Murder Ballad

by shukyou (主教)
illustrated by cerine

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/180623.html)

“Just, you know, thrash about a bit. Moan some.” Jake lit one of the candles and placed it at a precarious angle on the side of the bureau. “I’ll go downstairs, see if the old woman’s got some baking powder.”

Will shot him a look so sour it could’ve curdled milk. “I know you are not going to leave me tied up here.”

“Got no other choice. And you ain’t that tied.” After that time in Amarillo (a string of bad circumstances Will referred to collectively as ‘that time I should have killed you’), Jake had learned that no matter how important authenticity was, you never tied a body up with an inescapable knot unless you were real invested in that body’s being unable to escape no matter what the circumstances. Jake reached over and patted his friend’s knee. “Back in an hour, give or take,” he grinned, and headed for the door.

“I swear to Jesus, I will wring your–” Neck, Jake supposed, was what came next, but the old farmhouse was a well-built fortress, and once its heavy wood doors closed, you couldn’t hear a peep from the other side. Putting on his best grimly resolute face, but smiling inside, he walked down to the room where the household had been told to stay put.

Barely ten minutes later, despite his tease, Jake was back up to the bedroom, only this time he had with him a seven-piece audience: the lovely widow herself; her three blossoming daughters, aged eight, ten, and thirteen; Maria, the elderly Mexican woman who had lived with the family for decades; Lindsey Mayes, the dead man’s brother; and Parson Olsen, the local Methodist. Of all the bunch, the one whose being there Jake hadn’t counted on was the good reverend’s, and he didn’t so much mind; Methodists tended to be a friendly sort, a little sensible for his tastes, but enough talk about the Holy Ghost and he could get even the most staid of them on board. Olsen himself was a tall, white-haired Swede who clutched his handkerchief to his face when he saw Will on the bed. “What is the darkie doing?” he stage-whispered to Jake.

“Parson, that man is possessed,” Jake explained, putting his head on Will’s forehead. Will, for his own part, was thrashing and moaning just as he’d been instructed, working up a bit of a sweat in the warm, closed-up room. Jake bent down to his chest and took a long, deep breath, allowing himself the pleasure of enjoying Will’s smell in a context where he knew Will couldn’t pull away. “That right there is the scent of the other realms! Can you smell it?”

Long practice kept his face fixed as the seven of them took delicate sniffs of the air. “What I smell is horseshit,” said Lindsey, who’d never made a secret of his dislike of his sister-in-law’s trust in Jake and Will. “Louella, you can’t possibly be–”

Louella, my love,” interrupted Will, speaking now with great gulps of air and an accent unlike his own. “Come stand beside me, my darling.

The widow flung herself at the bedside, grasping Will’s hand. “Elbert, is that you?”

See,” said Will, “even now I am standing beside you.” Jake tossed some of the baking powder on the ground, then gave a big huff of air, blowing the white dust away from where he’d slicked the floor in the shape of two bootprints. “I will always be with you, Louella, so do not lose faith in my–

A sharp knock on the door startled them all, even Will, and Jake in his startlement dropped the rest of the powder all over the floor, his boots, and the bottom half of his jeans. They all turned to see a little mouse of a young man standing in the doorway, uniform cap on his head, piece of paper in his hand; bless him, he looked as spooked as the rest of them. “Um,” he said, looking about at the strange scene before him, “got an official US Government telegram here for a Mr. Jacob Philips.”

“That, ah, that’d be me.” Jake stepped forward, kicking up a little cloud of dust as he did so. “Beg your pardon,” he said, nudging between the parson and the oldest girl to take the printed page from the messenger’s hand. He unfolded it and read the few lines, and he couldn’t keep from grinning; that done, he folded it in the pocket of his vest, tipped his hat to the young man, and turned back to the scene before him. “Folks, uh, got an urgent call that we need to be somewhere else.”

“But–” The widow looked around the room, from the bootprints to Will’s quieted body to Jake to her daughters and back to the bed. “What about Elbert?”

“Oh, he’s fine,” said Will, sitting up and taking the widow’s hand in both his (slipping the ropes in the process, though no one else seemed to notice), and whatever misgivings she might under other circumstances have had about allowing a Negro Seminole such an intimacy, she seemed fine with it now. “He just wanted to tell you that he’ll always be with you, and he’ll protect you, and if you do ever marry again, it should be for love, and not because you feel an obligation to kin.” As he said the last line, he turned his eyes to Lindsey, who shrank back a little, spooked and abashed. “And he’ll always watch over you and the girls, and it’s not to worry, because he’s happy and without pain.”

Sobbing, the widow thrust herself forward into Will’s arms, and Jake had to admit sometimes that cutting to the chase was just as effective as the long dramatic reveal. “So, we’ll be taking our leave,” said Jake, looking at Will, who shot him back the kind of look a man only got when he was being prevented from moving by a hundred pounds of hysterical woman on his lap. “…Presently. Mary Pat, didn’t you say there was some peach cobbler in the cupboard?”

Not an hour later they were riding south out of town, purse all but empty, but saddlebags stuffed with all manner of baked goods; Will wouldn’t allow them to take money from churches, orphans, or widows, even ones as well-off as the Widow Mayes (who would stay that way now, freed of her layabout drunkard brother-in-law), but Jake had convinced him that it was a mighty sin to let food go to waste. They clip-clopped along without speaking for nearly fifteen minutes, until Will finally broke and sighed. “Are you going to tell me what the telegram said, or are you just going to keep on proving what I’ve always suspected about your being sired by a badger and birthed by a jackass?”

“Government job,” said Jake, through an impolite mouthful of buttermilk biscuit. “Got a problem that’s keeping a railroad from getting built, out in the Indian Territory. Want us on the case as soon as we can get there. Thousand, plus bonuses for keeping it quiet.”

Will’s eyes went a little wide. “Think it’s real?”

Jake snorted. “Thousand plus bonuses? It’s real.”

~*~

A day’s hard rider later, and they pulled into the railroad camp in the eastern Indian Territory just past sundown. They were met first by the wary stares of the Chinese workers, huddled around the cookfires outside their tents, then by a group of five riders, all as white as Jake. “You the specialists the government sent?” asked the middle rider, a heavyset, bearded man with an absurdly large hat.

“Will Cooper, Jake Philips,” Jake said, pointing to each of them in turn. “You the men in charge?”

