Authors: Rob DeBorde
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Also by Rob DeBorde
About the Author
“Yer ma ain’t gonna like this one bit.”
Walter Peterson was not in the habit of talking to corpses, certainly not those recently removed from the ground after seventeen months of peaceful slumber. He might speak a word of kindness to the deceased before laying them to rest, presuming he had known their bodies in life. That included most of Astoria’s longtime residents, among them Abigail Ellison, whose withered body now lay before him, facedown in the mud, one arm dangling into an open grave. Her mother, Margret, whose early-morning constitutionals often brought her to the top of the hill to visit her daughter, would be horrified to find the girl in such a state. Walter knew this, which is how he came to be standing in the pouring rain at four o’clock in the morning, a shovel in one hand, Winchester rifle in the other.
“I ain’t happy ’bout it, neither,” he said to the woman. Abigail did not respond. The dead rarely did.
Walter had already buried the Ellison girl once. As Astoria’s only undertaker he’d moved earth for more than seventy of his neighbors since taking the job a decade earlier. It was good, meaningful work, and relatively uneventful compared to his previous employment as a rubbish collector in Portland. The only disturbances under Walter’s watch had been a botched grave robbing and an unsupervised burial. The former had been drunkards seeking treasure within the crypt of Astoria’s second wealthiest man, Captain Caleb Jennings. The thieves were no doubt disappointed to discover the captain’s relatives had beaten them to it.
More curious was the unmarked grave that had appeared two months into the caretaker’s tenure. Despite questioning nearly everyone in town, Walter was unable to learn the identity of the cemetery’s mysterious new occupant. Since none of the locals had gone missing, he’d dug no deeper, figuring it wise to leave the dead undisturbed, lest they become restless.
Walter knelt beside the corpse, the third such desecration he’d discovered that night. First had been Tim Johnson, a local fisherman, who’d drowned in a horse trough seven years prior. Walter had found the man’s skull in the grass next to an uneven hole dug down to his coffin, the top portion of which had been roughly chopped away. A little farther up the hill, Vernon Schilling sat upright within his grave, body intact but fully extracted from the pine box he’d been buried in the summer before. A tree root had hooked the dead man’s jacket, keeping him from toppling over.
Two rows and six stones to the west, Walter had found Abigail.
“Best get inside ’fore you wash away with the weather.”
A flicker of light caught Walter’s eye.
“Who’s there?” he said, barely loud enough for his own ears to hear. A quick scan of the cemetery revealed nothing but trees and tombstones through the rain.
Walter tightened his grip on the rifle. He almost hadn’t brought it, figuring the light he’d seen from his window to be nothing more than a lonely mourner unable to pass the night without visiting a loved one. It had happened, more than once during a downpour. The rain made people do strange things.
Somewhere a pane of glass shattered.
Walter froze. A flash of light drew his eyes to the back of the cemetery where it glowed brightly for a moment and then was swallowed by the ground. Someone was digging another hole. And he was standing in it.
* * *
A fresh pile of earth lay beside the grave of Abraham Alcott, dead since March 1874, one of the few locals buried before Walter had assumed caretaker duties. The lack of a personal connection didn’t make Walter any less uneasy about what was being done to the man’s remains, and as he approached the faintly glowing hole in the ground, he considered shooting the villain on sight.
A familiar voice rising from the grave gave him pause.
“Are you him?”
Walter cautiously peered over the mound of dirt to see the body of a man slumped at the bottom of the grave, a broken lantern between his feet. He was older, sixty at least, but still carried the musculature of a younger man. A waterlogged nightshirt clung to his body, the weight of it seeming to press him deeper into the muck. Cuts on his hands and feet continued to seep, though the blood was quickly washed away by the rain. His face was pale, but familiar. And he was breathing.
Marshal James Kleberg, retired, looked up at the caretaker and blinked. He’d never felt so tired in his life.
“Him?” he whispered.
Walter knelt beside the hole. “Marshal, what happened?”
Abruptly, the old man thrust a skull before Walter’s face.
“Is it him?”
“What? Marshal, I don’t—”
“Holes, man! In his head! Do you see them?”
Walter stared at the muddy skull floating before him. A mat of black hair attached to a thin layer of skin slipped away, completing thirteen years of decomposition. Numerous teeth were missing, as was the jawbone, but the skull appeared otherwise intact.
Walter reached out but did not touch the wet bone. “Do you mean from a bullet? I don’t see any holes, ’cept for the eyes and nose.”
The marshal drew the skull back, holding it before his face until the dead man came into focus.
“Damn,” he said, dropping the skull into the mud. Slowly, he became aware of the stone cross looming overhead. It was worn, but the name was clear enough.
ABRAHAM THOMAS ALCOTT
APRIL 21 1837–
MARCH 7 1874
“Alcott. That’s not him.” The marshal tried to remember what he was he looking for—was it a grave?
“I don’t understand, Marshal. Who did this to you?”
The marshal sighed. He felt his chest go up and down, a sign he took to mean he wasn’t on the verge of dying despite the pain that seemed to crawl over every inch of his being. He looked at the caretaker—Peterson, that was his name. Did he know?
“I can’t…” the marshal began, before trailing off.
“Can’t what, Marshal?”
“Find,” he managed. “Can’t find…”
Walter leaned back, wondering if an old man could dig up four graves in the dark all by himself.
“Who, Marshal? Who can’t you find?”
The marshal repeated the question in his head, for that was what had brought him to this place on such a miserable night. He was looking for someone, someone buried in the cemetery, someone he wasn’t supposed to forget.
The marshal felt a sharp prick in his hand and opened it to see faint words scraped into the palm as if by a dry quill.
WAT IS NAME?
The marshal stared at the words for a moment and then looked up at the caretaker, his tears masked by the raindrops rolling off his cheek.
“I don’t remember.”
In his dream,Joseph Wylde wakes to the sound of a baby crying—his baby, his daughter. It’s steady, in distress, and not alone. Also crying, softer, but in sync with his sister, is a baby boy. Joseph has a son and a daughter. Twins.
Before Joseph can rise from his bed, pain screams from behind his eyes. His hands instinctively reach for his face, but stop short. He knows what to expect but is still surprised to find a cloth about his head, laid over his eyes. Someone has seen fit to bandage him, or perhaps to cover that which should not be seen. Joseph is blind, has been for five days, thanks to—
Your children are crying, Joseph.
Joseph stands, steadying himself against a wall he knows he can’t see—but he can.This is his room, the small corner bedroom on the second floor of the marshal’s home. He can feel the loose floorboard just beyond the edge of the bed, hear the wood groan as he steps off—was it ever so loud?To his left there’s a small nightstand, and then, three paces, a door. He searches for the handle, but finds none. It’s open. He knows he can’t see this—but he can.
In the hallway, the crying is louder and there’s something else: creaking, back and forth. Someone is sitting in his father-in-law’s old rocking chair, the one Joseph repaired after Kate cracked one of the legs. She was going to give birth to a giant, he’d teased her, a bear of a child. Kate said there would be two. She had known, even then.
The crying keeps time with the old wood, as if in motion, closer and then farther away. Joseph is halfway down the stairs before realizing he’s begun the descent. He opens his mouth, not entirely sure what will come out.
Joseph hears the shallow gasp as it catches in his wife’s throat. The creaking doesn’t stop. He reaches the landing.
The stench of the man hits Joseph’s nostrils, a mixture of sweat, worn leather, and gun oil. Stronger still is the scent of blood—not of the man, but other men … dead men.
In his dream,Joseph hears the sound of metal slide across leather as the Hanged Man draws the red-handled gun from its holster. His eyes don’t see the bastard set the barrel of the pistol across his daughter’s skin—but he can see it.
* * *
The smell of salt brought Joseph back to the present. It was faint, just a hint in the air, but getting stronger. They were almost there.
Joseph stood at the port rail of the steamerAlberta,having left Portland at eleven minutes past eight that morning en route to Astoria. By his estimation, it was now midafternoon. They’d made good time. Not a surprise considering the boat was traveling with the current, but whether that would remain an advantage was yet to be seen. Thanks to the nearly twenty pounds of refined Oregon firestone allotted for the burn upriver, the captain had promised Joseph would see some real speed on the voyage home.
Joseph smiled at the thought.
He couldn’t see, of course, in any traditional sense. That didn’t stop him from keeping one eye open—the right—to maintain appearances. It gathered no information, but since the scarring was less obvious, he’d trained the otherwise useless organ to deliver the proper cultural signals—blink, squint, stare, etc. It was Joseph’s experience that people were more comfortable when they could look a man in the eye and receive the same in return.
His left eye was covered by a worn leather patch that hid what most found difficult to look at. Kate claimed the milky-white iris added another layer of complexity to her husband’s handsome face. Joseph thought he was complicated enough. Despite the damage, the eye still picked up faint, undefined light and shadow, which Joseph found mostly a distraction. He was blind by any modern medical standard, and had been for more than a decade.
In that time, Joseph had discovered those same standards suggested that other senses could be developed to make up for the loss of his sight. He’d found numerous cases where the blind were able to use sounds, vibrations, even smells, to create a picture of the world around them. Such studies were generally considered scientifically dubious, but Joseph didn’t doubt them. After all, he was blind and had read the documents himself.
Joseph closed his eye.
He couldseethe river rushing by below, waves peeling away from the hull toward a shore that was closer on the port side of the ship than the starboard.
He couldseethe chubby man standing twenty feet to his right, puffing on a cigar and tugging his three-sizes-too-small coat tighter around his belly.
He couldseethe blue sky, puffy clouds, and, most important, the sun. Such a treat was not to be missed, even in May, which was why Joseph had spent so much of the journey standing at the rail, letting the light warm his face.
And now he could see his son, Samuel, staring up at him, wondering if his father was still lost in the dark memory that had invaded his waking thoughts so often in recent weeks. Joseph knew the boy had been standing at the rail for only a moment, but his approach had been nearly silent. He was becoming every bit as stealthy as his mother, which was a source of both pride and concern for Joseph.
“Hello, Kick,” he said, using the nickname Kate had given her son while he was still inside her.
“Hello,” the boy replied. Kick, who’d turned eleven the week before, watched his father’s face for a sign. Joseph had never actually seen him through his own eyes, but he knew his son had wavy auburn hair, a slightly square jaw, and bright green eyes, just like his mother. The oversize ears and nose had been gifts from his father, which Kick had yet to grow into.
Joseph tilted his head to his son, giving him what he wanted.
“I’m fine,” he said.
“Okay. Maddie said I should check.”
“Your sister worries too much. I’m fine.”
Kick turned his attention to the river. He couldn’t smell the salt in the air, but knew they were close because the river was wider. He leaned over the rail, letting the spray cool his face.
“Careful,” said Joseph. “You’ll have to swim the rest of the way if you fall in.”
“I won’t fall. Plus I’m a good swimmer.”
“I’m better,” said Maddie, already leaning over the rail on Joseph’s right. He hadn’t noticed her approach at all. He’d thought only Kate could do that, and now both his children had effectively snuck up on him in broad daylight—not that the day or light made a difference. They’d been practicing.
“Hello, Madeline. I didn’t see you there.”
Maddie beamed, unable to help herself. The hair and freckles she shared with her brother, but the smile was all her own.
“Did I scare you?”
“No, but I am surprised you were able to hang over the edge with what must be a very full tummy. Did you leave any of the sugar rolls for your brother?”
Maddie dropped back onto the deck. She licked her lips, tasting both cinnamon and sugar. Joseph could have told her it was on her fingers as well.
“Kick ate some, too.”
“Only one! I only had one.”
“That’s fine, Kick. But was that before or after the engineer chased you out of the steam room?”
Kick blinked, and then eyed his sister. She shook her head—she hadn’t told. Kick raised his right hand, flicked his wrist twice, and made a looping motion with his first two fingers. Maddie returned the gesture, adding a jab and several more loops to the message, none of which was particularly friendly.
Joseph smiled. The hand signals had replaced a form of gibberish the twins used to communicate when they didn’t want their parents to know what they were saying. Between them, Joseph and his wife had picked up enough of the language to listen in, which was when the kids switched to the hand signals. They generally tried to hide them from Kate, but assumed their father wasn’t going to decipher the visual language anytime soon. Joseph did sometimes have trouble following the speedy hand motions, which is why he’d long since given up trying. There was no point, as both kids wore so many of their emotions on their faces.
“We’ll be in port soon,” Joseph said, letting the kids off the hook. “Go grab your things, and meet me up above.”
Kick hopped onto the lower rail and off again before following his sister into the main compartment of the steamer.
Joseph closed his senses, letting some of the emotion he’d felt earlier creep back into his waking mind. Kick and Maddie were born the day he’d lost his sight. He was more than a hundred miles away at the time, and it had taken him four days to stumble home in the endless dark. After sleeping most of the fifth, he’d awakened to an uninvited guest and the first inkling that a new light might be available to him. That had been exactly eleven years ago to the day.
Joseph felt the boat rumble beneath his feet as it turned slightly to the south. Astoria would appear shortly on the Oregon side of the river, with its fishing boats, ore merchants, and colorful houses on the hill. With only a little effort, Joseph pushed the past away and opened his senses to what lay ahead.
* * *
“I see Mr. Hendricks!” Maddie said, pointing to a short man waving from the dock.
He was not alone. At least a dozen locals stood waiting for passengers, many of whom were waving alongside Joseph and the twins. The Port of Astoria was bustling with activity. In addition to theAlberta,a second, much larger steamer was docked alongside, having arrived from San Francisco a few hours earlier. The passengers had departed, but the holds of the ship continued to be unloaded by an ore-powered mechanical arm. Two smaller barges were also docked nearby, both weighted down to the waterline by mounds of what appeared to be gray slate. Neither was in the process of being loaded or unloaded, but a dozen men with guns stood along the docks on either side of the boats.
After disembarking, the Wyldes were met by Charlie Hendricks, owner and operator of Astoria’s oldest store, Hendricks’ Dry Goods. Charlie was short, round, and bald, but had a generous personality that he claimed made up for the physical “gifts” God had seen fit to give him. He knew everyone in town and had made it his business to meet their extended families. As a result, he was always up on the latest gossip, local and otherwise.
Joseph offered his hand. “Hello, Mr. Hendricks. Thanks for coming.”
“Well met, as always,” Charlie said, glancing past Joseph to the boat. “Where’s Katherine? Don’t tell me she didn’t make the trip.”
“She and her father disagree on the specifics of the relocation,” Joseph said, hoping his tone and arching eyebrow were enough for Charlie to move on to another subject.
“Oh,” Charlie said, glancing at the twins. “Well, I’m sure he’ll be happy to see you. Afraid I’m not much in the way of company. And my cooking is even worse.”
“I’m sure it’s fine,” Joseph said, following Charlie up the pier. “Lot of activity about.”
“It’s the ore. They found another vein above Paulsen Creek. Big one, I’m told. The barges come in almost daily, now.”
Kick climbed onto a pile of ropes to get a better look at the nearest barge.
“Is that it? I thought it was orange,” he said, mildly disappointed.
“It is, once it’s been refined,” said Charlie. “That’s mostly shale. The good stuff is locked inside in little-bitty pieces. They’re actually building a refinery across the river so they don’t have to transport so much unusable material.”
“Across the river?”
Charlie frowned. “They say it’s because the north side gets more sun—more sun! You believe that? Politics is what it is.”
“I’m sure,” Joseph said. He slowed his pace, adding space between them and the twins. “I appreciate you looking out for the marshal.”
“Happy to do it.”
“How’s his mood?”
Joseph nodded. “He can be a hard man to like.”
“He’s always been friendly to me, but he is on his own. Has been for … eight years?”
“I know you and Kate have been to visit—more than some families, to be sure—and he has friends here, acquaintances and such, but a man of his experiences, of his fame…” Charlie hesitated, and then added, “Frankly, I’m not surprised he got a little confused. It happens at his age.”
Joseph nodded, but the truth was that it did surprise him. He’d heard the details of his father-in-law’s “confusion” from the Astoria constable, who’d held him for a day before releasing him to Charlie. It just didn’t feel right. The man had slowed down in recent years, perhaps become more forgetful, but a sudden breakdown seemed unlikely. Jim Kleberg was a hard man, but he was still his own man. Joseph would not believe otherwise until he spoke to the marshal.
He owed him that much.
* * *
“Oh, it’s you,” said the marshal, frowning over a smile before it could begin. He’d come quickly to the top of the stairs but now descended without enthusiasm.
“Hello, Marshal,” said Joseph.
He was sixty-four years old, ten of them retired, but Jim Kleberg still appreciated being addressed as “Marshal.” The job was who he was and always would be. The man standing at the bottom of the stairs was smart enough to know that.
“Where’s the clan?” he asked, offering a hand to Joseph, who shook it.
“I sent Kick and Maddie up to the house to get started. Kate didn’t come.”
The marshal looked Joseph up and down, lingering over the man’s right eye.
Charlie came through the door behind Joseph. “Hello, Marshal. All’s well I assume. Did you find the sandwiches I left?”
The marshal nodded. “Wasn’t hungry, but thanks.”
“Oh, all right,” Charlie said. He stood for a moment, waiting for one of the other two men to say something. Finally, he did. “Well, perhaps I should check in on my roses, let you two catch up.”
Charlie walked though the kitchen to the back door. The marshal waited to hear the latch before turning to Joseph.
“Your idea to set me up here?”
“Figured as much,” the marshal said, rubbing his hands together. “Treats me like a damn baby, always following me around, watching, asking questions.”
“He’s just worried. We all were.”
“I ain’t no invalid. Offered to do some gardening, but Charlie hid all the shovels. Afraid I’d dig up his prize roses or somethin’. Damn things looked dead anyway.”
Joseph waited for the man to say more, but instead the marshal walked into the living room and sat down in an oversize chair facing a large picture window. Joseph followed, stepping around the chair to stand next to the fireplace, where a mound of embers still radiated warmth.
“Well, it’s good to see ya, I guess. How long you stayin’?”
“The steamer’s running back tomorrow afternoon,” Joseph said. “Should be enough time to get things in order, I think.”
“Not much of a visit.”
Joseph looked at the marshal.
“Marshal, you know why we’re here. You’re coming to live with us in Portland. I’m sure you remember—”
“You think I don’t remember?”
“I didn’t say that.”
The marshal leveled a long, bony finger at the younger man. “But that’s what youthink.”
Joseph wasn’t ready for this conversation—had, in fact, little desire to have it at all. It dawned on him that his wife had not come for this very reason.
“I know this isn’t what you wanted, Marshal.”
“Damn right it isn’t!” the marshal said, and was up from his chair and out the front door before Joseph could stop him.
* * *
Joseph found the marshal on the porch, leaning against a weathered railing. Astoria spilled out below the house, the glow of a few street lamps already visible in the predusk light.
“I’m sorry, Marshal. I know this isn’t easy, but it’s for the best.”
The marshal took a deep breath and let it out.
“What if I ain’t?”
“Well, I’m sure once you’re in Portland this will make more sense. You always said you wanted to be closer to your grandkids.”
“That’s not what I mean.” The marshal rubbed his forehead, trying to dislodge the thought that had been there since he’d agreed to the move four days earlier. “What if I’m not supposed to leave?”
Joseph shook his head. “The house will be fine. And we’re not going to sell it, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“No, I … I don’t know.”
Joseph measured his words carefully. “It’s all right, Marshal. It happens to everybody as they get older.”
“You really want to have this conversation?”
Joseph closed his eye. The world didn’t look any different, but the gesture wasn’t for him.
“Maybe we should head up to the house,” he said. “We’ve got a lot to do.”
“What? You think I won’t be a son of a bitch around the gran’childs?”
“No, but I thought you’d want to supervise while a pair of eleven-year-olds packed all your worldly possessions.”
The marshal was unable to suppress a grin this time. A small laugh escaped, as well.
“Eleven?” The marshal turned the number over in his head. “Eleven years ago last week, right? Wednesday?”
“See? I ain’t lost all my faculties yet.” The marshal took another long look at the hill that rose up behind Astoria. He could see his house and the cemetery beyond, its fence reflecting the last rays of sunlight. “Startin’ to forget the rest, though.”
“Come to Portland,” Joseph said, and put on a hand on the man’s shoulder. “In a week’s time, this will feel right, you’ll see.”
“I’ll see, huh?” The marshal returned his gaze to the town. “Says the man with one good eye.”
“I see well enough. I see a man who helped me once—saved me.”
“I don’t need saving, Joseph.”
“I know.” Joseph could feel the anger slip from the marshal as he gently applied pressure to the older man’s shoulder.
“I forgot some things, is all.” The marshal smiled again. “Course, last time I remembered anything I wound up covered in mud and splinters.”
“Don’t worry. I told Maddie to hide all the shovels.”
* * *
Maddie pushed open the curtains on the front window, letting in what little daylight remained, before turning back to the room. To say that the marshal’s home was sparsely decorated would be generous. The only furniture on the first floor consisted of a well-traveled trunk, three mismatched chairs, a small square table, and an old rocker pushed into the corner next to a fireplace that otherwise dominated the space.
“Not much to pack,” Kick said.
“I think there’s more upstairs,” Maddie said, not really sure if it was true. They’d stayed at the house at least a dozen times, but she couldn’t recall it ever being so empty. Maybe it would seem different with more people inside.
Kick took a seat in the rocking chair. “I always liked this chair,” he said, pushing hard off the floor. Soon he was trying to see how far he could rock without tipping over, each swing squealing a little louder on the bare wood floor.
“Kick, stop it. Mother said no furniture.”
“Too bad,” Kick said, gracefully hopping out of the chair. “I’m going upstairs. You coming?”
“I’ll be up in a minute.”
Kick stared at his sister for a beat and then jogged up the stairs.
Maddie glanced about the room, her eyes lingering on the rocking chair. She was glad they weren’t taking the furniture.
* * *
A few minutes later, Maddie found her brother lying on the marshal’s bed, staring at the ceiling.
“Done packing already?”
“Look,” Kick said, pointing straight up. Maddie followed the direction of his finger to the uneven brown mark on the ceiling.
“What is it?”
“A leak. I mean, it was a leak—it’s dried up, now. But it must have been a good one to leave that big of a stain.”
“We should tell Gran’pa, make sure he knows.”
“He knows,” Kick said, smiling. “It’s right above his head. I bet it dripped on him while he was sleeping.” Kick tapped his forehead several times with a finger. He then stood up on the bed, never taking his eyes off the watermark on the ceiling, and spun to look at it from different angles.
“Looks like a witch from this side. Or maybe a cat.”
Maddie frowned. “You’re not supposed to stand on the bed.”
“I took off my shoes.”
Maddie stared at her brother, trying to mimic the glare she’d seen her mother use on more than one occasion.
“You ain’t Ma,” he said and dropped into a sitting position on the edge of the mattress, which instantly propelled him into the air again and onto his feet directly in front of his sister. “Ma’s got crazy eyes.”
Maddie tilted her head down slightly. She was taller than Kick, just barely, but enough that when they met eye-to-eye he had to look up slightly.
“You’re supposed to do what I say,” she said.
“It’s implied. I’m the oldest.”
“By three minutes.”
Maddie turned and walked away. “Not my fault you were born lazy.”
Kick stared after his sister. He could chase after her, try to come up with a witty retort, which Maddie would no doubt knock back at him, smarter and sharper … or he could see what else was hidden in the watermark above the marshal’s bed. Kick went limp and fell backward onto the bed.
“Hey, from this angle, it looks like a wolf.”
* * *
Joseph and the marshal arrived at the house to find few things packed. Kick had thoughtfully cataloged all the leaks, which he described for his grandfather in great detail. Maddie had managed to organize the kitchen, although she was quick to point out there was little in the way of edible food. Joseph had expected this, which was why he’d brought a few provisions from home. To the marshal, who had subsisted on Charlie’s cooking for half a week, day-old stew had never tasted so good.
The next morning, all were up with the sun to organize and pack the marshal’s belongings. He’d decided to bring only a few boxes of clothes, books, papers, and other artifacts of his years as a United States marshal. The rest would be stored in the attic. Anything too big to fit up the narrow staircase would stay where it was.
It was while his grandfather picked through an upstairs closet that Kick decided to ask the question that had been buzzing around his brain all morning.
“Did you really dig up a grave?”
The marshal popped his head out of the closet and stared at Kick, wondering if he’d heard the question right. The wide-eyed look on Maddie’s face suggested he had.
“Well, yes, I suppose I did.”
The marshal wondered who had told the kids, before deciding no one had. It was more likely one of them had overheard a conversation not intended for his or her ears, probably hers. Maddie would have told her brother, of course, and Kick simply wanted to know more. Who wouldn’t?
“Yup,” he said. “Several, in fact. Cracked open the coffins with an ax. Wasn’t hard; most of ’em were rotted through.”
Maddie was just as shocked as her brother, which was how the question escaped her mouth before she could stop it: “Why?”
The marshal hesitated. “I don’t know. Seemed like a good idea at the time.”
The marshal turned back to his search, leaving Maddie and Kick to work out a follow-up. Kick made a gesture with his hand, suggesting they should press a little more. Maddie shook her head.
“Of course,” said the marshal, poking his head out of the closet. “Probably best not to talk about it, least not around your folks. It makes your pa uncomfortable—ghosts and such.”
Both kids nodded.
“How about you get up to the attic, see if there’s anything worth rescuing ’fore we fill it up with the rest of this junk.”
“Sure,” said Kick, bolting up the narrow staircase on the right side of the closet. Maddie lingered for a moment and then followed her brother up.
The marshal waited until he could hear both kids moving around above before allowing a wave of anxiety to wash over him. He was forgetting something again, something important. It was closer this time. He thought the answer was in the house. He’d find it.
* * *
Joseph twisted the rocking chair around the turn at the top of the stairs and placed it in the corner where it fit snuggly against the sloping roof. With barely five feet of clearance at its highest point, the attic was also a tight fit for Joseph. Despite his superior senses, he’d already banged his head twice on the same overhead beam. If Kate found out—and she would—he’d never hear the end of it. Joseph started back down the stairs, but stopped on the second step, where his six-foot frame could stand without hunching over. He rubbed the back of his head.
“Still hurt?” asked Maddie.
“A little. How goes the search? Find anything interesting?”
“There’s a very nice saddle, but I assume that’s going to stay.”
“Everything else is old, broken, or both,” Maddie said, flipping open a large chest. “It’s too bad these dresses weren’t stored better, because some of them are very pretty.” Maddie held up a long yellow dress. The color was still vibrant, but the edges were frayed and the fringe had been eaten away.
“Those must have belonged to Martha,” Joseph said.
“I thought so.”
The twins had never met their grandmother. Joseph had known the marshal’s wife only briefly before she died, and at the time he was not the kind of man most mothers sought for their daughters. Still, she’d treated him fairly, some might say generously. Joseph hoped he’d paid her back in kind.
“How about you,” Joseph said, turning to look directly at a stack of boxes. Kick popped up from his hiding spot, a mischievous grin on his face.
“I found some more leaks. Oh, and this…” Kick picked up a small wooden box about eighteen inches wide and twelve inches deep. The top had decorative vines carved around the edges with a rose in the center.
“What is it?” Joseph asked.
“It’s a box.”
“Yes, I mean what’s inside it?”
“Oh,” Kick said. He flipped open the lid, revealing a cloth-covered interior but nothing else. “It’s empty.”
“Bring it here.”
Kick stepped over the clutter and passed the box to his father. It was heavy, probably too heavy for an empty box. Joseph ran his fingers across the lid, letting the carvings tell their story. He’d never encountered the box before, but knew right away that the marshal had made it. He recognized the cuts in the wood as coming from the same hand as had made the mirror frame hanging above Kate’s dresser. Joseph raised the lid. Most of the aromatic information stored within had been released the first time Kick opened the box, but Joseph could still pick out a single, earthy scent beneath the musty wood, and maybe one more—the ocean.
“See? Empty,” said Kick. “If the marshal doesn’t want it, can I have it?”
Joseph closed the lid and handed the box back to his son.
* * *
The marshal stared at the box in his lap. He didn’t have to open it to know what was inside.
“I’m sorry, Kick, but I can’t let you have this. Belonged to your grandmother, and I think your ma might want it.”
“She used to keep seashells in it. I don’t know what happened to them.”
Kick’s eyes lit up. “I do! There’s a pile of shells up in the attic.”
“Well, why don’t you go collect ’em. If you see one you like, keep it. Maddie, too.”
“Thanks, Gran’pa,” Kick said, and darted back up the stairs.
The marshal turned his attention back to the box. He opened the lid and ran a hand along the cloth until he felt it give a little. There he pushed down, releasing the hidden latch that held the false bottom in place. The second lid lifted slightly, revealing a dark compartment. The marshal knew what lay inside. He hadn’t forgotten.
The marshal pressed the bottom back into place and closed the lid. He then unspooled the belt from his waist and wrapped it around the box, securing it tightly. It would come with him to Portland and he would never open it again.
* * *
Charlie arrived just before one o’clock with a horse-drawn cart and a basket of biscuits from which everyone sampled, but no one returned for seconds. They loaded up a half-dozen boxes and the saddle the marshal had refused to leave behind despite Joseph’s protests. The Wyldes didn’t have a horse, but the marshal felt that was a poor argument against owning a quality saddle.
A few neighbors stopped by to wish the marshal well, none of whom mentioned the business in the graveyard. Walter Peterson even returned the shovel and ax, which Joseph placed in the shed without comment.
An hour later, the marshal stood at the rail of theAlberta,watching Astoria fade in the distance. As the last hillside home vanished from sight, he felt a weight lift from his heart. It was as if the top button of his shirt had loosened, his belt unbuckled, and his boots kicked off—all at the same time. He felt good, relaxed, happy.
Joseph leaned on the rail next to his father-in-law.
“You’ll be back.”
The marshal shook his head. “No, I don’t think I will. But it’s all right. I should have done this a long time ago.”
Joseph smiled. “I’m glad to hear you say that.”
“So am I.”
The two men stood silently at the rail for a time, enjoying the sun on their faces, the brisk air, and the sound of the river churning in the wake of the boat.
* * *
Were you to ask any resident of Astoria about May 17, 1887, he or she would have told you it was lovely. The sun shone brightly, hinting at the drier-than-usual summer to come. The fishing was excellent, the best it’d been in weeks. The Second Bank of Astoria opened for business, founded largely on “amber” gold. In short, it was a good day to be in Astoria.
It was a good day for all but one longtime resident who suddenly felt a huge weight fall upon him without warning. This man, a fellow of barely seventeen years, had never known such a feeling, had never felt such anxiety. With it came a memory of a day long since buried in the deep recesses of his mind.
