May, 1880

A baby’s cry, thin and lost in the wind of the prairie, woke Boz to a dying fire and the gray light of false dawn. He knew it was a dream, but for a few bittersweet seconds he was back in Illinois, twenty-two years younger, waiting with dread hope to feel Sarah’s weight leave the bed to go check on their baby girl.

Then he heard Trace grunt and turn over in his own bedroll, heard one of the horses stomp and smelled the sharp tang of horse piss, and knew it was morning.

Breakfast was bacon, biscuits fried in the grease, and coffee. Boz cooked while Trace watered the horses and saddled up, a pattern established over five years of working together leading emigrants out to Oregon and Montana. Boz was the better cook, having spent some time as a supplies sergeant in the Tenth, and before that had been an aide to Captain Lyons in St. Louis during the war. He knew how to wrangle edibles out of a paucity of supplies.

Still, there were limits. “We’re ‘bout out of coffee,” he told Trace, while they were eating.

Trace seemed not to hear. He had that haunted look again this morning, staring away into the horizon, and Boz never knew if his partner was seeing some awful memory or some bloody screaming haint that Boz could not see. He’d seemed steadier since they’d left St. Louis—there were fewer ghosts outside of cities, he said—but now and again he would drift away, and Boz knew Trace’s mind was out spirit-walking or back in St. Louis with that rich witch he was so twisted up over.

“How you doin?” Boz asked.

“Huh?” Trace looked up, frowning. “Fine.”

“You woolgatherin this morning.”

“Didn’t sleep good.”

“Yeah I heard you tossin and turnin.” Boz cocked an eyebrow. “Dreamin about Her Worship?”

Trace glowered at him, and Boz figured he oughtn’t push it. Trace liked to insist there was only a professional interest between himself and Miss Fairweather, but Boz had seen the way they looked at each other.

“Seems we oughtta be comin up on a town,” Trace said, “past this river fork.”

“Hamilton,” Boz agreed. “Black.” He scraped his plate. “Tho’ they’re not likely to have much in the way of vittles to spare.”

“Well, they’re on our way,” Trace said.

A small town in the middle of the prairie had reason to be wary of two strange men riding up at dusk. With no recourse to law, and little or no access to medicine, food, or supplies, the town could be ruined by a single bushwacker raid. And this being a black town, there were plenty of good Christian folk who might burn them out just on general principle.

Boz rode slightly in the lead, his hat off so they could see his skin. He and Trace kept their hands in the open and tried to look friendly.

Calling Hamilton a town was doing it a kindness. Boz counted six above-ground buildings clustered around a main street that looked like a hog wallow. The sole brick structure had a cross on top. The other buildings were wood-frame and tar paper. Two had canvas roofs salvaged from Conestoga wagons.

Cowering behind the buildings were the timid mounds of sod-houses, distinguished by the occasional chimney-pipe. The plots where the sod had been scraped back were raw wounds on the prairie, scabbed over with a straggly crust of green. Boz saw no cow or goat staked out, no chickens scratching, no children playing, no adults working or lounging. The place had a sad, sagging look about it, but he got no feeling of deadness like the ghost towns further west.

On the contrary: he felt eyes on them.

“Seemed they was doin better last time we came through,” Trace remarked.

“Probably rather not show themselves to strangers,” Boz said.

“Them crops ain’t been hoed in weeks. No fresh manure, either.”

“Maybe the animals sicked off and died.”

“Not all of ‘em,” Trace argued. “Cattle and horses die of drought, maybe, but the pigs and chickens shoulda scratched by, and they had plenty of both last year.”

Boz had a feeling all this chatter was smoke for another conversation they weren’t having. “You see anything?”

Trace gave him the side-eye. They hadn’t talked much about Trace’s spirit-sight, in the three months since Boz had found out about it. For one thing Trace was as touchy about his Sight as a hen over her eggs. For another, Boz was still sore that Trace had been seeing dead folks for all the years he’d known him and never let on. The recent revelation that his partner was constantly surrounded by haunts and demons was a bit unsettling.

“If you mean dead folks, no,” Trace said, with the edgy calm that meant Leave me alone about it.

“Dead folks is one thing,” Boz insisted. “Or any other thing ain’t right.”

“I don’t always see things, Boz.”

“Look, even I can tell somethin ain’t right here, so I’m askin—do you got any precious insights into matters, or not?”

Trace inhaled strongly, nostrils flaring as if he was about to make an issue of it, and then his head turned abruptly to the right, toward the sound of a goat bleating. Boz heard it, too.

The door of the church was open and it was dim inside, but there was a half-arc of candles lit across the top of the altar, enough to see people kneeling and a billy goat standing in the aisle, chewing placidly.

They rode on for a few seconds of perplexed silence.

“Was that—?” Boz said.

“The Holy Goat?” Trace finished, and they busted up laughing. “I think it must’ve been.”

They crossed the hog wallow of Main Street to the last building on the south corner, which had been a general mercantile when last they passed this way. The front door was open and there were lamps lit, showing several people inside.

They dismounted at the rail. Boz tossed Nate’s reins over and Trace did the same with Blackjack’s. Trace turned toward the stoop but stopped when Boz stood in his way. “What?”

“Maybe you better let me go in alone,” Boz said.

He couldn’t have said why. Trace was one of the few white men Boz knew who understood there were places he wasn’t welcome, and he wasn’t the type to charge in and stomp on everyone’s toes. But there was something about the quiet and... and heaviness of the place that was making Boz nervous. Like the wet-quilt weight of a bad dream that had dogged him since he’d got up that morning.

Trace blinked, but after five years together they knew better than to distrust each other’s instincts. “You think?”

Boz reconsidered. “Well, keep to the back. And don’t touch anything.”

“Whatever you say, boss. I mean, Boz.”

