THE LARGEST RESIDENCE in Flatwater was undoubtedly the Sherborne house, an embellished two-storey homestead in the Queen Anne style with wraparound porches and an impressive stable, nestled against an overlooking bluff that enjoyed a fresh creek and a distant view of Chimney Rock. They were the only family with a cook and servant, Benjamin Sherborne’s ferrying and trading fortune having built the five-building town up from an abandoned Pony Express post a full two years before moving his young bride out from Omaha to join him in the sandhills territory.
One rainless night in October, a bright vein ripped the sky and pummeled the bluff with a vivid flare. The earth trembled briefly, but the only damage reported was the unmoored saloon chandelier nearly crushing Miss Melanie, and a bottle of tonic tumbling from the general store’s shelf. The sheriff went up the hill and was amazed to find the stately house still standing. Mr. Sherborne reported the thunder nearby and they guessed and noted its location, though dismissed it for lack of fire or calamity.
Soon after, Borne Creek ran gray and thick for a few days with a fusty miasma. The dog Hercules was seen barking and scratching incessantly at the big cottonwood in the front yard and they found crawdads climbing the trunk and branches until they fell back to their demise. Later, crows made a ruckus on the roof and they ascended a ladder to find dozens of five-eyed trout squirming on the wood shingle. While Benjamin told only the doctor about his burning urination, his wife Nora insisted that the drinking water still tasted wildly weird.
They organized a party and searched the bluff. By mid-day they found the charred crater in the upper reaches of the creek, but regarding what lay within, everyone had a different story. Some saw a spherical filigree structure like a large crystalline dandelion head, others saw a porous rock that reflected their faces twistingly in its dark pockets, while a few claimed that it pulsed soft and slick like innards exposed in a belly wound—but all agreed that it still glowed crimson, though giving off a sharp cold. Heywood was fool enough to touch it without gloves and they said his hand immediately sprouted more fingers, the pops and snaps of splitting bone soon drowned by his screams. They immediately cut his limb at the elbow. Then they moved the peculiarity hundreds of yards into the far prairie and buried it, swearing all men present to forget.
Nora gave birth eight months later. The dog could not stop growling at the newborn and was resigned to the stables. The pastor would not baptize her, even after Mr. Sherborne’s generous offering to the donation plate. The offspring, Emma Jean Sherborne, stood in her crib all night, humming, eyes wide, waving her nine spindly arms toward the moon, or beyond.
They loved the child despite her condition, but without a mouth she could not nurse. Upon her expiration, Benjamin climbed the bluff and buried his daughter under the stars he believed she came from.
He had the ornate house put on skids, dynamited the bluff, and relocated the entire town twenty-three miles to the west, just beyond the new state line.
It proved a fortuitous move, for the wagon trains resumed after Chief Red Cloud signed a treaty at nearby Ft. Laramie, and the railroad’s approach was no longer a rumor. Shortly after construction of the depot, they renamed the settlement Promise, though it would change at least once more.
JONATHAN MONTGOMERY was born three months later, quite unexpectedly since Nora barely showed signs. Though he arrived small in frame, his mother cried with joy and relief at his light pinkish skin, bright expression, and two familiar eyes. His father touched the child’s warm blonde head and thanked creation.
ALL UNUSUALNESS WAS forgotten until six years later when young Jonathan Sherborne raised his hand in school and Ms. Granforth counted an additional thumb on him. When he attempted to answer the assignment, his neck swelled like a bullfrog and guttural chirps erupted from his throat. The Sherborne carriage was sent for. The town physician followed.
Dr. Hadwell sat on the edge of the bed and reached for the boy’s hand, but withdrew. “An eventful day at school, I hear.”
“My head feels like breeeep a beehive.” Jonathan winced.
His parents stood by. Father remained stoic with a slight tremor in his lip. Mother’s arm wrapped around his, though, by the angle of his lean, was more supporting him.
“Are you in pain?” The doctor leaned in, examining the spiral pattern of red nodules on the boy’s cheeks.
