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Shousetsu Bang*Bang
Issue 31: Wild Wild West

Edited by Shousetsu Bang*Bang
Smashwords Edition
Copyright 2011 Shousetsu Bang*Bang

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Shousetsu Bang*Bang Issue 31 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

Based on a work at http://shousetsubangbang.com

Table of contents

Oases, by Sage Grey

Murder Ballad, by shukyou (主教),

illustrated by cerine

Itjtawy, by Takiguchi Aiko (滝口アイコ),

illustrations by 2013

Smart-Aleck (Extra-Spicy Detective Stories, Issue 38, February 28, 1935), by Roumonte Emi (竜主天 蝦)

the things that keep me miles away, by Nijiiro Sumi (虹色墨)

The Wilderness, by Tsukizubon Saruko (月図凡然る子)

The Turnbolt Rift, by Dr. Noh,

illustrated by indelicateink

Beyond My Imagination, by causeways,

illustrated by quaedam

The Beautiful West, by Yamanashi Moe (山梨もえ),

illustrated by serenity_winner

Blue, by Kaerutobi Ike (蛙跳び池),

illustrations by Lord Mune

The War of Northern Aggression, by Matsuo Basho (松尾場所)

East, by Domashita Romero (地下ロメロ),

illustrated by neomeruru

Front cover by banjocatbanjo

Edited and published by the Shousetsu Bang*Bang editorial staff. Read more about this issue at http://www.shousetsubangbang.com/wiki/index.php?title=Issue_31

Oases

by Sage Grey

The pony had broken its hobbles and run off two days ago. Luke had been walking since, with his saddle slung over one shoulder and saddlebags dragging from the other hand. It was getting towards noon and he was thinking about finding some shade to lie in, but so far none had presented itself. Hot country out here. No more than some cactus and lizards and the heat waving off towards the horizon. He couldn’t blame the pony for running off.

There were mountains out to his left, rising up out of the gray sand like one of his grandaddy’s mirages. He needed a town or a ranch more than he needed any cool there was to find down in the foothills. Somewhere he could get some work, find something to eat other than stringy half raw jackrabbit and tins of beans. On reflection: damn that pony.

Meanwhile the sun had risen to straight above his head, to about the worst place it could be. Out on the plain it was burning like bacon on a griddle with all the juice already cooked out. Nothing but dry sandy dust and unfriendly little plants. Finally, he came to a cactus that threw a shadow almost big enough for his chest. Luke propped up his saddle and dropped down onto the ground. Leaning back on his elbows, he took off his hat and rubbed the sweat off his forehead with a stained handkerchief from his shirt pocket. He unscrewed his canteen and wondered if he was going to die. He didn’t think about it for too long. No use really.

He lay down, put his hat over his face, crossed his arms over his chest, and dropped into something that was like sleep but was not exactly sleep.

When Luke woke it wasn’t much cooler, but the shadow of the cactus had lengthened. He’d knocked his hat to the ground. There was a desert mouse sitting up on its back legs staring at him, worrying a seed between its paws. It cocked its head.

“Get,” he told it.

It stuffed the seed in its mouth and vanished into the dust that it had come from.

“I ain’t dead yet,” he said after it.

The desert took in his words without comment.

“Well I ain’t.”

He heaved himself up and picked up his saddle and his bags and started walking again.

He found a spring around sunset. He didn’t know how; he’d always been good at finding water. His mother said he had Indian blood but he wasn’t sure about that. He didn’t know what being Indian had to do with finding water. All he knew was that he could usually find it, and that it was clean more often than it wasn’t.

This spring was barely more than a seep of water, coming from between two rocks at the bottom of what was either a small canyon or a big ravine. A few plants had straggled up around the puddle it formed: lanky grasses and an out of place, bleached looking flower. Luke put his face right down into the sweet, clear water and sucked up mouthful after mouthful until he felt like his insides were fit to split with it. Then he rolled onto his back and looked up at the darkening sky with one hand trailed into the pool, careful to leave his fingers very still so that he would not stir up the sediment at the bottom. The sky above him was shading into purple, made darker by the sharp walls of the ravine. There were a few thin clouds, high up and going red with the setting sun.

All of a sudden there were hoofbeats coming up the ravine. Two horses. Luke sat up. There wasn’t anywhere to hide; and even if there had been, he would have had to leave the saddle and the bags, and then he wouldn’t have had anything to eat or any spare bullets. His pistol was loose in its holster and he figured that was about the best he could hope for. There was also sometimes the unspoken peace of desert springs, though Luke did not trust peace, spoken or not.

Two horses approached. A man on foot was leading them, and there was a shaggy black and white dog skittering around their legs. All four were careful with their footing over the rocks. The dog barked when he smelled Luke and ran ahead but stopped a stone’s throw away from him. Luke stood. The dog shivered and barked again.

“Evening,” said Luke.

The dog whined as the man unconcernedly picketed the horses. It was almost full dark by then. Luke set about making a fire, a small one since there wasn’t much to burn. He wouldn’t have just for himself; beans tasted about the same cold or hot as far as he was concerned. But if the man was disinclined to talk, he also appeared disinclined to use the rifle slung over the saddled horse’s withers. When the man was done with the horses, he splashed some water on his face and sank down next to the fire.

“Nice to sit a minute,” the man said. He was younger than Luke had thought–he had wrinkles around his yellowy hazel eyes, but his hair was dark and free of gray. The land and the sun had ways of aging people. Luke hadn’t seen himself in a mirror recently enough to know whether it had begun its work on his face or not.

“Sure is.”

They sat in silence again. The dog lay down by his master and looked at Luke with sad eyes. “Where you going to with a saddle and no horse?” the man asked, at last.

