The West is a wild place, where the poison wind blows and the dead walk. But there is gold, and whiskey, and enough room for a man to forget what he once was. Until he can no longer can. Read the beginning here!
The stagecoach creaked to a stop, fine flour-white dust billowing, and Catherine Elizabeth Barrowe-Browne gingerly unlaced her gloved fingers from her midriff. Her entire body ached, both with the pummeling that was called travel in this part of the world and with the unremitting tension. Her nerves were drawn taut as a viola’s charter-charmed strings.
For a moment, the sensation of not jolting and shuddering over a bare approximation of something that in a hundred years’ worth more of wear might possibly be generously called a road was exquisite relief. Then Cat’s body began reminding her of the assaults upon its comfort over the past several days, with various twinges and aches.
Also, she was hungry. A lady was far too ethereal a creature to admit hunger, but this did not make the pangs of fleshly need any less severe.
“Damnation!” the driver yelled, and the coach creaked as the two men hopped off. The fat, beribboned woman in mourning across from Catherine let out a tiny, interrupted snore, spreading herself more firmly over the hard seat.
Ceaseless chatter for nigh unto fifty miles, me jolted endlessly backward because her digestion won’t permit her to share the forward-facer, and now she sleeps. Cat grimaced, smoothed her features, and heard murmuring voices. The town was not very large, Robbie had written, but growing.
Growing enough for a schoolteacher, apparently. Otherwise her plan would not have progressed nearly so smoothly.
“Damnation!” the driver yelled again, and the stagecoach door was violently wrenched at. Catherine’s fingers took care of pulling her veil down securely and gathering her reticule and skirt. There were other thumps—her trunks, sturdy Boston leather, and thank Heaven for that. They had been subjected to almost as many assaults as Cat’s temper for the past few days. “One for Damnation, ma’am!”
Yes, thank you, I heard you the first time. She slid across the seat, extended her gloved hand, and winced when his fingers bit hers. Feeling for a stagecoach step while half-blind with dust and aching from a bone-shattering ride across utterly Godforsaken country was a new experience, and one she had no intention of savoring. Syrupy golden afternoon light turned the dirt hanging in the air to flecks of precious ore, whirling like dreams of a claim in a boy’s fevered head.
Oh, Robbie, I am just going to pinch you. Her point-toe boots hit dry earth, the burly whiskered stagecoach driver muttered a “Ma’am,” as if it physically hurt him to let loose the word, and she took two staggering steps into the dust cloud. Is there even a town here? It doesn’t look like it.
Any place a coach halted would have charterstones and a mage to hold back the uncontrolled wilderness. Still, the sheer immensity of the empty land she had glimpsed through barred train windows and the stagecoach’s small portholes would trouble anyone properly city-bred. Across Atlantica’s wide heaving waves, the Continent was not troubled by the need for charterstones; but even after almost two centuries on the shores of the New World, civilization was uneasy.
She reclaimed her hand, quelling the urge to shake her most-certainly-bruised fingers. “Thank you,” she murmured automatically, manners rising to the surface again. “A fine ride, really.”
“Miss Barrowe?” A baritone, with a touch of the sleepy drawl she’d come to associate with the pockets of half-civilization she’d been subjected to in the last several days. “Miss Catherine Barrowe?”
In the weary flesh. “Yes.” She even managed to sound crisp and authoritative instead of half-dead. “Whom do I have the pleasure of—”
“She’s here!” someone yelled. “Strike up the band!”
The dust settled in swirls and eddies. A truly awful cacophony rose in its place, and Cat blinked. A hand closed around her arm, warm and hard, and it could possibly have been comforting if she had possessed the faintest idea whose appendage it was.
“Hey, Gabe,” the stagecoach driver called. “No trouble all the way.”
“Thanks, Morton,” her rescuer replied. “Those her trunks?”
