Folks say first impressions mean everything. Well, Hanford tasted like dirt. I stepped off the train to a face-full of the stuff, plus a waft from some restless cattle nearby. I coughed to one side and headed toward the depot. The passenger train had been about half full, most folks likely headed on to points west like San Francisco. The town of Hanford was young–it smelled young, by the fresh pine of nearby construction–and businesses bustled along the north side of the tracks.
Peculiar, considering how I’d been rushed here to investigate a matter of plague.
I’d expected a scene of eerie quiet, maybe bodies in the street. Certainly not cheery howdy-heys of farmers and barefoot boys scampering after a leather ball.
“Pardon! Mr. Harrington! Are you Mr. Evan Harrington?”
I turned to confront a man as he nearly pushed aside a few fellows in his way. I caught the dark looks they gave him.
“I’m Mr. Harrington,” I said, and extended my hand.
“I’m Mr. Johns, from the Southern Pacific Railroad. I was sent to meet you and acquaint you with our predicament.”
He assessed me in a glance and self-consciously smoothed his slicked blonde hair. His brown suit didn’t sit square on his shoulders, like a child playing dress-up in his big brother’s clothes. I notice these sorts of things. Clothing makes the man, as folks say. Or in my case, makes the black woman a white man.
I wore a suit I’d tailored for myself, modeled on the latest fashion from New York City. The sack coat featured a narrow lapel and buttoned high to reveal a blue silk vest and the drapery of a gold pocket watch chain. A starched collar pressed against my neck and looked bold behind a black cravat. A derby hat rested at a jaunty angle. It was an outfit that spoke of smartness, success, and of some maturity. Exactly the persona I needed my glamour to exude. While so attired, only I could see my true coloration with my eyes or in mirrors. Photography inexplicably smeared my image.
I walked alongside Mr. Johns. Twenty years of experience had trained me to force my strides long and confident. “The city is not what I expected.”
He shot me a nervous glance. “Yes, well, that’s not something to discuss out here.”
A crowd of farmers huddled around a hitching post. They grimaced at Mr. Johns and eyed me with wariness.
We entered a board-constructed building within sight of the railroad tracks. The furniture was sparse and mismatched. Two desks mounded with paperwork were pressed to the far wall. Mr. Johns sat behind the central desk like a king settling onto a throne. He pulled out two glasses and a decanter of amber liquid.
“Damned sand-lappers out there. They usually spit when I walk by. They’re on good behavior for you.” He began to pour.
“Pardon me, sand-lappers?” I took out my notepad and pencil.
“A local term for these… obstinate settlers.” He slid a glass toward me. I did not reach for it. The impairment brought by drink was not something I could risk. “You are aware of the melodrama here, them versus the Southern Pacific?”
“There hasn’t been much published about it in Portland. I really need to know more about this plague and why business appears so normal here, Mr. Johns.”
“This legal fight and the plague are tied together, or I’ll be damned.” He scowled into his drink. “See, I sell and rent Southern Pacific railroad land and collect our grain rents. The railroad owns a stretch of land out west of here in Mussel Slough. A number of settlers are squatting on our parcels, refusing to move even when we sell the land out from under them. I’ve been threatened and burned in effigy. The Circuit Court ruled in our favor about a month ago. A week later, my two partners here in Hanford were killed by this strange sickness.” He hesitated.
“Speak freely, Mr. Johns. I’m proprietor of Extraordinary Investigations. I deal with… the unusual. Sprites that invade like locusts. Lycanthropes. Foul sorcery–”
“Is it like in the dime novels?” He leaned forward. “Girls, travel, stalking monsters through the night?”
Oh, how he’d react if he knew he spoke with a negro woman born a slave. “No. The worst monsters work days and wear suits.” That took him aback. “I’m not here to palaver about personal matters. I need to know more about this illness. What leads you to think it’s magical in nature, not poison?”
“Mr. Bunyan and Mr. Heisen came down sick one at a time. They each turned gray, like statues. Like the life drained from them. They both lasted three days exactly. After they were both dead, someone else came down sick. Random, it seems. Always one at a time. Doctors can’t do nothing to stop it.”
