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Authors: J. P. Hightman

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BOOK: Spirit
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F
or Tess and Tobias, closed off inside the caboose, the other survivors were now only a din of troubled voices out in the snow. Tobias had improved. His breathing was normal, his skin was warming. Amid the supply boxes, he and Tess huddled close, puzzling over what had happened in cautious whispers.

“I think I know what it intended,” Tobias was saying, “the spirit in the water. There
was
something special about that one; it tried to touch my eyes. It was trying to tell me something, and then I felt its words taken, blocked, as if walled off from my senses. I could almost say a spell came over me.”

He shuddered. “Malgore is keeping them from us. The two cannot reach past her…That's what the spirit meant for me to know. Malgore is the one: the mother who forbade the marriage of that couple in Salem. Malgore was the First Accused, the unnamed in the books. What's happening here is…we've stumbled into a blood feud.”

His mind turned it over. “It's “It's just as Jurey said—the three remain here, the lovers and that madwoman, locked in hateful conflict.”

Tess remained quiet. Something
was
trying to get to her, she thought, the spirits of the young man and woman from Salem, but
she didn't want to receive their words. She should've heeded her own intuition to stay away.
Learn to listen to life's subtle warnings.

“Something pulled me from the train,” she repeated.

Tobias murmured assent. “When I woke, my head was inches from a shaft of metal that should easily have pierced my brain. We are being protected. We have been from the moment we got here.”

“Then they want something from us. What is it?”

“What do spirits always want?” said Tobias. “They want to be listened to. They want justice.”

“How do we give it to them?”

He looked at her, thinking. They had answered a call, and now they had been discovered. A task was being prepared for them, and both knew that they were going to be instruments in this battle, vital to some cause.

Tess remembered: “Jurey tried to warn me. He said they want something. He said to find what it is that gives them power, and seize it from them. He must have meant all three who were hanged here in Blackthorne, but it's Malgore we have to be concerned with. She is the darkness here, clearly the most powerful of them. We
just
have to figure out what these spirits are saying.”

Tobias met her eyes. He knew he had made a profound mistake in coming to this place. “Tess. We have to get
out
of here.”

 

Outside, many of the survivors were gathered on the snow. They seemed to fear returning to the damaged cars. Some were shaking from the cold, others were passing blankets in a long line to those too injured to be moved from their train cars.

Sattler brought new clothes for Tobias, peeled from a dead man. Tobias took them with macabre amusement. Dressed in a dry suit, he emerged from the car caboose, lifting Tess gallantly to the ground, while other women noted this gentlemanly act as if it were a reminder civilization could exist even here. The couple joined the large group of survivors who were standing, numb and silent, beside the tracks. With the urgent wounds of the injured dressed as well as possible, it was clear the early work was over. No one knew what to do now.

Wilder remained at the edge of the battered camp, vigilant, his eyes on the woods.

No one had yet found the couple Tess referred to as the Tawdrys. Perhaps they had gone back into one of the train cars or had wandered into the woods and collapsed from their injuries. Tess felt guilty for judging them earlier.

A small group stood together at the rear of the train comprised of the college boys and some other travelers. The Goodravens completed the circle. Gil, whose birthmark looked like war paint in the bright white surroundings, glanced at Tobias and broke the silence. “You're lucky. There are a lot of dead here, unh? Johnson. Hargreave. Mr. Halfstead's gone. Cut in two.”

Tobias looked gravely at the milky sky. “Imagine the chances,” he said. “His name was
Half
stead, for God's sake.”

Gil glanced over. “What's that? Sir, have you something to say?”

Tobias drew a long breath. “We can't stay here long,” he said. “We need to be moving. There's little chance for some of these people.”

“Hey now, fellow, we're going to be just fine,” Gil answered sharply. “We're going to pull together. By the end of it, people are going to tell stories about how courageous we all were, and how we never lost faith in…faith in our God or ourselves.”

Tobias looked to the group. “Anyone else feel that optimistic?”

Who could fail to love him,
thought Tess.