“Someplace I can find some work.”

“Don’t imagine you want to carry around that saddle for too long.”

“Not particularly.”

“Must get heavy.”

“From time to time.”

The man laughed. “From time to time. I reckon so.”

The fire popped and sent red sparks up into the air. One of the horses whickered. There was the quiet drip of the spring. Luke felt sleepy all of a sudden. It had been a while since he had slept so near another human being.

When Luke woke up the next morning the dog was staring at him. It was lying a foot or so away from him with its head on its paws, its ears twitching to follow the movements of its master as he moved around the spring filling his canteens.

“Morning,” the man said. “Were you planning to put that saddle on that horse over there or did you want to keep walking.”

“I suppose I could get on the horse.” Luke hadn’t been expecting the offer, but now that it had arrived, he found that he wasn’t surprised. The other man didn’t seem like the type of person to leave another man stranded in a desert, but Luke thought he’d been wrong about more people than he’d been right. He didn’t understand his fellow men in the way that he understood animals.

“Thought you might.”

Luke washed his face in the spring, then filled his canteen and rolled up his blanket. The man had already saddled the tall, bony bay, so Luke followed suit with the other. She was a neat little mare, a chestnut the color of sun breaking on hilltops. Her ears pricked when he stroked her neck, and she curved her head around to touch his arm gently with her soft lips.

“Good-looking mare,” Luke said.

“She’s a bitch, I’m warning you. Wonder she hasn’t bit you yet.”

“Better than carrying that saddle.”

They led the horses out of the ravine, the dog barking birds out of the bushes ahead of them.

“Ain’t you planning to ask where we’re going?” the man asked him after they’d mounted. The mare fidgeted between Luke’s knees and arched her neck into the bit.

“It don’t matter that much,” Luke answered. “I don’t reckon I can be too picky.”

The man looked at him with narrowed eyes, then shrugged. “Don’t guess you can. Anyways we’re headed up to Troy. That bitch you’re riding is going to be the prize for their horse-race, so be careful. My boss’ll skin me alive if she breaks a leg ‘fore she gets there.”

After that they rode in quiet, only interrupted by the running of the dog, the sounds of the horses’ breathing, and the creaking of leather. The mare settled down and followed the bay quietly enough. Luke could feel the care with which she placed her feet, dainty like an East Coast lady at a big party with a crystal punch bowl and a string band.

It took them three days to reach Troy. In that time Luke learned that the man’s name was Wilder, that he worked for one of the big ranchers, and that if Luke himself had to send the mare so many miles away, he would have put her under the guard of a cavalry company. (In fact she had started out with a larger escort, but the other man’s horse had wrenched an ankle, and he’d elected to walk her back to the ranch rather than shoot her. This was the kind of decision that Luke admired in a person. Wilder appeared to feel the same.)

From time to time Wilder would say that he’d never seen the mare take to anyone before, and it was a shame Luke had no money and no horse or he could’ve tried to win her himself.

After Luke unsaddled her at the livery stable, she leaned her chest against the stall door and tried to reach him with her nose across the aisle. Luke walked back to her without altogether having meant to and let her hide her face against his chest. He scratched her ear and she breathed through her long nose against his stomach. The dog, locked in with her to keep guard, whined, unhappy to be left alone.

“Touching as this moment is,” Wilder called from the stable door. Another thing that Luke had learned was that Wilder had a mouth on him, although he didn’t use it much. In the time they’d been on the road he’d turned it on the heat and the bay, after the normally-unflappable horse had spooked at a snake and thrown him. Luke had sat on the mare, feeling her heartbeat even through the saddle, while Wilder berated the bay, the snake, the rocks underneath him and God above. After a while he had started laughing, and Luke had joined him.

Luke rubbed the long bones of the mare’s head and followed Wilder out. He could feel her watching him all the way.

They went to the saloon next door to the hotel where Wilder had gotten them a room, and ate steak and mashed potatoes. Men gradually collected in the corners of the place, banging down whiskey and poker chips to the tinny sound of a piano and the shrill giggles of the girls in their tight dresses. After a while Wilder joined a card game. Luke sat at the bar watching it all in the reflection of the mirrored shelves, holding their bottles of whiskey, gin, and rum. He asked for a coffee and drank it slowly. When the first girl came up to him he brushed her off and went outside.

There wasn’t much light in the street, only what was thrown out from the lit windows of the buildings. A few horses were tied to the hitching post outside the saloon. They watched him as he walked past. Without thinking too much about it, he ended up back at the stable. The mare was pacing in her stall, but when she heard his footstep she came to the door. He rubbed her face and her neck, then let himself into the stall to bridle her. He led her outside. The dog, who had been cowering in a corner against her ire, trotted reproachfully after.

“I’m not stealing her,” he told it.

Taking a handful of her mane, he swung himself up onto her back. Her muscles shifted between his thighs and she shook her head, but stood until he kneed her forward. They jogged out of town, out past the lights and noise of the saloon. There were two roads, one up to a graveyard and one heading straight out like a shot arrow, towards the hills in the distance. The moon was just past full and gave enough light that he wasn’t scared to gallop her on the hill road.

He gave the mare her head and she leapt forward. She ran lightly but the sound of her hooves was loud in his ears and the quiet of the night. Luke leaned forward over her neck, feeling her mane whip back over his knuckles. He buried his free hand in it. At last she began to slow and reluctantly he reined her in. She shook her head, fighting his hand but at last she stopped. He turned her back towards the town. It was visible as a suggestion of lights and the shapes of buildings that dragged slowly closer with the mare’s reluctant steps.

