An oasis in the desert.
*Won Second Place in "Journey Through Genres: Official Contest" [E] March 2014 Round
*Won Second Place in "Twisted Tales Contest" [13+]
“No, no, no!” Beth yelled as the engine made a final wheeze and stopped.
“Dang it!” she slapped the wheel of the car. “I knew I should’ve stopped for gas in that last town!”
It was too late to regret past actions now. She was far from that town. Too far to walk. According to the map, a town called St. Oliver was about twenty miles in the other direction.
Beth remembered she had her cell phone. She checked. No reception in the desert, apparently. “Well, looks like I’m walking.”
The heat was sweltering. There was a risk of heat stroke, but the man who had helped her before she left had warned her that not many drove this road. It could be days or weeks before someone else drove along.
It would take less than ten hours to get to St. Oliver. Maybe five, if she walked fast enough. “No other option,” she muttered.
Beth grabbed her suitcase from the backseat. She had been driving back home from her father’s funeral. He would’ve chided her for her lack of preparedness. Grimacing, she found she only had two water bottles in her car. She stuffed them in her purse (something else her father always hated, large purses) and donned her sunglasses.
And with that, she began to walk. Hopefully someone would be able to give her a ride back to her car. Beth walked what felt like hours. She checked her watch. It had been one hour. She climbed to the top of a desert hill the road went over. She thought she saw something.
Beth blinked the dust out of her eyes, and took off her sunglasses to make sure she wasn’t seeing things. It wasn’t a mirage.
A town sat right at the bottom of the hill she had just crested. Excitement filled her with energy and she slid down the gravel path branching off the road. It was a classic Old West ghost town. Beth frowned. If it was a ghost town, then it was useless to her.
The sign hanging from the twin posts guarding the town’s entrance read “Welcome to Historic Elijah. Est. 1837.” The relatively fresh white paint implied that the town was inhabited. As Beth passed under the sign she noticed other signs of life. A chorus of neighs came from the inside of an old stable. Piano music and the sounds of conversation floated out of a saloon. And, of course, there were two men in Western garb playing checkers on a barrel.
Beth decided to try the saloon first. She nodded politely at the checkers players and pushed through the classic swinging doors. Dimmer light made her unable to see anything for a few seconds. By the time her eyes had adjusted, all sounds in the saloon had ceased.
About twenty men and five barmaids stared at her. Beth felt sudden shyness and straightened her dust-covered blue and white striped blouse and jeans. She combed through her curly blonde hair quickly and then cleared her throat.
“Uh, hi. I’m Beth Anders. My car ran out of gas a few miles that way. I was on my way to St. Oliver, but this place came up first. It isn’t on my road map.”
A tall cowboy in purple stood up and tipped his hat. “Your map must be outdated, Miss. That’s understandable, though. Elijah was just refounded a few years back.”
“I see,” Beth smiled shyly, “are you one of those historic reenactment towns?”
“Oh, yes. Except Elijah is the best. This isn’t just a reenactment. We live, work, eat, and sleep here. If any tourists come along, we give them the classic tour, play a few Old West games with them, and then they’re on their way. But it seems you may need more help than that,” he raised an eyebrow. “You can stay in our hotel while we wait for the next delivery truck.”
“Delivery truck?” Beth asked.
“You see, we get supplies once a month. The truck’ll be here in a week. We can go down to town hall and get Mayor Peabody to tell them to add some gasoline. We don’t have any here and Mayor Peabody’s got the only working phone.”
Beth smiled. “Great! I’d like that! Hey, can I get a drink?”
The cowboy’s eyebrows shot up. “Oh, right! Of course! Gwyneth,” he winked at one of the barmaids, “would you get Miss Anders here some water?” He turned back to Beth. “Interested in a tour?”
Beth smiled again. “Of course. I hope it’s alright I take my water glass,” she accepted a glass of water from Gwyneth.
“Absolutely!” the cowboy’s face lit up.
Beth held out her arm. “Let’s go then, cowboy.”
The smiling cowboy took her arm. “Name’s Peter D. McArdle by the way. You can call me Pete.”
“Nice to meet you, Pete.” She took a sip from the glass.
“Let’s be off,” Pete led her out the door.
“So… Elijah. What’s the story behind it? I noticed you said ‘refounded,’” Beth started.
“Oh, yes. Elijah was founded way back in 1837, by Mayor Peabody’s great-great-great uncle, Andrew Peabody. He named it after his son, Elijah, who died on the trip out. The town lasted for about twenty years. But then, on the town’s twentieth anniversary celebration, the whole town burned down. And no one could get far away enough from the smoke. They all died.”
“Oh,” Beth said, “that’s sad.”
“Yeah. But Mayor Peabody’s family still owns the land so he decided to rebuild it and got volunteers like me to live out here.”
“Neat,” Beth smiled.
“Now, if only there were more pretty girls like you around.”
Beth blushed. “Well…” then she giggled.
Pete led her all through the town and showed her where she would be staying. Beth tried to pay the old woman but she slid back the money and smiled sweetly. “Free of charge.”
Beth thanked the old woman and Pete escorted Beth to her room. “Thank you, Pete,” Beth shook his hand.
“The pleasure is mine,” Pete took her hand and kissed it, causing another giggle from Beth. “Beth, would you like to go out to dinner this evening?”
Beth smirked. She set her purse down and grabbed his hand. “Let’s go.”
They made their way down the stairs and outside. They ran into a short, pudgy man.
