The morning sun had been up about an hour when Arlo Mathers pulled up in his truck, got out, and stretched. Six Mile Canyon Road was quiet as he looked up towards the site and remains of Big Jim Davis’ 1870s silver forge.
That’s what Arlo liked about the Comstock, not only Virginia City but the entirety of the area. He had only hiked here once, near the base of Sugarloaf, and he was looking forward to what he would find heading into the gorge that held a gurgling stream.
The silence was desirable as he followed the stream further down and behind the most notable rock formation into the canyon. With Virginia City above him, he pressed farther into the cut made by a millennium of water runoff from the hills beyond.
Hours had passed, and still, he wandered through the many little side chutes and gullies that the land had to offer. Though the sky remained bright blue, a small cloud of trail dust could be seen to the south.
Arlo headed towards the dust until the land flattened out, and he could no longer see the tally of dust floating lazily away to his east. Still, his curiosity held him to his coarse.
As he broke the rise he’d been walking up, Arlo looked into a small valley. He saw a sunburnt town of older-looking wooded buildings and dugouts.
“I never knew about this place,” he mumbled, “Maybe it’s one of those old western movie sets from years ago.”
A quarter-hour later, he came to the outskirts of the place only to discover it was inhabited. In period costume, people moved between buildings, crisscrossing the wide, open dirt street. Immediately, Arlo looked for a camera crew but saw none.
He stepped up on the wood sidewalk, slightly elevated to keep the storefronts and hotels out of danger from flooding. A door to his right opened, and a woman reached out, grabbing him by the arm. At first, he pulled away, but there was something familiar about her, so he entered.
“Are you new to town?” she said, barely above a whisper.
“Only a minute ago,” Arlo answered, “What town is this?”
“Six Mile,” she answered.
“But…” he began.
“You won’t find it on any map,” she said.
“Why?” asked Arlo.
“Because it doesn’t exist, we don’t exist, you and I don’t exist,” she said, still whispering.
“You’re pulling my leg, aren’t you,” Arlo smiled, “This is a movie set or something, right?”
“No, no movie set, though I wish it were,” she said, looking away as if remembering something from long ago. Then she added, “We’re trapped all of us here, and there is no getting out.”
“Trapped?” Arlo said indignantly, “Jus’ walk out like I walked in.”
She sighed, “You don’t understand.”
“Well, then make me,” he said.
“Okay, the best I can do is that I think we’re dead, and through some sort of fate or failure of the universe, we wound up here in this place,” she said.
“You’re nuts,” Arlo said as he backed towards the door he’d had come in through.
“Am I?” she asked, “You recognized me when you first saw me — I know it.”
“Yeah,” Arlo said, “So?”
“Look at me, look at me real good,” she demanded.
“I see lots of faces every day…” Arlo began.
“Yes, I suppose you do,” she interjected, “But how many women with bleached hair and a beauty mark on her face like mine?”
Suddenly, Arlo felt dizzy. He sat hard on the wooden floor, polished smooth with age, and looked up at the petite-figured woman standing before him.
“Say my name,” she said coaxingly, “It’s okay.”
“Marilyn…Monroe,” he whispered.
As he battled to regain his composure, Arlo listened as Marilyn explained how she thought she had come to be in Six Mile, and the more she spoke, the more things made sense.
“I worked on a film somewhere near here, I sure of that,” she said, “I also stayed at a bed-and-breakfast in Virginia, and I always wished I could return to it. This is as close as I got to my wish, and honestly, I have no idea how long I’ve been here.”
“None?” Arlo asked.
She smiled, “None. But it isn’t all that bad, you see. I also wanted a simpler life, and how much more simple can one get living out here?”
“What do you do?” Arlo questioned.
“I run this mercantile during the day, and sometimes I sing at the saloon or the theater down the street,” she said, pointing further south as Arlo stood to look, “Are you hungry?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he responded.
“Don’t call me ma’am,” she giggled, “Makes me feel old. Call me, Marilyn.”
The food smelled delicious as she stood over the wood stove in the back of the store, frying up a steak and some potatoes. Arlo watched her move from the stove to the table as if he were dreaming.
“Eat up,” Marilyn said as she poured him a cup of freshly brewed coffee.
Arlo took a mouthful of potato and chewed. They had no taste.
