"That had t'be the shortest order we've ever received. 'Go to Denver'. Wonder what the fuss is that we can't even get an idea as t'why?
"I'd guess it isn't for a vacation," Sean commented
A knock came at the door and Max opened it. A small and somewhat rabbity looking man came in and nodded to the pair. "Lincoln and Strebs?" The federal agents nodded. "I'm Wilkins, sign for these documents, please." That formality accomplished, he turned over a large sealed folder. He visibly relaxed, "I'm glad you're here, gentlemen. I'm glad that Willistown is your problem and not mine."
"And what exactly is our problem, Wilkins? Other than an abundance of vagueness?" AJ replied.
"The problem is that Willistown was destroyed completely by fire from on high, as if by the wrath of God!
AJ had found it and read,
The United States Government is required to yield all control over the area from Fort Collins in the south to Fort Monroe in the east, Fort Jermaine in the north and Fort Richardson in the west. Citizens should be evacuated or they and their towns will be destroyed like Willistown. Mikel TezlowskaSean sat up, "Did you say Tezlowska?"
Wilkins continued, "We weren't able to get any more contact from the telegraph office and when we sent a detachment up from Fort Collins, they reported that the town had been utterly destroyed. Nothing left but a crater and some rubble."
"When was this telegram sent? Could it just be an opportunist?" Sean asked. "Lots of towns have been burned down or had powder keg go off."
"Thirty-four days ago. Another town was destroyed four days ago. A second telegram came, also in there," said Wilkins.
AJ read again,
I regret you felt the need for another demonstration. So be it. I shall destroy a town every thirty days until my demands are met. Tezlowska"Who's this Teslowska? Sean, you sound like you've cross repartee with him before," AJ said.
"I don't like to throw around the term madman, but in this case it fits. Last t ime he very nearly tried to turn me into werewolf bait. Yes, I said werewolf. He was into making and selling some kind of wolfman army to the highest bidder." Sean rubbed his head, "Looks like he's upped the ante to holding the US Gover nment hostage."
"Is there any indication of where his next target may be? Any sort of a pattern?" AJ said.
Wilkins said, "There's a map in the file. It's a pretty big chunk of country, but it's pretty empty and worthless - it's Apache country, too. Not too many towns. Both of the ones that were hit are on the telegraph." He shook his head, "Obviously, since we got the telegrams. There are only two more on the line, then a few others without telegraph. And one fort out there that's doing some Indian fighting."
"Not much to go on, is there a report on what was found in Willistown?" Sean didn't want to have to waste time going over what the government had already inspected.
"There's reports on both towns. Willistown isn't much, I'm afraid. A crater and some smoking rubble. The other one is stranger. The place is battered down and mostly burnt, and there are rocks all over the place - inside the buildings and out." Wilkins shook his head again. "Rocks half buried in the ground sometimes, all sizes, too."
"Did anyone see this catastrophe happen? Any herders or Indians? Someone outside the town," Sean asked.
"One man, just outside the town. He rode like hell down the line and made it to Fort Collins yesterday. He'll be waiting for you when you get there," said Wilkins.
"That's as good a start as any." AJ said. "Lets get over there before they have to rename the town Boulder."
"Thanks Colonel, what is your take on this?" Sean asked the experienced commander.
"It's beyond me," he said. "The town's been destroyed, that's for sure, and it wasn't just an Apache massacre."
"That is the impression we got by all accounts." Sean filled in the Colonel on all unclassified information to garner another opinion from someone who was on site. The problem with witnesses was often tose who were disreputable looking for a drink, or those who spent too much time out in the sun. "How well do you know these witnesses?"
"A mixed bag. The first was a prospector - the loner type, a little suspect. But the other three are respectable citizens - the schoolmistress and her beau, he's a blacksmith, and a lad who worked at the general store."
"Let's start with the kid, Sean. He'd have the least reason to lie about anythin, usually." AJ said.
The kid wasn't exactly a child, the agents would put him in his late teens. He arrived quickly enough and too the proffered seat. His story was simple. "I was out riding since it was a slow day, and as I was returning to town, I saw streaks of fire falling out of the sky. The town was pummeled and buildings collapsed and caught fire. My horse spooked and ran, and I guess I spooked, too. By the time I go the horse back under control, we were a couple of miles south and I just kept riding."
"Did you see where any of the streaks came from?" AJ said.
"From the sky!" He pointed straight up.
"Did you happen to see any strangers in town or leaving town around this time?" Sean asked. "Any doctors selling cure-alls, or performers?"
"No, nothing like that. It's ... was ... a quiet town," he said. "Even the Apaches hadn't been giving us too much trouble lately."
