Jack Whateley's stagecoach got to the mouth of the Gomorra Valley just ahead of the biggest thunderstorm he had ever seen. A massive thunderhead lumbered across the sky behind them, and strengthening zephyrs skittered past the coach. But the sky over Gomorra was still blue, and the driver has apparently decided they could make it if he drove the horses hard.
Despite the horses' speed, the storm caught the ileeing stage with ease. Jack heard the first rumble of thunder at mid-afternoon, when the stage was still more than ten miles from Gomorra, and within minutes the storm broke over them. The peaks surrounding the valley were lashed furiously, and Jack counted more then fifteen strikes in less than a minute. In another ten, the blinding electric flashes surrounded them. The mad lightning raked the trees, cacti, and everything else with the temerity to project up from the valley floor.
Thunder crashed and echoed across the valley almost continuously, overridden by the occasional crash of a lightning bolt, many of which were far too close. Gusting winds chased each other, swirling around the stage's wheels and throwing blinding walls of grit at the driver and his horses. Yet even at the height of the storm's fury, there was not a single drop of rain to be seen or felt The clouds hung low, but any water they dropped evaporated in the parched desert air before it ever reached the dusty soil.
'When the stage at last pulled onto Main Street, the horses foaming with fear and exhaustion, the storm was finally spent -or at least required a breather. Stepping down from the carriage, the first thing that Jack's noticed was a figure standing in the road outside the Red Hill Hotel, his thin arms outstretched to the sky. At first Jack thought it might have been some sort of effigy or scarecrow, but it reached down to scratch itself before resuming its suicidally dangerous pose.
The driver swore and jerked the reigns, pulling the team as far to the other side of the road as they would go. Jack felt the air tingle with electricity. A tremendous stroke of lightning suddenly slammed into the figure, knocking it flat with a titanic thunderclap. The air was acrid with ozone, and wisps of smoke rose from a charred spot in the figure's shirt. "Good God!" Jack yelled to the driver, half-deaf from the thunder.
"It don't matter, y' goose-livered, know-nuthin' tenderfoot!" the driver shouted back. "That were Jonah Wheeler! He gets hit 'bout every time there's a storm, and always gets right back up!"
Jack returned his gaze to the man receding into the distance, who was indeed slowly getting to his feet. Jack had been told that things were different out West, particularly in Gomorra. But he hadn't expected it to be quite so ... foreign. Jack watched in fascination and wonder as Wheeler got up, dusted himself off, and swaggered back into the Red Hill.
Less than five minutes later, his ears still ringing, Jack sat upon his two steamer trunks, wondering if any of the Family had intended to greet him. He checked his pocket watch again, just to make sure he hadn't arrived too early, and was about to find a stage out to the address he had been given when a wagon pulled up. The wagon's driver was a slim-faced man wearing a well-used hat and dusty brown clothing, but his passenger was a long-haired, redheaded dandy in a fastidiously neat purple suit. Cousins Astoreth and Nicodemus, if Jack wasn't mistaken.
"Yer a Whateley?" The driver snarled, as Jack waved a greeting to the pair. "Whateleys cost double on the Gomorra run."
Jack was about to protest, but Nicodemus brought out the required twenty-dollar gold coin. Holding it between the forefinger and thumb of his kid glove, Nicodemus blew a kiss onto the double eagle before flipping it to the driver. The stagecoach man, exhausted and listless the minute before, reacted with surprising agility, snatching the tumbling coin in midair.
Astoreth gave a nasty snicker just before the driver let out a surprised yelp and dropped the coin. Jack noticed a neat, round welt on the driver's palm where the coin had burned through his leather glove. He started towards the injured driver, but Astoreth laid a firm hand on his shoulder.
"You have a choice," Nicodemus drawled at the driver, as he pulled out another coin. "You can take that twenty you were going to charge Cousin Jack for being a Whateley, burdened as it is with simony and extortion, or you can take this five dollar coin"
"But Mr. Nicodemus, it's a ten dollar trip from Shan Fan," the driver whined, clutching his burned hand. "It come out a' my pay if'n I get shorted."
