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The door to the captain's office opened and a soldier came in supporting another man around the shoulders. The first man was large and strong, the man he was helping was smaller, bedraggled and dressed in what appeared to be deerskin breeches and not much else. He looked Mexican rather than Indian, and was cut and battered in addition to being soaking wet.

"Captain," said the first man. "I found him in the river on patrol. He said he wanted to talk to you, but that's all. Seemed desparate.

"Go get the doc, Sargeant," said the Captain. "I'll take him."

The smaller man stumbled forward and with wide, terrified eyes gasped, "San Dimas ... Druids!" Then he collapsed.

The Night of the Druids

Part 1

"Sean, good to see you," the Major waved Sean into his office. "Have a seat." Sean moved to the right hand chair in front of the desk, the left hand one was already occupied. "Sean Lincoln, meet Arliss Strebs."

"Sean, AJ here is your new partner." He shook his head, "and this is a strange one for you, boys. A man stumbles into a fort in Colorado, dressed in deerskin, mumbles 'San Dimas ... Druids' and collapses. By the time the army doctor gets to him, he's dead. Exposure, exhaustion and the like."

"San Dimas is, or rather was, a little village in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. A few months ago, it vanished. All the people just dissappeared. There were no overt signs of violence, but the place was abandoned pretty quickly. The same thing has happened to a few isolated cabins, too, we think. Then this guy shows up."

Forgive my rebel ignorance, suh, but what're druids?"

The Major snorted. "Some old magicians or something, died out thousands of years ago, I think. Probably a code name or the soldiers misheard."

"People just up and left? They didn't relocate somewhere else?" Sean asked wondering about the unusualness of an entire town vacated. He walked over to the map on the Major's office and searched for the nearest city of some size.

"Even out there, a whole village is hard to lose," said the Major. "Everything is in here." He slid a couple of sheafs of paper across the desk. "Pringle's prepping the railcar. You head out on the 9:40 to Denver tomorrow morning. You'll switch to a Sante Fe train there."

The train whistled through the night ...

Pringle had cleaned up from breakfast as they arrived at Sante Fe in the late morning. "Gentlemen," he said. "I'll get the horses settled while you do ... whatever it is you do."

"Right now, suh, that would be digesting from that wonderful breakfast you cooked up." He looks at Sean. "How do you stay in shape with cooking like that? "

"Max's breakfast burns up fast," Sean assured him as he reached for his coat.

"Guess we should go find the man in charge of the Fort, start with him?"

"That would be the best course of action, he is expecting us and maybe they can tell us some more about these Druids and the disappearing towns," Sean replied.

"The horses should be ready in an hour," said Pringle.

The two men rode out of Sante Fe, they'd have a night on the road then arrive at the fort the next afternoon.

With the arrival of nightfall came the ritual of making camp, a practice completed in total silence. It wasn't until a dinner of beans had been served that the sound of speech pierced the quiet prarie. Sean sat down next to his bedroll and winced at the ground's hardness.

"Looks like this here isn't all that uncommon for you," he said looking around the wide expanse that the open sky offered.

AJ smiled. "Spent most'a my life without a full-time roof over my head. Yeah, definitely something you get used to.

"I thought so, I'm from Boston originally. I like the peace this offers, but prefer four walls and a tub at Miss Scarlet's, " he smiled remembering the boarding house back home with fondness. "So how'd you end up working for the FSS?"

AJ chuckled. "Work release. You're lookin' at a bonafide Confederate war criminal. Deserted the Gray in order to help with a different kind of railroad, so t'speak. Got arrested - fortunately the War stopped before they could get around to my trial. Friend of mine in your army saw me and even'tally they got me hooked up as an agent, in exchange for commuting of time served."

"My story has the same result, just a different path. I was an actor, still am, and the bluecoats pegged me to masquerade as President Grant. Yeah, you're looking at the President," he chuckled. "Any how, I played him the theatre so I was picked to play him so's they could flush out some unfriendly types that wanted to kill him. I figured they got Lincoln," he said wistfully looking out into the darkness, "I couldn't let them get Grant too."