Boz gave him a sneering half-grin and led the way into the store.

It was dark in there, and the place stank of kerosene. In the gloom it seemed there were six or seven man-shaped shadows hunkered over a table near the stove and one leaning on the counter. They stared, sullenly, little more than their eyes and shining foreheads visible in the low light.

The one behind the counter, gray-headed and wearing an apron, came forward to meet Boz at the cash register. It was a fancy new machine, all cast brass and scrollwork. Boz automatically calculated how much weight and space it would take up in a Conestoga wagon.

“Welcome to Reparation, sir,” the man in the apron said. “Can I help you?”

Boz took a half-eagle from his vest pocket and laid it on the counter. Gold always softened people up, and the shopkeep was no exception. “Yeah, we’ll take some coffee and sugar if you got it.”

“Yessir, we just got some sugar in yesterday. Plenty coffee, too. You want it ground, or not?”

“Ground is fine.”

While the shopkeep weighed out the coffee, Boz couldn’t help noticing that the shelves looked pitifully bare for the amount of effort that had gone into building the place. The display counters had glass fronts, and a skilled carpenter had fitted the walls with dozens of drawers and bins. Yet the few goods that sat on the shelves had a shabby look, as if they’d already been through an owner or two.

“Who brought the sugar?” Trace’s voice sounded too loud, behind him.

There was a subtle shift in the place, almost an odor, as attention turned on him. The storekeeper looked over with a frown on his face.

“Don’t look like they brought much else,” Trace remarked. “Wouldn’t’a thought you’d see the stage out here.”

Chair legs scraped back from the table, and one of the men rose and ambled across the floor. Boz had been well over six feet from the time he was fifteen, and Trace was no slouch himself, but the fellow who brushed past Boz to loom over his partner was roughly the size and shape of a Kodiak grizzly.

He wore patchy bib overalls, a flannel shirt, and split leather boots held together around the instep with old scraps of harness. He also wore a shining new top hat that looked as though a stove-pipe had chanced to land on his head.

“You got no business here,” Top Hat said in a low rumble.

Trace inclined his head slightly in Boz’s direction. “Just waitin on my partner.”

“Maybe you should wait quiet-like,” Top Hat said.

Trace touched the brim of his own hat, took a step backwards, and circled away, closer to the door.

Top Hat seemed to feel that the proper ground had been conceded and went back to his chair, but he didn’t sit down; he leaned over the table on his elbows, and he didn’t stop staring. Trace looked over at Boz, eyes inviting him to share the what-the-hell sentiment, but Boz was not feeling particularly sympathetic. He’d told Trace to wait outside. In fact, he felt a mean sort of justification that was quite unlike him.

All the same, the men at the table were behaving strangely. They were dividing up something, counting out little chits of wood. From time to time one of them popped a head up, like prairie dogs watching a hawk. The oldest man, a shriveled fellow with white hair and a brand on one cheek, seemed to be getting most of the markers, and after some low negotiation, Top Hat got up and brought a handful of markers to the shopkeep as well. The shopkeep put them in his apron pocket, and they both eyed Boz, and Trace, with some speculation.

“You travel alone with that cracker?” the shopkeeper said to Boz, plenty loud enough for Trace to hear.

This rudeness was off-putting. It was one thing to talk about white folks in general—hell, Boz did it with Trace all the time, they both took brickbats for their partnership—but to have another black man presume that his judgment was faulty was insulting. One thing Boz did not take from anybody was over-familiarity.

“Yeah, he’s my partner,” he said, in the tone that usually put an end to it.

Not this time.

“You can’t trust ‘em for a minute, you know,” the shopkeep said. “They can seem all friendly and mild for years, and then one day come after you with an ax. Whzzt!” The man made a violent chopping gesture, but his hand touched gingerly on the countertop, and Boz saw for the first time that the hand was only half: a thumb and the first bend of knuckles, gnarled with scar tissue.

Dual outrages clashed in Boz’s gut. He’d seen far too many abuses and injuries inflicted on his own kind. One would think he’d develop a callus over time, yet every fresh insult seemed to build his anger rather than diminish it.

And yet it had nothing to do with him or who he chose to ride with. “I hear you, man. Now if I can get my coffee we’ll be out of your way.”

The shopkeep sniffed as if to say he washed his hands of it. He went on wrapping up the goods in paper and string, while Boz fidgeted and wished to hell he’d hurry it up. The smell in the place was getting stronger, like the aluminum scent of hail coming, and he wanted to get out of there. But just as the shopkeep was finally handing over his parcels there was a creak on the threshold that made them all turn and look.

The new arrival was a young woman—a girl, really—doelike with her slender bare feet and long neck. Her big brown eyes took in the men gazing at her with mingled curiosity and reserve, which might have been fear or sullenness. She wore a yellow silk dress that was far too fine for the prairie desolation surrounding her, and also a bit too big. Hand-me-down, maybe.

The girl’s eyes met Boz’s, and even at the distance he saw the glint of woman’s knowledge in her, the way she sized him up and tilted her chin—not quite invitation but appreciation. She took in Trace’s long lean frame the same way, measuring up and up until she found his face, and the look in her eyes became more speculative.

“Chloe!” the shopkeeper said. “What’re you up to, girl?”

“I saw horses out front,” she said. “I came to see who else was in town.”

The shopkeeper made a move as if to come around the counter, but it was Top Hat who stepped forward and took the girl by the elbow. “This’s man’s business, girl, you go on home now.”

The pretty mouth twisted in resentment and she jerked out of his grip. “You shut up, Henry Thomas! You’re not my pa—”

“Well I am and you don’t mind me,” said the shopkeeper. “You been down in the cellar again, ain’t you? I found it unlocked this morning.”

