SS senior field agent
Posted - 10/16/2018 : 12:47:31
| THE NIGHT OF THE FIRES OF DEATH
Koitázoume ti nýchta kai katavrochthoúme apó ti fotiá.
[We circle in the night and we are devoured by fire.]
—Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 540-480 B.C.), Greek philosopher)
The loud sound awakened Jim West, and he lay still for a long moment trying to determine what it had been and from where it had emanated. The roof of the car, he was fairly certain was the answer to the second question. As to what it was… an animal? How would an animal large enough to make such a loud thump gain the top of the car without awakening its occupants?
A falling branch could not have been the culprit, simply because the Wanderer was parked on a siding in a remote area of the Kansas prairie. They had seen trees while it was still light outside, but those trees were hundreds of yards away on either side of the track.
He finally sat up, and just as he reached for the shade covering his window, the door to his compartment burst open. Artie stepped in, hair mussed from sleeping, but eyes wide as he fumbled with the ties of his robe.
“Jim! Did you see that?”
Jim glanced toward the still curtained window then back to his partner. “I heard something. Did you see what caused it?”
Now Artemus frowned slightly. “I’m not sure.”
“Did you see an animal? What kind?”
“Not an animal. A ball of fire.”
“I swear, Jim.” Artie made an X with his finger over approximately where his heart was located. “A ball of fire. It was bouncing over the prairie at great speed.”
For a long moment Jim stared at him, then again reached for the window shade, pulling it aside. He peered out into the darkness. “I don’t see any fire.”
“It didn’t start any. Rolled right through the grass maybe a hundred yards, then vanished. No smoke, no fire.”
“Artie, you were dreaming.”
“I saw it too, Mr. West.” Orrin Cobb, the engineer, appeared behind Artemus, hoisting his suspenders over his long johns covered shoulders. He had taken enough time to pull on his trousers.
Artie looked around. “You did? Amazing, huh?”
“Scared the hell out of me,” Cobb averred.
“What’s going on?” Kelly, the fireman, came up now, rubbing his grizzled chin. “What was that noise?”
“That’s what we’re trying to figure out,” Jim replied. “Artie, a ball of fire could not have made the sound that woke us up.”
“What time is it anyway?” Artie asked.
The query surprised Jim, but he picked up the pocket watch from the stand alongside his bed, along with a match, which he struck and held close to the watch dial. “A little after twelve.”
“All right,” Artemus said firmly. “There’s a moon. Let’s go take a look outside.”
Half an hour later, the four men were outside the train in the area where Artemus and Cobb had viewed the fireball. The autumn’s night air in Kansas was chilly and all four wished they’d donned heavier jackets. Both agents wore their side arms, while Cobb carried a carbine and Kelly a shotgun. Kelly volunteered to check the roof of the cars, and he climbed up the ladder to do so. After walking from end to end of the two adjoining cars, he looked down at the other three.
“Don’t see a thing. No marks at all.”
“Come on down, Kelly,” Jim called. “Artie, where exactly did you see the fireball?”
Artemus stepped over to stand under the window of his compartment. After a moment, he pointed. “That way.” He strode in the direction he indicated. The others followed.
“I don’t see anything,” Kelly offered after they had walked about fifty yards through the tall dry grass, about halfway to the grove of trees.
“Me either,” Cobb concurred. “But I know I saw that fireball. I bet it was this round.” He held out his arms as far as they would extend, touching his fingertips together.
“I agree,” Artie nodded. “We know it didn’t start a fire, but it didn’t char or flatten any grass either. What…?”
“Look!” Jim broke in. He was staring off towards the distant trees. A glow could be seen there, just above ground level.
“Is that it?” Kelly spoke hoarsely.
“Might be,” his fellow trainman murmured.
All four stood still and silent, gazing at the light, which appeared to be hovering in one spot. “Maybe we should…” Artie began. His words froze as it became obvious that the light was starting to move… in their direction.