“Clayton Hicks,” said the bearded man. He had the general dimensions of a man Jake tended to associate with cocky power, though there was a look of unmistakable fear in his eyes, giving more credence to Jake’s initial assessment of the situation. “These are my foremen: Abraham Volk, Lem Swift, Cameron Birch, Thorton Wheeler.” He indicated the men around him, but the light was so bad that Jake hoped they’d get another introduction, since there wasn’t much to tell the four middle-aged, medium-built guys apart. “We’ll get you some grub from the mess tent, then find you places to stay,” he said, with the sort of tone that seemed clear to Jake those places were intended to be separate.

“Meal’s a mighty kind offer, and we’ll both thank you for it,” said Jake, riding his horse slightly in front of Will’s, as much to keep Will from the men as the other way around, “but we’ll make our own camp. Easier to commune with the spirits,” he added, lest anyone take offense at his refusal of their half-hospitality. “Honest truth, gentlemen, we’d just as soon get ourselves started on your problem.”

Hicks nodded and patted the rump of the horse at his right. “Cam, why don’t you show these fellows where the trouble’s been.”

“Of course,” said the man named Birch, and as he trotted his horse closer, Jake could see better a jagged cut that hooked down from his eye toward the corner of his mouth; it looked raw and red, as though it had only started to heal. Birch wheeled his horse around on Jake’s exposed side, regarding Will with the same cautious eye Jake had seen on a thousand other men. It was dim, sure, but Jake knew from experience you didn’t need much light to tell the difference between the clay of his face and the coal of Will’s. In certain parts of the country, they played up Will’s Indian half, sometimes even going so far as to put him in a long black-braided wig and claim he was some animal-named chief from some tribe five states away; this close to proper Indian land, though, Will had supposed that wouldn’t win them any extra friends, and Jake had supposed he’d supposed right.

There wasn’t anything to be gained from being hostile from the get-go, though, and Jake’s long-departed grandmother had taught him well about honey, vinegar, and fly-catching. “Mr. Birch, a pleasure.” Jake extended his leather-gloved hand and shook Birch’s bare one. Will didn’t even offer. “Thank you for your help, Mr. Hicks, and we’ll report back just as soon as we get a sense of the thing.”

The place where Birch led them was some distance from the lights of the camp, though before they even got there, the dim glow of Birch’s lantern shone on twisted pitchforks and hammers, bent at sharp angles into useless contortions of metal and wood. That just added to Jake’s certainty — after all, he’d put on many a phony seance and hoax haunting in his day, but he still had no idea how a human being could cause such damage without someone’s noticing. Either that or it was all a big conspiracy, but he couldn’t imagine the US government’s first instinct had been to contract with rogue spiritualists. “You had other specialists out here before us, Mr. Birch?” Jake asked.

Birch nodded without looking back. “Police, insurance men, Pinkerton detectives — they all wound up running scared.” He had a deep, rumbling voice that Jake assumed would be thunderous at full volume.

“So, have you seen it?”

“Seen it?” Birch tapped his cheek. “Damned thing nearly killed me with a rail spike.”

Jake looked over at Will, who raised his brows but said nothing. “And how long has this been going on?” Jake asked, guiding his horse around what he assumed had once been a rail cart, though it now looked like a wadded-up piece of iron paper.

“Month, give or take.” Birch pulled his horse to a stop by a stretch of track, and Jake and Will stopped theirs behind him. He pointed down the track, and Jake’s eyes followed the straight rails to where they began first to bend, then to buckle, then to rise into the air like the branches of some great steel tree, thirty feet high and monstrous against the moonless blue evening sky. “And there, boys, you see our problem.”

illustrated by cerine

“Any idea why it started here?” asked Will, urging his horse closer. The animal, however, was having none of it, and it balked, flaring its nostrils.

Birch shook his head. “Every time we try to work on the rails, it starts up again. The whole thing’s stalled and we’re bleeding money. A month ago, you told me something like this was happening, I would’ve been first in line to have the doc look at your head to see where you’d hit it. Now…” His voice trailed off, and he shrugged. “Probably hit some redskin burying ground, some hoodoo like that. You boys fix it, and I can go back to pretending it never happened.”

Jake tried not to attribute all of his dislike of Birch to the fact that he called them ‘boys’ despite looking not much past Jake’s age, but that was a major part. As his own horse seemed disinclined to advance, he hopped down and gave Birch his reins. “Go on, take them back, give them some hay, they’ve been riding a while,” he said, nodding to Will to do the same. “Either we’ll fire two quick shots to get you to come back for us, or we’ll stay the night and you can find us at daybreak.”

“Better you than me,” said Birch, who tied the horses’ leather reins to his saddle horn and started off. Within a minute, the sound of hooves had faded beneath the hiss of the early night breeze.

Alone again at last, Jake turned to Will with a grin and pointed behind him to the twisted metal structure. “That, my good friend, is the work of a bona-fide ghost.”

Will grabbed the brim of Jake’s hat and pulled it down into his face. “All right, it’s real,” he conceded, advancing on a pickaxe that had been bent so that its tips touched, forming a circle; he lifted it, tossing it in his hands to gauge its weight, then brought it down hard on a nearby rock, making a long, heavy sound that echoed through the prairie air. “I never did rail work, but I spent plenty of time swinging one of these, and I’ll tell you, you need a blacksmith to beat it into a shape like that.”

“Reckon that’s the first thing they would’ve suspected.” Jake lifted his arm and Will tossed him the warped tool, which Jake caught with one hand, then had to add a second hand to very quickly to keep from showing how heavy it was. Unlike his father, Will had never been owned by anyone, but he had spent much of his life earning his keep by doing backbreaking work, some of the only honest sort a free colored man like himself could find; as a result, he was as strong as he was smart, and frequently used his muscles to make a monkey out of Jake, who by his own admission had been fashioned by God for the more delicate pursuits in life.

Will reached out and traced his hand along the place the rails started to bend. “So, a month ago, out of nowhere, something big decides to stop the project. Wasn’t stopped before, and wasn’t stopped after. Either the time’s important or the location is.”

“My money’s on time.” Jake surveyed the area, which even in the growing dark looked the same as most of the miles they’d ridden to get there: flat, indistinct, uneventful. “If the railroad got stopped every time it ran over some long-dead Indians, it’d never’ve made it to the Mississippi. Guess we’d better see what it wants.”

“Brilliant plan,” Will deadpanned. “You going to just stand here and jaw at it until it up and leaves out of sheer irritation?”