“Yes indeedy. A very polite miss, glad to’ve brought her. Mail’s there, picked up a bag of it in Poscola Flats. And the chartermage’s order—”
“I see it, thanks.” Now he sounded a trifle chilly. Cat had the impression of someone looming over her—dust coated her veil, and she blew on it in what she hoped was an inconspicuous manner. The sun was a glare, sweat had soaked the small of her back, and she devoutly wished for no more than a chance to relieve herself and procure some nourishment. Any food, no matter how coarse. “Godspeed.”
“Yeah, well, from here to Tinpan’s a long ride and the country’s fulla bad mancy and walkin’ dead.” Creaking, as the driver hefted himself up. “See you.” The whip cracked, and the stage began to rumble.
Oh yes, mention living corpses! That is just the thing to do before a journey. Cat’s skin chilled, and she had the distinctly uncharitable thought that if the stagecoach was attacked by those who slept in unhallowed ground, at least the hefty woman in mourning would awaken for the event.
Or at least, so one hoped.
“Moron,” the man holding her arm muttered. “As if he’s not going to stop at the livery and pick up Shake’s whiskey. Well, you look rattled around, miss. Let’s get you through this.”
Her veil and vision both cleared, and Cat found her rescuer to be a lean, rangy man of indeterminate age, a wide-brimmed hat clapped hard on his head and a star-shaped tin badge gleaming on his black vest. Guns slung low on his hips, and the chain of a charing-charm peeked out from behind his shirt collar, glinting blue. The guns gave her a moment of pause—not many in Boston carried them openly. Her own charing-charm, safely tucked under her dress, cooled further.
At least with the charing she could be certain he was not of the walking undead. It was faint comfort, given the way he scowled at the retreating stagecoach’s back. He looked stunningly ill-tempered.
The cacophony crested, and she realized with a sinking sensation that it was meant to approximate music.
“Good heavens,” she managed. “What on earth is that noise?”
The corner of his thin mouth twitched up as he glanced down at her. He was quite provokingly tall. “Your welcome committee, ma’am. I’ll try to see it don’t last too long.”
How chivalrous—and ungrammatical—of him. Oh, Robbie. I am just going to pinch you, she thought for the fiftieth time, and braced herself.
The town center was a single street framed with raw-lumber buildings, a wide dirt thoroughfare that probably was a sheet of glutinous mud if it ever rained in this hellish place, and the greenery-cloaked mountains in the distance might have been pretty if they had been in a painting. Instead, they were hazy, oppressive shapes, grimacing in distaste.
An attempt at bunting and colored ribbon had been made across the front of a building whose sign proclaimed it to be the LUCKY STAR BAR SALOON, a smaller sign depending from it creaking as it swung and whispered WHISKEY SCALES HOT BATHS. For a moment she wondered just what whiskey scales were, but the sight of the crowd arrayed on the saloon’s steps under the bunting and spilling into the dusty street managed to drive the thought from even her nimble brain.
A gigantic banner flapped in the moaning-low, sage-scented wind, and a cord snapped. The banner, its proudly painted length folding and buckling, began to descend upon the motley collection of men beneath it playing instruments with more enthusiasm than skill.
WELCOME TO DAMNATION, the banner read, as its leading edge dropped across a man playing a fiddle and continued its slow descent.
“Oh, dear.” She tried not to sound horrified, and suspected she failed miserably. “This is not going to end well.”
He gave a short sharp burr of a sound. Was that a laugh? It sounded altogether too painful to signify amusement. “It never does around here, ma’am. Jack Gabriel.”
“I beg your pardon?” She watched as the banner continued its majestic downward crumble and the music hitched to an unlovely stop. People scrambled to get out of the way, and one or two children crowed, delighted.
So there were children in this Godforsaken place. Miracles did occur. Of course, who would she be called upon to teach if there were none?
“Jack Gabriel. Sheriff. Your servant, ma’am.” He even touched the brim of his colorless, sun-bleached hat. “I thought you’d be older.”