“On the contrary, sir. I feel sssssss light as a fox, eager to dash about breeep.” He rustled beneath the covers.
Benjamin Sherborne exhaled loudly.
The doctor donned his spectacles.
The physician felt Jonathan’s forehead and glands, using a handkerchief to cover his palm. He shook his head. “Not a chill nor a fever—”
“But something is obviously very—” blurted Mr. Sherborne.
“Would you like some sweet tea, dear?” Nora bent to her son. “If that’s something he can have, doctor?”
The doctor affirmed.
“Yes, please, mother.” Jonathan’s thumbs danced like insect antennae. “And then ssssss can I go out and help Esther feed the chickens?”
Dr. Hadwell stroked his graying beard, then opened his black medical case. The boy whimpered when he saw the stainless steel syringe. “Be still now, this calomel is just the thing to help you to rest.” He calmed the boy with chloroform before the injection.
“Doctor,” Benjamin Sherborne addressed the physician, “If you’ve concluded your examination, I’d like to speak with you in the library.”
Once in the oak-finished room, Hadwell politely declined a brandy. “I thought it bilious at first, then phlegmatic… Sir, I’ve not seen the like.”
“Not since that confounded space stone, you mean.” Mr. Sherborne downed his drink in one swallow.
“It isn’t cholera returned. But I have journals at my office that might—”
“I think we both know that this is beyond your facility, doctor.”
Dr. Hadwell sighed. He sat on the edge of the cushioned highback chair, nodding his head contemplatively. “We were all relieved when he was born… much unlike his sister. But I often wondered if that would change as he grew.”
“We love him very much, doctor.” Nora appeared in the doorway. “But the townsfolk will not understand, especially the children his age, his schoolmates or his friends.”
“I shall pay for the telegrams, of course.” Sherborne gestured to the door with urgency. “Please send them at once to whatever destinations you think best. Chicago, San Francisco, Boston—and I believe we can connect with London now, yes?”
The physician left them with a bottle of blue mass syrup, “for when he’s excitable, like today.”
THE NEXT MORNING, Jonathan’s fingernails were missing and they could not find any fragments among the sheets, bedclothes, or floor. The inflammation in his neck reduced significantly, but his feet bulged to such an extent that he could not put any weight on them without collapsing in pain.
SEVERAL DAYS LATER, after lunch, Nora heard raised voices at the front door and came to find Esther debating with a young girl on the porch.
“What ruction is this on my doorstep?” Nora asked.
Esther smoothed her apron. “This little lady marched up with a demand or two,” she said with surprise and a slight smile.
“Please, missus, this one here won’t let me in to see Jonathan.”
Nora recognized the young redhead as Phebe Maynard, middle daughter of the general store owners, just a year younger than her own son.
“Quietly, dear. Where are your parents?”
“They’s workin’, ain’t they? Runnin’ the business.” Phebe crossed her arms and took a stance. “And I can walk a mile myself.”
“Indeed you can,” Nora said. “Though you’ll not walk into this house until you find your manners.”
Phebe took a breath and folded her hands properly. “I apologize, Miss Esther. I haven’t seen my friend in too long, and the teacher won’t tell us nothing about his condition.”
“Today may not be the best day….” Esther turned to Nora. Indeed the boy’s room had reeked lately of something like gingko, musky caves, and something else.
Nora nodded. “Now Phebe, if you’ll wait in the drawing room like a decent lady, we’ll see if Jonathan is up for a brief sitting downstairs.”
“Yes’m. Thank you, ma’am.” Phebe curtsied quickly, but with grace.
When Mr. Sherborne carried him into the parlor and set the boy in a large chair, Phebe covered her mouth but did not gasp. His face was taut and pale, except for the shiny flakes like dragonfly wings where eyebrows should be.
“Phebe brekkkt, let me see your hands. Hold them out sssss.”
“I’m not sssss going to touch you.” He smiled. “Don’t worry.” Then coughed.
She showed him.
“Knuckles as red as ever. Still provoking Mrs. Granforth and her sssss ruler?” He laughed deeper than a boy.
