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Authors: Holly Messinger

Tags: #Fantasy, #Western, #Historical

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BOOK: The Curse of Jacob Tracy: A Novel
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“He was real. He was just dead. And no, sometimes I don’t know right off.”

“So they just do that? Pop up and talk to you when they feel like it?”

“On occasion. More often they don’t know where they are or who they’re talkin to. They’re just echoin what they did when they were alive. The ones around here seem to have more of an agenda.”

Boz stood up, jerkily, paced a few steps away. His eyes were troubled and far-seeing, and Trace guessed he was revisiting the craggy badlands of their relationship, certain questionable events of the past five years had been cached and marked but never discussed. “So all this time … those stories you told about the fella who saw ghosts in the hospital…”

“Yeah,” Trace said unhappily.

“And that time out at Hell Creek—”

“Uh-huh.”

“And that business about bein wounded at Antietam…?”

“That was true, Boz. It was all true. It just wasn’t the whole of it.” Trace felt the cold around his nostrils, the sick-fearful relief of telling this story again, after eight long years of silence. “Lyin there in that ditch was the first time I saw ’em … I guess it’s common for folks close to death to see those who’ve crossed over. But then when I woke up in hospital, they were still around me.” He’d thought he was in Hell, at first. Then he’d thought he was crazy. Then he’d sunk down into morphine purgatory and stayed there for a couple of years.

Boz ran a hand down his mouth. “Does
she
know? That Englishwoman?”

“I think she does. I think that’s why she came lookin for me.”


How?

“Damned if I know.”

“And you think she knew about this dead lady, and that little potato bug, and his Master?”

“Boz, I told you what she told me—”

“Yeah,” Boz relented. “You did. So what d’you reckon is her business with these folks?”

That was the least of Trace’s concerns at the moment, and he shrugged irritably. “I don’t know. She could be tellin the truth about Miss Lisette leavin the box to her. Prob’ly McGillicuddy stole it along with the rest of her property.”

“Maybe you should ask her.”

“Miss Fairweather?”

“Miss Lisette. You said you saw her, right?”

“No,” Trace said, repulsed. “I mean yeah, I saw her, but I ain’t gonna call up some crazy woman’s ghost.”

“Why not? Sounds to me like she got somethin to say.”

Trace almost choked on the lunacy of that proposal, and its source. “Ain’t you soundin like a true believer!”

“Look, I ain’t sayin I believe none of this—but hell, Trace, I rode across this country with you ten times. I seen some weird shit in the time we been together, and now you tell me this…” He gave a shaky laugh. “This actually makes some things make
more
sense. And I know you ain’t any more crazy than I am, so if this is real, if you think it’s real … then it seems to me, the sensible thing is, you go ask Miss Lisette what happened.”

“I can’t do that.”

“Why not? We just sat in there and talked to some dead holy man—”

“I can’t help it if they come to me, but I ain’t gonna start callin up spirits and demons.”

“Who said anything about demons? Just one poor dead crazy lady.”

“Because people tend to die bad when I let it out,” Trace shot back. “It’s in the Bible, a curse against anyone who calls up the dead.”

“Well
that
dead holy man came to you, and
he
called it a gift.”

“Evil spirits can speak prophecy, too,” Trace said, but the words felt phony, even as they passed his lips. The shade of a dead priest had visited him in a church and told him not to be afraid. Messages from God didn’t come much clearer than that unless you were Moses.

“Christ on a crutch!” Boz hollered. “Don’t it say in your Bible all niggers is cursed? Ain’t you heard the one about Ham’s sons bowin down to white folks cuz Ham’s old man got drunk and left his pecker layin out? Now you tell me you believe that one, I’ll head back to St. Louis and find myself a new trail partner.”

“You know I don’t.”

“Damn right. You got the sense God gave you and that’s worth a helluva lot more than some dead folks’ words in a book. So quit feelin sorry for yourself and use that gift to find out what the hell we’re doing here.”

Trace looked at him for a long moment, trying to weigh the situation rationally, instead of see-sawing between the fear and that guilty throb of excitement in his brain and guts. Talking to the spirits had always given him an uneasy thrill, like some imp sitting on his shoulder whispering
Go ahead, live a little—no
one
will know
.

