MUSIC IN THE NIGHT
The sun was just touching the desert horizon, a great oblate ball of red, as the the traveller came in sight of the remains of the the town of Golconda. To the East
a towering gray thunderhead flickered with internal lightning. Rumbles rolling across the dry wastes encouraged him on. Even the poor shelter of an abandoned
ghost town would be better than being out in the open tonight. He revved his motorcycle’s engine up in order to reach the place before darkness fell. He would
need a little time to select a spot and better not to have to do that by a flashlight’s poor illumination.
Ah, Golconda! Named for the ancient gold mining land of India, one of the great gold mines of the old West had been found here, and of course a mining town
town arose of feed off of it. For twenty years it fed well and grew into a lively, vital, even boisterous (and brawling) little boomtown. For a short time it could
be spoken of in the same breath with Bodie and Virginia City.
Then, shortly after the turn of the twentieth century the miners had broken into a deep aquifer and the mine had flooded in spite of the best pumps money could
buy and the best engineers money could hire. Who would have guessed so much water ran under the bone-dry desert? It was the end of Golconda.
The mine limped on for several years by pumping madly and stripping the last little bits of gold quartz from the old upper galleries, but finally came the last
scream of the mine whistle, and within days Golconda had died. It’s remaining inhabitants fled as if a plague of serpents had befallen it, leaving much of
the town’s furnishings and even some of their possessions, for transporting such was costly. If Golconda had been closer to civilization it might have
been preserved as historical monument like Bodie had been, but it was deep in the desert. So it sat, slowly crumbling, dreaming perhaps of times gone by.
The traveller reached the town while the desert twilight still gave him illumination. He saw a street of leaning, silver-gray structures that actually gleamed in
the last light. The desert wind and the grit it carried had quite literally polished the wood that made up the majority of the buildings. Behind the buildings
that lined the street were the shadows of other structures, scattered seemingly randomly. He paid little attention to them. The street held enough potential
shelters. There was no need to go farther afield, and no time either. The light was dimming as he watched.
His choice of campsite was largely based on structural elements. He avoided the two remaining two-story buildings on the grounds of safety. Who knew when
the second stories would come crashing down, as inevitably they must? Several others were obviously too rickety to trust, even though some unbroken windows
still graced them. How glass stayed in place in buildings that leaned at such alarming angles he could not fathom. A couple of others didn’t have enough roof
left to offer any rain protection, though they might have sufficed as wind shelter. Ultimately he chose one of the few non-wooden buildings. It was a simple
adobe structure, it’s walls still standing straight and it’s roof remarkably whole. The floor was actually still lined with adobe tile resting on the dirt beneath. A
quick check ensured the corners held no sidewinder nests or other unpleasantness.
Confirming his decision, there were definite signs of previous campers, including a rock circle containing ashes and a few bits of forgotten trash. Glory be,
there was even a little pile of mesquite wood! Bless the old travelers, whoever they had been!
It was dark by the time he moved his big dirt bike with the little trailer in front of the old adobe. His first act after that was to use the firewood gift to build a
small fire, as much for light as for heat, though the desert would get bitterly cold in the night. He didn’t have to put up his little camp stove, though. He could
heat up some beans and franks in his old skillet and he did so. Then with warm food inside him he unrolled his sleeping bag and mat. Around them he stretched
that old cowpoke’s favorite protection, a well used length of rope as a snake barrier. The old-timers had said that only horsehair rope would do, but in fact
it is the smell of human sweat in the rope that repels snakes.
And so to bed. Tomorrow he would explore the old town after a proper breakfast. Who knew, maybe he could actually find something of value after all these
Sleep came, and so did wind and thunder. For awhile there were flashes through the open windows, but the traveler slept through it, though he stirred a bit in
his sleeping bag. Cold came afterwards, but all he did was sink a little deeper into his bag. Outside clouds blew across the sky they shared with a half moon
and the stars that never shine so brightly as in the desert. They caused shadows to run up and down the empty street, making strange shapes. Still the
exhausted traveller slept on.