“Not a bad strategy, but no.” Jake patted at his pockets, but he realized too late that Birch had taken everything he might’ve found useful back to camp in his mount’s saddlebags. He travelled light as a rule, but tried to hold on to what few sacred objects he could, when he could; every ghost was different, and you never knew what’d make your job easier. Calling Birch back out seemed like a hassle, especially just to take the packs from the mares, send him back, and call him out again to retrieve them both, so he decided to make do with what he had. “You see anything around here that ain’t busted?”

Will frowned. “Tools, you mean?” He poked with his toe around a stack of splintered hammers, then reached down and pulled one up from the middle. “Here, there’s one.”

“Great.” Jake pointed at the rail. “Hit it.”

“Hit it?” Will looked more inclined to hit him.

“Like you’re fixing to lay more track! Look, Birch said, every time they try to work on it, bad things happen. So,” Jake made an expansive gesture with his hands, “you’re the muscle of the operation, why not act like it?”

“We should just take you around in a dress and a bonnet for all the good you are,” Will scowled.

“Don’t make like you’d like me better in a skirt,” Jake teased with a smile, though it had the bitter edge to it of being only half a joke. Instead, he chose to rally past it to the task at hand: “Come on, John Henry, drive me some steel.”

Will always got the most explosive looks of contempt on his face when he knew he’d been beaten. “Lay your head down there, give me something to aim at,” he growled, and he picked up the huge mallet in both hands. He brought the heavy head back over his shoulder, knocking his hat off in the process, and with a grunt of effort, brought the tool down square on the twisted rail.

For a moment, Jake swore he heard a train.

The rails lifted up, flapping as easily as a woman shaking out a wet sheet before hanging it on a clothesline, pushing back against the force of Will’s strike and tossing both him and the mallet ten feet away. Will landed on his backside, but was on his feet again as quick as he’d gone down, and he gave a determined nod as Jake ran to him. Beneath their feet, the dry ground hissed and cracked as the ties uprooted themselves, wrenching out the deep-driven spikes that had held them fast. Jake grabbed the collar of Will’s vest and yanked him back as a deep fissure opened at his feet, and they both stumbled back into a thornbush, which didn’t make the situation any more pleasant.

The sound grew louder, and Jake realized it wasn’t a train’s steam whistle, it was a scream, a howl feral and human all at once. These tactics were more like those Jake had seen from ghosts designed more to scare than to harm, but Jake’s experience with that type was also that if they didn’t frighten their targets off the first time, they weren’t opposed to upping the ante. One of the rails rose again and snapped in the air like a fishing line pulled too taut, and the end slammed down just inches from their toes. “Go!” hollered Jake, and he pushed Will in the direction of the camp.

For once in his ornery life, Will didn’t seem inclined to argue. He scurried back from the site, a fistful of Jake’s coattail in his hand, and Jake tumbled with him, trying to resolve wanting to keep an eye on the supernatural mess with wanting to look where he was going. At last, despite his curiosity, Jake gave into the good sense of not trying to tackle a problem like that without the appropriate tools, and the two men just ran for it. Despite being underslept and saddle-sore, they covered the half-mile stretch between site and camp in what seemed like no time at all.

Two of the foremen were mounted at the edge of camp waiting for them, and Jake was glad it was night enough now so that he didn’t have to see how foolish he looked reflected on their faces. “Ain’t you boys supposed to be the experts?” one of them drawled, long and slow.

“Sure are,” Jake panted, gasping for breath as he hunkered over, bracing his hands above his knees. “Why we run so fast.”

The foremen looked at one another for a moment, then burst out laughing, which Jake took as a good sign. The closer of the two pitched his canteen to Jake, who took a long drink of it, then handed it to Will, who was more than clever enough to drink from a white man’s water supply without letting his lips touch the rim. “So what’d you see?” asked the other rider, leaning closer.

Jake took the canteen from Will and capped it, then handed it back to its owner. “A mighty strange show,” he said. “Figure we’ll be taking that grub you offered now. Nip of whiskey, too, if you’ve got it.”

“See what we can do,” the first man said, and they wheeled their horses back toward the main mess tent. Jake and Will looked at one another, shrugged, and fell in behind.

~*~

There were three types of hauntings Jake had encountered in his career as a spiritualist-for-hire. The first, as in the case of the Widow Mayes, was the kind he himself caused. Usually these came to him when grieving folk who’d recently lost a loved one heard of his coming and hired him on to communicate with whatever poor departed soul they wanted to hear from. In nearly all such cases, the soul in question was just that — departed — but since no one liked to hear silence back from the beyond, Jake had gotten into the business of scaring up all sorts of messages the likes of which he suspected the deceased would have delivered, if not for the pesky problem of having passed too far beyond the veil for recreational communication. And if, again, as in the case of the Widow Mayes, this trickery could be done with the added benefit of saving the innocent and punishing the guilty, well, to Jake, so much the better.

Hauntings of the second type tended to be as fake as those of the first, but the difference came in that someone else had decided to play the ‘ghost’ long before Jake arrived on the scene, generally for the purpose of scaring some poor folk off land and property. These, he’d never had a second’s qualm about unmasking as frauds, and if whatever shyster who’d put on the ruse got himself locked up for his misdeeds, that was even more cause to sleep well at night.

From the time he’d run away from home at twelve to the year he’d turned twenty-one, these had been the only kind he’d ever known: cons he’d started and cons he’d stopped, respectively. It wasn’t an easy living, and it sometimes necessitated he skedaddle out of town in the middle of the night, but it was enough for him to eat and live on, and that was more than he supposed the world owed him in the first place.

The third type had become painfully clear on a job he’d presumed to be of the second type, only he’d woken in the middle of the night floating three feet above the straw-stuffed mattress of a farmhouse bed. He’d thought the old man’s descriptions of misplaced objects and levitating livestock had been a little more involved than most of the fake hauntings he’d encountered, but he hadn’t let enter into his mind the thought ghosts actually exist until he was being held aloft by his longjohns, staring down the half-transparent face of a young boy who could do nothing but mouth the words help me over and over again.

There’d been nothing for it, then. He’d had to learn how to do the job he’d been faking for real.

As far as he could tell — and he’d gained all his information in a learn-by-doing fashion — there wasn’t much in the way of telling what would make a ghost and what wouldn’t. Oh, to be sure, all of the ghosts he’d met had been tasked with some sort of unfinished business or final demand for justice, but that didn’t mean every soul that died in an unkind manner came back to see the score settled. He’d been called upon to witness the aftermath of all manner of violent deaths, from a strangled schoolteacher to a poisoned parson to three children found floating face-down in a river, and though he’d expected those innocent lives to cry their killers’ names from beyond the grave, there’d been nothing.