“How many others have died?”
“Don’t know. My associates passed on three weeks ago. I been begging for someone like you to come here and find out what’s-what. The local marshal certainly doesn’t want to meddle with something that reeks of dark magic. Damned railroad nabobs in San Francisco finally listened to me to hire you.”
Victims going gray and lifeless one at a time. Medical intervention useless. More and more, this reminded me of a case about a decade back in Santa Fe. Beautiful woman afraid of getting old summoned up a miasma that sucked other people dry and granted their vitality to her. By the time I hunted her down on a mesa near the Pecos, she’d aged herself to look fifteen-years-old.
I glanced past Mr. Johns to an 1880 calendar still pinned a month behind, on March. “If this plague keeps going, word will get out. The railroad’s property values will fall for sure. No wonder your higher-ups decided to care.” His grudging nod affirmed that. “The sick folk. Are they all in Hanford?”
“Close vicinity. Hanford to Grangeville to Armona. No further out than that.”
“These settlers. Any known magi in their ranks? Or gossip of anyone who is suddenly healthier than before?”
“Some folks do magic, sure, but good enough to be called a magus? Don’t know. I don’t hear much in the way of gossip.”
No. If he was grabbing land from established settlers, people would likely rather pet a spider than palaver with Mr. Johns. “How’ve you stayed alive these three weeks?”
His grin was tight and ugly. “Come five o’clock tonight, I’m on a train to Fresno to stay at a boarding house. I’ll be back in the morning. It’s damned inconvenient, but I see the pattern. I’m no fool.”
As an assassination technique against railroad men, this sickness struck me as damned inefficient. There were other ‘accidental’ ways to kill a person. Too many other people were dying.
I tapped my pencil. Life-eaters like this were common across many world cultures. The good news for me–and most everyone else local–was that across all pantheons, the simplest solution here was to find and kill the magus.
“Thanks for the welcome, Mr. Johns.” I stood and picked up my luggage. “I have a great deal of work to do by nightfall.”
“Do you want me to show you around? Major Lederer’s head of the Settler’s Land League. He’s out near the slough in Grangeville.” He looked downright eager.
“No, thank you. I can see myself around.”
“Oh. Well, meet me at the station by five and you can be assured I’ll get you a train ticket to Fresno for the night. And remember, this needs to be kept quiet. We can’t have people panicking.”
“No. Of course not.” I turned away. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched him throw back my full glass of liquor.
Some stalwart fellow this was. Keep things quiet, indeed. He was fine with other folks dying so long as his own skin was safe. I’d call him a donkey by another name, but I hate to insult any kin of a horse.
I acquired a hotel room and took the time to tidy myself. My suit needed to be dusted off, my shoes shined. Cologne applied to the pressure points. I checked the vital accoutrements of my job. My silver knife, sheathed at the utility belt at my hips. A vial of holy water. Pouch of salt. Pouch of iron nails. A loaded pistol, for troubles of the human variety. I checked my appearance. The utility belt added a debonair, gunslinger flare to an otherwise trim, neat suit.
Mr. Johns and everyone else saw me as the kind of man you’d expect in such attire. White-skinned. Well-off. Handsome, even. I couldn’t see what they saw, and from what I understood, no one viewed me in exactly the same way.
The real me had skin like a moonless night. A broad nose. Round, brown eyes. Hair cropped close. I kept my breasts bound–not that I had much to hide. I tailored everything to hide the curve of my hips. Wasn’t often I wore a proper dress.
I liked being a woman, truly. Evaline. My given name, the one no one said anymore. But I liked the independence of being a man of privilege. Evan Harrington. It was awful lonely, being somewhere between Evaline and Evan. Being someone different with clothes on and off. The attention of women grieved me something fierce.
Not that I had time to spare on such thoughts now, not with a malevolent spirit on the prowl. Maybe that’s why I kept at constant work.