Jim knew innately that they should seek shelter, yet like his companions he was frozen in something akin to awe, not without a tinge of fear. What was this thing? He had seen fireballs before, usually in the midst of a much larger fire, such as a house or barn, or perhaps a wildfire in a forest. Not one standing alone, and above all, not one that did not leave a fiery path in its wake.
The glowing orb seemed to hesitate a couple of times before continuing its movement toward the men. Artie looked at Jim, whose attention was riveted on the “thing” that was in the distance, but moving closer. I want to get the hell out of here, but I want to see what that is! What could it possibly be? Maybe we’re about to find out!
The orb picked up speed as it approached nearer and nearer, then abruptly stopped about fifty feet away. Jim’s right hand automatically went to rest on the handle of the snake-embossed pistol at his hip, and he suspected Artie was doing the same, while the two trainmen lifted their weapons.
“Don’t shoot,” he said quietly. “Not yet.”
“It’s still not burning the grass,” Artie murmured. “How can that be?”
“It’s a spirit of some kind,” Orrin Cobb growled.
“It’s changing!” Jim breathed the words rather than shouting, as he wanted to.
They watched as the ball began to change shape, growing in both width and height, but mostly taller. Within moments, it was a broad pillar. Artie gasped aloud.
“There’s a man in there!”
Even as the words leapt from his lips, they saw arms extend to either side, and legs form below a torso. The head was the last to appear, leaving no doubt of a human form. From behind him, Jim heard Kelly murmur and realized the fireman was reciting some kind of prayer, or perhaps a rosary.
The creature started toward them in a slow, lumbering walk. Unintentionally, the four men took a few steps backward, toward the bulk of the train. When the fiery creature halted some twenty feet away, they stopped too.
“Who are you?” Artie asked, his voice suddenly loud in the silence. I don’t feel any heat. The flames were still shooting out of the shadowy figure’s mass. One would think that at this distance they would sense the warmth. They did not.
To Artie’s surprise, the creature appeared to try to respond. Some kind of garbled roar emanated from within. He glanced at Jim to note that his partner was equally startled.
“Say that again,” Artie urged and then wished he had not as the figure advanced closer to them. This time it halted at perhaps a dozen feet away. The form within was even more visible. Clearly a man with, of all things, a long beard! Why was the beard not burning? For that matter, why were his clothes, a checkered shirt with faded trousers, so clearly visible and untouched by the fire?
Again they heard the eerie sounds. “Did he say ‘Sparky’?” Cobb whispered.
“That’s what it sounded like,” Jim nodded. “Artie, stop!” He was alarmed when Artemus started going toward the creature.
“It’s okay, Jim,” Artie replied quietly. “How can we help you, sir?” He directed the question to the flaming man.
Jim heard the response, but it was quieter, perhaps because Artie was nearer to the creature. In return, Artie’s answer was also softer. The other three men stayed put, although none relaxed their vigilance or their hold on their weapons. I don’t know what good guns will be against such a thing, Jim reasoned. He kept his grip on the pistol’s handle nonetheless.
Abruptly, the flaming man spun back into a ball and sped across the field again, disappearing near the trees as it had before. Artie took a deep breath, closing his eyes for a moment before he turned to face his companions.
Jim spoke before he could, demanding, “What the devil were you doing?”
Artie’s smile was weak. “Jim, the flames were cold. I knew it couldn’t hurt me.”
“It could of changed, Mr. Gordon,” Orrin Cobb protested. “We don’t know what kind of critter that is!”
“Exactly!” Jim pushed.
Artemus shook his head. “No, I don't think so.”
“Could you understand him?” Kelly asked.
“Not clearly. I think we need to get more information. Why don’t we get some breakfast and head to the next town?”
Cobb nodded. “We’ll get the engine fired up.”
A tale which holdeth children from play and old men from the chimney-corner.
