About a month later, Mr Backland himself invited me to join him for evening drinks in his chamber. Mr Coburn, Two Hawks and Miss Star were invited to join us. Unfortunately, Miss Star was unable to join us as she had a prior invitation.
In anticipation of a jolly affair, I procured a fine new suit, watch and Derby hat. As it turned out, I could have worn funerary garb for all the difference it made to the atmosphere in Backland's office.
Mr Backland is a man haunted by a tragic past. Six months ago, his lady wife was killed in a terrible carriage accident just outside town. To compound the tragedy, his son, Christopher, was traumatised by the accident and drifted away from his father. Now, Mr Backland has received a letter from Christopher [included]. From Derry's Ford, he writes that he has joined the Church of the Holy Flame, run by a notorious pair, 'Lady' Cynthia Castairs and Mr Edgar DuChamp, a known gunslinger.
Mr Backland Snr is a loving father and is very distressed that his son would be taken advantage of by such a sect. He is worried that a beautiful unscrupulous woman has led his son astray. He has asked us to invite Mr Backland Jnr home for Christmas and, in that way, establish whether he really was staying with the sect of his own free will. For this service, he offered us $250 for news of the boy and $500 if we could persuade him to return home.
With that, he passed us a leather folio [attached] that contained some background information on the sect leaders, and a photo of Christopher. This was a lucky thing: I had made a quick sketch from a painting in Mr Backland's office, but I am afraid that I completely failed to catch the boy's likeness. It is a mark of Mr Backland Snr's distress that he kept talking about his boy being home for Christmas. It transpires that Derry's Ford is four days ride from Denver. There is no possible way to get there and back again in time for Christmas.
That evening, we spoke to two of Christopher's friends, William and Joseph. They spoke of a young man who liked horses, respected his mother and father and paid due attention to the teachings of the Church. They mentioned a girl, Charlene, who was sweet on him and asked us to invite him to a New Year's Eve party that they were hosting.
At first light, we set out. As we rode out of Denver, I knew that Mr Backland would have a cold and lonely Christmas.
Thankfully, the weather was cold but clear for the time that we travelled. As we passed through small towns, we asked after Christopher and the sect leaders. The closer we came to Derry's Ford, the more we heard of the strangeness of the sect. More than anything else, people spoke of the distance that they kept from others. It did not bode well.
It was late afternoon when we splashed through the icy waters of Derry's Ford. We sought support for our mission of mercy from the local sheriff, without success.
We rode directly to the sect's farm about an hour out of town and tried to gain entry as simple penitents. We weren't surprised when we were told that membership was by 'invitation only'.
Pretending to leave, we cleverly doubled back and watched the group's movements for 15-20 minutes. The farm consisted of a house, a barn, a corral, a chapel and some sort of barracks building. While some people worked the fields, most activity centred on the packing of five wagons. Christopher was there! He was obviously favoured by the group's leaders, as we saw him moving to and from the house, not the barracks.
Finally, we saw our chance. Everybody except for the gunslinger, Edgar DuChamp, entered the chapel to pray. We moved quietly down to the farm, avoiding DuChamp, and tried to enter the house. Strangely, it was locked.
Keeping other buildings between DuChamp and us, we moved quietly across to the chapel. This gave us a moment to examine the wagons. They seemed to be packed with clothes and other belongings. It looked as though the Church of the Holy Flame was planning to decamp.
Inside the chapel, we could hear some sort of sermon and, looking in, saw the beautiful 'Lady' Castairs preaching to her 'flock'. I was immediately struck by the complete lack of Christian iconography in the Church of the Holy Flame. Unless the flame represented the Pentecostal Fire (which I strongly doubted), these people were blasphemers and possibly pagans.
More than that, it was like they were bewitched. Each person in the congregation stood perfectly still, hanging on every word. The effect was unnerving. I have heard tell of 'bewitchingly beautiful woman', but had never believed it possible until this moment. Even Dwaine seemed taken in by her spell.
Perhaps even I was overcome by the moment, as my next actions will testify. For some reason, we imagined that a distraction would allow us to get some time alone with Mr Backland Jnr. The next thing I knew, Dwaine was freeing the horses and I was setting the barn alight! This, at least, had the effect of interrupting the cult's blasphemous service. Unfortunately, it brought us no closer to our goal.