Another train had pulled into the depot across the way. This one delivered cattle, machinery, and lumber. I hadn’t often been through this part of California in recent years, but I understood the region’s forced reliance on the Southern Pacific. There was no competition. Every passenger or parcel or food grown here had to take the Southern Pacific to travel in an expedient manner. Hanford itself was founded by the railway and named after one of its employees, according to literature I’d read on my trip down.
Considering these facts–and the demeanor of Mr. Johns–I could well understand why the “sand-lappers” were riled. Not that this excused the sorcery set loose here.
At the livery stable nearby, I acquired a chestnut mare. I rode west through a verdant spring countryside crisscrossed by irrigation ditches filled with Sierra snowpack runoff. I could have ridden on forever with a smile on my face. More I saw of the country, the more I liked it. I had a home these days, but not a home-home. Hadn’t had such a thing since I was a fool child, bound to the plantation. These folks made the desert bloom through sheer work and gumption. I envied that.
The Lederer homestead was a single-story structure surrounded by massive rose bushes in an array of colors. I couldn’t help but take in a deep, blissful breath. My old missus used to grow roses. I think that was her one redeeming quality.
A Chinese manservant didn’t meet my eye as he welcomed me inside and to a formal parlor. The sweetness of roses was replaced by something faint and foul. To other folks, magic smelled pleasant. To me, it stank. The darker the magic, the nastier the odor. Mind you, I can’t cast spells; my glamour doesn’t tax my energy the way spell-work drains a magus. I put on clothes, and the glamour is simply… there.
I don’t know what sort of fae my father was, but he certainly passed along some curious skills.
A few minutes later, Major Lederer introduced himself. He looked as I’d expected: silver hair, coiffed beard, his frock coat well-worn but of high quality. His eyes were rheumy and vacant, as if he’d been ill.
I passed him my calling card, describing myself as simply an investigator of recent illnesses in the area. “I was admiring the roses out front.”
A wave of grief passed over his face. “They were my wife’s joy. The roots came from England. They’ve grown here some fifteen years. She… she went to the Almighty a few weeks ago.”
Another death. “Was it this sickness…?”
“No. I’m not sure of the illness of which you speak. My Sally struck her head and didn’t awaken after.”
“My deepest condolences. I didn’t mean to intrude.”
“No. I should… make an effort to get out. Our friends have tried, but it’s been difficult for me.” His smile quivered. “We were together forty years. We met when I was a young man sent abroad. She was British-born, but passionate for California. Our home here means–meant–everything to her.”
I glanced at his hands. Magic required bare skin on herbs and ingredients, and the resulting stains were a point of pride among practitioners. Major Lederer’s cuticles and nails were trimmed and unremarkable. That left the house staff and the late Mrs. Lederer as suspected magi.
Occultism was all the rage in Britain, and had recently become a hobby across America. Many wives’ clubs gathered to exchange cantrips and socialize. Other club members would know about Mrs. Lederer or other locals with the knack. Investigating the house staff would require a different tack.
“I heard you were head of the Settler’s Land League and led the fight against the railroad,” I said.
His laugh was bitter. “Officially, I still am the head, but I’m as good as resigned. You need hope in order to fight the octopus that is the Southern Pacific, and I haven’t any hope left. This ranch–what does it mean, without any family? No wife, no boy… Our son died in the war, you see.”
Three portraits on the nearby table featured a pale boy, the Major in his full Confederate regalia, and the late Mrs. Lederer, her pale hair in ringlets.
“I understand what it means to lose your kin and to lose your home.” I stopped myself. I didn’t need to say more about my own shallow roots. “But if you’re the leader, there’re other families looking to you. Don’t forget them.”
The Major seemed to look at me for the first time, as if he just woke up. He pulled my card from his pocket again. “Extraordinary Investigations. I’ve seen your sort before. This illness you’re asking about must not be normal.”
“No. I suspect it’s sorcery to benefit the magus. Was told there’s an afflicted child near death in Hanford now.”
“A child? Do you know the name?”
