21 - Ghost Town

The trip to Burnside took longer than Cataclysm had planned. She had never flown so far and had needed to rest more than she had anticipated. She also had been forced to divert to water holes marked on the GPS so hadn't been able to take the direct path to the town. She arrived well after sunset.

She flew over the town but couldn't see anything. The town was completely dark with no sign of light or activity. There was no moon and the brightness of her flames dazzled her eyes so she couldn't see into the darkness. Abandoning aerial reconnaissance, she landed on the edge of the abandoned town in a cloud of flame.

Cataclysm let the fire die and was immediately plunged into pitch blackness. As she waited for her eyes to adjust she could make out only the barest shapes of the buildings. She whirled as she heard a creak but told herself it was only the wind moving an old door. Of course the fact there was no wind at the moment didn't make her feel any better. Cold prickles moved up her spine and the darkness didn't seem to be lifting. As she felt the panic rising, she finally gave in and lit up her hand.

The flame didn't so much illuminate the area as intensify the shadows. What was worse was that she now couldn't see anything outside of the small circle of light that surrounded her, not to mention that she was now lit up like a beacon. She couldn't bring herself to extinguish the comforting flame, so decided to enter the town with it lit.

Her heart was pounding and she was light headed as her head jerked around to track every imagined movement or sound. This place was seriously creeping her out and she wondered if she should wait for morning. Then again, a night out in the desert probably wouldn't be much more fun. Plus she didn't want to give into the fear. She was Cataclysm, dammit! She was the thing that went bump in the night, and not the other way around. Gritting her teeth she forced herself to continue into town along what probably used to be a road.

She passed a number of nondescript buildings that she figured were probably houses. They were all a bit run down but in surprisingly good shape for being 150 years old. The desert air had preserved the structures quite well. She peered into one doorway and saw some discarded furniture and general junk but didn't see any reason to go in. She froze when she thought she heard something move inside the house. She listened for a long time but the sound didn't repeat it self. Probably an animal, she assured herself.

She continued along the road and came across the first building with a sign. It was a small residence with a shingle out front that read "Doc Cochran's". She walked up the two steps leading to the porch and looked through the window, its glass long gone, but again nothing inside made her want to go in. Her neck muscles were so tight they were starting to ache and her stomach was doing flip flops. She almost wished something would jump out at her just to break the tension.

Past the doc's office was a wide alley but Cataclysm decided to stay on the main road. Up ahead was a large building with a sign, but the sign was cracked in half and proclaimed it to be the "Bel Uni Sal". From the look of the building she figured the last word was saloon but had no idea what the first two might be. She imagined she could hear the tinkling of the piano from inside like something out of a movie.

She stopped and turned her head back and forth. She could hear something and it really did sound like faint music coming from the saloon. Cataclysm craned her neck, looking for any sign of movement inside the building but couldn't see anything.

"You got the stink of death on you, stranger, just like us," said a voice from behind her.

Cataclysm let out a little yelp as she whirled around, her flame burning brighter to illuminate the scene. Three gunmen stood behind her, dressed like something out of a Wild West show. For a split second she wondered how they managed to sneak up on her, and then she realized she could see through them to the street behind. Somehow she didn't think they made a lot of noise now that they were dead.

Cataclysm opened her mouth to make a smart-ass comment but found her throat was dry and only a croak came out. One of the cowboys nudged another and said, "Let's kill this strangely-garbed fool and perhaps the dark lady will release us."

The other ghost grinned. "There's gonna be a fresh body in the Burnside graveyard tonight." All three cowboys drew their spectral six-guns at the same time.

Still frozen by fear, Cataclysm hesitated as the weapons came up. She started a spell but the cowboys opened fire before she could finish it. For a split second she wondered if ghostly bullets could kill, and then pain blossomed in her chest and abdomen as the slugs hit. The pain caused her instincts to kick in. She summoned a cone of fire and sprayed down the cowboys. They continued to fire and she took two more hits but most of their shots appeared to go wild. The ghosts dissipated like smoke in the wind.

