Some folks say that the times, they are a-changin'. And some folks say that the more things change, the more things stay the same. I think I'm with both of those viewpoints, m'self. Times sure do change, but in the important ways, they stay the same. People are people are people, same as they was when I first started walking these hills, no matter how much things change, and they sure have changed. As for me? I like to think I'm a bit wiser, maybe a bit more clever, but I'm still the same John I ever was, as much as the world changes 'round me.
As so often happens, this story begins with me walking and minding my own business. I was strollin' through a valley one fine autumn afternoon, singing to myself and enjoying the air. I was coming up on a windswept mountain with a little town near the bottom. Didn't know the name of the town, just happened upon it. I came through the last of the thick trees, and saw a town that had like as not seen more prosperous days. I heard raised voices and headed generally in that direction. Found a young woman talking with an older man. He was wearing overalls and seemed right at home in this town, but the woman was wearing much more finery, not in a party dress sort of way, but much more serious, like a city business person. Her hair was a dark red, almost brown, and she had it pulled back harsh.
The man was speaking to her slowly, sounding like he was maybe sorry for what he was saying. "Sure does sounds complicated to me, Susie. I just don't know if folks 'round here could get into such a thing, and this plan is doing what we already know."
"Bill, come on! You were all for my plan! You're just believing that exploitative no-good snake and his lies! He doesn't care about this town or the people in it! You know that I do. I've got all the technical parts laid out, I've got good people lined up for the high tech parts, and there will be lots of jobs for everyone. What is he offering you? Just more danger and death!" She had some red creeping up her face as she talked, and anger in her eyes.
"I'm sorry, Susie. Maybe after this here plan's done, we could try yours next? He owns the land, ain't nothing we can do about it now."
"And what is this alleged plan of his, anyways? I haven't gotten one solid detail from anyone except 'mining'. For what? It's all dried up!"
"He says it'll all be clear when we start Monday." He looked away and cleared his throat. "Mary's waiting for me, I'll see you tomorrow, all right?"
She pulled in a long breath and let it out real slow like she was trying to bring some calmness back to herself.
"Yeah, Bill, I'll see you tomorrow."
Bill headed out, and she just stood there, with her hand up against her forehead, like she was not paying attention to anything 'round her. After a bit she breathed deeply and started walking. I headed over to her and struck up talking while walking where she went.
"Hello there, miss. You don't sound like you're from 'round these parts."
"Oh, I am. Born and raised in this here town. I've just worked so hard to speak standard English, I keep forgetting that I'll be more approachable if I talk like I used to. Used to be whenever I got that angry I slipped right back in, I hadn't even realized I stopped."
"Standard English? You go become a city girl?" I questioned her.
"Just for college. Did my undergrad at Duke, post-grad at Northwestern. I've been dreaming for years about using what I learned back home, to save my friends and family from the horrors of the coal life, and now *he's* come and ruined everything! No one wants to listen to me anymore! They did before!"
"Before *he* came to town. I came home six months ago with my plans. The coal mines are just about dried up and the town is dying off as people move away looking for work. So I presented my plans to bring in green energy, and how many jobs would come with it, and how we could use the new government recovery tax credits."
"Green energy?" I interrupted her there, because with her mile-a-minute mouth I was 'fraid I'd never get a chance to get a word of my own in. Not a girlish babble from her- more a controlled rage sort of feeling that kept her going, which caught my interest at finding what had caused such strong feeling.
"Windmills, actually. The weather conditions here and the east side of the mountain are just perfect, and we can integrate with the rest of the local power grid. I have the plans right here; I can show you --"
"Thank you, miss, but I think that'd be a bit beyond me. I'll take your word for it. "
We'd reached the outskirts of town and stopped by a house, as sweet looking a place as you could think of. I looked 'round at the area, and all of a sudden she seemed to recollect where she was.
"Where are my manners? I just keep gabbing and I haven't even asked your name!"
"John," I named myself.
"Well I'm Susan Drake; it's a pleasure to meet you, John. What brings you here? You have kin here?"
"No, I'm just passing through. Found this place without planning it."
"You don't know anyone here? Well I may have moved to the city and given a poor showing of my manners so far, but I do have some. I'm inviting you to have supper with me and my folks."
I was awful hungry by that point, having not had anything besides a bit of jerky since the day before, but I accounted that I didn't want to be any trouble, for manners sake. She insisted I come, and I was happy to accept her invitation. We walked 'round the corner to the front of the house. Her pa was sitting on the front porch whittling. He had a look of being frail of body but strong of spirit all at once. When he saw us, he called into the house, "June, we gots company". He introduced himself; Harold Drake was his name. Susan introduced me as well.