“I don’t, sir.”
Grief drenched his features. “I’ll inquire. But if anyone is engaged in dark chicanery, it’s those Southern Pacific men. Heisen, Johns, Bunyan. They want to sell us our own land and charge us for the improvements we made. Since we won’t pay, they’re keen to run us off.”
“It’d be hard to ask Mr. Heisen and Mr. Bunyan as they succumbed first to this plague,” I said.
Major Lederer’s jaw gaped. “They did? Then you… that’s who is paying you to investigate, isn’t it? The railroad?” He was no fool. I wondered if he’d throw me out, but instead he looked thoughtful. “And here you were talking me into continued work for the Settler’s Land League.”
“I’m not here about the legal fight over the land.” God knew, the legal system and I disagreed on many things. I stood. “I’m here because dark magic is killing railroader and settler alike. If you need to contact me, I have a room at the Livermore in Hanford. Good day, Major.”
I stepped outside and paused to breathe in the roses again, to clear that awful residual magic from my lungs. This was a shaded spot of pure peace.
My pause was longer than I realized, as Major Lederer soon joined me with clippers in hand. I eyed him with wariness, but his manner was not threatening.
“She would hate how overgrown the roses are now. She always tended to them herself. I… I should take care of them. Would you like a white bloom for your lapel, Mr. Harrington?”
“I don’t usually wear one in such fashion, but it might freshen my hotel room.”
“Or maybe you can gift it to a lady in town. Sally liked when her roses made people smile. Here.” He cut the thornless stem a few inches long and wrapped it in his own silk handkerchief.
“I’m much obliged,” I said, ignoring the yearning evoked by his statement. The wrapped bloom just fit inside an interior jacket pocket I most often used to carry an extra pistol and silver bullets.
“We never thought we’d find a place we loved more than Tennessee,” he said softly, and not to me. “This California valley was our promised land. Home in the truest sense.”
Home. I liked Oregon well enough, but he made me think of South Carolina and the life I left behind. The guilt hit me in the gut sometimes. That I escaped. That I wasn’t true to my own self, my kin. I sent money to my cousins there every so often, as if that could absolve me of my insecurities. I doubted anything could. My fae blood was half of me, but I didn’t understand that half. I knew the names and faces of my mama’s folks, and the misery I escaped.
For the first time in many a year, I felt a yearning to sink in my roots, make a real home, damned fool notion though it was. I couldn’t live in utter isolation, and if I lived near folks, I wouldn’t be accepted as an equal due to my skin and gender. At this point, I would settle for no less.
So I wouldn’t settle. I’d take job after job, stay restless as ever. I had plenty to do. Too many folks suffered from the misuse of magic and ancient machinations born anew. Then there was my own quest for answers about my fae nature.
I rode east toward town, sober with memories. The sun was high overhead. Clicking my teeth, I encouraged my horse to trot. Every minute ticked closer to that three day point when the life-eater would shift to a new victim.
There’s a common misperception about where to find the best know-it-alls in a small town. Bartenders know a lot about men’s business, true, but the best gossip is where the liquor or juice is sipped once a week.
The afternoon crawled on as I visited every local building with a spire. The priests and preachers were downright courteous, though I finally found what I needed when a reverend was out on rounds. His wife, the kindly Mrs. Shute, invited me in for tea. There was an unmistakable whiff of magic about the place.
“I’m delighted you were able to speak with Major Lederer. The poor man.” Mrs. Shute reminded me of an unbaked bread roll with her doughy complexion and rounded body. The cap of black frizzy hair, barely contained by a snood, seemed to be an afterthought. “Since his wife passed, he’s shut out the world. The circumstances there… terrible.”
“I was told she had a head wound.”
Mrs. Shute leaned forward. “I heard that as well, Mr. Harrington, but also that she was a suicide.” She motioned two fingers against her wrist. I couldn’t help but notice the telltale ingredient stains on her fingertips. She was likely the sort who wore fingerless gloves in public for that very reason. “Which, really, makes no sense to me. She was a vivacious woman in a loving marriage.”