"I'm sure your company would enjoy hearing about your attempt to extort whiskey money from their customers ... "
"Aw! Don' tell 'em, Mr. Nicodemus! I wuz only sayin: I wasn't goin' to really charge yer cousin no extry. You know I wuz only kiddin'," he pleaded, looking toward the newcomer, "right, Mr. Jack?"
Embarrassed by the driver's wheedling, Jack extracted a ten dollar piece from his pocket and tossed it at him. The driver caught it with his good hand, then scuttled back to the stagecoach. With a brief backward glance and a pungent oath, he snapped the reigns on his team.
As the stage rumbled off, Jack turned to see Nicodemus looking at him with an odd, if unnerving, grin. "There was no call to hurt him," Jack said defensively.
"Rabble like him burned down our house," Nicodemus returned in a low, dangerous voice. "They murdered Wilhelmina and did Cousin Basil grievous harm. If we don't keep them fearful, they'll do it again."
"There are better ways to keep people in line," Jack protested. "Intimidation only makes them resentful."
Nicodemus considered his cousin with a cold eye. "In his heart every man knows he is weak," he said finally. "Weak, greedy, and selfish. And the inhabitants of Gomorra are the most odious of the breed. Every single man here has forsaken his home and family in the East so he can pursue indolent dreams of untold wealth without work. When they don't find it, most crawl straight down the neck of a bottle, having been too stupid to figure that a return trip might have been useful if things didn't work out.
"They come here in droves - the desperate, the hopeless, the dregs of humanity. They have so much bitterness and resentment built up that when they see someone smart enough to come out here with money and a hint of practical sense, they blame them for all their problems. They say Sweetrock is without a soul because it employs men at wages they would spit on if they had other options. Yet Sweetrock has never hurt for diggers."
"Men desire the fast and easy out and then resent the fact that their fool schemes always fail. But they never blame themselves; it's always someone else who has deprived them of their improbable golden opportunities. They'll blame anyone they can point a finger at. They hate the Family because we came here with a plan and enough money to carry it out, where they stupidly assumed they'd find ghost rock lying around in heaps. We reminded them that they are worthless cretins. If we don't keep them fearful, they'll kill us out of sheer resentment." Nicodemus searched his cousin's face, daring contradiction. None was forthcoming.
"The faster you learn this, little cousin, the better you will fare in Gomorra. This isn't Yale."
The sky had completely cleared by the time the wagon came to the Whateley family's makeshift home, in a draw some two miles out of Gomorra proper. Jack saw something move out of the corner of his eye, and turned to see something vaguely human-shaped scurry away into the dead brown underbrush. He turned to Nicodemus, but the dandy made a dismissive gesture with a gloved hand.
"It's just something that's been hanging around the house for the last few weeks. It kills a few goats, but it's nothing serious. No real harm in it." Jack shrugged and put it out of his mind.
The new Whateley house was but a shadow Of the Whateley mansion Jack had seen pictures of. Nestled into a concealing ravine, a moderate-sized farmhouse had been competently expanded to include what had been the cattle barn. "Nebuchadnezzar turned out to be a durn good carpenter." Astoreth said as they approached. "Who'da thunk it?"
When their wagon came to a halt in front of the house, Nicodemus and Jack descended, leaving Astoreth to carry the heavy trunks up to the room prepared for Jack. After more than a fortnight on the road, he was very much looking forward to a night in a real bed, and a fresh, unwrinkled suit. Thinking pleasant thoughts, Jack started for the house.
Heart-stopping beauty brushed past him on the two short steps to the front door, going the other way. Her face was intelligent, her eyes inquisitive and clear, her lustrous raven-black hair free about her shoulders. Stunned, Jack immediately doffed his hat only to fumble it gracelessly and drop it to the dusty ground. His face went red, but she stooped and picked it up, a slight smile brightening her features.
"You dropped your hat," she said, her voice breathy and enticing, as she returned it.
Nervous, but determined not to embarrass himself in front of her again, Jack accepted his hat firmly. "Thank you," he almost sighed, unable to withhold awe from his simple statement. She turned and headed for the stables, leaving only the slight scent of roses.