She giggled with him. “I have to keep them tough to fight that Billy Talbott.”
“I’m sorry not to be there brekkkt to protect you.” He had not blinked since her arrival.
“Protect me?! You’re the one got an inkwell poured in your ear.”
“But it saved your pigtails sssss, didn’t it?”
They tittered together, then guffawed. She suggested a game, and they played Jack Straws and Mental Arithmetic and Ducks Fly for nearly two hours. Esther brought them molasses cookies, warm from the oven. Nora listened from the hallway, and never saw the girl stare or ask him when he’d be well again.
When Phebe left that day she promised to return soon. But when they saw the Maynards at Sunday worship a full two weeks later, the overt smiles they gave indicated it was not the young girl’s choice, after all. From then on the Sherbornes sent Esther to shop at the general store.
“MOTHER! MOTHER!” He cried in the hour past midnight.
Mother came running, Father close behind.
Jonathan sat up in bed, hands cupped tightly like he held a frantic insect.
“My darling, what is it?”
The tears on his cheeks glowed even before his parents opened the lantern wider.
Nora sat with him and stroked his lumpen head.
“I was running in my dream, my feet in sssss black empty space, with the earth brekkkt scrolling above me. And I could not sssss catch it.” He sobbed and chittered.
When he opened his hands, a dozen teeth cascaded into his lap.
“I’m frightened,” he breathed. “I’m so frightened.”
She rocked him gently. Benjamin Sherborne set the light aside and put his arms around them.
WITHIN THE NEXT week, Jonathan’s ears melted like wax then hardened to deep purple prickles that proved venomous when Esther scratched herself serving his soup tray. Her entire arm numbed for five days, and Nora did her best to complete the chores.
The parents considered for some time telling the town that Jonathan had passed, but retained hope that the blight would lift.
The old dog Hercules got into the house one day and they chased after him up the stairs. Benjamin rushed into the boy’s room with the Springfield rifle to find the canine reclined across the bed, licking Jonathan’s stalactiform hand. They realized then that the noises from Jonathan’s many nostrils were whistles of delight.
JONATHAN’S DIET CHANGED often. He could only stomach kale and potatoes for two weeks, then he asked for goat meat with wild grape. He ate uncooked sweet corn for a few days, including the cob and husk. He demanded rotten eggs and sour milk, which Esther exclaimed was ruining her kitchen for all of eternity. They said nothing to each other upon discovering the waste pellets near his bed, dry masses filled with tiny bones and hair like those from an owl, though his windows had not been open for weeks.
WINTER WAS LONG and harsh, claiming a few horses, and Tipsy Fitzpatrick was found frozen in the alley behind Lucky Spot saloon. Few doctors would travel in such conditions, even by rail, to attend Jonathan’s malady, and their applications proved as ineffective as the previous attempts. Mother read Jonathan new stories by Mark Twain, and Father played checkers with him until his secretions ruined the game board.
May 14, 1874
Sherborne Invests in New Hotel
If all reports are true, Benjamin Sherborne will build a luxurious new three-storey venture at Main and Third. Building sketches have been shared with the mayor and Women’s Guild and construction materials are already arriving at the spacious plot. Doubtless the fine meals will be too exotic for the palettes and wallets of passing cattlehands and persons traveling the long trail to Oregon. A respectable tavern promises to house gentlemanly card games and fancy drinks directly inspired from Europe. Residents welcome Mr. Sherborne’s continued investment in our township, but wonder if he’ll settle the inquires about recent strife, including the queer noises issuing from his property, the maimed cattle at Flying K Ranch, and the poor crop season.
THE BURLAP SACK faces of the mob twisted in the torchlight, eyeholes flashed shadow to white. They surged toward the Sherborne house where its owner stood firm on the front step with his Winchester .44-40. The voices of two dozen men shouted for redress, recompense, and retribution.
“Gentlemen, that you’ve had a sour night at the faro table and can think of nothing else to do but frighten my son is a sad state for our fair town.”