“Did you know her well?”
“In our club, yes. We’d get together to quilt, collect food for families in need, maybe fiddle with a spell or two.”
She said it to impress me; the occult was popular, after all, and here I was, the sophisticated out-of-towner. I arched an eyebrow. “Does the reverend…?”
“Oh, Mr. Harrington. It’s all in fun. Dabbling, that’s all.” She giggled like a schoolgirl.
“Was Mrs. Lederer particularly talented?”
“Better than most of us, I’d say. If you want to find the darker arts, well, you go to China Alley.” She leaned forward, tapping her chin. “My husband is trying to get the heathens removed. The smells down there are awful, then there’s the gambling, the opium. It’s terrible. Sugar?” She held out a cup of sugar cubes.
“No, thank you, ma’am.” Directing this conversation was like herding a cat. “I mentioned at the start I’m investigating these local illnesses. Has your husband tended some of the others struck down?”
“Oh my, yes. The graying, they call it. Young Cliff is almost gone. The poor dear.”
Sunset neared. That child would die for certain unless I found the magus. Mrs. Shute wasn’t the source. The scent of magic here was mild, the sort of minor household enchantments that kept linens crisp and flies out. In my wandering about town, I hadn’t come across anything as pungent as in the Major’s house. That left the servants as suspect, or…
I’d dealt with undead magi before. That transformation required incredible magical aptitude and a deep-rooted selfish need for power that seemed strongly at odds with everything I’d heard of Mrs. Lederer. Even so, I’d been at this too long to fully dismiss her as the culprit.
“Is there anyone else in the area with an aptitude for magic? Or anyone who is looking exceptionally healthy?”
She arched an eyebrow. That tidbit of gossip would be spread about for sure. “No one especially gifted, no. This town barely has its roots in the dirt, Mr. Harrington. We have to go to Fresno for proper spell-work.”
A thump came from the back of the house, followed by footsteps. A young Chinese woman stepped within the doorway, saw the two of us, and hastily bowed.
“I bring,” she said.
“Wonderful. Thank you, Mimi. Her father has quite a garden. Good Christian folk. You should see their strawberries!”
I stood and bowed as I tucked my notes away. The girl took a step back and offered another hesitant bow in turn.
House servants knew everything that happened within their walls. A local grocer, with such trusted access to homes, might know a thing or two as well.
“Ma’am? Might I speak with you?” I asked her.
Her eyes widened. Her nod was quick, fearful. Good God, how must my glamour make me look to her? I knew from experience that when well-dressed white men came to visit and asked after the younger slaves, there was nothing good about. Chinese women were rare to see in California, and ignorant folks assumed all of them were ladies of the night. Likely the presence of the reverend’s wife was all that kept Mimi from bolting from the house completely.
Nauseous at my own ineptitude, I knew I needed to cut this short. “Have you heard of the sickness going around, ma’am? That makes folks turn gray?” At her increased alarm, I knew I had erred again. “No, I am not saying your people are the cause. Have any of yours been sick?”
She looked between me and Mrs. Shute.
If I asked if she’d heard of any bad magic about, I wouldn’t get an answer. The question was too incriminating. California boiled with anti-Chinese sentiment, and folks looked for any excuse to lynch, shame, or attack her people. And here I was, in my glamoured guise.
Finally, she nodded.
“Thank you, ma’am, that’s all I need to know. Have a pleasant day.”
She remained still like a rabbit caught in the open, as if she could render herself invisible, then burst into motion. Her feet pattered down the hall, screen door clattering behind her.
“She’s a good girl. Terribly shy around men. We encourage her family to come to church, with the hopes she’ll spread the Good Word.”
I had lived in my own glamour for so long, God help me, I forgot. I forgot the fear.
I clutched my trembling fists at my hips. My suit felt wrong on my body. Soiled. “Mrs. Shute, thank you very much for enduring my questions. The tea was quite fine.”