And he remembered everything.
The Port of Portland was the busiest in the Pacific Northwest, second only to San Francisco in overall West Coast water traffic. For a time, it seemed Seattle with its expansive sound and natural shipping lanes would become the region’s capital of commerce, but the discovery of vast firestone deposits in western and central Oregon had changed everything. The city’s inland location and ready access to the deep waters of the Columbia River assured the amber rush would run through Portland.
Most of Portland’s waterfront property was not on the great river proper but rather on the banks of a prime tributary, the Willamette. A tri-city vote in 1861 had folded East Portland and Albina into the city, stretching it across the Willamette and south to the Tualatin River. The friendly annexation, coupled with the surge of immigrants and fortune seekers, helped Portland quadruple its population in less than twenty years. By 1887, nearly sixty thousand souls claimed the title “Portlandian,” many of whom saw their new home for the first time from the water.
In the 1870s, the arrival of a large steamship would have been an event most residents turned out to see, but by the end of the next decade, dozens of the big steamers were arriving every week. Smaller, passenger stern- and paddlewheel steamers coming from all points on the Columbia docked at the waterfront by the hour. The metropolitan harbor could accommodate a dozen riverboats and on many days its berths were filled to capacity with eager souls searching for a new life in the Northwest.
The irony was that passengers usually found it drier while on the water. The downtown streets regularly flooded during the spring thaw and when not swamped offered only muddy passage around the larger puddles. The steam-powered streetcars that were supposed to alleviate the public’s transportation woes ground to a halt when the water reached its normal April levels and sometimes stayed stuck in the mud until June. Newer construction—of which there was plenty—required raised sidewalks by city ordinance, although whether a few feet of dry would be helpful was hotly debated among longtime residents. In truth, the locals liked it wet. Most owned small dories or canoes for the wettest days and had little trouble navigating the raised scaffolding and planks that stretched across the streets like so many makeshift bridges. It was said that all one needed to survive the spring in Portland was a raincoat and a good sense of balance.
Kate Wylde was more than capable of traversing the slender downtown walkways, though on this morning her feet had actually touched ground on more than one occasion. Three days of sunshine and moderate temperatures had forced the floodwaters to recede slightly, which was not welcome news to those counting on the rain to keep the city floating through the annual Portland Rain Festival. Muddy roads and sunny skies were not welcome on a schedule of events that included cloud spotting and canoe races. For her part, Kate was not displeased by the appearance of the sun, but a strong sense of civic pride meant she hoped to see the rain return, perhaps tomorrow or the day after that.
The ten years that Kate had lived in Portland had been the happiest of her life. She’d raised her family here, and thus the twins had never known life outside the city. That was fine with Kate. She’d lived through the harsh winters of the back country and seen her mother make do without so much as a whisper of complaint, but it was not for her. Kate was a city girl, had been since the moment she and Joseph had arrived in Portland and discovered its public schools, electrified streetlights, and local sewer lines.
Kate had watched the city grow right along with her family, its buildings multiplying each year, always getting bigger and taller. Eighteen eighty-seven had seen the opening of the Morrison Bridge, the first to cross the Willamette River, and work had already begun on a second crossing, this one made of steel. The medical college had opened the preceding fall, and that summer a public zoo would open in Washington Park, just up the hill from the house the Wyldes called home. At last count, the city had fifteen theaters, two opera houses, three department stores, a dozen hotels, and a baseball team.
Kate paused at the corner of Alder Street and Third Avenue. This close to the river, the road remained completely under water, but the expansion of the docks had brought one of the wooden piers two blocks into downtown, where it split and connected with two larger raised walkways that ran the length of Second Avenue. More than a dozen small skiffs were tied to the posts nearest the ramp, as was a single horse who seemed none too happy to be standing in three feet of water. Kate made her way across the last plank and onto the extended pier.
The waterfront was crowded with travelers, merchants, locals collecting visitors, and a few of the yellow-eyed men who hung around the docks day and night. They were prospectors, or had been before they’d become too sick to dig. It wasn’t the ore but the black dust that collected around it that made the men cough and their whites turn the color of yolks. Most hung around the water, hoping to catch on with a boat heading south to warmer, drier climes, but few crews would have them. Kate had never heard of the condition spreading, but few people were willing to chance sharing close quarters with the diseased.
Kate drifted among the people, letting the ebb and flow of the foot traffic give her direction. She’d made the forty-five-minute walk and wade from the house without testing herself, but now she was ready. It took only a moment and then she was gone, hidden from view, not a face in the crowd but lost in it.
Kate had vanished.
She was there, of course, invisible not to the eye but rather to the mind. Kate thought of it as stepping into a communal blind spot. The harder someone searched, the easier it was for her to stay out of sight.
Kate had developed this trick after years of teasing the one man whose eyes didn’t get in the way of his vision. Joseph had always been able to find her, no matter where or how she hid, until she’d discovered that sight wasn’t the only way of seeing. Just as Joseph had honed his other senses to replace his eyes, Kate had learned to minimize the nonvisual clues that gave her away.
The result was that Joseph had a hard time finding his wife when she didn’t want to be found. Any observer who happened to catch the show would think Kate had simply disappeared. The city, of course, offered the best of backdrops, but Kate had practiced in the wild as well. She was every bit as good hiding among the trees as she was the telegraph poles. The crowded pier made it easy.
A group of twenty people had gathered on the dock allotted to theAlberta,which was due to arrive at the top of the hour. Standing among the family and friends was Jim Gates, mayor of Portland, and a pair of advisers, one of whom Kate recognized as the deputy mayor. She liked the mayor, had supported him, but was less than eager to make herself available to his approach.
That didn’t stop her from being curious.
* * *
“You’re sure it’s this boat?” the mayor said, not bothering to look at either of the men standing next to him.
“Yes, sir,” said Avery Harris, the younger man to his left. “It’s this one, theAlberta.”
“Good, good. And both men are onboard?”
Avery hesitated, glancing at the man standing on the mayor’s right. Deputy Mayor Bart Hildebrandt frowned at his colleague.
“Yes, Mr. Mayor,” said Bart. “I personally confirmed that both Mr. Wylde and his father-in-law are onboard.”
The mayor nodded. “Excellent.”
Jim Gates considered himself a good businessman and an even better politician, but he was not a patient man. He’d won his first election by running a campaign that never slowed down long enough to give the press (or the opposition) time to find fault with his politics. He talked fast and promised a lot, which made it very hard for most listeners to recall anything but the last words out of his mouth. That’s why he always ended speeches with a joke.
Upriver, theAlbertacame into view as it made the turn just north of downtown.
“Here it comes, sir.”
“Right on schedule,” said the mayor, loudly enough for the people around him to hear. He then leaned to his right and spoke so that no one but the deputy could hear. “We’ll make a show of it with the old man, but I’ll be speaking to Mr. Wylde alone.”
“Actually, Mr. Mayor,” said a woman’s voice, “I’d like to say hello to my husband first—if that’s all right with you.”
The mayor blinked twice before realizing the disembodied voice was coming from a slender red-haired woman standing directly in front of him.
“Mrs. Wylde!” he said, effortlessly slipping into his public persona. “A pleasure to see you again. Here to greet the family, I assume.”
“As are you, it appears.”
“Er, yes,” said the mayor, only slightly disarmed. “I’ve got a bit of business to discuss with Joseph. I hope that’s all right.”
Kate smiled. “Of course,” she said, failing to add that she knew all about the mayor’s business and had spent nearly as much time as her husband coming up with a solution to the politician’s problem.
“My father made the trip, as well,” she added. “He’s going to be living with us here in Portland.”
“That’s wonderful. A man of his stature will no doubt become a respected resident of the city. I’ll make it my mission to get his endorsement.”
“I’m sure he’ll look forward to that.”
The mayor’s smile faltered slightly.
“You should ask him to take part in the festival,” Kate said, offering an olive branch.
“Oh? You think he’d be interested?”
“I’m sure he would. He’s a show-off,” she lied. “And he’s got plenty of stories to tell. He might even offer a demonstration of some of those old marshaling skills of his. He does like to shoot things.”
The mayor beamed. “Mrs. Wylde, you’ve made my day.”
TheAlbertabegan the wide turn into port at that moment, announcing its arrival with the clanging of a bell and great release of steam.
“Welcome!” exclaimed the mayor, making a broad swipe of the air with his left arm. “Welcome to Portlandtown!”
Avery waved enthusiastically at no one in particular. The deputy mayor offered a weak salute, and then remembered Mrs. Wylde. He turned, ready to explain away his halfhearted gesture, only to find the woman gone. He scanned the crowd but could not see her, even though she’d been standing at his side only a moment before.
* * *
Maddie leaned forward, squinting at the crowded pier below. Kick climbed onto the rail next to her and stretched even farther out.
“Do you see her?” he asked.
They’d played this game with their mother on numerous occasions, usually downtown, where the crowds made for more of a challenge. They were good at finding her, or thought they were. Kate would never admit that most of the twins’ successes were the result of her deliberate mistakes, but when she’d wanted to win, she had. Joseph was the only person who could find her at the top of her game, and even then he wasn’t always on target.
Joseph stepped up to the rail next to the twins.
“See her yet?”
“No,” said Kick. “She’s dug in good.”
Joseph turned to the city and opened his senses. Portland poured over him, offering a wave of sensory input. Joseph filtered out the noise—the voices, the laughter, the working city, and water flowing in a hundred different directions in and around the flooded streets. Gradually, he focused on the people closest to theAlberta. There were nineteen, maybe twenty souls waiting to greet family, friends, and neighbors. Joseph recognized a few of those present and noted that Kate wasn’t the only person waiting for him. The mayor was among the crowd, no doubt looking for an update on the matter he’d asked Joseph to look into a week earlier. He had an assistant with him and the deputy mayor.
That was interesting.
Joseph delved further, letting the sounds of downtown drop away. The air, usually a fragrant mixture of rain, mud, and beer, was surprisingly dry. A few days of sun had given the floodwaters a funk that would turn rancid if they didn’t recede soon.
It was there among the local fragrances that Joseph found her—lilac.
Kate was very fond of lilacs and kept a box of dried flowers in the bedroom. To maintain the natural perfume, she opened it only when in a certain mood. Joseph was quite fond of these moods and as such had developed a hair-trigger sensory response to lilac. He could smell flowers in bloom more than a mile away.
Kate must have been crushing a few petals in her hand, letting the flower’s scent mingle with the local aroma. She was teasing Joseph and he loved it.
“Come on,” he said, turning away from the rail. “Let’s go find your grandfather.”
“You found her?” Kick said, closing his eyes and sniffing the air, trying desperately to follow his father’s lead.
“You’re not going to find her, Kick,” said Joseph. “Not today.”
Kick jumped off the rail and made for the stairwell ahead of Joseph. Maddie followed, lingering for a moment at the top of the steps.
“Lilacs,” she said and bounced down the stairs after her brother.
* * *
The marshal was already jawing at a porter by the time the kids and Joseph caught up to him on the pier.
“Son, I don’t want to have to tell you twice. The goods with the saddle, there’s a small box…”
“Don’t worry, Marshal,” Joseph said, releasing the porter with a nod. “I’ve taken care of everything.”
The marshal frowned. After a pleasant start to the voyage, the marshal’s mood had soured, and he’d spent most of the journey upriver sitting alone. Twice he’d demanded to inspect his things, and was talked out of a third only after Joseph told him to leave it be. Joseph wanted very much to avoid further confrontation and was glad to feel Kate’s presence behind her father.
The marshal turned to his daughter, who gave him a hug before he could say a word.
“How was the journey?”
“Too sunny,” the marshal said. “Spent most of the trip looking for shade.”
“I’m sure it’ll start raining again soon. It always does.”
Kate slipped around the marshal to her husband. “And how was your trip?” Before Joseph could answer, Kate kissed him on the cheek, her lips lingering next to his before she pulled away. The scent of lilacs was overpowering.
“Fine,” Joseph said.
Kate knew every practiced expression at Joseph’s disposal and was pleased to see a look of genuine befuddlement on his face. She’d managed to greet her father without starting an argument and to remind her husband of exactly how much he loved her. That left only the twins.
“Hello, Kick,” she said, as the boy materialized by her side.
“I almost found you.”
“I was very close,” Kick said, grasping his mother’s left hand. “I think the sun got in my eyes.”
“The sun set ten minutes ago,” said Maddie, taking her mother’s other hand.
“That’s true,” said Kate. “But I believe it was still visible above the hill when the boat came in.”
“It was!” said Kick. “Ha!”
Kate gave Maddie a smile, which she returned.
Joseph would have liked to let the moment linger, but the mayor was practically coughing up a lung, trying to make his presence known.
“Ah, Joseph! I was hoping to run into you today. Back from the coast, are you?”
“Yes, that’s right. Good to see you. And may I introduce my father-in-law, James Kleberg.”
“Jim Gates,” the mayor said, vigorously shaking the marshal’s hand. “Marshal Kleberg, it is an honor to be in your presence. Welcome to Portlandtown.”
“So says the city charter. Fallen out of fashion, I’m afraid. Apparently, local sign makers can’t be bothered with so many letters!”
“I do hope you’ll find our fair city to your liking. It’s not as rough and tumble as you’re used to, but we do have our fair share of skullduggery now and again.”
“I’m retired. Don’t see too many skulls these days.”
Joseph felt Kate’s grip tighten slightly on his hand.
“Of course not!” said the mayor. “But certainly you saw your share of action as a United States marshal, am I right?”
“Come now, Marshal Kleberg, there’s no need to be modest. You’re a hero of the West. Without men like yourself—and Joseph, of course—we’d never have had the will to build this beautiful city.”
The marshal didn’t blush, but Joseph sensed his discomfort.
“I appreciate the kind words, but that was a long time ago,” said the marshal. “Don’t think this city needs my help, ’cept maybe to lay a few sandbags.”
“Yes, you’ve caught us with our boots wet,” said the mayor. “But things are drying out—too soon, if you ask me.”
“Well, it’s all this sun! I’m afraid it’s going to upend our plans for the festival next week.”
“It’s the Rain Festival,” said Kate. “I told you about that, remember?”
The marshal nodded a little too quickly.
“Oh, it’s great fun,” said the mayor. “Folks come from miles around just to stand out in the Oregon rain.”
“Waist-deep by the looks of it,” said the marshal. Kick laughed, earning a smile from his grandfather.
“One can only hope,” said the mayor, not at all sarcastically. “Of course, we also like to showcase other things that elevate our state, including our citizens. I daresay a notable figure such as you would make a fine addition to the celebration. Folks always enjoy meeting their historical heroes.”
The marshal shot a look at Joseph. “Do they, now?”
“Absolutely! Your mere presence would be enough to draw a crowd, but perhaps you could also offer a demonstration of that legendary marksmanship.”
A gunshot rang out in the marshal’s memory, the last he’d ever taken. It was gone by the time he found his voice again.
“It’s been a long time,” he said. “Doubt I could hit the river from the backside of that boat.”
“Then share a few tales of adventure. I know of at least one story that would keep any audience riveted, especially a firsthand account.”
Kate took her father’s arm. “It might be fun, Dad.”
Joseph felt the marshal look to him for help, and for a moment he wasn’t sure what to offer. He could have found an excuse, something to keep the marshal occupied through the festival, but in the end he didn’t have to.
“All right, I’ll do it.”
“Excellent!” said the mayor, once again shaking the marshal’s hand. “Avery will fill you in on the details.” The mayor deftly passed off the marshal to his assistant and turned his attention to Joseph. “A moment, Joseph, if I might.”
The mayor walked Joseph down the pier, his deputy trailing at a discreet distance.
“I’m surprised you found the time to retrieve your father-in-law. I can only assume that means our business is well undertaken.”
“Nearly completed, sir. I only have to confirm my suspicions, which shouldn’t take more than a day.”
“You found the culprit so quickly?”
Joseph nodded. “Send a man around to the bookstore on Thursday and I’ll have your answer. Send someone you trust.”
“I’ll send Bart,” said the mayor, motioning to his deputy.
Joseph knew the deputy was listening and was impressed that the man didn’t flinch at the mention of his name.
“You’ve really got this figured out in a week’s time?”
“I’m afraid you’re not as popular as you think. It was a close election.”
“And the next one is going to be even closer, which is why I need this resolved. Perhaps you should just give me a name right now.”
“Thursday. And, now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to attend to my newly extended family.”
Joseph strode up the pier, leaving the mayor and his deputy to wonder how much he’d actually discovered.
* * *
Twenty minutes later, Joseph found himself floating up Yamhill Street on a small flat-bottomed skiff loaded with the marshal’s belongings. The waters had receded slightly since he’d left on his errand, although not enough to make the business district passable to anything with wheels. The boat would carry them as far as Sixth Street, where a cart would be waiting to take them the rest of the way home.
A young Chinese man deftly maneuvered the vessel through the waterlogged streets using a long wooden pole. There were dozens of similar craft spread about the city, each under the command of a similarly skilled Celestial boatman. The local Chinese population kept mostly to itself, rarely venturing out of the Second Avenue neighborhood that had become the nation’s second-largest Chinatown. But when the streets filled with water each spring, it was Chinese boats that offered the fastest (and cheapest) transport across the city. Not surprisingly, the Rain Festival’s annual regatta had been won by a Chinese national four years running.
The young man directed the craft around another water taxi heading in the opposite direction and then steered back into the center of the canal. Joseph scanned ahead and caught a glimpse of Kick darting across a raised scaffold stretched over the next intersection. He stopped in the center of the slender plank and waved at his father. Joseph waved back. Kick raced on, followed closely by Kate and Maddie.
“I thought you were a bookseller,” said the marshal.
Joseph turned to the marshal, who sat leaning against the saddle he’d refused to leave in Astoria. He hadn’t said a word since leaving the pier.
“I am. Store’s just around the corner, in fact.” Joseph craned his neck. “I think you can see it if you look, just past the smoke shop. There’s the sign, see? ‘Booksellers and Navigation.’”
“Maps and such.”
“Oh,” said the marshal. “That what the mayor was after? He lost or something?”
Joseph smiled. “Not exactly.”
The marshal stared at Joseph, waiting for more. Joseph considered the boatman’s presence before continuing, ultimately deeming the man an unlikely spy.
“The mayor has a problem and I agreed to help.”
“What kind of problem?”
“The kind that doesn’t want to be addressed in public.”
The marshal’s brow furrowed. “He a crook?”
“No,” Joseph said, suppressing a grin. “I wouldn’t work for the man if I thought he was flaunting the law. It’s simply a delicate situation, something that requires a certain amount of flexibility that local law enforcement can’t provide.”
“What?” said the marshal, leaning a little farther back against his saddle. “Like the Pinkertons?”
“Definitely not. Those men are too up front with their tactics. We offer a more discreet investigation.”
The marshal’s attention refocused on Joseph. “‘We’?”
Joseph smiled. “You know as well as I that Kate is more than capable of handling herself.”
“Yes, Marshal, I believe you do. Besides, we’re not exactly going after hardened criminals. Most of what we do is simply to help folks uncover the truth.”
It was the marshal’s turn to smile. “It’s been my experience that gettin’ the truth outta someone is a lot harder than chasin’ some half-wit road agent.”
Joseph laughed. “Can’t say as I disagree, but that’s what makes a service like ours particularly valuable.”
The marshal nodded. “I’m guessing you don’t advertise in the local paper.”
“Word of mouth, mostly.”
“So, how do you spread the word if all your clients want to keep their secrets?”
Joseph considered this. In the past five years he and Kate had done perhaps three dozen jobs for various residents of the city, most connected by family, friends, or local politics. A few clients had arrived without a reference, but Joseph assumed they were simply being discreet.
“We rely on a certain amount of shared information among our clients,” he offered. “We’re not trying to hide. The folks we help are free to discuss what we’ve done.”
“You trust ’em?”
“I think you’ve dealt with too many criminals in your time, Marshal.” Joseph braced himself as the boat came to a stop in the shallows of the Sixth Avenue intersection. “Most people are trustworthy. The ones that aren’t are easy to spot.”
The marshal got to his feet and stepped out of the boat into six inches of water. Kate and the twins were already there, sitting on the edge of the buckboard cart. The marshal turned back to Joseph.
“You might think you can see ’em, the bad ones, but they’re not always so obvious. Sometimes they look pretty good.”
Joseph remembered a much younger man, a man with no scars about his eyes, no family, and no fears save for those that came with running from the law every day and night. What did he look like? Did he look like a bad man or just a man?
It was a question Joseph had long since answered, but one that someone, somewhere, asked every day.
Henry Macke was having a bad day.
He was tired and his head hurt. Bad dreams had once again forced him to rise before the sun rather than suffer another minute lying in bed afraid to close his eyes. The nightmares didn’t make a lick of sense, but Henry was certain he knew what they meant.
The dead man was his responsibility.
The reason why he’d suddenly recalled every detail of the Hanged Man’s demise bothered Henry more than the memory itself. Everyone knew the story—half the town of Astoria had witnessed the bloody shootout on Second Street, if local accounts were to be trusted—but Henry knew more. He knew what had happened after the smoke cleared. He’d seen the confrontation and the last shot fired. He knew the body was buried on the hill without a marker, and he knew exactly where to find it.
Five times he’d caught himself climbing the hill with no recollection of starting the journey. On two of those trips he’d been carrying a shovel. Was he supposed to watch over the body? Bury it deeper? Move it? None of these seemed like good options to Henry, who in his seventeen years of living in the same small town had visited the cemetery only once that he could recall. He doubted that paying his respects with a shovel would go over well with the caretaker, especially given recent events.
If Henry had been less preoccupied, he might have found it intriguing that a major player in the Hanged Man’s death had been caught digging in the very ground that now demanded so much of his attention. The old marshal’s nocturnal adventures were still a subject of local interest, but Henry heard little of it. He was concerned only with the dead man buried on the hill. The body was his responsibility and he would take care of it.
Plus, his head hurt, he was tired, and a man with a gun was threatening to shoot him. Henry was definitely having a bad day.
* * *
“Give me the cash, friend, or we’ll be repainting the walls bloodred,” said the tall man with uneven sideburns.
Henry suspected that the man, whom he recognized as a semilocal scofflaw named Bill Mason, meant every word, except perhaps for the part about being a friend. It was Henry’s dumb luck he’d come to work early. He wasn’t supposed to be at the store before noon, but here he was, having barely finished his breakfast, held at gunpoint. There were actually three men with guns, but only Mason’s was pointed at Henry. One was enough.
“That’s all right, Henry,” said Asa Langdon, trying his darnedest to sound calm. “Give him what he wants.”
Henry glanced at his boss. Asa owned three of the storefronts along Main Street—Asa’s Fine Tailoring, Asa’s Hardware, and Asa’s General Mercantile. The later was where he spent a good portion of the day, greeting neighbors, gossiping, and touting the merits of his latest merchandise. It was Asa who three years earlier had given Henry a job after his father died, leaving little behind but debt. Henry had always been grateful and, until three days ago, would have called the man a friend, possibly even a father of sorts.
Today, he didn’t want to hear from Asa Langdon.
Henry looked in the till. It didn’t take long to add up the contents.
“Three dollars and thirty-seven cents,” he said, scooping the cash out of the drawer and handing it to the man with the gun. “That’s all we’ve got.”
Mason looked at the meager offering in Henry’s hand and then slapped it away, scattering the coins across the store’s wooden floor.
“Where’s the rest of it!” he barked, aiming his gun at Henry’s face to underscore his displeasure.
Henry backed up slightly, not out of fear but concern that the agitated outlaw might accidently fire his weapon, thus making it impossible for him to take care of the body on the hill. Henry found this line of thinking odd.
“That’s all there is,” said Asa, taking a step toward Mason.
Mason swung his gun toward the owner. “Don’t lie to me, old man. I know there’s a safe—there’s always a safe.”
“No, there isn’t,” said Henry. “At the end of the day he takes the cash down the street to the bank—’cept on Fridays. That’s when he heads down to Dillard’s lookin’ to get drunk and buy a couple whores.” Henry saw the surprise on Asa’s face, and discovered he didn’t care.
“I didn’t ask for no damn biography,” said Mason. “I want the money.”
“Try the bank,” said Henry.
“Bank is closed,” said Hugh Dryer, the shorter of the two other robbers. “Both of ’em.”
Henry didn’t even try to hide the smile.
“That’s it then, there’s no money,” said Asa. “Why don’t you take some merchandise and be on your way. Those silver buckles are worth twenty bucks each. Have ’em all.”
The third man, Hugh’s younger brother Charlie, stuffed his gun into its holster and leaned over the glass case to examine the contents. “Hey, these look pretty nice. Got to be ten, twelve here. At twenty apiece that ain’t bad.”
“You think?” said Mason. “I bet he marks them up to twenty, but buys them for … what?” Mason looked from Asa to Henry. “Three dollars each?”
“Two,” said Henry.
“Dammit, Henry, shut up!”
Mason laughed. “No, friend, keep talkin’. There must be something in this store worth stealing.”
Henry scanned the room. Two freestanding shelves took up the center of the store, stocked on both sides with merchandise, mostly housewares. The walls on three sides held floor-to-ceiling shelves that contained dry goods, assorted liquids, and other daily necessities. A display case running the length of the store on one side was filled with the more valuable merchandise, but Henry doubted that much under the glass was worth more than ten dollars.
“That pocket watch is worth maybe fifteen. I wouldn’t give a spit for the rest of the crap on hand,” Henry said, looking directly at Asa. Nothing in his gaze suggested he was sorry for his assessment.
Mason laughed louder. “I like you,” he said, letting the gun dip momentarily before bringing it back up to Henry’s face. “Unless you’re lying to me. You sure there ain’t one piece of merchandise in this whole damn store worth a spit? Not one thing of value?”
Henry hesitated. A thought occurred to him—not just a thought but an idea, perhaps even an answer to the problem he wasn’t sure he had. Before he could think better of it, he opened his mouth.
“Not in this store.”
Mason cocked his head. He lowered the gun all the way this time and circled the counter to stand next to Henry.
“But you know where there is something of value.”
“Well, friend,” Mason said, sounding a little more like he meant it. “Do tell.”
Henry looked at Mason. Without the gun between them, the man seemed much less threatening.
“I know where the body is buried.”
These were not the words Mason had expected to hear. “What body?”
“His,” Henry said, pointing to a framed newspaper clipping on the wall. The headline at the top of theAstoria Telegramfrom May 17, 1876, read:MASSACRE ON SECOND STREET: HANGED MAN SHOT DEAD!Beneath the headline was a photo of a broad-shouldered man slumped against a wall, his head tilted to one side. The image was dark, but good enough to make out the scar around the dead man’s neck.
“I know where the Hanged Man is buried,” Henry said.
Mason looked at Henry, but said nothing. He stepped around the counter, once more lining up in front of the younger man, but still he said nothing. It was Charlie who finally broke the silence.
“Who did they hang?”
“They didn’t hang nobody,” Mason said. “He’s talking abouttheHanged Man, the vilest, meanest, blackest heart ever to beat on God’s great land … or so they say.”
“That’s right,” said Henry. “And he was killed right here in Astoria, laid to rest by a single man.”
“I heard it was a hundred,” said Mason.
“You heard wrong.”
Mason watched Henry closely, looking for a sign he was lying. Henry didn’t give away a thing.
“Henry, I don’t know what you think you’re doing, but you’re wrong,” Asa said. “They burned the body. Burned it rather than let that evil take root.”
“They didn’t burn the body,” said Henry. “I was there, I saw what happened. The Hanged Man was buried on top of the hill beneath six feet of Oregon mud and he’s still there today.”
Mason, having decided against shooting anyone, holstered his gun. He kept all other options on the table. “What do I want with a dead man?”
“The last shot, the shot that finally killed him, was fired from his own gun,” Henry said. “They buried him with it.”
“I find that hard to believe.”
“It’s true. I saw Marshal Kleberg fire it a dozen times into the corpse and then throw it into the box.”
“You saw him fire it?”
Henry nodded. “A dozen times.”
Mason let his hand fall on the butt of his gun as he turned the story over in his head.
“Mason, we best get movin’ on,” Hugh said. “I don’t like standing around with my gun drawn any longer than I have to.”
“Tie him up,” Mason said, pointing to Asa. He turned to Henry. “We’ll be needing directions.”
“No,” Henry said. “I’m coming with you.”
“I don’t think so.”
“You want the location, you gotta take me with you. I’m sick of this place, this life. I want to dig that bastard up and let whatever evil is left on him seep back into this town until it rots.”
Mason looked at Henry, wondering if he might be seeing him for the first time. As it turned out, Mason was a very good judge of character, and as such pegged Henry as an angry young man in need of direction, purpose, and possibly a surrogate father. Mason wouldn’t offer any of those things, but he liked the idea of having another member of the gang to boss around.
“This store sell shovels?”
* * *
“It never misses,” said Hugh, raising his pistol and mock firing at nothing in particular. “That’s what Pa told us. You point and it don’t never miss the target.”
“That’s not right,” said Charlie. “Pa said it just killed folks—that every bullet went straight into your heart.”
“Which means it never misses, ya idiot.”
Charlie considered this. “What if you point it at the ground?”
“Then you’d hit the ground.”
“But what if you was wantin’ to kill a man and you fired in the opposite direction?”
Hugh sighed. “I guess the bullet would bounce off a tree or something.”
Charlie was not convinced. He again raised his gun, this time lining up a nearby fir tree in his sights. He hesitated, then pulled back the hammer.
“Fire that and you won’t need a ricochet to do the job,” said Mason. “I’ll put a bullet in you myself.”
Charlie holstered the pistol. “I wasn’t going to shoot.”
Henry watched the exchange from the bottom of a hole he’d already spent more than an hour digging. The grave was not in the cemetery proper but well outside its border on the south side of the hill. Despite the lack of a headstone or any other marker, he knew this was the right spot. His memory of the day was clear and, perhaps more telling, he could feel the dead man beneath his feet.
Henry tossed a shovelful of dirt over the side of the excavation and paused to check his progress. His efforts had thus far produced a five-foot-deep hole, several piles of wet earth, and three bodies—two women and a man whose funeral Henry had attended the preceding summer. The man’s gravestone remained unmolested and visible at the edge of the cemetery twenty yards to the north. Henry told Mason he couldn’t imagine why someone would have moved the body. He told himself the shallow depression in the ground connecting the two graves could not be what it looked like.
“It never needs reloading,” Henry said, adding a shovelful of dirt to the nearest pile. “Doesn’t matter how many times you fire, the Hanged Man’s gun never runs out of bullets. Ever.”
Charlie and Hugh looked at Henry. “You seen this?”
