Saturday, February 11, 2017

MYTHS OF THE WEIRD WEST: The Devil in the Desert

Charles Skinner’s tale of The Death Waltz is a fine one and don’t need much in the way of improvement. It’s a bit short though, so if anything, I just wanted to tell ‘more’ of it.
So I did.

As always, a click right here brings you to Myths & Legends of Our Own Land, his collection of stories available as a free ebook over on the Project Gutenberg site.

   The years after the Civil War saw the country still smoldering top and bottom for its grand campaign while the western frontier sat unclaimed. Forts dotted it, lantern-lit bastions across the dark desert, but this was no world of men. These were pretenders to civilization, forever locked against the savage Indians eager for war and revenge. Their work was hot and bloody and death waited for each man riding out to clash with those fearsome foes.
   To even pretend toward refinement and society in such a place was foolishness, though there was little else to keep their black notions at bay. Fear for loved ones in battle, worry over a sudden Indian attack, at times just the silence of that unknowable desert, could overwhelm even the staunchest soul.
   So they danced among themselves and held boisterous dinners and played at cards and games. They were little towns unto themselves, these forts and Fort Union was no different. There in the badlands of the New Mexico Territory it laughed and ate and smiled and tried to forget why it was there. And what might happen if it wasn’t.
   Among the young ladies of this particular military station, there was a certain sister-in-law of a captain, who very much embraced the spice of life such a place had to offer. She was very comely so enjoyed too, the courtly attention of many young officers and soldiers there.
   There was a lieutenant in particular, who was especially vulnerable to her charms and devoted himself utterly to her heart in the hopes her hand might follow. His depth of understanding in such matters however, was limited. Her shy glances concealed no longing but rather, boredom. Her joyful laughter at his wit was only for the awkwardness of his delivery. When she touched him on the arm or shoulder, it was for the benefit of other men casting their envious, sidelong glances.
   He was so taken in by her deception that after many weeks, he stood on the verge of declaring himself. When a messenger arrived one day announcing an Apache outbreak to the south, the man took it as a sign. There would be no better chance! When he was given command of the detachment, it only steeled his resolve. There was nothing for him but to race to his lover and bend a knee.
   The girl caught her breath at his words and, hand to her throat, declared indeed, she loved the young man with all her heart. She was his, forever more and – she paused for effect, such was her glee at this childish game – should the horrors of war ever deprive her of her heart’s desire, she would never marry another. Never!
   Oh, I will return, he promised. And he stared deep into her eyes such that she caught her breath once more, quite forgetting herself. Nothing shall ever keep us apart, he said and strode out to his waiting men.
   However, when the soldiers returned three days later, the young lieutenant was not among them. The bride-to-be feigned a few tears and declared herself heartbroken. Seeking out a young captain then, she begged him to sit with her, lest she be alone, a victim of her own dark thoughts.
   For the next few weeks, the young woman surprised herself at her growing attraction to the captain though their wedding announcement soon after was little revelation to anyone.
   The main hall was decorated for the occasion and several long tables were laden deep with rich and sumptuous dishes. Everyone turned out in their dress uniforms and finest tails and all stood silent and respectful as the minister joined the couple in matrimony.
   Then came cheers and applause and the band struck up a rollicking tune. But as the bride and groom swung about their first dance, the doors crashed open and an icy draft gusted over the floor. A shrill, wrenching cry followed and as the guests stared in mute horror, a bloated creature filled the doorway.
   The corpse of a man, dressed in the moldy, tattered remains of an officer’s uniform. A hatchet gash cleaved his skull and the scalp was torn back from the bone. It hung over one eye, the other of which glared into the room, lit from within by a tiny spark of witchfire.
   His muddy boots clomped over the oak planks, trailing chunks of earth as he made for the happy couple. He wrenched at the arm of the bride, tearing her from her husband. The groom had no response, as entranced as the rest of the company and unable to move.
   Clasping the young girl to his blood-spattered chest, the thing turned its witch’s eye upon the band, who suddenly startled themselves into a new number. It was a shrill, off-kilter harmony, the players obviously unaware of their own movements. Strings scraped, horns blared and the demon dance began.
   Around and around they spun, the dead man clutching the bride tighter and tighter. She cried out, then began to choke, then went silent. Her head lolled, her face draining blood with each jarring turn.  Her eyes fluttered then and suddenly, she sagged in his arms.
   The creature let her fall in a jumble of limbs and stared about the room for a long moment. Then he flung his mangled head back for another raw, scathing howl and vanished from sight. As the room returned to itself, there came shouts from outside and the clatter of boots.
   Two men appeared, hats in their hands. Cowboys, who’d come to return the body of an soldier they’d come across. Surely one o' yours, they said, leading several officers out the door. Looks like an Apache got him in the head…


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