"Is that unusual? When did they stop causing trouble?" Sean asked the young man.
"Well, kinda. They used to raid and stuff but for a couple of months now there's been less of that," said the young man.
Sean wondered if Apache incursions had become less frequent around the other towns too, something to ask the Colonel. It may be completely unrelated, but were the Apache somehow aware or involved? He looked to AJ, "anything else?"
"Don't think so." He looks at the lad. "Thanks for your help. We may need to speak with you again if we get more information, so please be available."
The schoolmistress and her beau could add little to the lad's story, so after a quick interview, they called for the prospector. Gabby Johnson looked exactly like would expect an anti-social and slightly paranoid prospector to look. His clothes were patched and mended, his beard and moustache ragged and extensive and his face weatherbeaten. He'd been enjoying the hospitality of the fort for a week or so, so he was probably cleaner and better fed than usual, though.
"What can you tell us about what you saw or heard when it comes to Willistown?" asked Sean after making introductions.
"Welp," he said, then nodded and thought for a few minutes. "I was a good piece away, y'unnerstand, then this thing came down out of the sky. It was kind of a fireball. I told Esmerelda, my mule, 'that thar looks like it might hit Willistown.' And it did."
"It just came out of the sky? You didn't see it before then?" asked Sean being careful not to lead the man.
"Welp," a pause, "it kind of came across real high-like, sort shooting star-like, only a lot bigger and lasted a lot longer."
"Could it have come from the earth like it was shot from something like a cannon?" Sean demonstrated a sweeping arc that could have had the devastation only appear to originate from the heavens.
"Welp." A longer pause ensued. "I suppose if the cannon could shoot it up high enough."
"By the way, have you noticed any change in the Apaches lately?"
"Funny you should mention that," he said. "Welp," he paused. "Yaaas. The 'Paches've been kinda quiet-like. I mean, we sort of leave each other alone pretty much, but lately I aint even seen 'em round much."
Before he could say anything, something clicked in AJ's mind...something to file away. "Have you seen anything like that happen since that night?" AJ asked.
"Welp," pause, "like the fire from the sky? No, can't rightly say as I have. Welp." Pause. "Does seem like a lot of shooting stars lately."
"Whereabouts have you seen these other shooting stars?" asked Sean.
Johnson looked at Sean as though the Federal man were an idiot. "Welp. In the sky, I reckon."
With a sigh, Sean clenched his fist and AJ quickly prevented Gabby from losing what few teeth he had left. Now calmed, Sean slowly said, "which towns, mountains, territories were near the shooting stars."
"Welp," he paused. Then paused again. A third pause followed, and somehow the listeners knew it was three pauses and not just a single long one. "The shooting stars were in sky, young feller. Not near to nothing. Aint you never seen a shooting star?"
"Welp," Sean said dumbfounded. Slowly he looked at AJ and walked out to get some fresh air.
"Not ones that landed with pinpoint precision of two towns in the same area, old timer." AJ said. "Next one might land on you. Wouldn't it make sense for you to figure out where they might be coming from so you know not t'be there when they land?"
"Welp," a single long pause this time. "It might at that. But I caint help you. Didn't seem be coming from anywhere particular. Just kind shooting across the sky." The agents shrugged and let the man go. After some discussion, they decided to head into Apache country and sought advice on outposts or trading posts in the area.
Sean drew his pistol and fired. One of the circling Apaches spun around and dropped. AJ rolled to his feet, breathing heavily after his fall, drew and shot. Fear and anger lent him wings and the gun flew out of his holster. His shot, however, went wide.
Sean snapped off three quick shots but the looping and diving Apache were hard to draw a bead on, especially as they screamed and spooked his horse. The Apache on the rock dove at Sean and for a moment they struggled on the horse before Sean shoved him off, barely keeping his seat. As the Apache rolled to his feet, Sean put a bullet into him.
AJ fired again missing by small margin as his target ducked behind a rock. The dust flew as the skirmishing men bobbed and wove. A thrown tomahawk landed with the shaft forward on the back of Sean's skull and he bounced off of the front of his saddle before regaining his balance. That Apache paused to whoop his victory, which was his undoing. AJ shot him in the shoulder and he spun around and flopped into the dust. Sean's pistol cracked again and another Apache fell. Sean drew a bead and fired again. Click, he was empty! The Apache's look of relief was short-lived -- AJ still had bullets left. The Indian took one in the leg and fell to the ground.
Sean rode toward the last Apache, diving off his horse as he approached. He landed on the indian, they rolled around for a moment, then a solid right cross put the Apache down for the count.