About halfway there, Wilder and the bay appeared out of the dark. “I figured you weren’t stealing her since you left the saddle.”

“Just went for a ride.”

Wilder said he was crazy. They rode back towards Troy, the mare skittering from side to side over the road and bouncing off the bay’s solid indifference. Wilder asked where he’d learned to sit a horse like that. Luke answered that his grandfather had been a gambler and a drunk, and his mother too sick to work, so he broke horses on the ranch next to their hardscrabble little shack. They paid him fifteen cents a ride. He’d ride eight, nine, ten horses a day, their bodies twisting and jarring underneath him until he couldn’t tell up from down, only that the horse was between him and the ground.

Wilder told him that was a hard way to live, and Luke looked straight ahead, through the mare’s ears, because he could not bear to see the sympathy on Wilder’s face.

When they got back to the stable, Luke rubbed the sweat off the mare’s neck and then watched Wilder unsaddle the bay. “Do you think,” he said, “that I could ride your horse in that race?”

Wilder didn’t answer at first. “Don’t know,” he said finally. “Boss might not like how that looked much.”

“Don’t work for your boss.”

“Guess you don’t.”

Once they left the barn Wilder lit two cigarettes and handed him one. Luke slowly inhaled the smoke and breathed it out. The heat of the mare’s body had kept him warm but now it was cold except for the smoke. He followed Wilder to the boardinghouse, and up to the room that they would share. He sat on the bed to take off his boots while Wilder bolted the door. When Wilder came to the bed and leaned down and put their mouths together, Luke wondered if this was the reason for all of the little kindnesses, from the steak dinner to the laughter they had shared on the trail, to the fact that Wilder hadn’t shot him dead for taking the mare out for a gallop; and then he realized that it didn’t matter if it was.

Wilder smelled like cigarettes and the sweat of animals. He pushed Luke back onto the bed with a low sound, deep in the back of his throat. Luke kissed him back, closing his eyes and putting his hands in Wilder’s thick hair. Wilder’s stubble scratched at his neck as he moved his mouth lower, then pulled Luke’s neckerchief off with his teeth. Luke closed his eyes as Wilder unbuttoned his shirt, making circles with his fingertips against the skin of Wilder’s scalp.

After he had taken off his shirt, Wilder unbuckled Luke’s belt, throwing it down next to the bed. It made a dull thud as it hit the floor. Luke tried to keep his breathing even as Wilder pulled down his pants. A drunk stumbled through the hall outside, and Wilder froze with his cheek on Luke’s belly. When the drunk had quieted Wilder puffed a breath over Luke, then swallowed him down. Luke meant to shut his eyes but he couldn’t stop looking at Wilder, at the sweat along his hairline, and the hollows his cheeks made around Luke’s dick. His wolf eyes that flickered open and closed.

Wilder reached back between Luke’s legs. Luke couldn’t keep himself from twitching as he felt Wilder’s fingers at his entrance. Wilder said “Sh,” into the crease of his leg, hands soothing like they were on the neck of his bay horse. Luke was not exactly nervous, but it had been a long time since he had been touched by anyone in this way, and he remembered pain more than anything else. But Wilder was gentle and went slow, so slow, so after a while Luke couldn’t do anything but twist around in the sheets and touch himself, biting the inside of his cheek to keep himself quiet. When Wilder’s fingers tightened on his shoulder and his hips gave one final, deep jerk, Luke tasted blood, and came himself.

Wilder kissed his shoulder, and then his mouth. After they had kissed for a while Wilder curled himself up, fingers just touching Luke’s side, and they fell asleep.

The next day was Sunday, the day of the horse race. The air felt festive, tense. Horses and buggies trotted into town all morning. There was a traveling preacher to give a sermon but Luke didn’t much care for preaching no matter what his mother had tried to teach him. He spent the morning in the stable instead, sitting on the floor of the mare’s stall with the dog’s head on his leg. As he scratched the dog, the mare drifted around minding her own business, chewing hay or coming over to lip at his hair. Finally Wilder came to take her away to be paraded before the town.

“I reckon you can ride the bay,” he said.

“You reckon?”

“I do.” So Luke saddled up the bay and led him out of the stable. Wilder and the mare were already gone down the street so he mounted up and got a feel for the bay’s paces. He was a big, strong horse with a rougher gait than the mare, but Luke thought it would be all right. He’d ridden in races like this when he was younger, gatherings of cowponies and the odd blood horse that would run for the pleasure of betting men and cheering children, and a general sense of celebration. He’d won some on his old horse, the one he’d had to sell after his grandaddy died, to pay down the gambling bills.

Luke rode slowly towards the crowd. The sermon had ended and there was a man up on a stand calling for entries, and then he announced there would be a picnic with food cooked by local ladies after the race was over. Wilder was holding the mare over by the stand and she was tossing her head and turning tight circles around his body. A dog ran too close to her feet and she struck out with a hind hoof, grazing its body. The dog yelped and tore off into the crowd.

Luke joined the cluster of men and horses behind the stand. He didn’t look at any of them too closely. Either he and the bay would win or they wouldn’t. A man came through and took down all twenty-nine of their names and told them that the race would be out to a dead tree two miles out of town and back. The man on the stand called for them all to line up. Luke kneed the bay into the line. They stood, and Luke could feel the tension eddying up and down the line of horses, in the stamping of their legs and the curses of their riders. At last everyone was still and quiet and the starter shot off a gun and the bay and the line of horses all lunged forward.