Cataclysm stood there shaking and sweating after the phantoms were gone. Knowing she might still be in danger, she whirled around to look for others. She didn't see anything so looked down at her wounds and was surprised to see there were none. Her clothing was unmarked and the flesh beneath was pristine. She could feel the wounds burning, though the feeling was fading. In some ways it felt like the injuries in the danger room--pain but no actual damage--and yet something felt different. She felt weaker somehow like the bullets had sapped her life force. She had to assume these ghostly guns could kill, though maybe not as readily as their steel counterparts.

She assumed a ready stance as three more cowboys came out of the saloon. She didn't bother waiting for them to draw and instead immediately opened fire on them. Their guns barely cleared leather before they too faded away. Somehow the presence of the specters made her less afraid. It was better than the unknown. Fighting she understood. Her insides were still twisted in dread but she felt more confident as she moved further into the ghost town.

Cataclysm started a spell as a ghost came out of a building, but he threw up his empty hands and shouted, "Hold on, stranger. Don't shoot!"

She paused, unsure if this was a trap or now. "Who are you?" she asked.

"Reno Randall, sheriff of this here cowtown for...well, longer than any other sheriff I reckon. Uh, you might want to look behind you, pardner."

Cataclysm cast a quick glance over her shoulder to see four more cowboys coming out of buildings. She glanced back at the sheriff--she spotted the badge now that she was looking for it--and moved so she could keep him in view as she blasted the ghosts. He waited calmly, hands still in the air, until she was done.

"Let's get inside," he suggested, nodding at the sheriff's office. She motioned for him to go first and then followed him in. She shut and locked the door, though she wasn't sure if ghosts could walk through walls or not. The shutters looked tight so maybe they wouldn't see the light. She let her flame die down a bit, but still kept it bright enough to keep an eye on Reno. He said, "I was going to ask if you had a six-shooter stashed in that funny outfit of yours, but I guess you don't need it. Is that some kind of injun medicine yer doin'?"

Cataclysm was flustered. "Injun what?" she asked.

"Medicine. You know, magic. You some shaman of your tribe or something?"

"What the fuck are you talking about?"

Reno cocked his head. "You are an injun, ain't ya? I don't recognize the war paint. What tribe you with?"

Cataclysm grimaced. "I'm not an Indian. And 'injun' isn't really..." She stopped, not wanting to waste time explaining political correctness to a ghost.

"Can I put my hands down?" he asked.

She paused but nodded. "So why aren't you attacking me?"

"Well, like I said, I was the sheriff here. Still am far as I'm concerned. Since 1864. Uh, how long is that?"

She did the math in her head. "Oh about 150 years."

Reno looked surprised. "That long? I figured I'd probably passed a century but never knew it was that far. No calendars so it's hard to track the time, 'specially when yer alone. Nobody comes out here. Not 'til recently anyhow."

"Alone? You've got a town full of other ghosts, or aren't they the sparkling conversationalists I am?"

"No, them fellers is new. There's been nobody but me for...really? 150 years?" She nodded. "Huh. Wonder I ain't stir crazy by now. Anyhow, I been out here alone for all that time and then this lady comes by."

"Red hair? Green dress?" Cataclysm guessed.

"Well, no. She came later. This one was dark hair, dark clothes, dressed kind of like a horizontal singer." When Cataclysm looked blank he said, "Um, soiled dove? Girl of the line? Prostitute? Er, beggin' yer pardon, ma'am."

"No problem. I'm not so delicate as I look. Go on, tell me about this 'dressed like a prostitute' woman."

