Muleskinner Blues
Chapter 23

Copyright© 2022 by Joe J

I woke up shortly after first light wedged tightly between Sarah and Carol in the chilly line shack. I hated the idea, but I needed to answer Mother Nature’s call. I reluctantly slid from between the women, quietly arose from our pallet and wandered outside to take care of my necessaries.

As I approached the outhouse that sat behind the rough hewn wooden shack, I was struck once again by how many things in the future mirrored things in my times. Thinking about the time I came from led to thoughts of my family and friends back in the nineteenth century. How long, I wondered, would it be before I saw them again? My sainted mother was elderly for the times in which she lived. Every day I spent away from her was one less day she had left and Lord forbid she pass while I was gallivanting around in the future.

I finished my business and headed back to the line shack. Sarah was coming out of the hut as I was walking back in. I guess my thoughts were readable on my face because she stopped and grabbed my arm.

“What’s the matter, Jeb, is your leg bothering you?” she asked worriedly.

I am unsure if I would have answered that question truthfully if anyone besides Sarah asked it. I answered her because Sarah had a caring and kind heart and I trusted her enough to show her my weaknesses.

“No, my leg is fine. I was just thinking about my mother and the rest of my family. Every day that passes brings Mama closer to her maker, and every day that passes is one less that I’m there to protect them all,” I said with a sigh.

Sarah’s mouth made a small round ‘oh’ of surprise.

“It means no such thing, Jeremiah, not in the least. That’s because when you return to your time it will be to the exact second from which you departed. Think about it, Honey, time for you cannot exist unless you are there to experience it.

“The big problem with creating the time travel apparatus was finding a way to synchronize the two ends of the time line finely enough so a person returned the instant they left. Helena was the one who discovered a way to do that, based on some atomic property of Hawkingium. Helena’s Hawkingium ‘clock’ is accurate to a ten-billionth of a second.

“The reason your returning with Sonja and her team was such a shock, was because none of our brains could comprehend poor Johnny Chen disappearing and you appearing all in the same instant.”

I do not know which amazed me more: what she said, or me actually understanding it. Sarah explanation took quite a load off my mind. I gave her a hug and a grateful, sloppy kiss. My mind was working a mile a minute as I pondered the ramifications of that new reality. In ten seconds I bet I came up with ten ideas.

“So we can go back and forth and never loose a minute in either time?” I asked rhetorically. “That means we can live and make things better in both.”

Sarah nodded, not bothering to step back out of my arms.

“Yes, you could do that, the caveat being the Pleiad agreeing to use the time machine for that purpose.”

That statement sobered me somewhat because as things stood now, doing favors for me was probably the last thing on the Pleiad’s agenda.

“That might be a problem because I’m not their favorite person right now,” I allowed with a frown.

“The composition of the Pleiad is subject to change, Jeremiah. Liz Smith is ready to openly challenge Council President Bearclaw. With your help, I don’t think it will be long before the valley dwellers and outlanders have one government under her leadership. I am fairly certain that Elizabeth has plans for you playing a big role in all of this.”


When we crested the ridge line that formed the eastern rim of the valley we spotted the camp of the outlander militia detachment that was returning our horses. When we rode up among them, a youngish looking militia man rendered me a snappy salute.

“Good morning, Citizen Brock, I am Lieutenant Deming. Queen Elizabeth sends her regards and requests that you allow us to escort you and your companions to New London.”

I sat up tall in my saddle and returned his salute.

“We’d be honored to ride with you, Lieutenant,” I replied.

We changed mounts, bid Carol goodbye and were threading our way down the mountain within fifteen minutes of arriving at the militia camp.

We made camp that afternoon beside the same spring-fed pond we’d stopped at just last week on our first trip. This time, there were no distractions to prevent me from exploring the cave above the spring. True, the cave had appeared to be an empty twelve foot by twelve foot room, but something about my remembrance of it tickled my curiosity.

I slipped inside the cavern with one of the flameless lanterns I had borrowed from Lieutenant Deming. I took a careful walk around the inside of the cavern and confirmed that the walls had been worked flat with a chisel, judging by the tool marks in the rock. In the far back corner, the odd thing I’d noticed on my first cursory inspection immediately caught my eye again. The dirt floor was slightly mounded in a rectangle about two feet by four feet. The raised area was only about a quarter inch higher than the rest of the floor, but the regular shape was obvious in the bright light of the lantern.

I walked over to the slight rise in the floor and cautiously stepped lightly on the edge. I could feel the difference in the ground under my feet but it felt as solid as the rest of the rock floor. I knelt down and brushed the sand off the protrusion with my hand. It only took a couple of swipes to see that I was uncovering a metal plate of some sort. It took me only a couple of minutes to expose the entire rectangle.

I sat back on my heels and examined the metal plate under the intense light of the small lantern. It was obvious to me that the metal plate had been colored and etched to match the natural rock floor. I surmised that some force of nature must have heaved the plate upward slightly so that it broke the plane of the floor.