He would never be able to remember the race in detail. Dust in the back of his throat, the beating of the bay’s hooves and his long stride so unlike the mare’s surging over and over again like the ocean waves that he had heard of but never seen. In the end he did win: the reach of the bay’s legs as he ran down the main street towards the finish, the elastic stretch of his neck and the flat back of his ears as he held off the second-placed horse.

They rode out of town: Wilder on the bay and Luke on his mare, with the dog running ahead.

“You could come back to the ranch,” Wilder said. “Boss’d give you a job most likely, with the way you ride.”

“Wouldn’t want to cause a problem, with the horse and all.”

“How you going to feed that mare?”

“I’ll find something.”

“You’ll find something?” Wilder asked, cocking his head like a bird.

Luke looked at him and the arch of his eyebrow, and wanted to say I found you, didn’t I, but that wasn’t the sort of thing he would ever say. Instead, he told Wilder that he always managed something.

“That’s that then.”

“Thanks,” Luke said when they had come to a fork in the road. It wasn’t at all what he meant but he didn’t know the right thing to say.

Wilder tipped his hat and kicked the bay forward into a lope. The mare stood like a rock underneath him, and Luke watched them get smaller and smaller through the frame of her ears. When they were almost gone, she tipped one little ear back at him.

“Get on then,” he told her. She shook her mane and chased off after the plume of dust rising behind Wilder and the bay, towards the cool hills rising up before them.

——

many thanks to olukemi for the beta. seriously, wouldn’t have happened with you.

Murder Ballad

by shukyou (主教)
illustrated by cerine

“Just, you know, thrash about a bit. Moan some.” Jake lit one of the candles and placed it at a precarious angle on the side of the bureau. “I’ll go downstairs, see if the old woman’s got some baking powder.”

Will shot him a look so sour it could’ve curdled milk. “I know you are not going to leave me tied up here.”

“Got no other choice. And you ain’t that tied.” After that time in Amarillo (a string of bad circumstances Will referred to collectively as ‘that time I should have killed you’), Jake had learned that no matter how important authenticity was, you never tied a body up with an inescapable knot unless you were real invested in that body’s being unable to escape no matter what the circumstances. Jake reached over and patted his friend’s knee. “Back in an hour, give or take,” he grinned, and headed for the door.

“I swear to Jesus, I will wring your–” Neck, Jake supposed, was what came next, but the old farmhouse was a well-built fortress, and once its heavy wood doors closed, you couldn’t hear a peep from the other side. Putting on his best grimly resolute face, but smiling inside, he walked down to the room where the household had been told to stay put.

Barely ten minutes later, despite his tease, Jake was back up to the bedroom, only this time he had with him a seven-piece audience: the lovely widow herself; her three blossoming daughters, aged eight, ten, and thirteen; Maria, the elderly Mexican woman who had lived with the family for decades; Lindsey Mayes, the dead man’s brother; and Parson Olsen, the local Methodist. Of all the bunch, the one whose being there Jake hadn’t counted on was the good reverend’s, and he didn’t so much mind; Methodists tended to be a friendly sort, a little sensible for his tastes, but enough talk about the Holy Ghost and he could get even the most staid of them on board. Olsen himself was a tall, white-haired Swede who clutched his handkerchief to his face when he saw Will on the bed. “What is the darkie doing?” he stage-whispered to Jake.

“Parson, that man is possessed,” Jake explained, putting his head on Will’s forehead. Will, for his own part, was thrashing and moaning just as he’d been instructed, working up a bit of a sweat in the warm, closed-up room. Jake bent down to his chest and took a long, deep breath, allowing himself the pleasure of enjoying Will’s smell in a context where he knew Will couldn’t pull away. “That right there is the scent of the other realms! Can you smell it?”

Long practice kept his face fixed as the seven of them took delicate sniffs of the air. “What I smell is horseshit,” said Lindsey, who’d never made a secret of his dislike of his sister-in-law’s trust in Jake and Will. “Louella, you can’t possibly be–”

Louella, my love,” interrupted Will, speaking now with great gulps of air and an accent unlike his own. “Come stand beside me, my darling.

The widow flung herself at the bedside, grasping Will’s hand. “Elbert, is that you?”

See,” said Will, “even now I am standing beside you.” Jake tossed some of the baking powder on the ground, then gave a big huff of air, blowing the white dust away from where he’d slicked the floor in the shape of two bootprints. “I will always be with you, Louella, so do not lose faith in my–

A sharp knock on the door startled them all, even Will, and Jake in his startlement dropped the rest of the powder all over the floor, his boots, and the bottom half of his jeans. They all turned to see a little mouse of a young man standing in the doorway, uniform cap on his head, piece of paper in his hand; bless him, he looked as spooked as the rest of them. “Um,” he said, looking about at the strange scene before him, “got an official US Government telegram here for a Mr. Jacob Philips.”

“That, ah, that’d be me.” Jake stepped forward, kicking up a little cloud of dust as he did so. “Beg your pardon,” he said, nudging between the parson and the oldest girl to take the printed page from the messenger’s hand. He unfolded it and read the few lines, and he couldn’t keep from grinning; that done, he folded it in the pocket of his vest, tipped his hat to the young man, and turned back to the scene before him. “Folks, uh, got an urgent call that we need to be somewhere else.”

“But–” The widow looked around the room, from the bootprints to Will’s quieted body to Jake to her daughters and back to the bed. “What about Elbert?”

“Oh, he’s fine,” said Will, sitting up and taking the widow’s hand in both his (slipping the ropes in the process, though no one else seemed to notice), and whatever misgivings she might under other circumstances have had about allowing a Negro Seminole such an intimacy, she seemed fine with it now. “He just wanted to tell you that he’ll always be with you, and he’ll protect you, and if you do ever marry again, it should be for love, and not because you feel an obligation to kin.” As he said the last line, he turned his eyes to Lindsey, who shrank back a little, spooked and abashed. “And he’ll always watch over you and the girls, and it’s not to worry, because he’s happy and without pain.”