"Well, she came in and found me here. She said she could help me. Ya see, I made a foolish vow. The Cassidy gang done shot me up for my spurs. With my dying breath I made a promise that I wouldn't move on to the next world 'til I got my vengeance. Unfortunately those idjits shot each other up over them spurs and they all died. You'd think that would be justice, but naw. And with them dead, I couldn't live up to my promise and so I waited. Then this lady comes along-"

"What was her name?" Cataclysm asked, suspecting she knew the answer.

"Can't say. And by that I mean I can't. She won't let me. Some kind of spell or something. We just call her the dark lady. Anyhow, the dark lady said she could raise the ghosts of the Cassidy gang and I could bring 'em to justice. I thought that was mighty nice of her. Maybe I should have wondered why she wanted to help me but I was kinda desperate to git on to the next life so I agreed to help her.

"So she did some kind of magic. Said she needed me for...uh, some ecto-something or other? Didn't understand. Didn't care to. We went to the graveyard and she cast her spell and I felt some kind of something move through me, and sure enough the Cassidy gang came back to life...but so did every other ghost in the cemetery! Since lots of 'em were criminals, they weren't happy to see me so I high-tailed it out of there."

"Then what?" Cataclysm prompted.

"Well, not much. I'm not proud o' this, but I hid a lot since then. I was way outnumbered and, you know, you can't kill a ghost so I didn't have much of a chance."

"Can't kill a ghost? I killed several already."

Reno shook his head. "Nope. You just, well, sort of scattered 'em. I can do the same if I shoot 'em up enough. But they just drift back to their graves and come back in a bit. Same with me for that matter. They'll just keep coming back."

Cataclysm sighed and rubbed her face. "What about the woman in green? You said she came later?"

"Yep. She came in, oh, about a month ago I guess. Like I said, hard to measure time here, but she came in but before I could talk to her she and the dark lady got into a tussle. And I don't mean some kind of scratchin', hair-pullin' girl fight neither. It was like to end the world they was slinging so much magic around. When it was over, the dark lady was standin' and the other wasn't."

Cataclysm went cold. "Dead?"

Reno shook his head. "Naw, but none too happy. The dark lady dragged her off and I ain't seen neither since."

"Do you now where she took her?"

Reno studied her calculatingly. "Well, I suppose I do. And it seems to me that information might be valuable to you."

"Her life might be in danger," Cataclysm said sharply. "What kind of sheriff are you?"

That seemed to sting him. "I'm a good sheriff," he said defensively. "But I'm also a man. Well, dead man anyhow. And I'm powerful tired of bein' here. I'll help you, tell you where the green lady is, but you gotta help me first." Reluctantly he said, "Sorry about that, but the dark lady already lied to me. And you, well, I know people. I've seen your kind before, the rough and tumble type who could end up either side of the law depending on how the wind blows. Sorry, ma'am, but I don't trust you."

"And I should trust you?"

He shrugged. "Or you can look for yourself. But I can do more than tell you where your friend is. I can tell you how the dark lady raised the spirits, 'cause yer gonna have to do somethin' 'bout them before you can have a showdown with the dark lady. Your choice. Justice is long overdue, stranger. You feel like lendin' a hand?"

Cataclysm thought about it but there wasn't much to debate. "I'm not really one to help the law," she admitted, "but I guess I have no choice. What do you need?"

"I need to bring the Cassidy boys to justice. There's four of 'em: Johnny Mack Cassidy, Pistol Packin' Eddie Dean, Hoot Burnett and Lash Roosevelt. They mostly hang out in the saloon on the west side of town, near the graveyard. But I can't get to them through all them other cowboys. Those other folks ain't all criminals, but they are all under the control of the dark lady so do what she wants."

"Why aren't you?"

"Dunno. Thought about it and I reckon it's because I was already here when she did her spell. Or maybe it's cause I was sheriff and too pure to be corrupted." He chuckled at that last idea.

"So what do you need me for?"

"I need you to keep them other varmints out of my tail feathers while I go after the Cassidy boys. And I may need your help against them. They ain't gonna be the pushovers you've seen up 'til now neither."

