Had a late chiropractor appointment today, as a result, I'm sticking you guys with ANOTHER one from last year's holiday writing binge I went on.
I was in a strange mood when this one created itself, hence the weird sci-fi feel to it.
Today's photo is yet another one from my Minneapolis skyline collection, but this is one I gave the HDR treatment to.
THE GATEWAY - by Jonathan K. Lee
Waves of heat made the Joshua Trees shimmer as Billy Raintree drove his red pickup toward the cave. Country music blared from the radio, drowning out the creeks and thuds as the old battered truck struggled up the steep dirt road. Clouds of dust kicked up by the tires traced his path, dropping a thin layer over everything, including Billy. Mid-summer in the high desert could be brutal, and the cool damp air of the cavern had become a welcome haven.
Billy screeched to a stop outside the entrance and waited for the billowing dust to dissipate. He grabbed his worn cowboy hat and jumped out of the cab, swatting a few times at the fine dirt on his blue jeans. A few feet away was the opening into the earth, and relief from the dry desert heat. It wasn’t even ten o’clock and already the temperature climbed through ninety-two. This would be the biggest day in Billy’s life. After months of digging, he had exposed a long shining vein of pure gold. He’d drilled all the pilot holes, and now had the explosives. Today should be the payoff.
Not being a big man, Billy struggled with the heavy dynamite case. Through the torn sleeveless T-shirt, his arms bulged at the strain as he carefully walked it into the tunnel. Stepping over a few rocks, he set the package down near the entrance and with precise movements, opened it. Slowly, Billy picked up four small sticks, removed the short fuses and set off toward his goal.
Light began to fade as he moved away and the quiet beauty of the cave rose beneath his powerful flashlight. Glittering quartz crystals graced the rock formations. Fool’s gold surfaced, to drip from the ceiling and run along solid walls. Everywhere the young Indian looked, the cave’s beauty seemed to call, drawing him deeper into its ancient mysteries. At the far end, Billy had forced his way passed solid rock to open a secret room; one that no other human had visited since the dawn of time. A glowing shaft of light spilled into the chamber through a hole Billy cut in the roof. With meager resources, he’d been unable to bring in electric power and opening it to the sky was by far the best solution.
Flicking off the flashlight, Billy stood near the wide pool of light waiting for his eyes to adjust. With the rising sun it would come, and slowly trace a path across the floor to end its daily journey in splashes of red and pink along the vein of gold. Approaching the pilot holes, he inserted the small finger like dynamite sticks. The object wasn’t to destroy the wall, just to crack it, and then extract the precious metal. Carefully he set the primer fuse and trailed out several feet. Going down on one knee, he lit the cord. It sparked a few times and then began to race toward the charges set in stone. Billy turned and ran from the domed room ducking around the corner, bracing himself for the impact.
It was a jolt. As if some gigantic hammer slammed against the wall, the cavern reverberated with a crashing sound. Smoke and dust belched out of the opening next to Billy along with the roar of the explosion. Coughing and waving futilely at the microbe sized particles; Billy slipped a bandanna over his mouth and entered the secret room.
Debris covered the floor and a fine cloud of dust swirled in and out of the light. Breathless with excitement, he dashed across the room and began to run his hand over the large gaping crack in the solid wall. Small rocks fell away from dirty fingers as Billy moved down the fracture. There, on the ledge, in all its splendor was a palm sized golden nugget. As Billy reached for the prize a voice echoed from inside the room.
Billy froze in abject terror, hackles rising along his back. It wasn’t that someone else was in the room or that the voice intended to scare him, it was that he knew that voice and yet it couldn’t be. He quickly spun and looked across the pool of light. A figure, indistinct and yet there, came toward him. First the boots, jeans, and dirty, torn T-shirt appeared. Then a bandanna and at last, a face covered with dust. Billy jerked air into his lungs, fear gripping his soul. No matter how he tried he couldn’t move. He was transfixed by the soft brown eyes. Billy stood staring at a face he knew so very well, a face that was his own.
“Relax, let me explain.”
“But, you’re me!”
“Yes, I’m you, or more precisely, what you will be if we don’t change it. We’ll just go around in circles for all eternity.”
“Oh my God!”
“God has nothin to do with it...” Billy approached himself.
“Stay away from me! I don’t know what or who you are! But I know one thing... You’re not me!”
“Oh no, I am you or more correctly…what you will be! Now shut up and listen!”
“The gold next to your hand, pick it up. Go ahead, pick it up!”
Billy stared in disbelief into his own eyes, and yet couldn’t stop himself from reaching for the golden nugget. Sweaty fingers groped for the precious metal and the rock wall became soft, almost liquid, as his hand slipped deep into solid stone. Billy jerked back from the liquid wall and spun around to look at his shaking hand.