“Yeah I was,” the girl argued, “since they been down there all night and day without water, and the lil ones was cryin fit to keep me awake.”

“Ain’t no way you coulda heard ‘em if you’d been where you was supposed to be.”

“You stay up top where you belong an’ you won’t hear nothin,” Top Hat added, and put her firmly outside the door, though there was a lingering in the way he manhandled her that spoke of possession. Through the window Boz saw her throw back a look of poison toward the big man and spit at the ground.

Then she turned her head sharply, as if sensing she was being watched, and looked through the window at Trace, who was definitely looking out at her.

She was a pretty girl. There was no denying that. Trace had never been the kind of man who chased tail—if anything, Boz thought Trace could stand to pursue it a little more vigorously, to let off some steam now and then—but there was no mistaking the way the two of them looked at each other in that brief moment.

And unexpectedly, it made Boz’s blood boil. For a second Trace looked like every damned peckerwood who had ever turned his lust on a colored woman, and that was a little more territory than Boz was willing to concede.

“Waddayou lookin at, boy?” Top Hat barked, and Trace seemed to jump before a guilty look came over his face.

“Nothin,” he said, which was the worst possible answer a man in his position could give.

For a second Trace looked like himself again. But then he turned to Boz, and it was like the change that happens in dreams, where you realize the person you thought you knew was really someone else.

Trace’s lean blue-eyed mug seemed to become sinister and squinty, his whole frame shorter and stooped, like two mismatched images of a stereoscope sliding over each other.

He leaned over and spit—which Trace never did, he didn’t even chew—and said to Boz, “Ain’t you ready to go yet, boy?”

And then damned if it wasn’t pig-faced Ned Johnson standing there—same unshaven jowls, same mossy teeth and mean glint in his eyes as that long-ago day on the street, when he’d spit at Boz’s feet and said it was of no account to him if the mongrol bitch had gone missing.

Rage, pure and distilled, rose up in Boz’s nostrils. His left hand dropped to the butt of one of the Scofields on his belt, and he saw Ned’s eyes widen, felt the bolstering presence of the men at his back ready and eager to settle some scores of their own—

“Maybe you the one ought to think about leavin,” Top Hat said, and two of the other men got up from the table and started across the floor. Top Hat picked up an axe-handle that was leaning against the counter, and one of the others flipped back his coat to show the hog-leg on his hip. “Maybe he ain’t at your beck and call no more.”

Trace’s eyes darted from Top Hat to the shopkeep to Boz. For a minute he looked like himself again, but as his eyes met Boz’s, the expression on Trace’s face went well beyond What the hell? to Holy Christ.

Without another word Trace turned on his heel and left the shop.

“Yeah you better run, cracker,” Top Hat muttered after him.

Through the window Boz saw Trace catch up the reins of both horses and loop them around his fist. He got up on Blackjack and nudged him into motion, tugging Nate alongside.

“Hey he’s stealin your horse,” the shopkeep said to Boz, but it was the damnedest thing—as soon as Trace had left the store, the dream broke apart like a fever, and suddenly Boz realized he was being abandoned with these crazies.

Boz snatched up his purchases and made for the door. Trace was not galloping away, but he was losing no time, either. Boz broke into a run and hot-footed in silence for the length of two houses before he drew in enough breath to whistle—their familiar signal, at which Nate faltered and tossed his head.

Trace reined up, turned in the saddle, and looked back.

“It’s all right!” Boz called. “Hold up a sec! I got the coffee!”

It seemed like the important point—the normal thing, to counter the strangeness that had taken hold of him back there. Boz heaved his parcels into Trace’s lap and swung himself into Nate’s saddle.

They looked across at each other, confused and worried.

Boz shook his head. “Just ride.”

They rode until it was dark and then turned off the trail to ride close along the treeline by the river. The moon was high and no one seemed to be coming after them, but they were both spooked.

Boz did not want to ask Trace what had happened back there. They were supposed to have left all that spirit nonsense behind them in St. Louis. That had been the whole point of high-tailing it out of there.

It had all been so strange—the unreasonable whip-sawing of thoughts and emotions through his head and guts. He knew it was Trace, and yet he’d seen him as a stranger, and a despised one at that. Had read all the worst motives into his words and actions. Had hated him, in fact.

Boz had met plenty of people he disliked in his forty-four years, but there were few men he could say he actually hated. Three, to be exact. One had been a white boy who had killed his dog when they were both twelve. He still hated that sonofabitch. Number two was Captain Lyon of D Company, St. Louis, who had promised to help find Boz’s wife after the war and then disappeared without a backwards glance once his post was decommissioned. The third was Ned Johnson, the white cracker whose farm had butted up against Boz’s in Illinois, back in ’58 when Boz was newly married.

Johnson had been short, squinty, and bandy-legged, with four or five nearly grown sons or nephews or strays who hung around his place and took delight in making trouble for Boz and his family. They had filched from the henhouse and the coal pile, trampled the beans and tomatoes, tormented Sarah whenever she passed them on the road. One night they broke into the forge—Boz was running a smithy at the time—and tipped over the anvil, breaking the nose off it.

Boz had taken to sleeping in the smithy after that. The second time they tried to break in, he shot two of them in the backside with rock salt. It didn’t damage them much, but it provided material evidence to the sheriff.

Luckily for Boz the county sheriff had been one of his best customers and sympathetic to a hard-working man who just wanted to be left alone. He warned Ned Johnson to keep his boys under control or they’d be arrested.

About a month after that, Sarah had gone missing.

And that was a time he did not think about—ever. Which was the most disturbing part of this whole day—he’d woken up dreaming about his baby girl, and that had left his memory ajar to Sarah’s disappearance. All of which was undoubtedly the reason why, for that brief instant in the store, Trace’s leering had reminded him of shit-kicker Ned Johnson.