“Something ain’t right about him! Things ain’t been the same since he gone weird!”
“My son’s name is Jonathan, and he is indeed ill. But he has nothing to do with any misfortunes of corn nor cow.”
“You bring him out here and let us judge that!”
“The first man who sets foot on my porch will be brushing his teeth with rifle shot.”
The men grumbled and the group stilled, but only for a moment. A few of them shouted and pressed forward.
Mr. Sherborne fired shallow over their heads. A torch head burst into sparks, causing its owner to yelp and drop it.
“I won’t ask which of you’s wearing a silver star or a white collar under those masks, but you ought to march these scamps and varmints back to town for a hot bath and a stiff drink.”
Nora came to the door. “The behavior of you men this evening could shame the backside off a mule.”
Benjamin lowered his weapon. “I mean what I say now. Everyone make your way down to Heaven’s Fountain where one drink is on my tab. Let’s make it an early evening now. Move along.”
The horde dispersed, with men waving a finger as they turned away and fewer muttering an apology.
“Go on now,” Esther called after them, “Get home and put them cold potatoes back where they belong.”
The wailing from the upstairs window melted into the evening sky.
HIS SHOULDERS SPROUTED stalks that bloomed azure honeycomb shapes whose openings sang like river reeds. The blond color of his hair replaced itself with a mosslike green, whose strands often swayed as though in a passing current.
They tried opium and laudanum. They tried loosestrife and stanch weed and skullcap. They tried wagmu pejuia wild gourd, heyoka tapejuta red mallow, and cansinsila compass plant from the botanical Indian doctors. They tried stinging nettle from the Platte River banks. They tried the old method of bloodletting, though his color came out laced with thin threads of bright orange. They tried iodine and turpentine and quinine. They tried garlic and saltpeter and verdigris. They tried apple cider vinegar with honey. They tried horehound, boxwood, and lobelia. They tried mesmerism and hydropathy and burning white buffalo manure. But Jonathan grew more unrecognizable each day.
THE NIGHT GREW so deep that all the world outside felt like a lie. Jonathan had been awake for hours.
“Sssss Papa prrrkt?” He asked the shadow at the end of his bed.
For a long time there was no answer.
The boy pulled the covers to his rippling face.
“All is well,” Benjamin Sherborne whispered, and then repeated it slightly louder. He rose in the moonlight and left the room, his right hand remaining in his night robe pocket, sagging heavy with pointed metal.
HADWELL FOLLOWED MR. and Mrs. Sherborne into the library.
“What’s on your mind, doctor?”
He sat heavily and rubbed his eyes. He looked only in the direction of the brandy until Benjamin finally brought him a snifter. “I knew a man in the War and who practiced at Bleeding Kansas as well, a surgeon. He lives in Kansas City now, I believe….”
“Dr. Hadwell,” Nora said strongly, “if you insist again on amputation, I will become quite upset.”
“As you know, I believe that his true body is buried beneath these growths.” The doctor held up his glass for another pour. “It is my firm medical opinion that surgery is the final resort to saving the boy.”
Nora gestured to the door. “Dr. Hadwell, your services will no longer be needed in this house.”
The doctor scowled at her. “Without my professional connections in the medical community—”
“I am quite capable of sending a wire message, maintaining correspondence, and discerning a scholar from a snake oil salesman.”
Then he looked to Mr. Sherborne. “Is this your final decision?”
“My wife speaks for us both, and for our son.”
“I see.” The doctor stood with a huff. He knocked back his drink and set the glass loudly on the end table. He declined a ride and stumbled into the dark.
NO ONE SAW the stranger arrive in town on June the nineteenth. He came from the east, not by rail or carriage, shuffling on two feet through the dust. He entered the Lucky Spot saloon without any horse or luggage.
The bartender recalled reminding the oddly-dressed visitor that it was a drinking establishment, and after ordering “one of whatever you may” that he didn’t touch or once look at his glass.
A few patrons heard part of a conversation between the new arrival and Dr. Hadwell who was recently a regular customer and himself halfway down a bottle.