—Sir Philip Sidney [Sydney] (1554-1586), English soldier, author, poet, and courtier
The town of Phillipsburg did not really have a train station. A platform had been erected alongside the tracks for any of the rare passengers who boarded the train there, or even rarer, were disembarking. A pole with a hook was erected also where a mailbag could be suspended for the mail car personnel to grab as the train rolled by. Any missives for the local residents were thrown to the platform in a similar bag.
Artie knew these facts from previous stops at equally sparsely populated settlements around the west. The tracks were often spurs built by locals in cooperation with the railroad so that they had some service. He spotted the telegraph wires, and realized that Phillipsburg was luckier than some small towns like this.
Jim and Artemus took their horses out of the train and rode up the street. Cobb and Kelly planned to do some minor maintenance on the engine in their absence, feeling that all four men were not needed for the task in the town. West and Gordon would relate what they learned later.
A question to a man on the board sidewalk revealed the law in the town was a constable, and his office was about halfway through the town. It was indeed easily spotted by a big sign that jutted out over the street. They dismounted there and went into the small office. A burly baldheaded man with heavy mustache greeted them with a smile but also displayed open curiosity about two strangers abruptly appearing in his office.
Jim introduced himself and his partner. Artie was the one who asked the first question. “Constable Bergman, do you know of anyone called Sparky?”
“Ah. Ah.” Bergman settled down in his chair. “Be seated gents. I take it you were out by the water tower.”
“We were,” Artie replied, and briefly described the incident of the previous night. “I’m pretty certain he said the name Sparky.”
“I heard it too,” Jim added.
Bergman nodded. “Yep. That was what he was called. Elijah Horst was his name. Mean son-of-a-gun with a fast temper. He came here as a young man as his bride, and I’ve heard tell that he was as nice as anyone until his wife died in childbirth, along with the babe. Catherine had been his childhood sweetheart, they say. He changed then. Folks said any spark could set him off, and started calling him Sparky. Behind his back at first, but eventually Horst caught on and liked it, for some reason. So everyone used that.”
“I take it he’s dead,” Jim posited.
“Yep. Even for someone as mean and nasty as Sparky Horst, it was a terrible way to die. About five… no, more like seven years ago now, the autumn after the end of the war. Sparky and his hired man Lorenzo Tate were bringing hay into the livery stable here in town. Sparky was in the lead wagon, Renzo maybe a quarter mile behind.
“Along with his temper and mean streak, Sparky liked his cigar. Had some big stinky ones sent from somewhere in the east. When he lit one up in the tavern, folks moved away as far as they could. He spent more on those cigars than he did on his wife, that’s for certain. Anyway, it was a breezy day. Renzo said he could see that Sparky was having trouble keeping a match lit long enough to start up the stogie.
“Sparky stood up in the box so he could face away from the wind, dropping the reins of course. Renzo thought he just got the cigar going when suddenly a critter ran across the road in front of Sparky’s team, likely a coyote. For some reason, the horses bolted. They were usually a good solid pair. The wagon jerked, of course, and Sparky fell back into the hay pile.
“Now, normally that would have saved a man from being injured. However, it appeared that the match did not go out immediately, and it along with the lit cigar started the hay a-burning. The horses were just racing like mad down the road, and I reckon it would have made it hard for Sparky to get up with the wagon swaying this way and that—if he was conscious.
“Renzo naturally tried to catch up. He could see the flames starting to build in the back of the wagon, but he couldn’t see Sparky right off. He figured maybe he hit his head and was stunned. However, Renzo just couldn’t get enough speed out of his team of horses to catch up. It was like Sparky to put the best horses on his wagon. He would have cussed Renzo up and down when they got to town for not keeping up. That was how he was.
“Maybe two miles down the road, the burning wagon went up a low bank and tipped over. The horses broke free and kept going, but the wagon upended over top of Sparky. Renzo got there and he could hear Sparky screaming. Renzo couldn’t lift the wagon by himself and he didn’t have any water other than a canteen he brought from the farm. He was trying to figure out what to do when it went quiet. He knew then it was too late.”
Both agents were silent a long moment before Artie spoke quietly. “A terrible way to die for any man.” He echoed the constable’s early comment.