“Stop here,” Trace said suddenly, low in the darkness.

It was a good idea. They had come to a sort of bow-shaped clearing in the trees, and Boz could hear water rushing close by. There was probably a bluff dropping off to the river just ahead.

Trace dismounted and dropped to a crouch. It was very dark among the trees, but he seemed to be running his hand along the ground.

“What’re you doin?” Boz said, disturbed. Trace was a decent tracker, but there was no way he had spotted anything in the dark. Which meant he must have sensed something, and after the day’s events Boz guessed it could not be anything good.

“There’s been blood spilled here,” Trace said, sidling away through the grass and leaves. “Light the lantern.”

Despite his forebodings Boz did; it was better than blundering around in the dark. He got down and found the candle lantern in his pack, and a safety match. And in short order he saw what had made Trace stop.

Someone else had camped here, and recently. The grass and brush in the clearing had been trampled flat by many feet, human and oxen. Tracks of two wagons. Nearer to the tree line they found a day-old campfire, the logs kicked apart rather than burned down, and a slopped-out pail of beans charred among the ashes.

Trace knelt and touched the grass again. “More blood,” he said, in that weird, sleepwalker voice he used when he was seeing something uncanny. “This one had a gun—they shot him right away.”

“Oh hell,” Boz said, thinking of secondhand goods sitting on bare shelves, the ill-fitting and too-fancy dress on the girl Chloe. Their open hostility toward Trace.

“Run away, run away...” Trace muttered, still casting across the ground like a bloodhound. The low monotone of his voice, as much as the words it spoke, made the hairs lift on Boz’s nape. “Round ‘em up, run ‘em down. Take ‘em alive, as many as you can...”

The wind picked up then, and out of the rush of night sounds there seemed to be one that did not belong. A baby’s cry, thin and fretful. Boz felt more than a prickle of gooseflesh then—he outright shuddered in uncanny superstition that was not like him at all. If he hadn’t been holding the lantern he might have put his hands over his ears.

By the look on Trace’s face he felt the same way. “Please tell me you heard that.”

“Did you?” Boz countered.

“Yeah.”

“What did we hear?”

“A baby,” Trace said. “Or a banshee.”

Boz snorted then. “I don’t believe in no banshee.” He lifted the lantern higher as he headed into the tree line.

The trail through the underbrush was easy to follow once he found it, branches broken and bent before the flight of a heedless body. He had not got ten yards from the campfire before he spotted something white, stretched full-length on the ground, and a wailing small lump alongside.

Boz set his lantern down and reached for the infant, who launched himself into the adult arms and clung like a squirrel on a tree trunk. Trace knelt beside the woman’s body and reached to sweep cornsilk hair from her face.

“Are you sure you wanna—” Boz began.

Trace stiffened as soon as he touched her forehead. “Oh Lord, O Lord!” he said, in a strangled voice—a woman’s voice, shrill with panic. “Take the baby—take him! Run!”

“Don’t do that!” Boz said, aghast.

Trace’s cheek spasmed and he lifted his hand with a twitch of his fingers. Boz handed off the baby impatiently and stooped to turn the girl over. She was younger than Boz had expected, not much into her teens. Her face was flat where she had been lying on it, and bits of forest litter stuck to the bloody froth that had dried on her chin and throat. There was a large dark stain on the front of her dress, aligned with the smaller hole on her back.

“Shot her as she was running away,” Trace said. “Went through the lung. She fell forward and lay still to hide the baby. Died slow and quiet.”

“In the dark they didn’t see she had a little one.” They both looked at the boychild in Trace’s arms. It made a persistent wailing; now he was no longer frightened, only hungry. “Let’s get him some grub, ‘fore someone else hears him.”

The baby, placated with a bit of biscuit and then fed to the gills with a gruel of flour, tinned milk, and sugar, slept soundly in Trace’s lap, one pink chubby thumb plugged firmly into his mouth.

“We’re a week from Fort McPherson,” Boz said, low. “And he’ll slow us down. Kid that age can’t live on cornmeal, and that was the last of the milk.”

“How old you reckon he is?” Trace asked.

“Bout a year.” Boz poked the fire with a stick, feeling unaccountably angry. “Bout the same age my little girl was, last I seen her.”

Trace said nothing to that. There was nothing to say. Boz was just angry. He could see the scene as it must have played out—the good citizens of Hamilton, lacking money and goods—probably no other towns around here willing to trade with them—seeing a well-heeled party of white emigrants roll by one day, with their overloaded wagons not long out of St. Joseph, and the idea traveling from one set of eyes to the next like a telegraph message: Take what’s been denied us. No one will know.

Maybe they just started out to trade. Extract a toll. A little robbery. And it got out of control, driven by lifetimes of hate and injustice.

Horrifying. Offensive to the depths of his soul.

He hated that he knew exactly how they’d felt.

“There were other children,” Trace said, breaking into his thoughts. “Families. Probably a couple of wagons.”

Boz clenched his jaw and poked more viciously at the fire.

“You heard what that girl said in the shop. How they’d been down there all day and night without water, and the little ones were cryin.”

“I ain’t goin back there.” Boz’s voice lashed out like a whip. “If I go back there, somethin bad’s gonna happen.” He met Trace’s eyes across the fire. “Prob’ly to you.”

Trace smoothed a hand over the sleeping baby’s head and did not disagree. “What was it you saw? When you looked at me?”

In the store, he meant. Which meant Trace had seen something, too. Probably a lot more than Boz had.

Boz looked away, into the darkness. “Pig-shit Johnson.”

“The one took your wife?”

“That was the rumor.” Sarah had taken a bundle of sewing to Mrs. Curzon’s house that morning. Boz knew she’d made it there; the maid told him so. But she’d never made it home. A group of Negroes in the city lockup told him that a woman of Sarah’s description had been brought in as a runaway the day before. When she’d insisted she was free, the jailer had beaten her senseless. And before nightfall she had been loaded onto a wagon and driven away.