It was music that woke him. About three in the morning he dreamed of music. It wasn’t just any music, but the old ragtime of the town’s last boisterous years.
He dreamed that he was in an old saloon crowded with prospectors and miners, teamsters and at least one genuine professional gambler running some sort
of game. Against the far wall from the swinging doors was a bowler-hatted “professor” wearing arm garters on a boiled shirt and just pounding the literal hell out
of an old upright piano.
Gradually, he awoke from the dream to the point where he was sure he was awake, but he still seemed to be hearing that old tinny piano playing one ragtime
tune after another. Was he still dreaming?
Finally, he realized he was awake, and that there was real music coming from somewhere.
He laid there for awhile, not sure what to do. Was someone else camping here with a boom box maybe? If so, why play such old music so late at night? Was
someone trying to get his goat?
He was a decisive man by nature, and after a short while he climbed reluctantly out of his sleeping bag, shook out his boots and put them on, reached for his
flashlight and stood up. After a moment he reached down and picked up something else—the little .22 kit gun he always carried while camping. It was intended
for snakes, mostly, but sometimes snakes walk on two legs. He knew from his schooldays that pranksters weren’t always of the harmless variety.
The fire had burned out, so his flashlight was his only illumination until he got outside. Then he saw the moonlight and the starlight on the old buildings and
how they gleamed and shone in the night, even as cloud-driven shadows danced across them. He was sorry he had gone to sleep so soon, and almost as
sorry that he was alone. He would have liked to share this sight with someone. He didn’t admit it to himself, but he also would have liked the comfort that
another human presence would give. He still heard the music.
He eventually started moving, following the sound of a tinny piano. It lead him down the street towards the far end. In one of the buildings he thought he saw
It was one of the two-story buildings he saw the light in, and as he slowly moved closer, he could tell that the music seemed to be coming from the same
place. There wasn’t much light, and he tried to tell himself that it was moonlight reflected off a surviving window, but it was too yellow for moonlight. It
really looked more like the light of an old-fashioned kerosene lamp.
Finally, he was in front of the old building. There was no door to bar the way, so he had no excuse for not just walking in, but he found himself strangely
reluctant. There was a chill down his spine and his legs didn’t want to move for some reason, but in the end, he was a decisive man. He decided that some
pranksters were playing a game with him and that he would confront them and learn the reason why. His kit gun should sober any malicious characters
easily enough if push came to shove, and right now he felt like shoving.
The only alternative, after all, was running. That just wouldn’t do.
He strode forward into the dim, yellow light clutching his flashlight in his left hand and his little revolver in his right and stepped through the doorway.
The music stopped as if a knife had cut it off. The light vanished and all there was to see was a dark and cavernous room partially lit by the beam
of the flashlight. Against the far wall (what!?) there was a piano. It was an old upright piano.
Flashing the light around he saw no one. There were some old tables and chairs still in place, and what looked like a bar down one side of the room.
Everything was covered in…
Dust! A thick layer of dust over everything. It had been years since anyone had walked here. He saw prints of coyote and smaller animals here and there
but nothing the size of a man. There was no trace of anything human at all. He flashed his light over the piano, slowly moving closer to it as the chills ran
up and down his spine. It was covered with dust too, even on the keys. The floor around it had the same undisturbed layer, and so did the remnant of an
old piano bench. On the top of the old upright stood a single kerosene lamp, also covered in dust and long cold.
He stood there for a short time—a very short time—putting all these things together in his head. Then he slowly backed away from the dusty old piano in
in the dark and dusty big room. He would have gone faster, but somehow he couldn’t.
He thought he would never reach the door at his shuffling pace, but he finally did, and when he did, he ran. He ran back to the adobe, lit the fire and by it’s
light he gathered his belongings as fast as he could, took them out to his bike, and finally—finally!! mounted it and kicked it into life. There were worse
things, far worse things, he figured, than sleeping outside, even if desert downpours threatened.
As he rode out of town, gunning the engine for the blessed human noise of it, through the roar of the bike he heard the sound of ragtime music, and, he thought,
the sound of voices laughing.