He took a second fork full, and again nothing.
“I’ll admit that it took me a while to figure out the stove, but I don’t think my cooking is all that bad,” Marilyn said, trying not to sound hurt.
“No,” Arlo returned, “You’re cooking is fine — it’s that I can’t taste it.”
“Really?” she said with surprise.
Suddenly, she got up and disappeared into the store area, quickly returning with a short, stumpy bottle filled with a red liquid.
“Give me your finger,” she demanded.
Arlo put out his left pointer finger, and Marilyn shook several drops from the bottle on the digit.
“Taste it,” she said.
Arlo could smell Tabasco, knowing it would take his breath away if he could taste it, especially that much at one time, but he did as she bade him.
“Nothing,” he said, surprised.
“You don’t belong here,” Marilyn said as she took him gently by the hand.
Night fell over the quiet little town, and that’s when it seemed to come to life. There was the mixing of several ten-penny pianos playing, raucous laughter, clinking glasses, and gunfire. It was everything that Arlo had imagined about a frontier town.
He stood back in the shadow of the overhang near the door of the mercantile, watching. Marilyn had walked up the street to the theater.
“I don’t want to, but we all have to,” she said, “It’s a rule we have to abide by, and besides, Mr. Twain is tonight’s speaker.”
“Mark Twain?” Arlos asked, adding, “But he’s been dead since…”
“Yes, I know,” Marilyn responded, “That’s how this dumb blonde figured it out, that we are all dead — well, all of us except you.”
She looked back at him as she walked across the street and disappeared into the large building. Arlo stood outside, listening to the booming sound of the southern voice of Twain and the half-hearted laughter of the crowd that had gathered. He was presenting a lecture on his adventures in the Sandwich Islands.
Above the town were stars, the same ones he knew from his time at sea and then in this desert. He watched as they twinkled.
Then he saw something pass between the stars and his sight. It was a large winged creature, half-man, half something else, and Arlo felt his blood run cold.
“Howdy, stranger,” a voice said from behind him.
Arlo jumped and turned. A man had come from out of the dark, making no noise as he walked to within feet of the unsuspecting man.
“Names Jim Davis — and I own this town,” he said in a gravelly voice, “Let me buy you a drink and tell you about my rules.”
Feeling like he didn’t have a choice, Arlo stepped off the boardwalk and followed Davis across the street to a nearly vacant saloon. Davis entered and walked to the far corner. It was the darkest table in the hall.
He motioned to the bartender before sitting, indicating to Arlo that he should take the offered chair. Before he could sit, the man behind the bar had two drinks poured and on the small table before them. He left the bottle as he hurried away.
“Seeing that you’re new here, I’ll give you a few days to adjust,” Davis smiled.
“Newcomers always find it hard to get used to, including Miss Marilyn, whom you’ve already met. She’s my gal,” he added, “Don’t forget it.”
“What is this place?” Arlo asked.
He tossed a shot back, knowing he wouldn’t taste and unsure if it would affect his senses.
“This is my town,” Davis smiled, “I built it, I populated it, I run it, and that’s the way I like it.”
“So, why am I here?” Arlo asked.
“I don’t know yet,” Davis responded, “You’re not the first accident that happened upon this place, and I don’t think you’ll be the last.”
Davis poured them another shot.
“I’ll put you up at Julia’s,” he said, downing the whiskey, “She’s another one of my women.
She runs a nice respectable hotel these days, and I think Room 29 will do you just fine.”
Arlo tipped his glass back in a single move, then looked at Davis, “Are you the winged thing I saw earlier?”
“Perceptive,” Davis replied.
Though the answer was non-committal, he could read Davis’ body language well enough to know that the answer was a firm ‘yes.’ The two men had a third slug of booze in silence.
“Thank you for giving me the lowdown and for your hospitality,” Arlo said, “Is Mademoiselle Julia expecting me?”
“Yes, she is,” Davis answered, his eyebrow raised in surprise.
“Then, I’ll take my leave,” Arlo stated as he got up from his chair, “Again, thank you.”
Arlo walked out of the saloon, knowing the alcohol was both tasteless and ineffective on him. He strode purposefully to the hotel, aware that “Big Jim” Davis was watching.
“This way,” the woman with a slight Cajon accent said, “Welcome to Six Mile. I think this room will suit you very well.”