“I saw the Hanged Man shoot seventeen men on Second Street. I never saw him reload.”
“Coulda had more than one gun,” said Charlie.
“When the marshal went to bury the bastard, he wasn’t dead. Had thirty bullets in him, at least, but he was still twitchin’. Marshal pried the gun out of his hand and shot him in the heart. That stopped the twitchin’, but just to be sure he shot him eleven more times, the last one square in the forehead. Didn’t reload.”
Hugh and Charlie shared a look. Charlie opened his mouth to ask another question, but Mason beat him to it.
“Why didn’t you dig it up?”
Mason approached the edge of the hole. “You knew it was here all this time. Why didn’t you come get it for yourself?”
Henry stopped digging. He knew the answer, of course. Henry hadn’t gone after the gun because he’d forgotten it existed until a few days ago. Even then, it hadn’t occurred to him the gun might be worth something until another pistol was shoved in his face.
“The old marshal,” he said. “The man that killed the Hanged Man, he lives in the last house we passed on the way up. I couldn’t get to it with him watchin’ all the time.”
Mason looked over his shoulder at the cemetery. The marshal’s excavations had been repaired, but the fresh graves were obvious.
“And he’s the one that tore up them other graves?”
“Suppose he was looking for something?”
“Might’ve been. Didn’t find it.”
Mason again found himself taking a closer look at the young store clerk. For no reason he could surmise, he believed Henry. This was not like him. Bill Mason had managed a career in general mayhem specifically by not putting faith in others. It hadn’t been a spectacularly successful campaign, but he was still a free man despite the tidy sum put on his head by the Oregon Mining Company.
“Charlie, grab a shovel,” he said. “Give our new friend some help.”
Charlie felt like protesting, but didn’t. Henry had taken his position on the bottom rung of the gang and even if it was only temporary, he wanted to enjoy it as long as possible. Charlie picked up a shovel and began swiping at the nearest pile in an attempt to move some of the dirt out of the way.
“Hey!” Henry yelped, dodging a small avalanche of soil.
Charlie quickly changed tactics to stem the flow. “Sorry.”
Henry took a deep breath before removing the dirt Charlie had returned. He wasn’t tired, which was surprising given his time in the hole. He would have at least expected his shoulders to ache, but each dig and lift seemed to energize him. The soft loam removed, Henry reversed the shovel and brought it down hard on the leading edge of his excavation, striking something solid.
Henry scraped at the soil until the top of the coffin became visible. It was nothing special, just a pine box, but the wood was in remarkably good shape given the amount of time it’d been in the ground. Henry punched the top of the box several times with the sharp edge of the shovel.
“It’s pretty solid. Give me the pry bar.”
Hugh passed Henry a long iron pry bar. All three outlaws clustered around the edge of the hole, causing another avalanche of dirt. Henry hardly noticed. He jammed the slender end of the bar under the crosspiece of the lid and forced it upward. The nails squeaked in defiance but came undone easily.
It occurred to Henry that he didn’t know which end of the coffin he was opening. His hole was offset from the true grave and thus only about a third of the box was exposed. If he broke through to find feet, what would he do then? Grab the dead man around the ankles and pull? Henry drove the crowbar between the slats and mentally crossed his fingers.
The center slat snapped and Henry pulled it back, revealing two rows of yellow teeth.
“Jesus,” whispered Hugh.
Henry broke off the remainder of the slat and, for the first time since finding the coffin, stopped trying to get into it.
The Hanged Man’s lips had curled back to a lifeless grin, but he was otherwise more alive than any dead man ought to be. Thick strands of straw-colored hair fell across an unusually long face, partially obscuring eyes that might open at any moment. Cheeks, while pale and weathered, were not the brittle mask of a decade-old corpse. There was meat between skin and bone, and it was just as fresh as the day he died.
Mason unfolded the newspaper clipping he’d brought from the store. The resemblance was striking.
“Looks like our man.”
Henry didn’t need to see the picture. He reached out to touch the face he’d seen in his dreams.
Hugh leaned into the hole to take a closer look. “When did you say this fella died?”
“Eleven years ago last Tuesday.”
“How come he ain’t a pile of bones?” asked Charlie.
Henry shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said, unsure if that was the truth.
“Cursed,” said Mason. “Like his gun.”
“You sure it’s him?” Hugh said. “Not just a body like them others we found?”
Henry pushed aside a matted shock of hair to reveal a small black hole in the dead man’s forehead.
“Show me his neck,” said Mason.
Henry used the crowbar to loosen more of the boards, breaking them off where the box disappeared into the earth. The Hanged Man’s head and upper body were now in full view. A tattered leather coat stretched across broad shoulders that filled the coffin side to side. Henry pulled open the collar and undid the top button of an undershirt that had once been white but was now bloodstained for eternity. He spread the fabric wide to reveal a deep rope burn cut into a neck still defined by muscle and tendon.
“It’s him,” Mason said. “Or another man made his name cheating death.”
For a moment, no one said a word. Henry felt an inexplicable urge to leap from the hole and run as fast as he could down the hill. He would run to the river and then jump in and swim until he made it to the other side or his lungs gave out and he drowned. For a moment, this seemed like a very good idea. Charlie reminded him of why it wasn’t.
“Where’s the gun?”
Henry blinked and then reached inside the dead man’s coat. The body was warm. Henry nearly pulled back his hand, but forced himself to feel around before abandoning the search after only a few seconds.
“I can’t reach in far enough,” he offered as an excuse.
“Pull him out,” said Mason.
Henry looked at Mason. “Um, how exactly should I…”
Before Henry could finish, Mason jumped into the hole and grabbed the dead man under the armpits. He must have felt the heat coming from the body, because, for just a moment, Henry thought he would let go. Instead, Mason dug deeper and lifted the dead man to a sitting position. He ripped open the jacket to reveal an undershirt marked by numerous bloodstained holes and an empty holster riding high on the waist. Mason reached behind the body, feeling around for an unseen weapon. He came back empty-handed.
“Grab his right arm.”
Together they lifted the body from the box and into the hands of Charlie and Hugh. The brothers barely got the dead man out of the hole before dropping him to the ground.
“Jesus, he weighs a ton,” Charlie moaned. “Them others weren’t so heavy.”
Mason brushed the dirt off his clothes and climbed out of the hole. He then turned to offer Henry a hand up—except he didn’t.
“Stay there,” Mason said. Not taking his eyes off Henry, he said, “Find anything?”
Hugh looked up from the corpse. “Nice pair of boots, but no gun.”
Mason smiled at Henry. “Check the box.”
Henry got to his knees and reached into the box. There was more dirt, a handful of rocks, and nothing else. Henry ducked his head down, but there wasn’t enough light to see anything beyond the opening.
“I can’t see all the way in. Guess we dig out some more.”
“No need,” Mason said. “You climb in, feel around.”
Henry thought briefly of protesting, but didn’t. It was only an empty box. It wasn’t until Henry had twisted his body around the broken lid and was halfway into the darkness on his back that he realized what might happen to him if there was no gun.
“You stuck?” Mason asked.
“No,” Henry said. The gun was here, he told himself. It had to be. He’d seen it eleven years ago and he’d seen it in his head the past three days. Henry twisted a little more and slid his slender frame all the way into the coffin. It was tight, but he was shorter than the Hanged Man and so had some room to maneuver.
Henry felt around the space at his sides, finding more dirt and what felt like a piece of torn cloth. He reached forward and found the end of the box was close. His head was less than a foot from the wood, perhaps only six inches. The coffin seemed smaller than it had only moments before, and familiar, as if from a dream.
Henry felt something hit his feet. He raised his head as far as it would go and could just make out his boots in the light. A few clods of dirt fell into the coffin. They were already starting to bury him.
“Did you find it?”
“No—wait, just wait!”
Henry jabbed his hands above his head—nothing. He felt along the edge to the right corner (empty) and then to the left, where he touched something cold and metal. His fingers closed around the barrel of a pistol and Henry allowed himself to breathe again.
“I found it! Pull me out!”
Henry felt hands grab his ankles and he was yanked backward. When his waist reached the opening, a hand appeared into which Henry shoved the gun. A few more clumps of dirt fell into the box and then the avalanche stopped. Henry pushed forward, awkwardly twisting his body in order to fold himself back around and out of the opening. As he scraped along the bottom of the box he felt something else slide past his arm. Once free of the coffin, he got to his feet and peered over the top of the hole. He could just see Mason and Hugh examining the pistol. They appeared to be having trouble deciding on a target.
Henry ducked back down and reached into the darkness, finding what he was looking for on the first try. It was a small, leather-bound book about six inches tall. It had a strap tied around it and a worn symbol scratched into the front that appeared to be a bird. To Henry it looked like one of the crows that lived in Astoria year-round, although the neck seemed proportionally too long. Henry untied the strap and opened the book to the first page.
Henry felt safe. He was suddenly free of the fear and worry that had plagued him, from both his reclaimed memories and the uncertainty of the present situation. Warmth flowed through him, filling him with a vitality that was both new and familiar at the same time. This was the feeling that had sustained him throughout the dig, perhaps even pushed him into action.
Henry focused on the page. It was blank. He flipped to the next and found a rough circle drawn around a smaller circle filled in with black ink. Henry touched the small black spot and felt a tingle in his finger.
Henry flipped another page and found handwritten words filling every inch of space on both sides of the spread. He held the book aloft to catch more of the lantern light but found he didn’t recognize the words—not all of them. There were English words, and some he thought were French and possibly Spanish, as well as a few he didn’t recognize at all. There were more on the next spread and, of course, the next. Henry let the pages flip freely, finding the same dense collection of handwriting on every one.
It was magic.
Henry knew it, as sure as he knew he would read and reread every word in the book until he understood them all.
Henry flipped again, more slowly this time. There were notes, randomly scattered among the pages, scribbled between lines, and in the margins, in a hand different from the rest. Someone else had tried to decipher the language but had not gotten very far.
Henry would do better.
He turned back to the beginning of the book, but the loud crack of a gunshot caused him to clamp the cover shut.
Henry peered out of the hole to see Mason taking aim at a grave marker about thirty feet away. He fired, putting a second chip in the stone. He glanced at Henry, then quickly fired four more shots at his target.
Henry scrambled out of the hole, only to find that Mason had turned the pistol on him.
“What are you doing?”
“What do you think?” Mason said, thumbing back the hammer.
The hammer snapped into place, but the weapon didn’t fire. Startled, Henry took a step back, lost his footing in the loose soil, and slid back into the hole. He landed on his feet and then fell into a sitting position. Mason appeared above him, holding the pistol.
“Wrong color,” he said, holding the weapon so Henry could clearly see the dark brown handle.
“That’s not his gun,” Henry said. “That’s not what was buried with him.”
“I gathered, which is both good and bad for you. Good in that you didn’t just get shot, but bad because as soon as I reload, I’m going to be needing a reason not to try again without the target practice.”
“I saw the old man throw the gun into the grave, the red gun!”
Mason looked to his partners. Hugh shrugged. Charlie shook his head.
“I found this in the coffin,” Henry said, holding up the book. He hated the idea of giving Mason the book—of the man eventouchingit—but it was his only play.
“What is it?”
“It’s a book full of spells, I think, and other things.”
Mason finished reloading the pistol, held it for a moment, then shoved it behind his belt.
“Toss it here.”
Henry started to throw the book, hesitated, then set it on the edge of the hole at Mason’s feet. Mason kept an eye on Henry as he bent to pick it up. He flipped through the pages, stopping every so often to stare at the text.
“What language is this?”
“English. French and Spanish, too, and maybe some others.”
Mason looked at Henry and then back at the book. Hugh peered over his shoulder.
“What’s with the book?”
“Henry says it’s a magic book.”
“With curses and such?” Charlie asked.
“Spells,” said Henry. “Maybe curses, too.” Henry honestly didn’t know the difference, but he understood that the book held both. He didn’t know why.
Mason tried to read a passage but quickly gave up. He closed the book.
“You can read this?” he said, holding it up.
“Yes,” Henry said. “Enough of it.”
“Enough for what?”
“Enough to know that book is what made the Hanged Man the most dangerous son of a bitch to ever draw breath.”
Mason stared at Henry. From inside the hole, Henry’s eyes barely made it to boot level, but Mason was impressed by their intensity. The life he’d seen in the store was even more eager to live now that it had tasted the fear of death. Mason felt proud for giving the young man such an important life experience. Perhaps he would offer him more.
Mason held out a hand, which Henry grasped after a barely noticeable hesitation. Back on equal footing, Henry reached for the book before it was offered. This Mason noticed, but he still gave the man what he wanted.
“Still want to ride with us?”
“Yes,” Henry said, clutching the book tightly to his chest.
Mason grinned, put an arm around Henry, and then turned to Charlie and Hugh. “Boys, what do you say? We got room for one more?”
“You got a horse?” asked Hugh.
“I can get one.”
Hugh shrugged. “Fine by me.”
Charlie didn’t care for Mason’s sudden show of affection but doubted his opinion would matter one way or another. He smiled, more genuinely than he’d intended.
“Can you cook?”
“Then you’ll fit right in.”
“It’s settled then.” Mason gave Henry a hard slap on the back, then turned his attention to the dead man lying on the ground at their feet.
“Sorry about the gun,” Henry said.
“Don’t be,” Mason said, pulling the pistol from his belt. “It’s a nice gun. Worth more than anything back in that shop of yours.”
“Besides, we got another prize, too.”
Henry tightened his grip on the book. “Oh?”
Mason motioned to the Hanged Man.
“Got us a famous dead man,” Mason said. “That’s worth something, wouldn’t you say?”
“I don’t know, maybe,” said Henry. “But who would you sell it to?”
“ThewhoI already know,” Mason said. “It’s thehow muchI’m interested in.”
The taste of blood lingered in the creature’s mouth, metallic and bitter. This was not the sweet nectar that had sustained it so many nights past. This claret flowed from within, bringing pain and the cold realization that death would come soon.
Beneath the city, away from the men and the stinging light they worshipped, the creature should have been safe. It knew this place, every twist and turn, every sunken alcove and watery passage. From here the creature could stalk its prey, strike quickly, and retreat to feed at its leisure. Any man who dared follow would never see his precious sunshine again.
The creature hissed as the words bounced off brick and stone, crowding the dark. The name was a lie, a thief of the mind, feeble and small, but always gnawing, biting. Many times the creature had feasted on the weak, but this one—this name—would not succumb. A dozen times devoured, but still it persisted.
And now it was given voice.
“Lieutenant Jacoby, I know you are hurt.”
The African was strong. Alone in the dark sanctuary of the underground, the man was nearly the creature’s equal. But he was not alone. A demon served at his side, quick and vicious. Twice it had bitten and both times the creature could not fight back—could not even see the demon. Hurt and afraid, it had fled.
The creature longed to feed, to taste fear that was not its own and swallow it like the rest. This man must fear. All men do.
“Please, William, I only wish to help.”
Lies! Devious, delicious lies …
* * *
“Jacoby is gone!”
The voice was wet and ragged. Andre Labeau tilted his head, listening for more. He didn’t wait long.
“I swallowed him whole!”
The creature cackled, no doubt hoping to cover the pain in its voice.
Andre dimmed the lantern in his hand and whispered to the darkness beside him, “Tunnel on the left. Hurt, but still dangerous.”
A shadow passed through a sliver of light and vanished into the black. Andre followed, moving as silently through the muck as his oversize frame would allow.
It’d been an hour since they followed Lieutenant Jacoby into the foul-smelling labyrinth beneath San Francisco, ten minutes since Andre had tussled with the creature the officer had become. He’d gotten the better of the beast, a murderous fiend responsible for the deaths of five men and seven women. Andre also knew the lieutenant to be a kind and generous man, one who was horrified by the monster he had become. This was why his onetime instructor had asked Andre to do what the man could not.
William Jacoby wanted to die.
Andre had resisted, arguing against such a cure until he could witness the transformation with his own eyes. Two nights ago he had and as a result a child nearly died. Tonight he would fulfill his old friend’s wishes.
Heavy, labored breathing came to Andre from the darkness ahead. A chest full of broken ribs might be enough to end the creature, but he would not allow the man trapped inside to suffer such an agonizing death. Andre believed Lieutenant Jacoby to be still alive, buried beneath the rage of his darker half. Each time he succumbed, his mind grew weaker. The physical transformation was traumatic, but it was madness that finally doomed the man.
“I can smell you, dark man.”
Andre stopped. The voice was close, barely ten feet ahead of him. There would be no retreat this time.
Andre brought the lantern to life, revealing the creature before him. It was shirtless, pale, and thin, its skin drawn tightly over sinewy muscle and bone. William Jacoby was not a small man, but, transformed, his features were unnaturally long, adding height and length, though not mass. Were it not for the low ceiling, the creature would have stood eight feet at least, its hands dragging on the ground.
The eyes, yellowed from the poison injected into them, protested the light, but soon found Andre. The creature smiled, revealing two rows of tall, bloodied teeth.
“Your friend is dead, voodoo man.”
Andre’s heart sank. If the creature could call upon the lieutenant’s knowledge, it had broken the man. Jacoby was gone.
“Goodbye, William,” he said, pushing his words through the mortal veil as he had been taught many years ago. The echo of his voice floated briefly in the air before abruptly vanishing with apop.Andre brought his will to the creature.
“Prepare yourself, demon.”
The creature flinched back, its eyes darting about, searching for something in the black.
“You will not see her,” Andre said, moving forward. “She is too fast for you.”
Andre lunged at the creature, driving his shoulder into a chest full of broken bones. The beast gasped in pain, but slipped free before being overcome. Andre struck again, this time with fists against the monster’s lower back, forcing it upright until its head struck the bricks embedded in the ceiling.
A wild swing knocked Andre back, giving the creature time to find its fighting stance. Rivulets of blood rolled down its cheeks as the beast turned to face the man who would surely kill it.
“All men are afraid,” it hissed.
Andre slid sideways, stalking the edge of the light.
“As are you.”
The creature lunged, but Andre was ready. He spun to his left, grabbing an outstretched arm and twisting until the creature’s shoulder dislocated. The beast howled and lashed out with its good arm, raking its claws across Andre’s neck, finally drawing the blood that propelled so much of its desire.
Overwhelmed by the scent, it couldn’t resist sliding a finger into its mouth.
“So sweet, so—”
Pain abruptly exploded across the back of the creature’s skull. It blinked back the light, trying to stay conscious, knowing the demon would come again. When it did, the creature’s right knee gave way, crippled by a foe it could not see or hear. The beast lashed out, flailing at the darkness in all directions.
“I am here.”
The creature spun to see a young woman standing before it, a tiny thing, no larger than a child. She stood perfectly still and yet it could not see her clearly. Only her eyes revealed themselves, glowing brightly in the dark, beckoning the beast forward. They would keep it safe.
The creature reached out a bony hand, only to find the vision gone, evaporated, as if it had never been there.
“Don’t leave me!” it cried before a pair of massive hands cut off what little air still flowed to the creature’s crippled lungs.
Andre drove the beast into the shallow water, pressing both knees into its back. The creature struggled violently, but Andre held fast, letting his weight drown the abomination. In thirty seconds it was over. The creature was dead.
Andre stood over the body, waiting to see if Lieutenant Jacoby would reappear. He was glad when his friend did not.
* * *
Andre emerged from the sewer to see the sun setting and a young Indian woman with long black hair waiting for him. Naira offered a hand, which completely disappeared into her partner’s when taken.
“You’re going to be late,” she said.
“Perhaps, but I would rather not arrive at the gala stinking of a bog.”
Andre peered into the darkness at his feet. He could just make out a trickle of water running at the base of the tunnel.
“You will see to William?”
Andre stood for a moment, listing to the city exhale after what must have been a very long, deep breath. It was a sound he’d become familiar with over the years, one he never tired of hearing. The healing would begin soon.
In the calm, Andre became aware of something else: a distant pounding, steady, and coming closer. It, too, was familiar, but from where Andre could not recall.
“What is it?” Naira asked.
“I am not sure. Do you not hear that?”
Andre raised a hand as the drum beat thrice more—and then it was gone. He waited, but it did not return.
“Echoes, nothing more.”
* * *
Andre splashed water onto his cheeks and opened his eyes to the mirror. Nothing had changed. He still saw the same fear staring back at him, the same truth.
The damned thing was in this world again.
Andre knew it was true. He should have suspected as much after the first wave struck him in the street, but the thought had never occurred to him. After a third pounding brought him to his knees while speaking to a group of civic leaders in the Palace Hotel’s Grand Ballroom, he had been able to think of nothing else. He must have looked a sight, because their initial reaction had been to hail one of the many doctors in attendance, thinking Andre had taken ill. He’d played along for a time, hoping a fever would rise to lay claim to his affliction, but it never came. He would not escape so easily.
Andre used a hotel washcloth to dry his face and then carefully folded and placed it on the small dressing table next to the sink. Once more he took stock of the man hunched over in the mirror. The patches of gray above his ears were nothing new, but he was sure they’d been smaller when last he checked. He tilted his head forward and was pleased to discover no discernible change in the thickness or color of the hair on top of his head. It was a small victory, but he would take it.
Standing up straight, Andre felt each vertebra snap into place as his spine realigned itself. At six feet eight inches tall, he often had to bend at the waist to clear a doorway, duck into a carriage, or descend into the flooded underground. Such height, along with a startlingly muscular frame, had proven useful in certain situations, particularly those involving conflict. After forty-eight years, forty of them above six feet, Andre had participated in few physical altercations, despite his penchant for “rilin’ up the locals,” as his mother was fond of saying. He’d walked away victorious from every one.
Andre preferred to match his less obvious but perhaps more impressive wits against anyone foolish enough to challenge him intellectually. Though he’d had no formal education—not a surprise given the color of his skin—Andre had learned to read at the age of five, a talent he used to devour every book, paper, and periodical that crossed his path. This included all subjects scientific, mathematical, historical, cultural, and mythological. That there was so much conflict to be found in the interpretation of the written word came as no surprise to Andre. Still, after four decades of bending, Andre was regularly thankful for high ceilings and low expectations.
It was his intellectual pursuits that had initially brought him to San Francisco, specifically his time spent studying and living with the Indian tribes of California, Oregon, and the Washington Territory. Andre was fascinated by the myriad of cultures and customs and had made it his mission to share his findings with a populace largely ignorant of the people he considered the original Americans. Accepting Lieutenant Jacoby’s invitation to speak on the effects of Western expansion before the U.S. Pacific Railway Commission had provided just such an opportunity. The lieutenant’s true motivations had not become clear until after Andre arrived.
The novelty of a Negro man speaking on behalf of the American Indian was not lost on Andre. He had encountered more than a few freemen living in the West who found it odd that his considerable gifts of persuasion were being put to use for a people who were not his own. Andre rejected such arguments. His cause was to educate, enlighten, and hopefully pass on something about the nature of mankind. That he chose to stand up for another race of people reinforced the fact that a dark-skinned man could be on equal footing with other scholars.
Andre’s prior pursuits, those that had dominated three-quarters of his life, rarely came up now in casual conversation.
Andre exited the washroom, ignoring the unpacked trunk beside the door. The preceding day’s edition of theSan Francisco Examinerlay on the bed, the front page dominated by the latest “sewer beast” sightings. A few pages in was an article about the expansion hearings that described a “giant redwood of a man with bark as black as night.” The story also made reference to Andre’s “eloquent and educated articulation,” as well as the nickname first bestowed upon him by Chief Joseph of the Nez Percé Indians, the Voodoo Cowboy. It was silly, but Andre rather liked it, even if it wasn’t particularly accurate.
Was it ever?Andre thought not. There wasn’t an ounce of voodoo in him and there never had been—he believed that. Unfortunately, a few more of his mother’s words chose that moment to refresh his memory:
“Go on an’ tell yo’self whatever you needs,” she’d said. “Gawd, he know inna end.”
Andre had his suspicions about God, but his mother was rarely off target. What did his intentions matter if the end result was the unleashing of so much evil? He’d wrestled with this line of thinking before and, as a result, had sacrificed much of who he’d been to make amends. On his darkest days, he knew his best efforts would never be enough. How could they?
Andre slapped his hands to his face sharply, breaking the spell before it could steal another moment. He was shocked by the strength of it, the bleakness, and how quickly it had filled him with despair. It wasn’t a true spell, not by half, but rather the memory of the thing calling to him from across a great distance. It had been so long and yet it felt as if it was in the room with him.
That would at least make the damned thing easier to find.
Andre decided to pack, regardless of how he felt. He’d barely unlatched the trunk when the door to the suite opened. Naira strode into the room and stopped in front of him. Both her wide-brimmed hat and worn leather coat were damp, though not overly so. At first glance, she looked more like a teenage boy than the twenty-one-year-old woman Andre knew her to be. He thought it might be the pants.
“Did you find passage?”
Naira nodded. “SevenA.M.,pier seventeen.”
Andre turned back to his trunk. Naira stood her ground, never taking her eyes off the much larger man.
“No trouble with the arrangements, I assume.”
Andre smiled. There wouldn’t have been any trouble, of course. In their seven years together, Naira had never failed a task he’d given her, regardless of the situation. She had a way about her that simply put folks at ease. It was her eyes. They were larger than any Andre had ever seen, and when a man looked into them, he couldn’t help but feel comfortable, trusting. It wasn’t magic but rather a kind of ocular hypnosis that Naira claimed was a common trait among her people.
Andre had long ago learned there was more to see in Naira than what her eyes revealed, but to him she’d offered the information freely. He had been decidedly slower in sharing his secrets in return.
“I am fine,” he said, folding a shirt and placing it in his trunk.
Naira sat on the edge of the bed, hands clasped in her lap. She said nothing.
“You can sit there and stare at me as long as you want, but there is nothing wrong with me.”
“Can you still feel it?”
Andre didn’t answer right away. He slid open the bottom drawer of the armoire to retrieve a pair of neatly folded shirts. When he turned back to the trunk, Naira leaned in, making her stare even more obvious.
“Yes, I can still feel it. It will not go away, not by itself.”
Naira leaned back on the bed and pulled off her hat. A wave of long, black hair rolled down her back, making it much harder to mistake her for a boy.
“I don’t like it,” she said.
“Neither do I, but would you have me ignore it?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Nor should you think it,” Andre said, flipping the trunk lid closed. “I know you were not with me then—I am thankful for that—but this is not a trivial matter.”
Andre sat on the bed next to Naira. She was beautiful, a fact he’d been keenly aware of since the day he’d found her lying unconscious in a creek bed on the north side of Mount Rainier. Now, as then, his first instinct was to take care of her, to protect her. There was love between them, but it was that of a father and daughter and nothing more.
Naira felt the same, although she might have disagreed as to who was head of the family.
“I do not know why it has resurfaced,” Andre said. “I do not know how. I was very careful to bury it deep, not only in the earth, but the mind as well. If that mind is lost, then so too should the book be.”
“But it’s not.”
Andre nodded. “Of that I am certain.”
“Has it been read?”
“I think not,” Andre said, hoping this was true. “But it will be soon enough. This is a book that wants to be read, after all. Whether or not it is understood—this is where our good fortune will live or die.”
“You speak of it as if it were alive.”
Andre lifted the trunk onto the bed. It was heavy, though not for him.
“Not alive,” he said. “But it does derive its power from the living. Without a soul to turn the page, it is but ink on paper.”
Andre could tell that Naira had more questions, but he wasn’t ready to answer them. He barely had time to process the memories that resurfaced along with feelings about the book. Trying to explain his actions, even to his friend, would be difficult. Fortunately, Naira knew enough of the story not to press Andre for more when he wasn’t ready to tell it.
Andre peered out the window.
“Is it still raining?”
“Waning,” Naira said, twisting her hair into a bun. She tucked it beneath her hat and got to her feet. “The sun will be shining by the time we leave port.”
“Then there is no reason to wait. I would prefer to be onboard before any other passengers arrive.”
Andre retrieved a worn duster from a coat rack by the door. Despite the custom cut, the jacket barely reached his knees. He snatched up his trunk and a wide-brimmed Stetson from the rack and turned to Naira.
Naira looked Andre up and down.
“You wear your fear well,” she said.
* * *
The fast steamerAño Nuevoleft San Francisco en route to Portland at 7:17A.M.on Thursday, May 19, 1887. According to the Oregon Steamship Company, which owned and operated the line out of San Francisco, the journey would take between forty-eight and fifty-six hours, depending on sailing conditions. The trip was intended to be nonstop to Portland, but soon after leaving port the captain announced the ship would make an unscheduled stop in Astoria. No reason was given.
The marshal sat on the edge of his new bed, fully dressed but not yet ready to join the family for breakfast. In his lap was the empty but suspiciously heavy, wooden box with a rose carved into the lid. The belt he’d used to secure it for the journey to Portland was once again around the old man’s waist. It was the only belt he’d brought and the marshal needed it to keep his pants from falling down. He had reminded himself of this twice already.
In the morning light, the marshal could pick out the faint orange and yellow coloring of the rose. The paint was mostly gone now, but the artistry in the carving was still apparent. The strokes were smooth and well defined, cut into the wood by hands that knew how to use a knife. Once upon a time, he’d been good at something besides chasing outlaws.
“Don’t open it,” he said, just to hear the words aloud.
The marshal hesitated, then opened the lid anyway. The box was still empty. He felt around for the sweet spot and then released the hidden pressure latch with a single deft touch. Carefully, he lifted the false lid out of the box to reveal an additional three inches of space. The compartment was separated into five sections, the largest of which took up the top half and bottom right third of the box. Four of the cells held individual items: a small, oblong flask, a U-shaped wrench, a press mold, and a two-inch bar of solid lead. Tucked tightly into the largest subdivision was an object wrapped in cloth. The shape was unmistakable.
The marshal lifted the Hanged Man’s pistol from the box and unfolded the cloth, letting it fall around his hand so as not to touch the object within. This he hadn’t forgotten.
In his thirty-plus years as a lawman, Jim Kleberg had encountered more ways to kill a man than he cared to remember, but few things did the job more definitively than a Colt Walker pistol. Designed for the Texas Rangers in 1847, the Walker was powerful enough to bring down a horse from a hundred yards. No revolver before—or since—had been forged to deliver such firepower, a fact the marshal took some comfort in. Only God should be allowed to carry so much deadly force in one hand.
The marshal tested the gun’s weight. He guessed five pounds, more than double that of a typical revolver. The length was equally absurd, with the barrel, a gleaming black tube of hardened steel, accounting for two-thirds of the almost foot-and-a-half total. The cylinder, hammer, and loading lever were scorched, rendering them nearly as black as the barrel, and even the trigger guard held little of its original brass luster.