Sobbing, the widow thrust herself forward into Will’s arms, and Jake had to admit sometimes that cutting to the chase was just as effective as the long dramatic reveal. “So, we’ll be taking our leave,” said Jake, looking at Will, who shot him back the kind of look a man only got when he was being prevented from moving by a hundred pounds of hysterical woman on his lap. “…Presently. Mary Pat, didn’t you say there was some peach cobbler in the cupboard?”

Not an hour later they were riding south out of town, purse all but empty, but saddlebags stuffed with all manner of baked goods; Will wouldn’t allow them to take money from churches, orphans, or widows, even ones as well-off as the Widow Mayes (who would stay that way now, freed of her layabout drunkard brother-in-law), but Jake had convinced him that it was a mighty sin to let food go to waste. They clip-clopped along without speaking for nearly fifteen minutes, until Will finally broke and sighed. “Are you going to tell me what the telegram said, or are you just going to keep on proving what I’ve always suspected about your being sired by a badger and birthed by a jackass?”

“Government job,” said Jake, through an impolite mouthful of buttermilk biscuit. “Got a problem that’s keeping a railroad from getting built, out in the Indian Territory. Want us on the case as soon as we can get there. Thousand, plus bonuses for keeping it quiet.”

Will’s eyes went a little wide. “Think it’s real?”

Jake snorted. “Thousand plus bonuses? It’s real.”

~*~

A day’s hard rider later, and they pulled into the railroad camp in the eastern Indian Territory just past sundown. They were met first by the wary stares of the Chinese workers, huddled around the cookfires outside their tents, then by a group of five riders, all as white as Jake. “You the specialists the government sent?” asked the middle rider, a heavyset, bearded man with an absurdly large hat.

“Will Cooper, Jake Philips,” Jake said, pointing to each of them in turn. “You the men in charge?”

“Clayton Hicks,” said the bearded man. He had the general dimensions of a man Jake tended to associate with cocky power, though there was a look of unmistakable fear in his eyes, giving more credence to Jake’s initial assessment of the situation. “These are my foremen: Abraham Volk, Lem Swift, Cameron Birch, Thorton Wheeler.” He indicated the men around him, but the light was so bad that Jake hoped they’d get another introduction, since there wasn’t much to tell the four middle-aged, medium-built guys apart. “We’ll get you some grub from the mess tent, then find you places to stay,” he said, with the sort of tone that seemed clear to Jake those places were intended to be separate.

“Meal’s a mighty kind offer, and we’ll both thank you for it,” said Jake, riding his horse slightly in front of Will’s, as much to keep Will from the men as the other way around, “but we’ll make our own camp. Easier to commune with the spirits,” he added, lest anyone take offense at his refusal of their half-hospitality. “Honest truth, gentlemen, we’d just as soon get ourselves started on your problem.”

Hicks nodded and patted the rump of the horse at his right. “Cam, why don’t you show these fellows where the trouble’s been.”

“Of course,” said the man named Birch, and as he trotted his horse closer, Jake could see better a jagged cut that hooked down from his eye toward the corner of his mouth; it looked raw and red, as though it had only started to heal. Birch wheeled his horse around on Jake’s exposed side, regarding Will with the same cautious eye Jake had seen on a thousand other men. It was dim, sure, but Jake knew from experience you didn’t need much light to tell the difference between the clay of his face and the coal of Will’s. In certain parts of the country, they played up Will’s Indian half, sometimes even going so far as to put him in a long black-braided wig and claim he was some animal-named chief from some tribe five states away; this close to proper Indian land, though, Will had supposed that wouldn’t win them any extra friends, and Jake had supposed he’d supposed right.

There wasn’t anything to be gained from being hostile from the get-go, though, and Jake’s long-departed grandmother had taught him well about honey, vinegar, and fly-catching. “Mr. Birch, a pleasure.” Jake extended his leather-gloved hand and shook Birch’s bare one. Will didn’t even offer. “Thank you for your help, Mr. Hicks, and we’ll report back just as soon as we get a sense of the thing.”

The place where Birch led them was some distance from the lights of the camp, though before they even got there, the dim glow of Birch’s lantern shone on twisted pitchforks and hammers, bent at sharp angles into useless contortions of metal and wood. That just added to Jake’s certainty — after all, he’d put on many a phony seance and hoax haunting in his day, but he still had no idea how a human being could cause such damage without someone’s noticing. Either that or it was all a big conspiracy, but he couldn’t imagine the US government’s first instinct had been to contract with rogue spiritualists. “You had other specialists out here before us, Mr. Birch?” Jake asked.

Birch nodded without looking back. “Police, insurance men, Pinkerton detectives — they all wound up running scared.” He had a deep, rumbling voice that Jake assumed would be thunderous at full volume.

“So, have you seen it?”

“Seen it?” Birch tapped his cheek. “Damned thing nearly killed me with a rail spike.”

Jake looked over at Will, who raised his brows but said nothing. “And how long has this been going on?” Jake asked, guiding his horse around what he assumed had once been a rail cart, though it now looked like a wadded-up piece of iron paper.

“Month, give or take.” Birch pulled his horse to a stop by a stretch of track, and Jake and Will stopped theirs behind him. He pointed down the track, and Jake’s eyes followed the straight rails to where they began first to bend, then to buckle, then to rise into the air like the branches of some great steel tree, thirty feet high and monstrous against the moonless blue evening sky. “And there, boys, you see our problem.”


