Louis L'Amour's Lost Treasures: Volume 1
The First Four Chapters of a Western Horror Novel
At the top of the rise Duro Weaver pulled in his team to let them catch their wind . . . He pointed with his whip. “She lies right yonder, young feller, and I envy you none at all.”
The valley was several miles wide at that point, and the tiny huddle of buildings seemed lost in the vast expanse. On their left the valley narrowed into the pass, and beyond the pass lay the Mojave Desert, stretching into infinite distance.
“Twenty Mile Station they call it,” Weaver said, “and it’s a good twenty mile from the last stage stop. In any direction but along the trail it’s more’n a hundred mile to anywhere else at all.”
The mountains loomed dark and ominous in the late evening shadows. “Them mountains,” commented Weaver, “are better left alone. There’s deer in them, and bear, too. Almighty big ones . . . grizzlies. But that there ain’t the reason. The Injuns tell queer stories . . . mighty queer. You just fight shy of them.”
Jeremy Loccard shrugged his heavy shoulders. “I’ve spent most of my life at sea, and we’re used to strange stories.”
“Mebbe,” Weaver spat. He was skeptical of tales from other worlds. He preferred his own. “Mebbe so. But don’t you get to thinkin’ the West is all Injuns and fellers huntin’ gold. This here’s a strange, wild country, with queer tales aplenty.
“You ever hear tell of the Frog People? Injuns got their tales about them, and they’re said to live yonder in the mountains. Or the Little People? If you figure all the ha’nts is in old castles you got another think a-comin’.
“You just walk them mountains alone. Or down in the desert yonder, an’ you’ll feel them. You’ll feel watched. Yes, sir. You surely will. You won’t see nothin’ but you’ll know they’re there.
“Somewhere around here there’s a canyon full of writin’ on the rocks . . . only this here is dif’rent writin’. I mean real dif’rent. No Injun will even look at it.
“A few years back some fellers I knew went off into that desert. Everybody was findin’ gold an’ these fellers decide to have a try at it theirselves. They’d heard tell of that canyon and decided there must be gold there, so they set out huntin’.
“Those who claimed to know said it was deep an’ narrow and couldn’t be seen until you stood right on the rim. Mebbe some folks couldn’t see it at all.
“One night they figured they was close, so they went into camp. Come daylight they’d scout around. Johnny Haskins . . . an’ I knowed him well . . . he was huntin’ firewood when he come on a trail. The others said it could wait until daylight, but it still lacked a mite of bein’ dark an’ Johnny was impatient. He taken off into the desert.
“Mornin’ come an’ no Johnny. They come on his tracks, but the trail petered out in the desert yonder. Johnny was gone.
“They told the story their ownselves. I never did see Johnny after, but I heard tell of him.
“He come back, all right. On the mornin’ of the fourth day they woke up to see Johnny settin’ by the fire. They seen him plain, although his back was to them. They knowed it was Johnny, all right, because he had a funny white scar right back of his ear.
“They spoke to him and he turned around. Now this here is their story, not mine, but they do say Johnny turned into an old, old man. Three days had passed for them, a lifetime for Johnny.
“He wouldn’t tell them nothing, but he was almighty anxious to get shut of the desert, and believe me, once he got back he never went into the desert again. Wouldn’t go for love or money.
“Of a night they say he wandered in his dreams, and they’d hear him cry out . . . scared-like. Sometimes he’d whimper like he was in mortal fear.
“Sometimes in his sleep he raved about great buildin’s . . . castles, like. On’y thing we could get clear was that he’d been a prisoner somewhere, held a long time until he broke loose and got away into the desert. He found that ol’ trail again. He took off down that trail runnin’ until he ran smack into somethin’. He fell, an’ when he got up he seen the fire and come on in. Three days for them, sixty years for him. You figure it out.”
Weaver spoke to his team and the horses leaned into the harness, starting the stage once more. “There’s canyons about here where no man ever walked, and there’s valleys you can find sometimes that are greener than any desert should be, but no Injun lives there, where you’d expect them to be . . . won’t go near ’em.”
He paused, spat, and then said, more quietly, “Was I you I’d not git off the stage. That there Twenty Mile Station . . . there’s been two men vanish from there. Just disappeared complete.
“An’ don’t you get to thinkin’ all the spooky things happen of a night. There’s things happen by day. . . .
“Why, there’s a deep canyon back yonder, cuts off into the mountains. Up that canyon maybe ten, twelve mile there’s a place. You cross the creek to go into it . . . narrow, winding canyon between low hills but with mountains all around . . . digger pine an’ blue oak . . . and some of them ghost trees . . . you know, they’re kind of white an’ misty-lookin’ after their leaves shed. Buckeyes, some call them.
“There’s a little basin back up that canyon. There’s a couple of springs there, too. I heard some mighty strange stories about that place. Ties in with the canyon I spoke of.”