“See, that’s what I was trying to tell ya! It’s not there!”
“Oh my God! What is it?”
“It’s a gate, a gate through time, that’s why I’m here. I, or you a few minutes ago, went through it.”
“Went through it?”
“Yea, went through it. I’ve watched this scene at least fifteen times. You reach for the gold, drop it and it falls into the gate.”
“Good God! I...I dropped it.”
“Right! And if I hadn’t said anything, you’d go after it and then you’d find yourself watching you come into the cave after the explosion. Then it’d start all over again, you’d drop the gold, go into the gate, and on and on, forever.”
“Yea, we’re in a time loop….”
“A time loop?”
“That’s where events just keep repeatin, over and over again. It took me a while to figure it out, but I got it now. The only way we’re gonna stop this, is to go through the gate together and end up where I am now as one person. Got it?”
“Wait a minute! You are me in my future?”
“Well, one of them…but…that’s it, that’s it exactly. You and I will be goin in circles forever unless we break this loop.”
“We break the loop by goin through together? And what if I don’t?”
“Good question, now that I’ve taken an action to change my past. I guess that if you don’t go through with me they’ll be two Billy Raintrees in the world and I don’t know what that’ll mean. Maybe the death of us both, or worse, who knows. I just don’t wanna take that chance.”
“You mean we’ve altered the world?”
“Not the world, its history. There’s not supposed to be two of us. From this point on we’ve changed the future, for better, or most likely, worse. See what I mean, we have to go through together.”
“What do we do?”
“You were thinking about the cave when you reached for the gold, right?”
“I know…..I’ve been there. When we go through, if we both concentrate on the cave, we’ll come out right here as one person.”
“How do ya know that?”
“Somehow I know it…when you go through you’ll see, ya kinda understand. The only thing is that each time you go through it seems to weaken, I don’t know how much longer it’ll stay open.”
“Ya mean it’ll close?”
“I think so. Just keep thinking about the cave, ready?”
“Yea, I guess so.”
The two Billies turned toward the gate, locked arms and entered the liquid stone.
A loud buzzing filled his head and he felt more than saw vapor like light swirling around his body. Billy concentrated on the image of the cave. Every detail, sight and sound flooded his awareness, surprising him at how much he knew. He felt the weight of his shoes, the touch of his clothes and the rough texture of broken rock. As if instantly awakened from a dream, Billy now stood alone, staring at the fracture in the cave wall. Somehow he had understood, the time loop was broken and in his callused hand was the shining gold nugget.
Hill City was alive. Finishing touches for tomorrow’s Fourth of July celebration were almost complete. Banners and flags from the mid-eighteen hundreds colored the restored western streets in expectation of the onslaught. The few rooms available had been booked for months and most of the tiny town was crowded with tourists starting their afternoon trek back to the hotel or campsites in the tall Ponderosa Pines.
Still shocked by what happened, Billy slowly drove the old pickup down Main Street and came to a stop outside Harry’s Bar. Before his boots hit the ground, the Mayor’s kids ran up to him brandishing toy six guns. They were dressed in cowboy outfits complete with hats, one much too large for the smaller boy so that it fell down on his ears pushing them out sideways.
“Stick ‘em up mister! We’re robbin the stage!” the younger said.
Billy looked at the kids and forced a smile, “Not now, I can’t play with ya now!”
The older boy surveyed Billy’s face and said, “You OK? Ya don’t look so good, kinda pale.”
“I’m Ok……look, I’ll play with ya later. Here’s a couple of quarters, now scat!”
“Wow! Thanks, Billy! I hope you’re Ok!” responded the smaller boy as they both ran off hoarding their new found wealth.
Harry’s Bar was crammed and cold beer was flowing, tempering the afternoon heat. The staged gunfights and fake Indian raids were over and now the locals fared better. Dressed in clothes from the not too distant past, Cowboys and Indians gathered peacefully, laughing and toasting their performance for the tourists. Seated around a table toward the center of the room were several half-drunk men splitting peanuts and contributing the shells to the vast collection covering the floor. Steven Pauley, Mayor of the town, looked up from pouring beer and spotted Billy as he came in the front door.
“Hey Billy! Over here!” the Mayor motioned for Billy to join them, offering out a cold glass of beer.
“Steve, ya seen Mary?”
“Yea, she must be in the back, hopefully gettin more beer, right boys!” Rousing cheers welled up from the table.
Billy stopped for a second, looking very lost.
“What’s the matter with you?” the Mayor blurted out, “Christ son, you look like ya seen a ghost!”