I found an indentation at one end of the plate that looked as if it were a handle of sorts. Even though I thought it would be too heavy to lift by myself, I grabbed the handhold, bent my knees, locked my elbows and pushed upright with all the strength my legs could generate. To my great shock, the plate pivoted upward so smooth and effortlessly that all my excess effort sent me flying backward onto my big muley butt.

I stood up and rubbed my hind end as I contemplated the now open hatch. I leaned over and shined the light into the inky black darkness, not surprised in the least to see a set of metal stairs leading downward. I knew it was probably unwise to go further into the cavern by myself, but I shrugged and started down the steps anyway.

Wise and Jeb Brock were not words often spoken in the same sentence.

There were fifteen steps leading down to the next level of the cavern. The steps were narrow but not especially steep. The chamber at the bottom of the stairs was much larger than the room above and yet it showed the same tool marks on the walls. I figured the caverns had once been some sort of mine. I stood at the bottom of the stairs and shined the lantern around the cavern. Amazingly, the chamber I stood in appeared to be the entry hall of a house constructed underground. The walls behind me and to my right were tool gouged rock; the eight foot tall partition walls ahead and to the left were white-washed plaster. There was a door in both the front and left hand wall.

I found the first body in a bedroom; it was the second room I entered. The mummified elderly woman was dressed in a white gown and laid out as if for burial on an ornately carved sleigh-bed.

I found the second body in a room right off the bedroom that was obviously a man’s office. The room had a single bed tucked against one wall; a large desk dominated the center of the space. An elderly man was sitting in a chair slumped over the table. He was also mummified, his skin stretched like dark parchment over his skeleton. Next to his right hand was familiar looking revolver. It was a superior weapon that bore a striking resemblance to my own Colts. Next to the pistol was a leather bound ledger.

I left the man in his eternal peace and shined the light around the room. A glass faced gun cabinet immediately reflected the beam from my light. Holding the beam steady on the cabinet, I walked over to it and pulled open the door. Inside the cabinet were a version of a Winchester model 1866 repeating rifle and a beautiful double-barreled fowling piece. Hanging on a hook in the cabinet was a well worn belt with a holster attached to it. A pistol that matched the one on the table was sitting on a shelf above the rifles, along with some gun cleaning supplies and a few tin containers.

The contents of the room were very well preserved, even though they had to be hundreds of years old. I had heard of similar discoveries around the gold mines in Colorado when I was a deputy in Boulder. Miners told tales of finding mummies and weapons from the times of the Spanish conquest and even earlier than that. The miners attributed the condition of the bodies and equipment to the low humidity, lack of insects and scavengers, all combined with the cool temperatures found deep in the caves.

I started to fret about the amount of time I had been away, so I grabbed the holster rig, both pistols and the journal, then retraced my steps back to the original cave.

I climbed off the ledge and made my way to the tent that the militia men had erected for us. I stowed my new treasures and joined Tonya and Sarah under the big willow tree by the pond. The women were sitting on a couple of lightweight metal camping chairs, Sarah gingerly massaging her thighs.

“My legs are unused to horseback riding,” Sarah complained. Then she looked up and saw me. “Ah-ha and here comes the reason I’m on the back of that evil beast now. Notice how he waltzes in after all the work is done.”

Sarah could not quite keep a straight face as she nagged at me. Tonya grinned and voiced her agreement.

“He’s that way all the time. He treats me terribly and then tries to seduce my Mother.”

Tonya probably had a few more pithy comments ready for me, but she quickly changed the subject when she saw the loot I was carrying.

“Where did you get that stuff?” She asked, pointing to the book and the guns.

“I found a trap door that led to a second cave up there,” I said, point to the little ledge. “Someone went to the trouble of building a house inside the second cave and these things were in it.”

Both women’s eyes lit up with curiosity and Tonya gave a slight nod.

“A bomb shelter, probably. They were popular during portions of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries among a segment of society who called themselves Survivalists. The shelters were designed to be a safe haven from nuclear attack,” Tonya stated. Then she pointed at the leather covered journal I held in my left hand. “So anyway, what’s the book about?”

I shrugged and flipped open the cover.

“I have not read any of it yet. I’ll probably do that later. Right now, I want to go back and explore some more. Want to go with me?”

Oh yes, they most certainly did.

We informed Lieutenant Deming about our cave exploring plans and both women packed their small knapsacks. Predictably, Sarah took some medical supplies, rations bars and water. Tonya, though, took one of my pistols, a coil of rope and three portable lamps that she claimed ran on stored sunlight. I planned on staking my claim to the cave and its contents, so all I carried was my other pistol and a large empty knapsack. I didn’t know what else we might find, but at a minimum I was bringing back the lever action Winchester and the fancy bird-gun.

 
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