Staggering to his feet, Sean loudly exhaled in relief. "Whew, hope there aren't many more like that." Gingerly he rubbed the back of his head, "Think they were waiting for us?" he asked AJ seeing his partner shuffling up.
They spent a few moments tieing up the surviving three Apaches, and as they did they notice a motif which recurred in their decorations and ornaments; it looked like a thunderbird at first glance, but a spray of fireballs seemed to be emanating from it rather than lighting.
"Can't be a coincidence," Sean commented as he reloaded his pistol. With a twirl it landed back in his holster, "Want to do a little questioning of our guests?" he asked AJ.
"We can try, not sure what good it would do. I may speak a few different languages, but that of the Apache Nation isn't one." AJ replied.
"I'd guess they speak enough English to tell us what we want to know, " Sean co mmented as he retrieved his canteen. "And if they can't we'll leave them for th e buzzards," he said matter-of-factly while watching the Apaches reaction. There was little. The Apache prided themselves on never showing fear.
Sean approached the warrior on the far left and spoke, "The fire rocks from the sky. The white man behind it is bad medicine for you and your people."
"The lord of the Thunderbirds will chase the white-eyes from the land and the Apache will live as they did in the past," said the Apache.
"Until the Lord of the Thunderbirds decides he wants you gone as well. Tell me, is the Lord of the Thunderbirds a white-eye too?" AJ said.
"The Lord of the Thunderbirds is beyond such things," said the Apache.
"He is nothing but a man, actually less than a man, he is a liar and will bring great trouble upon your people. You will live as slaves under him." Sean squatted down to look the man in the eye. "You know this in your heart that he is not as he says he is."
"He has not lied as the white-eyes have lied to the Apache many times," said the Apache stoically.
The agents remounted and rode off, dropping one of the Apache's knives at a distance which would give them a good headstart before the Apache could get themselves free.
"I imagine you don't." A.J. said as he walked toward the place. "Have you come across any recently...say, within the past month or two?"
"Wahhl," said McGurk leading the way inside, "aside from the supply wagon, can't say I have."
"Any trouble from the Apache?" Sean asked dismounting.
McGurk shot him a sharp look, "The 'Pache? Trouble? Not lessen you count the drop-off in trade. Coffee?" Without waiting for an answer, he began to pour out cups from a pot on the stove. "Y'all seem full of questions, mind if I ask why?"
Sean accepted the cup and winced from his first taste imagining that kerosene may very well be the main ingredient. After a brief coughing spell, "There's been some trouble and some talk about a white man stirring up the Apache, we were ambushed a ways back and wanted to see for ourselves."
McGurk nodded. "What's your interest?"
"Staying alive, mostly," Sean said with a smile. "This fella is bad for the country, we need to find him. If you have any information to help us, we'd be most appreciative."
"You're more interested in the white man than the 'Pache, then?" said McGurk.
"We have no issue with the Apache," Sean replied adding, "unless they decide to kill us, that has a way of becoming personal."
"It can do that," allowed McGurk. "What is it you wanted to know again?"
"There's a white man among the Apaches, seems to have some power over them. He may be behind the fireballs folks have been seeing in the sky." Sean took another swig of the coffee and shivered. "We need to know where he might be."
"The 'Lord of the Thunderbirds?'" McGurk nodded. "He don't seem to be too good for the 'Pache. I've never seen him and he's not getting his supplies from me."
"That's the man," Sean confirmed. "Who would be supplying him? I'd imagine a man like you would know where the snakes are holed up."
"Hard to say, there's a lot of empty territory out there," said McGurk thoughtfully.
"We'd be much obliged to whoever could help us," Sean said touching his vest pocket. "A man could get a reward if he had some helpful information."
"I'd be right happy to help. This feller doesn't seem to be doing the 'Pache any good, and I've gotten to understand them pretty good over the years, and them, me. I just don't know what else to say ..."
"Understood, do you know of anybody else who might have seen something or could point us toward this troublemaker? Maybe a prospector or trapper in the area?"
"Not too many folks go in and out, it's not good land. Some creeks, some badlands, and no one has ever found anything valuable on the mountain, that I know of."
Sean turned to AJ, "Looks like the mountain is just the place Tezlowska might go."
"Mebbe," offered McGurk. "They do claim it's the home of the Thunderbirds."
"Think you could give us a general idea where they may be holed up in the mountains?" Sean asked McGurk.
"The mountain's sacred to the 'Pache, so I aint never been there. They say, though, that to show respect to the Thunderbirds, you must come from the north," said McGurk.
"Sounds simple enough," he commented climbing atop his horse. "AJ, looks like we're going to the mountaintop from the North."