“Any idea why it started here?” asked Will, urging his horse closer. The animal, however, was having none of it, and it balked, flaring its nostrils.

Birch shook his head. “Every time we try to work on the rails, it starts up again. The whole thing’s stalled and we’re bleeding money. A month ago, you told me something like this was happening, I would’ve been first in line to have the doc look at your head to see where you’d hit it. Now…” His voice trailed off, and he shrugged. “Probably hit some redskin burying ground, some hoodoo like that. You boys fix it, and I can go back to pretending it never happened.”

Jake tried not to attribute all of his dislike of Birch to the fact that he called them ‘boys’ despite looking not much past Jake’s age, but that was a major part. As his own horse seemed disinclined to advance, he hopped down and gave Birch his reins. “Go on, take them back, give them some hay, they’ve been riding a while,” he said, nodding to Will to do the same. “Either we’ll fire two quick shots to get you to come back for us, or we’ll stay the night and you can find us at daybreak.”

“Better you than me,” said Birch, who tied the horses’ leather reins to his saddle horn and started off. Within a minute, the sound of hooves had faded beneath the hiss of the early night breeze.

Alone again at last, Jake turned to Will with a grin and pointed behind him to the twisted metal structure. “That, my good friend, is the work of a bona-fide ghost.”

Will grabbed the brim of Jake’s hat and pulled it down into his face. “All right, it’s real,” he conceded, advancing on a pickaxe that had been bent so that its tips touched, forming a circle; he lifted it, tossing it in his hands to gauge its weight, then brought it down hard on a nearby rock, making a long, heavy sound that echoed through the prairie air. “I never did rail work, but I spent plenty of time swinging one of these, and I’ll tell you, you need a blacksmith to beat it into a shape like that.”

“Reckon that’s the first thing they would’ve suspected.” Jake lifted his arm and Will tossed him the warped tool, which Jake caught with one hand, then had to add a second hand to very quickly to keep from showing how heavy it was. Unlike his father, Will had never been owned by anyone, but he had spent much of his life earning his keep by doing backbreaking work, some of the only honest sort a free colored man like himself could find; as a result, he was as strong as he was smart, and frequently used his muscles to make a monkey out of Jake, who by his own admission had been fashioned by God for the more delicate pursuits in life.

Will reached out and traced his hand along the place the rails started to bend. “So, a month ago, out of nowhere, something big decides to stop the project. Wasn’t stopped before, and wasn’t stopped after. Either the time’s important or the location is.”

“My money’s on time.” Jake surveyed the area, which even in the growing dark looked the same as most of the miles they’d ridden to get there: flat, indistinct, uneventful. “If the railroad got stopped every time it ran over some long-dead Indians, it’d never’ve made it to the Mississippi. Guess we’d better see what it wants.”

“Brilliant plan,” Will deadpanned. “You going to just stand here and jaw at it until it up and leaves out of sheer irritation?”

“Not a bad strategy, but no.” Jake patted at his pockets, but he realized too late that Birch had taken everything he might’ve found useful back to camp in his mount’s saddlebags. He travelled light as a rule, but tried to hold on to what few sacred objects he could, when he could; every ghost was different, and you never knew what’d make your job easier. Calling Birch back out seemed like a hassle, especially just to take the packs from the mares, send him back, and call him out again to retrieve them both, so he decided to make do with what he had. “You see anything around here that ain’t busted?”

Will frowned. “Tools, you mean?” He poked with his toe around a stack of splintered hammers, then reached down and pulled one up from the middle. “Here, there’s one.”

“Great.” Jake pointed at the rail. “Hit it.”

“Hit it?” Will looked more inclined to hit him.

“Like you’re fixing to lay more track! Look, Birch said, every time they try to work on it, bad things happen. So,” Jake made an expansive gesture with his hands, “you’re the muscle of the operation, why not act like it?”

“We should just take you around in a dress and a bonnet for all the good you are,” Will scowled.

“Don’t make like you’d like me better in a skirt,” Jake teased with a smile, though it had the bitter edge to it of being only half a joke. Instead, he chose to rally past it to the task at hand: “Come on, John Henry, drive me some steel.”

Will always got the most explosive looks of contempt on his face when he knew he’d been beaten. “Lay your head down there, give me something to aim at,” he growled, and he picked up the huge mallet in both hands. He brought the heavy head back over his shoulder, knocking his hat off in the process, and with a grunt of effort, brought the tool down square on the twisted rail.

For a moment, Jake swore he heard a train.

The rails lifted up, flapping as easily as a woman shaking out a wet sheet before hanging it on a clothesline, pushing back against the force of Will’s strike and tossing both him and the mallet ten feet away. Will landed on his backside, but was on his feet again as quick as he’d gone down, and he gave a determined nod as Jake ran to him. Beneath their feet, the dry ground hissed and cracked as the ties uprooted themselves, wrenching out the deep-driven spikes that had held them fast. Jake grabbed the collar of Will’s vest and yanked him back as a deep fissure opened at his feet, and they both stumbled back into a thornbush, which didn’t make the situation any more pleasant.

The sound grew louder, and Jake realized it wasn’t a train’s steam whistle, it was a scream, a howl feral and human all at once. These tactics were more like those Jake had seen from ghosts designed more to scare than to harm, but Jake’s experience with that type was also that if they didn’t frighten their targets off the first time, they weren’t opposed to upping the ante. One of the rails rose again and snapped in the air like a fishing line pulled too taut, and the end slammed down just inches from their toes. “Go!” hollered Jake, and he pushed Will in the direction of the camp.