Nor, of course, did it mean that every lingering spirit had a real dignified reason for being there: Jake had once met an old man who’d hung around just to make sure his daughter-in-law didn’t inherit his departed wife’s linens, and for no reason Jake could identify other than spite. Thus, Jake had long ago ceased to find any meaning in philosophies that purported to explain the way of the universe, and instead decided to take life — and death — on a case-by-case basis. If you couldn’t be prepared for something, you might as well be prepared for anything.

He’d tried to press for information during his meal, but the rest of the management had been just as answerless as Birch. Thus, he’d been glad when, following supper, he’d been able to snatch a pair of cigarettes and a match from Hicks’ pouch, then beat a hasty retreat to the camp’s quieter central area. A few minutes later, Will walked over from the fire where the Negro rail workers were huddled, and Jake stuck one of the ill-gotten smokes in the corner of Will’s mouth before proceeding to light them both from the one match. “What do you know?” he asked.

“One of the Chinese went missing just before the trouble started up, I hear tell,” Will said, nodding back to his dining companions. “Could be they just ran away, but….”

“Hell of a long way to run,” said Jake, looking out into the darkness beyond the tents. He had a fairly good idea of where they were, and that was on the stretch of land that connected Nothing and Not Much Else; there wasn’t much around to give a smart person incentive to run away. And Jake had yet to meet a runaway that could leave a set of rails in that condition. “Well, how’s your Chinese?”

Will — who, Jake happened to know, spoke good Spanish, passable French, and a little Latin — snorted like Jake’d just asked him how well he breathed underwater. “One of the men said he talks with some of the leaders over there, so I know he’s got to have a little of it.”

“Get him and let’s go,” said Jake, patting Will on the arm, and Will jogged back to the fire he’d just left.

A few minutes later, Jake and Will were being led over to the Chinese side of the encampment by a young colored fellow saddled with the illustrious name of Obadiah McGillicuddy. “Call me ‘Bo’,” he instructed, and Jake agreed without further asking why. “The bosses tell you some of what happened?”

Jake shook his head. “No, Bo, they didn’t tell us a thing.”

Bo laughed, his lips pulling back from his big buck teeth. “Don’t suppose they did. Well, that’s all right. Better to get it straight from the horse’s mouth.”

“Anything you can tell us, Bo,” said Will, scratching his head. Unhidden by his hat, his thick, dark hair stuck up in wild waves that spoke of how long it’d been since they’d stayed long enough in a town big enough to offer a proper shave or a haircut.

“Oh, you’ll hear it from me too, don’t you worry. Just want to make sure I got all my information correct before I do.” Bo waved as they came up on a circle of older men, two of whom stood and smiled at him in greeting. After a few exchanges — many of which Jake could tell were the Chinese men just repeating themselves in response to Bo’s making desperate slow down gestures — Bo nodded to his right. “Mr. Lin’s this way. It’s his daughter went missing.”

Jake didn’t quite know what he’d expected to find inside the indicated tent — maybe exotic treasures, or animal parts in jars, or at least some mystical Oriental incense — but the place was as bare and dim-lit as any miner’s camp he’d ever seen, and the only smells were of dirt, sweat, and beans. Eight or so people were sitting cross-legged on the ground, all in the same drab brown clothes, all engaged in a heated conversation that stopped the second their visitors walked in; Bo bowed his head in greeting, and Jake and Will followed suit. Bo spoke a few words, and one of them men stood, dusting of his long tunic as he did so. “This is Mr. Lin,” he said, and proceeded to give a similar introduction in Chinese, the only words of which Jake understood were their names.

Jake stuck out his hand, figuring as gestures of trust and goodwill went, it might cross the cultural divide well enough, and if not, well, the offer alone might at least convey that he thought of Lin as a man, and not just a disposable Chinaman. Lin took it in kind, and as Jake looked him in the eye, he could see Lin wasn’t much older that he himself was, just lined more heavily with hard work and grief. “Tell me what happened to your daughter,” he said, and he waited until Bo was done translating the request to see the look of surprise on Lin’s face. Well, he supposed it wasn’t every day a white man wandered into camp asking about the fate of a Chinese worker girl.

Lin started talking, and it was clear within a few sentences that Bo wasn’t translating more than a third of what the man was saying, then adding some of his own commentary on the situation to make up for the lack. It was all right, though, because the gist of the story was clear: the girl, all of thirteen years old, had been out with her little sister and brother one evening, trying to hunt (the workers sometimes caught jackrabbits, Bo explained), when she’d sent her siblings running back to the camp, telling them to stay in their tent. They’d gone for their father, but by the time they got back to where she’d been, there was no trace of her. They’d looked all that night and on into the morning, but there’d been no sign of her.

Will asked if that’s when the haunting had started, and Bo nodded. “That day, when everyone got around to start up just past sunrise, all hell broke loose. Tools flying, steel bending, rocks getting tossed all around — was like something out of the Bible, some big sign from God.”

“Moses didn’t have much use for ghosts or railroads,” Will muttered, and Jake snickered. “Did you notice a single cause for what happened? Something particular that triggered it, maybe, or … perhaps the events were directed more at one person than any other?”

Bo thought for a moment, then shook his head before translating the question to the room at large. It took him a bit to spit it out into an intelligible form, but at last, everyone in the room shook their heads in the same way Bo had, the look of racking one’s brains for a pattern and coming up with nothing. “Just whenever we start working,” Bo shrugged.

Jake nodded. “I need you to ask him two more things for me, all right? I need to know his daughter’s name, and if he has anything that used to belong to her. A toy, a piece of clothing, a hairbrush, I don’t care — it just had to be hers, and no one else’s. All right?”

Bo appeared to tackle the inquiries in reverse order, because the first thing Lin did when Bo was finished talking was to reach into a small roll of clothes beneath a nearby cot. When he pulled his hand from it, he was holding a ribbon that might once have been sugar-pink, before years of sun and dirt and wear took their toll. Lin took Jake’s hands and pressed the ribbon into them, closing Jake’s fingers around it. “Lin Bao Yu,” he said, shaking Jake’s hands with the force of his conviction.

Jake frowned and looked over at Bo. “That supposed to mean something to me?”

“I think that’s her name,” said Will, who reached over and placed a hand on Lin’s shoulder. “Bao Yu, right?” Lin’s face broke into a sad smile, and he nodded feverishly, tightening his grip on Jake’s knuckles.