Mary, a tall beautiful blonde woman in her late twenties, strode up to the table and plopped down two more pitchers. Concern flashed across her face as she looked into Billy’s eyes. She reached over and gently touched his arm.
“What’s the matter, baby? You feel all right?” she said.
“I’m fine, I just gotta talk to you.”
“Billy, I mean look...” Mary pointed around the crowded bar, “I get off in half an hour, can it wait till then?”
Billy paused for a second, just being near to her made him feel better, “Yea, it’ll wait. I’ll see ya at home.”
“I’ll be there in a few minutes.” She leaned over, wiped the dust from Billy’s face and gave him a quick little kiss.
More calls for beer sent Mary scurrying to satisfy the hot thirsty customers, as everyone else at the table focused on Billy. Sam, a strong rather striking Indian was the first to speak.
“Sit down, man. You look troubled, have a beer and forget it.”
“No thanks Sam, I’m fine, really.” Billy turned to leave the bar, “I’ll see you guys later.”
As the others watched him leave the Mayor spoke, “You know, I hate to see that boy like this.”
Taylor, one of the other men at the table put down his beer and said, “What do you mean, like this?”
“I’ve known Billy since he was a kid and I know what’s wrong with him, I know what he’s thinkin.”
“Go ahead Steve, tell ‘em.” said Sam.
The Mayor looked around the table and said, “It’s his brother, that whole thing is botherin him again. I know it.”
Sam looked down at his glass and said, “Yea, you’re right, I seen it before.”
“What about his brother?” Taylor said, “I didn’t know he had a brother.”
“Yea, that’s just it, he had a brother!” Sam echoed.
Steve dropped his eyes to the table and began to speak, “Years ago, Billy and his older brother went with a bunch of other kids down to the river. It was a damn cold winter and the ice had stretched from bank to bank. We marked off a safe area and then the kids started to skate and horse around. John, the brother, was a rough kinda kid. He’d been pickin on Billy and some of the others.
We were all on the bluff watchin when it looked like Billy had enough. He started to chase after his brother with a stick. John was skatin backwards and taunting Billy. He went way outside the safe area and fell through the ice. We were all so surprised that we just stood there, all of us includin Billy. As he regained his senses and reached out with the stick, John slipped beneath the ice and disappeared. There was nothin we could do. We found the body a couple of hours later, and ever since that day Billy has blamed himself. He thinks he could have saved him.”
“An every once and a while it comes back to haunt him, like now.” offered Sam.
“Man that’s too bad,” Taylor took a long swig of beer, “Funny how we all got things in our past we’d like to change.”
Down one of the side streets at the top of a hill was Billy’s house. A white picket fence outlined the manicured lawn and garden. Red and yellow roses splashed color along the Victorian walls and ran in front of a bench swing that hung from chains above the front porch. Afternoon sun shone on the clean clapboards, washing softly over the facade, spilling inside through a cut glass window in the front door.
Billy stepped into the light and watched it fall across his boot. The snap of the lock brought his attention, and he turned to face Mary entering the hall. Somewhat worn out, she looked at Billy, with concern flashing across her face.
“What is it? Is something the matter?”
The look he gave her sent a chill down her spine.
“I’ve found something, something unbelievable.”
“Billy, you’re scaring me! What is it?”
“I’ve found a gate, a gate through time!”
Billy entered the parlor and walked toward the fireplace. Picking up one of the many framed photographs, he studied the old image of two boys, the bigger one had his arm around the smaller. He turned to Mary as she said, “What are you talking about?”
“Time, I’m talking about time, changing time.”
“Changing time! Whadda ya mean changing time!”
“I can bring my brother back, I can save him!” Billy placed the picture on the mantle.
“Your brother! You’re not makin sense. He’s been dead for twenty years!”
“Twenty-three, and now I can change it! He doesn’t have to die! In the cave I found a gate, a gate through time. It’s in the secret room and no one knows about it cept you and me! I can go back, back in time and save him.”
“Go back in time?”
“Yea...., and I also found this.” Billy held out the gold nugget.
She paused a second, fingering the weight of the shining rock, “Oh my God! Billy....”
“Now we can have everything! Money, our child, and my brother!”
Most of Harry’s patrons had left by the time Sam and the Mayor slipped out the front door. Greeted by a clear starry night, the two men stood near the old horse rail, discussing a few of the last minute details for tomorrow’s celebration. Billy’s pick up turned the corner and rattled its way down Main Street passed the bar. The two men looked at each other.
“I wonder where he’s goin at this time of night?” blurted out the Mayor.
Sam laughed and said, “I was thinkin the same thing!”