Only the plow-shaped handle displayed any color, though undoubtedly it was not the original factory finish. According to numerous stories, the handle’s red hue was painted with the blood of the Hanged Man’s victims. The marshal thought the crimson grip was more likely the result of a few coats of cherrywood stain. Dried blood would have produced a much darker, almost brown tone.
In addition to the color, there were other modifications not mentioned in any of the legends. Some changes were practical, such as the small latch attached to the underside of the barrel’s muzzle to hold the loading lever in place. Others, like the strange symbols etched into the cylinder, served no obvious purpose, at least none the marshal could see.
“This ain’t no Colt,” he whispered, hoping the sound of his own voice would dispel the unease in his chest. “Not anymore.”
The Walker itself was a rarity. Samuel Colt had made only a few thousand, before moving on to more successful designs. The hidden compartment in the rose box had originally been built to hold the marshal’s Colt Navy, a smaller but much more practical weapon than the Walker. The marshal had used the gun for nearly twenty years, even after the cartridge revolution made cap-and-ball revolvers relics of the past. As far as the marshal was concerned, modern six-shooters, with their swing-out cylinders, speed loaders, and double-action triggers, were the chief reason why unnecessary gunplay had become so prevalent in the West. Any idiot could shoot a so-called Peacemaker, but it took a professional to properly prime, load, and fire a percussion revolver.
Despite a few newspaper reports that suggested otherwise, the marshal had only once needed to reload his weapon immediately after emptying all six chambers. That was during the altercation in Astoria, and even then he’d been supported by three dozen men. He’d had plenty of time to reload.
There had already been so much shooting that day. By the time the marshal found himself on the hill, alone (was he?) it was after midnight. He would bury the dead man—
“He wasn’t dead,” said the marshal. “Not yet. Not until…”
He shot the bastard with his gun—thisgun. That was how the weapon ended up in the marshal’s hand, how it came to be in his possession. He needed it to finish the job. There wouldn’t be time to reload, and this weapon—
“Never needs reloading.”
The marshal blinked and was shocked to find the Hanged Man’s pistol sitting comfortably in his right hand. When had he taken it from the left? Why was his finger on the trigger? The gun felt heavy, but without the cloth barrier between the weapon and his skin, it somehow felt better, right.
That was why he’d kept the gun eleven years ago. It was the right thing to do—the safe thing.It would have been too dangerous to leave such a weapon out in the open, so he had taken it, and replaced it with his own.
Why had he buried his own gun?
Before the marshal could come up with a suitable answer, he noticed that the empty cloth in his left hand wasn’t actually empty. A tiny, conical object lay in the middle of the wrap—a bullet. That made sense; there’d been only one round left in the gun after he’d fired it eleven years ago. One round was all it took.
The marshal examined the bullet more closely. There were flecks of orange crystal in the lead, most likely the result of mixing black powder with firestone, a tactic some shootists claimed produced a bigger bang. It was the marshal’s experience that mixing orange and black usually resulted in a ruptured cylinder and the loss of several fingers.
Despite the scorching on the body of the gun, there was no evidence the Hanged Man’s revolver had ever disobeyed its master.
The marshal dropped the bullet into the small compartment with the lead already in it, and then laid the cloth in the larger space. He considered setting the pistol back in the box, then decided to hold on to the Hanged Man’s weapon awhile longer.
* * *
Kate’s hand froze an inch from the bedroom door. Had she just heard a voice? She allowed herself a moment of worry before deciding that talking to himself probably wasn’t the worst thing her father could be doing. She knocked.
“Breakfast is on.”
Kate heard a few muffled noises followed by the sound of something solid hitting the floor.
Kate opened the door to see the marshal on his knees in front of his bed, holding a wooden box.
“Are you all right?”
“Yes, yes. I’m fine.”
Kate went to her father to help him up. She reached for his hand but got only an elbow. The marshal kept both hands on the box.
“I just dropped this. Clumsy is all.”
Kate looked at the box. She recognized it immediately.
“I didn’t know you still had that.”
Kate ran a hand across the surface of the box, suddenly recalling a time when she was eight years old and wanted nothing more than to play in her mother’s room.
“I was going to surprise you,” the marshal said.
Kate let her hand linger a little too long near the lip of the box. She was about to open it when the marshal took a step back.
“I thought I’d give it a new coat of paint.”
“Oh. All right.”
Kate considered asking why the marshal wanted to keep the contents of the box to himself, but bit her tongue. She’d promised not to pry any more than was necessary, and since Joseph had already gotten much more out of him than they’d expected, this was not necessary. When her father was ready to share more, he would. If he needed to keep some secrets, that was fine with Kate. For now.
Kate walked to the window and pushed the curtains open. Downtown Portland spread out below the house, its waterlogged streets gleaming in the early-morning sun.
“How do you like the view?”
“Too many buildings.”
“Well, it looks like another beautiful day. Not a cloud in the sky.”
“Your mayor will be disappointed.”
Kate laughed. “Yes, I suppose he will.”
“Odd bird, is he?”
“He’s a politician.”
Satisfied that the box was buried deep enough in the closet, the marshal turned back to his daughter.
“I’ve known my fair share of politicians. They weren’t all cheats and liars—most were, of course—but not all of ’em.”
“Jim Gates isn’t a bad man.”
“Doesn’t have to be. Might be the guy standing next to him is dirty, or the fella behind him. Don’t usually have to dig too far to find someone wants that kind of power for the wrong reasons.”
Joseph had mentioned the marshal’s interest in their investigations, but until now her father hadn’t broached the subject with Kate. She’d spent so much time worrying about what kind of a burden he was going to be, it had never occurred to her that her father might be an asset when it came to the family business.
“If you want to know more about the investigation, just ask.”
“I’m not lookin’ to stick my nose in where it’s not welcome. I’m just saying be careful, is all.”
“I’m not stepping in front of the trolley, Dad. It’s only an investigation. And it’s done, or nearly so. Joseph’s going to finish things up this morning. You don’t need to worry about it.”
“I’m your father. The hell else am I supposed to do?”
“How about eat some breakfast?”
“I could do that.”
* * *
Breakfast was buttermilk biscuits, sausage, coffee, and a bowl of blackberries picked from a bush growing outside the kitchen window. The coffee was lukewarm but otherwise it was the best meal the marshal had eaten in months. Having slept through the morning’s offerings the day before, the marshal made a promise to himself never to do that again.
“Blackberries are sure good.”
“They grow like weeds around here,” said Kate. “And these are early this year. You’ll be sick of them in another month.”
“I doubt that.”
The marshal popped another berry into his mouth as Kate cleared his plate from the table. His was the only setting left, as the rest of the family had already eaten and gone about readying themselves for the day.
Kate finished rinsing the plate in the sink and put it on the drying rack on the counter. In addition to running water, the kitchen had a gas stove and an electric icebox, one of the first of its kind in Portland. Joseph found the technology fascinating, but had suggested such a device might not be a worthwhile investment given the temperate climate. Kate was confident that come summer, the first glass of iced lemonade that found its way into her husband’s hand would help him see the light.
Kate offered the last of the berries to the marshal, which he snatched from the bowl with violet-stained fingertips.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “There’ll be more tomorrow.”
The marshal tossed the last berry into his mouth just as Joseph came into the kitchen. He was wearing a loose-fitting brown coat with short lapels and rounded hems over a vest and trousers. All three garments were made of the same dark, checked material, which made for a clean but casual look.
The marshal stared at Joseph.
“Think your tailor forgot to cut the arms off your waistcoat, son.”
Joseph fastened the top button of the coat, leaving the others undone.
“You don’t like the style?”
“Busy, don’t you think?”
Kate grabbed her father’s berry-stained hand before it could feel the hem of Joseph’s coat. She passed him the damp cloth in her hand and then turned to admire Joseph.
“It’s a sack suit,” she said. “And it’s supposed to be more casual. Men living in Portland don’t feel the need to take themselves so seriously, thus they’re allowed to dress more comfortably.”
The marshal nodded. “It does look like a couple of burlap sacks sewn together. How much you pay for wares like that?”
“Thirty-eight dollars,” said Joseph.
The marshal coughed loudly, but Kate shot her father a look before he could say a word.
For Joseph, the silence was proof that the family dynamic was not going to change as much as they had feared.
* * *
Ten minutes later, Joseph walked out the front door of the house his neighbors had affectionately nicknamed the Pumpkin Palace. It was by no means a palace, certainly not when compared to some of the Gothic behemoths in the Portland Heights, but its steeply pitched gabled roof, decorative spindlework, and solitary location atop the southwestern slope gave it an attractive profile. The fact that it was predominantly orange with green and black trim also made it look somewhat like a giant, Victorian pumpkin.
The view from almost any spot on the property was spectacular. A covered porch ran the length of the house on two sides, framing a panorama of the entire Willamette Valley. Joseph’s “view” was just as spectacular due to the countless hours he’d spent absorbing every detail Portland and the surrounding valley had to offer. When he turned to face the city, every building, block, and back alley was at his disposal, stored as part of a mental map that constantly updated as Joseph’s senses collected new information.
Joseph breathed deeply. The air was dry and unseasonably warm. The smell of fetid water drifted on the breeze, threatening to overcome the pleasant combination of barley and hops that greeted him on most mornings, courtesy of City Brewery. If the temperature reached eighty degrees, as Joseph thought it might, downtown would become unbearable for those with an average sense of smell.
Joseph turned back to the house.
“Kick, Maddie, let’s go!”
A moment later, Kick burst through the front door and slid to a stop before his father.
“Are we taking the trolley?”
“I thought we’d rough it today,” Joseph said, motioning to a winding wooden staircase that descended 211 steps from beside their home to Montgomery Street at the bottom of the hill.
A cable railway had recently been built one ridge over in an attempt to attract more home builders to the Portland Heights. At little more than a quarter mile, the line didn’t cover much distance, but the altitude adjustment made it a worthwhile ride for those on their way up the slope.
“Can we ride it later, on the way home?”
Kick smiled and sailed down the path toward the staircase.
“Wait up,” Maddie yelled, rushing past her father.
“Thought you might want this,” Kate said, placing a black bowler hat on her husband’s head.
“Are you sure you don’t want me there?”
“It’ll be fine, Kate.”
“Another set of eyes might not hurt. No one will even know I’m about, unless there’s trouble.”
“I don’t expect any trouble.”
“And when has that ever made a difference? Remember Oregon City? If I hadn’t been with you, the situation wouldnothave turned out fine.”
“This isn’t Oregon City. This is downtown in the middle of the day.”
“Morning,” Kate corrected.
“Even better,” Joseph said. “And this is the mayor’s office, not a gang of road agents. I think I can handle a rogue civil servant, should one decide to show up.”
Kate nodded but said nothing.
“I’ll be fine,” Joseph said, and kissed his wife softly on the forehead. “Trust me.”
Kate stared at Joseph. She knew he could read the emotions on her face without seeing them, so she didn’t bother to vocalize her displeasure.
“I’ll come by later this morning,” she said finally. “To make sure you were right.”
“Bring the marshal,” Joseph said, starting down the porch steps. “I’m sure he’d like to see the store.”
Joseph hurried across the yard. He stopped to wave at the top of the staircase, then took off after the kids, who were already near the bottom.
* * *
The marshal watched Joseph descend the staircase from the second-floor window of his bedroom. He didn’t like the look of the stairs, but guessed he would be following in his son-in-law’s footsteps soon enough. Kate had mentioned something about showing him around the city, which the marshal took to mean walking. He suspected there might be some wading involved, as well. He hoped there would be no shopping for new suits.
When Joseph was out of sight, the marshal had an idea to check his wardrobe for suitable attire—something to placate his daughter’s need to play “dress up Dad.” He had brought most of his clothes from Astoria and thought there must be something that would look good to her eyes.
The marshal opened the closet and was shocked to see the wooden box open, its hidden compartment exposed. The main space was empty.
The marshal was not surprised to see the Hanged Man’s gun already in his hand.
The first thing Henry saw was the dead man’s journal in his hand. It was open to a slightly torn page covered with dense scribbling. He tried to read the words, but few made sense in the morning light.
Henry raised his face to the sun, trying to remember how he’d come to be standing alone in the middle of a small forest clearing. He shouldn’t be. He’d ridden out of Astoria with three men … and something else.
Had the dead man led him here?
Henry scanned the page again, sensing that the words had made sense at another time, perhaps to another person. Could that have been him? He searched for meaning in the black swirls and found nothing.
“Chicken scratches,” he said to no one.
Henry surveyed his surroundings. He was on a long, sloping hill covered by white and yellow wildflowers. He heard waves crashing behind him, suggesting the ocean was near enough that he should see it through the trees. He couldn’t, but closer inspection revealed a path worn through the flowers that ended at his feet.
Henry snapped the book closed and walked into the forest, following the trail he must have made in the night. That he couldn’t remember such misadventure suggested he’d been asleep at the time, which was troubling, but an improvement over the nightmares of earlier in the week.
The path was clear enough, though the forest itself was denser than any Henry had previously encountered. The trees grew unnaturally close, blocking more and more of the light the farther he progressed. He still heard the ocean, though it grew fainter with each step.
Shouldn’t he be moving toward it?
When the woods abruptly ended, Henry was shocked to find himself standing on the beach, ten feet from the crashing surf. He spun to see the forest’s edge a hundred feet behind him. The book was again open in his hand.
Henry stared at the page, at words just out of focus, which was how he saw footprints in the sand—his and another’s, side by side, walking from the woods to the water’s edge.
He was not alone.
Henry felt the dead man beside him but refused to turn. To look upon the man would make him real, something Henry desperately did not want to be true. A hand fell on his shoulder, and a cold whisper brought a single word:
Halfway to the trees, he saw a thin line of gray smoke rising behind a pile of driftwood. Henry stumbled into the campsite to find his companions dead, their corpses piled on top of one another beside a smoldering fire. Gnawing at the remains were three monsters Henry recognized immediately. Buried with the Hanged Man, they were now damned to follow him, feeding on the unlucky souls that crossed his path.
Only that wasn’t true. They hadn’t been buried with the man but had clawed their way to him through mud and death—had been commanded to do so. When they raised their heads in unison, the gore in their mouths hanging slack, Henry knew they would follow him, too.
He was their master, now.
* * *
“Where you been?”
Henry blinked and Mason materialized before him, looking much more alive than he had moments before.
Henry blinked once more and saw the burlap-wrapped body propped up against a log, a poorly tied noose fastened around the neck.
“Couldn’t sleep,” Henry said, tucking the book into his coat pocket. He recognized the nightmare for what it was, but saw no reason to share.
“Miss your bed, do yeh?”
“Been a while since I slept out of doors is all.”
Mason grinned. “Wait ’til it rains,” he said, and walked away, carefully stepping over the Hanged Man’s body.
Henry glanced at the dead man but refused to linger, forcing himself to look elsewhere. Just offshore, a huge, haystack-shaped rock sprouted from the Pacific, a monument he knew to be less than thirty miles south of Astoria. Henry had assumed they’d ridden a hundred miles the night before, but they weren’t even out of the county.
Was that far enough?
Henry considered his crimes: assisting in a holdup, horse thievery, grave robbing. Technically, he hadn’t participated in the holdup. If anything, he’d minimized Asa’s losses to a few shovels and one employee. The owner of the horses he’d liberated from the livery might have a legitimate complaint, but Henry thought they’d done the deed without witnesses. He’d even protested stealing the second horse until Mason made clear who would be riding in the extra saddle.
As for the body, Henry didn’t think it was a crime to dig it up if no one knew it was there.
Henry finally allowed his gaze to fall on the Hanged Man’s corpse. Twenty feet of rope kept the burlap in place, which to Henry look like a caterpillar’s cocoon. Hugh had fashioned the noose, which his brother found quite amusing. Henry had not.
Henry took a step toward the body, intending to remove the false collar, but the pain between his legs stopped him cold.
“Not used to the saddle, huh?” said Charlie.
Henry staggered to a nearby log but found little comfort in sitting.
“Just wait. Another day and you’ll be slung over the horn like your buddy there.”
“I’ll be fine,” Henry said.
Charlie frowned. “Can’t figure why he brought you along. Don’t see the worth in it.”
Henry looked at Charlie. He couldn’t remember anything he’d said or done to earn the animosity in the man’s tone.
“I’ll try to prove my worth.”
“You do that.”
Henry stared for a moment longer, then put a hand in his pocket and immediately felt the hair on the back of his neck go down. Soon the throb in his groin subsided as well.
* * *
Henry gathered his bedroll and tied it to the back of a saddle they’d stolen along with the horses. Besides the clothes he wore, Henry hadn’t brought much from Astoria. Mason had allowed him to retrieve his hat, coat, and anything else that would fit in a saddle bag, which was very little. Henry didn’t care. Standing in his room in Asa’s house, he couldn’t find a single item worth taking. The only thing that seemed important was that which he’d dug out of the ground earlier in the day. It was only on his way out of the house that he thought to pilfer one of the fat man’s rifles. The gun, which Henry had never fired and didn’t even know how to load, was now secured to the saddle beneath his bedroll.
“You know how to use that?” Mason asked, eyeing the rifle.
Mason tugged on the stock, pulling the Winchester partly from its slot.
“Hardly been used.”
“Asa wasn’t much of a shootist.”
Mason slid the rifle back into place and motioned for Henry to follow him.
“Grab a shoulder,” he said, leaning over the Hanged Man’s cocoon.
Henry grabbed a handful of burlap and together they dragged the corpse to the extra gelding. Mason then took the loose rope attached to the body’s center mass and threw it over the saddle.
“After he’s up, go around and pull him over.”
Henry hadn’t been involved in mounting the Hanged Man’s body the night before and was shocked by the weight of it. Lifting the corpse to a standing position was difficult, even for the two of them, and had it been Henry left to hold it up right he’d have crumpled to the ground. He raced around the horse, grabbed the rope, and pulled as Mason lifted. Slowly, the body rolled over the saddle until it hung freely, more or less balanced. The horse shuffled its feet, obviously not pleased at the rider forced upon him.
“Doesn’t seem too happy, does he?” Mason said, as he secured the ropes underneath the saddle. “Can’t hardly blame him. Son of a bitch is heavy for a dead man.”
“Yes,” Henry said, though he was doubtful weight had anything to do with the animal’s discomfort. “How far do we have to ride today?”
“Far enough. Why? You tired from all that late-night reading?”
“I saw you. Had your nose in that book all night. You must have some mighty good vision to see so well in the dark. You part Indian, or something?”
Henry searched his memory but found nothing to support Mason’s claim outside of his early-morning jaunt. He’d been dead tired when they’d stopped the night before, and after forcing a hunk of jerky down his throat he had gone to sleep.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“He’s right,” Charlie said. “I saw you when I got up to take a leak. Heard you, too, mumbling a bunch of nonsense words.”
“Find me a curse in there that keeps my gun loaded, and you can mutter all you want,” Mason said, as he pulled himself onto his horse.
Henry forced a smile and then climbed onto his own mount.
“You didn’t answer my question,” he said. “How far are we riding?”
“Well, that all depends on how popular the circus is in Tillamook,” Mason said, urging his horse forward.
“Garibaldi’s Traveling Wild Western Caravan, Museum and Menagerie,” said Hugh, as he directed his horse around Henry’s. “We passed ’em a week ago headin’ the other way. Said they was going to set up in Tillamook for a time.”
Henry’s horse stepped sideways as the horse trailing Hugh’s moved past, giving it as wide a birth as possible. Henry, not being the most accomplished rider, did his best to turn the animal around.
“Why do we care about some traveling circus?”
“They got a tent full of human curiosities,” Charlie said. “Freaks and such.”
Henry turned the information over in his head, finally coming to the only conclusion that made any sense. He urged his horse forward until he was alongside Mason’s.
“We’re selling him to a freak show?”
“‘Weird Wild West Prodigies and Oddities’ is what they call it,” Mason said. “Got a Fiji mermaid, couple of Borneo midgets, Siamese twins, pig with one eye—that sort of thing. Seems to me they ain’t got enough West in their Wild, so maybe the remains of a famous outlaw might fill out the quota.”
“But he’s dead.”
“Don’t matter. They got shrunken heads and Indian scalps, too. If they don’t want to display the whole body they can put the head on a pedestal and be done with it. Of course, they gotta buy the whole man. I ain’t sellin’ him by the pound.”
At the top of the hill, Mason turned his mount south, sticking to a ridge that ran along the coastline. Henry tried to keep pace.
“I would think there’d be laws against displaying the dead in such a manner.”
Mason sniffed. “Where you been livin’, kid?”
“Astoria. All my life.”
“It shows. Ever seen a hanging?”
“I seen a couple. Saw one last year, in Butte.”
“Dawson brothers,” offered Hugh.
“That’s right,” Mason said. “Got themselves caught trying to ambush a stage. Killed a little girl in the process. Gut shot. Took her three days to die. Time they got around to the hanging, they’re must have been a thousand folks showed up looking for a piece. After the hanging, the townsfolk pulled down the bodies, lit a fire, and watched the pair burn to bone. They left the blackened bodies to rot in the street for a month before someone cleaned ’em up.
“Now, this Hanged Dude here, he’s a piece of history. He’s famous, like Jesse James or old Wild Bill, maybe more so. But unlike them, this one’s an evil bastard. Nobody shed a tear over his passing or made up adventures he never had just to sell penny stories. He’s just like them fools in Butte. Folks hated him. I don’t imagine anyone will mind his remains up on display.”
“But they’ll actually want to see him? They’ll pay?”
“Hell yes. A famous name, outlaw or otherwise, still draws a crowd. Always has, always will.”
Henry tried to imagine such a display but found the idea of a public viewing repulsive.
“He doesn’t have one,” he said.
Mason eyed Henry. “Doesn’t have what?”
“A name. Not a Christian one, at least.”
Charlie frowned. “A man with no name? That’s bull. Every man has a name.”
“Apparently not,” Hugh said.
“Well, how’d he get the one he got?”
“What do you think that scar on his neck come from?” Mason said. “Figure he did that himself?”
“Pa told us he was hung twice,” Hugh said. “And he come back from the gallows both times.”
“Pa said he was rescued,” Charlie added.
“No, Charlie, what he said was ‘resurrected,’ but I wouldn’t put much stock in that, ’less you think the dead can rise from the grave.”
“I don’t, which is why I said ‘rescued.’”
Hugh gave his brother a stern look, but Charlie didn’t notice. He was waiting for Henry to jump back into the conversation. He planned to trip him up when he did.
“It was supposed to scare folks,” Henry said. “He invented it himself to make people believe he could cheat death.”
The sureness in his voice gave Charlie pause. Mason noticed it, as well.
“You don’t think the scar on his neck is proof enough he fell off the hanging tree?” Mason asked.
A memory that was not his own opened into Henry’s mind, that of a man—the Hanged Man—strung up and swaying from a gallows pole in the center of an unknown mountain town. A dozen men stood by, some holding torches that threw just enough light to illuminate the scene. A stiff wind cut through the gathering, scattering the light momentarily. When it returned, the noose was empty.
And then he was on them.
Henry removed his hand from his pocket and the sharpness of the memory faded.
“It’s proof of something,” he said. “Maybe that some folks don’t know a noose from a necktie.”
Mason laughed. Charlie saw Hugh crack a smile and felt his place in the gang slip a little further beyond his grip.
Joseph’s daily journey from the heights to the family bookstore on Alder Street included walking and streetcar riding, the amount of each dependent on the route and how well he timed his hop-ons. On a good day, the trip might take twenty minutes. Because the floods had grounded so many of the streetcars, today’s excursion would require walking, wading, jumping, precarious sidewalk balancing, and, if he was lucky, a ride up Third Avenue on the fire brigade’s floating water-cannon apparatus. His best time since the big melt: forty-eight minutes. Since he had the twins with him, Joseph figured it would take an hour to navigate Portland’s downtown waterworks.
Thus far, they’d made good time. Montgomery was clear all the way to Fifth Avenue, and the sidewalks were mostly dry from there to Third. The fire barge had already passed, however, which meant a twelve-block hike up Third Avenue, navigating two to three feet of water, semisubmerged sidewalks, and increased local congestion.
Thanks to Joseph’s unique sense of place, he was better able to navigate unpredictable downtown conditions than most locals were. In ten years of living in the city, he’d walked every street, avenue, and road on both sides of the river and knew which had the best drainage and the highest sidewalks. Half the foot traffic in his store at this time of year consisted of people looking for directions, which Joseph gave away for free.
Half a block from Third, the trio came upon an alley where the scaffolding bridging the gap between sidewalks had collapsed. Rather than search for a way around, Joseph grabbed Maddie and ferried her across the knee-deep water. Kick didn’t wait for a ride.
“I would have carried you,” Joseph said, lifting his son onto the sidewalk.
“I got my waders on,” Kick said, and proceeded to dump the liquid contents of each boot back into the flooded street. He then slipped the not-quite-knee-high waders back on without further explanation.
The twins were due to spend the day organizing a shipment of new books that had arrived earlier in the week. They’d helped more and more each year, and this summer Joseph was planning to put them to work full-time cataloging the many books, periodicals, maps, and navigation charts that had yet to be properly sorted. Joseph would have done the job himself, but even his remarkable sight had its limitations. Years of practice had trained the touch receptors on the tips of his fingers to pick up most of the subtle raised shapes created when ink was applied to paper, but the kids’ eyes could simply process the information faster.
That a store selling books would need more than a single employee to ring up the occasional sale might have come as a surprise to those in other parts of the country, but not here. Portland was a town in love with the written word. There were seven booksellers within the city limits and all of them did a brisk business. Joseph’s shop had been successful, practically from day one, and as such had always carried additional inventory to feed the voracious reading habits of the locals. Even when shipments were late, Wylde’s had new titles available, thanks to Kate’s insistence that they accept the customer’s own books in trade, rather than require currency for every purchase. The general rule was two for one, depending on the condition of the used volumes and the cost of the new text. The result was shelves overflowing with books, many of which were out of print or otherwise unavailable locally.
It was ten past nine by the time the trio reached Alder Street, just under an hour since leaving the house. Joseph was pleased.
“Lot of folks out this morning,” Maddie said.
Alder crossed Third Avenue in the heart of the downtown business district and only a few blocks from the waterfront. On every day but Sunday it was crowded with tradesmen, merchants, shoppers, and travelers. The seasonal widening of the Willamette may have slowed the pace, but with local floodwaters at an average depth of only two and a half feet, the deluge was manageable. Much of the business to be done on First and Front Streets had simply relocated a few blocks west, to where horse-drawn carts could still gain passage. Some of the storefronts on Third had actually seen an increase in sales, while others found new opportunities setting up floating markets and other waterproof enterprises.
Wylde’s, Booksellers and Navigation was two doors off the main thoroughfare, but a well-placed sign made it easily visible to anyone walking (or wading) past.
Joseph put a hand on his son’s shoulder, redirecting him away from open water.
“Kick, I want you to make it across to the store without filling up your boots, okay?”
“I wasn’t gonna dive in. There’s a boat coming.”
Joseph caught the unmistakable odor of cigars and sweat just before the small canoe bumped into the plank sidewalk.
“Good morning, Ted.”
“And to you, my young friend,” said the owner of the T. Williamson Tobacco Company. Joseph doubted Ted Williamson was more than five years older than himself, but something had aged the man beyond the forty winters he’d counted. He coughed as frequently as some of the yellow-eyed miners and smelled almost as bad, although Joseph wondered if his own heightened sense of smell was exaggerating the man’s offenses. He was certainly pleasant enough.
“Care for a lift?”
Joseph and the kids climbed into the boat for the short journey across Alder Street. Ted handed an oar each to Kick and Maddie.
“She wobbles a bit, so try to keep her on an even keel.”
The kids put both oars in the water and were in sync immediately. Ted had a moment to be impressed before a coughing jag overtook him.
“All right there, Ted?” Joseph asked.
Ted waved off the concern but continued coughing. Upon reaching the other side, he stumbled out of the boat, barely keeping himself upright. He turned to offer a hand to the kids, but both hopped onto the boardwalk before Ted had raised himself upright. Joseph exited last, tying off the boat at a lamppost between the bookstore and Ted’s tobacco shop.
“Come on,” Joseph said, resting a hand on Ted’s shoulder. “Let’s get you a glass of water.”
Ted nodded and followed Joseph into his store.
* * *
Gaining entrance to most businesses in the flooded areas required a step down from the raised sidewalk, usually over some kind of sandbag barricade. Wylde’s required a step up to the front door due to an architect who had designed the building immediately following an inundation, a fact Joseph was thankful for every spring.
Inside the shop, sixteen-foot shelves lined both sides of the main room, the highest books on each accessible only by a rolling ladder attached to a railing near the top. The main floor featured nine double-sided bookshelves spread out around three sides of a curved central counter that faced the main entrance. The floor itself was long, not wide, with the back third closed off for storage on the first floor. A wrought-iron staircase wound its way to a second-floor loft, where more books filled even more shelves.
Ted was only a few feet inside the door when Maddie approached him with a glass of water.
“Here you are, Mr. Williamson.”
Ted drank deeply, regaining a little color as he drained the glass.
“Thank you, dear. All this moisture about, but Doc Barnes says it’s the rain that keeps me right. Clears the sinuses, he says. Apparently, this dry air does nothing to assuage the phlegm in my lungs.”
“I’d wager the precipitation will return soon enough,” Joseph said.
“Plenty of snow left to melt on the mountain. If it stays warm another day or two, we’ll be freshly flooded by Monday. I might actually have to sandbag the front door.”
Ted nodded. “I already got my finer wares on high ground. Wet smokes is bad for business. Speaking of which, I best be getting open myself. Thanks for the refreshment.”
Ted turned to leave, but stopped before reaching the exit.
“Almost forgot,” he said, reaching into the leather pouch slung over his shoulder. “I have something for you.”
Ted pulled out a thick, clothbound book and passed it to Joseph.
“From my sister in Michigan. She swears it will change my life, but I’ve hardly the time for it.”
Joseph ran his fingers across the cover. The letters were cut so deeply into the binding they practically screamed at his touch.
“‘Dr. Chase’s Information for Everybody: An Invaluable Collection of Practical Recipes for Merchants, Grocers, Saloon-Keepers, Druggists, Tanners, Jewelers, Gunsmiths, Barbers, Bakers, Farmers, and Families Generally, New and Improved by the Publisher,’” Joseph read. “That’s a mouthful.”
“And that’s only the title. I tried perusing the chapter on beekeeping, but the letters were so small I could barely see past the paper after ten minutes.”