Oh, really? “I am very sorry to have disappointed you, sir.” She reclaimed her arm with a practiced twist. “Thank you for your assistance. I suppose I’d best restore some order here.” She took two steps, found her balance and her accustomed briskness, and stalked for the milling group on the saloon steps.
“Oh, Hell no,” the sheriff said, low and clear. “Can’t restore what never happened in the first place, ma’am.” He fell into step beside her, and she might have been almost mollified if not for the swearing. “My apologies. I just meant, well, we were prepared for…something else.”
Prepared? This doesn’t look prepared. She tucked her veil back, summoned her mother’s Greet The Peasants smile, and told the pressure in her bladder it was just going to have to wait.
The crowd was mostly men, in varying stages of cleanliness; the few women were in homespun and bleached-out bonnets. She suddenly felt like an exotic bird, even though she’d left everything impractical or very fashionable at home in Boston.
Home no more. Her chin lifted, and the smile widened. “What a lovely reception!” she gushed, as the banner finished its slow descent and wrapped another portly, bewhiskered fiddler, who was almost certainly drunk, in its canvas embrace. The resultant package blundered into a man with a drum slung about his neck, and the two of them careened into a trio of men holding what looked like kitchen implements.
The first fiddler seemed to think this was an infringement upon his honor, and—uttering a most ungentlemanly oath—swung his fist at a bystander, a man in red suspenders and a stovepipe hat, a moth-eaten fur on his skinny shoulders. Who also turned out to be a mancer of some sort, since he promptly snapped a crackling flash of energy off his thin fingers and knocked his attacker backward.
“Oh, Hell,” the sheriff said, with feeling, and Miss Barrowe’s reception turned into something the locals told her later was named a “free-for-all.” A tall, broad-shouldered, and very bony matron in brown descended on Cat and ushered her across the street, toward a lean wooden building—HAMMIS’S BOARDINGHOUSE, according to the sign hanging from an upstairs balcony railing. It was squeezed disconsolately between two other nondescript buildings, one of which seemed to be some variety of shop.
“Very sorry, miss. It is Miss, isn’t it? I am Granger, Mrs. Letitia Granger—”
Yes, we corresponded; you are on the Committee that hired me. “How do you do?” Cat managed, faintly. Behind them, the brawl spilled off the steps and into the dusty street, and the sheriff bellowed most impolitely. Charm and mancy crackled uneasily, the dust whirling in tight circles, and her charing-charm warmed a little, sensing the flying debris of malcontent.
She couldn’t even care, she was suddenly so desperate for a few moments alone to relieve herself.
Oh, I hope they have some manner of plumbing, or I am going to explode. She reached up to straighten her hat, and Mrs. Granger whisked her inside the boardinghouse, which did have a small room for her to freshen herself. That paled in comparison to the watercloset down the hall, of which she availed herself with most unladylike haste.
The room given to her temporary use was an exceedingly small cubbyhole; the vicious sunlight pouring in through a small, dusty glass window had already scorched and faded everything in it. It could have been a palace, though. For one thing, it was not moving. For another, it was private, even though she could hear the brawl outside and the furious yelling as stray mancy bit and spread. Much of it was language she would have been shocked to hear, had Robbie not taken deep delight in teaching her certain phrases and their meanings.
Dust had crept into every fold of her dress, and she was far too fatigued to charm it free even if she had a moment of privacy to do so. Instead, she pinned her veil back and stretched with rare relief, and wondered if this would be her lodging. They had mentioned something of a small house—and just then the noise outside faded, and she suspected she was taking far too long and there might possibly be a prospect of something to eat by now. She checked herself in the sliver of mirror, decided she looked as proper as circumstances allowed, and eased out of the tiny room and down the stairs.
As soon as she reentered the hall leading to the boardinghouse’s parlour, her hat repinned and some of the dust swept away, she was almost bowled over by a lad of perhaps ten, with cornsilk hair and an engaging gaptooth smile. “BOXER!” he yelled, and the slavering biscuit-colored streak behind him was obviously a dog. “They’re in here, boy!”