Jake rubbed the ribbon between his fingertips and the heel of his hand; it felt smooth, like silk, but thin and ragged with age, and he wondered on which side of the Pacific it had begun its life. “We’re going to help her,” he said to Mr. Lin, raising his volume and slowing his speech even though he knew if that was all it took to solve linguistic differences, the world would be a much more understanding place. Still, the tone of a man’s voice was sometimes more important even than whatever nonsense he said. “Your Bao Yu. We’re going to help her. I promise.”

Will looked at Jake’s clenched fist. “You think he knows that it’s his girl out there?”

With a sigh, Jake looked into the eyes of the man in front of him and read there the unmistakable hopelessness of grief. “I’ve a fair suspicion that either way, he knows she’s never coming home.”

~*~

“You have had,” said Will, tossing pinches of the camp’s salt stores out along the tracks, “a load of stupid ideas in your lifetime, but this? Might take the ever-loving cake.”

“Would you just shut up and keep sprinkling?” Jake put out a pair of four tin mugs and tin plates, arranging them in a square as though they were seats at a table. He then took out a canteen Lin had given them and filled each cup with lukewarm, weak brown tea, making sure to spike the one closest to him with whiskey. “Orientals love tea. Little girls love tea parties. The combination should be irresistible.”

Will kicked a rock in Jake’s general direction, though it didn’t get far enough to reach him. “You don’t know a damn thing about Orientals or little girls.”

“I had an altar call for alternate suggestions nearly an hour ago, and I heard nary a peep from your idea nest, now, did I?” Jake took a blossom he’d cut off a prickly pear and set it in the middle of the square, being mindful of the thorns. The honest truth was, he didn’t have any idea of whether or not this would work — but if he let that stop him, he’d never have gotten anything in his life done. He’d managed to find a few storybooks about getting rid of ghosts, and once met a blind Catholic missionary who swore he’d driven eight demons out of a little French boy, but everything else had been a case of trial and error.

The most difficult part of communicating with ghosts was really just getting their attention and letting them know that, yes, he was someone they could have a conversation with. He’d managed to do it earlier with the sledgehammer, but that had been the wrong kind, and he wasn’t really looking for a repeat performance. In his experience, a little hospitality went a long way. “You just about done there?” he called to Will.

“Next time, you toss salt on everything, I’ll play Harriet Homemaker.” Will took one last handful of salt from the pouch on his belt and heaved it in the general direction of the twisted rails. Jake wasn’t anticipating having the sort of confrontation they’d had earlier, but it never hurt to be careful.

“Well, when you are, come have a seat,” said Jake, folding his legs under him. Earlier, he’d wrapped a biscuit in his handkerchief and stuck it in his pocket; now he removed it, broke it into four pieces, and set a piece on each of the plates. It was less for eating and more for show, which was good, because his handkerchief was in dire need of washing, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to put anything in his mouth that had touched it.

At last, Will sauntered back over, and Jake patted the ground by the seat at his right. “If this does not work, I will mock you about it for the rest of your natural life,” Will warned, but he sat down just as neatly as Jake had.

Jake shrugged. “I’d expect nothing less.” He placed two candles in front of them both and lit them, then took the ribbon and wrapped it around his left hand. The flames flickered in the breeze but held steady otherwise, which Jake had come to associate with a lack of spiritual activity. Undaunted, he raised his cup to his lips and took a sip. “Bao Yu, this tea is delicious,” he said, his voice slightly raised.

The only response was silence, so Jake gave Will a pointed nod, and Will, sighing, picked up his cup of tea. “Oh, yes, it’s very good,” Will said with the same artificial volume and articulation. “Won’t you come have some, Bao Yu?”

“And such a good biscuit!” Jake picked up his piece and pretended to eat it, then had to smack Will’s hands down before he actually did. “We’ve saved you a piece, Bao Yu! …We’ve, ah, actually saved you two pieces, I don’t know why I made four plates, it just seemed like a good number. Anyway, that means you–” His voice caught as the candles flickered against the breeze and a cold chill crawled down his spine. “That means you get your pick of a seat.”

“That’s my ribbon,” said a fierce little girl’s voice, and Jake wound up yelping a bit and dropping his uneaten biscuit quarter to the ground beneath his lap. He couldn’t help it: ghosts were scary. Of course, he’d come over time to be accustomed to the roster of things they could do, but there was rarely any warning before they did do those things, and that was what tended to get him spooked. That was his story and he was sticking to it.

Will, per usual, recovered a bit faster than Jake did to any given shock. “You must be Lin Bao Yu,” he said to the air, looking around into the darkness beyond the candle’s reach. “Your dad gave us the ribbon. He told us to come help you.”

There was another long pause, which Jake broke by clapping his hands together. “And it’s a lovely ribbon, too! I’m going to take it off and put it right here for you.” He untied the ribbon and folded it neatly over itself four times, then put the thin cloth right beside the plate on his left. “My name is Jacob Caldwell Philips, and this here is my friend, Williamupke Yellow Moon Cooper.” Jake had learned the hard way that ghosts preferred full names, at least for introductions. “We go by Jake and Will, and you can call us that if you like, or not, whatever’s your preference. We’re just here to talk.” He waited a second, then tried again. “That’s a real pretty name you’ve got there, Bao Yu; can you tell me what it means?”

A translucent shape flickered out of the darkness, and all of a sudden there was a half-visible girl across from them, colourless and glowing with pale light, as though she might be the only thing that could see the full moon on this otherwise moonless night. Her young face was pretty and fresh, and she wore her long hair parted down the middle and in two braids, one over each shoulder. She reached for the ribbon, but her hand slipped through it, and she gave a little sob. “Why can’t I…?” she asked, and even though Jake heard her voice, her lips stayed shut.

Jake shrugged and shook his head. “I’m sorry, sweetheart, I don’t know. You can make the rails and the tools bend, but you can’t touch the things you love, is that right?” She looked up at him, her ghostly dark eyes wide, and gave a trembling little nod, biting her lip, making her look as though she was about to cry. “I don’t know why it’s like that either, pumpkin, and I’m so sorry. I’d tell you if I knew.”

Will leaned forward and gave her his warmest smile, the kind that could charm the scales off a fish. “We’re here to help you. It’s what we do.” He glanced over at the twisted rails. “I know it’s scary, and you feel like you’re stuck, and you don’t know what to do or why you’re here. But you don’t need to worry. We’ve met lots of ghosts like you.”