Joseph flipped the book open. A few pages in he found the index with such entries as: “Amusements for the Young”; “Gangrene, Treatment of”; “Oyster Pie”; “Rats, to Destroy”; and “Sinking at Pit of Stomach.”
“Seems a wealth of information.”
“Yours to plumb, my friend. Read it, sell it—use it as kindling, if you like. I have no use for it.”
Joseph set the book on the counter next to a short stack of other titles yet to be shelved. “Thank you, Ted.”
Ted raised his arm to wave as he exited the store.
Kick hopped onto the stool next to his father.
“Is Mr. Williamson sick?”
“I don’t know,” Joseph said. “He doesn’t seem well.”
“Might be the croup,” Maddie said from above them both. She was speaking from six rungs up the ladder on the left side of the store. “Bobby Henderson’s little sister got the croup and all she did was cough and make this funny wheezing noise.”
“I doubt Mr. Williamson has the croup.”
“‘Attending symptoms of the croup include inflammation of the windpipe, spasms of the muscles of the throat, cough, and difficult respiration,’” Kick said, reading from the latest addition to the Wylde library. “Sounds like the croup.”
“It’s not,” Joseph said. “But just in case, is there a cure I should be aware of?”
Kick studied the entry. “This says a tonic of equal parts goose oil and urine, one tablespoon every fifteen minutes.”
“That’s disgusting,” Maddie said. “I think I’d probably throw up.”
“You’re supposed to,” Kick said. “That’s how you know it’s workin’.”
Joseph closed the book in Kick’s hands. “Let’s file this one under Home Remedies and Natural Wisdom.”
Kick hopped off the stool and then passed the book to his sister.
“Ready?” he asked.
“Ready,” Maddie said, locking her arms around the closest rung.
Kick got on one side of the ladder and pushed. Even with his sister’s weight, it slid easily along the wall, rolling past most of the shelves before coming to a stop near the back of the store. Maddie climbed two more rungs and then slid the volume into place betweenBaldwin’s Best Curesand a book on tongue ailments.
The twins spent the better part of the next hour taking turns on the ladder, trying to roll to a stop nearest the shelf position of each new book their father gave them. It was a game they were very good at, and one Kate would have frowned upon had she been familiar with it. Joseph referred to it as “restocking the shelves,” so as not to alert the boss.
At a few minutes to ten, Joseph directed the kids to the storage area beneath the loft. A single lamp illuminated the windowless room jam-packed with shelves and the store’s inventory overflow. Each aisle had just enough room to stand, although some had stacks of books that blocked further progress. The storeroom was colder than the main floor, musty, and a little spooky.
“I know this isn’t as much fun as riding the ladder, but I need you to go through these boxes, pull out the new titles, and file the rest.”
“Does this mean we don’t get to hear about the mayor’s job?” Maddie asked.
They knew. Of course they knew.
Joseph shook his head. “It would be best for you to stay in here, just while I speak to the mayor’s man.”
“Because some things are private,” Kick said.
“Yes,” Joseph said, knowing the less he offered on the subject, the better.
The twins took to the boxes without complaint, leaving Joseph to return to the store. It was only after their father had closed the door that they began formulating a plan to listen in on his meeting.
* * *
Joseph had barely returned to the counter when the mayor strolled through the front door, followed by his deputy.
“Good morning, Joseph!”
“Mayor Gates, I wasn’t expecting you this morning,” Joseph said, offering his hand.
“Given the nature of this business, I felt it best to make a personal appearance, hear the news firsthand.”
“That really wasn’t necessary,” Joseph said, eyeing the deputy. “I’ve no doubt Mr. Hildebrandt would have made a full report of my findings.”
“Oh, I trust Bart implicitly. He’s been with me for nearly six years, now.”
“Nine,” said the deputy.
“That’s right. Nine years by my side. We’ve been through more elections, campaigns, and other political shenanigans than I’ve time to recount—and we’ve been through a few of those, too,” the mayor said, delighted by his own wordplay. He placed a hand on the deputy’s shoulder. “Still, I can’t have him taking on all my burdens, not alone.”
“No, I suppose not,” Joseph said.
“Now, Mr. Hildebrandt, if you wouldn’t mind.”
The deputy locked the front door and flipped the sign hanging in the window from Open to Closed.
Satisfied, the mayor turned to Joseph.
“All right, my friend, show me what you’ve got.”
* * *
Kick shifted his footing atop the makeshift stack of boxes he and Maddie had thrown together so they could see through a tiny crack near the ceiling.
“It’s the mayor and that other guy,” he said.
“I think so. The guy with the bushy eyebrows.”
“What are they saying?”
“I don’t know, I can’t … wait, Father just retrieved something from behind the counter. It’s an envelope. He’s opening it.”
Kick strained to see through the slender opening.
“Papers, I think,” he said, and then tilting his head sideways added, “and some pictures, too.”
“Pictures of what?”
* * *
Joseph handed the three wrinkled daguerreotypes to the mayor.
“Here are the three images you gave me.”
The mayor stared at the pictures. He’d seen them before, and found the emotions that had accompanied his initial viewing renewed. All three images showed the same thing: the mayor, attired in a dark frock, tie, and top hat, standing with his hands at his chest and a broad smile on his face. Aside from the overly sunny expression, it was his standard pose for any formal portrait. It wasn’t the smile, however, that had caused the mayor so much consternation, but rather the company. Young women stood on either side of the mayor, one on each arm, both sporting equally happy grins but decidedly fewer clothes. In fact, they were completely nude.
“I am still at odds with this portrait, my friend. I did not pose for it, nor would I have,” he said forcibly. “This cannot be me. Itisnot!”
“I know,” said Joseph, as he passed the mayor another photo. “Here’s a fourth image, recovered during my investigations.”
The fourth picture, crisp and clear, having never been crushed out of frustration, was identical to the others except the man in this image had no face. A white mask, possibly made of cloth, covered all of the man’s head and neck below his hat.
“What is this?”
“That’s the original.”
“I don’t understand. This is not me.”
“No, but this is,” Joseph said, handing the mayor a two-month-old clipping from thePortlandian. It was a picture made at the ceremony celebrating the opening of the Morrison Street Bridge, and featured the mayor, front and center, grinning alongside the bridge’s architect. A closer examination of the image, specifically of the mayor’s face, revealed an exact match for the expression found in the boudoir portrait.
Joseph pointed to one of the crumpled photos in the mayor’s hand.
“The only part of this image that’s real—that’s you—is the face, and it was borrowed from this image captured months ago.”
The mayor’s eyes flitted from one image to next.
“Yes, yes, I see it. I’ve the same glint in my eye. Look here, Bart, they’re the same.”
“It’s appears so,” said the deputy mayor, peering over his boss’s shoulder.
“But how is this possible, Joseph?” asked the mayor. “What do you see that I do not?”
Joseph smiled. He had, of course, never seen the pictures in question. There was nothing for him to interpret by touch in any of the daguerreotypes. He could smell the chemicals on the paper, even the sweat left over from the mayor’s furious handlings, but it wasn’t until Kate described the images to him in great detail (minus the giggles) that he understood what he was and was not seeing.
“It’s a forgery, Mayor; a composite that combines elements from two separate pictures into one. It’s seamless, but it’s a lie.”
“Remarkable,” the mayor said, genuinely impressed.
“And effective,” said Joseph. “I gather you’ve yet to convince the governor or Secretary Milson of your innocence.”
“As I’m sure was the intent. In truth, I doubt either man took offense, but both seem convinced my reelection efforts would be damaged if such an image were to become public. They suggested I pay off the blackmailer, but if it could be proven to be fraudulent I might be able to sway their opinions.”
“It’s a complicated process, one that requires a delicate manipulation of light and shadow, but one that I could demonstrate if called upon,” Joseph said, knowing it would never come to that.
The deputy mayor laid a hand on the mayor’s shoulder.
“That may be good enough for the intellectuals, Mr. Mayor, but explaining such a distinction to the general public, especially after such a sensational image has been printed in the newspaper, is another matter altogether. There’s bound to be some confusion amongst the lesser minds.”
“Do they get a vote?”
“I’m afraid so,” said Bart.
“Yes, you’re right, of course,” said the mayor, a little defeated. “Then we nip it in the bud before it comes to that, which leaves us with the man. You said you had a name.”
“I do,” said Joseph. “Seamus Greeley.”
The mayor glanced at Bart, who shook his head.
“Never heard of him,” said the mayor.
Joseph nodded. “Mr. Greeley has a small apartment on Ash Street. It was there that I found this print, along with a store of photographic chemicals and papers, but no equipment.”
“In other words, he saw you coming,” said the deputy mayor. “He’s gone?”
“In a manner of speaking.”
For the first time, Joseph gave his full attention to the deputy mayor, who was not glad to have it. Even with only one eye, Joseph’s stare could penetrate deeply into the intentions of a man, regardless of whether he was an intellectual or in possession of a lesser mind. It was meant to unnerve. At that moment, Deputy Mayor Bart Hildebrandt could attest to its success.
“I still don’t know the man,” said the mayor. “I’d hope that my blackmailer at least has a rooting interest in whether I win or lose.”
“I believe he does, Mr. Mayor,” said Joseph, “and has for at least nine years.”
* * *
Kick blinked and then looked through the slit in the wall again. Something was off in the room. The emotion of the scene he’d been watching had changed. He didn’t have the words or understanding to explain it, but he knew something was going to happen—something bad.
“Maddie, I think something is—”
“Wrong,” finished Maddie. “I feel it, too.”
Kick looked at his sister. It wasn’t the first time they’d shared each other’s intuition, but it’d never been so strong.
“What do we do?”
And that’s when the first shot rang out.
A few minutes before the mayor and his deputy walked through the front door of Wylde’s, Booksellers and Navigation, Kate stepped off the Jefferson Street trolley and onto a muddy platform just above Fifth Avenue. This was as far as the streetcar could go without risking becoming fouled in the floodwaters. A series of sodden planks half submerged in the soggy street provided passage to the sidewalk, which Kate made without a misstep.
“We’re on foot the rest of the way.”
“Good,” the marshal said, hopping from the last plank to the sidewalk.
“You’re not tired?”
“Heck no. Used to it. Astoria ain’t but one big hill.”
Kate smiled. She hoped that meant the marshal had spent some time beyond the walls of his own house. Her vision of him alone, slowing going stir crazy, had grown over the past year, culminating in its near certainty after the incident in the graveyard.“At least he got outside,”Joseph had commented. Kate was not amused.
Still, if he could keep up with her now, perhaps he’d done better on his own than she’d thought.
A few blocks on, Kate stopped at a corner behind a line of pedestrians waiting to cross a narrow, elevated walkway. A small skiff floated beneath the bridge, pushed along by a lone Chinese man. Several tightly wrapped packages were stacked in the well of the boat, guarded by a small, flat-faced dog with big eyes, straw-colored fur, and a curly tail.
“What is that?” said the marshal, eyeing the animal directly as it drifted past. The dog appraised the marshal briefly, then seemed to lose interest and turned its attention elsewhere.
“Laundry service,” Kate said.
“No, no, in the boat. That some kind of Siamese cat?”
“It’s a dog. A pug. Chinese are fond of them, although there’s a family a few blocks above us that has one, too.”
“That’s a dog?”
“Be sure to tell Maddie you saw one. She’s quite fond of them—pugs, I mean. She says their eyes are big and round, just like a person’s.”
The marshal watched the laundry boat cross the flooded street to a storefront on the other side. The dog remained seated while its master clambered over the side to deliver his packages.
“You’re sure that’s a dog.”
“Yes. Now, come on. We’ve a ways to go yet.”
Five blocks from the family store, Kate finally got up the nerve to ask the question that had been on her mind since they’d left the house.
“Would you like to help out? With the business, I mean.”
The marshal considered the offer. “I don’t know much about bookselling.”
“No, I mean with our other work, our investigations.”
The marshal said nothing. When Kate had asked the question, his mind had been elsewhere, back at the house, perhaps, in his room. It took him a moment to shake loose what he’d left behind.
“Help out with the investigations,” he repeated, more for himself than his daughter. “You want me to dig out my badge? It ain’t legal. I’m not affiliated with the U.S. Marshals, or even Clatsop County, for what it’s worth.”
“No, I don’t mean like that,” Kate said, deciding not to add that Joseph already had a badge that he’d flashed on several occasions despite its dubious legality. “It’s just you’ve got a lot of experience dealing with certain low-level elements of society. And it seems our investigations occasionally take us into situations where practical experience in this area might be a useful tool to lean on.”
The marshal took his daughter’s arm, stopping her in the middle of the sidewalk.
“Are you in trouble, Katie?”
“Sounds to me like you are,” the marshal said. “Sounds to me like you’re wantin’ someone to look over your shoulder, someone knows how to handle a weapon.”
“That’s not it at all,” Kate said, wondering if her words sounded as false to her father as they did to her own ears. “I’m just saying,” she began, but got no further.
The marshal relaxed his grip but didn’t let go of Kate’s arm.
“Most of what we do is fairly benign, boring even. But there are times, rare occasions, when I think it would be wise to have an experienced lawman on our side to help negotiate certain situations.”
“Negotiate, huh?” the marshal said, letting go of his daughter’s arm. “Sounds like a fancy way of sayin’ ‘shoot somebody.’”
“I doubt it’ll ever come to that.”
The marshal recalled the conversation with Joseph and his insistence that Kate knew how to handle herself …in certain situations.
“What’s your husband think of this idea?”
“It was his,” Kate said, which was a lie. It wasn’t Joseph’s idea—not yet, anyway.
The marshal considered the offer. There was no doubt he would take it, would run whatever kind ofnegotiationshis daughter had in mind, but he was pleased to find himself more than a little excited about the idea. It felt good. It felt right.
He would need to wear a gun.
“Course I’ll help you, Katie. Whatever you need. Just tell me when and where and I’ll back your man with whatever set of skills you fancy are best suited for the, ah, negotiations.”
“Thanks, Dad,” Kate said as she curled an arm around her father’s and pulled him back into the flow of the morning’s foot traffic.
“So, does this mean you’re expectin’ a specific conversation to commence this morning?”
“Not at all. I would say this morning’s business will be as boring as usual.”
* * *
Joseph heard the deputy mayor pull the small, two-shot pocket revolver from his coat, cock the hammer, and place the muzzle at the back of the mayor’s head, but he didn’t react, initially. He knew about the gun, of course, had since the man walked through the door, but he was still surprised the deputy had chosen to act so rashly. He wouldn’t make that mistake again.
“Bart, what is the meaning of this?” demanded the mayor.
“I’d think it obvious, Jim.”
“What? Are you in league with this Greeley?”
The deputy mayor’s eyes went wide.
“You are such a stupid man,” he said and depressed the trigger, deciding only the instant before the hammer fell to raise the angle of the weapon.
The bullet passed close enough to part the hairs on top of the mayor’s head. Joseph heard it ricochet off the spiral staircase and lodge in a book on the second-floor loft. He thought momentarily of the kids in the storeroom and then returned his attention to the mayor and his deputy. The kids were smart. They would stay out of sight.
Bart brought the handle of the pistol sharply down on the back of the mayor’s head, then repositioned it at the base of the man’s skull.
“I’m Greeley, you moron!”
The mayor cringed, stung by his deputy’s words as much as by the butt of his gun. He looked to Joseph for help, although whether more for safety or satisfaction, Joseph wasn’t sure.
“There is no Seamus Greeley,” Joseph said. “There never was. Your deputy forged him from the ether to keep me off his scent.”
Bart leaned in close to the mayor’s ear. “He’s a clever one, isn’t he? You should have put him on the payroll years ago.”
“It was a good plan, but the trail left for me to find Seamus was clumsy and more revealing than I believe he intended.”
Bart put a hand on the mayor’s shoulder and slid the gun around to his temple. He eyed Joseph.
“You’re a prideful man, aren’t you, Joseph? You couldn’t simply accuse me out in the open. It had to be face-to-face. That was foolish.”
“To each his own,” said Joseph.
The deputy mayor grinned. “And now I’m a fool.”
The gun turned from the mayor’s temple, requiring only a slight readjustment to find its new target. Joseph would have missed the motion completely had it not been for the faintest of gasps he heard coming behind him.
“Do you suppose a hole in the head would throw you off the trail?”
Joseph knew he could move out of the way of any shot fired by the deputy, but would leave the mayor vulnerable in doing so. He remained still.
“Foolish pride notwithstanding, I’m still at a loss, gentlemen,” said the mayor. “Why exactly is there a gun at my head?”
Bart stepped back, resetting the weapon low on the mayor’s skull.
“My reasons are simple enough. I don’t like you. I never have, although what man is really worthy company in an arrangement such as ours? Better to find enjoyment in the work, but I’m afraid even that has lost its appeal. Mostly, however…” The deputy mayor flinched several times and then seemed to shake it off. “Mostly I just hate the goddamn rain. I hate it. Everything’s wet here, every day, all the time. Whole wretched town is nothing but a giant mud hole ten months out of the year.”
“That’s not true,” said the mayor. “Look at today! It’s lovely, sunny, must be eighty degrees.”
“And yet we’re under three feet of water and will be for weeks! And you can’t wait for it to start raining again.”
“Well, of course, for the festival—”
“Damn the festival! Who wants to tromp around in the muck and mire, in the damp, dark cold? Nobody! Just you and your soggy followers.”
The mayor sighed. “I didn’t know you felt that way, Bart.”
Bart turned his gaze from the back of the mayor’s head. The gun remained on target.
“Maybe you should listen more carefully when you’re not the one doing the talking.”
“Fine,” said the mayor. “What do you have to say?”
* * *
Kick pushed his sister’s feet above his head and through the trapdoor that led to the loft above the storeroom. Maddie reappeared an instant later.
“Gimme your hands,” she whispered, reaching back through the small opening.
Kick stretched as far as he could, which was just enough. Maddie pulled him over the edge and soon both were beneath a table at the back of the space. The twins crept forward slowly, keeping on their hands and knees, until they reached the railing at the front edge of the loft.
The view from above didn’t change the situation—their father and the mayor were still held at gunpoint by the deputy mayor.
“What do we do?” Maddie asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Because you don’t know, or because you don’t know what’s going to happen? You can’t tell yet, right?”
Kick looked at his sister. They rarely spoke about it, but the twins’ ability to predict how a situation would unfold had become increasingly accurate. For years they’d been able to act as one, knowing instinctively what the other would do or say in almost any situation. Recently, they’d found their instincts leading them beyond their own to the actions of others. They could guess how a person might react, what he might say, even when exactly he was going to do it. They couldn’t predict the future exactly, but they could follow its path and intercept it down the line.
They rarely spoke about it, because they didn’t have to. They understood what they could do and that was enough.
“Something still seems wrong,” Kick said. “Like I can’t see everything.”
“Maybe we can’t. We’re not close enough, or something’s out of sight, or—”
Both watched the scene below, waiting for something to reveal itself, something they couldn’t see but knew was there.
* * *
“… Two days I spent, sitting on my hands, waiting for you to finish your damn meeting. Not once did you consult my opinion of the situation. Not once! And I had an opinion, of that you can be most certain.”
“Bart, I’m going cut you off there, because I’ve made an executive decision. This ends now.”
“I believe I’m in the right, here,” the mayor said, and then, in what was likely the bravest (and stupidest) thing he would ever do in his life, he turned to face his colleague directly.
Joseph was just as surprised as the deputy.
“Bart, you need to put that weapon away and see reason. This is not the way men—professional men—behave. I’ll have none of it in my administration.”
Bart stared at the man whose life he’d nearly ended minutes before. “You think you can talk your way out of this? That you can just open the great maw and spew forth a proclamation to end hostilities, is that it?”
Joseph knew the deputy had decided to pull the trigger a full minute before the shot was fired. He heard it in the man’s voice. Resentment and anger had been joined by futility, which in Joseph’s experience were never a good combination.
“I fail to see how violence will serve our current situation in any meaningful manner,” said the mayor. “You’re not thinking this through, Bart.”
Joseph retreated to the counter behind him, moving slowly so as not to attract attention. Without raising his shoulders, he found two books within reach: a first edition of Herman Melville’sMoby Dickand the latest edition of theChicago Journal of Tanning & Blackening. Melville’s was by far the thicker tome (and the more valuable), but as Joseph slid the book off the counter he wondered if it might be too heavy for the maneuver he intended to employ. It was too late to test it now.
“This is foolishness, Bart. I’ll see you removed by morning. You’ll never get a dime. I don’t care who you try to peddle this false smut to, I’ll not have it!”
“Who’s the fool now, Jim?”
Joseph bent slightly at the knees and then popped up quickly, flipping his wrist so as to launch the novel over the back of his head in a long, arcing rotation. The motion was silent and practically invisible save for the book now flipping end over end above the men’s heads. As it was, neither the mayor nor his deputy saw the book even as it fell between them at the exact moment Bart fired his weapon.
The bullet struck the book squarely, sending it slamming into the mayor, who toppled backward in front of Joseph.
A path now clear to his target, Joseph let fly with the journal, striking the deputy squarely in the face with the leading edge.
The deputy howled in pain and dropped to one knee, clutching his face. Blood began to pour from between his fingers.
Joseph grabbed the mayor’s hand and led him around the counter, between several shelves, all the way to the back of the store, where they found cover beneath a four-foot shelf filled with oversize research volumes on topics of a botanical nature.
“Are you hurt?”
“I don’t … I don’t think so,” the mayor said, only just starting to catch his breath. He still clutched the book that had saved his life tightly to his chest. Closer inspection revealed a hole in the front cover and a small raised bump in the back. The mayor flipped through the pages and was nearly to the end before a small, flattened slug slipped harmlessly into Joseph’s outstretched hand. The bullet, which had no problem cutting through most of Melville’s epic, had stopped thirteen pages shy of the end.
“Lucky I used the first edition,” Joseph said. “Thicker paper.”
The mayor nodded silently.
Joseph raised his head and listened. The mayor’s breathing was by far the loudest thing in the room, but not the only thing. The deputy remained at the front of the store, his breathing wet, but in control. Joseph’s attack would do little permanent damage, though blood continued to flow from the deputy’s nose and scalp, making it hard for him to see as he reloaded his weapon.
Not reloading,Joseph thought,checking the chambers.The deputy had another gun.
“How many weapons does he carry?”
“I assume it was the Remington that was put to my skull. He also has a small five-shot revolver, and a six-inch blade that he carries inside the left breast pocket.”
Joseph wasn’t surprised he’d missed the knife, but the second pistol bothered him. He should have caught that, but hadn’t. He’d been sloppy. Kate was going to be mad.
* * *
Maddie handed Kick a small but solid book about the rearing and harvesting of the eastern oyster. Kick tested its weight, nodded, and then turned his attention back to the scene below.
The deputy mayor stood at the counter, stooped slightly but still high enough to see the tops of most of the shelves. He held a revolver in his right hand, a bloodied handkerchief in his left. He scanned the room, looking left and right repeatedly, but never up.
Their father and the mayor were not visible directly, but a line of polished metal panels near the ceiling gave away their position at the back of the store to anyone who knew how to read the amorphous reflections.
Kick held the book up before his face, waiting. He and Maddie watched the deputy move forward around the counter, past the center table, look left and then right, and move forward again. He was halfway to the back of the store.
When he looked to his right again, Kick lofted the book into the air.
* * *
Bart was three rows from Joseph and the mayor when the book hit the ground near the front of the store. The deputy turned and fired twice, losing one bullet in the wall, the other in an explosion of pages that had been an architectural history of Florence.
Joseph clamped a hand on the mayor to keep him from crying out. He knew immediately what had happened, but found the advantage he now had—three shots, down from five—was not worth the exchange—four targets, up from two.
Kate was definitely going to be mad.
“Stay here,” Joseph whispered. “And stay silent.”
The mayor nodded.
At the front of the store, Bart checked the door once more, scanning the boardwalk as he did. A handful of pedestrians could be seen on the other side of the flooded street, but no one seemed to be paying the bookshop any extra attention. The deputy turned back to the store.
“Here I was beginning to think you’d lighted out a back exit, leaving me to stumble around until reinforcements arrived.”
Joseph slipped around a shelf on the west side of the store and listened. The deputy was against the wall on the opposite side, moving toward the back but no longer bothering to stay low. The twins were in the loft, beneath the table along the railing. Nothing gave them away, but it made sense this was where they’d be. He turned his face upward and shook his head slowly, knowing they could see him, hoping they would do as they were told.
* * *
Maddie slipped back from the edge. When her brother did not, she grabbed him by the belt and pulled.
* * *
Kick’s face slipped into the shadow just before the deputy turned his gaze upward. Bart scanned the room, taking in the entire space. There was no movement in the loft and nothing on the ground floor. Sunlight bouncing off the water outside sparkled in a series of panels that ran along the ceiling, otherwise the space was still.
That was when the deputy noticed the ladder at his side.
* * *
Joseph heard the creak of the ladder as Bart took his first tentative step and knew immediately it would take only a half-dozen more before the mayor, and possibly himself, would be visible to the deputy.
Moving quickly and staying low, Joseph slipped around the shelf and stopped behind the counter, which would provide cover from all but the top of the ladder. He would have to make sure the deputy never got that high.
Bart reached the sixth of ten steps with his back to the ladder, one hand holding firm, the other gripping his pistol. After ascending each rung, he stopped to scan the store. So far, nothing had revealed itself.
Movement caught his eye near the door. A book slid to a stop, which the deputy quickly had in his sights, but managed not to fire on.
“I’ll not be wasting any more ammunition on your inventory, Mr. Wylde.”
Bart waited, but received no reply. The deputy climbed two more rungs, steadied himself, and scanned the room. He found what he was looking for near the back of the store.
“Point of order, Mr. Wylde,” he said, using his heel to push the ladder slightly to the right. “Can you speak to terms?”
“What terms would that be, Mr. Hildebrandt?” Joseph asked, bouncing his voice off the shelf in front of him so that it echoed about the room.
“Surrender, of course. I’ve no need to sacrifice you for the sins of our common employer. In fact, I’d be perfectly happy to let you go right on living, assuming we can find a solution that leaves us both comfortably situated.”
That the deputy was lying Joseph had no doubt. What concerned him, however, was the angle he was encroaching upon, which would give him a clear shot of the mayor. The ladder had stopped moving, which suggested he’d already found it. Joseph’s options ran out. He heard the hammer draw back on the deputy’s gun and decided to give the man another target.
Joseph leaped from behind the counter and ran directly at the wall on the other side of the store.
The deputy swung his gun around, but wobbled on the ladder, forcing himself to get his footing before finding his aim.
Joseph leaped at an angle he hoped was accurate and landed squarely on the ladder opposite the one the deputy now occupied. His momentum got the ladder rolling, but a swift kick off the second shelf pushed him along faster. A gunshot tore into the row of books he’d just passed by.
The deputy panned with his target and fired again, taking a chunk out of the rung directly above Joseph’s head.
Joseph felt a dozen tiny splinters bounce off his face, a few of which stuck. Sensing his luck (and shelf space) was about to run out, he dropped off the ladder and rolled smoothly onto one knee next to the crouching mayor. Without hesitating, he grabbed the mayor and yanked him backward, once again saving the man’s life as the deputy’s bullet whizzed past his head and into the floor.
“You lucky bastard!”
The deputy drew back the hammer and fired again, knowing full well the futility of pulling the trigger on an empty chamber. A moment later he leaped from his perch onto the nearest shelf, which toppled over, sending a flood of books and the deputy sliding across the floor. He tried to stand, but found the footing untenable among the shifting materials. When his feet finally did find purchase he had just enough time to draw his knife before a book struck the side of his head. He wobbled, but didn’t go down. A second book glanced off the bridge of his nose and soon the blood was flowing again. He had enough of his wits to know the second book had come from above, but when he looked to the loft there was no one there.
“I’m right here, Mr. Hildebrandt.”
The deputy never saw the last book to hit him that day, which turned out to be an oversize collection of Canadian maps swung by Joseph at very close range. Joseph delivered the blow with such force that a section of the title remained embossed on the deputy’s forehead for some hours afterward. The more immediate result was that Deputy Mayor Bart Hildebrandt was unconscious even before he fell backward into the books.
Joseph had just enough time to let out the breath he’d been holding when he heard the front lock unlatch and the door swing open.
“Don’t know why it’s locked, it shouldn’t be unless—” was all Kate managed to say to her father before she spied the blood on the floor. A moment of panic flared and then she spied her husband standing over the unconscious man atop a pile of books in the middle of the store. Then she saw her kids.
“Hey, Mom!” Kick called from the loft railing. “Look what we did.”
Kate looked from her son to her husband.
“It’s not as bad as it looks,” Joseph said, knowing the opposite was about to be true for himself.
Kate said nothing.
The marshal, sensing his place in the family business was secure, picked up the deputy’s knife.
“Must have been quite a conversation,” he said.
* * *
An hour later, Bart Hildebrandt left the bookstore still woozy, but on his feet. His hands were locked in large black shackles, a request of the mayor so as to make it obvious to the crowd gathered outside exactly who the villain was in this situation.
Joseph thought the police escorting the soon-to-be former deputy was enough, but he chose not to say anything. He was keeping his mouth shut for the time being.
“I’m very sorry for the inconvenience, Mr. Mayor,” Kate said. “Sometimes private investigations have a way of becoming public.”
“True, but I believe I can spin an assassination attempt. All good politicians have at least one on their résumé. The trick is to make sure it’s not thelastthing.”
Kate smiled. “I understand.”
“And don’t be too hard on your man, here,” the mayor said, laying a hand on Joseph’s shoulder. “His command of the situation was top notch. Fearless. I don’t think any one of us was in mortal danger for more than ten minutes. Fifteen tops.”
Kate’s smile faltered. “Mortal danger?”
The mayor held up the book that would be featured in numerous newspapers nationwide over the coming weeks.
“My newholeyBible,” he said, poking a finger through the cover.
Kate eyed the book and then her husband. Joseph pretended not to notice.
“Now, I’m afraid it’s going to be a busy day for me, so we’ll leave the, um, settlement of our business arrangement on the table for the moment, if that’s all right.”
“At your convenience, Mr. Mayor.”
“Wonderful! Make it Saturday afternoon. I’m having a garden party for some of the early-arriving festival guests. The whole family is welcome, of course. And I might even have another job for you.”
Kate raised an eyebrow.
“Something much less dangerous, I assure you.”
Joseph nodded. “We’ll be happy to discuss it Saturday.”
“Excellent. Two sharp. Garden attire, if you please.”
The mayor left the store to the cheers of several dozen well-wishers. It was the kindest reception he’d received since taking office.
Kate watched the politician disappear into the crowd. A single tear slipped down her cheek as Joseph put an arm around her.