Cataclysm shrugged. "All right. Let's go."

She opened the door carefully and was surprised to see the street was empty. She had figured the ghosts would have gathered and was glad to see she was wrong. Reno pointed down the road and they headed for the west side of town.

They faced a number of gunmen along the way but never in dangerous numbers. They came in groups of three or four and only once did they face two groups at once. The ghosts weren't organized or even all that observant so their trip through town wasn't much of a problem. Cataclysm still felt the fear pulling at her, and wondered if it was simply a side effect of the magic that kept the ghosts on this plane.

Cataclysm could see ghostly light coming from the saloon as they got close to it. It was a dim and pale glow that outlined rather than illuminated, an image of true light much as the ghosts were images of true men. She could hear music and the noise of a large crowd coming from inside. She and Reno exchanged a glance and then he strode through the saloon doors with his gun out and Cataclysm on his heels.

The music and noise stopped as they entered. "Johnny Cassidy," Reno announced in a loud voice. "Hoot Burnett. Eddie Dean. Lash Roosevelt. You boys is under arrest. You gonna come along quietly?"

Everyone in the bar shuffled to the side, clearing a path between the door and four men playing cards. One of them looked up slowly and eyed the two newcomers. "Howdy, sheriff," he said. "I see you brought yourself some help." He studied Cataclysm with a puzzled look. "Not sure what kind of help, mind you."

"Help enough," Reno said. "Now all of your stand up with your hands in the air. Don't even think about goin' for your guns."

The man snorted. "You know we got nothin' but a noose in our future so I think we'll do this my way."

As though they had gotten a signal, the four men all dove away from the table and drew their guns. Reno went for cover and started firing at the men, but Cataclysm ignored them and turned on the other cowboys in the room. As she had expected, they all drew their guns as well. She sprayed the room with fire, keeping the ghosts' heads down as she darted towards the bar. She cleared the area behind the counter with a roaring inferno and crouched for cover as gunfire filled the saloon.

Cataclysm popped up and sent separate streams of fire towards two areas she had seen cowboys crouching and two more ghosts returned to their graves. She bathed the staircase in a blazing curtain of death, catching several more gunmen as they ran down from upstairs. Spectral bullets hit her in the head and shoulders, and the pain forced her to drop back behind cover. She forced herself up again, figuring she was less fragile than Reno.

She had cleared out half the saloon, letting her concentrate fire on the remaining sections without leaving her back exposed. Ghost after ghost faded into spreading smoke, and now that she was looking for it she could see the barely-visible clouds of ectoplasm drift through the walls in the direction of the cemetery. Soon the saloon was empty of enemies, but the dry wood was ablaze and the building was rapidly turning into a holocaust.

Cataclysm saw Reno standing over the four fugitives, staring at them and oblivious to the flames around him. Nervously eyeing the burning rafters Cataclysm moved to stand next to him. "Why didn't they disappear?" she yelled over the roar of the fire.

"Because I arrested them," he yelled back. "They can't go until they face justice." He turned to her and to her surprise she thought he looked afraid. "They gotta see the judge."

As he spoke those words, the air suddenly grew cold even with the fires raging around them. A darkness appeared in the room, sucking the light and heat out of the flames but not extinguishing them. A deep, thundering voice echoed through the saloon, saying, "Court is now in session."

The four ghostly criminals opened their eyes and stood up in a daze. As they did, Cataclysm saw shackles appear around their wrists and ankles. The darkness resolved itself into a roughly humanoid shape with glowing yellow eyes. "What the fuck is that?" Cataclysm breathed.

"Judge Hensley," Reno said in a quavering voice. "Hanging Judge Hensley," he added. "Stranger, get back behind the bar and stay out of what happens next." Cataclysm wasn't about to argue with him and hurried over to crouch behind the counter, peering over it to watch what unfolded.

"Who calls this court into session?" Hensley demanded in a voice that made Cataclysm shiver.