With that, I skedaddled with just slightly more control than the Chinese woman. God help me. I needed to get back to my place back in Portland, lock myself inside, and stay naked for days. I needed to remember my own skin.
The walk toward downtown calmed my nerves. Windows along Sixth Street were aglow with electric light. A train whistle pierced the evening; I wondered if it was Mr. Johns’ train, or if he had already fled. I encountered the town druggist as he closed up shop. He provided directions to the home of the child gone gray.
The sky turned fully dark on the short walk there. The front door was open and the wailing of family was discernible from the street. The inevitable had occurred.
I lingered near the front gate, guilt like iron in my gut. If I’d gotten to Hanford faster. If I’d found answers sooner. If I wasn’t such a damned fool. My encounter at Mrs. Shute’s house had left me rattled, made me think of things I didn’t want to think of.
From the side of the house, I heard hoof beats that increased in intensity as the rider bolted into the street at a reckless canter. I hugged the white fence. The rider sped by not five feet away. Dust kicked against my trousers.
“My God! Are you all right?” The man’s accented voice came from the other side of the fence.
“Yes. Startled more than anything.”
“The Major shouldn’t be riding that fast in the dark.”
“Major? Major Lederer? Why was he here?”
“He heard of Cliff’s illness. He was quite shaken. Let me find the latch–I should have brought a lamp, but my walk home is short.” A gate creaked open. “I’m Doctor Resinov.”
“I spoke to the Major earlier. It seemed he had become something of a recluse since his wife passed on.”
“Yes. Her death was a tragedy. One of those simple falls in the bedroom that turns out to not be simple. The Major hasn’t been himself, and I think his senses are still addled. He pulled me aside tonight, in front of everyone, to ask if I was sure his wife was dead.” His laugh was loud and awkward. “Really, what kind of a question is that?”
One very relevant to my investigation. “Thank you for your help, doctor,” I said, and began to walk. After crossing the street, I ran.
This all came back to the railroad and Major Lederer and Sally Lederer. I gripped my utility belt as I ran, verifying my knife and everything else was where it ought to be.
I retrieved my horse from the livery stable and set off for Mussel Slough again, following a road cast pale gray by moonlight.
No one answered my hail in the yard, though illumination shone through the homestead windows. The roses were as fragrant as before. I entered the house with a hand on the pistol beneath my jacket.
Wary, I let the stink of magic draw me deeper into the house. Floorboards creaked beneath my soft treads. I found myself in a unkempt bedroom wallpapered in paisley.
The place reeked of magic. Blood magic, recently cast. Rot and decay with a whiff of iron. I avoided the center of the floor as if it contained an open pit. The stain there was invisible yet as dark as a senator’s soul.
What had happened here? How had Mrs. Lederer truly died? Suicide, or a head injury? Or was she not truly dead at all, as the Major now suspected?
Daguerreotypes on the dresser caught my eye. Another image of the Major in his regalia, and a separate one of a young soldier. I did a double take when I realized the soldier was their son. He wore Union attire.
“Father versus son. One survived and the other did not,” I murmured. Such was the nature of that war.
The house and barn were empty of people. I heard an approaching wagon on the road and rode to intercept it.
“Yes, I saw the Major a while back,” the farmer replied to my inquiry. “He was riding up Lake Avenue with a shovel and lantern. I found that a mite strange.”
I sucked in a breath. “Is the cemetery that way?”
“Straight up the road, sure. Why, whatever–”
I pressed my horse to a gallop. Wheat fields and orchards of spindly saplings flanked the road in moonlit blurs. Miles passed. I would have dismissed the cemetery as just another field but for the taller trees throughout the lot. These grounds had likely been settled before most of the surrounding towns. I slowed my horse to a walk to grant him time to cool, then dismounted to encourage a quiet approach.
A lantern glimmered out yonder. I secured my horse’s reins to a tall headstone and advanced, doing my utmost to not break my own neck on low headstones or brush. I gripped my pistol in my right hand and the silver dagger with my left.