The dog nipped smartly past her into the parlour, feathers exploded, the boy let out a crow-cry and hopped down the hall—and a chicken, its wings beating frantically, knocked over a lamp and tried to flap straight into Cat’s face.
The schoolmarm was in blue, with a smart hat perched on slightly wilted brown curls and a smile fixed on her barely pretty face like she smelled something bad. Gabe didn’t blame her—Damnation was none too fragrant even on the best of days. Well, fragrant, maybe, but certainly not pleasant. But even he hadn’t been prepared for the melee when Collie Stokes took a swing at Em Kenner.
It was a good thing Gabe was quick and light on his feet, especially when it came to dodging flung charms and stray mancy. He didn’t have to squeeze off a shot to get everyone’s attention—it was never a good idea to start shooting in Damnation—but it was close.
It took a good half hour to restore order, but fortunately Mrs. Granger descended upon the girl and swept her across the street to the boardinghouse. It was, all things considered, the best place for her…but still, they’d be lucky if that lolling drunk Pete Pemberton didn’t scare her off completely. She’d probably be back on the next coach to Poscola Flats and on the train to Boston without so much as a how do you do, and Gabe didn’t much blame her.
When he had finally calmed everyone down—including Em Kenner, who was righteously indignant even at the best of times—and had Collie safely stowed in the jail and someone dealing with that fool banner, Gabe settled his hat more firmly on his head and set off for the boardinghouse. The occasion of a New Arrival was giving everyone the jitters, and he silently prayed that big, bony Granger wasn’t frightening the poor girl even more.
He clumped up the steps and through the squeaking door, straight into another maelstrom.
He’d forgotten about the chickens the Hammis family kept behind the boardinghouse.
Well, honestly, the chickens weren’t bad at all, except for when Boxer was chasing them. Somehow they had all gotten inside the boardinghouse, probably one of Tom Hammis’s practical jokes on a day when the entire town was all het up.
That kid was gonna be trouble one day.
Gabe’s temples were tight with an incipient headache. He later found out Pete Pemberton was safely in an alcoholic stupor upstairs, and that was how Boxer had gotten loose. He also further found out that little Tommy had used a simple chicken-leading charm to bring the poultry inside, thinking it’d be a grand idea to scare his harried mother.
A tornado of feathers engulfed him. The new schoolmarm had Boxer’s collar, the mastiff straining against her grip and scrabbling on bare wooden flooring. Mrs. Granger was ranting, and Keb and Lizzie Hammis were trying desperately to corral the charmed fowl. Poor round Lizzie, her red face even redder, swatted at a prize hen. “Oh, for Pete’s sake…Keb, grab that one—Tommy, get down here, I am gonna take you behind the woodshed for sure! Oh, miss, sorry, Boxer don’t bite—”
“Honestly, Lizzie Hammis, the one day we ask you to be respectable!” Granger had her skirts clutched back as if one of the chickens might foul or bite her.
Gabe almost wished one would.
Boxer made snuffling, grunting, pleading noises, lunging against the schoolmarm’s grip. Her hat was askew, and she was flushed. The extra color did wonders for her face, and her wide dark eyes flashed almost angrily before her jaw set and she hauled back on the mastiff’s collar again. “Down, boy!” she snapped. “I think if we can get him—oof—outside, we can restore some—ouch—some order here.” She brightened as her gaze lighted on Gabe. “You! Get over here and help me!”
It had all the bite of a command, and he decided it wasn’t a half-bad idea, either. So he was already moving, striding across the raw lumber, the pale-green rugs askew and everything in the parlour rattling dangerously as Mrs. Hammis started searching for a counter-charm to gather up the chickens and get them quiet. The entire boardinghouse shook with stray mancy as the chickens sent up an ungodly noise and Boxer started moaning. Charing-charms glowed—the marm’s bright and clear, Letitia Granger’s a glitter of indignation, Lizzie Hammis’s sparking as she sought for a bit of mancy, and Keb’s barely limned with foxfire since he had no mancy at all. Gabe could feel his own warming dangerously, and didn’t have time for a breath to calm it.