"Sit down, make yourself easy. We're just before eating, nothing too fancy but we're happy to share."
I was welcomed in with such hospitality, 'twas enough to make a body blush. Lemonade came out with her ma, June, and not long after, they were all set for supper.
"Pa," Susan said, settling down across the table, "I was just telling John here about what happened with the mine."
Her pa looked a bit sour at that mention. "Spent forty years of my life in that mine. Thought it was gone for good, and good riddance."
Susan asked me if I could recollect where she'd been in her account.
"You were about to tell me what happened when you presented this here plan to the town?"
"They loved it! They know me; they know I love this town. They were a bit standoffish when I first came back with all my fancy degrees, but I just needed to show them I'm the same girl I ever was! Everyone was so in favor of it; town council was unanimous, and that *never*happens! Tell him, Pa!"
He showed it was as she said with a nod.
"I left to go get everything finalized, secured investor money, got some people involved to handle the high-tech parts, got an accountant, got all my paperwork, negotiated with the coal company to buy the land. I had everything except the final signature on buying the land, which I had been promised, and suddenly they backed out! Said they had another offer, and they'd already made it official without even talking to me! Didn't give me a chance to make a counteroffer, after all the work I'd done."
I was nodding at what she was saying, but she hardly needed a reason to keep going.
"So I came here to find out what happened! And that's when I met him, that lying snake of an excuse for a man, piece of scum, not worth the--"
"And what's the name of this here snake?" I cut her off, as I could see that there line of insults was just gathering up steam.
"Julian Claudius Turnham III, that's his name, the villain." She seemed liable to continue her abuses, but then June called upon her to pray for dinner.
We had a right nice supper there, Susan, her folks and me, and I got educated with the history of this town. Seems this had been a coal mining town going back ages, but the coal had finally started to give up in recent times. This Turnham had bought up the land Susan was going to use from the coal company, and claimed to have some great secret plan for finding more valuables down in the mines, though everyone who knew anything swore up and down those mines didn't have nothing left in them at all. Coal company didn't care, 'cause he offered them so much money if they'd sell it right away. Everyone who'd been so happy with Susan's plan turned to his, and no one could say why. Her folks told me that everyone who was unsure went to talk to him and came out near vowing it was the Lord's work, their minds were so changed.
June was quite sure something strange was happening. "Why Red Tom himself, the most contrary man I've known, he went in there and came out like he'd seen the hand of the Lord blessing it! Red Tom! And I can assure you that's one man that could never be bribed, so that idea's out. Most proud and honest man in these parts, if also the most contrarian." I was suspicious right there. Man with such powers deserved a closer look.
All of a sudden-like, Susan's father started wheezing and looking pained. His wife ran over to him to try and help him, but . Susan just looked sad. She said, quietly, "Black lung disease." Then she got up and walked across the room..
I followed, to give my hosts a bit of privacy. She stood staring out the window at the mountain, all still-like, her hands clasped behind her. "Coal workers' pneumoconiosis. Not as common as it used to be, but it killed my grandsire, and it's killing my father." All the rage had gone from her, just sadness remained. She spoke without turning towards me. "I hate coal mining. I always have, I always will. It's backbreaking work, and it kills good men. It always dries up eventually, and the town is ruined, full of ailing men and regrets. Not to mention the environmental impact.
" I . . . wanted to change that. I wanted to help my town, and show other people and other places that there was another way. I worked so hard . . ." She trailed off and continued staring out the window at that mountain that caused her such pain.
Eventually June came to the door, cleared her throat and said dessert was on the table, and I had two pieces of very nice pie while pondering the situation.
Harold went to sit on the porch while June cleaned the table, refusing any help from me. I told Susan that I'd like to meet this Turnham fellow. She sighed.
"It's no use. The man has a silver tongue. Answers everything with double talk, makes you think you've gotten something and you don't realize 'til after that he gave you nothing."
"Still, I'd like to give it a try. Can you show him to me?"
June interrupted, "Now John, do you have a place to stay tonight?" The sun was just starting to sink past the mountain. Time had slipped away from me.
"Well, Ma'am, can't say that I do, but I always manage," I replied, not wanting to trouble them anymore than I had already.
"Well I certainly won't hear of you going off with no place to stay!" June said. "It's getting cold nights this time of year. We'll put you up, and I won't stand for anything else." She spoke with a firmness, but also with a kindness and hospitality that I found most welcome.
"In that case, ma'am, I'd love to stay. Thank you very much."
"Now, do you play that there guitar you're a-toting, or just keep it for show?" she questioned with a smile on her lips.