I saw soldiers,” Trace said, as if Boz had asked. “You-all looked like my dead company-mates. The ones who fell down on top of me and kept the ambulance bearers from finding me for three days. And I knew that wasn’t right—all the years I’ve had this curse I’ve never seen the ghosts of anyone I knew. So I knew it had to be somethin else making you look at me like you wanted to kill me.”

“What, then?”

“Demon, I expect. We’ve both seen how they influence people—”

“Or maybe just the demon whitefolks. And a town of people who came out here to be left alone.”

Trace went rather still. He was not angry, Boz saw, but he had turned cautious, as if Boz were a wolf he had come up on unexpectedly.

“And I’m not seein things, Trace, I’m just seein ‘em different from you.”

“How so?”

“I’m seein maybe this isn’t our business and we should just ride on!”

Trace’s brow furrowed. “They’re killin people, Boz. At least they’ve killed one, and got the rest locked up somewhere—”

“And it counts cause it’s white folks that’s locked up?”

Trace looked at him like he’d lost his mind. It wasn’t a fair accusation, and Boz knew it. But the anger in his craw would not allow him to take it back.

“So what then?” Trace said. “Try to make Fort McPherson, send back the cavalry?”

“You know what’ll happen if you go tell the army there’s a town of black folks bushwackin white emigrants.”

Trace said nothing. There was nothing he decently could say.

“And they probably won’t get here in time to save the emigrants,” Boz went on testily, “if they’re even still alive, since we passed through. They coulda decided we was too much risk and they’re cuttin their throats right now.”

Trace just looked at him, with that constipated, hangdog look he’d been wearing for the past three months.

“I know! You can’t let it alone, you gotta do somethin about it, and I gotta fall to heel because I’m your partner and I won’t let you go alone.”

“You do what you feel is right.”

“Fuck you,” Boz said, and felt the sting of it on his own cheeks.

Trace sighed hard. “Look. I know things’ve been hard on you since I went to work for Miss Fairweather—”

“Everything’s different since you met her! It’s like she set you on this holy mission or somethin—”

“But you knew what I was when you met me. That pack of bone-hunters we took out to the Yellowstone. You knew then what I was—that I saw things you didn’t. That there’s somethin in me that draws me to evil things like a magnet. Because God put this thing in me to help—”

“Bullshit.”

“Whatever you say,” Trace said, calm and maddening. He stood, lifting the baby to his shoulder. “You can go on and take the kid and ride on to Fort McPherson. I’ll meet up with you there, if I can.”

Boz ground his teeth and shook his head. “They’ll skin you alive. Besides, it ain’t enough just to get the people. You gotta find their oxen and wagons, too, if you got a hope of gettin them out of Kansas alive.”

“All right,” Trace said. “So what’s our plan?”

Boz tied the baby in a sling, hung from Blackjack’s saddle, and left him untethered near their camp. They packed everything for a hasty getaway and put it on Blackjack’s back, then Boz mounted Nate and Trace got up behind him.

They rode to within sighting-distance of the town, just close enough to distinguish starlight from the lamp-glow in the windows of the church, and then Trace slid down and went on foot.

“Don’t tell me where you’re goin,” Boz warned him. “I’ll find the cattle and meet you back at the camp. You get the settlers. If I don’t make it back there by dawn you’d best go on without me.”

Trace didn’t argue. He slipped away into the darkness and was soon out of sight over the rolling prairie.

Boz rode on into the center of town. Part of him thought he ought to be more cautious about it, maybe ride around south of the buildings, but that part was distant as a dream. Since he’d made up his mind to come back he’d felt a sort of fatal inevitability to his path, as if he were not entirely in control of his decisions.

Besides, there was only one place big enough to store a couple teams of oxen and the wagons, and that was the big livery barn at the east end of the settlement. There was only one reasonable place where the emigrants might be, too, if you stopped to think about it. The girl Chloe had said down there, and there was only one way to get down there on the prairie—there must be a storm cellar. Probably in a central area, too. Most likely under the church.

He was just riding past that building now. It glowed like a barn fire in the dusk—for a minute Boz thought it was on fire, there was so much light and leaping shadows within. But as he passed the open door he saw that there was a brazier of some kind in the middle of the floor, as if they were having a barbecue, and the shadows were the townsfolk leaping and dancing around the fire—

Nate snorted and side-stepped in the street. Boz looked down to see the girl, Chloe, standing there in her too-fancy dress, almost at his stirrup. Of course she was. People cropped up in dreams all the time.

“Hey,” she said softly, and her eyes shone in the starlight. “I was hopin you’d come back.”

“I came back,” Boz said. She really was pretty. That long neck and sloping shoulders, like a queen.

“You lookin for your partner?” Chloe asked. “I saw him back behind the church a little while ago.”

“Actually I’m lookin for some cattle,” Boz told her. He never thought of not answering. “I figure that party y’all bushwacked must’ve had some oxen, figure they must be up in the livery, there.”

“Oh they are,” she told him. “You want me to show you?”

“That’d be most obligin of you,” Boz said.

She took Nate’s bridle and led him along the street, stepping easily in the dark. They passed no one, though here and there Boz heard the occasional yip and whoop, as if coyotes had taken to the streets.

Two doors further down, to the big barn. The side door was open and it was dark inside, but Chloe walked in fearlessly and stopped just inside the shadow of the door. Nate seemed perfectly at ease there, and Boz could smell and hear the oxen standing and chewing placidly. It was a safe place.

He got down from the saddle. Chloe stayed where she was, so they were quite close to each other, close enough that he could smell her, softer and sweeter than the smells of hay and barn.