He grabbed the mastiff’s collar, the schoolmarm worked her gloved fingers free, and in short order he had the dog outside on the front walkway. Onlookers crowded, but he made shooing motions and they hung back. “Someone find Tommy Hammis for me,” he remarked, mildly. “The boy’s gonna hafta give his Ma a reckonin’.”
“The new miss, is she mad?” Isobela Bentbroad hopped from foot to foot, looking scrubbed and miserable in her Sunday best. Her lank brown braids flopped.
“Well, if the music didn’t frighten her off, Ma Hammis’s chickens might. Just wait, Izzie. And the rest of you, don’t cross these steps ’til we’ve got things calmed down.”
Boxer set up a wail as Gabe finished clipping his collar to the chain bolted to the porch. Most of the time, the dog kept Pemberton out of trouble. But he had a regrettable yen for chasing chickens. He hadn’t caught one yet, despite fowls’ inherent stupidity, but he was the original Tip Mancinger in the old nursery rhyme—he just kept trying.
“I mean it, now,” the sheriff said. A murmur ran through the crowd.
He squared his shoulders and strode back into the fray.
Granger was still going. “And furthermore, the drapes in here haven’t been beaten since this building went up, they’re stiff with dust! Honestly! Chickens, in the house!”
The schoolmarm stood against the parlour wall, no longer flushed but very pale, staring at the potbellied iron stove. She cast a single imploring glance at Gabe, and he was only faintly relieved to see the chickens had been dealt with.
“This is not respectable!” Granger was getting herself worked up but good. Keb Hammis, his meek face cheese-pale, had his shoulders drawn up like he wished he could vanish, his best suit straining at the seams. Lizzie was probably getting the chickens back into the coop, but she’d be no use here either.
Oh, Hell. Gabe sighed internally. A mastiff was one thing, Letitia Granger another entirely.
“Mrs. Granger, ma’am.” He had his hat in one hand, running the other back through his hair. “Thank you. That’ll be about enough.”
It was probably the wrong thing to say. Letty glared at him, her bosom heaving. The cameo pinned at her throat was a sailor on stormy waters, to be sure. The charing-charm on it flashed blue, then green. She didn’t talk about where her original charing had gone, but Russ Overton had once commented that it was no wonder Granger was so sour; anyone with her hard luck would be.
Gabe let his hands fall. “Keb. That boy of yours around?”
The new schoolmarm piped up. “Is he about ten, very blond, and quite agile?” The clipped, educated precision of the words made the entire parlour look shabby.
Well, we do as best we can, Gabe reminded himself. “That’d be him, yes.”
“I saw him heading down the hall, that way.” She pointed, her reticule swinging. “I believe he has perhaps made his escape. Will you be placing him under arrest?”
For one mad moment he thought she was serious, before the glint in her dark eyes caught up with him.
Jack Gabriel surprised himself by laughing out loud. Keb Hammis outright stared with his mouth open and his colorless eyes wide, and Mrs. Granger was mute with astonishment, thank God.
“He’s a handful and no mistake, ma’am. I don’t pity you having him in school.” It didn’t come out quite the way he wanted it to—he sounded sarcastic instead of amused. “I think we might be able to show you the house now, if you’re so inclined. Garrett’s already taken your trunks.”
Mrs. Granger harrumphed. The house was a sore subject. Or not precisely the house, but the hired help.
The sparkle in Miss Barrowe’s eyes was gone. She reached up, twitching her hat back into place. “Yes, I’d quite like that, thank you.”
And Jack Gabriel, abruptly, felt like a goddamn fool, for no good reason at all.