“Who are you, friend? I’d guess by your worn notebook: a journalist, or a writer of dime novels and penny dreadfuls?”
“I was sent for.”
“Sent, you say?”
“The tapping rhythms on the wires in the wind.”
“We call that a telegraph, mister.”
“I heard the message. And I followed the resonance back to its source.”
“Your speech is too odd, friend. Did you come from other shores?”
“Another country. A name difficult to vocalize.”
Hadwell stood as straight as he could manage with the bar counter assisting him. “I’ll have you know, sir, that I am a learned man. I could name more Latin terms describing the human body than could fill a wagon full of books.”
Witnesses say the stranger did not insult Hadwell further, but neither did he offer any apology. Dr. Hadwell’s voice rose to shouts, and though he was not known to carry a weapon, asked generally and specifically of many men present if he could borrow their firearm to “inflict treatment” and “restore his sullied honor in the name of science.”
It was not the sheriff who ended the dispute, but Nora Sherborne who not only called loudly from the swinging doors for civilized behavior, but stepped inside the establishment.
“Mrs. Sherborne,” said the bartender, “Womenfolk are not allowed—”
“Don’t you worry, Mr. Jacobs, I’ll stand back outside with the Negroes and Indians momentarily. I was passing by and overheard. And if none of you is gentlemen enough to quell a fight with a man of medicine, then I’ll speak my displeasure.”
“Sherborne?” said the stranger, lifting his odd hat, “Yours is the name I seek.”
“Pardon me, sir?”
“Your child is the changing one?”
“My son is sick, yes. His ailments are quite severe.”
“I have heard. And come to help.”
The stranger placed a large unstamped silver chip on the bar and stood much taller than he seemed before. “Appreciation for refreshment.”
MRS. SHERBORNE AND the stranger were mounting the carriage when shouts caught their attention.
Dr. Hadwell stood hollering, wavering but stubborn, in the dirt-packed center of Main Street. Wagons and horses passed close until it was discerned that the doctor had a gun, though no one later admitted to selling or loaning him one.
Despite Nora’s protests, the stranger stepped back out of the carriage and went to meet the physician.
Traffic cleared, leaving the two figures facing each other by twenty yards.
“You seek conflict,” the stranger said, as though he was just understanding.
“I treated that boy for over a year!” The doctor swayed slightly. “I endured his nephroid limbs and molten substances. I will not let—”
“Lee Hadwell,” the sheriff called from a side street. “You back out of this now, Doctor. I don’t want a skirmish here.” He walked out slowly with a calming hand, the other at his sidearm. “This other man don’t seem to be armed at all.”
“Let me be, Sheriff. I’ve a thing to settle here.”
Breaths held, people watched from the walkways and windows.
The stranger raised his writing pad, scribbling.
“You—! What—?!” cried Hadwell, fumbling with his holster.
“Stop!” cried Sheriff Burgess. “Hadwell!”
The stranger barely gestured. A hundred eyes followed the torn script as it fluttered and tumbled the distance between them like a blown leaf.
Hadwell staggered back and tripped, dropping his gun. He scrambled on his bottom as the paper descended, following his movement. He scuttled and turned, swatted and kicked, but the scrap alighted on his forehead.
The doctor shuddered and tossed with eccentric spasms in the dust. The citizens of Promise gasped. He wheezed and curled. Then he became still.
Sheriff Burgess approached to find him sleeping fast and suckling his thumb.
THE CARRIAGE LEANED to one side as they rode out to the Sherborne place. At the door, Esther tried to take Nora’s coat, but without removing her riding gloves the lady of the house showed the newcomer immediately to the boy’s room upstairs. Jonathan’s seeping eyes widened as the visitor ducked under the doorway.
Towering over the bed, he inclined deeply and squinted at the shaking boy-shape. Then he smiled widely.
Jonathan buzzed through his tight face vent lined with thin artichoke heart-like filaments.
“Nora? I didn’t hear you arri—? Oh….” Benjamin entered, and froze in place.
“He is many seasons unlike you,” said the stranger.