But Boz’s argument made sense. He had never deliberately
tried
to summon a spirit and talk to it. All his years of keeping a lid on this thing didn’t seem to have saved anyone; maybe it was time to try a different approach. Miss Fairweather and that dead preacher and Boz himself were pushing him to
act
—and was that allowing himself to be influenced by others, or God sending him so many signs he was a fool to keep ignoring them?

He drew a deep breath. “All right. But you got to come with me.”

“What d’you expect
me
to do?”

“You can hold the damn guns, in case McGillicuddy comes around.”

 

CHAPTER FIVE

Miss Lisette’s room was just as they had left it, not even the little girl sitting at the breakfast table as Trace cracked open the door and waved Boz inside. But he thought there was an unnatural stillness about the place, as if something was listening. He hung his hat on the bedpost and slid out of his coat, ran a hand through his hair. His heart felt fluttery and sick. “You still got that bottle in your bag?”

Boz fetched his saddlebag from the hearth. “Nerves touchy?”

“Damn right they are.” Trace took the whiskey bottle, pulled the cork. Two long draws and he was gasping.

“You sure you wanna do that?”

“This was your idea.” The liquor hit his stomach like hot tar and spread. “Keep by the door. Make sure nobody comes in. And take this.” He pulled the Colt from his hip and passed it over. “In case I’m not in my right mind.”

Boz looked alarmed. “What d’you think’s gonna happen?”

“I don’t know,” Trace admitted. “I don’t know what the hell I’m doin.” He eyed the breakfast table, with the two empty coffee mugs, and got an idea. He rearranged the dishes, placing a mug before each chair, and poured a small measure of whiskey into the other one. “No, stay there,” he said, when Boz started forward. “Don’t interfere, and don’t come close or try to talk to us.”

“Us? Is—somebody there?”

“If you’d quit yappin for a minute—”

“Sorry.” Boz fell quiet. Trace continued to drink, faster than was good for his stomach. The sun was golden on the empty chair opposite him. Trace cast his eye around the room, got up and went to the dressing table, brought back the silver hand mirror and a small round velvet box that proved to be full of jewelry. Aware of Boz’s anxious gaze, he pulled out a tangle of chains, rings, eardrops. Most of it was brass or silver, but here was a pair of garnet earrings that looked like real gold, and a signet ring, sized for a man—

“Those are mine.”

Trace looked up, shoulders tensing despite the whiskey. The little girl sat across from him, empty black eye sockets accusing.

“These are yours?” Trace held up the earrings.

She nodded.

“What about this?” He lifted the signet ring.

“Maman say it belong to my papa. He was the soldier.”

“So was I,” Trace said. “Bayonet almost took my leg off.”

She wrinkled her nose and looked at his wrist. “How do you hurt yourself?”

“Burned myself. Had an accident. Do you have a burn there, too?”

She made a queer hopping motion that made him think she had sat on her hands. “Not now. I take it off.”

“Did Mr. Mereck put it there?”

“I take it off. Mereck, he leave. I tell him to go.” The face and diction were childish, but the mannerisms, the voice, were disturbingly adult. Her brow was furrowing, and Trace began to feel violence prickling around the edges of his alcohol-diluted senses.

“Was he angry?”

“He want me to keep his box. I tell him no. I tell him to go.
Murderer! Liar!
” Her face contorted with the force of her shriek, and Trace could see the blackness inside her, all the way down the back of her throat. The childish shape was merely a shell, a vessel for that dark rage.

“Where’s the box now?” He knew he was playing with fire, he sensed the danger in provoking this thing, but oddly enough he wasn’t fearful of it. On the contrary he felt strong, bold, the way a greenhorn might feel after a few drinks. But this wasn’t bottle courage—he was clear-headed and sharp. His mind flashed back to Seminary, when he and the other students had been forced to kneel before the altar cross for hours, and a sort of swooning release had come over him, as if he was simultaneously leaving his body and being filled with holy fire—

A crafty look crossed the child’s face. “Tu comprendes,” she said, baring her teeth in a grin. “You know how it feels … so good … so sweet…” She ran her hands over her arms and throat, gurgling with pleasure. “I can teach you … show you. M’sieu say you need a spirit guide—I can show you tous les mystères…

“Of the universe, yeah, I heard. I’m only interested in the one mystery, thanks.”

“La boîte damnable!
Idiot!
You want to be the dog, the slave for this witch?”

