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Annual #1

 

 

Issue #15
Tales ot the Starheart

"Unions"
by David Marshall

I stayed at the jail that night in case someone tried to cause the Hobarts any more trouble. I fell asleep around midnight and dreamed the lamp spoke to me. It showed me visions of a great city filled with buildings reaching to the heavens like the Tower of Babel. It sounds crazy I know, but there were flashing lights and an arena like the ones used by the Roman gladiators of old. I heard sounds my limited vocabulary couldn't begin to describe. And then there were the smells. Some would tempt the Maker himself, like the strange concoction called "pizza". Others gagged with their stench. I couldn't decide if the Great City was Heaven or Hell. The lamp whisked me to the darkest recesses of the city's heart. The ladies of the evening were on the street corners rather than in the saloons. I saw men dying for white powder and other men dying from it. Babies were born in magnificent hospitals alongside the sick. No one rode horses. Instead four-wheeled machines raced along long, straight roads that stretched from one horizon to the other. I knew it was Sycamore Springs, but it wasn't either.
Then I saw him, a man. Or was he a god? Perhaps a demon from hell? I wasn't sure, but he flew! That's right, flew through the skies clad in a red and green costume! A long, purple cape flowed from his wide shoulders and whipped in the night wind. He was shrouded in the soft green glow of an emerald fire. Then this godling landed where the men were shooting one another over the white powder. I've been around long enough to know that no one sneaks around at night to transact honest business.
He said nothing, but immediately commanded the attention of the men shooting one another. Though obvious enemies, they acted as one, turning their fire upon him. Whoever he was, killing him was more important than their dispute. The flying man was some kind of lawman. I watched in horror as the two sides showered him with a hailstorm of lead. The guns were not only more powerful than any I'd seen in my day, but they also emptied bullets faster than Teddy could spit a mouthful of watermelon seeds. To my surprise, the bullets struck his glow and fell harmlessly to the ground. The ring on the god's finger glowed and a giant, green spider appeared and trapped the men in its web. A few minutes later, the law arrived in horseless carriages to arrest the men. Then the man in the cape turned and smiled at me. Only then did I recognize the face underneath the mask as my own!