“Yep.” Constable Bergman pulled open a drawer of his desk to extract a pipe and a bag of tobacco. “There was quite a stir about the incident. Everyone knew Sparky abused Tate just the same as he abused his second wife, Lucinda. He was twenty years older than Lucinda, and married her when she was sixteen. Her daddy owed Horst some money and couldn’t pay it back. There were younger kids in the family. Lucinda married him to save the family home.
“Some folks wondered if Renzo had something to do with it all, or at least didn’t try hard enough to save Sparky. That gossip started up again about a year later when Lucinda married Lorenzo. How-some-ever, that didn’t last long when folks saw how much in love the two were. They have three little ones now and are making a real go with the farm, better’n Sparky ever did.”
Jim offered, “You did not seem overly surprised when we told you what we saw last night.”
“Nope. Other people have seen the ball of fire, and a couple claimed to see a burning man running along the hills. These days, most folks avoid that area, especially at night. I have heard of a couple of night trains where engineers saw the fireball. I never did hear of anyone talking to Sparky.”
“Have you seen it yourself?” Artie asked.
“Nope.” The constable removed his pipe from his mouth and shook his head resolutely. “Not that I’m real scared of it. Just never had a reason to be out there after dark. Know what I mean?” He grinned.
Both agents chuckled, then Artie spoke again. “As I described earlier, I had an… opportunity you might say… to talk to Sparky. He wants help.”
Bergman evinced surprise. “Help? How? Need to get a man of God out there?”
“I don't think so,” Artie replied. “I have an idea. It may or may not work.”
Constable Bergman was expected at the train that evening. That he brought a companion was something of a surprise. However, once Bergman introduced the lanky red-haired man, they understood. He was Lorenzo Tate. He had come into town on an errand, heard about the mission being undertaken in the coming night and demanded to be part of it.
“I’ve had bad dreams often since that day,” Tate said somberly. “Maybe… if this works… Sparky can be put to rest and so can my nightmares.”
No turntable existed at the “depot,” so the Wanderer needed to be backed up all the way to the siding, a slow and lumbering process. Orrin Cobb had sent telegrams to ensure that they would not meet an oncoming train during this move, thus they gained the siding without incident.
Enough light remained for them to complete the first stage of the night’s plans, which was to fill a dozen buckets borrowed from various town residents with water from the tower that was ordinarily used by passing trains. Those buckets were placed alongside the train on the side where the fiery man had been encountered. That chore completed, the six men retired to the parlor car for some coffee and conversation.
Renzo Tate clearly liked to talk about his family, and the others had no problem encouraging him, taking their thoughts away from the upcoming confrontation… if “Sparky” decided indeed to appear tonight. All realized they had no guarantee. Constable Bergman had told them that many people passed through this area at night without incident.
So they chuckled and enjoyed Tate’s tales regarding his five-year-old son’s effort to mount a full sized horse just like daddy did, how beautiful his three-year-old twin girls were and the problems he anticipated in another dozen years when swains started to call. He also revealed that Lucinda was expecting again.
“She wants a whole house full of young’uns, just like she grew up with. I don’t mind. I was an only child and I always envied the friends who had four or five brothers and sisters. But I am going to have to start expanding the house come spring!”
Darkness finally fell. Artie was the one who called attention to the blackness outside the windows. He could discern that his companions felt the same way he did: The sun could have remained above the horizon for a few more hours. This confrontation was not something they relished; all the while feeling it was necessary.
Outside the autumn temperature had cooled considerably with the absence of the sun. This time, the men who regularly rode the Wanderer donned their jackets. The two townsmen had been wise enough to dress accordingly. Nothing much was said for a few minutes as they stood alongside the train and waited.
Jim shook his head then. “He might not know we are here.” He took a few steps forward and shouted. “Sparky! Sparky! Are you there? Come on down!”
Complete silence and stillness fail. Not even prairie birds and insects were heard, nor the usual distant cries of coyotes. Jim was just about to call out again when Kelly abruptly pointed and cried, “There! Comin’ down the slope!”