AJ nodded and both men drank their coffee.

The fort was a wooden stockade set on a small hill in the foothills of the mountains. As they approached, a small troop of cavalry could be seen in the distance riding southwest. They approached the gate and were challenged.

Sean brought his horse to a stop and patted its neck, "We're here on official FSS business," he told the sentry.

"The government men we've been expecting?" asked the sentry. Sean nodded. "Alright, come on in." He stepped aside and shouted for a private to come and take their horses.

Inside, the fort was typical of a frontier fort in a non-too active area; while discipline was not slovenly, neither were they expecting attack at all moments. Soon they were in the spartan but comfortable office of Captain Sigel, a short but competant looking man with a truly impressive moustache and a faint German accent. He poured brandy for all and then sat. "I'm glad to see you gentlemen. It's a twisty little problem and I'm glad someone else is going to look at it." He shook his head. "The village of San Dimas, just gone. And quickly, too. Dinners on tables, goods still left in houses. Some stuff was taken away with the people, of course, but an organized relocation would not have left so many useful objects behind.

"Then there's the poor soul pulled out of the river. How does he fit in?"

"That is what we aim to find out," Sean assured the man. "Tell me, did any of your men notice any tracks around San Dimas? that many people should have left a path."

"It's not good tracking country. Truthfully not much good for anything country. There were some tracks heading sort of up into the mountains, but we couldn't follow them very far. It's pretty rocky up there," said the captain. "One thing we can say is that they didn't go north east. If they had, they'd have run into Wills Ford. Just west of Wills Ford is where my lads pulled the body out of the Niegepoudre river."

AJ nodded to Sean. Sounds like he'd be useful this time around. "Is there any evidence that anyone's up there in the mountains? Smoke trails or anythin'?"

"There some homesteaders, a few sheep farmers like the San Dimans, some trappers and mountain men. Like that. Houses, sure and farms, but no real towns, and only a few villages - one less now that San Dimas is gone."

"All the livestock missing too?" Sean chimed in. "This man who died, anybody recognize him?"

"Not conclusively, one of the men thinks he might have been from San Dimas, but he's not sure."

Sean turned to AJ, "It looks like everything starts with San Dimas?"

"Hopefully it doesn't end there too," AJ replied.

The two men riding into Wills Ford didn't look like the dapper FSS agents that had set out from the East; they were dressed as prospectors or maybe trappers in servicable but not fresh clothing. They were armed as befitted the not-quite-tamed land. Wills Ford had once straddled a very good ford across the Niegepoudre river, now the river itself was straddled by a low bridge barely high enough for canoes to slide under when the river was high. The town itself was a trading town, two saloons which also let rooms, a general store and a few other businesses and buildings. An everchanging flow of miners, traders, prospectors and trappers passed through, with the occasional farmer or rancher stopping by to sell goods. A rich mixture of Spanish and English was heard, since a good portion of the populace seemed to be Mexican.

Sean nudged his horse forward and took in the town. "Looks like a place that could have stories to tell," he said to AJ pointing off toward the nearest saloon. The two men turned toward the establishment and tied up their mounts. "Let's see what's happening in Wills Ford," he offered and made to push his way through the batwing doors.

AJ rested a hand on his shoulder, stopping him briefly before whispering. "Sounds like we have some Mexican presence here. I habla espanol. Not sure if y'knew that."

Sean broke into a smile, "That just may be the edge we need. Before we make that known, let's see what folks are liable to say about us instead of to us."

Inside, the saloon seemed typical enough. Drinkers at the bar, gamblers at the tables, girls everywhere.

Sean walked over to the bar and nodded to one of the men sitting there. "Two whiskies," he called out before settling with his back against the bar looking out over the saloon. Promptly the shots were produced and after digging in his pocket, Sean tossed the coins down and downed his, wincing at the amber burn as it cauterized his throat.

AJ gestured to the glasses Sean just down, then showed 2 fingers, putting his money on the bar. When the whiskey was laid down, AJ sipped the first one slowly...then thought better of it, and downed it.