I sprang up in my bed with my breath coming in short bursts. The dream seemed impossibly real. I could still smell the "hot dogs" from an outdoor establishment called an amusement park. The last few weeks were wearing on me. Between the Hobarts and Polly and the townsfolk, it was a wonder Doc Lawton didn't order me to that crazy hospital upstate.
I pushed back my blankets, went to my bureau, and retrieved my smoking kit. It was a bad habit, but I enjoyed the taste and it helped me to relax. I filled the pipe's bowl with musty tobacco and lit it. The thick smoke felt good seeping into my lungs. What was I missing? This mess with the Hobarts needed to end soon before someone was killed. How did Hobart's lamp get into the church?
The next morning I settled a few minor disputes, but the Hobarts and the mystery of the lamp weighed heavily on my mind. I almost forgot to drop off my watch at Futch's General Store, but remembered when I met Mrs. Morrison on the wooden sidewalk outside.
"Sheriff," she said cordially.
"Good mornin'." I tipped my hat and tried to move past but she blocked my way.
"Won't you please talk to Ben?" she asked. "I think he feels you are against him."
"Against him? Of course, not," I assured. "My job is to get to the bottom of this, Mrs. Morrison. Ben's a good man, but I can't allow him to be the Hobart's judge, jury, and executioner based on his belief they were responsible for the church burning. You understand, don't you?"
Mrs. Morrison smiled that saintly smile reserved for grandmothers. "I'd appreciate it if you'd drop in on him this afternoon."
I nodded. "Three-thirty."
Mrs. Morrison stepped aside and let me pass into the store. I'd already decided to drop in and talk to Reverend Morrison, but her invitation made things much easier. After dropping off my watch, I busied myself with piddling work to take my mind off the burden of the missing lamp. Late in the afternoon, I headed over to the Morrison's.
Mrs. Morrison greeted me at the door. "Please come in, Sheriff."
I removed my hat and coat and entered their home.
Mrs. Morrison smiled as she took them from me and hung them on a coat rack by the door. She was known among the townsfolk for her gift of hospitality. They say she could make the devil himself feel at home in a fancy European cathedral. "Ben is in his study. Can I get you a cup of tea or cocoa?"
I started to instinctively decline her invitation, but decided my presence may be less unsettling if my visit wasn't all business. "I'd love some tea."
Mrs. Morrison disappeared into the kitchen while I crossed through the living room and into the study. The doors were open and I found Reverend Morrison sitting in a well-worn, leather-padded Queen Anne chair with his back to me. He was engrossed in the Scriptures.
"Afternoon, Ben," I said.
He didn't turn to meet me but spoke in a slow and deliberate tone as he read aloud. "And all the vessels of the house of God, great and small, and the treasures of the house of the Lord, and the treasures of the king, and of his princes; all these he brought to Babylon. And they burnt the house of God and brake down the wall of Jerusalem, and burnt all the palaces thereof with fire, and destroyed all the goodly vessels thereof."
"We'll get to the bottom of this, Ben," I promised.
Reverend Morris stood and faced me. "Do you know why those verses are in the second book of Chronicles, Sheriff?"
"Can't say that I do," I answered.
"Because God's people allowed sin to creep into their society; sorcery, harlotry, lies, and deceit. They gave evil a place to thrive amongst them. God gives us an opportunity to rid ourselves of such evil. If we don't then His judgement follows."
I'd heard enough. "I can't debate spiritual matters with you, Ben. I'm not a religious man. It'd be like me fighting a one-armed man. I need to know if there is anybody who has anything against you or the church."
When Reverend Morrison closed his eyes, I was hopeful he was giving thought to my question. He inhaled deeply through his nose and exhaled through his mouth a few times before finally speaking. "And ye shall be betrayed both by parents, and brethren, and kinsfolk, and friends; and some of you shall they cause to be put to death. And ye shall be hated of all men for my name's sake."
"This is getting us nowhere, Reverend. With all due respect, I need answers, not a sermon on the persecution of the church!" I didn't mean to raise my voice, but I had an investigation to conduct and was getting nowhere.
Mrs. Morrison entered the room quietly while I was yelling. "Gentlemen? Your tea."
"I'm sorry to put you to so much trouble, Mrs. Morrison and I appreciate your hospitality, but it doesn't look like I'll be staying. Your husband's not inclined to cooperate."
"I'm sorry," she answered. "This has been a terrible blow to us and to Ben especially. That church is our life's work. Countless hours of toil and prayer have gone into it and now it's ashes."
Mrs. Morrison broke into sobs.
The Reverend rushed to his wife's side. "He doesn't understand, Elsa. To him, it's just another building, but it's every hope and dream we've worked so hard for. Our church is gone and he defends the devils who destroyed it!" His gaze turned to me. "Sheriff, if I thought you were trying to help us, I'd be delighted to cooperate with you. Please show yourself to the door."
I pursed my lips sternly. I couldn't make the Reverend talk to me. After all, he was the victim. I walked to the door slowly. The Reverend and his wife moved with me but kept their distance. "I'll go, Reverend. But I'm not on anyone's side. I may not be a religious man, but my job would sure be easier if everyone was in church on Sunday mornings instead of drunk in the saloons on Saturday night. You know where to find me if you want to talk. One more thing," I added, as I retrieved my hat from the coat rack beside the front door.
"Yes?" the Reverend asked.
I placed my hat on my head and reached for the door. It opened with a slow creak. "Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the spirit of God dwelleth in you?"
I closed the door behind me.