“Where you and your partner headed?” Chloe asked, tilting her head just so.

“Wyoming,” Boz answered. “We’re gonna start a horse ranch.”

“Are you now? Don’t it take money to do that?”

“We got money. We got some work back in St. Louis this spring, some rich white lady payin my partner to hunt demons.”

“Demons?” Chloe sounded surprised and then chuckled. “What’s he know from demons?”

“Oh, he knows every damn thing. Where they are, what they’re up to, most of all what to do with ‘em. Thinks he’s the god-damned sword of the Almighty, or somethin.”

Chloe tsked for shame. “Sounds like he ain’t a very good friend.”

“He is,” Boz protested. “He’s just got—I dunno, now he’s got some holy mission that’s more important than our plans...”

“Oh you poor baby.” Chloe took both his hands in hers. “Don’t you know, you can’t ever trust ‘em? Their needs is always gonna be more important than ours.”

“Nah, Trace ain’t like that...”

“What about when you get to Wyoming?” She moved closer and raised a hand to his cheek. “Who’s gonna look after you then? How long’s it gonna be before he heads back to his rich white lady and leaves you alone?”

Boz swallowed—for one thing her nearness was affecting him shamefully; for another she had hit on his fear exactly. “What do you know about it, girl?”

“I hear they got silver mines out in Wyoming,” she said, moving closer still, her hands sliding inside his vest and down along his ribs. “I hear Cheyenne’s got hotels and shops that shame St. Louis. I hear they gave Negroes and women the vote. A couple could walk down the street in fine clothes or drive a fine carriage and no one fit to interfere with ’em.”

Boz ran his fingers along the shoulders and neck of her silk dress. “You got a taste for fine clothes, do you girl?” Somehow she had backed the two of them into a stall, and there was a bale of hay to boost her onto, and her knees had spread to embrace his hips. She was nuzzling at his jaw and undoing the buckle of his gun belt.

“I got a taste for a man who can make his way in the world,” she said. “A man who knows who he is, who knows how to take care of his woman.” She hiked up her skirts while her heels hooked behind his thighs and drew him closer.

Things got kind of strange after that—her breath was sweet but sort of meaty, and his lust was queasy, seasick, as if he were having a wet dream in the middle of a fever. Her nails drew blood from his neck, and when he came it was like she bit off a part of his soul and swallowed it down, leaving him feeling weak-kneed and not quite in his skin.

Next thing he knew he was wandering the dark hog-wallow Main Street of Hamilton, with people—or coyotes—darting across his path and around the back of the buildings, and then he was walking the streets of Cheyenne—not that their streets were any better, frankly—arm-in-arm with Sarah, and she was wearing a fine silk dress like she’d never owned while they were married and he had on good shoes and a frock coat, and white men were nodding their heads and saying, “Good evening, Mr. Bosley,” and a fellow in livery was bowing and opening a door to the Cheyenne club and ushering him right inside, only inside it seemed to be on fire as if they’d walked into a furnace or Hell’s front parlor. There were a lot of people in there, blacks and whites both, although the blacks were mostly dancing in their finery—some were waltzing but others were leaping and cavorting like the dances Boz had seen when he was a boy—while the whitefolks were sitting motionless, gray as catfish and glassy-eyed. They weren’t looking too good.

The master of ceremonies was peculiar, too. It was a goat. It stood in the middle of the banquet table and chewed, wattles wobbling. It wore a crown of twigs and its muzzle was stained dark as if it were eating blood. Chloe introduced Boz to the goat, and Boz could have sworn it said Pleased to meet you, not with its mouth but direct to his mind, the way dream-speech sometimes went, all the while baring teeth that were better suited to a pig’s mouth than a goat’s. Long tusks sticking out above and below.

“How’d you come to meet him?” Boz asked Chloe, in what he meant to be a whisper but came out in a loud blurt.

Chloe laughed. The goat laughed. Several of the people around them laughed—Top Hat and the shopkeep were there, Boz saw, and he recognized one or two others from the store. Several had on pieces of ill-fitting finery, like Chloe, and they toasted the goat and each other with crystal glasses that Boz would bet a summer’s wages hadn’t come from that tired old general store.

“Never mind them,” Chloe was saying, tugging on his arm. “We’ll leave in the morning, be well away before they’re sober enough to notice.”

“That shopkeep’s your pa, ain’t he? You gonna leave without sayin good-bye?”

“Let him rot,” Chloe said. “He’s the one brought me to this shit-hole. Dance with me.”

They danced. Round and round the burning brazier in the center of the room, over slick spots and sticky pools, past the glassy-eyed whitefolks sitting in the one pew leaning against each other and staring—were they drunk or dead?—and the goat bleating for someone to bring him another round.

“Never heard a goat talk before,” Boz said to Sarah, who laughed.

“And I thought you knew from demons,” she said.

“Not me,” Boz said. “That’s my partner.”

“Well, we’re gonna take care of him,” Sarah-Chloe said.

Just then there was a cry and a whoop, and everyone turned expectantly to the front of the church, where Top Hat and several other men were ushering in three more whitefolks, a woman and two men, who they forced to their knees in front of the pew of their brethren.

One of the men was Boz’s neighbor. Or his partner. He wasn’t sure which. But he knew him, knew him like his own skin, and he hated him.

Trace-Johnson had been stripped down to his shirtsleeves and his arms bound behind his back. There was blood in his hair, and his head was lolling.

“We caught him down in the cellar,” Top Hat said to Chloe-Sarah, “tryin to pick the lock on the chains.”

“I said he would, didn’t I?” She stepped forward and raked her fingers through Trace’s hair to lift his head. Trace was obviously dazed, but his eyes had that sharp look at the same time—that haunted strain, as if he were staring into the sun and finding it too fascinating to look away even while it burned his eyes out.