“I’m nobody’s slave and neither are you. Mereck lied to you, didn’t he? Did that Irishman help him?”

She clawed at her throat, mouth agape, wailing. “
Murderer…”

Despite himself, Trace’s heart filled with pity. Evil men left their seeds in the soil, and watered them with the blood of innocents. Although perhaps the flesh of the less-than-innocent yielded a better crop, ripe as it was for corruption. “The Irishman’s got the box, don’t he? Where’d he put it?”

There was a sudden rattle at the door. Trace’s attention jerked toward it, Boz flung out an arm to hold it closed, and a heavy charge of menace swelled the air. All the hairs on Trace’s arms stood up.

“Mr. Tracy!” called an Irish brogue from the hallway, and the breakfast table trembled under Trace’s hands. Lisette raked her nails down her face, grinning and drooling black rage down her chin.

“I show you,” she cooed. “Show you the power—”

There was a heavy thud on the outside of the door. Boz set his shoulder against it, but a violent shove threw him into the center of the room. The door swung wide and struck the wall.

The apparition flew apart in a murder of black smoke. Trace stood but staggered; either he was drunker than he’d thought or talking to that spirit had taken the juice out of him.

“Well then.” McGillicuddy’s brogue rolled across the threshold, but the man did not. He stood in the hall and rocked on his heels while four of his boys pushed into the room. Boz moved quick—Trace saw him tuck the Colt into the back of his trousers before he lifted both hands in surrender. One of the rivermen sidled up to Boz and pulled both his pistols from their holsters.

“Well then,” McGillicuddy said again, as another of the boys leveled a shotgun on Trace’s midsection. “Seems we had a wee misunderstanding last night, eh?”

“Did we?” Trace dropped back into his seat. One of the rivermen came close and lifted Trace’s right arm from the table, stripped the bandage off. They all looked at the burn on Trace’s wrist, but McGillicuddy came no closer. He began rolling up his own sleeve.

“Aye, seems we did. Else why would yer man here be askin questions in my kitchen this morning, eh? About me an Mr. Mereck?”

The table vibrated under Trace’s hands. He glanced down at it, saw threads of black swirling around the dishes and streaking the sunlight on the other chair.

“Mr. Mereck
knows
I’m a loyal servant—ha’n’t I kept his treasure safe all these months? Didn’t I pledge with my own flesh?” McGillicuddy shook his fist, and Trace saw for the first time what the brand was supposed to look like—a circle with curved lines cutting through it. “He told me he’d send for it one day, but that day ha’n’t come, and you aren’t the one, boyo. So what I want to know, lad, is who sent yez?”

The blackness was spilling across the carpet, over and around the men’s boots, gathering near the doorway and piling into a seething malignant thunderhead. It shadowed McGillicuddy’s face, but he didn’t seem to notice.

“Took five of you to come ask me that?” Trace said.

McGillicuddy bared his teeth. “I take no shame in assumin’ the advantage. Particularly against a man of yer stature.”

The table gave a violent heave, tossing dishes and jewelry into the air. The man with the shotgun startled back and Trace grabbed for the whiskey bottle before it could spill.

They froze, round-eyed, staring at him. “No sense in wasting it,” Trace said, and took a strong pull. “Go ahead, honey, now you can have it.”

The breakfast table tipped up and flung itself at the man with the shotgun. The blast went up and over Trace’s head, peppered the man standing behind him. Trace dropped out of the chair to his knees, heard gunshots and saw the man near the door double over, clutching his stomach with bloody fingers. Colt in hand, Boz grabbed McGillicuddy and yanked him into the room, using his body for cover. The Irishman tripped on the rug and fell to all fours.

“Get
down
!” Trace yelled, and Boz crouched to his heels as the logs in the fireplace exploded. Sparks and cinders flew over their heads and pummeled the other rivermen. One of them was driven into the wall, the other took a clip on the shoulder and fell against the dressing table. Swearing, he straightened up and leveled his gun on Boz.

Trace clouted him across the head with the whiskey bottle, and down he went.

“What in the
hell
—” Boz said into the following silence. He still had his hand on McGillicuddy’s collar, and the little Irishman was panting, wheezing, clawing at his throat and the buttons on his shirt.

“Stop that.” Trace crossed the floor and bent over him. “Quit your blubberin and tell me where that box—”

BOOK: The Curse of Jacob Tracy: A Novel
10.06Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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