For once in his ornery life, Will didn’t seem inclined to argue. He scurried back from the site, a fistful of Jake’s coattail in his hand, and Jake tumbled with him, trying to resolve wanting to keep an eye on the supernatural mess with wanting to look where he was going. At last, despite his curiosity, Jake gave into the good sense of not trying to tackle a problem like that without the appropriate tools, and the two men just ran for it. Despite being underslept and saddle-sore, they covered the half-mile stretch between site and camp in what seemed like no time at all.

Two of the foremen were mounted at the edge of camp waiting for them, and Jake was glad it was night enough now so that he didn’t have to see how foolish he looked reflected on their faces. “Ain’t you boys supposed to be the experts?” one of them drawled, long and slow.

“Sure are,” Jake panted, gasping for breath as he hunkered over, bracing his hands above his knees. “Why we run so fast.”

The foremen looked at one another for a moment, then burst out laughing, which Jake took as a good sign. The closer of the two pitched his canteen to Jake, who took a long drink of it, then handed it to Will, who was more than clever enough to drink from a white man’s water supply without letting his lips touch the rim. “So what’d you see?” asked the other rider, leaning closer.

Jake took the canteen from Will and capped it, then handed it back to its owner. “A mighty strange show,” he said. “Figure we’ll be taking that grub you offered now. Nip of whiskey, too, if you’ve got it.”

“See what we can do,” the first man said, and they wheeled their horses back toward the main mess tent. Jake and Will looked at one another, shrugged, and fell in behind.

~*~

There were three types of hauntings Jake had encountered in his career as a spiritualist-for-hire. The first, as in the case of the Widow Mayes, was the kind he himself caused. Usually these came to him when grieving folk who’d recently lost a loved one heard of his coming and hired him on to communicate with whatever poor departed soul they wanted to hear from. In nearly all such cases, the soul in question was just that — departed — but since no one liked to hear silence back from the beyond, Jake had gotten into the business of scaring up all sorts of messages the likes of which he suspected the deceased would have delivered, if not for the pesky problem of having passed too far beyond the veil for recreational communication. And if, again, as in the case of the Widow Mayes, this trickery could be done with the added benefit of saving the innocent and punishing the guilty, well, to Jake, so much the better.

Hauntings of the second type tended to be as fake as those of the first, but the difference came in that someone else had decided to play the ‘ghost’ long before Jake arrived on the scene, generally for the purpose of scaring some poor folk off land and property. These, he’d never had a second’s qualm about unmasking as frauds, and if whatever shyster who’d put on the ruse got himself locked up for his misdeeds, that was even more cause to sleep well at night.

From the time he’d run away from home at twelve to the year he’d turned twenty-one, these had been the only kind he’d ever known: cons he’d started and cons he’d stopped, respectively. It wasn’t an easy living, and it sometimes necessitated he skedaddle out of town in the middle of the night, but it was enough for him to eat and live on, and that was more than he supposed the world owed him in the first place.

The third type had become painfully clear on a job he’d presumed to be of the second type, only he’d woken in the middle of the night floating three feet above the straw-stuffed mattress of a farmhouse bed. He’d thought the old man’s descriptions of misplaced objects and levitating livestock had been a little more involved than most of the fake hauntings he’d encountered, but he hadn’t let enter into his mind the thought ghosts actually exist until he was being held aloft by his longjohns, staring down the half-transparent face of a young boy who could do nothing but mouth the words help me over and over again.

There’d been nothing for it, then. He’d had to learn how to do the job he’d been faking for real.

As far as he could tell — and he’d gained all his information in a learn-by-doing fashion — there wasn’t much in the way of telling what would make a ghost and what wouldn’t. Oh, to be sure, all of the ghosts he’d met had been tasked with some sort of unfinished business or final demand for justice, but that didn’t mean every soul that died in an unkind manner came back to see the score settled. He’d been called upon to witness the aftermath of all manner of violent deaths, from a strangled schoolteacher to a poisoned parson to three children found floating face-down in a river, and though he’d expected those innocent lives to cry their killers’ names from beyond the grave, there’d been nothing.

Nor, of course, did it mean that every lingering spirit had a real dignified reason for being there: Jake had once met an old man who’d hung around just to make sure his daughter-in-law didn’t inherit his departed wife’s linens, and for no reason Jake could identify other than spite. Thus, Jake had long ago ceased to find any meaning in philosophies that purported to explain the way of the universe, and instead decided to take life — and death — on a case-by-case basis. If you couldn’t be prepared for something, you might as well be prepared for anything.

He’d tried to press for information during his meal, but the rest of the management had been just as answerless as Birch. Thus, he’d been glad when, following supper, he’d been able to snatch a pair of cigarettes and a match from Hicks’ pouch, then beat a hasty retreat to the camp’s quieter central area. A few minutes later, Will walked over from the fire where the Negro rail workers were huddled, and Jake stuck one of the ill-gotten smokes in the corner of Will’s mouth before proceeding to light them both from the one match. “What do you know?” he asked.

“One of the Chinese went missing just before the trouble started up, I hear tell,” Will said, nodding back to his dining companions. “Could be they just ran away, but….”

“Hell of a long way to run,” said Jake, looking out into the darkness beyond the tents. He had a fairly good idea of where they were, and that was on the stretch of land that connected Nothing and Not Much Else; there wasn’t much around to give a smart person incentive to run away. And Jake had yet to meet a runaway that could leave a set of rails in that condition. “Well, how’s your Chinese?”

Will — who, Jake happened to know, spoke good Spanish, passable French, and a little Latin — snorted like Jake’d just asked him how well he breathed underwater. “One of the men said he talks with some of the leaders over there, so I know he’s got to have a little of it.”