All directed their gaze slightly to the left where he indicated, seeing the faint light which was not only starting to come toward them, but brightening and enlarging as it did so.
“Oh lord!” Bergman croaked.
Artie was standing alongside Renzo Tate and he put his hand on that man’s arm. “Renzo, why don’t you step towards the back? We don’t know what… his… reaction is going to be if he sees you, if he’ll recognize you.”
Tate took a deep breath and seemed about to argue, but then nodded and silently moved a few feet behind the other five men. All stood silently, waiting, watching. The orb neared slowly and deliberately. Jim wondered if he read caution in the movements. Does a creature like that have the ability to feel fear? Whatever, it was coming, and as before, when within about fifty feet, began to slowly enlarge, first horizontally, then becoming taller.
The two men who had not experienced this phenomenon previously muttered words of amazement and some alarm, and even the other four could not suppress the surge of emotions. Cobb and Kelly had not brought weapons out with them this time, though the three lawmen had their arms as they normally would.
Sparky halted a dozen feet away and roared something. Artie stepped forward a few feet. “Sparky, we want to help you. Will you allow that?”
Jim glanced around at his companions and in the illumination from the creature, saw by the expressions on the faces of the two townsmen that they wondered what he did: would Artemus actually understand what Sparky said?
Again, a noise emanated from the figure, a little quieter. Now Artie looked behind briefly. “Don’t anyone move.” He faced Sparky again. “We want to…”
Before he could complete his words, the figure shrieked more loudly, waved a fiery arm, and appeared to point a finger at Artemus. Artie, however, immediately realized what had happened. Sparky espied the man standing behind Artemus; the man he blamed for his own death.
“No!” Artie yelled. “He’s here to help!”
Sparkly ignored him and started lumbering forward. Instinctively, Artemus stepped into his path. With another loud cry that was filled with rage, Sparky reached out and grabbed the agent, pulling him into its blazing embrace. Artemus Gordon yelled in surprise and terror.
For an instant the other five men were frozen. Jim spun. “Get the buckets! Get the buckets! Now! Hurry!”
They all sprang into action, each seizing the handle of a full bucket of water and turning back toward the spectacle of the flaming figure and the human in its embrace. Jim could see Artemus wriggling but he did not seem to be yelling now. He lifted his bucket and flung the cold water toward the pair. The other four did the same. Each one turned back to grab another bucket, throwing his empty one aside.
As Jim whirled back with his own full bucket, he saw what was happening. The fire was diminishing, but instead of white steam or smoke arising, it was an evanescent blue, glowing in the night. Sparky staggered back at the same moment releasing his hold on his captive. Artie fell to his knees then jumped up and moved out of the way. With some amazement, Jim noted that other than being wet, Artie seemed unaffected by the flames.
He flung the contents of his bucket onto Sparky, as did the others. Artie grabbed one of the remaining full buckets, but stopped as he whirled back. No flames were visible now, just the glowing aura created by the steam or smoke, which surrounded the full figure of a large man.
“Hold on, hold on!” Artie called as Cobb approached with the final bucket.
No one moved, watching. The dark figure wavered, then what sounded like a huge, deep moaning sigh filled the air as slowly, inexorably, it began to sink… or rather dissolve, Artie realized. The feet disappeared first, then the legs, and onward up the body until suddenly nothing was visible except a muddy spot on the ground.
“Pour the rest of the water on it,” Jim stated flatly.
Artie looked at his partner briefly, but did not argue, pouring his bucket out. Cobb did the same. No more glowing steam; no more flames. Only the wetness.
“Is he gone?” Lorenzo Tate asked in a voice that was barely more than a whisper.
“I guess we won’t know that for a while,” Artie replied. “Until time passes and no one sees him again.”
“Maybe he’s at rest,” the constable said quietly. “Finally.”