"I just don't get it Bill. Maybe Polly used some kind of invisibility spell to slip past the Hobart girl without her knowing it, or maybe she hypnotized her. I've heard that Indian magic can be mighty powerful! Don't forget she's studied voodoo in Africa and New Orleans and sorcery in Europe too! Mix all that together and she's a powder keg of spooky just waiting to explode!" Teddy exclaimed.
"Teddy," I said, "Spooky doesn't explode. I'm sure Polly's behind this somehow, but burning the church? She's clashed with them a few times over the years, but I'd never dreamed she'd go this far."
The front door of the jail creaked open. Mr. Hobart and his daughter Becky entered. "I stopped in to reclaim my lamp before we leave, Sheriff," Mr. Hobart said.
Just what I needed another awkward moment. "I'm sorry Mr. Hobart, but I can't let you or the lamp go."
Hobart sighed. The case was getting to him, too.
Becky reacted like I expected. "What do you mean you can't 'let' us go? We've done nothing wrong, Sheriff!"
I made eye contact with Teddy and hoped he would take the hint to move toward the door just in case there was trouble. Luckily, my deputy picked up on my signal. "I know you've done nothing wrong, Becky. That's why I can't let you leave. If you leave now, people will think I let you skip town and it will look like you're running. And technically, the two of you are still suspects. I'd appreciate it if you hung around, but I can make you stay if I have to."
"This is hurting our business, Sheriff." Mr. Hobart pleaded. "We have engagements to see to. A show like ours only stirs interest for so long. Please give me my lamp and we'll be on our way. We'll gladly return for the trial if need be, but we have to make a living. The crowds were dwindling even before the Reverend convinced the townsfolk we're devils . Our hotel and livery expenses are too high with these small crowds."
I hadn't considered how difficult the situation was on the Hobarts financially. The mayor would have my hide for what I was about to do. "I'll talk to Dexter and see to it that you have proper lodging and livery. I apologize for putting you out like this, but it's necessary until I can prove you had nothing to do with that fire."
Becky stormed out but got tangled up with Teddy. He stepped aside to let her by, but she stepped right into his path. Again, each of them stepped aside to allow the other to pass, but they blocked one another's way. They did this a few more times before Becky grabbed him by his scrawny shoulders and bellowed. "Stay put!" Teddy complied and she stormed past him and slammed the door.
"Please forgive my daughter, gentlemen. She's spirited," Mr. Hobart pleaded.
I started to answer, but Teddy beat me to it. "No need to apologize, sir. This has been tough on all of us, but we'll get through it together."
I was proud of my deputy. There were times I wondered why I chose him for the job and other times I would have no one else but him. When I took the job of sheriff, it was with the understanding that I could choose my own deputy. Since Mayor, Sheriff, and Deputy were the only paid positions in the town government, it caused quite a rankle when I chose Teddy for the position. The town council nearly laughed me out of the chambers. They just didn't understand. I didn't need the toughest man, or the smartest, or even the best with a gun. I needed a good man and Teddy was one of the most decent men I knew. Whether it was carrying old Mrs. Turley's groceries or playing stickball with the kids in the street, Teddy genuinely cared deeply for Sycamore Springs.
Mr. Hobart nodded solemnly and made his way to the door. "I appreciate that, Deputy. We'll stay, Sheriff, but please clear this up soon. We Hobarts aren't known for putting down roots."
Hobart shut the door behind him.
Teddy shook his head in disgust. "It just ain't right," he said.
"Nope," I agreed. "Not right at all."
The next day I sent Teddy over to the hotel to help the Hobarts move their stuff into storage. The monthly town meeting was coming up and they always used the Exhibition Hall. On top of everything else, storage costs were added to the already growing list of financial considerations. The case was putting a strain on my shrinking budget. I was sure that would come up at the town meeting too.
While Teddy helped the Hobarts, I patrolled the town. People greeted me in their usual manner, but there was something different about them, about the town even. Everyone acted like a horse or a dog before a big storm. Everyone suspected someone else and rumors were buzzing faster than a hummingbird's wings. After making my rounds, I returned to the jail.
I took care of some paperwork and cleaned. Teddy returned after a few hours. He was whistling "Buffalo Gals" and had a spring in his step. In fact, his cheerfulness was getting on my nerves.
"Teddy! Why are you so all fired happy when everybody else in this town is ready for a hanging?" I asked. "We're the law! It's not just me that people are looking at funny."
Teddy's smile faded into an apologetic pout. "I'm sorry, Bill. It's just that I came across some good fortune for a change."
"What are you talking about?" I asked.
He retrieved a gold chain from his pants pockets. "Have you ever seen anything so pretty? Look how shiny! Mr. Hobart said it looked like real gold too!"
I reached for it instinctively. Teddy was so proud of his find he reached it to me for examination. "Yeah, it's pretty alright. Where did you find it?"
"Over at the hotel!" Teddy exclaimed. "Mr. Hobart figures one of those fancy city women must have dropped it! It was under the corner of one of the tables but you couldn't see it for that big black velvet cloth they draped over them! Am I lucky or what?" I studied the chain carefully. "Yeah, real lucky. Which table?"
"The "Witching Hour" table. Why?" Teddy smiled like a kid at Christmas and was poking me with his elbow. "Hey Bill, you know what I'm going to do with this? Huh? Huh?"
"No, what are you going to do with it?"
"I'm going to take over to the General Store and sell it so I can spend a night on the town with Anne!" Teddy beamed.
"Anne? She's the most expensive saloon girl in town! Besides you're a lawman! It won't look right you buying her favors!"
That caught him off-guard. While I had him reeling I continued. "Something's odd about this necklace too."
"It's a bracelet," Teddy replied.
"Bracelet, necklace, or whatever it is, it may be a clue. Do you mind if I take it over to Old Man Futch at the General Store and let him take a look at it first?"
"Uh¼ go ahead. I guess," he answered.
I was already on my way.