“Well, no matter, I’ll do somethin special at the celebration to help him forget about his troubles.”
“Ya know, I think tomorrow might be the best Fourth of July we’ve ever had!”
“I sure hope so! See ya in the morning, Sam.” said the Mayor.
The moon was bright enough to cast shadows of Billy and Mary as they entered the cave. Holding her hand and carefully stepping over boxes, they made their way down the passageways to the secret room. Flushed with excitement, Billy slowly lifted the powerful flashlight, training it on the far wall. A long thick vein of pure gold seemed to jump out at them as the light sparkled and danced across the room.
“Oh my god! BILLY!!!”
“Yep, that’s the gold, and look at this.”
Billy handed her the flashlight and moved toward the wall. He raised his hands and pushed gently, sending them deep into the liquid stone.
“That’s the time gate.”
Mary gasped, the light wobbling back and forth as Billy ran to catch her.
A little weak in the knees she looked up at Billy and said, “What’ll we do?”
“I’m gonna go through there…..go through there and save my brother.”
“Billy don’t, I’m scared, its not right!”
“It’s not wrong, it’s never wrong to save a life, I should have done it years ago. It’s my fault he’s dead and now…..I can change it!”
“No Billy, don’t, it’s wrong…..I can feel it, leave the dead alone. Don’t go in there!”
“I can’t do that. All these years I’ve had to live with the fact I should have saved him, and now I can! I’ve gotta try.”
He stepped away from her and went to the liquid wall, the flashlight quivering along the vein of gold.
“BILLY DON’T!” she screamed.
“Trust me Mary……..I know what’s best!”
Billy lightly pushed against the wall and disappeared.
The loud buzzing and vapor light filled his consciousness. He concentrated on a memory, a distant memory, a precise spot in time, a point he had wished for over and over again. In an instant, he was there, standing in the snow next to a tree, so very long ago.
A bright blue cloudless sky washed over the land in a color no painter could match. Sunshine reflected off the frozen world scattering light in every direction. Some twenty yards away children were playing on the ice as people stood on the bluff above watching. Sounds of laughter filled his ears, and there, slightly taller than the others was his brother. It was exactly as he had remembered.
John picked up a long stick and began to pick on the smaller children, pushing and tripping them, their little bodies falling to the ice. When he went after Mary, young Billy skated to her defense ripping the stick from his older brother. Swinging wildly he went after him, but John was able to dodge each blow, skating backwards with ease, taunting his brother. With tears in his eyes, Billy gave another mighty swing, missing entirely and falling hard. That sent John into peals of laughter as he went further and further out of the safe area. Billy jumped up and went after him with a vengeance. He didn’t get ten feet when a loud crack shattered the air. Then, like some giant unseen hand pulling down, John slipped beneath the broken ice. Everyone froze, shock taking their senses, everyone except the man standing next to the tree.
The man bolted from the woods and raced across the ice close to the spot where the boy had vanished. Taking the stick from little Billy he reached out into the gaping hole. John’s strong hand grabbed hold and quickly the man pulled till he could take hold of his jacket. With one massive heave, he jerked him from the frozen river and laid him on the ice. Then much to the surprise of the children, without a word, the man ran back to the woods and disappeared in the trees.
Billy struggled to free himself from the vapor light, his mind turning over and over. He had to concentrate, he had to picture an exit, he had to think. Slowly the image formed, an image of the cave and another just like him. He forced the memory into his consciousness and awoke from the travel standing in the cave, the shining gold nugget in his hand. This time however, he knew something else, the gate had weakened, its power diminished.
Sunlight shone pink on the golden vein. Confused and disoriented, his first reaction was to look for Mary. He remembered leaving her inside the cave. Through the fog he began to realize he had come out of the time gate too early. It was late afternoon, before he had gone into town. Mary didn’t even know about the gold or the gate. But, Billy knew one thing, his brother was alive, he had saved him. Elated, he rushed from the cavern and jumped into the red pickup.
Hill City was quiet, the dirty streets almost vacant when the battered truck pulled up to Harry’s Bar. The Mayor’s kids, dressed in cowboy outfits, stood near the old horse rail looking at Billy as he stepped from the cab. Before he could get a word out, they both ran away. Billy shrugged as he watched them scoot around a corner and disappear.
He climbed the few steps to the rickety wooden sidewalk and opened the front door. Sounds of the patrons inside evaporated as he entered the bar. No one spoke and their eyes were cast down, deep into their beers. Billy approached a table near the center of the room. As he came within a few feet, the Mayor jumped up.
“Tell your brother I’ll be over tonight!” he said, and then ran from the bar.