The other two whitefolks were crying, and the woman was calling to Jesus to save her. Her cries got caught up by the townsfolk, who called out praise and thanks in His name. To Boz, who had had little truck with Jesus before his wife was taken and absolutely none since, it was all so much noise.

But he heard Trace’s voice, near and low under the ruckus: “Just tell me this—did you call to it, or did it whisper to you first?”

Chloe’s pretty face twisted nastily. “Don’t matter to you, do it?”

Behind them, the hosannas of the townsfolk raised to fever pitch and then hushed; in the silence there was the white woman’s sobbing and then a sound like a melon being split open, and then the whoops of the crowd calling out Praise the Lord! Praise His Name! and the goat gurgling Good, good children! Blood is good!

It all seemed very irregular to Boz. The heat of the brazier and the stink of burning flesh and hair began to fill the air.

“What do you think happens when you run out of white folks?” Trace-Johnson said to Chloe-Sarah. “It’ll start in on your people.”

“That’s nothing to me,” Sarah said, with a hard little laugh. “I mean to be long gone before that happens.”

“And you took him for your ticket out of here, huh?”

“Mm-hm.” Sarah turned to Boz and took his arm, fondly. “We’re going to Wyoming to start our new life together.”

Boz was beginning to resent being talked about and around. But then Johnson’s squinty pig eyes shifted to Boz. “Hey Boz. You know this woman’s a witch, right? She’s the one called down the demon in the goat.”

Boz was confused. They’d left the witch back in St. Louis. Sarah had sometimes been called a witch because she’d been a Voudou believer, but anybody could see that the goat was the master of ceremonies.

“You got no call talkin about my wife like that,” Boz said.

Bring him here, the goat said to Boz. I’ll show him the truth.

So Boz and Top Hat scooped up Shit-kicker Johnson under the arms and hauled him through the pool of spilled gore beside the brazier, around the bare blackening feet of the white woman burning up in its great bowl, and dropped him to his knees before the goat.

The stupid cracker didn’t even have the sense to look scared—he locked eyes with the goat, and it bent its head until their brows were almost touching. They looked like they were about to butt heads—which was exactly the kind of thing Trace would do with a demon. Had done. Several times.

And where the hell was Trace? Boz wondered. Wasn’t he supposed be here by now? Or was Boz supposed to meet him somewhere?

His head was beginning to ache.

What are you? the goat said to Ned. Holy man?

Somethin like that, Ned agreed. Enough to know you’re a piss-poor excuse for a demon. I’ve met some that could move into rocks, machines, bodies of men, and you’re stuck there in a GOAT?

One body is as good as another in your world. I just want the blood. Your kind are always eager to kill each other.

I know what you are. I can fight you.

The goat laughed; a rotten, clotted sound. Fight with what? You’re tied up and you don’t know how to use that power in your head. It’ll burn you up from the inside one day. Kinder if I kill you now.

Yeah, but you can’t, can you? You need one of them to do it, because you don’t have thumbs.

Now how, Boz wondered, could a goat look so confounded? But the wondering only lasted a second because the goat turned its amber eyes on Boz and said KILL HIM so loud it made Boz’s vision turn red.

Next thing he knew Top Hat was standing there pressing an axe-handle into his hands. The business end of it was clotted with blood and hair.

“Do it, brother,” Top Hat said. “Make the sacrifice.”

“How’s it a sacrifice if I don’t like the sumbitch anyway?” Boz demanded. “What’s that gonna get me?”

The crowd, which had gone semi-quiet during the meeting of man and goat, began to murmur, prayers and pleas.

Kill him, the goat-thing whispered. Kill him and your wife will come back. You can go find your child together.

Boz’s hand tightened on the axe-handle.

Chloe sidled up to Boz and took his free hand, raised it to her cheek. “Kill him, John,” she whispered. “Do it for me. You don’t know what he did to me... how he shamed me...”

Boz?

He remembered that stinking cell where the runaways had been held. No, man, she’s gone. Pateroller beat her down and they carried her out in a rug after dark. Yeah, one o’ them called the other Johnson—

Boz!

“Huh?” Boz looked around.

Boz, you’re listening to a goat.

There was Trace, finally! “Damn, what took you so long?” Boz looked around at the brown sweat-shining faces. “Where you at?”

I’m in your head, Boz. Well, I’m in the gray space, but I’m talking in your head.

Goddammit, Trace! Can’t a man have some privacy?

Well, you wouldn’t listen to me any other way!

What’s got into all these people?

The goat, Boz. It ain’t a goat. It’s a damn demon.

You’re shittin me. Not another one!

“Do it, brother,” Top Hat said. “Be a man. No white man can make you free. You have to break your own chains.”

“Shit,” Boz said in disgust. He shrugged off Chloe, hoisted up the axe handle, and wheeled, swinging in a long descending arc that cracked against the goat’s horns.

Chloe screamed. So did the congregation. The goat staggered, bleating, baring its long tusks. Boz hit it again, the dry wood bouncing off bone with a vicious crack. Everyone clutched their temples, except for Trace, who fell to his side and writhed.

Boz brought the axe handle down again, and the goat gave a violent spasm and vomited up a long gush of red. The spray launched itself toward the brazier and poured over the hot coals. For a second the flames flared up, obscenely greasy and bright, and then collapsed in on themselves.

The goat exhaled once and went flat.

Boz flung the axe handle to where Top Hat was kneeling and panting. “I was never no man’s slave.”

He whipped a knife from his belt and sawed through Trace’s ropes. Trace got heavily to his knees and had to hang on Boz’s shoulder to stand—his color was bad, and the cut at his temple had run down into his collar.

“You okay?” Boz asked him.

“I’ll live,” Trace said.