“Really?” she asked, bringing her fingers to play with one of her braids. Her mouth remained still as she spoke, and Jake supposed it was for the best; after all, when she actually talked it might be only in Chinese, and that wouldn’t get them anywhere.

“Oh, tons,” Jake promised, though the number of ghosts they’d met exactly like her was now up to a grand total of one. “Think of it kind of like … you’re running in the sand, and you get your foot caught in a hole. Well, we’re here to get that foot out for you! And get you on your way.”

Bao Yu frowned a little. “Way where?”

That was always the question Jake hated. “I don’t know,” he said in all honesty, because he’d learned long ago that lying about the afterlife was the conversational equivalent of punching a tar baby. “I give you my word, I will answer every question you ask honestly, and when I do not know, I will tell you, I do not know. Is that fair?”

Will took a deep breath, and Jake could see the question on his lips, the one they both hated having to ask. “Can you … tell us what happened? When you died?”

Bao Yu’s eyes grew wide, and Jake felt a spike of pain between his eyes, like the worst part of a hangover headache, only all concentrated and slamming through his brain at locomotive speed. It wasn’t information, though, just sensation: unmistakable shame, not wanting his family to get in trouble because of something he did, rising blind terror, pain terrible and familiar, pitching to an unfamiliar agony — and then nothing. When Jake looked up again, he knew he’d lived the last thirty minutes of the girl’s life in the span of about five seconds, only without any of those pesky things like identifying information or helpful clues. He shook his head, and immediately wished he hadn’t. “I … don’t remember anything else,” she said, pressing her palms together in front of her mouth. “I know I should, but it’s all gone. I’m sorry.”

“Hush, now, it’s all right,” said Will, looking daggers at Jake before Jake could poke that open wound any further. “That’s what we’re here for.”

She blinked a few times, then disappeared, and Jake was afraid she’d left them — but for only a split second, when she reappeared at the tracks. She stood back, hands on her hips, looking at the great structure she’d wrought with childlike shame. “I guess you want me to stop,” she sighed, reaching her hand out to brush along the metal surface.

“Oh, no.” Jake shook his head and stood, remembering at the last moment to pick up her ribbon and stuff it back in the pocket of his shirt. “No, you just … keep on doing whatever you were doing before. If they bring those hammers back, you just be a good girl and mess ’em right up again, you understand?” That brought a smile to Bao Yu’s face, and though she clapped a hand over her mouth, Jake could hear her giggle loud and clear.

Will smiled and walked up beside Jake, putting a hand on Jake’s shoulder as they stood together. “You’re here for a reason, and until we find out what that reason is, well, you have our permission to keep going. That fine by you, miss?”

Bao Yu giggled again, this time louder, and Jake was struck — as he often was, so he supposed he had no excuse anymore — by how human ghosts were. They were often angry and universally scared, but once you got past that, they really were just the folk they’d been before they’d died. Take a little girl, terrify her, repeatedly rape her and kill her (and though Jake had no concrete proof, he was fairly sure that had been the order of events), and then lash her angry spirit to some iron bars in the desert — and odds were good as not that if you could talk all that down, she’d be that little girl again underneath. “You guys are nice,” she said. “Everyone else has been yelling.”

“Everyone else’s a bunch of horses’ hind ends,” said Jake, and he grinned wide as Bao Yu straight-up laughed, her ghostly braids swinging. “Now, you got to do us a favour, you listening?” He waited until he saw her nod. “You can’t go talking to anyone else. You just can’t. Even if you want to, even if you see someone you love or someone you hate, you’ve got to stay quiet, all right? Just … trust us, and we’ll work this all out for you.”

Looking a bit uncertain again, Bao Yu nodded, and Will squeezed Jake’s shoulder again. “We’ll come back later, but we’re going to go away for a little while, because we haven’t slept in a very long time, all right? But we’ll go get some rest, and we’ll ask some questions, and then we’ll come back, all right?”

“Okay,” said Bao Yu. “…Hurry, though, it’s kind of lonely here.”

illustrated by cerine

Jake smiled and pointed up to the cloudless night sky, which was dotted from end to end with stars. “You know what I used to do, when I was all alone at night and couldn’t sleep? I’d look up at the stars and try to make new constellations. See right there,” he pointed to a glob of lights just below the Big Dipper, “I called that one Boy Getting Into Trouble For Tasting His Mom’s Pie While It Was Cooling On The Windowsill. See it? Now it’s your turn.”

That brought the glee back to Bao Yu’s face, and she looked upward. “Okay, I’ll try,” she promised, and Jake watched as she fisted her hands in her apron in concentration, squinting at the lights until her eyes could find patterns in them. He felt Will’s body close in toward his, until the front of Will’s left shoulder pressed against the back of Jake’s right, and though they were both saddle-sore and beyond a full day without sleep, they stayed like that for a while, neither one saying a word, watching as their little ghost girl silently re-ordered the heavens.

~*~

They didn’t manage to make camp until the sky had already begun to tease blue, and by then, both Jake and Will were dragging tail. They again refused the offer of (separate) lodgings inside the camp, though Bo made clear Will’s accommodations would have been more than pleasant. “Got to keep those spiritual energies clear,” Jake had reiterated, and most everyone there had been too tired to care. They saddled their horses, who were both grumpy about being woken up, and rode about five miles south of the encampment, just over a slight rise in the otherwise flat land, to a little patch of ground shaded by a small rock outcropping. There they tossed their bedrolls out, slid off their boots, and crawled in, with Will only remembering to remove his gun belt after he’d lain on it.

They were quiet all the way, speaking only to others and even then only when necessary, not sharing a word between themselves. They’d both picked the same ground at the same time, and they’d both tied up their mounts and crawled into their bedding without further discussion. Thus, Jake didn’t make any conversation before he rolled over on his side and tossed his arm over Will’s waist, finding there that when Will had taken off his gunbelt, he’d undone his belt and trousers as well. Thus, Jake had no trouble getting his hand inside and around Will’s waiting cock.

Under other circumstances, Will would have no doubt made a token protest, but they were both too tired for that. Instead, he groaned and rolled away from Jake, pointing his prick out toward the side so when he came, he wouldn’t get spunk all over his bedding. Jake shut his eyes and pressed his mouth to the back of Will’s shirt, breathing in the sweat and dust and warmth of him. Jake really wanted to suck him off, to taste him all down his throat, but he was so damn beat he didn’t think he had the strength even to lift his head and get it all the way down there. Instead he just moved his hand faster, listening to the way Will’s breathing hitched and changed with his arousal, until Will’s breath caught entirely and he came, shooting his seed half into Jake’s hand, half on the dry ground.