“You must be Julia Bulette?” Arlo said.
“Yes, I am,” she said, “Have we met before?”
“No, ma’am, and forgive me for being so forward,” Arlo said.
“Do not worry yourself,” she said, “And please, should you need anything, simply pull the rope to sound the bell, and Rosa May will gladly assist you.”
Mind swirling and still suffering from the shock of finding himself in a place so strange, Arlo laid back on the cot and tried to fall asleep. Next door, he could still hear Twain and the unenthusiastic crowd he was trying to entertain.
To Arlo, it seemed as if he had only shut his eyes for a minute, and now sunlight streamed through his room’s window. He was momentarily confused at his surroundings before recalling the ordeal he was in.
Because he had not undressed the evening before, he was able to quickly get downstairs and out of the lobby before anyone could stop him.
He looked at the still closed mercantile, then found a bench against the wall and sat down. Along the street, other people were beginning their day, and he wondered what they did for a living.
“If a living is what it was called or if Davis assigned each person a duty,” Arlo thought.
From his right, he saw a gruff-looking man walking hurriedly towards him.
“I heard we had a new person visiting our humble town,” the man shouted, a slight New England accent being noted, “Alfred Doten, and you might be?”
“Arlo Mathers, Mr. Doten,” Arlo answered.
“Come, let’s get a bite to eat,” Doten said, “We can talk about something more than the weather.”
They crossed the street to the diner. Inside, Doten took a seat, back to the windows and door, allowing Arlo the seat that afforded a view.
“What’ll it be?” the tough-sounding woman asked.
“I’ll have my usual, Pearl,” Doten answered.
“You?” Pearl asked Arlo.
“The same, please,” he answered.
She walked away without a word, and Doten smiled after her.
“Rough around the edges,” Doten said, “But I like them like that.”
Arlo sat, surprised that the woman he had ordered food from a few seconds ago went by her nickname and not her real name of Janis Joplin.
By this time, Doten was talking, and Arlo was not listening.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” he laughed, finding his inside joke funny.
Arlo remembered how Ruby, a nickname she had given herself before she had died, had been discovered at the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City before heading to Haight Ashbury and wide-spread fame.
“So, as I was saying, Marilyn thinks you are here by mistake,” Doten said, “That unlike us, you are still living, and she believes you might be able to escape. Should she be correct, perhaps you are the key to everyone’s release.”
“We ain’t never getting out of here,” Pearl said as she put the plates filled with food on the table with a bang.
She turned and started away.
Arlo raised a finger to Doten, “Hey, Janis, do you still sing?”
The woman stopped and spun around.
“How in the fuck do you know I used to sing?” she demanded.
“Oh, I know!” Arlo said, “So, do you?”
“Only when I’m alone, which ain’t never,” she answered, “Jim don’t like my singing.”
“Well, I do,” Arlo said.
“Yeah, well, you don’t count,” she growled.
“I think it’s time for a new sheriff in town,” Arlo shot back.
“Don’t got one,” Ruby answered as she stomped out of the room.
Arlo removed his pack and unzipped it. After digging around, he found what he was looking for and clapped it down on the table in front of the still eating Doten.
Doten slowly reached over and picked it up, “Well, I’ll be. We do have a sheriff, after all.”
Arlo took the one-time toy badge from Doten and pinned it on his shirt, then said, “I have a plan.”
With Doten, Arlo wandered up and down both sides of the street, introducing himself as the town’s Marshal since that’s what the badge read. That evening, he went to the saloon where Davis held court and waited, sitting in the chair Davis had sat in the night before.
“You know he ain’t going to like it,” warned the bartender.
Arlo smiled, “I know.”
Soon it was dark, and soon Davis entered the saloon. By this time, Arlo had a bottle of whiskey and two shot glasses on the table. He motioned for Davis to join him.
“You got some guts,” Davis said, taking the seat, “Being a stranger and all and in my own town.”
“What can I say — I’ve always wanted to be a lawman,” Arlo replied.
“Dangerous line of work, especially in Six Mile,” Davis said.
“Yeah, but with you in charge, no one’s going to do anything to me,” Arlo returned.
“Well, what if I wanted to do something to you?” Davis threatened.