"That was your cousin Tzipporah," Nicodemus said, disapproval tightening his mouth. "Let's get you in to meet the rest of the family."
The interior was reminiscent of a New England farmhouse, with plain but sturdy furniture, and a hardwood iloor built around a stone hearth large enough for Jack to stand within. A fire burned beneath two large cauldrons hung inside the enormous alcove, and the room was stuffy from the additional heat. Over each cauldron a figure hovered; one an aged but strong-looking man, his sleeves rolled against the heat of the fire, the other a green, misshapen thing that was slurping noisily from a ladle in its clawed hand.
"Uncle Jebediah, this is our cousin-germane, Dr. Jack Whateley:' Nicodemus said formally. "The Whateley presence in Gomorra has been at a low ebb for the last year. It's good to see a new face, Doctor," Jebediah said, giving Jack's hand a firm shake.
"We're family here. Just call me Jack." A motion caught Jack's eye, and he turned, hoping the beautiful Tzipporah had returned. But instead, he found the woman who had arrived but an inferior copy. The Whateley stamp was certainly upon her features, but she was unruly. Tzipporah had been neat and fancy, but this woman was dressed in tattered white. Most importantly, however, the newcomer's eyes were distracted and vulnerable, unable to rest anywhere for very long.
"This is my wife, Dolores," Nicodemus said with unexpected kindness. "Dolores, meet your cousin Jack." Dolores smiled briefly, then giggled. When it was clear that nothing more was forthcoming from her, Nicodemus directed her from the room. He was gentle and loving, though Jack felt oddly uncomfortable watching how he treated poor Dolores.
"I'd say I hope you had a pleasant trip, Jack, but I remember my own journey here all too well," Jebediah said with a dour smile, his clipped New England tone making the farmhouse seem more like home. "What do you think of Gomorra?"
"In all honesty, sir, I find it rather disconcerting. We've heard stories in the East, but I never imagined it was so ... alien."
'Ah my friend," Dolores said suddenly, turning back toward Jack. "Do not be alarmed at your strange surroundings. I too have known what it is to be a werewolf, shot forth from a cannon into the bright full moonlight."
There was moment of thoughtful silence as the family digested this unusual pronouncement and Dolores took the opportunity to sit noiselessly on the floor next to her husband. Nicodemus absently patted her head, but said nothing.
"Do you have any condition the rest of the family ought to know about?" Jebediah asked bluntly. "Lycanthropy, lunacy, or somnambulism?"
"No, no. Nothing like that" Jack said hastily, a little dazed by the sudden turn in conversation.
"It's sometimes difficult to know whether Dolores speaks literally or metaphorically," Jebediah explained to Jack, whose eyes had wandered back to Nicodemus' befuddled bride. "But it's best not to ignore her... Do you have any idea what she's talking about, Nicodemus?"
"No, uncle," the red head said distantly. "She's never said anything like this before." Jebediah scowled and ran his fingers through his short beard.
"Not to change the subject," Jack broke the silence, "but I understood that part of the reason I am here is to administer care for Cousin Basil. What is his condition?"
"Dr. Jenkins, who is staying with cousins Hezekiah and Cassandra, has been caring for him. But it's a considerable trek from Ghost Creek, and we were told you were the superior doctor."
Now Jack was on more sturdy ground. "Well then, it's definitely time that I saw my patient."
I'll take you upstairs," Jebediah offered. "Nicodemus, make sure my pot doesn't boil over, will you?"
"Of course," Nicodemus said with a brittleness that Jebediah seemed content to overlook. When Jack and Jebediah were gone, the only sound in the room was the crackling of the fire, and the bubbling of Jebediah's stew. Nicodemus turned his attention towards his wife. "What did you see, my love?" Nicodemus whispered, lifting his wife's chin and urging her -forcefully -to look directly into his eyes. She avoided his gaze for a moment, then suddenly looked at him with a profound sadness.
"If I were a tailor, I'd make it my pride, The best of all tailors to be. And if I were a tinker, no tinker beside Should mend an old kettle like me," Dolores sang softly.
"Jack," she added as tears began to roll down her cheeks. "He'll burn the bottom off the kettle."