"I do," Reno said. "Reno Randall, sheriff of Burnside."

"Who are the accused?"

Reno recited their names.

"What are their crimes."

"On October 5, 1869, these four stole my spurs and killed me. All four of them shot me, and shot me again even after I was dead."

The dark specter turned to study the four men carefully. Cataclysm watched their faces in the flickering orange light of the fires surrounding them. If Reno had looked scared, then these men looked terrified. Judge Hensley looked deep into the eyes of each man, moving down the line from one to the next. When he was done he backed up to face them all. "Guilty!" he decreed and the building shook, though she was unsure if it was from the force of his voice or from the structure weakening in the fire.

Ghostly nooses appeared around each of their necks, the ends of the ropes suspended over their heads. "Always knew I'd end up at the end of a hangman's noose," said one, though not the one who had spoken earlier. "Never felt right dying by gunshot."

Hensley said, "I sentence you to hang by the neck until dead." He threw out an arm and all four ropes tightened, jerking the men off their feet. The ghosts jerked and spasmed as the nooses snapped tight around their necks. Cataclysm, despite being used to violence, wanted to turn away from their struggles but couldn't. It took at least a minute until their movements finally stopped. Judge Hensley lowered his hand and the four men disappeared.

"Court is..." he began and then he broke off. He looked around the saloon until his eyes fell on Cataclysm.

"She's not on trial!" Reno said quickly.

"Order in the court!" Hensely thundered. Reno blanched and his mouth snapped shut. Hensley floated across the room towards the bar. Cataclysm stood and forced herself to meet his gaze. Her blood felt like ice and she was screaming inside as those glowing eyes bored into her. "Your soul is stained with many crimes," Hensley said. "Crimes of law. Crimes of nature. Crimes of principle." He paused. "But none committed in my jurisdiction." The judge turned away from her and pronounced, "Court is adjourned." He faded, taking the darkness and chill with him.

Cataclysm was shivering. Suddenly she was painfully aware of the smoke stinging her eyes and making her cough. There was a crash as something collapsed and she knew she had to get out of there. She was having trouble seeing but managed to make her way to the door and into the cold, clear air outside.

She bent over, hands on her knees, gasping for breath as the saloon burned nearby. She was aware of a presence and looked up to see Reno standing before her. He said, "Friend, you done me a good turn and I won't forget it. There's a big bright light openin' up, tellin' me to walk toward it, but before I go I'll live up to our deal."

Reno pointed into the distance and Cataclysm could see the land rising into a steep hill about two miles off. "There's a mine over yonder, the reason for this town. The dark lady took the green lady there. I tried to get in but there are quite a few spirits guarding the place plus some kind of wall of darkness. My gut says that's related to whatever she did out here." He frowned. "If you want my advice, you best clear out of Burnside, stranger, or the dark lady will take your soul too."

Cataclysm shook her head. "I need to find the green lady," she said.

Reno nodded. "The dark lady set up some kind of...what did she call 'em? Totems. Yeah that was it. Like a stick with a skull on it and some other doodads, probably magic geegaws. There was five of 'em put around the town. Lesse there was one by the school, one near the livery, one behind doc's office, one about two doors down from the hardware store, and one down thataway near the crick. They ain't hard to find. Maybe if you break 'em that'll free up the ghosts and break that barrier." He shrugged. "That's my guess, but then I don't really know magic. I used to think magic was a bunch of horse hooey...'til I got mystically brought back from the dead."

Reno studied her. "I'd shake your hand if I had any flesh left. I'll settle for saying thank you again. Say, I don't even know your name, stranger."

"Cataclysm," she said.

He mulled over the name and then smirked. "Fits you. Thankee, Cataclysm." He sighed in relief. "Now, if there ain't nothin' else, I think I'm going to go on to my reward."

"Nothing else," she said. "So long, sheriff."

He waved and faded out.