The other men at the table got up and went to various parts of the bar. As Sam left, Billy reached out and took his arm.
“What’s goin on around here?”
Sam looked into his eyes and said, “Nothin, Billy. I was just leavin as you came in.”
“Sam, where’s Mary?”
“Well I guess she’s at home, and that’s where you’ll be if ya know what’s good for ya.” Sam quickly left.
Confused, Billy looked around the bar. No one else moved as silence gripped the air.
“What is it, what’s with you people?” Billy exclaimed.
With that, the remaining patrons scurried from the bar, leaving Billy standing alone in the center of the room.
* * *
The old Victorian house needed paint. A few scraggly rose bushes poked up from tall weeds. Billy opened a broken gate on the weathered picket fence and walked to the front porch. A beaten wooden swing hung limply from one chain, cobwebs growing on the broken side. As he reached for the door it snapped opened and Mary stood in the darkened hallway.
“I did it!!” Billy moved to her expecting a warm embrace. Instead, she quickly backed away.
“Billy, what are you doin? Don’t touch me, you know John don’t like that!”
“Yea, wat are you crazy? Come on, supper’s almost ready and he’ll be here any minute.” She turned and rushed off toward the kitchen.
Billy stood astounded, first the bar and now this, what had happened, what had changed? He wandered off into the parlor contemplating his new surroundings. Standing near the fireplace he noticed an old photograph surrounded by a tattered frame. It was an image of two boys, the larger one had his arm around the smaller, but, it wasn’t the same, it was different than he remembered and he didn’t know why. As he replaced the photograph on the mantle, he heard the front door slam. Billy turned toward the sound and saw his older brother standing in the hall staring at him.
“What the hell’s the matter with you! You look like ya seen a ghost!” John broke into peals of laughter, exactly the same as Billy had heard on the ice, many years ago.
A few of Harry’s patrons had returned to the bar after Billy left. Alone, in the center of the room Steve and Sam sat near several empty beer glasses, most of them Steve’s. Sam reached out a strong red hand and locked onto the Mayor’s arm.
“I don’t care what he said! You can’t do it!” the Indian exclaimed.
The Mayor swished beer in his glass, “No more, I’ve had it! I won’t be intimidated any longer!”
“Steve, you’re drunk! He’ll kill ya! He’s done it before and he’ll do it again! Ya can’t go up there! Pay him the money and be done with it!”
Slamming the beer glass down, the Mayor said, “Insurance! Extortion is what it is! I’m tired of payin the town’s money! Look around Sam, the towns a wreck! He takes the money “so no bad things happen,” well I say it’s time we put a stop to it, I won’t pay that son-of-a-bitch another cent!”
Sam looked hard at the Mayor’s eyes and said, “What about Taylor’s place? He burned it! Oh yea we can’t prove it, but you know he burned it, burned it with Taylor inside! All cause the fool challenged him! I’m tellin ya, he’ll do it to you!”
“No he won’t, I got the town behind me. I’m goin up there and end it! Right Now!” The Mayor roughly pushed the chair out from the table and weaved toward the door.
John was already well into his food as Mary placed her plate of spaghetti on the table and sat down to dinner. Billy had caught himself several times staring at his older brother, still not believing he was real. Maybe this was all a dream, any second now it would end and Billy would awake, finding himself lying next to Mary, hearing her soft breathing.
John stopped, his mouth full of pasta. He gave a hard look at Billy and said, “What you lookin at boy? You got a problem?”
“No, no problem, I’m just not sure this is all happening,” Billy responded.
“Happening? What the hell ya mean happening? You holdin out on me? You find somethin in that cave ya been diggin in?” John paused a second and almost shouted, “Come on boy! Give! Tell me what’s goin on!”
Billy slipped his hand into a pocket and pulled out the shining gold nugget. His brother quickly reached out and snatched it.
“That’s more like it!” John grinned and for the first time Billy saw two teeth missing from the side of his mouth. “How much more’s up there? Come on, out with it!”
“There’s a long solid vein.”
“Well, whadda ya know! My little brother finally did somethin worthwhile!”
“My God!” exclaimed Mary, “We’re rich!”
John gave Mary a stern look and said, “We nothin woman! You keep your mouth shut and clean these dishes! Don’t you go blabberin to all the folks around here about this, or you’ll pay for it! Got It!”
Mary’s eyes looked away as she gathered up the soiled dishes. Softly she said, “I didn’t mean no offense.”
John grunted and turned to Billy, “We’re goin up there tomorrow. I wanna see this.”