The two men took the opportunity to look around the bar. All seemed to be as they would expect: the gamblers glanced at them with the usual blend of wariness and invitation; the bartender seemed friendly enough; some of the drinkers were clearly not interested in anything but drinking, others seemed a bit more open. Two of the girls drifted close, both were olive-complexioned and lovely, if dressed a little scantily. The shorter of the two (by an inch or so), sat down to Sean's left while her companion sat down on AJ's right. The petite one spoke, "Good afternoon, Senor. Buy a drink for me and my friend?"

"A right friendly town," Sean commented calling for drinks to be brought over to the ladies. "I hope the ladies at San Dimas prove to be just as kind," he said to AJ hoping to get a response from their tablemates.

A look passed between the two women, "There are no ladies in San Dimas, senor."

"Nonsense, maybe not as pretty as you," he joked. "But my sister married herself a San Diman, if that's what they're called out here," he bellowed in hopes of catching whatever ear was listening.

"Senor," the girl leaned in, "it is perhaps not so good to talk of San Dimas so loudly. The village, she is gone."

First Sean looked confused, then reacted in shock "Gone? I don't understand." He looked briefly to AJ to see if he understood, and reached for his whiskey.

"Did something happen? Tornado?" AJ chimed in...his southern lilt replaced by carefully spoken English.

"Quietly, senor," she looked around. "Perhaps you would like to take us upstairs?"

Sean glanced over at AJ and raised an eyebrow, "Maybe that would be best," he said rising. "Keep an eye on the ladies," was how he left his partner while he went to get a room for the evening. A single room had its advantages, aside from maintaining their backstory as drifters looking for work, it also provided an easier place to defend.

As soon as Sean returned, AJ slid an arm around his lady and began to lead her upstairs, following Sean and his. She was right pretty...this was definitely a job perk, he thought to himself.

Sporting a big smile, Sean leaned over his left shoulder to glance at AJ, and quickly surveyed the room to see if anyone was paying the two men any undue attention.

Their actions seemed perfectly in keeping with what folks were expecting, so no one gave them a second glance. When they reached the room, the smaller girl turned to them. "Why do you want to go to San Dimas, senors? The whole town is gone, spirited away, poof!"

Sean reiterated the story about seeking work through a family member, making sure he included a healthy dose of concern, "Towns don't just poof! What are you saying?" He pulled up a chair and beckoned the lady to sit.

"You say I lie? There is no town there anymore. Buildings, yes, but people no! I can show you!" The fiery little senorita's eyes flashed.

"No, no, no," Sean said soothingly. "I'm not saying you're lying, I just don't understand how something like this could happen." He sat on the bed to present a less imposing figure and tried to reassure the senorita that he meant no offense. He looked at AJ, "Looks like we have a guide to San Dimas."

"Can you tell us what happened, and when?"

"You'd be willing to escort us to San Dimas, ma'am?" AJ inquired. His eyes haven't left the other woman's though.

The two women exchanged a look, and then the petite girl nodded. "Yes, we can show you San Dimas. I am Margarita, this is Maria."

Sean looked to AJ and then the ladies, "When should we leave?"

The foursome rode out of Wills Ford early, heading for San Dimas. The girls were good company and the days passed quickly. Cresting a small rise, they halted and Margarita pointed down to a cluster of shacks and small buildings down in the depression, sheltered by the mountain.

"San Dimas," she said. "The village was cursed like the mine before it."

"Cursed? what happened to the mine?" Sean asked looking down into the abandoned town.

"I'm ... I'm not sure, exactly. A tragedy of some kind. Some were killed, some dissappeared, the mine closed."

"Looks like we won't find any answers until we get there," Sean looked to AJ to lead the way given his experience when it came to scouting. Sean would take the rear and keep his eyes peeled for anything out of the ordinary.

They descended to the village, as they passed a rough trail on their left, Margarita waved at it, "The mine." The village, when they arrived, was a ghost town. The few buildings, none ostentatious, were empty of human inhabitants. A coyote leaping out of one had both the FSS men scrabbling for their guns, then looking embarrased as the critter ran into the pines.