“The ailments began months ago, and no one can help us curb the symptoms.”
The stranger plucked one of the few remaining hairs from Jonathan’s head. He put the strand in his mouth and smacked his lips.
“What exactly is your area of expertise, Mr. …?”
“Not sick,” said the stranger, standing to his full height. “He is altered, evolved, differentiating by moment.”
“I can assure you, we’ve employed every medicine available, including Chinese arts and herbs from the Sioux and Pawnee tribes.”
“Pardon.” The stranger removed his hat and bowed slightly to them. He spoke oddly, but in a euphonious tone. “His body tissues are changed, so too the liquids and tiny cubicle parts that compose these, and smaller, the twin helix codes that declare all of his being—”
“I don’t fully understand….” Benjamin stammered.
“You recall, Benjamin, I was recently reading the papers of Louis Pasteur—” Nora began.
“Numbers,” said the stranger, opening his notepad. “At the smallest place, very small, below size or scale—numbers make him, as they make all things.” He rolled his peculiar pen along the paper as if to warm it, then took it up. “Now you leave. I fix his numbers.”
Benjamin huffed and blinked. Nora led him out.
They waited in the library where Esther brought a snack that no one ate. She sat too and joined the silence.
At one point, Nora excused herself, claiming to need an extra wrap against the chilled evening, but she stopped to glance in the keyhole of her son’s room. She returned downstairs pale and silent.
Later, the screams sounded like a rabbit caught by a wolf. They rushed up.
At first the door wouldn’t budge, though the knob turned fully and the latch was clear, as though the pressure of an ocean held it from the opposite side. When the cries finally faded, the door creaked open on its own, with the stranger oddly across the room and seated.
Scraps of notebook paper covered every surface, across walls and ceiling and floor, several overlapping layers in proximity to the bed. Every sheet ran dense with equations and long strings of numbers, written in several pigments of ink.
“He is redone,” said the stranger, pocketing his notebook, which seemed curiously no more depleted than before.
From atop the pooled mess of fluids and odd matters on the bed, a boy with bright blue eyes and full blonde hair called to his parents. They ran to him. He jumped out of bed and embraced them and wiggled ten toes.
No one saw the stranger leave the room, altogether smaller than when he’d arrived.
JONATHAN RETURNED TO school within the week. He was eager, but still answered most of the questions incorrectly. Billy Talbot pushed him down every day, and when he tried to fight back the larger boy broke his nose. Phebe was glad to see him and that was something. He often fell silent at meals. Once he remarked to Esther that he longed to see again the vibrant and sonorous country. Knowing that he’d never traveled anywhere, she inquired as to his meaning, but he replied that it must have been a dream. One night, Nora found her son crouched by his new bed and assumed he was praying, only to see him stuff something under the mattress. She investigated the following day while he was at school and found nothing.
ATTEMPTING TO HEAD off the peak of summer heat, the Sherbornes opted for a picnic, riding a few miles north where a mound of sandstone rocks provided shade. They ate cheese, walnuts and grapes, and drank cider.
A company of the United States Army Seventh Cavalry rode up suddenly and startled them.
“You folks best get back to town,” the blue uniformed Major told them from his horse. “The hostiles have been restless and straying. You’re close to the edge of the Powder River Country.”
“Why should there be any trouble now when not before?” Nora asked.
“If you haven’t heard, ma’am, Lieutenant Colonel Custer recently declared gold found in the Black Hills and droves of people are moving into the Indian land….”
As the soldier spoke, the boy wandered off through tall prairie grass. If they called his name he didn’t hear, shuffling his bare feet in the warm sandy soil. In less than one hundred yards, he came to a small bluff, climbed to its plateau, and pulled a sheet of paper from his pocket. He recalled the moment that the stranger had given it to him, and the whispered words as he had hidden that last scrawled page in the foot trunk.
Jonathan folded the inked script neatly until it was small enough to place on his tongue. Then he sat comfortably and surveyed the vistas and prospects stretching around and above him, as he waited for the changes to come.