“Get him and let’s go,” said Jake, patting Will on the arm, and Will jogged back to the fire he’d just left.

A few minutes later, Jake and Will were being led over to the Chinese side of the encampment by a young colored fellow saddled with the illustrious name of Obadiah McGillicuddy. “Call me ‘Bo’,” he instructed, and Jake agreed without further asking why. “The bosses tell you some of what happened?”

Jake shook his head. “No, Bo, they didn’t tell us a thing.”

Bo laughed, his lips pulling back from his big buck teeth. “Don’t suppose they did. Well, that’s all right. Better to get it straight from the horse’s mouth.”

“Anything you can tell us, Bo,” said Will, scratching his head. Unhidden by his hat, his thick, dark hair stuck up in wild waves that spoke of how long it’d been since they’d stayed long enough in a town big enough to offer a proper shave or a haircut.

“Oh, you’ll hear it from me too, don’t you worry. Just want to make sure I got all my information correct before I do.” Bo waved as they came up on a circle of older men, two of whom stood and smiled at him in greeting. After a few exchanges — many of which Jake could tell were the Chinese men just repeating themselves in response to Bo’s making desperate slow down gestures — Bo nodded to his right. “Mr. Lin’s this way. It’s his daughter went missing.”

Jake didn’t quite know what he’d expected to find inside the indicated tent — maybe exotic treasures, or animal parts in jars, or at least some mystical Oriental incense — but the place was as bare and dim-lit as any miner’s camp he’d ever seen, and the only smells were of dirt, sweat, and beans. Eight or so people were sitting cross-legged on the ground, all in the same drab brown clothes, all engaged in a heated conversation that stopped the second their visitors walked in; Bo bowed his head in greeting, and Jake and Will followed suit. Bo spoke a few words, and one of them men stood, dusting of his long tunic as he did so. “This is Mr. Lin,” he said, and proceeded to give a similar introduction in Chinese, the only words of which Jake understood were their names.

Jake stuck out his hand, figuring as gestures of trust and goodwill went, it might cross the cultural divide well enough, and if not, well, the offer alone might at least convey that he thought of Lin as a man, and not just a disposable Chinaman. Lin took it in kind, and as Jake looked him in the eye, he could see Lin wasn’t much older that he himself was, just lined more heavily with hard work and grief. “Tell me what happened to your daughter,” he said, and he waited until Bo was done translating the request to see the look of surprise on Lin’s face. Well, he supposed it wasn’t every day a white man wandered into camp asking about the fate of a Chinese worker girl.

Lin started talking, and it was clear within a few sentences that Bo wasn’t translating more than a third of what the man was saying, then adding some of his own commentary on the situation to make up for the lack. It was all right, though, because the gist of the story was clear: the girl, all of thirteen years old, had been out with her little sister and brother one evening, trying to hunt (the workers sometimes caught jackrabbits, Bo explained), when she’d sent her siblings running back to the camp, telling them to stay in their tent. They’d gone for their father, but by the time they got back to where she’d been, there was no trace of her. They’d looked all that night and on into the morning, but there’d been no sign of her.

Will asked if that’s when the haunting had started, and Bo nodded. “That day, when everyone got around to start up just past sunrise, all hell broke loose. Tools flying, steel bending, rocks getting tossed all around — was like something out of the Bible, some big sign from God.”

“Moses didn’t have much use for ghosts or railroads,” Will muttered, and Jake snickered. “Did you notice a single cause for what happened? Something particular that triggered it, maybe, or … perhaps the events were directed more at one person than any other?”

Bo thought for a moment, then shook his head before translating the question to the room at large. It took him a bit to spit it out into an intelligible form, but at last, everyone in the room shook their heads in the same way Bo had, the look of racking one’s brains for a pattern and coming up with nothing. “Just whenever we start working,” Bo shrugged.

Jake nodded. “I need you to ask him two more things for me, all right? I need to know his daughter’s name, and if he has anything that used to belong to her. A toy, a piece of clothing, a hairbrush, I don’t care — it just had to be hers, and no one else’s. All right?”

Bo appeared to tackle the inquiries in reverse order, because the first thing Lin did when Bo was finished talking was to reach into a small roll of clothes beneath a nearby cot. When he pulled his hand from it, he was holding a ribbon that might once have been sugar-pink, before years of sun and dirt and wear took their toll. Lin took Jake’s hands and pressed the ribbon into them, closing Jake’s fingers around it. “Lin Bao Yu,” he said, shaking Jake’s hands with the force of his conviction.

Jake frowned and looked over at Bo. “That supposed to mean something to me?”

“I think that’s her name,” said Will, who reached over and placed a hand on Lin’s shoulder. “Bao Yu, right?” Lin’s face broke into a sad smile, and he nodded feverishly, tightening his grip on Jake’s knuckles.

Jake rubbed the ribbon between his fingertips and the heel of his hand; it felt smooth, like silk, but thin and ragged with age, and he wondered on which side of the Pacific it had begun its life. “We’re going to help her,” he said to Mr. Lin, raising his volume and slowing his speech even though he knew if that was all it took to solve linguistic differences, the world would be a much more understanding place. Still, the tone of a man’s voice was sometimes more important even than whatever nonsense he said. “Your Bao Yu. We’re going to help her. I promise.”

Will looked at Jake’s clenched fist. “You think he knows that it’s his girl out there?”

With a sigh, Jake looked into the eyes of the man in front of him and read there the unmistakable hopelessness of grief. “I’ve a fair suspicion that either way, he knows she’s never coming home.”

~*~


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