"Ma'am, I do my possible best, if you folks would like to hear me strum a tune."
Vandy, Vandy, I've come to court you,
Be you rich or be you poor,
And if you'll kindly entertain me,
I'll love you forever more.
I sang songs for I don't know how long. It was a right fine evening all around.
In the morning I insisted on helping with some chores before heading out to find Turnham. I needed to see this man for myself, see if he was just very convincing or if he had something more sinister afoot. Too many strange things to ignore, all the folks changing their minds, coal company treating Susan so poorly, everyone saying the mine was worthless but him being so quick to say otherwise... Just something wasn't right there.
I found him at the old coal offices that he'd taken for his place. He was 'bout as I'd expected, a man sure of hiself and his power. Tall, dark hair and dark eyes, dressed fine but not too showy. He saw me come in and came over.
"Hello there, good sir!" he greeted me. "Here looking for a job in my new project? We have plenty to go around, let me tell you!"
He had a real charm to him, for sure, but one that I was mighty suspicious of. I could see clearly how a man like him could charm folks into believin' whatever he had to tell without reason or sense entering into it.
"You the owner of all this, sir?" I questioned him.
"Almost, almost! Last paperwork is still going through, but by Monday it will be all mine, far as you can see!" He gestured out towards the mines and the mountain. "So, you looking for a job?"
"Well sir, I'd say I'm here to see what this is all about. Stories I've heard so far ain't lined up to a clear picture yet."
He started talking to me then, and without really thinking my hand worked its way into my pocket and grabbed hold of an old silver quarter I held on to. New ones aren't made of silver, but I make sure to always keep some of the old kind on my person, just in case. He talked and talked but I never could quite grab ahold of what he said, it just slipped by me. The more I felt like just believing what he was saying, the harder I grasped that piece of silver, grounding me against his will. I nodded and pretended like I was under his spell, not letting on the truth.
He finished up and asked me if I had any questions.
"Nossir, I think I know all I need to know for now." I answered him.
"So, ready to sign up?" He questioned me, sure I'd say yes.
"Well, I'm not quite sure. Thinkin' I should go talk it over and come back to ye."
He didn't like this answer, not one bit. A man not used to not getting his way, I could tell, and I've met my fair share of men like that in my time, and liked less than none of them.
"Well, sir, I mean to have you signed on today! What can I do to convince you further?" He spoke with his charm again, but I could see how forced it was.
"I'd like to take a look at these mines, if that's at all allowable. I'm sure that'd make my mind up for sure."
I saw a moment of doubt there in that face of his, but he covered it right up with his false charm. "Right away, then. You want to leave that guitar in the office?"
Last thing I was going to do was leave my silver stringed guitar with this man. "Nossir, I'd like to hold on to it."
Some other fancy fellow came out of the back and came along with ustowards the mine. Turnham waved at a guard at the entrance, gave me a hard hat to wear, and bade me mind my step.
I'd seen a coal mine before, and it was much the same, but with more machines I didn't know. Turnham excused himself at one point and left me to follow his fancy fellow. Mr. Fancy excused himself to talk to some other men, and I was able to head off in the direction Turnham had gone. I went through a door that had been left unlocked, and I heard his voice. I risked a glance round the bend. He was standing near some big pit or something, nothing much to see. I heard him talking, didn't know who to.
"My plan is almost complete! Come Monday half of this pathetic town will be in here mining, ready to be your food! No one will miss this terrible place once we collapse the mine! All your power will be restored, and then we can truly begin!"
Then he started chanting something I couldn't make out, in Latin I thought. I'd heard enough, and slipped back out.
The fancy fellow looked right upset; I told him I'd stopped to tie my shoe and lost him. He led me back out, and Turnham joined us soon afterwards. He jumped right back on to getting me to sign up to start Monday. Right turned my stomach, knowing why he was so eager.
I reckoned this fellow was so sure of getting his way with his witchcraft, if I didn't give him what he was asking for, he'd know somethin' was up for sure, so I said I'd be his man. He relaxed after that, and I excused myself and went to go walk and think 'bout what I'd seen.
Susan found me sitting under a tree, strumming my guitar to nothing in particular, thinking 'bout how to tackle this situation. I gave but small resistance to another dinner offer, and passed another fine evening in her home. After we supped, Susan questioned me as to my meeting with Turnham. I tried to avoid her questions and let on as little as I could. Told her the truth, but left out some parts. I guess I let slip something that let on that he was an evil man up to dark magic, or maybe she'd figured it out already. She didn't seem satisfied with what I was telling her, but her ma called her away to help with dishes, and by the time she came back I was engaged with her father getting the history of the town and the mine right 'til bedtime.