“That would be your prerogative, wouldn’t it,” Arlo answered.
“Yes, it would,” Davis responded.
“But then I have a little secret that you don’t know about and that you wouldn’t want anyone else to know about either,” Arlo said.
“A little blackmail,” Davis said, “You catch on quick.”
Suddenly, the saloon doors burst open, and in walked an older man with white hair, mustache, and white suit. He held a crooked cigar between his teeth while signaling with two fingers for the barman to bring him two drinks.
“Well, if it ain’t Jim Davis and the new town Marshal,” the man, Arlo knew as Twain, said, “Pleasure to make acquaintances.”
“We’re having a private talk, Clemens,” Davis said.
“Don’t mind me,” Clemens said, “I plan to get so drunk that I’ll barely remember who I am and this Hell in which we all seem to be stuck.”
“Seems you are a disrupter, Arlo Mathers,” Davis said.
“Marshal Arlo Mathers,” Arlo shot back.
“You think all of this funny, do you?” Davis said, ire in his voice.
“No, sir,” Arlo said, “It isn’t funny — it is sad.”
“Hark!” Clemens shouted, slapping the tabletop, “That’s what I’m talking about. Excitement, something more than a repeat of night after night, day after day.”
“Shut up, old man!” Davis yelled.
“Calm down and have another drink,” Arlo offered as he poured yet another shot of rot-gut.
Davis downed it and tossed the glass across the room.
“What is your damned secret?” Davis demanded.
“Not yet,” Arlo smiled, “First, I want a small favor.”
“What?” Davis asked as Arlo motioned the bartender to bring a new glass.
Pouring another shot for each, then filling the two empty glasses Clemens had in front of himself, Arlo measured his response, “I want to hear Pearl sing.”
“You got to be joking?” Davis said, “She doesn’t sing — she caterwauls!”
Arlo noticed Clemens face sour at the suggestion.
“No, I’m not joking,” Arlo answered, “I’d like to hear her sing and maybe put a smile on her face for once. Because you don’t let her sing, she is a miserable little cuss.”
“Fine,” he said, “But don’t blame me when your ears begin to bleed, and you go deff.”
Arlo poured one more round for the three of them before getting up and taking the short stroll down to the theater, where he took a seat in the front row of chairs.
Ruby sang for nearly five hours, and it was well beyond midnight when her voice finally gave out. Only a few patrons were in the theater opposed to when Twain appeared, but Arlo stood and clapped, whistling, stomping, and calling for an encore.
Davis appeared from outside and fairly hollered, “Okay, Marshal Arlo Mathers, you got what you wanted, now give me what I want!”
Taking his time, Arlo walked to the front of the building and into the early morning darkness. The air was chilled, and he found it galvanizing. Though frightened that his coming ploy might not work and would mean a painful death, Arlo started his bluff.
“You know that stash of gold and silver you are protecting?” Arlo started.
“What stash,” Davis said, in a poor attempt at a bluff himself.
“Come now, dishonesty does not befit a man of your stature, Big Jim Davis,” Arlos said.
At the mention of Big Jim, the man turned pale.
“Err…fine, I…uhh…do know what…umm…you are speaking of,” he stammered.
“It’s all gone,” Arlo said, “It was found about twenty years after you died in the dirt, back-shot while trying to rob that Well Fargo wagon.”
“No, it isn’t,” Davis said, “And they shot me for no reason. I hadn’t even drawn my pistol.”
“All the same, your dead, we’re dead, and that loot you think you’re protecting with this figment of a town is gone,” Arlo said, “Sorry, pal.”
It began as a soft roar, growing louder as Big Jim’s color went from pale to a bright red before he burst into flames. The flames lasted through the morning and turned to vapor as the sun’s rays touched it, and then, Big Jim was no more. As the day wore on, the street grew less busy, and the buildings started fading.
Before he vanished, Doten handed Arlo a paper, the Gold Hill Daily News, dated May 11, 1864, saying, “It’s the last one I have, and may she bring you a fortune.”
Down the street, he saw Marilyn in the window of the mercantile. She waved and smiled, then turned, disappearing into the fast-fading building.
Suddenly alone, Arlo Mathers pulled the toy badge from his shirt. He dropped it in the sand, knowing he’d never find it again as he walked towards the base of Sugarloaf and his truck.