“Oh, howdy, Mayor,” Pete tipped his hat. The mayor looked up and frowned. “Who’s this?”
“This is Beth. Her car ran out of gas a few miles that-a-way. I was actually ‘bout to ask you if you could add a tank of gasoline to our supplies request this weekend,” Pete said.
“Oh, of course,” the mayor spun his sapphire-tipped cane and walked into the hotel. “Y’all have a good evening.”
Pete turned back to Beth. “You’ll be out of here in no time. Let’s go eat!”
Dinner was delicious. When night fell, Pete got up to escort Beth back to her room. When they got outside, the sheriff approached them. “Pete, the Widow Elliot’s gone missing.” Pete frowned. “Another one? Gosh dang it. How many is that this week?” he sounded concerned.
“That’s three. Old Man Caruthers and the Simpsons’ little boy were taken too. They’ve just completely vanished.”
“We’ve got a kidnapper in our midst,” one of the checkers players said without looking up from his game.
“You’re right, Tim,” the other one said.
“Thank you, Tom,” he replied.
“Well, I’ll just take Miss Anders here back to her room and then we’ll go a looking for the widow then, alright, Sheriff?”
“Actually, I want to help,” Beth said.
“Really? This ain’t woman’s work,” Pete seemed surprised.
A loud scream and pop sounded from the saloon they had just exited. Pete and the sheriff ran inside, Beth at their heels.
The frazzled saloon goers looked up at Pete and the sheriff. One of them stood up. “There was some kinda ghost here. It just appeared out of nowhere. It wrapped its arms around Gwyneth and then just disappeared!”
“Did it leave anything behind?” Pete demanded.
“Just this,” the man held out a cane with a sapphire tip.
“Wait a minute! That’s Mayor Peabody’s cane! We saw him go in the hotel just before the Widow Elliot disappeared too!” Beth exclaimed.
“Makes sense,” the man shrugged. “That apparition was mighty short.”
“We’ve got to find him before he hurts Gwyneth!” Pete exclaimed.
“Where does he like to hang out?” Beth asked.
“The old cemetery on the edge of town,” the sheriff said.
“Let’s go!” Pete exclaimed.
The trio dashed out the door and towards the old cemetery. Night had fallen, so it was dark. A monument stood in the center of the graveyard. “What’s that?” Beth whispered.
“Monument to those who died in the fire,” the sheriff whispered.
“There’s someone tied to it,” Pete whispered.
“It’s Gwyneth!” Beth exclaimed a little too loudly.
A sudden yank made Beth turn. The mayor ripped the cane out of her hands.
“I’ll take that, little missy.”
Pete and the sheriff both drew their pistols. “Now, Mayor, we don’t want to hurt nobody. Just let Gwyneth go.”
The mayor stepped between the two and smirked. “Relax, I’m not going to do anything to her.” He stepped right next to her. “Just a little… tap!”
He tapped the cane on Gwyneth's shoulder. A blue light emanated from the sapphire on the tip and absorbed Gwyneth silently.
“What did you just do?” Pete demanded.
“Catch me if you can!” the mayor laughed abruptly and dashed under the sheriff’s legs.
“Don’t let him get away!” the sheriff yelled. He ran off after the mayor, firing a bullet to alert the town.
Pete grabbed Beth’s hand. “Come on!” he broke into a run.
“Wait! What happened to Gwyneth?” Beth yelled as she was pulled along.
“I don’t know!” tears streamed down Pete’s cheeks. They were stopped abruptly when Pete tripped over a headstone.
“What?” Pete yelled, frustrated. He looked at the headstone and his gaze softened. “Oh… I remember now.”
He examined Beth as if it was the first time he had seen her.
“We’ve got to get that cane,” he said.
Without explaining, he turned to run after the mayor. Beth tried to read the headstone, but it was too dark. Not wanting to miss the action, she followed Pete. By the time she got to the town square, a little dawn was breaking through. Pete and the mayor stood on opposite ends of the square.
“Now, Mayor Peabody, you’ve done some awful things. Now, we duel. For the cane.”
“Seeing as my secret’s out,” Peabody laughed, “may as well.”
Pete stared intently at the mayor and wrinkled his nose a little. Peabody ground his teeth.
“No! This is not the time for cheap movie cliches!” Beth exclaimed, frustrated.
“Three!” Pete called out.
They both drew their pistols and fired. Pete’s shot hit Peabody straight in the chest, while Peabody’s missed.
“No!” Peabody yelled.
Pete smirked at Peabody and walked over, picking up the cane. With a triumphant grin, he looked down.
“No more black magic. No more sacrificing souls.”
“It was… to preserve us,” Peabody coughed.
Pete looked at Beth, a pain of regret in his eyes. “I’m sorry, Beth. You're gonna have to walk more.”
He snapped the cane on his knee. A final blue glow shone out, forcing Beth to shut her eyes. When she opened them, everyone was gone. All that remained of the surrounding buildings were charred shambles. “What?” it was too much for Beth to take in.
“What the heck just happened?” she exclaimed.
The cemetery held the answer. She made her way back and looked at the headstones.
“Mayor Andrew Peabody. Rachel Elliot. Jeremy Caruthers. Sheriff John Langdon. Michael Simpson, beloved son. Gwyneth Jones. Timothy and Thomas… oh God,” realization dawned on her. She made her way to the headstone Pete had tripped over.
~PETER DARIUS MCARDLE~
~PERISHED IN THE GREAT FIRE OF ELIJAH~