I sneaked out the house real quiet-like, leaving a note of thanks, with a real fear in my bones that it might be the last time I put pen to paper. There was no speed to my step as I made my way back to the mines, no clear plan for this problem in my mind, when all sudden-like I heard a noise back behind me. I spun round to find Susan, holding a flashlight, looking a mite startled herself. I started to tell her I was just out for a night walk, didn't mean to rouse anyone, when she cut me off.
"I found your note, John. What are you up to?" There was real fierceness in her right then. "Don't try to fool me. I know you was holding back on me; you know more than you tell 'bout all this. Are you going to the mines? What's down there?" I felt like no lies or excuses would get by her, and not through any devil-work at seeing things, just from that sharp mind of hers that sees things for what they are.
"Well, you got me there, I must say. Sharp one, you are," I told her, "But this is bigger an' worse than you could know, and too dangerous for you. I think--"
Again she cut me right off: "I'm no child, don't be treating me like one. I'm going with you." She told me she could darn well handle herself, and she near made me blush, though I felt I'd done no wrong.
"This concerns things not of your world," I said. "Dark things."
"Just because I know science doesn't mean I forgot everything I learned growing up here. I feared somethin' like this was going on." She pulled somethin' out of her shirt then -- a big cross of our Lord on a chain round her neck. "Solid silver," she told me. "And these too," as she pulled out of a bag a gun, silver bullets, a canning jar of holy water, pretty much a hodge podge of most all the things I'd ever heard tell could help against evil. "I made most of this kit back when I was thirteen and read too many stories. Figure it can't hurt."
"Well, silver's always done right by me in these matters for sure,", I allowed. Right then I reckoned I may have judged her too to soon, small-town girl gone to the city that she was. "We're both like as to die," I warned her.
Once I let her in on what I'd heard, she was just as scared as I was about it. "I'm coming with you whether you like it or not," she still said, so that was that.
We headed on over toward the mine. There was a big fence 'round the whole thing. Susan said she'd knew a hole in a fence from back when she was a kid, and that let us stay clear of the guardhouse.
We had a flashlight, but let me tell you, I am not ashamed to say it was hell-scary down there in the pitch black. Our footsteps echoed in an eerie way, and it felt like we'd left the Earth for some other place. It was hard to retrace my steps, and easy to imagine spending eternity wandering this mine.
We spoke little, and in whispers. Even if we hadn't feared Turnham might be somewhere in there, speaking in full voice just seemed wrong. After I can't say how long, Susan spoke. "I can't help but think of the ghosts of all the men who this mine has killed... from sickness and injury... do you think they're here, watching us?"
"Can't rightly say. I seen ghosts in my time. If they are here, I hope they know we're trying to do right by them."
We didn't speak again till we found the door I remebered. I wanted to whoop, I was so relieved to find it after all that wandering. The door was even unlocked again, and I said a little prayer of thanks for his lack of care.
When we got to the pit, we found more than I expected. There was an eerie glow. We shined our light down the pit, and lying down there was a creature so huge I can't even tell you. It wasn't moving much, just blinking up at us with I don't know how many eyes and how many tentacles. It glowed an eerie light of a green-brown sort of color that no light on this Earth should be, lighting the space 'round us. It was more than I expected, and more than I had any idea how to deal with. I was just turning to Susan to tell her that, when I heard a noise from the direction of the door. We ran opposite directions, and I guess she found better cover than me. Turnham came in, and I hoped he didn't see me. He started muttering something, and when I could make out what it was, I knew I was in right trouble.
"Bind, bind, bind." he chanted, "Unless you can count the stars, or the drops in the ocean, be bound."
I was stuck where I stood, no way to move. He laughed and turned and walked right up to where I'd thought to be hid.
"I knew there was something about you, John who no one knows! You're not from around here, which means no one will miss you, foolish interloper. You shall be the first treat for my pet, to give him strength to do my bidding. Human flesh will make him strong beyond belief!"
Turnham started dragging me to the pit, and I could do nothing to stop him. Just as I thought my time was up, I heard a dull thud noise, and I felt his control of me slack off, both physically and magically. I pulled away from him, and he didn't stop me, just slumped over. I turned and saw Susan running towards him, another rock in her hand.
She kicked Turnham, and he just moaned. The silver chain from her necklace came out of her pocket, and she pulled it tight around his neck, making him groan and gag. The silver made a burning line on his skin, and the cross started glowing and burning him even more, and probably that's what roused him, for he started fighting back.
Turham made to try and pull off the chain with one hand and reached down his shirt with the other. He tugged, and pulled out a black pendant of some sort, on a leather cord. He grasped it in his hand and started trying to whisper out some curse or spell.