A loud pounding came at the front door. John slammed his hands down on the table and with venom in his voice said, “That son-of-a-bitch!” He abruptly got up from the table and went out of the kitchen toward the sound. Billy moved to the sink and stood next to Mary, tears streaming down her face.
“That’s not right,” he said, “nobody should be treated like that.”
“It’s my fault Billy, I deserve it.” she whimpered.
“What! That’s crazy! You don’t deserve anything like that!” Billy gently put his arm around her and pulled her close.
Mary abruptly broke away and said, “Don’t touch me! Are you nuts! He’ll kill you!”
Shouts could be heard coming from the hall. John was screaming at someone and then one large crash sent the two out of the kitchen. Steve Pauley, the town’s Mayor lay flat on the floor, bleeding from a large cut on his head. John stood over him screaming.
“You son-of-a-bitch! If you don’t pay me by tomorrow, you’ll not see the light of day again!”
With that, he kicked the prone man in the ribs rolling him over into the wall. In a flash, John picked the man up, tossed him through the open door and on to the porch.
“Now get outa here and bring me the damn money!” he screamed.
Billy ran passed his brother and kneeled next to the injured man. The door slammed behind him as he said, “You alright? My God, what’s happening here!”
Groggy, the man came to his feet and staggered down the walk. Half way to the fence he turned and looked at Billy. “You’re brother’s bad. There’s evil in his blood.”
Billy turned away, his mind torn, spinning in circles. He had to know why, he had to know what possessed John to hurt someone that had been kind to him all his life. He burst into the house and looked in the parlor. He ran to the kitchen, into the hall and up the stairs, he looked everywhere, but there was no sign of Mary or John. It was as if they had vanished. Billy slowly came down the stairs his mind taking hold. It was different, everything was different now because he had changed the past. Fear gripped him freezing his feet to the floor, what if he was wrong.
A sharp scream shattered his thoughts, a scream of terror coming from below. Billy raced down the hall and ripped open the basement door. He flew down the dark stairs just in time to see John strike Mary hard across the face.
“You BITCH!” he screamed and reared back and hit her again. A rivulet of blood ran from the corner of her beautiful mouth. She tried desperately to cover her face as John jerked her head back and landed a blow above her eye. Billy rushed to her aid slamming his fist into John’s solid back. The blow infuriated him even further. He dropped Mary and turned on Billy, eyes filled with rage. John picked up a small fire log, his voice cold as a winter wind, “You...it’s you I really want! It’s your fault I’m here!” He rushed Billy swinging the weapon high and a with a mighty force landed it square against the side of his head.
Through the total darkness Billy swam toward consciousness, the pain and caked blood very real. His hand brushed against cold stone as metallic clicking sounds flooded his ears. Groping through the black void he came to a thick wooden door and pulled on the handle. Awareness flooded his memory as he vainly struggled to open it. The sounds grew louder and louder until they seemed to emanate just beyond the door. Metal on metal, the clicking and joining of parts. A loud voice seeped through the barrier filling the small room.
“Well little brother, had a nice sleep?”
Billy stepped back standing flat against the frigid stone, horror filling his mind.
John’s taunting voice slid beneath the door. “It’s not your time yet little brother, but soon, very soon, I’ll be back for you.”
“Open the door you bastard!” Billy furtively screamed, the sound reverberating in the small cold room, piercing and painful. “Open the Goddamn door!”
“Not yet, not yet little brother, I’ve got work to do and I want you where I can get you.”
Another loud metallic click swelled around the room, but this time Billy knew the sound. It was the sound of a rifle bolt being cocked, readied for firing.
“The day’s work has just begun. I’ll be back for you little brother, when I’m ready.”
Footsteps drifted off as Billy screamed in protest, “Come back you son of a bitch…….come back here!”
The cackle of John’s laughter permeated the basement, his voice drifting away, “I’ll be back for you! I’ll be back when it’s your turn to die!”
Again and again Billy slammed against the solid wooded door.
The morning sun shone brightly on the dusty streets of Hill City. Up the street from Harry’s Bar, most of the small town had gathered. Faces looked out from beneath cowboy hats or old western bonnets, costumes for the Fourth of July Celebration. Steve Pauley, the Mayor, stood on the gray wooden sidewalk, hands on an old horse rail. His face was bruised and swollen, and like some evangelist, fire jumped from his eyes.
“Its time we put a stop to it!” soft murmurs of support came from the crowd. “We have lived in fear of this brute for years, his threats and demands for payment! Well I say NO MORE! This town will not live in fear! This town will not pay protection money to its Sheriff!” The crowd echoed stronger support. “He was elected six years ago out of fear! Fear of him! Since that day, he has not represented the law, he has become it! Now it’s time for us to put a stop to fear, a stop to the horrors of this existence. John Raintree is a vicious criminal and its time we put him where he belongs, behind bars!” A roar of approval came from the crowd. “Now is the time to ban together, now is the time to put an end to his reign of terror! Now is the time...”