“Orrin,” Jim said, looking back at the engineer. “Would you mind going to get a couple of shovels? I just… I feel we should cover him up.”
“Sure thing,” Cobb nodded and headed toward the engine.
“I think you’re right, Mr. West,” Bergman said. “What was left of him was buried in the churchyard next to his wife and son. This is… well, another part of him.”
“Maybe we can put a little marker up,” Tate suggested.
Jim looked at his partner. “Artie, are you all right?”
“About time you asked!” Artie sniffed, then smiled, shaking his head. “He had a strong grip, but that’s all. As I noticed before, the flames had no heat. I don’t know what would have happened if the water hadn’t worked… and I am glad I didn’t have to find out. I am wet though. It’s cold out here!”
Inside the parlor car, more hot coffee was consumed, although with less conversation than earlier. Jim’s offer of whiskey was widely appreciated all around. No one seemed to want to discuss what had just occurred until finally, Orrin Cobb asked, “Who is Catherine?”
Jim and Artemus exchanged a glance. They had repeated the constable’s tale of Sparky’s tragic demise to the engineer and fireman, but had not mentioned the name of the first wife. “Why do you ask?” Jim inquired.
“Well…” Cobb looked at his employers, a bit nonplussed. “Wasn’t that what he said when the fire was put out? That hissy sound.”
Constable Bergman cleared his throat. “I kinda heard that too but I wasn’t real sure and didn’t want to say anything?”
“Who’s Catherine?” Kelly repeated the engineer’s query. Bergman quickly explained.
“I wonder…” Artie looked down into his whiskey glass for a moment. “Was he calling to her? Maybe… maybe seeing her waiting for him now that he was released from his hellish form?”
“Could be,” Jim spoke softly. “We’ll probably never know.”
A silence fell over the group for a long minute before Jim looked up, eyes widening slightly. “Do you know what today is?”
Tate was the one who answered. “I do! That’s why I came to town, to get some apples for the kids to bob for. It’s Halloween!”
“You’re right,” Artie nodded. “I remember thinking about it yesterday, but today… not at all.”
“Seems like the right day for all that happened,” Cobb nodded. He lifted his glass. “Happy Halloween, folks!”
Si finis bonus est, totum bonum erit.
[If the end be well, all will be well.]
Gestoe Romanorum (tale LXVII), Unattributed author
When the Wanderer headed back to Phillipsburg, a small wooden cross, fashioned from wood obtained in the nearby copse, was standing above a mound of dirt that obliterated a wet spot. Future travelers might wonder about the sight, but Jim knew that eventually the story would get out. Locals would know.
They remained in Phillipsburg one more day and night, and were able to meet Lucinda Tate along with the mischievous son and the beautiful copper-haired twin girls. Both agents had to agree with their father’s assessment of the troubles he might face some years down the line. They were already winning hearts.
Two months later, a letter was awaiting them in Washington, DC, from Constable Bergman. In it, he again expressed his gratitude for their assistance again, and related that no sign of Sparky had been seen since that night. “Maybe he is finally truly at rest,” the constable hoped.
“That was quite an experience,” Artie said, folding the letter after reading it aloud. “Rates right up there with some of the things we’ve seen over the last few years.”
“Oh, I don’t know, Artie,” Jim drawled, picking up the glass of whiskey from the small table beside his seat on the sofa. “Nothing is going to beat some of Dr. Loveless’s antics.”
“You have me there, partner. Let’s just hope we’ve seen the last of both!”
An' all us other children, when the supper things is done,
We set around the kitchen fire an' has the mostest fun
A-list'nin' to the witch tales 'at Annie tells about
An' the gobble-uns 'at gits you
—Little Orphant Annie, James Whitcomb Riley (1849-1916), American poet and dialect writer
James: Thanks, Artie.
Artemus: "Thanks Artie"! Is that all you can say to me? I've just come back from the grave, risen like Lazarus, and that's what you say? "Thanks, Artie"?
James: Thanks, Artie.
Artemus: It's a pleasure.
- TNOT Pistoleros