The soft snick and slide of a shovel against dirt was clear to my ears. The stink of magic filled my nostrils. The shovel struck something solid. I sidled behind a monument some ten feet away.
“Jesus, have mercy. Jesus, help me,” I heard. The shovel was tossed aside with a thud. There came a wrenching of wood and an agonized wail that made the hair on my neck stand on end. “Oh God! Sally! Are you alive? Are you? What have you done?”
I rounded the headstone, weapons at ready. “Major Lederer, please back away from the grave.”
He was on all fours beside the open earth, sobbing. “I had to see. When you came earlier, I got to thinking, and then I saw that boy die… it wasn’t natural, that sickness, and I knew my Sally, she didn’t intend that. She’d never take away anyone else’s child, Mr. Harrington.”
I edged around the dirt pile to see what the lantern illuminated. The potency of magic quivered in the air like a heat mirage. Inside the casket, Sally Lederer looked all of twenty–not nearer to sixty, as she should be–and this was no glamour. Her age had been undone, just as in my previous case in Santa Fe. She looked almost perfect.
The exception being the top of her head. Through the perfect torrent of blonde hair, her head grotesquely bulged. There was no blood, which made it worse, in a way.
“What did Mrs. Lederer intend?” I asked.
“We lost the Circuit Court case a month ago. Her sister just sent over some old grimoires from England. Sally said, maybe there’s something in there that can help us. She wanted to make the railroad men sick. That’s all I knew. I went up to Fresno for business. When I came back…” He heaved with sobs. “There was so much blood, and her head…”
“This kind of sorcery requires blood,” I said. “She cut her wrist, didn’t she? But she cut too deep and with the blood loss, she must have gone faint and struck her head.”
My mind raced through the bits that the Major wouldn’t know, didn’t need to know. Ignorant as Sally was about magic of this caliber, she’d successfully shackled the spirit to her. It’d done its duty and sickened two of the three men it was sent for, and now she was incapable of stopping the spell.
“She lived a few days after and then… we thought she was dead. Doc Resinov said so. Her heart stopped. She wasn’t breathing.”
“She’s still as good as dead. Maybe she did die, back then. This magic she worked is stealing the essence of other folks around town. It’s making her younger, but it can’t actually heal her. Look.”
I set down my dagger long enough to use the shovel’s handle to turn over her arm. It still showed a bright, unhealed cut from wrist to elbow. The poor, foolish woman. She hadn’t a clue what she was doing. To anyone else, a cut like that was suicide. No wonder the rumor had spread.
Or maybe this wasn’t fully of her own volition. The summoned spirit could have manipulated her during the casting, insisted on more blood. These creatures weren’t stupid, and this one had earned an extended stay with three-day smorgasbords one after another.
“But she looks… she looks beautiful,” Major Lederer whispered.
“Her brain is beyond repair, Major. You served in the war. You’ve seen others with wounds like this.”
“Sally’s magic will let her get better–”
“Sally had some small skill with magic, yes, but not for this sorcery. The only way to stop this is to truly kill her–”
“No!” He lurched upright, reaching to his waist. “I can’t let you. By God’s mercy, she’ll heal–”
“How many more children do you want to die? It…”
I smelled the miasma’s approach before I saw it. I switched my silver blade to my right hand; my pistol would be useless as a feather now. “Major! Get away from the grave!”
He gasped as the creature entered the halo of light. It was like a bag of black vapor stretched into a long, serpentine form. No head, no eyes. It oozed over the side of the pit and onto Mrs. Lederer.
“No!” The Major yelled and started to fling himself into the grave.
“Fool!” I lunged to grip him by the collar in time. It said something of the potency of the life-eater that the Major could see it at all.
“It’s–that thing–it’s going to–”
“It’s the only reason her body’s still alive at all.” We watched in mute horror as the shadow coiled and writhed. The body beneath did not move or react in any way, even as the stench increased. It was emitting the life force of that boy. The shadow shivered and glided up the other side of the grave.
Right toward us.
I hauled back the Major with a firm hand on his shoulder. The spirit hesitated as if to consider its options.