“It’s all right.”
“No, I’m going to kill you,” she said.
“I know,” Joseph said, pulling his wife into both arms. “But it’s all right.”
Henry bit through the nail of his left thumb, spit it to the ground, and read the same mixed-up sentence for the third time.
Into the black, dense and back, a capite
ad calcem, ab aeterno, and nothing less,
huis-clos of six pieds de profond, a
muana tucka of twelve, no more, truky,
“They’re directions,” he whispered aloud to no one. Directions for what, he wasn’t sure. Henry thought it might refer to a familiar space six feet underground, but what went in the space?
“A muana tucka of twelve, no more.”
The deeper he read—nearly forty pages so far—the denser the language became, more complicated and confusing. Henry could read the English well enough, and some of the French, but the words he took to be Spanish (which were actually Latin) were a struggle, and the gibberish—in fact, phonetically spelled African words of more than a dozen tribes—was impenetrable.
Except when it wasn’t.
“Muana tuckameans ‘young boy,’” Henry said, knowing it was true, but not how he knew it. This had happened more than once.
Henry scanned the campsite. Mason, Hugh, and Charlie were asleep in their bedrolls, having drifted off hours ago. The Hanged Man’s canvas-wrapped body was propped up against a tree stump to Henry’s right. Charlie thought it a fine joke that Henry should once again sleep next to his friend. They had, after all, both spent time in the same underground accommodations, even if Henry’s stay had been much shorter.
Henry didn’t care where the dead man lay. He was too engrossed in his reading to mind the stink of death. He’d waited until all three men were past waking before cracking open the notebook. The light from the fire had faded, but the soft glow of the remaining embers coupled with the moonlight was enough for Henry to read by. On subsequent late-night readings, Henry would find the words always became clearer as the light waned.
Despite his spotty progress, Henry had never felt more satisfied. The more he read, the more the words took hold in his mind, even if he didn’t grasp all of their meanings. And that’s not to say he didn’t understand much of it. This was a collection of spells, pure and simple. There didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to the order, although the complexity of the procedures seemed to increase with each turn of the page. Earlier entries had rarely been more than half a page in length and some were only a sentence or two. The phrase that currently bounced around in Henry’s head was part of a three-page entry, the overall intent of which Henry had yet to grasp.
There were also spells that featured notes written in a hand different from that of the original author, offering translations and in some cases alterations to the main text. The annotations were, thankfully, written in English, which helped Henry unlock the meaning of a few words repeated in other spells.
One such spell described how to control the actions of a silent man, a simpleton according to the notes, by speaking a series of phrases into the ear. Listening to his new partners’ breath in the night air, Henry wondered if “silent” meant “sleeping.” He flipped back a dozen pages to the text that suddenly seemed very clear twenty minutes after he’d read it. He scanned the words again. There were three lines, a succession of calls to the mind of a“silent man lacking intellect and purpose,”according to the note scribbled underneath.
Henry found he was looking at Charlie, repeating the words in his head to see how they felt. They felt good.
Henry slipped from beneath his blanket and strode quietly around the outside of the circle to where Charlie lay on his side, his hat crushed beneath his shoulder. Charlie’s hand was at his face, his thumb having yet to find its way home. Henry leaned close to the man and whispered in his ear.
“Hear me le silence et observez mes mots bien, ut ego iacio upon thee, is meus unus verus meledictio. Mes mots sont words, mes souhaits your own, my command vestri votum, mes per factum vestri own.”
A breath caught in Charlie’s throat and then slowly escaped through his nose. When he was breathing normally again, Henry continued.
“Rise at my voix et la suivent bien, hear this meus unus verus meledictio.”
Charlie’s breathing paused again, but this time his eyes popped wide open as well.
Henry stumbled backward but managed to right himself before hitting the ground. He dropped the book in the process and was searching for it when he realized Charlie had stood and was now watching him intently.
“I’m sorry,” Henry said, loud enough to be heard by all. Thankfully, neither of the sleeping men stirred.
Charlie said nothing.
Henry found the book and pulled it to his breast. Charlie continued to hover over him, staring, even as Henry got his feet. Charlie’s gaze followed his progress, never breaking away or blinking.
“Charlie?” Henry said, a little softer.
Charlie said nothing.
Henry checked the other men. Hugh’s snoring seemed louder but otherwise there was no change.
Henry looked directly at Charlie. The man’s eyes were locked on Henry’s, but on closer inspection they appeared not to see him, not in a way that a conscious man would. Henry waved his hand before Charlie’s face.
Before he could think better of it, Henry poked the man in the forehead with a finger.
Henry stole a glance at the book in his hand, licked his lips, and then spoke the first words that popped into his head.
“Walk into the woods.”
Without hesitation, Charlie stepped forward and would have walked through Henry had he not jumped out of the way. Twenty feet from the campsite, Charlie came to a tree that he carefully circled before returning to his original course. He stumbled a few strides later but did not fall. It barely slowed him down.
Henry stared for a moment longer, before giving chase.
“Stop,” Henry said as he caught up to Charlie.
Henry stepped in front of the man. Charlie stared straight ahead, but as Henry moved into his line of vision, his eyes seemed to find Henry’s and lock on. Henry swayed from side to side. Charlie’s glare followed the movements precisely.
“Weird,” Henry said.
Charlie blinked once.
“Can you understand what I’m saying?”
“Can you speak?”
“Yes,” Charlie said without any emotion.
Henry smiled. The momentary fear he’d felt was gone, replaced by an exhilaration he’d never known. The spell worked. He had control of Charlie.How much?
“Slap yourself in the face.”
Charlie slapped his face hard enough to make Henry flinch. Charlie blinked several times and for a moment his eyes lost their focus. Henry snapped his fingers before the man’s face.
“Right here, friend.”
Charlie’s gaze returned front and center.
“That’s better. We’re not done experimenting yet.”
Henry looked Charlie up and down. A moment of calm passed over him. It would be the last he would feel for a very long time.
“Drop your trousers,” he said, letting his amusement take charge.
Charlie undid his belt buckle and wiggled his hips until his pants fell around his boots, exposing a dingy pair of long underwear spotted with holes. Henry grinned at what he had wrought and found he wanted more of the same.
Charlie tried to stride forward but quickly became entangled in his pants and fell face-first into a large fern.
Henry laughed loudly, unable to repress his delight.
On the ground, Charlie fought with the fern, appearing to be trying both to stand and to walk at the same time. This made Henry laugh harder.
“Get up, fool!”
Charlie ceased kicking the ground and started to get to his knees. In doing so, he put a hand directly into the base of a thistle bush.
Charlie blinked and this time he recognized the scene before his eyes. He was on the ground, pants were around his ankles, and Henry was there, laughing at him.
“Son of a whore!”
Charlie leaped to his feet before Henry could react and hit him with a wild roundhouse right, driving him to the ground. Henry never let go of the book.
“To hell with you!” Charlie barked, as he pulled up his trousers. “Next time I catch you sneakin’ a peek, I’ll cut your throat. Go on and laugh, see if I don’t!”
Charlie strode off, leaving Henry to reflect on his success. He rolled his jaw, shocked by how much it hurt. His father had hit him, of course, but never like that and never in the face. It was a disturbing feeling, but it didn’t erase what he’d done: he’d taken control of the man with just a few words, some of which he didn’t even fully understand.
And this was one of the simpler spells in the book—imagine what he could do once he’d read them all!
A sharp pain cut through Henry’s skull from his forehead to the base of his spine. It was followed by a wave of nausea, which passed only after he vomited most of the beans he’d consumed earlier in the evening onto the forest floor. Henry waited, but a second wave never came. Instead, a headache quickly took hold that would last the rest of the night. Worse still was the pain in Henry’s already swelling jaw. He wouldn’t be whispering again for some time, but Henry didn’t care.
There was so much to read.
Andre Labeau is seven years old when he learns the brightest light often casts the darkest shadow.
He’s a smart boy, and smart boys often do dumb things, which is how Andre ends up with chicken scratches across his chest and up and down both arms. The cuts aren’t deep and on a boy Andre’s size they hardly seem cause for alarm, but that doesn’t stop him from shedding a tear as his mama sets him right.
“Whatchoo thinkin goin in there? Chicken coop ain’t no place fo a boy afta dark.”
“I’m sorry, Mama.”
“Course you is,” Andre’s mama says. “Stealin eggs is fo foxes and fools, neither of which is you.”
“I wasn’t stealin no eggs.”
“Oh? You afta a chicken?”
“No, Mama. I’m a kill it.”
Andre’s mama slaps her son without hesitation. The sting is more painful than any of the cuts on his arm, but the surprise holds back any further tears.
“You do and don’t see if you get worse from Mistah Bouvant.”
“But I goin set us free!”
Andre’s mama raises her hand again but delivers no blow. Andre never flinches.
“How you goin do that?”
The smile that forms on Andre’s face is as big as his secret.
Andre’s mama smiles, too, and then laughs, full and hearty. She wraps her arms around him—as far as they’ll go—and holds him tightly.
“Boy, you is beautiful. Big and beautiful.”
“It was Miss Haddie told me what to do.”
Andre’s mama loosens her embrace.
“Haddie? Whatchoo talkin to her fo? That woman bring us mo trouble.”
“But she show me how to cast a charm and told me about the hoodoo—”
“Hoodoo? Voodoo more like. She got a dark shadow hangin o’er her shoulders, Andre. Best stay away from her.”
Andre’s mama returns her attention to her son’s wounds, but he pulls away.
“I ain’t afraid, Mama.”
“No, I don’t imagine,” she says. “But I am. And I ain’t brought you this far to have some voodoo witch scrape yo soul with her black secrets. Yo mama have a time cleanin you up afta that.”
“I don’t needa be clean, Mama. I know right an wrong. I can tella difference.”
“And whatchoo goin do with the darkness comes yo way? Close yo eyes? Fo’get you ever known it?”
“No, Mama, I won’t fo’get. I’ll remember. Won’t be a black word can touch me when I know em all.”
Andre’s mama hears the truth in her son’s voice, even if the words bring dark thoughts to mind.
“Why you wanna know so much?” she asks. “Always with questions. Ain’t you got enough keep yo head full you gotta fill it up with blackness, too?”
Andre says nothing as he pulls his shirt over his head.
Andre’s mama sees in her son the man he will become. Like his body, his mind is maturing quickly, she hopes not too quickly.
“Keep it secret,” she says.
“I mean it, Andre. Don’t ever let on you know.”
Andre is a good boy, his mama knows that. He’ll do what he’s told. She prays to God so he will.
“Andre,” his mama says, “words have power. In yo head, yo tongue, and onna paper. Don’t keep em in mori’n one spot. Don’t speak em and don’t write em down.”
But he does write the words down, because even though he is a smart boy, smart boys sometimes do dumb things. He writes them all down and tells himself he’s being careful by using the words and phrases of his Master and his People as well as his own to disguise their meaning.
And when he’s older and wiser, he continues to write because knowledge is power and the book is a very powerful thing, indeed. It’s not until the book slips from his possession that Andre understands exactly how dangerous that power can be.
* * *
Andre was lying on his cot, wide awake despite the late hour and relatively calm seas, when the first explosion rocked the ship. He leaped to his feet and had just managed to pull his jacket over his shoulders when a second rumble shook the vessel from bow to stern.
“Too soon,” Andre murmured, as he pulled on his boots and headed for the door. Naira was waiting when he opened it.
“Engine room,” she said.
Andre was not surprised.
* * *
The ship’s engineer gave his captain the news twenty minutes later: two of the main pressure valves had failed to release, causing the primary steam chamber to explode. The second combustion was the result of an extreme loss of pressure created by the first.
The captain, a seventeen-year veteran of West Coast water routes, had experienced his share of at-sea mishaps, but this was his first aboard theAño Nuevo,a ship considered one of the most dependable vessels currently in service.
“Must have been a hell of a pressure spike,” said the captain. “No one in the steam room caught that?”
“It happened so fast. Every needle was steady one minute and in the red the next. I couldn’t shut it down fast enough.”
The captain seemed unconvinced. Andre was not.
Moments before the engineer delivered his assessment, the wheelhouse had been crowded with people, many of whom had no business being there. The first mate chased most back to their quarters. Andre made it clear his presence would be tolerated.
Andre asked the engineer directly, “How long to repair the damage?”
“I can get us limping in an hour, but we’ll need to dock to make thorough repairs.”
The captain grumbled something under his breath. “Do it,” was all Andre managed to discern.
The captain turned away from his engineer to study a set of coastal charts laid out on a table in the center of the room.
“I’m sorry,” he said to Andre, “but it doesn’t look like we’ll be reaching Astoria by Saturday.”
“No, I do not believe you will, captain. In fact, I think your immediate journey may be at an end. You need to take us to port.”
The captain glanced at the man who had already dictated more changes to his itinerary than any passenger he’d previously had aboard his ship. He was a giant, sure, but it wasn’t simply his size that had convinced the captain to modify his schedule. It was his demeanor. The man was too damn polite. There was something else, too, something he couldn’t quite explain, but he was certain his agreement with the giant African and his native companion was required. For what he couldn’t say.
Andre smiled. “Any port will do, of course.”
“Sure,” the captain, returning his gaze to the chart. “We can reach Newport by Saturday morn, barring further misadventure, but you don’t need to leave the ship. Yaquina Bay is fairly well protected, so she’ll be plenty comfortable.”
“I thank you, but we will take our leave at that time.”
“If that’s what you wish.”
Andre nodded to the captain and then ducked out of the room, followed by the young native woman.
The captain hadn’t even realized she was in the room.
* * *
“Is it the book?” Naira asked.
She and Andre stood near the bow of the steamer, taking in the cool evening air with a dozen other very disappointed passengers. Word had spread quickly that the ship would be making for Newport, but no farther.
“The wake of it,” Andre said. “Like the ripples that roll across the surface after a stone hits water. I can feel them when they pass, a pulse amplified for my presence, possibly because of it. The ship can feel them, too, and if we stay aboard I fear a disabled engine will be the least of her worries.”
“What of the book’s new owner?”
“I doubt he has anything to do with it. Though I suspect he feels the wake just as strong, maybe more so.”
Naira looked into the night sky, her eyes appearing to reflect the moonlight more brightly than the source.
“You’re sure it’s not aher?”
Andre let the question hang in the air for a moment before answering. He knew Naira was not making a general inquiry—that she had a specificherin mind—but he chose to ignore the implication, at least for now.
“I am,” he said eventually. “I think it would feel different in the presence of a woman. A man holds it now, a young man, I believe. I can scarcely think of anything worse.”
“It was written by a young man, was it not?”
Andre nodded. “Much of it was. It was only by dumb luck and the will of the gods that the thing did not twist his intentions into something uncontrollable. I still know that young man, Naira, I feel him in my heart, but I can never forgive him.”
“That debt has been paid, Andre.”
“Perhaps. But what of the older man? I may not be forgiving, but I do not fault the young man for his intentions, misguided though they were. But much of the book was compiled by a man of many summers, a man who should have known the folly of such a collection, the danger of it—a man who should have known better. I fear that debt remains unpaid and overdue.”
Naira looked at Andre with the eyes that had spoken truth to him for nearly a decade. He saw in them the same as ever and it made him remember exactly who and where he was—and where he was going.
“I apologize,” he said, shaking his head, but smiling. “The ease with which my thoughts are corrupted is disturbing. You must watch me, my friend. Until I am able to reconcile its presence I may be prone to more negativity than either of us is accustomed to.”
Andre stared across the water. The dark outline of the southern Oregon coast was barely visible, a slender swatch of nothingness between the water and the night sky. A single light blinked on and off in the distance.
“It calls to me, Naira. It taunts me from both my past and present. I should never have let it be.”
“You didn’t have a choice.”
“I believe you didn’t. There was only truth in the story you told me. I would know if there wasn’t.”
She would know, of that Andre was certain. He couldn’t lie to her, even if he believed the lie himself.
But the story wasn’t a lie and it wasn’t false. His actions in Astoria eleven years earlier had been carefully arranged to ensure there would be no mistakes. Andre couldn’t destroy the book then, but it should have been safe buried beneath soil and so many secrets. Was its resurrection the result of accident or expedition? There was, of course, a more likely target for those seeking treasure, but that did nothing to ease Andre’s mind. A man who would seek out the dead—especially this particular corpse—was already on the path of darkness.
Andre took a deep breath and slowly let it go. “Regardless of how it has come to be in this world again, it is my responsibility to see the book removed. I will not allow it to be used as it once was.”
“Could it be? As I recall, you said you took some care in its compilation. A kind of cipher, wasn’t it?”
Andre chuckled. “Enough of a nuisance to slow down a simple man, perhaps even a man with some education. But I discovered after repeated readings the disguised words begin take on meaning, even as they appear to have none. They reveal themselves. It was my mistake to think that shifting tongues would rob the words of their power to those who could not read them. I was a fool to write them down in the first place.”
“You were eight.”
“And then I was nine, then ten, then twenty, but I still continued to fill the pages.”
Naira raised an eyebrow.
“No, I am still here,” Andre said, pulling his coat tighter against a growing wind. “It will not have its way with me that easily. But what I did was still foolish.”
“And what of this young man who carries the book now? Is he a fool or merely foolish?”
“Either would be preferable to a man who sees the thing for what it is, but continues to turn the page.”
The air inside the tent was cold and damp and not at all to Henry’s liking. Since leaving Astoria he’d grown unusually comfortable in his own skin, a condition he attributed to recent reading materials. Even now, he could feel the book pulsing against his chest, the warmth radiating through his body, but without the words to focus on, Henry was forced to attend a reality that offered little in the way of comfort.
Presently, a tiny woman with one arm and no legs sat on a stool near the opening of the tent, offering a toothy grin to all who entered. Recent arrivals included a tall, slender man in a loose-fitting suit whose skin hung from his bones like a damp rag, a short, apish man covered from head to toe with thick, matted hair, and a balding, middle-aged man who was unremarkable in all regards save for the fact that it was his name painted atop every banner in the camp.
Mason, whose body language suggested he was equally uncomfortable in the presence of the carnival people, stood beside Henry, with Hugh and Charlie close behind. The Hanged Man’s body lay at their feet, unwrapped from head to chest. To Henry it appeared the deceased had lost some of his resilience, but was otherwise in excellent condition for a decade-old corpse. This, as it turned out, was not a selling point.
“I don’t see it, boys,” said John Garibaldi, rubbing the salt-and-pepper stubble beneath his chin. “I just don’t see it.”
Mason answered quickly, “What’s not to see? He’s got the scar, you got the story. It’s the Hanged Man.”
Garibaldi looked from Mason to Henry. “Yes, a very compelling tale, possibly even true.”
“Every word,” said Henry.
“Possibly, but even I can see this fellow is, to put it politely, a might fresh for a man dispatched eleven years ago.”
Henry and his new friends had arrived in Tillamook just before noon to find the carnival doing a brisk business on a hill overlooking the small coastal community. Mason fumed when told their transaction would have to wait until the midday break, but Hugh and Charlie were content to explore the many tents and sideshows of the so-called Wild Western Caravan. Henry had stayed with the horses, tasked with watching over the corpse until it was time to make the sale. He didn’t mind.
It gave him the chance to read.
One passage in particular stood out, a section that spoke of the dead, the surprising flexibility of their condition, and their potential service to the living. Henry had never thought of the dead as being particularly useful, but the book spoke of this as something very real and very powerful. Perhaps it was a coincidence that the passage had been written primarily in English and French, making its translation easier. The corpse at Henry’s feet suggested otherwise.
Garibaldi turned to the man on his right. “Carl, what do you think?”
The skinny man knelt next to the body. He had long, gray hair and a thin mustache, neither of which did much to distract from his bony frame. Had he been lying next to the corpse rather than examining it, Henry would have said two bodies were for sale.
“Well, sir, he’s been dead awhile, but a decade seems doubtful. Decomposition is only just beginning to set in. And the flesh seems almost tender to the touch, still got a bit of bounce to it. Wish I could say the same.”
“Check his eyes,” said Garibaldi.
The skinny man spread his bony fingers across the dead man’s face and forehead and pulled back the eyelids, revealing two giant black pupils surrounded by a ring of gray and slightly yellowed whites.
Henry tried to look away, but the eyes followed him, kept his gaze even when they were all but closed. Henry had little doubt the Hanged Man was watching him, waiting.
“Dios mío,”said the apeman, quickly crossing his chest.
“Yes,” said the skinny man. “I daresay that is unusual. Eyes are one of the first things to go as moisture exits a body.”
“That’s ’cause it rains all the time in Astoria,” said Mason. “All that mud must have kept him from drying out.”
“As I recall, it was sunny when we were there last,” offered the one-armed woman.
Mason sneered at the little woman, who only smiled in return.
Garibaldi put a hand on the skinny man’s shoulder. “What’s your assessment then?”
“It could be him—I won’t say it’s not. I saw a ’Gyptian in New York City looked to be a few months out of the ground, but was said to be a thousand years, at least. Someone were to bury a body up north where the ground stays frozen year-round, they might could’ve kept it whole for a time, preserved like what we got here.” The skinny man looked over the Hanged Man once more. “Still, based on the eyes alone, I doubt he could be more than a month gone, probably less.”
“A month!” barked Mason. “Son of a … did you smell him?”
“I did,” said the skinny man. “And I daresay that’s another giveaway. Only the freshly dead stink of it. A dusty old corpse would smell of earth and little more.”
“It’s the curse,” said Henry. “That’s what kept him whole.”
The others in the group, most of whom had barely noticed Henry even when he was telling his story, stared at him now.
“He was a devil in life, kept alive by dark secrets that few men know. He survived the noose, he survived the gun. It wasn’t until a hundred men descended on him with the Lord’s righteous doom that he fell. Check the body. You’ll find at least a dozen holes in addition to the one in his forehead.”
“He was used for target practice,” said the apeman. “Could have been one of you, all we know.”
“Look at the hands,” Henry said. “Tell me, what do you see?”
The skinny man glanced at Garibaldi, who nodded. He then unwrapped the Hanged Man’s right hand, revealing a wrinkled but plump appendage that did little to challenge the skinny man’s assessment of the body’s age. The fingernails, however, told a different story.
“My, my,” said the skinny man. “That is interesting.”
The skinny man grasped the Hanged Man’s wrist and raised it for all to see. The nails at the end of the thumb and first finger were black and broken shortly past the tips, but the other three remained intact and curled beyond the digits in uneven corkscrews.
“Take a man quite a few years to grow nails like that,” he said. “A very patient and very careful man.”
“Or a very dead man,” said Henry.
The skinny man hesitated before finally shaking his head. “No, not dead,” he said. “But not living either.”
“What’s that’s supposed to mean?” Mason said.
The skinny man lowered the Hanged Man’s wrist and stood up. He looked at Henry, then at his boss.
“There are methods of preservation that could account for the condition, methods that are not practiced in this part of the world. Not that I’ve seen, anyway.”
Garibaldi frowned. “So, now you’re saying it could be him?”
“I am saying it is possible the body could be a decade old. As to the identity, I have no conclusion.” The skinny man took another look at the corpse. “But if it is him, I would strongly advise against purchase. It’s not worth the trouble.”
The skinny man left the tent without another word. Mason grinned, unable to help himself.
“There you go. It’s him.”
Garibaldi raised an eyebrow. “Not what he said, friend.”
“Oh, then you’ve run across other cursed dead men with scars like this one here?”
The apeman leaned close to his boss and whispered something in his ear.
“Get him,” said Garibaldi.
The apeman exited the tent, leaving Garibaldi and the small woman alone with Mason and his gang. If he was concerned about this situation, he didn’t show it.
“Where’s the gun?”
Garibaldi smiled. “That I have yet to pass on this obviously unique opportunity should not be taken lightly, Mr. Mason. Do not insult my intelligence. Where is it?”
Mason looked at the weapon on his hip. He pushed back the instinct to draw and instead pulled the gun from its holster and handed it butt-first to the carnival boss.
Garibaldi studied the pistol, turning it over in his hands.
“This was buried with the man?”
Garibaldi nodded. “A little paint on the handle would help sell it, son.”
“You think I’m lyin’?”
Mason held his tongue for a moment, then said, “I ain’t afraid to admit it. We dug the son of a bitch up for the pistol.”
“Something beat you to it.”
Mason shrugged. “That was all he had.”
Garibaldi stepped around the corpse. “Body’s worth more with the real weapon. Hell, the gun’s probably worth more than flesh and bone all by itself.”
Henry felt Mason’s stare fall on the side of his head, but didn’t turn. He wasn’t afraid of the man, not anymore, but Mason was still dangerous.
“We’ve got his book,” said Charlie.
Before Henry could stop him, Charlie had reached inside Henry’s coat and snatched the book from his pocket.
“Here,” he said, handing the book to Garibaldi. “It’s got all his black magic in it, and such.”
“No, that’s not part of the deal.”
Henry lunged at the book, but Mason caught him by the collar and held him at arm’s length.
Garibaldi waited for the scrum to end before opening the book. Satisfied, he flipped through the pages, stopping occasionally to study a passage. His eyes drifted across the words, following their meaning for a time before losing interest. He closed the book and flipped it back to Henry.
“Two bits for the book.”
“It’s not for sale,” Henry said, ignoring the hand on his neck that suggested otherwise.
Garibaldi looked at the corpse, then at Mason. “I’ll give you ten dollars for it.”
“Ten? I could get ten from a saloon down in Tillamook.”
“Try your luck then. I got a fellow works for me says he met the man ’fore he was put down. He’s going to take a look at what you’re offering here and if he doesn’t call him risen from the grave, you’ll walk away with nothing, save for your friend, here.”
Mason stared at the carnival master.
Garibaldi smiled. “Twenty. And for that I’ll keep the weapon, as well.”
Hugh leaned in to Mason. “Take it and let’s be rid of the thing.”
Mason glanced at Henry, eyeing the book in his hand. Henry clutched it even tighter.
“Twenty, then,” he said, and held his hand out across the Hanged Man’s body. Garibaldi took it, shook once, and let go.
The one-armed girl drew a small purse from her blouse and passed it to her boss. He drew forth a handful of coins and passed them to Mason.
“Some fine shows on tap tonight. Stick around, if you like. No charge.”
“Thanks,” said Charlie.
Mason finished counting the coins and then nodded. “We could take in a show.”
Garibaldi gave another half smile and then turned toward the exit just as the apeman returned with another man covered in mud up to his chest.
The circus boss stopped the new arrivals and turned them around, but not before the muddy man got a look at the corpse on the ground. His eyes went wide and his mouth slipped open. Henry thought the words on his lip might’ve beenit’s him,but he was shuffled out of the tent before they could be heard.
* * *
Mason, Hugh, and Charlie celebrated their successful sale by spending most of the profits at a drinking establishment in Tillamook. Henry joined in the first round, but soon retreated to a corner of the saloon that offered just enough light to read. Hugh and Charlie were content to let him be, but Mason eventually sought Henry out, a half-empty bottle in his hand.
“You owe me two bits.”
Henry looked up from the book. He’d just finished rereading the passage containing the spell he’d used on Charlie the night before. The words were still clear in his mind. Given the man’s inebriated state, it would be very easy to talk Mason into smashing the bottle over his head and then using the broken shards to slit his own throat. Henry could almost see it. Instead, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a single coin.
“Here’s a dollar. Keep the change.”
Mason snatched up the coin, grunting under his breath. He started to turn, but hesitated.
“I can read, too.”
“Can you?” Henry said, gripping the book a little tighter.
“My mama taught me. Maybe I take me a read from that book, see if I can’t find out what’s got you so interested.” Mason leaned over the table. “What say you to that?”
Henry tilted forward in his chair. Mason’s eyes were barely able to keep focus, but as the young man drew close, they seemed to still.
“It’s like nothing you’ve ever known,” he said, his voice smooth and inviting. “It’s alive and speaks in the language of your soul. It speaks only the truth. Do you want to know the truth? Are you ready to hear it?”
Henry set the book on the table.
“Shall I read to you?”
Mason felt the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. What senses weren’t buried beneath half a bottle of whiskey suggested he step back from the table immediately, but his legs refused to do their part.
Henry cracked open the book. “I know just the passage.”
Mason blinked and, for just a moment, saw clearly that Henry was dangerous, very dangerous. He would have to go, the sooner the better.
Mason shook his head and used the bottle to push himself upright. “You’re not through with us, you know. You ain’t proved nothin’ yet.”
Henry smiled and closed the book. “I wasn’t out to prove anything, Bill. I’m just along for the ride.”
Mason took another long drink from the bottle and stumbled back from the table, catching himself before he fell.
“Friends,” he said, addressing no one particular. “The circus is in town. Got a hell of a freak show, I hear.”
“Seen it,” said a man at the bar.
“Did you, now? Good for you!” Mason swallowed another tilt of the bottle. “But they got a new freak, just today. Might be worth a look.”
Henry watched Mason stumble down to the other end of the bar, where a pair of young women lingered. He held up the coin Henry had just given him. Neither woman seemed particularly impressed, but one of them took the dollar and led Mason down a hall and out of sight.
The saloon was quiet for a time, more suitable for reading.
* * *
A thick fog bank had rolled over the coast by the time Henry and the others returned to the carnival. Despite the gloom, the midway was crowded with townsfolk eager to explore the many games of chance, live performances, and other oddities on display. Lit by torchlight, the colorful tents and attractions took on an otherworldly glow in the mist.
On one stage, a man in a top hat introduced Mandu and Wattu, the Wild Men of Borneo. A diminutive, dark-skinned man in a tight-fitting suit scrabbled onstage to stand next to the barker. This was Mandu, the gentle savage, refined in the ways of Western man. His less-refined twin, Wattu, soon appeared through a trapdoor in the stage, shrieking and wagging his tongue (and other appendages) at the crowd.
Across the midway, a broad-shouldered man with an even broader mustache balanced a long iron bar on his head weighed down on either side by squirming children. He shared his stage with an equally bulky woman who had snatched up two men from the crowd and now held them aloft with a single hand. The men squirmed more than the children.
Content simply to sit and watch the faces of the locals react was Fanny Brown, the Big Foot Girl of Oregon. She reclined in a rocking chair, an afghan draped over her legs. When a patron drew near she pulled back the blanket to reveal a pair of puffed and disfigured size-36 feet. The more revulsion she engendered, the more her delight.
A half-dozen similar performers and prodigies lined the path to the big top. There were other tents and trailers, some with small lines of people waiting to see the likes of Madame Morgana or the Human Flame. Henry was content to stroll the midway, but Hugh and Charlie soon went in search of a performer they’d encountered earlier, explaining that the “lady in knots” required their company. Mason, too drunk to keep up, lingered at Henry’s side.
