes reverberated eerily out of the small sinkhole as he scrambled out onto solid ground. This time he didn't wait to rest, but ran back toward the mouth of the cavern where he hoped they had left their horses.
"Yep," agreed Joby, then he added, "Hey, wait a minute..."
The thunderous blast of his revolver sounded like a cannon in the low-ceilinged cavern, the concussion almost stunning them both.
"What the hell did you do for, dammit!" Buck yelled, his ears ringing from the gunshot.
"Sorry," said Joby sheepishly, picking up the tattered remains of a crayfish. "I just ain't never seen nothin' like this before."
Buck looked at it curiously for a few seconds before his anger returned. "It's just a damn crawdad, you idiot! Liked to make me go deaf, dammit."
Joby shrugged and dropped the crayfish back into the water. "Sorry," he repeated. Buck was already exiting through the crevice. Joby turned to follow him.
A sudden gust of wind pulled at him, just as a large swell lapped and splashed against the rock where he stood. "Hey Buck," he called. "I think there must be something..."
"Just shut up!" Buck yelled back him. "Just shut the hell up and come on."
He mounted one horse and took the reins of the other, leading them back toward the big sinkhole that opened into the cavern where the all the bats lived. He checked his rifle and found it still loaded. The smile on his face was replaced by a more grim and determined expression as he levered a shell into the chamber and kicked the horse up to a trot.
"Hey Buck?" he repeated. "I think there must be something in here." He turned suddenly and ran the few steps to the crevice that led back into the bat-room. The wind howled viciously at him as he forced himself through the narrow opening.
"Damn it, Joby!" cursed Buck. "You shoulda brought that fella's lantern back with you, it woulda been a lot better than these damn torches!" As if in answer, his torch guttered and flickered in the mounting wind, almost going out. "Go back and get it!"
Joby shook his head. "I ain't going back in there, Buck. I'm gettin' outta here right now!" He had already made his way to the outer edge of the cavern, pausing to scrape the guano off his boots with a convenient rock. Cursing to himself, Buck began to go back for the lantern. He had only taken one step when he saw the light of the lantern suddenly vanish. He stopped and stepped backward, bracing himself against the wind that now howled down into the depths of the earth with new intensity. He drew his revolver as something moved in the flickering shadows of the torchlight. There was a rumble that turned into a roar as the pile of fallen stones that had been almost entirely blocking the entrance of the lake-cavern fell outwards, and the in last second before both torches blew out, a huge shapeless something floated silently into the room.
He crawled to the edge of the big hole, feeling curious tendrils of cold wind begin to suck at him as he gained its perimeter. There were strange sounds coming up out of the hollow earth beneath. Moist, somehow solid, sounds. He called out.
"Joby!" No answer. "Buck!" No answer. Maybe they were waiting for him. Maybe it was a trick. He held his hat by the brim and eased it out over the opening of the hole, trying to tease them into shooting and revealing themselves. Maybe they would see the silhouette of his hat and think it was him. Nothing happened.
"I got your horses and rifles," he shouted. "You go your way and I'll go mine." Still no answer. "If you come after me again, I will kill you." Nothing. "Joby? Buck?" The only answer was a hollow whistling that somehow didn't seem to come from the wind that continued to blow chillingly around him, but rather somehow seemed to come out of the cavern yawning beneath him.
He retreated from the hole, uncertain about what he should do. He noticed a flask hanging from the saddlehorn of the horse he had been leading. Opening it, he found a few ounces of coal-oil left in it. Hastily securing a fallen tree branch, he dipped it into the oil and struck a Lucifer match to create a quick torch, and once more approached the hole, crawling on all fours as the wind continued to mount.
Carefully, he extended the torch over the edge of the open hole, then crawled forward enough to peer down into the inky blackness of the cavern. He stared downward in stunned silence for a few long seconds.
Several feet beneath him, apparently floating in the air in the middle of the cavern, he saw it. It was huge, yet somehow its size was deceiving. He felt a sudden inward vertigo as its dimensions shifted, twisted, whirled in upon itself, extending tendrils that suddenly vanished and were replaced, it rolled and spun, yet somehow was absolutely still. Though it had no eyes that he could see, still he could tell that it saw him, was looking at him, was looking inside him to awaken unknown primitive memories that welled up out of him in a long, low howl that was somewhere between a scream and a moan. The torch fell from his nerveless fingers into the cavern, where it fell completely through the thing and flickered weakly on the floor for a few seconds before it was extinguished. The wind redoubled itself with a sudden vengeance that slammed him into the ground and almost tipped him into the hole. He threw himself backward, fighting the howling tempest, rolling over and over away from the sinkhole that now seemed to open for him like a hungry, toothless mouth. He regained his footing and ran, screaming into the deepening twilight, the horses bolting as he ran past them in blind terror. He kept screaming as he ran, vanishing into the darkening night, his screams gradually fading as he disappeared into the distance.
The wind slacked and became an almost gentle, chilling breeze. Then even that was gone. Darkness came to the quiet Texas hill country. Somewhere in the distance an owl hooted. A few minutes later a whippoorwill answered. Everything was quiet after that.
© 1997 Alan Peschke