“No one is coming,” a woman muttered. “It's nearly noon now, more than two hours since the accident. When the train didn't arrive, there should have been alarms sounded, wires sent out. What is going on in town? There is telephone service already in Salem and Blackthorne—why isn't there any help coming…?”

Ned looked at Sattler. “Exposure like this, I mean to say…the cold…it can affect what you see, right?” Sattler nodded, uncertain.

“A rescue party's been sent out by now, I'm sure of it,” a man was saying.

Everyone was speaking at once.

“The storm is getting worse, it could be holding them up.”

“It's not that bad.”

“Why else would they be staying back?”

A woman, wild-eyed, unsteady, moved toward the group. “I think we need to go right now, go and get help.”

Tobias looked down the tracks. “How far are we from the carnival?”

“Oh, I don't know. I'd say six miles,” Carl answered.

“Maybe less. Four miles or so,” said another man, “given how long we were aboard the train.”

“How far back to civilization?”

The mountain man, Carl, his ill-fitting suit torn and bloodstained, conferred with another man. “What do you think?”

“A good deal more, surely.”

“All right, then, if we're closer to Blackthorne, we go on to the carnival,” Tobias concluded.

“We should've sent someone already,” a man named Alan grumbled to himself.

Tobias said, “Well, we need help fast. And no one seems to be coming.”

“They'll be here,” Gil's wife, Elaine, spoke up. “The roads might be worse off than we think….”

“It could be some time. They might not know how dangerous this is. They might just think the train stopped working,” Carl said.

“We'll never know,” said Tobias, “unless we get going.” He looked at them all expectantly.

There it is,
thought Tess,
he's said it.

“I can protect you,” said an accented voice. It was Wilder, who had joined them without being noticed. Everyone looked up at the giant man.

Tobias was pleased. “All right. Who else?”

Sattler nodded to Tobias. “I'm with you, I don't like sitting about here and waiting.”

Tess realized it was inevitable. He was going to leave. They would be separated. “In such weather, it could take hours…” she said.

“I'm in good condition, I think I can handle it,” Tobias said to the group.

“Not many others look like they're up to it,” remarked Sattler.

Gil said, “It's a job for the young.”

Ned looked at everyone staring him down. “I'm too fat to walk far. If I stay here and die, they can feed off my body for days.”

He seemed to be serious, and Tobias gave him a deadpan glance. “Now that's an attractive offer. Maybe I'll stay.”

But Sattler was ready to move. “We'll take Michael with us.”

Michael suddenly turned ashen, evidently in no mood to be a hero. “What? Why don't we let people volunteer for this job?” His eyes went to Annette for help, but she offered none.

Tess pulled Tobias away. “You can't do it. I don't want you to go out there.”

Tobias put his hands on her shoulders. “No one has yet come for us, and we've waited long enough. I don't want us to be trapped at nightfall. You can go with me…” He motioned over his shoulder, to the woods along the tracks. “Or stay here.”

Neither option seemed remotely appealing to Tess. Those trees in the snow were like a vast row of teeth, and they were going to swallow her, they were going to tear her apart. She had no doubt of it.

“I don't like the way this feels,” she said. “Going out there scares the devil out of me.”

“You know I have to go, Tess.”

“You don't have to do anything.”

“Have a look at this group. Most of them are too old or too hurt to walk that far in good conditions, let alone in a storm. Someone has to go, and I think we both know I've a better chance at handling this…special situation. Look at Sattler. Look
at the pale one, Michael. You think they could deal with what's out there?”

“What makes you think
you
can cope with it?”

“Tess, this feeling that we have, it could be posturing. This witch, this entity, could simply be angry at us for entering its domain and…this could all be nothing.”

“You know it isn't nothing.”

He smiled. “It could be we're completely insane. I'm not confident of my grasp on reality on any day, but after all that shaking and crashing, my brain is probably a soufflé.”

She held her voice tightly in control. “Can you trust me that this is not the way? Something will happen to you, I feel it. Don't be pigheaded—”

“I feel exactly the same way if we stay here. I have to do something. I have to.”