As soon as he heard Will start to breathe again, Jake let go and quickly turned on his other side, facing away from Will; he unfastened his own jeans just as fast as he could and grabbed his own cock with fingers slick with Will’s warm come. It barely took him a minute before he was shooting off too, remembering what it felt like to have his mouth around Will’s fat prick, burying his face in the makeshift pillow of his rolled-up saddle blanket to keep from making a sound. He barely managed to tuck back in and drape a blanket over himself before he was fast asleep.

He woke to the sensation of being cold, which even only half-awake he could tell made no sense, since the high sun was beaming down on him and he hadn’t kicked off the covers during the night. He couldn’t feel any wind, either; in fact, the only sensation he could determine was a little pressure on his chest, barely more than a pillow’s weight, airy and ghostly–

Jake’s eyes snapped open and he found himself face-to-face with the same semi-transparent face he’d met the previous night, only now much closer and wearing a big friendly grin. “Hi!” Bao Yu chirped, still without moving her mouth. “Morning!”

Though it wasn’t necessarily true, Jake prided himself on being a cool customer, able to roll with many punches and come up swinging. This time, however, even he had to admit he’d been caught with his metaphorical drawers down. He made a truly undignified sound and sat bolt upright, which had the odd result of sending her dangling braids into his chest, which just made the cold worse. “What the devil!” he sputtered, waving his arms to shoo her back a bit.

She retreated a foot, holding her hands palms-out toward him. “Hey! Shh! Quiet down! It’s just me!”

“I know it’s you!” Jake hissed back. He looked over to see if the commotion had bothered Will, but Will’d said long ago that if he had to wake up every time he heard Jake yammering on about something, he’d never get any rest. “At the end of waking up to bunking with a ghost, ‘just me’ ain’t so comforting as you might imagine!”

“Oh, what am I going to do, make you slightly chilly to death?” Bao Yu folded her arms across her chest, giving in to a moment’s pout that was gone was quickly as it had arrived. “I think it’s the ribbon!” she announced, pointing to Jake’s chest.

Jake hadn’t had a drop of coffee in hours, and that was far less than he needed to make sense of this conversation at the moment. “You think what’s the ribbon?”

“That got me here! I couldn’t leave the rails before, not at all, but then I thought about the ribbon, and I thought real hard, and then I was here!” she announced, looking around with a frown that suggested she hadn’t quite determined where ‘here’ was yet. “But you two were sound asleep, so I waited around some for you to wake up, but I got bored. It’s real dull being a ghost. I haven’t had anyone to talk to for weeks. Did you know your johnson’s out?”

Her words came so fast and furious, and so unaccompanied by helpful lip movements, that it took Jake several full seconds to process her last sentence — then he looked down with horror and saw that, in fact, his exhausted attempts at dressing himself the night before had been less than successful. With another feverish scramble, he pulled the blanket up over himself, nearly to his throat, and set about making himself more presentable. “Oh, don’t be like that,” she laughed, shaking her head. “You ain’t got anything there big enough to embarrass me with.”

“I’m going to ask you to leave right now if you can’t keep a civil tongue in your see-through head,” snapped Jake, who had made it nearly thirty years of his life without developing insecurities about the perfectly acceptable size of his equipment and wasn’t going to let her give him any now.

“You’re real stuffy for a man who makes his bed on the ground,” she huffed.

“And you’re pretty uppity for a dead girl.”

With a smug smile, she crossed her legs beneath her and smoothed her skirt out over her knees. “Indeed, I am dead, but I seem to have survived it nonetheless, and I believe that affords me a certain right to be uppity.”

Jake gave her his sincerest scowl, the one he hadn’t used regularly since he’d been at home being brought up with one big and three little sisters. “Ain’t you Celestials supposed to be all polite, and nice, and not crawling into the bedrolls of strange sleeping men to make fun of the parts God gave ’em?”

Bao Yu narrowed her eyes at him. “Ain’t you white folk not supposed to be stemming the rose with handsome Negroes?”

For the second time since waking, Jake was startled wordless, only this time he felt like someone had dropped a boulder on his chest besides. “That’s — you — we–” He scowled and drew the blanket up over his shoulders, blocking his whole body from her view. “I do not know what craziness you are talking about, and that is not a civil thing to hear from a little girl’s mouth, besides.”

“I’m thirteen,” she snapped, as though that somehow contradicted what he’d said. “And who would I tell? He’s real fine-looking, too. And nicer than you by a mile. I can see why you’ve taken to him so.” She frowned in Will’s direction, scrunching up her face. “Not so sure why he’s taken to you, but…”

“I have no idea what you are on about.” Jake searched the ground by his makeshift pillow and found his hat, which he pulled firmly atop his uncombed head.

Bao Yu smiled. “I think it’s sweet.”

“And I think you’re awful chatty for a spook!” He shot her the scowl again, even doubled up on the furrow of his brow, though it seemed about as effective as throwing water at a fish. “And I still don’t know what you’re talking about, and even if I did, I wouldn’t want you saying it in front of others, so just … hush up, now, and let us do our work.” His bladder was starting to nag at him, but he didn’t want to mention it for fear of what else she’d have to say about that.

She looked at Will a minute longer, then scooted closer. “Do you love him like he’s your sweetheart?”

“You!” He pointed a finger at her, then at Will, then back at her. “You are a pest! No! No, I do not, and that is a ridiculous thing to ask, and none of your business besides!”

“So, if he went and married some pretty mulatto girl, you’d dance at their wedding.”

This was, without a doubt, the most ridiculous conversation Jake had ever had the displeasure to be a party to, and the thing that made it worst of all was that she seemed to know just where to hit to split his sore spots open. “I do not know where a nice girl like yourself gets all this craziness in her head, but I’m starting to think that being dead is the least of all what’s wrong with you.”

“You say you’ve talked to a lot of ghosts before; any of them every tell you what stops mattering after you die?” Bao Yu fixed him with a heavy, wise stare, and now there was no white left in her eyes, just deep hollows from corner to corner that spoke of a void Jake didn’t rightly know if he wanted to look into. “Things get … stripped. Like peeling the bark off a tree, or the skin off a rabbit.”

“I do not,” said Jake, and he cleared his throat, “spend too long of a time conversating with most of the ghosts I encounter.”

“Well, I thought it’d be polite, since you two are doing me a kindness, to return the gesture and tell you that it’s plain as day what you’ve got for him, he’s got for you.”