Loccard listened with only half his attention. Twenty-six years old and for two years chief mate on the four-mast bark Annandale, he had heard such tales many times before.
He had once sailed on a vessel unlisted in any port he’d ever come across, and found her a good ship. Good enough, at least. Piracy had more than one method, and with the passing of Blackbeard and Kidd other ways had been attempted. A quick change of name and a coat of paint with some alteration in the rig . . . who was to say what happened after she left port?
Nor was he in any position to choose his berth now, any more than when he sailed on the mystery ship.
He had come up from the seaport town of Wilmington, recently established on the California coast, to look for an old friend in Los Angeles. He was hunting no trouble, a fact that helped him none at all when trouble came. He emerged from the hospital to find his ship had left without him. What money he had carried with him was gone for the doctor and what care he needed while recovering.
No ships were hiring off the West Coast . . . a seaman, perhaps, but no mates. After a few weeks of trying he accepted the job no one wanted, to handle the stage station at Twenty Mile.
Shadows were deep in the canyons when the stage rolled up to the station. Loccard looked at the buildings with interest, crouching dark and forlorn beside the stage trail.
Duro Weaver tied the lines to the whipstock and climbed back over the tarp-covered luggage. From the back he handed down the sea-chest, a battered carpetbag, and two heavy canvas bags belonging to the company.
“There’s grub in the bags. I hope you can cook.” Duro straightened up, putting a hand to the small of his back. Jolting over rough, rock-strewn roads was hard on a man’s kidneys. “There’s a well yonder. Water’s good when used reg’lar. Boss will get you some horses up here soon’s he can find a man to drive ’em.”
“Thanks. I’ll do all right.”
Weaver looked doubtful. From the boot he took Loccard’s rifle. It was brand, spanking new. “You’re likely to need this. Keep it by you.”
A worn holster and gun-belt followed. The butt of the gun carried five notches.
Weaver glanced sharply at Loccard. “Five? I never cottoned to carvin’ notches, but five’s quite a few.”
“They aren’t mine. They belong to the man I took it off of.”
Weaver looked at Loccard again. Loccard was at least three inches shorter than his own six feet, and Weaver guessed his weight at one-sixty. “You took that gun off a man who’d killed five men?”
“It seemed like a good idea at the time. He was shootin’ it at me.”
Weaver exchanged a glance with Cottonmouth Porter, who had been riding inside the stage. Porter shrugged. The only other man riding passenger besides Cottonmouth was a slender man in a black broadcloth suit. Loccard picked up his sea-chest, shouldered it, then took up his carpetbag and took them to the stage station.
“I saw it,” the stranger commented, biting the end from his thin cigar. “It was in Los Angeles.”
“How could anybody miss at that range? It’s unbelievable.”
“It was Steve Darnell. Loccard was hit, all right, but he just kept coming. He took Darnell’s gun away from him and slapped him silly with it. You never saw such a beating in your life. Then Loccard took his gun, stripped off his gun-belt, and walked to the nearest doctor. He spent the next three weeks in bed.”
Weaver climbed back to his seat as Loccard walked back to pick up the rest of his gear. “Mr. Loccard, if I were you I’d be sure I had water enough and fuel enough before dark.”
He held the lines as if reluctant to leave Loccard alone. “No travelers come this way except by stage, and the stages only come by daylight. So, don’t open up for anyone . . . or anything.”
His whip cracked like a pistol shot, the horses dug in, and the stage vanished in the pursuing dust. Loccard watched it until it was only a dot in the distance. He glanced then at the mountains, at the looming blackness of them. They revealed nothing, offered nothing, and might conceal much.
The corral, across the road from the stage station, was empty. Until the horses arrived there was no way out of here but to walk, and he had no intention of walking. Or of leaving, for that matter. He had come to do a job and do a job he would . . . at least until he had money enough to take him to San Francisco and keep him there until he could get a ship.
There were three buildings and the corrals. The station itself was of good size, with a peaked roof a story and a half tall and no porch. The side facing the trail had a door and three small windows.
The barn for the housing of the horses was as sturdily built as the station itself. There was a lean-to back of the corrals for the temporary housing of additional stock. Behind the corral was a low hill.
Loccard went to the door. It was fastened shut from the outside with a hasp held in place by a whittled stick. Removing the stick, he let the door swing open. It creaked on rusty hinges and inside the air felt heavy, the dead air of a room long closed. For a moment he hesitated on the threshold, for there was something clammy and unclean about the smell.
With a shrug, he entered. Glass from a shattered bottle littered the floor and the pieces of a broken chair had been brushed to one side. At the end of the room was a bar, a long table with two benches, and one intact chair. On the back-bar were several bottles and a few unwashed glasses. The cash-drawer was empty. Nearby was a scale for weighing gold-dust.
The fireplace was large, occupied by two half-burned logs.
In back was a kitchen, which housed a range, a boiler, and a good stack of cut wood. The pots and pans were clean and polished. Wonder of wonders, there were a couple of flatirons.