“You enjoy this.”

“You can't blame me for these circumstances.”

“I can.” She tried to smile. “It's how I know you'll come back and make up for it.”

“You could come with me,” Tobias suggested. “You could make this journey, I'm sure of it.”

“I'm not.”

“You can do it, Tess, you know you can.”

“Out in the open?”

“Our life is one long train wreck, isn't it? Fires and tragedies…you can face anything.” He laughed nervously. “The woods here aren't going to beat you. There's just less light in there, that's all. We'll walk right past them, and stay along the tracks.”

“It's not darkness that frightens me, it's the openness, getting lost…We would be away from everything,” she said. “They need me here. I can help people if I stay.”

“Then stay.”

“Keep yourself together. Don't lose hope, Tobias.”

“I'm not made that way; you can't lose what you never had.” Tobias kissed her cheek. “Decision's made. Now, let's just get through it, quick as we can.”

Alarmed, she pulled him back to her. “Is that all I get? A peck on the cheek?”

He leaned in close, whispering in her ear, “If I could romance you here and now, I would, dearest, but it wouldn't fit with the public image. Be strong.”

“I want a promise you'll be back.”

“One way or another, I will.” He smiled and stepped away.

Incredibly, he was going to leave her.

H
e was leaving, that was the end of it. Tess immediately had second thoughts, but they'd made the only responsible move. She suddenly hated everyone around her for making her be responsible.

“Let's move out,” said Tobias, and though he was the youngest, the two college men and Wilder did as he said. “We'll be back as soon as we can.”

Tess gripped her dress tightly. Again she wanted to stop him, but he was moving quickly off into the snow, his familiar tall-fellow slump so endearing. Why wouldn't he look back? This was a mistake; the two of them were not meant to be apart. Even the air smelled of a violation of the order of things. Something unnatural was unfolding.

 

Setting out northward, toward the Blackthorne carnival, Michael, Sattler, and Tobias marched through the snowfall, beside the tracks. Wilder followed them, providing a watchful guard.

They crossed the blood-drenched snow near the engine, passing the wild elk corpses. These disgusted the other men, but Tobias found them enthralling. To him, death was intriguing in all
its forms. He didn't care for it as a personal experience, though he could probably be convinced to give it a try. He found little enough reason to get up in the morning, and if it weren't for Tess, there would be no reason at all. He would not look back at her.

He'd avoided telling her about the feeling that his father and mother were woven into this mystery in some manner. Tess could probably tell he was lying, but he knew her well enough to guess the conclusion she'd come to; that he was hiding a lack of faith in their chances. Ever the pessimist.

He was perfectly aware there was something in the woods, pulling him in, but he doubted there was any way to avoid it. If death was coming, it would be yet another adventure to fascinate him before fascination faded for good.

 

Blending with the whiteness of the forest, a figure watched the scene of devastation. The form was motionless and the only life within came from its eyes. Its ivory flesh, embroidered with slow-pulsing veins, was of a piece with the bark of the trees and the reflective snow.

It had made itself unseen. An observer staring into the woodlands would be hard-pressed to find anything there.

The creature's deformed appearance was the work of centuries, the sculpting hand of time, and the aftereffects of lurid magic. A starved and hollow-eyed creature once known as Widow Malgore, she had little human quality left to her. She, and every other presence in the forest, were acutely conscious that Tess was now separated from Tobias, and the couple weakened by isolation.

The Thing, the witch of Salem, darted away, deeper into the woods. It moved around to see Tobias Goodraven and the other young men heading
away. It could see Wilder's guns and Indian occult trinkets swinging at his belt. The skin near the creature's eyes wrinkled in angry displeasure.

It lingered, silent as snowfall.

 

Annette and Tess watched their partners go. Tobias moved with more surety than the others, with a certain grace on the glistening and difficult ground.