“NOW IS THE TIME FOR WHAT, MAYOR!” John’s loud booming voice rose above the clamor. He stood like stone, badge gleaming in the bright sun, weapons ready. A loud gasp flew from the crowd as fear silenced their voices. “So! You want to come for ME,” his rage barely controlled, dripping venom, “Well, I’ve come for YOU!”
John pulled the trigger spewing lead into the crowd.
Billy pounded his fists against the thick wooded door. “Mary! Mary! Help me!”
Time and time again he called, but no one seemed to hear. He groped his way in the darkness trying to find anything he could use to break down the door. Paint cans, a few yards of old canvass, a stick, nothing. He stood in the void, his impotence overwhelming.
Then it came, a quiet click, a noise that told him someone was out there. A little louder, the bolt, someone was lifting the bolt away from the door. “Mary! Are you there!”
Weak and frail, as if far in the distance a voice came to him, “Billy, Billy help me!”
“MARY!” he screamed. “Get me out!”
“I can’t, he shot me!” the weak voice pleaded.
“Oh my God! Mary, lift the bolt! You’ve got to try.” Billy coaxed.
“I can’t, I can’t reach it. He shot me.”
Almost as if the door were transparent, Billy could see her lying on the floor, struggling to reach for the bolt. He quickly pushed through the clutter and took the short stick. Passing it under the door he said, “Push the bolt off.”
Mary wrapped bloody hands around the wood and forced it upward against the wooden bar. Summoning all her strength she pushed and the bolt moved upward. She dragged herself closer to the door and pushed with all her might. The bolt slid above the latch as she whispered, “Now.”
Billy leaned on the door, forcing it open. Through the crack he could see Mary, covered in blood, her body blocking his escape. He pushed, until he could squeeze through the small opening. Gently, he touched Mary’s delicate face, watching life trickle to the floor. She held his hand and thorough the tears she said, “You’ve got to stop him...he’s gone to kill them, gone to kill them all. Billy...Billy, oh no.....”
He saw her life slip away, the eyes grow distant and cold, silent. John had killed her, killed the only woman he loved.
Blood thickened the ground, bodies of men, women and children lay everywhere, scattered on the dirty street. Billy paused, the carnage ripping at his soul, red stained mud crawling over his dusty boots. The scream of a woman pulled him back from the horror. As she rushed around a corner, the crack of a rifle sent her crashing to the ground in a cloud of dust. Billy ran to her, pulling her corpse from the street. Another sharp report sent him in the direction of the sound, tracking the source of the terror and death, his brother, John.
Billy raced up a side street passed motionless bodies and shattered glass. As if from some nightmare, the town seemed to spin before his eyes. In every direction lay the remains of lives, hopes and dreams destroyed by his own desire, destroyed by what he had saved. The cackle of John’s laughter filled his ears, seeping out from an alley up ahead.
Billy sprinted toward his brother, blood pounding in his head. At the end of the alley stood John, the automatic trained on Steve Pauley and his sons. Time ground to a halt as Billy heard himself scream. His feet moved like massive stones as smoke and flame belched from the frozen muzzle. John slowly spun and turned on Billy, smashing the rifle butt into his chest.
A voice, a horrible voice called to him as the darkness receded. Billy struggled to open his eyes, light flooding his awareness. Strong hands pulled him from the red pickup, violently shaking him, screaming for him to awake. Sounds and images filled his mind, dust caked his lips and fell into his dry mouth as he fully comprehended his surroundings. They were at the cave, his brother pushing him toward the cool, dark opening.
“This is it little brother, your last duty.” John’s mouth formed a hideous grin, “I want the gold, take me to it!”
Billy stumbled over the dynamite cases he had stored by the entrance. John roughly picked him up and lit the powerful flashlight. Pushing Billy forward through the darkness, guided by the beam, they reached the secret room. Sunlight sparkled around the cavern shimmering off the vein of gold. John drew in a breath.
“….That’s good little brother, you did good.”
“You bastard, why? You killed Mary! You killed them all!” Billy rushed his older brother, vengeance giving strength to his hands.
He reached up summoning all his power, grabbing at John’s throat. Angry fingers closed around the flesh squeezing hard, closing off existence. Locked in combat, the rifle clattered to the floor as the brothers crashed back and forth slamming against cold hard rock. Billy had him, the light going from his eyes, until one hard placed fist sent him sprawling into the debris against the wall.