Susan shouted at me, "The pendant! That's got to be what he's using to control it!"
I wrestled it away from him as Susan tried to keep him controlled. His flesh smelt of burning from the silver. I grabbed her dropped bag and pulled out the jar of holy water, pried off the top and dropped the pendant in. I had to hold it out away from me, it was sizzling and smoking so fierce. Turnham cried out in agony as it fell to pieces in the holy water. I ran back to Susan.
"He's gone slack," she cried, "but I'm still holding on to him! I don't trust one thing about him!"
We both panted, trying to catch our breath after such a scare, when we heard a rumbling behind us. The monster. It was still there- it hadn't died when we destroyed the focus. That mean this wasn't something he'd created, but something he'd conjured up from dark places or found and put his control over. And I'd just let it loose.
"I think we best be leaving as calm-like as we can now," I whispered to Susan. She nodded and lowered Turnham to the ground and we slowly started backing away. I almost thought it might work, when suddenly the creature whipped out with two of those horrible tentacles.
I thought we was done for. I said a quick word to the Lord, who I was sure I'd be seeing soon, and thought of my sweet Evadare with love. I whispered an "I'm sorry" to Susan. She squeezed my hand, and I felt strangely peaceful-like, knowing I'd done good works for the world all these years. I'd met some fine folks and some strange folks, and learned the best songs and spread them 'round best I could, and I'd done what I could where I could, and I felt good about my life.
Those tentacles weren't coming for us, though, they was headed for Turnham. When the first tentacle touched him, he roused again.
"No!" he shouted, "I am your master! I control you! Stop! I have such plans for us, such glory! Listen to me!"
I heard it speak then, though no sound came from it. The words just appeared in my head, echoing, making me feel like each resonating word could drive a man to madness.
"You are master of none. You sought to control what is far beyond you, and it has proved your doom. No mortal can play with such power and win. I will return to my own world now, and you shall come with me to face your punishment."
Turnham cried out with a wordless scream as the creature pulled him in and he disappeared into I don't want to know what. Susan and I hadn't moved, couldn't move. We knew without knowing why that its attention and its next words was turned to us.
"You mortals. You have freed me from his unjust control. I thank you. I advise you leave this cavern with great speed, for I cannot say what will happen when I depart. Goodbye." The creature started glowing brighter and brighter, the light spreading out through the mines.
We turned and ran, never looking back as we went, guided by the light from that strangely merciful creature. I recollected the story of Lot and his wife, and though I had received no such warning, I was taking no chances with this thing. We kept running with all our speed when we got out of the mines, running past the guardhouse and drawing the man's attention towards us. When the rumblings got loud he turned back to look, but we just kept running and running, I don't know how far, before we collapsed.
The town was roused by the sound of the mine's destruction. We heard shouts and calls and bells ringing, but my legs had just plumb given out from all that running and my side had seized up. I don't know how long we lay in the leaves before we said anything. Finally Susan near whispered "Thank you", and I answered in kind. Eventually we headed back towards the commotion and milled around the outskirts of the chaos.
Susan found her parents, who were so relieved to find her, having been quite afeared when she wasn't at home when all the ruckus started, knowing that she was so keen on the mine. She told them she'd been outside talking with me and we'd run straight over before they'd gotten out of bed. They was relieved enough to find her that they didn't question much.
I felt like I should move on, but Susan wouldn't hear of it and I was too tired to argue. We all slept late that next day, and by the time we rose word was that Turnham was dead. The guard had seen him go in and not come out again, and there was no way anyone could have survived that collapse. People were blaming him, saying he'd been messing with too many explosives without the right knowledge, as it had been declared safe by the science men before he started.
Turns out the last details of some sort hadn't gone through with the coal company yet, and the company men were in town afore I awoke. Wanting to not draw attention to this whole thing, they found Susan and were ready to sign everything right there for her to take control, at a discounted price even. I watched it all, though their legal talk meant little to me. She wanted me there, and I was happy to oblige.
We walked slowly back to her folks' place. She bade me stay, said the town could use a good man like me, that her windmill company could use a man like me.
"No, I best be movin' on. I'm not one to stay in any one place too long."
"You sure, John?"
"I'm a wanderer, a rambler, a man of the back country, not the town. I have I wish you all the best in the world. You're a fine woman, and you've got a fine head on your shoulders, and you'll do good by this town. But I think I best be leaving now. Please give my best to your folks."
Susan nodded, and gave me a kiss on the cheek. I headed out of town, thinking up a song about the strange things I'd seen, and hoping never to see their like again.