Now that the scales had been dropped from his eyes, Boz saw the true horror of what had been going on here—four dead, one of them a teenaged boy, and the townsfolk standing around staring, glassy-eyed and whimpering as they awoke from the collective nightmare. A woman dropped to her knees, calling on Jesus for forgiveness. The shopkeeper’s scarred hand rose shaking to press against his mouth. Top Hat had lost his hat; it sat upside down in a cooling pool of blood.

Suddenly a shriek rose out of the crowd, and Chloe flung herself at Boz, flailing with her fists, calling him names no lady should know, much less speak aloud.

Boz shoved her off him. She fell hard on her bottom. The crowd gasped, and he drew his left-hand pistol and trained it on her while she screamed hatefulness at him, called him a whoreson and a pimp and a dog.

“What have you done to us, girl?” the shopkeeper whispered.

In the pale gray dawn, five corpses lay in the grass, covered with shawls and old quilts.

Five of the townsmen dug shallow graves, while the emigrants—an old Mormon named Montrose, his wives, remaining son, and daughter-in-law—busied themselves loading the wagons. Five oxen and two horses were returned to them, along with most of their belongings. These items had appeared on the porch of the general store, shamefacedly delivered by the townspeople, who crept away as silently as they had come and did not make eye contact with anyone.

Trace oversaw the loading of the wagon, at the west end of town. Boz oversaw the digging of the graves, to the north. From that position he could also see the back of the church, and the storm-cellar doors that led beneath it. He saw the shopkeeper coming up through those doors now, weighing something in his hand, and gesturing toward the men standing guard that they should close the doors and put the bar into place.

Chloe’s scream of rage carried to Boz on the wind.

The shopkeeper came toward him through the rippling grass, looking older and more stooped than he had the day before. He stood beside Boz, both of them squinting into the wind, and held out the palm of his hand, flat. There was a small cloth bag in it, daubed with paint.

A witch-bag. Hoodoo, maybe. When Boz squeezed it he felt something fibrous inside, like feathers or hair, and some little hard bits, like teeth.

“Her mother was the same way,” the shopkeep said, as if in apology. “Wanted all the fine things she saw, didn’t care how she got them. She died spitting up spiders and needles.”

“Chloe learnt the witchcraft from her.”

The shopkeeper gave a grunt of agreement. “I took Chloe out of Cincinnati so she didn’t get hanged for murder. There was talk she poisoned the mistress of the house she worked at. I didn’t want to believe it, but—” The man seemed unable to go on.

Boz gave it a moment before he said, “If you want, me and my partner can take her to Fort McPherson. Turn her over to the law there.”

The shopkeep raised his chin at that. “Whitefolks’ laws got naught to do with us.”

“No,” Boz allowed.

He thought about that the rest of the time the bodies were being put in the ground, as he turned to mount up Nate, as he rode back to the west end of town. Blackfolks had always taken care of their own, as much as they were allowed. Whatever punishment they set to Chloe, it would be kinder than what the white army would do to her. Maybe kinder than she deserved.

He remembered her legs wrapped around his waist, the blood-sweet scent of her breath, the seasick feeling of being trapped in a dream while people were being murdered in front of him and him finding it perfectly reasonable—

He leaned out of the saddle and retched into the grass.

Nate, confused by the sudden weight shift, huffed in annoyance and danced sideways until Boz straightened up and wiped his mouth with the back of one hand.

“You all right?” Trace asked, as Boz rode up to where the Mormons were fixing to flee.

“You askin me?” Boz said, eyeing the wide purple bruise across Trace’s brow and the fresh bandage around his head. He’d had to put three stitches in Trace’s scalp to stop the bleeding. “Not even sure you should be ridin.”

“Better than lyin in a wagon gettin jounced to death,” Trace replied. He had a whiskey bottle nestled at his crotch, and he took a pull off it before passing it over.

Boz took it gratefully. He rinsed the bile taste out of his mouth and watched as one of the younger women hefted a baby onto her hip—the boychild they had found in the woods. Boz still hadn’t sorted out whose child it was, or which wife was whose, but he supposed it was none of his business. “They ready to go?”

“Just about.” Trace took another pull off the bottle before tucking it away. “They declined our offer to take ‘em to McPherson. They say they’re goin on to Salt Lake City.”

“They’re damn fools, then.”

Trace did not disagree. “World’s full of ‘em,” was all he said. He wheeled Blackjack to look back on the gray little town, the threads of woodsmoke, the five raw mounds on the prairie. “Town won’t be here next time we pass through.”

“You can see the future, now?”

“No.” Trace nestled his hat down gingerly over the bandage. “Not yet.”

“Is that why it didn’t get you? The demon?” Even saying that word put a bad taste in Boz’s mouth. “Cause of this power you got?”

“It did get me,” Trace said. “At least at first. Thing is, I don’t think I was its preferred flavor. Miss Fairweather said demons tend to favor a certain type of victim, and a certain way of reelin ‘em in.”

He’d said as much, before. “So what’d this one favor?” Boz asked.

Trace shook his head. “Restitution.”

They turned their horses west.

Read Comments on this Story (No Comments Yet)

Holly Messinger is a writer, a costume designer, and a martial artist, not always in that order. Her fiction is strongly inspired by history, and her characters Trace and Boz have appeared in a number of works, including The Curse of Jacob Tracy from St. Martin’s Press and indie prequel The Romance of Certain Old Bones. (Observant readers may deduce that “Scapegoat” takes place between the events of “Parlor Games” and “Horseflesh” in Curse.) Holly’s short fiction has appeared in previously in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Baen’s Universe, and comes soon to Fantasy & Science Fiction (summer, 2020). The next Jacob Tracy book, Curious Weather, is nearing completion. Her website is www.hollymessinger.com.

Return to Issue #293