We retuned to Derry's Ford, cold and dispirited, vowing to set out an hour before sunrise on the morrow. And so, I put my diary away and bring out my prayer book, and pray for the soul of Christopher Backland.
It's terribly difficult to get good service in this country, especially in the smaller communities. The innkeeper woke us almost an hour late.
We struggled to throw of the blanket of drowsiness and set out for the Cult of Flame ranch. On the way there, the whisky priest from Derry's Ford joined us. As we rode he told us the sad history of how his brother had joined this cult and been destroyed by it.
At the ranch, we found that the pagans had decamped during the night. A quick search established that everything in the house had been packed into the wagons while the 'parishioners' had abandoned their belongings.
We rode all Christmas day, following the tracks of the wagons and listening to the wailing's of the priest. I had heard before that most priests were mad, but always believed it to be just clergy bashing. He must be Catholic.
The weather closed in around us as we travelled. In the afternoon, we were ambushed. I really do not like being shot at.
Late afternoon we heard a tremendous booming sound ahead of us. Shortly afterwards, we found the valley blocked by a great snow cascade. Merry Christmas indeed!
Finally, at dusk, we caught up with the strange cult. 'Lady' Castairs and her partner, DuChamp were backed against a cliff with an alter before them. In front of that, all her followers (about 70 odd) were dancing around a huge bonfire, chanting and whipping themselves with branches. I regret to say that they were, both male and female, stark naked! The priest went berserk, ranting that this was how his brother had died. He told us that when the dancing reached a fever pitch they would all beat each other to death in a religious frenzy.
It was time for action. I removed my coat, dreadfully muddied from the rough travel, and lay it down on the snow. While my companions tried to creep closer to the pagans, I lay full length upon it and carefully took aim. My fowling shotgun coughed once and my shot struck high on the cliff wall. Down tumbled a great quantity of snow, smothering the bonfire and burying the 'Lady' and her manservant up to their waists.
The Indian leapt into action. Whirling some sort of noise making device above his head, he charged the main group, screaming at the top of his lungs. He was magnificent! They scattered before him as he charged straight for Christopher Backland, the priest at his side.
Meanwhile, my two erstwhile companions took this as a cue to start firing at the two principals. Miss Lulu Belle Star, being a lady, took it upon herself to frighten 'Lady' Castairs, while Dwaine took on the more dangerous gun-toting Duchamp.
At that moment, the storm broke. Lightening flashed to earth around us, almost striking several of my companions. Luck remained on our side, though, until the priest had almost reached 'Lady' Carstairs. Then, with one final bolt, nature smote the man of God and took him to his maker. God rests his soul.
After the smoke had cleared, DuChamp and Dwaine were down (DuChamp felled by a terrific throw from the savage - he would make an outstanding out fielder). The priest was dead and the mysterious 'Lady' Carstairs was nowhere to be found.
Her followers were wandering, dazed, in all quarters. Averting our eyes, we rounded them up, rebuilt the bonfire, clothed the women (no men's clothes to be found), fed them and reassured them as best we could. We did not sleep all night as we made sure that they did not freeze.
It was a sorry sight that dribbled into the Church ranch the next day.
30 to 40 naked, frozen exhausted men and a like number of women thankfully with their modesty intact. DuChamp raving on one of the two remaining wagons; Dwaine so hurt that he could hardly ride; the savage raging that he had missed a scalping; and, to top it all, I had caught a cold.
We spent the night at the ranch where the men found their clothes at last. Down in the cellar, we came upon the remains of five or six fine hounds, slaughtered before they had set out two nights ago. What manner of man could do such at thing?
The next morning we received a hero's welcome when we brought the travellers back to Derry's Ford. We split the church money between them (although my companions kept rather too much for themselves) and some of them departed North for the train. Before they left, I completed a map showing where each of them had joined the 'Church' and recording all their names and homes. It makes an interesting document and shows where this woman travelled as she gathered her 'flock'.
We ate a fine, if belated, Christmas dinner. At this time, Dwaine presented each of us with a bullet, engraved "Merry Christmas 1874". Even though it is probably the most inappropriate Christmas gift that I have ever received, I found myself strangely touched. I thought of Christmas at home, and realised just how far away that was.>>