I considered my own choices. I needed to attend the ugly business of severing the dark link Mrs. Lederer had formed.
That meant I needed Major Lederer incapacitated.
The shadow swarmed over him. One instant the Major was there on his knees, trying to rise. The next, he was sprawled flat on his belly. Limp. The miasma was fully inside him.
I shakily lowered myself to the dirt. “God forgive me,” I whispered. I looked into my own quaking hands, my pale palms, my dark fingers and knuckles. Major Lederer’s eyes were still open wide. They tracked me as I stood.
“Once she’s dead, the spirit will go back whence it came,” I said. “You’ll be able to get well. Just stay put for now. I’ll be back for you.”
With that, I assessed her body and the tools at hand. I needed to burn her heart and brain to cinders to break the perverse bond, and return what remained to the grave. Then the Major needed tending, and there’d be other business, too. I adjusted my derby hat.
This’d be a long night.
Relentless sunlight beamed down on the Southern Pacific depot in Hanford the next morn. Folks clustered around in wait for the next train. I leaned against a wooden post. My back and arms ached, but even so, if I closed my eyes for more than two blinks I could have fallen asleep. The labor was hard for a solitary person, and my figure wasn’t quite so imposing as it appeared to others.
Major Lederer’s body had been laid waste after mere hours of affliction. Fortunately, I’d found a ranch nearby with good folks who came to our aid. At sun-up, the talk with the local marshal hadn’t been pleasant–meetings with such folks rarely are–but my position as a contract worker for the Southern Pacific granted me some authority. It earned me plenty of derisive looks, too.
The train pulled up to the station with a magnificent gush of dust. The place stewed with people.
“Mr. Harrington?” Mr. Johns approached, waving. “You survived the night!” He looked so bright-eyed, I could have slugged him.
“I did. You won’t need to flee every third night now. Check with the local marshal. He has his report, and mine will be ready to mail to your people by the time I’m back in Portland.”
“Damn fine work. Dare I ask–who was behind the sorcery?”
Weary as I was, that’s when my brain pieced together the repercussions of the night. Mrs. Lederer had done wrong, but that didn’t make the railroad right. That’s not how it’d look to the press and so many other people, though. The odds had always been against the settlers, but now their cause was damned for sure.
I wondered how many more bodies would be added to Grangeville Cemetery by the time this fight with the railroad was done. I wondered if when the railroad sold the Lederer homestead, if the new owner would uproot those magnificent roses.
I couldn’t bear to see Mr. Johns’ pleasure at the Lederers being at fault. “You’ll need to read the report. I’m not one to gossip.”
“Oh. Well. Thanks, anyway.” He looked disappointed as we shook hands.
I boarded the train. The status of my ticket allowed me a full row to myself, which I planned to occupy lengthwise soon enough.
I pressed my face to the window for a last glance of the young town. My gut felt hollow, and not for lack of food. I’d envied what these people had. God help me, I knew I’d done the right thing here. Sally Lederer’s botched spell-work had to be undone. I wasn’t at fault for the homesteaders’ impending losses. And yet… and yet…
I wasn’t even forty, and I felt so damned tired and old. I wanted to get home. Home. Whatever that meant.
Most everyone had left the rail station, but I did spy the Chinese girl from the day before. She walked along the street, a yoke laden with produce across her shoulders. She didn’t even glance toward the train as it rolled forward with a lurch.
I pulled back from the glass enough to see my true reflection stare me in the eye. Through my visage, fields and orchards blinked by. My suit was filmed with dust and that’s all I could smell. Better than the stench of magic, anyway.
I shifted in my seat and detected a lump within my jacket. I pulled out a handkerchief, and inside found Mrs. Lederer’s white rose. The petals had begun to wilt after being crunched close to my body for most of the day. I brought it to my nose and breathed in, as if I could fill the hollow ache.
A steward approached. I beckoned him over. I needed a glass of water to hold the stem. Maybe, just maybe, I could eke a few more days of life out of the bloom as I traveled north.