Mr. Futch examined the piece through a jeweler's glass. Occasionally, he mumbled under his breath, but for the most part contented himself with checking back and forth between several catalogues and his store files. "Hmm..."
"What?" I asked.
"Well, Sheriff. I thought the weaving of the chain looked familiar. It threw me off when you called it a bracelet or a necklace, but I recognized it when I checked my order book. It's a watch fob. In fact, I ordered the exact same style today."
"You did?"
"Yeah," Mr. Futch answered. "Mrs. Morrison ordered it to replace the one her husband lost. I tried to sell her one like I sold you, but she wouldn't have it. She said it was given to him when they left their congregation in Boston. It had to be exactly the same, but I've never carried such a fancy selection. Had to order it from the Big City."

I knew what had to be done would be difficult. I swung by the jail and got Teddy and made sure we were dressed to handle a potentially hostile crowd.
The Sycamore Inn agreed to allow the church to meet in the Exhibit Hall for a few weeks until arrangements could be made to begin construction on a new building . The crowd was much larger than I anticipated thanks to recent events. Everyone was sure the burning of the church was somehow associated with God's judgement and was looking to atone for the community's grave sin. Most ignored Reverend Morrison's warnings until the church burned. Now most of the town rallied around him and the church and it seemed they were all crammed into the Exhibition Hall. The menfolk stood along the aisles to allow the ladies and children to sit in the chairs near the front of the room. Teddy and I took a position near the back of the room and waited while the Reverend read from the Bible.
"Though an host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear: though war should rise against me, in this will I be confident!"
Though the words were beautiful and must surely have been a comfort to the throng within earshot, they clanged in my ears. Even now, Reverend Morrison stirred the pot of suspicion against the Hobarts.
Teddy and I pressed in closer. Everyone was surprised to see us among them. They were even more surprised we were armed. They stepped aside with bewildered respect as we settled into a clearing. I told Teddy on the way over that it would be easier to let the Reverend finish his sermon and not make a public scene. Unfortunately, the Reverend wouldn't allow us such comfort.
"Children of God, even now Satan has delivered the enemy at our doorstep! We're wrested this sanctuary of evil from him and dedicated it as a house of worship and now he's angry! But take comfort in words of the Psalmist we just read. For our hearts are not afraid or troubled," he bellowed.
An chorus of amens answered the Reverend's fiery discourse.
The suspicious congregation turned their fearful eyes to us. We were no longer Bill and Teddy, friends and neighbors who lived among them, and the law that protected them. We were painted by the Reverend's twisted brush of morality as pawns of the devil.
"What have you to say for yourself, Sheriff?" Morrison asked.
"I'd rather you finished your sermon, Reverend. We have business to discuss with you," I answered.
The Reverend, emboldened by his congregation and caught up in his own elocution, refused to yield his momentum. "See, children? The words of the Psalmist ring true before our very eyes! You call the enemy out and he cowers in the darkness, for he fears the light!"
"Now hold on one cotton-picking minute!" Teddy erupted.
I jerked his arm. "Teddy, don't."
He pulled away from me with surprising conviction and walked into the crowd. "Folks, we're not your enemy! You know us better than that! Mrs. Turley, am I your enemy when I carry your dry goods home from the general store? Was I your enemy, Mr. Lund, when you asked me to stop by everyday and check on your wife and kids while you were on business in Boston? What about Bill, folks? Is he your enemy when he comes out in the middle of the night and puts his life on the line wandering your property looking for cattle thieves or to chase off wolves? What about when he patrols the town and wishes a good morning to everybody he meets?"
The crowd buzzed in agreement. It was as if the stark truth of Teddy's words broke Reverend Morrison's enchantment. The murmuring attracted the curiosity of folks in the lobby, Polly among them. She seemed to enjoy the commotion. Her presence made me doubt my reasons for coming, but I came to my senses. Whether she was involved or not, the only clue we had pointed to Reverend Morrison. I couldn't busy myself with Polly at the moment. I had a few questions for her as well, but they'd have to wait.