“Where’s the dead man?” he said, scanning the crowd. “There he is!”
Mason staggered toward a small stage at the end of the midway, knocking a pair of children over in the process. Henry followed, though not so close as to be an obvious friend of the drunkard.
Onstage, the skinny man stood beneath a sign proclaiming him to be the “Living Dead Dude.” He wore a long, hooded robe that covered everything but his sunken face. There were gasps of horror when the robe slipped to the stage, revealing not so much a man but a skeleton clad only in a short loincloth. He strode to the edge of the dais and spread his arms wide.
“I am the living dead,” he said in a voice much deeper than what Henry remembered from their earlier meeting. “Do not fear me.”
“You’re not the dead man,” Mason mumbled and then staggered off through the crowd.
The skinny man eyed Mason, then slowly turned his gaze to Henry. “Do you fear the dead that walk upright, young man?”
“A brave soul.” The skinny man cast his gaze upon a couple standing to Henry’s side, who quickly shrunk back. “Braver than most.”
“He’s right, though,” Henry said. “You’re no dead man.”
The skinny man’s eyed darted back to Henry. “Do not speak ill of the deceased, my friend.” He then dropped from the stage and was upon Henry in one swift, fluid motion. There were more gasps from the audience, many of whom backed away.
Henry didn’t flinch.
The skinny man leaned in, his cheekbone nearly touching Henry’s. When he spoke, his voice was a whisper that only Henry could hear. “Hold your tongue so far from home, Henry Macke. The dead hear more than you think.”
Before Henry could respond, the skinny man slipped back onto the platform and climbed beneath his robe. He cast a sweeping gaze across the crowd and then disappeared into a small tent behind the stage.
Henry stood for a moment as the crowd dispersed before going in search of Mason.
* * *
Henry found the man in front of a tent second only to the big top in overall size. A long line of people filed through the front entrance, a line that snaked its way halfway around the tent and then back onto the midway. A hastily made sign declared that for only a dime a person could view the corpse of the Hanged Man. John Garibaldi himself stood outside the tent, declaring that this attraction was required viewing for any man, woman, or child who wanted to see therealWest.
“It’s true!” he said, projecting his voice well beyond the multitude already in line for the viewing. “After a decade frozen in the hardened permafrost of the great northern wilds, the vilest villain ever to terrorize the West has returned to pay for his sins. See with your own eyes the scar upon his neck left by the rope that could not hang him! Be amazed at the number of shots it took to finally fell the man. Was it one? Five? A dozen? Look and see!”
Garibaldi laid eyes on Mason and Henry. A sly smile crossed his lips.
“And don’t miss the cursed weapon of the killer, the red-handled pistol, its wood stained with the blood of a hundred victims, maybe more.”
Henry was impressed. Garibaldi had turned on his investment quickly and would probably make it back (and then some) in one night. It occurred to him that he hadn’t thought of the Hanged Man once since they’d left the circus, since the body had ceased to be in their possession. He saw no reason to join the line to remind him of what he was missing.
Mason had other ideas.
“You son of a bitch,” he said, his anger helping to smooth over the alcohol. “You’re gonna get rich off my dead man?”
Garibaldi eyed Mason coldly. “Just business, son. Go on and have a look, see how the professionals do it.”
Garibaldi lifted the front flap of the tent a bit wider and beckoned Mason to enter. Mason didn’t hesitate.
Henry did. He could feel the Hanged Man once more, a weight laid on his shoulders he no longer wanted to carry. Henry could see him dangling by a rope, his eyes wide open, laughing at God for thinking his death would bring peace.
“You coming?” Garibaldi asked. “It’s only free as long as I hold her open.”
Henry meant to say no, had every intention of turning on the spot and walking away, but instead he found himself moving forward into the darkness.
“He’ll haunt your dreams!” Garibaldi said as he let the flap fall back. “Who among you fears not the Angel of Death!”
* * *
Inside the tent, the line of people followed a roped path that circled past a collection of smaller displays showcasing various Western artifacts. Among them were numerous Indian weapons and tribal garb, a selection of unusual animal skeletons, and a large red-and-black striped lizard, very much alive, hissing at the onlookers from inside a slatted wooden cage. In the center of the enclosure, a round glass case displayed two shriveled fingers, which according to a carefully lettered sign were all that remained of famed lawman Charlie Lancaster. The case next to it featured a fist-size chunk of solid firestone crystal half buried in the sand and an open invitation to reach through the small hole in the top of the display to claim the stone. A pair of rattlesnakes curled up on either side of the stone ensured there would be no takers.
Henry cut across the queue, skipping the minor artifacts until he came upon the main attraction. Mason was already there, leaning over the ropes intended to restrain him. Henry reached out to pull Mason back, but never laid a hand on him. His eyes fell upon the Hanged Man and it was all he knew.
The body was not strung up but rather laid in a coffin stood on end. Torches on either side flickered in the dead man’s eyes, both wide open and uncomfortably alive. The body was naked from the waist up, revealing a lanky, unevenly muscular torso riddled with bullet holes. A noose tied loosely around the Hanged Man’s neck hung to his waist, where it frayed, as if cut in midexecution. Tucked into the front of his trousers was a pistol, its butt painted bright red. Even from ten feet away Henry could see that some of the pigment had rubbed off on the dead man’s stomach, looking very much like dried blood.
“Sons of bitches,” Mason said softly.
Henry blinked and was surprised to find his arm still outstretched, hand hovering over Mason’s shoulder. He pulled it back, managing to look away just that long before the dead man’s gaze commanded his attention once more. Nearly everyone who passed through the tent that night would claim the Hanged Man’s eyes followed them.
Only one would be right.
Mason leaned close to Henry. “This is your fault.”
With great effort, Henry forced himself to meet Mason’s glare. “We never should have sold him,” he said, and meant it.
“We never should have dug him up,” Mason growled. “And now he’s making these leeches rich. They even got his gun.”
“It’s not his,” Henry said, genuinely taking offense. To lay such an obviously false weapon on the body was wrong. He’d never felt comfortable with the sale and now he knew why. This was a great man. Yes, he was a villain, but what did that matter? To treat the Hanged Man as a nothing more than a prop in some sideshow museum was disgraceful, unthinkable.
“It’s a travesty, all of it,” Henry said. “We should definitely—”
Mason grabbed Henry by the collar. “What? Dig up another corpse? Find us another dead man worth more than the box he’s buried in? What?”
Henry searched for an answer, and found one, pulsing softly against his chest. It had been there all along, of course. When he spoke, his voice was calm and clear.
“Let’s rob the place.”
“The gate closes at ten,” Mason said. “Then we take it all.”
Henry nodded, as did Hugh. Charlie did not. After searching half the carnival, they’d found him lingering behind a tent belonging to a contortionist named Baby Sue. An illustration painted on the side of the tent suggested she was capable of twisting her body into any number of amazing and unusual shapes.
“Um, okay,” said Charlie. “But I don’t want to skip out on Miss Sue. She promised us a special show.”
Mason scowled. Since deciding to rob the carnival, his drunken stupor had been replaced by a headache that cut through the haze like a dagger. The pain brought the night into focus, but it also made the man very angry.
“You think she’ll twist her bits for you after you steal from her boss?”
Charlie hesitated. “She might if I paid her.”
Mason rubbed his temples with both hands. “Screw this up and I’ll gut you, Charlie.”
Charlie looked to Hugh, who quietly shook his head. Based on the brothers’ expressions, Henry suspected Mason had never seriously threatened either man, but he was now, of that there was no doubt.
Mason turned to Hugh. “That little one-armed freak, she was still collecting when we came back tonight, right?”
“Had a lockbox and big, dumb-lookin’ rube by her side.”
“Find ’em. That’s where the cash’ll be.”
“What am I supposed to do?” Henry asked.
Mason pointed in the direction of the Hanged Man’s tent. “You’re gonna walk back in there and light the dead man on fire.”
Henry shuddered. “What?”
Mason forced a smile. “Said it wasn’t right what they done to him, didn’t ya?”
Had he said that? Henry couldn’t remember.
“Here’s your chance to set things right. Ought to make for quite a distraction, eh?”
It would. Mason’s plan was simple enough. Henry would cause a ruckus, draw as many of the circus folk to him as possible, while Mason, Hugh, and Charlie collected the cash. The weakest part of the plan—as far as Henry was concerned—was how he would make his escape.
“And I’m supposed to just slip away after starting a fire in front of a tent full of people?”
“Once the fire gets rolling, ain’t nobody gonna stick around to point fingers,” Mason said. “You’ll be fine.”
Henry had his doubts, but said nothing more.
* * *
Hugh and Charlie found the one-armed girl floating above the crowd, riding the shoulders of an enormous brute whose smile was almost as big as her own. The front gate was closed, the cash box tucked under the brute’s arm. As the odd couple strolled the midway, they collected the evening’s receipts from the shows that charged additional admission. Their last stop was the Hanged Man’s tent, where they received a hefty pouch from Garibaldi.
Mason watched the giant and his rider exchange a few words with their boss and then disappear behind a tent.
“All right, crowd’s starting to thin out. Let’s make this fast. Hit ’em while there’s still some cover.”
Mason led the way between a pair of tents to the sparsely lit area just beyond the midway. A young couple strolled past and beyond them, slipping behind a row of wagons, their target.
“Five minutes,” Mason said, eyeing Henry. “Then I want to see smoke.”
Henry nodded. He watched the three men draw their weapons and cautiously move into the shadows, before turning back toward the main thoroughfare. The crowd was thinner, with most headed for the exit. Henry made his way to the Hanged Man’s tent, where the line was only a few people deep at the entrance.
Henry took his place at the end of the queue, paid his dime, and passed through the flap, which was soon closed behind him. There were fewer people inside than earlier, but Henry kept his place rather than cut ahead.
He was in no hurry.
Why should he be? He was in control now. It had been his idea to rob the circus, after all. Certainly, his and Mason’s visions of what they were stealing differed slightly, but when all the shouting was done, Henry was convinced Mason would see it his way.
The Hanged Man would make sure of that.
The idea of resurrection first occurred to Henry in a dream. He didn’t realize it at the time, but that was only because he didn’t understand. He did now. It was no coincidence that he skipped ahead in his reading to the passage detailing the returning of life to the nonliving. He was drawn there as clearly as he’d been to the Hanged Man’s grave. The fact that the words were easier to decipher, much more so than any other passages, served only to confirm his course of action. It was obvious. He was meant to bring the Hanged Man back to this world, to give him back his life.
And Henry would be his master.
That was how it worked. The book was very clear that a body returned to this world would be indebted to the living, specifically the one who did the deed. That would be Henry. The Hanged Man would be under his control and together they would … what?
Henry hadn’t worked that part out yet. In fact, as he stepped closer to the body, he found his determination slipping, ever so slightly. He’d felt that way all day—confident but confused. Had he really found a spell that would bring the dead man back to life? Was that really what he was supposed to do? And then he heard his answer.
Henry laid a hand over his chest, felt the square shape beneath his jacket beat in time with his heart, and knew it was true. He’d been meant to read those words today, just as he was meant to use them, here and now.
The resurrection curse was a lengthy one requiring elaborate preparation, hours of chanting, and numerous organic and inorganic items, some of which were completely foreign to Henry. Fortunately, there was a shortcut. When the living body had been prepared for death—such as when the living chose to curse themselves prior to death in order to preserve their remains, as the Hanged Man had obviously done—resurrection required only three things: the curse words, a belief in them, and blood.
Henry was in possession of all three. He would speak the words, believe them, and, since he was unlikely to put his knife to another man, he would bleed. It would hurt only a little.
The tent was nearly empty. Henry kept his head down, his eyes otherwise occupied, not wanting to see the dead man before he was ready. He made the last turn in the line and moved to the center of the display.
An old woman stood in front of him, staring up at the body. She murmured something under her breath, made the sign of the cross, and then moved away. Henry stepped into the vacant space and slowly let his gaze rise to meet the Hanged Man’s.
Garibaldi’s hand fell on Henry’s shoulder at the exact moment he locked stares with the dead man.
“Can’t keep your eyes off him, eh?”
Henry didn’t respond—he couldn’t. Every one of his senses was focused on the propped-up corpse. The world around him passed into a fog and all he knew was the depth of the black-eyed stare. There was only himself and the Hanged Man, standing before him, standing beside him. When he finally did feel Garibaldi’s touch, it wasn’t the carnival master’s hand he imagined on his shoulder.
“Tried to stare him down myself once we got his eyes propped open,” Garibaldi said. “Had to put a bit of face paint on him, too, make him look more the part of the deceased. Didn’t figure he’d mind.”
Henry saw the carnival boss, saw him lying on the ground bleeding, the knife that had stuck him held firmly in Henry’s hand. He saw this clearly and then it was gone.
Garibaldi stood at his side, his hand on Henry’s shoulder. Henry blinked, surprised to be staring into the eyes of a living man.
Garibaldi smiled and shook his head. “Intense feller, ain’t ya?”
The knife was in Henry’s pocket. He’d plucked it from his saddle pouch without thinking just prior to returning to the carnival. Its purpose now known, Henry chose not to use it. He spoke quickly before his mind could be changed.
“You’re being robbed,” he said, returning his gaze to the Hanged Man. “My acquaintances are, as we speak, trying to decide the best way to separate that large feeb from his diminutive charge and, more importantly, the small treasure chest he carries.”
Garibaldi looked at Henry, searching for some sign that his words were for amusement. He found none.
“I daresay someone might get shot.”
Garibaldi pointed a finger at Henry. “Stay here,” he said, and ran for the exit.
“No place I’d rather be.”
Two men who had been watching over the display trailed after their boss as he ran out of the tent. With no one to stop him, Henry stepped over the rope and approached the Hanged Man’s body. Up close, he could easily make out the ashen makeup applied to the dead man’s face.
“They’ve tried to make you a clown.”
“Looks more like a scarecrow,” said a young voice behind Henry.
Henry didn’t have to turn to know it was the boy he’d stood behind in line.
“Does he frighten you?” Henry asked.
“He will,” Henry said, drawing the revolver from the dead man’s belt. A moment later, he was alone.
Henry closed his eyes. Upon opening them, his gaze once again fell on the Hanged Man, and this time he met the dead man’s stare without succumbing to it.Let him look at me awhile,he thought.
Henry studied the pistol in his hand. It was the same weapon that had come out of the ground with the dead man, albeit with a fresh coat of paint. He checked the cylinder and was surprised to find it loaded.
“Nice of them to arm you,” he said, and slipped the gun into the holster on the right side of the dead man’s body.
A gun was fired somewhere outside the tent, startling Henry, and for a moment he was free. There was no book, no body, no resurrection—all he had to do was turn and run.
Henry closed his eyes and let the warm words fill his body. He would be a captive, but the words would keep him safe. At that moment, Henry thought it a fair trade.
Several more gunshots rang out, but Henry didn’t flinch. Carefully, he retrieved the black book from his inside coat pocket, opened it to a page covered with rough notes and scribbles, and began to read.
* * *
Sixty-seven miles to the south, a rogue swell struck theAño Nuevobroadside, tilting the vessel hard to starboard.
Andre rode the wave from the edge of his bed as it tilted the room past twenty degrees, enough to send his suitcase sliding across the floor. The world hung at odds with gravity for a moment longer, then rolled back to right and the otherwise calm waters of the Oregon coast.
Andre received no such reprieve.
“No, no, no,” he said, although there was no one in the room to hear him. His world had been dealt an even more powerful blow moments before the wave struck. He would later decide the two events were connected, but for now he knew only that the worst had occurred. His connection to the book had been severed. It had a new master.
And he was using it.
* * *
Mason ducked as a bullet blistered the corner of the flatbed wagon, filling the air with splinters. Second and third shots whizzed past overhead, and then he popped up long enough to return fire, before another volley answered his own.
“Where’s my fire!” he screamed at no one in particular.
Mason ejected the spent cartridges from his pistol and quickly reloaded. At his feet, a bag lay torn open, its cache of coins and a few government notes spilled onto the dirt. There was no lockbox. At the first sign of trouble, the brute had tossed the box and the tiny, one-armed woman on top of a trailer, out of sight and out of reach. That left the take from the Hanged Man’s tent and little else. Charlie had snatched the money bag from the brute’s belt, but it had cost him.
“How is he?”
Hugh shook his head. “Shoulder’s busted. Some ribs, too.”
“I’m fine!” Charlie said and then sucked in a gulp of air. “Hurts like a bitch, though.”
“Good,” Mason said. “Pain means you ain’t dyin’.”
Mason scanned the area around them. They were at the south end of the camp, farthest from the entrance, and on the opposite side of the big top from the Hanged Man’s tent. Garibaldi and half-dozen carnival folks had them pinned down on two sides. From here, they could cut back to the midway or take their chances on the steep western slope behind the camp, which in the dark would likely be suicide.
A few stragglers remained on the midway, apparently not alarmed at the sound of gunshots, or the flames that should have been lighting up the night sky.
“Where’s my g’damn fire!”
* * *
Henry held the knife firmly against his thumb, waiting for the blood to come. It didn’t. It wouldn’t, until he broke the skin. This was proving more of a problem than he’d anticipated.
“Come on,” he whispered to himself. “Just a little slice. Won’t hurt a bit.”
Henry didn’t believe it.
He believed what he read. The words on the page had flowed into his eyes, through his mind, and out of his mouth. They were resurrection, life, and redemption (vengeance), for himself and the dead man to whom they were directed. They were true.
The condensed version of the spell was only a dozen lines long and Henry had spoken them clearly and correctly, he was sure. There was only one line left.
But first there was blood.
“Don’t think about it, do it.”
Henry closed his eyes and pressed the knife against his flesh. Still no blood. There wouldn’t be until he pulled the blade across his skin and he knew it. For all the strength given him by the book, it had somehow failed him on this one thing. He was afraid of the pain.
Henry opened his eyes. “I’m not a coward.”
The knife slipped easily across Henry’s thumb, cutting deeper than he’d intended. It was cold and painless. He stared at the red, inch-long line crossing his fingerprint as it swelled and overflowed with blood. And then the pain came.
Henry waited for the fear to return, but the stinging in his thumb had the opposite effect. His head was clear, his path laid bare before him. He would share his blood with the dead man and …
“Make him my own.”
Henry raised his now-dripping left thumb to the Hanged Man’s forehead. He pressed it there, letting the blood flow onto the face of the dead man. A single drop rolled across the bridge of the nose, cutting a crimson line through the pale makeup before slipping into the right eye. Henry watched as his blood spread across the yellowed white, tinting it orange and then red.
Henry drew back and admired his handiwork. Was it enough? The book was vague on the amount of blood needed for resurrection, as well as where to apply it. It referred only to “wetting the flesh.” He glanced at the cut on his thumb, where fluid continued to seep, and thought it best not to be stingy.
Henry traced the faint scar across the Hanged Man’s neck with his thumb, leaving a fresh trail of blood. He half expected the scar to open and swallow the red line, but it did not. Henry considered touching each of the bullet scars on the dead man’s chest, but held back. Had they always been scars? When would he have had time to heal before dying?
“That’s enough,” he said, cutting off the questions. Henry backed away a few steps and waited.
A fresh volley of gunfire erupted outside the tent, followed by men yelling and then more shooting. Henry barely heard it. The shooting was someplace else, somewhere that couldn’t touch him, not now, not ever again.
“Rise, my friend.”
Henry blinked. His thumb hurt. What had he done wrong? A moment of panic faded away almost immediately and Henry smiled.
“Not done yet,” he said, pulling the black book from his pocket. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Henry was surprised that he’d lost track of the book, even though it now pulsed in his hands. It had left him, but only for a moment.
Henry started to open the book, but caught site of his bloody thumb and stopped. He didn’t know why, but getting his blood on the pages would be bad. He slipped the book under his arm and then tore a strip of cloth off the sheet that hung beside the Hanged Man listing his crimes. Henry wrapped the fabric around his injury, seeing the wordmurderroll about his thumb and then disappear beneath the next wrapping. When it was done, he took the book in his left hand and let it fall open, finding the point where he’d left off immediately. Henry read:
“Blood given, bloed reduco, vita captus, mortuus haud magis. Thou art risen, élévation et come forth. Sto in nex umbra and wag vir niks. I call to thee…”
Henry stopped reading. He stared at the text, not sure what to say. He’d read over the spell several times, had practiced the foreign words until sure he was speaking them correctly, but somehow he’d missed this before.
I call to thee, (nom).
He’d read it before as it was written, but now understood he was not supposed to say the word but rather to insert a name—the name of the dead man.
Hugh and Charlie had argued this topic repeatedly before concluding the man didn’t have a name. He might have at some point, but it had been long forgotten, if it had ever been known. His name was the Hanged Man.
Henry wasn’t so sure. That name was his, but was it the man’s true name? Would it speak to whatever power was to bring him back to the land of the living? Henry stumbled over the question in his head several times before coming to the obvious answer. There wasn’t another name to use.
Henry looked at the Hanged Man’s face. Thin streaks of blood ran down either side of the nose, turning to black tears in the ashen makeup. Without thinking, Henry reached up and drew down the eyelids. The right one refused to close completely. It would have to do.
Henry looked to the book, but he already knew the words to speak. He never got the chance to say them.
Mason’s gun pressed against Henry’s temple made sure of it.
“Where’s my fire, Henry?”
Henry’s eyes flicked to his right. Mason was only a few feet away, his face bloodied in much the same way as the Hanged Man’s. Henry was so engrossed in his task, he’d missed the man’s approach entirely.
Mason sniffed the air. “I don’t smell smoke. I should smell smoke,” he said, and pressed his gun harder against Henry’s temple. “Where’s my g’damm fire, Henry!”
Henry opened his mouth but said nothing. He wasn’t afraid. He wouldn’t make an excuse, he wouldn’t lie. He didn’t have to.
“I’m lighting it right now,” he said.
Henry turned back the corpse, closed his eyes, and spoke:
“I call to thee, Hanged Man, forever sent, never to return; I call to thee, return to me.”
The last half of the sentence was a translation from the Latin and French hodgepodge that was scribbled in the book. Henry didn’t think about it, he just did it. He knew the words. At that moment, he could have spoken the entire text of the spell in English, or any language, in fact. He knew it.
Henry opened his eyes.
The Hanged Man’s were still mostly closed.
Mason looked from Henry to the Hanged Man and back to Henry. His gun never moved.
“What? You trying to start a fire with magic? You an idiot? Use a g’damn match!”
“No,” Henry said, his voice wavering. “I spoke it all, all of it. Every word. He’s supposed to…” Henry reached for the Hanged Man.
Mason grabbed his collar and threw him down. “Never should have brought you. Just a stupid kid.”
Henry turned on his side to see Charlie drop to the ground at his brother’s feet. Both men were wounded, Charlie obviously worse than Hugh.
“Put a gun in his paw and throw him out front,” Hugh said. “Give ’em something else to shoot at ’sides us.”
“No,” Henry said. “Wait! He’s coming, he’s coming back.”
Henry pointed at the corpse behind Mason. Mason didn’t turn around.
“Is that what you’re doing?” Mason laughed. “Trying to raise the dead?”
Hugh and Charlie exchanged glances as Mason moved back to the tent entrance. He slipped open the flap as little as possible and scanned the grounds. Satisfied, he dumped the spent cartridges from his pistol and began to reload.
Henry registered that Mason’s weapon had been empty, but he didn’t care. His attention was back on the dead man. What had he done wrong? He made a mistake in the reading, he must have.
“I can fix this,” Henry said, flipping open the book. He scanned the pages, his finger darting over the words, his mouth repeating them silently. The words in his head matched those on the page. Where was his mistake?
“What have you got left?” Mason asked Hugh.
Hugh glanced at his pistol. “Two and I’m out.”
Charlie handed his weapon to his brother. “Full six, but that’s all I got.”
Mason looked around the tent, finally spying the gun in the Hanged Man’s holster.
Henry didn’t look up from the book.
Not waiting for an answer, Mason strode toward the body, but was struck high in the left shoulder by a bullet fired from outside the tent. He spun on the spot and went down in front of the dead man on display.
Hugh dropped low and returned fire, emptying his pistol blindly into the side of the tent. He switched to Charlie’s, fired once more, and then dragged his brother behind a pedestal in the center of the room on which a Native headdress was displayed.
Shots rang out on all sides of the tent. Most of the bullets passed through one wall and exited the opposite. A single shot grazed the Hanged Man’s right thigh. None of the men in the tent noticed as blood began to ooze from the wound.
Finally, a voice called out, “Hold yer fire, dammit!”
The shooting stopped.
Mason rolled over on his hip, sat up, and scanned the tent, front to back. There was no place to hide that didn’t back up against canvas, a poor proposition for defensive purposes. One of the torches beside the Hanged Man had fallen and was within reach. Mason picked it up, weighing his options in either hand. Fire back or fire?
“Give it up, son,” called out the circus master. “Got nowhere to go. Give up now, you live. That’s my one and only offer.”
Mason looked at Hugh and Charlie. Both brothers had had enough. They wouldn’t be of help. Henry was only a few feet away, his face buried in that damn book. He was useless. That left Mason and the dead man. Mason smiled.
“Always heard you were good in a fight,” he said to the corpse and then tossed the torch into the coffin. A moment later, the Hanged Man’s pant leg caught fire.
Henry flipped another page, then nearly screamed in pain as his leg began to burn. Only it wasn’t his leg.
Henry leaped to his feet. He grabbed the torch and threw it across the tent, where it struck canvas and fell to the ground still burning. Without hesitation he swatted at the flames with his bare hands. There was pain, much of it focused in his bloodied thumb, but the fire was out quickly. The pain in his leg subsided.
“Thanks,” said a voice beside him. “Hate to see my investment go up in smoke on the first night.”
Henry turned to see Mason, Hugh, and Charlie under guard. Garibaldi, the brute at his side, had his weapon trained on Henry.
Henry took a step back. This was where it would end. His new life would come to a crashing halt before it had begun. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.
And then a hand from above fell on Henry’s shoulder and changed everything.
The Hanged Man thought it odd that none of the weapons were aimed at him.
Three men were down, injured, and held at gunpoint by three others, two with pistols, another with a shotgun. One man was notarmedat all but rather held a revolver with his foot while balancing on the other. Of the gunmen, the Hanged Man knew he would be the most formidable.
Closer to the Hanged Man, a large idiot carrying no weapon but his size backed up an older man whose colorful vest and pristine gold-plated Volcanic pistol suggested he was the boss.
The last man, the man close enough to reach out and touch, was Henry Macke. The Hanged Man already knew all he needed to about him.
As for the rest, he didn’t need to know any more. They were all about to die.
* * *
John Garibaldi followed the hand on Henry’s shoulder back to its owner. The Hanged Man’s glassy-eyed glare returned his own, as it had every other time he’d looked at the dead man, but then something different happened. He blinked.
Before Garibaldi had a chance to explore this development, the Hanged Man drew the gun on his hip and shot the circus master in the chest. His second shot took a chunk of scalp and a little skull off the brute. The armless freak managed to turn his weapon toward the Hanged Man before a bullet exploded his shooting leg at the kneecap. The other two men were struck in the back as they attempted to flee, the last already outside the tent when he tumbled face-first into the sod.
“Holy Christ,” Mason managed, getting to his knees. “You actually brought the bastard back.” He grinned at Henry, thinking his situation had improved. When he looked to the Hanged Man, Mason discovered otherwise.
The Hanged Man fired again, striking Mason in the cheek, tearing off the man’s ear in the process.
“No,” Henry said, weakly. “Not him.”
The Hanged Man tilted his head toward Henry. Henry looked into the living dead man’s eyes—one bloodred, one putrid yellow—and understood his world would never be the same.
The Hanged Man pointed his weapon at Hugh and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. He pulled back the hammer and depressed the trigger again. Nothing. Finally, he took a closer look at his weapon. There was paint on his hand, rubbed off from the handle.
“Not my gun,” he said, his voice deep and ragged.
Hugh shot Henry a look and then scooped up his brother and stumbled out of the tent. A single shot was fired outside the tent, but no more.
Henry raised a hand to the Hanged Man and tried to back away but was thrown aside by something massive.
The brute, blood pouring from beneath the loose flap of skin clinging to his scalp, advanced on the Hanged Man, screaming at the top of his lungs. He smashed into the coffin and the man, sending both toppling into a support beam that snapped, bringing the back third of the tent down on top of them.
Henry rolled away from the melee and onto his feet. He couldn’t see the two monsters but could hear the brute wailing nonsensically before abruptly stopping. There was a guttural grunt and then nothing more.
Henry stood still, unable to move. This was his doing. By all rights he owned this monster. That’s how it worked, that’s what he’d read in the book. It hadpromised.
Something shifted beneath the canvas. There was a sharp tear and then a rip as a knife plunged through the canvas, cutting an arcing line from left to right. The flap fell away and he stepped through, hands and chest bloodied, though it was not his own.
The Hanged Man held up the small knife Henry had used to draw blood from his thumb. He flipped it at the younger man’s feet, where it stuck in the ground.
Henry flinched but otherwise didn’t move.
“I made you,” he managed.
The Hanged Man stared at Henry, showing no emotion. His eyes fell upon the small black book gripped tightly against the young man’s chest.
The book vibrated in Henry’s hand. It wasn’t the comforting heartbeat that had brought Henry to this place but rather a call to its master.
“No,” Henry said. “I’m the master.”
The Hanged Man grinned and was immediately struck in the gut by the first bullet ever fired from John Garibaldi’s vintage Volcanic pistol. The second hit the man in his thigh, the third grazed his shin.
There were two more shots in the gun, but the carnival boss couldn’t hold the weapon aloft long enough to fire again. The pistol dropped at his side into a pool of blood. He looked up at Henry.
“Run, you idiot,” he choked out.
Henry stared at the injured man, momentarily unsure whether he should help him or take his advice. And then he heard the words that made his decision easy:
“You got something belongs to me, Henry Macke.”
* * *
The screams and gunfire continued long after Henry stumbled through the carnival exit and into the woods above Tillamook. He ran as far his legs would carry him and then collapsed beneath a giant fir tree, striking his forehead sharply against the trunk as he went down. Henry blinked back stars, fighting to stay conscious long enough to put the tree between himself and the circus. Satisfied, he listened.
Henry tried to judge the distance he’d covered. Was it far enough? Was he safe? He shook his head.
“I’m the master.”
Upon exiting the tent, he’d been met by a crowd of armed circus folk, including the skinny man, who took one look at Henry and knew.
“What did you do?”