The buildings were eerie; in most, there were still belongings on the walls and in cupboards. To add to the picture, in a few places, on walls and on the side of the wall, an odd symbol had been drawn. It was a downward point triangle with the two upward arms extended and bending slightly outwards. The result was like a deformed, upside-down "A"

Sean pointed to the symbol and approached. "You ladies seen this marking before?" he asked as he studied the marking closely.

After some consultation Sean and AJ determined that the marks, due to their location, may have been warnings before the evacuation instead of markers made afterwards trumpeting the mass exodus. It had a eerie feel, houses just left with a touch of immediacy. "There must be a clue somewhere," he said aloud.

"Shall we find it?" he asked with smile.

AJ looked towards the mines. "I'm wondering if there maht be clues in the mines. If folks just up and disappeared, and it happened while people were working, there maht be ev'dence of that down there."

He looked towards the ladies. "Not sure if the senioritas want to come along. Might be dangerous."

The two girls looked at each other, "We don't want to stay here alone. We'd feel safer with you."

"Then we go as a group," Sean said to comfort the ladies. "We can see what you mean by the town being gone, but what caused this? what are people saying?"

"No one talks about it, Senor," said Margarita and Maria nodded. "No one knows. Some gringos, they say 'lazy Mexicanos' just left, life was too hard. Some say Indians."

Sean looked off toward the mine. "The town is clean, let's check out the mine." AJ nodded silently.

After backtracking, the foursome looked up a slight slope to where a couple of dilapidated buildings perched on a flat space in front of a mine opening heading back into a cliff wall. A sign, at the obligatory skewed angle, read "Forlorn Hope Mine."

The girls drew closer together, shivering slightly in the pre-dusk chill. Maria spoke first, for a change, "The mine, Senors. There is nothing here, I am sure. Let us leave."

Margarita nodded, "I do not like this place."

"I give you it isn't a cheerful looking place," Sean said matter-of-factly. "We've come this far, might as well take a peek just to satisfy our curiosity." Sean nodded to AJ to lead the way and to keep an eye out for anything suspicious.

There were three buildings around the mine: a storage shed, an office and what looked like a guard shack or something similar. AJ was the outdoorsman and he bent to examine the ground.

AJ felt the ground in front of him. "People have been here. Not in th' last few days, mind ya...but look at the wear on the ground...the tracks where grass should be. The wear's consistent with relatively recent use. There's been people here...my guess is sometime in the last month or so?"

Sean looked to the ladies, "When did this mine close?"

"Twenty year, maybe?" offered Margarita. Maria nodded.

As he suspected, there was more to this mine than the townspeople were led to believe. "AJ, we ought to approach real slow."

"Slow's a southern trait, suh." He grins. "You senioritas might want t'stay behind us." Dutifully, the two women shuffled back a few steps.

The FSS men moved carefully toward the buildings. First they checked the guard shack. It looked to have been abandoned for quite a while, and pretty well cleaned out of anything useful.

Satisfied on that account, they moved on to the storage room. It, too, appeared to be thoroughly abandoned and unused. They examined the shelves and cabinets and found nothing of interest.

For the sake of completeness they moved on to the office. There was little in the room but a desk, shoved into a corner with a chair upended on it. As they moved in, AJ examined it as he had been examining the other rooms. He noticed there was less dust in this building, and was on the point of mentioning it when the floor gave way beneath the two men.

The entire room save for a small bit under the desk was a trap door! Sean slipped down and fell, while AJ leapt for the doorway and got a hand on the saddle of the door.

Margarita appeared in the doorway. "Yet again a sight for sore eyes...how 'bout a hand, Seniorita?"

"Sorry, Senor," said the girl before stepping on AJ's hand. He strained to hold on, but lost his grip and fell.

The two men were at the bottom of a fifteen foot deep pit looking up at the roof of the office above them. The heads of the girls appeared in the doorway. "Do not fear, senors," said Margarita. "Someone will be along soon for you." Her head vanished. Maria's remained for a moment and the two men could read real regret in her features. Then a peremptory command was barked in Spanish by Margarita, and with a last sad look, Maria dissappeared.

Night of the Druids, Part 2
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