"The enemy is a liar!" Reverend Morrison shot back, half in answer to Teddy and half in an attempt to regain control over the crowd. "We must not be swayed!"
I'd seen enough. "Now hold on, Reverend! I don't take kindly to you calling my deputy a liar! We were going to wait until after the service to do this, out of respect for the townsfolk, but you leave me no choice. Would you mind explaining to everyone gathered here why your watch fob was found underneath the very table the Hobart's lamp was stolen from? You damned everyone else for seeing the show, but it looks as though you had to see it for yourself at some point. And left a souvenir behind to prove it."
All eyes turned to the Reverend.
"I don't know what you're talking about," he stammered.
"My deputy found it underneath the table while helping the Hobarts clear the Hobart's stuff from this very room! I checked it out with Old Man Futch and he verified that your wife ordered one exactly like it to replace the one you lost. It was a parting gift from your old congregation in Boston. I also checked with Nate. This room was meticulously cleaned before the Hobarts set up their stuff, so you lost your watch fob after they set up. Care to explain?"
Reverend Morrison grew pale.
His wife walked to her husband's side at the makeshift pulpit. "Thomas?"
He sighed deeply. "I'm sorry, Maggie. I didn't mean for all this to happen."
The crowd was astonished.
"Why, Reverend?" someone hollered.
"Almighty God, forgive me!" he pleaded and broke into mournful sobs.
"Those poor people. We nearly killed them," someone else added.
Mrs. Morrison held her husband. "Why, Thomas? Why?"
"The whole town was vexed with talk of witches, demons, and voodoo. The devil's uprising had to be put down, but they needed something to rally around. People had to see the wages of sin before the Almighty punished us Himself! I had to do something drastic to turn their hearts back to God!"
"How did you plan on rebuilding it?" Teddy asked.
Reverend Morrison pulled away from his wife's arms and faced the crowd. "The hearts of our people. It wasn't supposed to be like this."
Angry townspeople pressed to the pulpit.
"Alright folks! I've faced down one lynch mob this week and will do it again! Move back!" I yelled.
I met Teddy on the stage and we took custody of Reverend Morrison. Out of respect, we used no restraint on him. I suppose he knew he was safer with us than taking his chances fleeing into the crowd.
Pushing through the congregation, something bothered me still. "Reverend, there's just one thing I don't understand."
"What's that, Sheriff?
"How did you sneak in here? You had to have help," I answered.
He said nothing.
As we cleared a path to the door I couldn't help but wonder who he was protecting.
Polly stood at the door.
Morrison paused and met her gaze.
Polly's haunting laugh sent chills down my spine, and for the first time, I understood why she spooked everyone else.
"Reverend, did you have help?" I asked.
I thought he was going to implicate Polly, but instead he hung his head. "No, Sheriff. I acted alone."
Whatever arrangement the two of them made, it would stay between him, Polly, and his God.



Epilogue
The connection between Reverend Morrison and Polly wasn't proven until he confessed it on his deathbed in prison months later. The townsfolk were a forgiving lot, but even their grace would hardly overlook their minister burning their beloved church because of a pact with a witch. Mrs. Morrison died in the tornado a few years later. Unfortunately, the church never regained prominence in Sycamore Springs and the town grew darker.
A warrant was issued to search Polly's room for the silver dagger. It wasn't found until after the tornado wiped out the town. Her corpse clutched it in the grip of death. Apparently, she used it before the storm to sever one of her breasts in some arcane ritual.
The Hobarts made Sycamore Springs their permanent home. They traveled most of the time and weren't home when the tornado hit. Teddy and Becky married. No one saw that one coming! He spent many nights on the road making sure nothing was ever missing from their inventory again. I missed having him around, but he was happy. More importantly, he was away when the tornado ripped through the town. Mrs. Hobart succumbed to her illness six months to the day after Morrison was arrested. Unfortunately, that crazy lamp never glowed for her. Mr. Morrison sold it a doctor in Gotham City shortly after she passed. Where it is now, I don't know.


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