The answer came from a bullet that passed through the skinny man’s left lung before coming to rest in the arm of the green-skinned acrobat standing behind him. All eyes turned from Henry to the tall, shirtless man emerging from the ruined tent. In his right hand was the carnival boss’s gold-plated pistol, which he fired, striking the apeman in the neck. He dropped the weapon and replaced it with one of the three other pistols tucked behind his belt.
Shots rang out as the carnival folk fired back. Henry saw at least two bullets hit their mark, but neither slowed the Hanged Man as he emptied the second pistol, every shot tasting flesh. Henry broke through the crowd before the villain drew again.
The last thing Henry saw as he left the circus grounds was the Hanged Man, his made-up mug glowing brightly in the carnival lights, strolling down the midway, shooting anyone who crossed his path. Fifty yards stood between them, but the man still found Henry in the crowd and paused to show him the bloody grin on his face.
The image stayed with Henry until he passed out thirty minutes later under a fir tree.
* * *
Henry awoke to the warmth of a fire and a dull headache. He put a hand to his pain, finding a large bump in the center of his forehead. He remembered hitting it against the tree. He must have passed out.
Who built the fire?
Henry sat upright to see the Hanged Man squatting on the other side of a small fire, trimming the overgrown fingernails on his left hand. No longer half naked, he now wore a clean white shirt and plain black jacket that seemed to fit him quite well. A wide-brimmed hat sat atop his head, hiding the evidence of his previous death. Minus the makeup and blood, he looked almost normal. Henry knew that was a lie.
Henry moved slowly at first, backing away from the dead man as a wave of nausea threatened to keep him from moving at all. It passed and with it any pretense of staying put. Henry scrambled to his feet and bolted into the darkness. He didn’t get far before he heard its call:
The feeling wasn’t so much pain as loss. He felt it in his heart. Henry stumbled to a stop, putting a hand into his coat pocket for reassurance, but finding none.
It was gone.
Henry spun on the spot. The Hanged Man remained by the fire only now he was staring directly at Henry. He raised the black book in his hand and grinned.
Henry walked back to the fire and stopped just short of the flames. The Hanged Man turned his attention to the book as he flipped through its pages.
“That’s mine,” Henry said, surprised by the fearlessness in his voice.
The Hanged Man didn’t respond but stopped flipping pages. He raised the book into the light of the fire, illuminating an otherwise unremarkable page that featured a bloody thumbprint on the upper left-hand corner.
“So it is.”
A sliver of pain pulsated within Henry’s cut thumb.
The Hanged Man snapped the book closed and tossed it across the flames to Henry. The moment the book fell into his hands, Henry felt better. It was his. He was the master. How could he have ever doubted it? He let the book fall open in his hand, sure it would land on the page he wanted. It did.
“Earth and dust, sang et os, I call to thee ut lord quod bass!”
The Hanged Man listened intently as Henry continued, flawlessly mingling English, French, Latin, and African phrases in perfect cadence and pitch. When he was done, the Hanged Man stared at Henry a beat, then returned to trimming his nails.
Henry blinked. “I brought you back. You have to do what I say.”
The Hanged Man cut across a long nail and then tossed the clipping into the fire.
“You have to,” Henry repeated. “You’re under my control.”
The Hanged Man stood. As a corpse, his size had been a burden, but reanimated the man’s lanky six-and-a-half-foot frame was steady and fast. He stepped across the fire and grabbed Henry by the neck, forcing him back against a tree. Henry struggled, but found no slack.
“No man controls me.”
Henry stared into the dead man’s eyes. The right had mostly cleared, so it now matched the yellowed orb on the left. A single, crooked red line cut across the pupil that appeared to pulse with blood. Henry wondered if it was his own.
“But the book,” Henry managed and then began to choke. The Hanged Man tightened his grip, closing off Henry’s air supply. He held firm for a moment, then loosed his hold, as if distracted by an unexpected thought. Abruptly, he released Henry, who fell to the ground gasping for air.
The Hanged Man plucked the book from Henry’s grasp and turned to the fire. He could not feel the heat on his legs, his hands, or anywhere else on his body. He thought he might come to miss it, but the lack of pain in his gut-shot belly seemed a fair trade. He would not be the same man. Perhaps he wouldn’t be a man at all. Either way, the Hanged Man didn’t care. The hate in his heart burned as brightly as ever.
“But I brought you back,” Henry said weakly.
The Hanged Man nodded.
The Hanged Man held the book before the flames, unsure whether he wanted to let it go, or even if he could. He doubted it would burn, regardless. It wasn’t his anymore. That didn’t mean he couldn’t still be its master.
“Wrong name,” he said, and dropped the book at Henry’s feet.
Henry snatched it up in both hands, feeling warmth greater than anything emanating from the fire. He would never let it go again, no matter the hand that tried to steal it.
The Hanged Man was counting on it.
Henry gathered himself, unsure of his next move. He could run, but to where? The Hanged Man had caught up to him easily enough. It was the book. The Hanged Man could feel it and was perhaps even connected to it. It would call to him, as it did to Henry. There would be no escape. Not yet.
“What do you want with me?”
The Hanged Man turned and walked away toward a pair of horses tied to a tree at the edge of the firelight. He dug into a knapsack thrown over one of the saddles and pulled out a pistol. He returned to Henry and knelt beside him, holding out the weapon butt-first.
The red paint on the handle had mostly worn off, but Henry would have recognized it with or without the false decoration.
“That’s the gun we found buried with you.”
The gun spun so fast in the Hanged Man’s grip, Henry wondered if the barrel had always been pointed at him.
“I’m not lying! That’s all we found. That gun and the book.”
The Hanged Man pulled back the hammer, locking it into position. He liked the way the trigger felt under his finger. It was a modest-size weapon, sturdy, and one that was oddly familiar. He wanted very much to pull the trigger. The fact that he could not was troubling.
“The old man!”
The Hanged Man cocked an eyebrow.
“The marshal, uh, Kleberger, I think. He took it, he must have.”
“Kleberg,” the Hanged Man said. He knew that name.
“Yeah, him. I saw him bury you years ago—with your gun, the real one—but he must have come back and swapped it out for that one.”
The Hanged Man lowered the weapon. An ancient memory, the first he’d fully recalled since regaining consciousness, began to unspool in his mind.
In it his hate found a purpose.
* * *
The Hanged Man is dead—or nearly so. Death will come soon despite the whisper in his pocket telling him otherwise. It never lies, but he can barely hear it, now, calling to him, singing a sweet lullaby.
The marshal is there, floating above him, the black hole in his hand aimed at the Hanged Man’s heart.
Suddenly the weapon spits fire, again and again.
There is no pain, but the whisper goes quiet. The Hanged Man is alone. He wants to scream, wants to tear into the man’s flesh, but he can’t. The last thing he sees is the red-handled revolver as the barrel is pressed to his forehead. Kleberg leans close, a smile growing across his lips as he speaks.…
* * *
“This I might keep,” the Hanged Man said, repeating the echo of the last words to filter through his living head.
The Hanged Man grabbed Henry around the collar, although this time with less deadly intent.
“Where is he?”
“The marshal? I don’t know! He left—no, they chased him off. ’Cause of all the graves he dug up.”
The Hanged Man opened his hand and Henry scuttled backward, putting some distance between himself and the unpredictable outlaw.
“That’s when I remembered where you were buried. He left … and I remembered everything.”
The Hanged Man eyed Henry. “Once he was gone?”
The Hanged Man remembered the grave—his grave—and the final moment of his previous life. There wasn’t much of it left at the time, but enough to survive had the marshal not shot him eleven times with his own weapon. He had it still. He must.
“Somebody in Astoria probably knows where he went,” Henry said, getting to his feet. “Try the general store.”
The Hanged Man motioned for him to come closer. Henry’s feet were moving before he could stop them.
“I told you everything I know,” he said, gripping the book tightly to his chest. “I don’t know what else you expect me to do.”
The Hanged Man leaned over Henry, tapping the book lightly with the pistol.
The mayor’s garden party was in full swing by the time the Wyldes arrived. The guest list had swelled to nearly a hundred, most arriving with guests of their own. Not that the mayor objected. A happy guest was a happy voter.
The garden portion of the party was on an acre of gently sloping, extensively landscaped grounds, dotted with trees and bushes. A large fountain sat in the middle of a courtyard that stretched from the mayor’s residence to a raised stone stage in the center of the grounds. Carefully pruned hedges on either side of the stage resembled the city’s two new bridges. Most impressive was the rose garden, a curling line of three dozen large bushes, each either a different color or style. All but a few were in full bloom, adding a heady floral fragrance to the air and offering a welcome respite from the boggy stench that hung over much of the city.
Joseph could smell the roses a block from the estate, but now that he was among them the aroma was overwhelming. He and Kate had been to the mayor’s home on a handful of occasions, but this was a first for the kids, both of whom were drawn instantly to the flowers.
“Holy crow,” Kick said. “Look at all the colors.”
“Agatha preens over every bush,” said the mayor. “I must say I hardly ever see her in the spring as she spends more time out-of-doors than in.”
The marshal sniffed loudly. “Smells like a perfume shop.”
The mayor nodded. “Wonderful, isn’t it?”
The marshal raised an eyebrow but kept his tongue in check. “Maybe you oughta have another festival for your flowers.”
“Oh, don’t let Agatha hear you say that. She’s already after me to make the rose our city’s official flower. Thankfully, she can’t decide on which one.” The mayor bent down between the twins. “In fact, I’m sure she could use some help. Why don’t the two of you inspect each one, and see if you can’t pick out the flower that best represents our fine city.”
“Okay,” said Kick and ran straight to the nearest rose, from which he breathed deeply.
Maddie hesitated just long enough to get a subtle nod from Kate before following her brother into the garden.
“Now,” the mayor said, turning back to the adults. “Let’s introduce you to a few of our special guests.”
* * *
The mayor’s special guests included an explorer just back from the Yukon Territory, a professor of history from Willamette University, a geologist, a volcanologist, the owner of the largest local brewery, three bankers and two bankers’ wives, a pair of Chicago businessmen who had invested in the festival, and numerous local and national politicians, including senators from California, Missouri, and Ohio.
It was an eclectic bunch and it took Joseph only a few handshakes to realize none of them was the star attraction. The very special guest, the guest the mayor took pains to introduce to everyone in attendance, was the marshal, who, according to the mayor, had single-handedly cornered and killed the Hanged Man, saving the West and every man, woman, and child living in it.
For his part, the marshal tried several times to revise the mayor’s story, before realizing it was a lost cause. He found the less he protested, the sooner the mayor moved on to the next introduction. Given the number of people standing around eagerly waiting for the mayor’s attention, a nod and a shake seemed the best course of action.
It wasn’t that the marshal objected to being branded a Hero of the West, something he felt he’d earned after thirty years’ serving his country. What bothered him was that his career could be distilled to one event—the killing of one man. That his life had meaning only because he put an end to the vile and despicable acts of the Hanged Man diminished everything else he’d accomplished. The idea that he would be forever linked to the man was repulsive.
He also suspected it was true.
Kate could see the meet and greet wearing on her father and was glad when the mayor promised the next introduction would be the last. By the time they got to the three men lingering just far enough from the crowd to make mingling a bother, Kate was more than ready to join them.
“Gentlemen, you’re not trying to hide from me, are you?”
“We’re trying, Jim,” said the oldest of the three, a well-dressed man with a wide, curled mustache. “But you aren’t making it very easy.”
The mayor laughed, boisterously as ever. “This is my very old friend Oliver Olsen. Mr. Olsen is a longtime writer for theSacramento Beeand is not to be trusted.”
“Ah-ah,” Mr. Olsen said, wagging a finger at the mayor. “Telegraph lines run both ways, remember? I can have you calling for tax on California olives in tomorrow’s edition.”
The mayor rolled his eyes. “See what I mean?”
“Pay him no mind, madam,” Mr. Olsen said, taking Kate’s hand. “Your mayor is not but a rogue with good taste in men’s fashions. Now, unless I am misinformed, you would be Mrs. Wylde, yes?”
“I am. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Olsen.”
“Call me Ollie, please,” he said, bowing formally. He then offered a hand to Joseph. “And that would make you Mr. Wylde.”
“Well met,” Ollie said, smiling broadly. Despite his practiced manners, there was a jovial quality to his voice that made most people feel at ease. Kate and Joseph were no exception.
“I’m pleased to say Jim has spoken very kindly of you both in our correspondence.”
Joseph wondered what kind of correspondence might include such a mention, but thought it best not to ask in present company.
“I’m glad to hear it,” he said instead.
Ollie took Joseph’s response and the slight pause that preceded it exactly for what they were and smiled.
“Mr. Olsen and I often share opinions on matters of a political nature … and such,” said the mayor, perhaps a bit off his game given the stresses of so many guests.
Several uncomfortable seconds later, Ollie clapped his hands and redirected the attention to the well-fed man standing to his left.
“And please allow me to introduce my new acquaintance, Dr. John Gillman, director of your recently opened medical school on the hill.”
“Hello,” said the doctor.
Kate brightened. “Oh, the son of one of our neighbors—Andrew Kinsey—will be coming to study with you this fall. He’s very excited.”
“Good. Then he will study very hard.”
Kate smiled politely, but was glad when Ollie gestured to the slender, clean-shaven man on his right.
“And this fine young man is Mr. Samuel Edmonds of Monterey, California.”
Edmonds tipped his hat. “Hello, sirs, madam.”
“Mr. Edmonds and I have shared a most interesting journey from California, isn’t that right, Mr. Edmonds?”
“Oh, um, yes, it was very pleasant.”
“You traveled together?” asked Kate.
“Met along the way,” said Ollie. “And what a fortuitous meeting it was, given our common destination. You see, Mr. Edmonds will be, in my humble opinion, the most important man at the festival.”
It was at this moment that Joseph realized the mayor had yet to introduce the marshal. His newspaper friend had knocked him off his game, had done so easily, which Joseph thought was not an altogether bad thing.
“So,” said Kate, “what is it that will make you so popular, Mr. Edmonds?”
“He’s a weatherman,” said Ollie.
Joseph cocked an eyebrow. “A what?”
“Technically, I’m a meteorologist,” the younger man said. “I collect data on atmospheric conditions and then forecast probabilities based on observed weather phenomena.”
Ollie chuckled. “What he means to say is that he can predict the future!”
“Oh, no,” said Edmonds. “Just the weather—sometimes—it’s not an exact science, not yet.”
“How fascinating,” said Kate. “Can you really tell us what’s going to happen tomorrow?”
“It’ll be sunny, I think.”
“You think?” said the doctor, unimpressed.
“I’ve only been in Oregon for a few days and haven’t had a chance to collect readings for an accurate forecast.”
“Yes, yes,” Ollie said, “but tell them the good news—Jim, you’re going to love this.”
Edmonds hesitated, then blurted out with more enthusiasm and volume than he intended, “It’s going to rain!”
A brief silence was followed by clapping as numerous people who had drifted closer to follow the mayor’s conversation broke out in applause. The mayor practically beamed.
“You’re certain?” he asked.
“I would say there’s a sixty percent chance that Portland should experience an extended period of precipitation beginning no later than Thursday.”
“First night of the festival,” said Ollie. “Very fortuitous.”
“Cutting it a little close, but I’ll take it,” said the mayor, patting Mr. Edmonds on the back.
“How exactly do you arrive at your prognostications?” Joseph asked.
“It’s very interesting, actually. By studying recent local conditions and coordinating them with observations from other locations, it’s possible to build a model of the weather on paper, on a map, but with weather instead of rivers and mountains.”
“And then what?” said the doctor. “You divine the results by mixing a few raindrops and snowflakes in a lab?”
“Actually I don’t have much use for a laboratory. The weather is outside, so I spend most of my time in the field, measuring the temperature, wind, humidity, even pressure. Given enough information, I can forecast what the weather will be like up to five days in advance with at least fifty percent accuracy.”
“Only half the time?” the doctor said, grinning. “I believe I can match those odds for predicting sun or rain.”
Ollie put a hand on the weatherman’s shoulder. “My dear Dr. Gillman, I believe it’s more complicated than that. Isn’t that right, Mr. Edmonds?”
“Well, there are different kinds of rain,” said Edmonds, only a little deflated. “As are there many kinds of clouds, snow, hail, sleet, and wind. It’s very exciting, especially in a place like Oregon, where you have plenty of local weather to follow.”
“Pardon my skepticism,” said the doctor. “I’m afraid my tolerance for the new sciences is rather low.”
“Actually, the study of meteorology is very old. And most of the devices I use to take measurements have been in use for centuries. In fact, I’ve got a barometer in my personal collection that’s almost one hundred years old. It’s quite beautiful—and it still works!”
Joseph was not at all surprised to hear there were fluctuating pressures in the air. He’d known for years—could feel them, in fact—and was known to predict the odd thunderstorm or heavy rain well before it arrived. He generally kept such information to himself, however, and was curious to see if his heightened senses were in tune with the young man’s scientific equipment.
“I’d be very curious to see that, Mr. Edmonds.”
“It’d be my pleasure, Mr. Wylde. I believe I’m to have a booth at the festival, isn’t that right, Mr. Mayor?”
Ollie leaned closer to Kate. “I told you he would be a man of considerable interest.”
Kate nodded. It was then that she noticed her father standing just outside the circle. He’d drifted slightly, having received no formal introduction.
Ollie picked up on her discomfort and its direction almost immediately.
“Jim, it appears you’ve been holding out on me. Is this who I think it is?”
The mayor, briefly caught off guard, recovered quickly.
“Just saving the best for last. Gentlemen, forgive my tardiness, this is Marshal James Kleberg, formerly of Astoria, but now a proud resident of Portland.”
The doctor raised an eyebrow. “Of the U.S. Marshals?”
“For a time,” said the marshal. “Retired.”
“Retired, but not forgotten,” said the mayor. “Gentlemen, you are standing in the presence of greatness. Marshal Kleberg is the man who brought the vile Hanged Man to justice.”
“Who?” asked Edmonds.
The mayor scoffed. “The Hanged Man! Surely you’ve heard of the most despicable, murdering scoundrel ever to prey upon the good people of the West. The Dead Man? The Man with the Red Gun?”
“No, I’m sorry.”
“You’ll have to pardon my young friend, here, Marshal. He’s originally from New York,” said Ollie. “If there’s not a James or a Hickok in the headline, chances are they’ve never heard the story.”
“That’s all right.”
“But yours is quite a tale, if I recall, one worth repeating. It involved a fairly bloody shootout, did it not?”
“It did,” said the marshal. He waited a beat for the mayor to jump in, but when the man didn’t, the marshal continued. “Wasn’t just me, though. Took two or three dozen men to corral the son of a bitch. I just got to put the last bullet in him.”
An image popped into the marshal’s head—his hand before him, the Hanged Man’s gun in its grip, firing, again and again.
“Ah, but that’s not the first time you encountered the man, correct?” asked Ollie.
The marshal caught up to Ollie’s words a little late.
“What? Oh … that’s right. I chased him up and down creation for years ’fore I put him down.” The marshal’s eyes drifted to Joseph. “Me and a few other good men.”
“Of course,” said Ollie. “But I was referring to the hanging, the first one. The day the cretin got his name.”
The marshal blinked. This fellow knew some things. Fortunately, the marshal remembered.
“Yeah, I was there when they tried to hang him.”
Those gathered around the mayor’s group, who up to that point had been casually eavesdropping, gave up the ruse and seemed to lean in en masse as the marshal continued.
“Couldn’t quite kill the bastard, but they did make him famous.”
Ollie nodded. “This was in sixty-eight, yes?”
“Sounds about right.”
The marshal was surprised to find his memories of the botched hanging clearer than those of the Hanged Man’s eventual demise, especially considering they were nearly a decade older.
“I missed the actual hanging. Some townsfolk took matters into their own hands and decided to string him up before I could process him upstate. He weren’t nobody at the time, just another delinquent with courage enough to steal from folks that ain’t got much.” The marshal paused, letting his story sink in. The truth of the Hanged Man made the bastard seem less important somehow. The marshal didn’t know why but that made him feel better.
A question came from the crowd: “What did he steal?”
“Twenty-seven dollars and a horse wasn’t worth half that,” said the marshal, smiling just a little. “Don’t suppose it was his first crime, but definitely the first time he got caught. Put him in a foul mood.”
“Which he would never relinquish,” said Ollie.
The marshal’s expression darkened. “No, but there weren’t no sign of the man he would become, neither. I’d a known, would have strung him up myself.”
More questions came from the crowd, faster than the marshal could answer.
“Is it true he cut himself down from the hanging tree, even after he was dead?”
“Was he buried first?”
“Did he rise from the grave?”
“Did he always wear the noose?”
The scowl he’d worn for much of the previous week returned, but only until the marshal caught the eye of his grandson. Kick had silently drifted back to his mother’s side along with his sister and was now watching his grandfather, eyes wide and ears open. He was just starting to look like his father had the first time the marshal met the man who would ultimately marry his daughter. It was a hard to frown at a face like that.
“Weren’t nothing supernatural about it,” he said. “Fools that strung him up didn’t know a damn thing about tying a noose. Unraveled ten seconds after the drop. Surprised the hell out of ’em, which was just long enough for the man—whoweren’tdead—to bolt into the bushes.”
“But then why did they call him the Hanged Man?”
“He called himself that,” said the marshal. “Had a bit of scar ’round his neck, which was enough for most folks.”
“And it was after this that he truly made a name for himself,” said Ollie.
“He started killin’ folks, if that’s what you mean.”
“It is. But I can’t say I ever learned the man’s Christian name.”
“He kept it a secret,” said the marshal. “Wouldn’t tell me when I arrested him that first time. Nobody in town knew it. After the hanging it didn’t matter.”
“But you learned his name eventually, of course,” said the mayor. “That’s how you cornered him in Astoria, yes?”
The marshal tried to remember. Did he know the Hanged Man’s name? Was he supposed to?How could you forget?
As the silence stretched out, Joseph wondered if his decision to let the marshal find his way through the past alone was a mistake. He wasn’t the only one.
“Marshal, your silence speaks louder than words,” said Ollie.
“It does?” mumbled the mayor, echoing the sentiments of many in the crowd, the marshal included.
“Of course the marshal knows who he was, but by choosing not to say, he’s buried the man, name and all, making him all the less relevant. We shouldn’t remember the monster and his deeds, but rather his unfortunate victims.” Ollie bowed to the marshal. “A very noble sentiment, Marshal, and for that you have my respect.”
“And mine,” quickly added the mayor.
There were murmurs of agreement from the crowd.
“Well,” said the marshal, eyeing Joseph. “I suppose not all things are worth remembering, anyway.”
Joseph felt Kate’s hand take his own and squeeze lightly.
“Jim, I daresay my prediction as to who will be the star of the festival may be in doubt,” said Ollie. He put a hand on Edmonds’s shoulder and added, “No offense, young man, but a hero of the West is hard to beat.”
“I agree,” said Edmonds. “And you know I think I did read something about this Hanged Man fellow when I was younger. I remember a story about a very bloody shootout and something about a magic gun.”
“Magic gun?” said the doctor. “What nonsense is this?”
“Yes, yes, the Bloody Pistol,” said Ollie. “Whatever happened to that, Marshal?”
“I have it,” said the marshal, regretting the words even as he said them.
The mayor beamed. “You have it? In your possession?”
The marshal nodded. He didn’t bother to look at his daughter. He knew what he would see on her face and it would still be there waiting for him later.
“You must bring it to the festival,” said the mayor. “For a practical demonstration.”
“What was the myth?” asked Ollie. “That it could be fired without reloading?”
The marshal’s hand started to itch. “Something like that. Never tested it,” he lied.
“I didn’t know you kept his gun,” Joseph said, unable to save his question for later.
“Couldn’t leave it behind. Too dangerous. Some fool might pick it up and start calling himself the Hanged Man all over again.”
“You could have destroyed it.”
Joseph’s words made the marshal flinch. He could have destroyed it, could have dismantled the weapon and thrown the pieces into the Columbia River, but he hadn’t. He wouldn’t. It was his gun now. No one was going to take it away from him, no matter how hard and long he stared at the marshal with his one eye.
“I kept it safe.”
“What of the body?” Ollie asked.
The marshal answered right away: “Burned it.”
He was lying. Joseph heard it in the old man’s voice, although he didn’t understand. What the marshal believed was a lie was true as far as Joseph knew. Could that explain the marshal’s nocturnal diggings the week before? Had he been searching for the gun or for something else?
“Oh,” Ollie began, softening his tone ever so slightly. “I only ask because our journey north brought us through Astoria, where it seems there’s been a rash of grave disturbances over the past few weeks.”
Joseph felt Kate’s grip once again tighten, but sensed no change in the marshal’s demeanor. The mayor’s unfortunate question would put an end to that.
“Were any bodies stolen?”
“Just one,” said Edmonds.
The marshal stepped forward. “What did you say?”
“One body went missing, the day before we made port, I believe. Apparently, there was a second incident in a grave apart from the others.”
The marshal took another step toward the weatherman. “Whose name was on the stone?”
“I don’t know,” said Edmonds, shrinking back. “I didn’t ask.”
“There wasn’t a stone,” said Ollie. “No marker at all, just a hole and an empty box.”
“But I didn’t find—” the marshal began and then stopped.
“Gentlemen, please,” Kate said, pulling both children to her side. “Can we find a topic more suited to all ages?”
“Cry your pardon, Mrs. Wylde,” said Ollie.
Kate received similar apologies from the other men, but hardly noticed as she turned to face her father.
“I’m fine,” he said, and strode into the garden without another word.
“Do you know what it is?”
“No idea,” Ollie said, staring up at the tall, slender object hidden beneath several layers of drapery. “Jim likes his secrets, you know.”
Five minutes earlier, one of the mayor’s aides had directed Joseph and Kate to the study, where they’d found the newspaper man leaning against the remains of a large wooden crate. The contents of the box stood before them, a mystery wrapped in cloth.
“He’d better start spilling his secrets soon,” Kate said. “It’s getting late.”
Ollie smiled, shifting his attention from the tower to his new company. Joseph wasn’t surprised. The man had been angling to get him alone for much of the afternoon.
“Mr. Wylde, would you mind if I asked you a question?”
“Only if you agree to call me Joseph.”
“Of course, Joseph. Pardon my inquisitive nature, but your father-in-law’s amazing tale has awakened the journalist in me.”
“I didn’t realize that was something you put to bed,” Kate said.
“No, I suppose it’s not.”
“It’s all right,” Joseph said. “Ask me your question.”
“Thank you. I’m wondering if you recall another story from some years ago, one involving the Hanged Man and an attempted jailbreak.”
Ollie raised an eyebrow. “Ah … you know the story?”
“Because you were there.”
Joseph felt Kate close the gap between them.
“I was the one he tried to break out, if that’s what you mean.”
“Then it’s true you were partners with the Hanged Man.”
Joseph hesitated, but only for a moment. “For a time.”
“A very short time,” Kate added.
Joseph took Kate’s hand. “I was young, and angry at the world. When I met the man our interests were much the same.”
“Pardon my skepticism, but I find it hard to believe a respected citizen such as you would have associated with such a violent man.”
“I’m embarrassed to say I did. Granted, this was well before he started killing with such relish. The man was a criminal, but not the monster most folks remember. Something happened after we … parted ways.”
“But he still called himself the Hanged Man, correct?”
Joseph nodded. “Before a job he would twist a piece of rope around his neck to scratch up the skin, make the scars look fresh.”
“The theatrics of fear,” Ollie said, mentally checking the facts in his head. “Now, you were in jail for…”
“Robbing Tom Sherman’s livery … unsuccessfully.”
“And it was the marshal who arrested you?”
“No, but he’s the one who kept me in jail,” Joseph said. “Three weeks, waiting for my partner to show his face. I wasn’t particularly happy about it, not at first, at least.”
“Oh? What changed your mind?”
Joseph nodded to his wife, who answered for him.
“He met me.”
* * *
She is the most beautiful thing he has ever seen and when she looks at him—sees him—Joseph knows his world will never be the same. He tries very hard to imagine her in it.
“Hello,” Kate says, hopeful the young man won’t reply. She didn’t mean to say anything. She doesn’t know why she did.
“Hello,” he says, barely. No word has ever been so difficult to get out. She blinks, uncomfortably. She’s afraid of him.
Kate glances across the jailhouse to where her father stands, back to her, speaking with a pair of local men, deputies, perhaps. He hasn’t seen her. When the smell of fresh biscuits finds its way to him he will turn. She turns first.
“My name is Kate,” she says, approaching the man behind bars. He’s handsome, she’s decided. Smells a bit like horse manure, but so do half the men (and a few of the women) she’s already met in town.
“Wylde,” he says, grateful.
“Wylde—Joseph Wylde—that’s my name.”
She’s going to walk away … and she smells so good, like buttered biscuits. He should say something, anything, before …
“I only tried to steal a horse.”
Kate stares at Joseph Wylde. He has nice eyes.
Joseph shrugs. “I needed a horse.”
“You shouldn’t steal from people, Joseph. It’s wrong.”
“It is, you’re right,” he says, desperate to hear her say his name again. He will never steal again.
“I take it you were unsuccessful.”
Joseph leans against the bars. “What gave you that idea?”
Kate starts to laugh, but quickly covers her mouth.
Too late. Joseph has seen her smile.
And she sees his.
Kate and Joseph both jump at the sound of the marshal’s voice. He’s already halfway across the room, the grimace on his face clearly visible. Joseph steels himself.
“Better go. The marshal doesn’t like me much.”
Marshal Kleberg stops directly in front of Joseph, his face red. He’s never seen the lawman so mad.
“Is that true, Daddy?”
Joseph glances at Kate, his jaw slipping open.
“Talk to my daughter again, glance in her direction, and I’ll have your ass in the stockade. Got that?”
Joseph eyes the marshal, nods. Her father. This will be difficult.
The marshal turns to his daughter, taking her by the arm.
“I appreciate you bringin’ me lunch, Katie, but come on in, next time. Don’t be lingerin’ up here.”
Joseph holds his gaze on the marshal just long enough for him to glance back and be satisfied. Then he finds hers.
And she smiles.
* * *
“Hand to God, one smile and my days as a criminal were over.”
Kate offered Joseph a refresher, followed by a soft kiss on the cheek.
“You were never much of a criminal, dear.”
Joseph didn’t quite believe that, but said nothing. He was happy for it to be mostly true.
“I see,” Ollie said. “Love conquers all. But there’s still the matter of your escape.”
“Wasn’t much to it. The Hanged Man showed up early one morning and started shooting.”
“Even though he knew the marshal would be expecting it? You meant that much to him?”