But it was just as Tess had feared: there was no help coming, and now Tobias was leaving. She told herself that if they got out of this, they would never seek out such darkness again. It had once been worth the risk; now she feared that she had, like her husband, grown to need these moments of heightened existence. She'd gotten what she deserved, she thought.

Annette broke the silence. “He's quite an unusual person.”

“Women often remark upon it.”

“How long have you been together?”

“Forever. And since we've been married, we've spent no more than a few nights apart. He's my anchor, you know, I think I need him.”

“It won't be long.”

“I'm afraid that it will.”

Annette looked at her, sympathetic. “The others are with him. He'll be back before nightfall.” Tess wanted to strangle her, and yet loved her at the same time for trying. “My fiancée, Sattler, will look after him.”

Fiancé.
Annette said nothing of Michael's special attention to her. Tess wondered if the girl was even aware of their rivalry.

Shivering, Ned walked over to them. He shook his chubby
face like a wet Saint Bernard. “If it gets any colder, I may need to hide under your petticoats. It's strictly survival, I assure you.”

Tess ignored his joke, looking over the wreckage surrounding them. She needed to occupy her mind. “I think we need to set up a central place, move everyone together where it's warm,” she said to the group. “It appears there's no danger of fire now. If you look toward the rear of the train, it seems to me the parlor cars are the least damaged; I know there's not enough room for all of us, but if we share the time inside…”

“Yes,” said one of the men, seeing where she was headed. “We'll put the wounded who can move in there. The rest of us can rotate in for the privilege. That'll do for now.”

“That's where we'd be the most comfortable,” Gil agreed.

Tess added, “Correct me if I'm wrong, but there are woodstoves in those back cars, right?”

“Yes.”

“We need to keep them running, don't you think? It'd be a good thing to keep people's minds busy as well.” She looked at the men, hoping for agreement.

“All right, let's be at it,” said Alan. He shouted to the others, organizing the wood gathering and the stoking of bonfires to warm those who couldn't fit in the crowded parlor cars.

Tess estimated a hundred or so survivors remained out on the snow, plus two dozen with significant injuries, and perhaps twenty still inside the train cars, unable to be moved. With the flow of travelers around her, it was hard to get a fix on the exact numbers, which only raised her anxiety.

Under Alan's supervision, the men had begun to work together.
Most were elderly, though Tess recognized they were in a more rugged state of fitness than she first observed.

She made a quick study of them. There were two friends, Carl and Leo, in their forties; Carl, mountain-hardened, with a beer belly and cowboy mustache, was a tall, rough-hewn man, his low voice a comfort to many of the wounded. He's had something to drink already this morning, she realized. His companion Leo was smaller, balding, with thick glasses, and seemed more thoughtful. He appeared to be Indian, or partly of that ancestry.

She detected a strong smell of horses on them, as well as a lack of comfort with other human beings. Carl had about him the pale radiance of regret, a kind of dim light around him that never departed. As they headed to the forest edge to collect fallen branches and cut firewood, Carl stumbled, and Leo righted him. He looked at Tess. “He hasn't been himself since we sent the horses up,” Leo said. “The animals
knew.
Something was wrong. We sent them up to Blackthorne with his brother all the same. We shouldn't have done that.”

Tess was right: the two had more comfort with horses than with people. These men had been warned somehow, in a small way. What was it that animals sensed, which people could not? No one ever heeded that vague cautioning…

She turned her attention to the others.

Alan was a bearlike fellow, more of a growl to him, impatient; Tess saw Navy tattoos on his forearm when he examined his own injuries. Gil was a bit softer, his gray hair swept back diligently above that painful-looking port-wine mark. He looked more frail than most here, but he had a sharp mind. His wife, Elaine,
was strong and optimistic; you could see she looked after Gil constantly.

None of them wore their fear on their sleeves.

Tess looked at Annette and Ned. “We have to take a look and see who it's safe to move. If we can't move them, we'll have to take turns in getting them hot drinks, keeping them warm.”

She glanced at the woods. “And no one goes anywhere alone.”

BOOK: Spirit
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