John stood panting, clutching the rifle in his hands. “You should know better little brother, you could never best me! You never have.”
“It’s my fault you’re here, you shouldn’t be here!” Billy gasped. “I saved you and for what! So you could kill everything in your path! I did it, it’s my fault they’re all dead!”
“Yea, yu’re right. I’ve known it for a long time, I shouldn’t be here. But I am, and I hate this world and everything in it. The time has come to settle the score, to make ‘em pay, make ‘em all pay! And you’re gonna be next!”
John raised the rifle and pointed it at Billy’s head.
“Goodbye, little brother, see you in Hell!”
A rock trickled down from the opening Billy had cut in the roof and landed next to John’s feet. As he looked up, Billy bolted for the gate. A shot rang out as he dove into the liquid stone.
He seemed to be spinning through the vapor light, his senses reeling from the battle. Billy crashed into the icy snow, rolling over and over the frozen ground. Twenty yards away the shouts and screams of children beckoned him. He saw himself standing on the ice reaching into the water with the stick. John held on, slowly being pulled toward salvation. Billy jumped up and ran toward himself as a rifle shot zinged by. On and on he ran as shot after shot flew by, smashing bits of ice into the air. He could hear John’s screaming voice rise above the clatter, threatening and cursing, vowing his death.
Almost there, he could see himself reaching for the jacket, his hand grasping and pulling the monster to safety. Billy summoned every last ounce of strength and smashed into himself sending them both sliding across the ice. John reached out, his hand rising above the water seeking the edge of the crack. Grasping the ice his hand slipped and began to flail against the cold dark river, the current carrying him under.
Billy looked and saw his brother running across the snow, screaming with rage, hate filling his voice. Then slowly he began to see John’s body becoming transparent, glistening brighter than the snow. Growing fainter and fainter, the horrible voice drifting off toward oblivion, till there was nothing there, nothing at all but the wind whistling through the snow covered pines.
The gate was closing, Billy knew it. He could tell from the change in the light and sound. He felt pain ravishing his body, the cold stone wrapping around his limbs trying to seal him in the secret room forever. Billy reached out freeing his hand. Latching on to something he pulled, forcing his body through the stone wall. His head and shoulders opened to the air as he fought harder and harder to free his legs. He gathered his last bit of strength and yanked himself from the stone.
Billy lay exhausted amid the rock and dust on the floor. The sunlight crept across his face, it’s warmth and life flooding into him till he was able to stand. He moved to the gate and slowly put his hands against the wall. He pushed and felt the cold stone resist, the gate was closed, closed forever.
The horror of it all filled his mind. Billy grabbed the dynamite and began to set it around the secret room. Trailing out a long piece of primer he knelt at the cave entrance and lit it. Billy ducked behind the battered pickup as the explosion rattled the earth. The cavern erupted sending rock and dust high into the air raining debris over Billy and the red truck.
Wind carried the dust high into the desert sky. Billy walked over to what was once the opening and saw large boulders blocking any attempt to enter, he smiled, knowing it was safe. Billy wet his bandanna and cleaned the blood from his face and hands. The past would not be changed and the world would be as it was, or at least he hoped so.
Hill City was alive. The finishing touches for tomorrow’s Fourth of July Celebration was complete as the red pickup pulled to a stop outside Harry’s Bar. Billy jumped from the cab as two young boys dressed in cowboy outfits came up to him. He reached down and picked them up, holding them close.
“Boys, God I’m glad to see you!”
Harry’s Bar was crammed as Billy burst into the room. Seated at a table near the center were Steven Pauley, Sam and Taylor. Steven looked up from pouring beer and spotted Billy.
“Hey Billy! Over here!” he motioned for Billy to join them, offering out a cold glass of beer.
Billy took the beer and swallowed several gulps. “Steve, ya seen Mary?”
“Yea, she must be in the back, hopefully gettin more beer, right boys!” Rousing cheers welled up from the table.
Mary appeared carrying two frothy pitchers and plopped them down on the table. She looked at Billy and smiled, “Hi cutie, I missed you!”
Mary leaned over and gave Billy a quick kiss.
“I love you baby, more than anything in the world.”
“Well, I get off in half an hour, let’s go home and talk about it!” Mary smiled as the other men whistled and jeered.
It was Billy’s turn to smile, “That’s a good idea, I’ll wait right here.”
Laughter filled the table as more calls for beer sent Mary scurrying to satisfy the hot thirsty customers. Steve watched her go and looked at Billy, “Well son, where ya been!”
Billy smiled as he put the glass to his lips. He looked at the Mayor, slipped one hand into his pocket and felt the shining gold nugget.
See you tomorrow.