“This is your idea of a kindness?” Satisfied that nothing untoward would be exposed, Jake took the blanket off himself and stood, and Bao Yu skittered back a few steps to give him space. “Little girl, you don’t know a thing about me, or him, or us. I’m a con man and an exorcist, and I’m very good at both my jobs, and he’s just a mostly honest man who’s here for the ride until something better comes along. Of course I’d dance at his wedding, give a toast and throw all the rice in China too, while I was at it. I’m his friend, and he’s mine, and the story ends there. The world doesn’t work like otherwise.”

Bao Yu looked a bit taken aback at first, but as he talked her spine stiffened, until at the end she was standing her full four-odd feet high, hands fisted on her hips. “I try not to judge by a body’s outside, but I have to say, you are the dumbest white man I have ever met, and that is taking into account a lot of contenders for the title.” She jabbed a finger at Jake’s chest, and he had a feeling that had they both been corporeal, it might’ve hurt.

“Why don’t you try and make some use of that gab of yours and speak up about what you’re not telling me of the man that murdered you–” Jake started, but before he was done with the sentence, Bao Yu was gone, just as neat as someone blowing out a candle, without even the smoke behind to tell the flame had been there in the first place. Jake kicked the ground with his boot, sending up a cloud of dust. “You see what happens when you don’t want to talk about something?” he hollered to the empty air, and as futile gestures went, it did make him feel a fraction better.

From behind him, he heard a shuffle and a grunt, and he turned to see Will’s sleepy head emerge hair-first from the blankets. “What’re you on about?”

“Oh, go back to sleep,” Jake sighed, and Will didn’t need any more encouragement before he collapsed back against his bedding, snoring again within seconds. Fully awake now, and with his bladder stabbing at him with no small urgency, Jake wandered over to a patch of scrub grass away from their bedrolls, undid his fly, and did his part at watering the desert.

He tried not to think about what she’d said to get him so upset, but it nagged at him like a sore tooth he couldn’t stop tonguing. Of course Will was going to find some nice girl someday, settle down, build a house, pump her full of babies, quit this crazy life — that was the way the world worked, and that was what smart men like Will did. Jake had known so from the get-go, the time in San Saba when he’d been trying to put one over on the a cattle baron’s nasty wife and her practice of indenturing poor folk of all shades. Her mother had passed recently, and Jake had been ready to whip out some variation of ‘Mama says you should play nice with others’ when he’d turned the corner during a tour of the ranch and wound up face-to-face with the most attractive man he’d ever seen.

That most attractive man had wound up being the most intelligent man he’d ever met, too, and had caught Jake that night saying that he’d seen through every one of Jake’s spiritualist tricks, and that he’d tell on Jake if Jake didn’t help him get out. Thus, a solo vigilante show had turned into a two-man con overnight, and Jake had ridden away two days later with all workers’ debts cleared and a twitching, spitting, ‘demon-possessed’ Will Cooper slung over the back of his saddle.

What truly beggared belief, though, at least as far as Jake was concerned, were two things. The first was that not twenty miles off the property, and a good thirty before the next major piece of civilization, Jake and Will had gotten into a fistfight over some stupid thing, a knock-down brawl that somehow wound up with both of their lips split and one of their cocks in each of Jake’s fists. This didn’t end the fight, though, and they continued to scuffle off and on as they came three times each on the dusty ground, until their clothes were stained with blood and dirt and sweat and spunk; Will was stronger, but Jake fought dirty. They spat and cursed and bit, and finally collapsed in a heap on top of one another, too punched-up and fucked-out to move any more.

And the second was, after an hour’s shared nap, Will got up, stretched his long limbs to the sky, looked down at Jake, and said, “We better get moving again before it gets dark.”

It wasn’t anything like a relationship, and it wasn’t really much like a friendship much of the time, and it obviously wasn’t the sort of thing that could sustain itself, and the fact that they’d been living in each other’s back pockets and down the front of one another’s pants for three years didn’t make it any more likely each day that Will’d still be there the next. And none of that excused how Jake had gotten all stupid about this, this thing they did that men sometimes did, whatever it was. It wasn’t sodomy, because no one’s rose ever got stemmed, despite what Bao Yu might have presumed, and it wasn’t romance, because Jake knew the taste of Will’s prick but not of his mouth, and it definitely wasn’t fair, because it was ever up to Jake to start it and Jake to finish it, and Jake had a feeling that if he never touched Will again, Will’d never say anything about it either way.

He’d dance at Will’s wedding, all right. With broken glass in his boots.

Forty minutes later, Will was up and mobile, and they were riding back into town side by side when he finally asked, “What’s got you so powerful twitchy this morning?”

Jake looked at him, eyes wide, then squared his shoulders and stared straight ahead. “Nothing! Nothing. Just got a mite … spooked.”

“Spooked?” Will laughed, leaning his head back to the sky, his voice heavy with his bright teasing tone. “Well, if this isn’t a day for the history books! What cosmic event will it be the scholars record got you so skittish?”

Even at the best of times, in the best of moods, their relationship was not Jake’s preferred topic of conversation, and this morning’s little haunting didn’t make him any more enthused for it. “Not a damn thing. Let’s go see about getting that little girl some justice, and right quick.”

“Hold on, now.” With a frown, Will wheeled his horse in front of Jake’s, forcing Jake to yank back on the reins before they collided. “Listen up, because I’m about to say something nice, and I’m not inclined to repeat myself on it: you’ve got good instincts, and even if they’re all you’ve got going for you, they’re still plenty. So if something’s got you sweating like a whore in church, then I think that’s a something we need discuss before we ride back in.” He folded his hands over his saddle horn and leaned forward, doing his best impression of an immovable object.

Everything truthful Jake could have said fluttered through his mind like dead leaves caught up in a strong gust, brittle and fickle and not a damn one of them worth the effort to catch. “Whores’ve got lots of good reasons to sweat in church. Sometimes it’s just a hot Sunday and they’ve run out of fans. Now, please, can we go?”

Every muscle in Will’s body told of how much he didn’t like to let the matter drop, but he did anyway, reining his mount back, and Jake pressed on ahead in silence toward the camp. The sun had started to settle down westward, tilting their shadows long across the dusty ground, and Jake let the heat and light focus him on the task at hand. Everything else was nonsense — vanity, even, his Dutch-born, Bible-believing grandmother would have called it. The world for right now revolved around that little ghost, not Jake or his foolishnesses; brat or not, she was still a lost and lonely little girl, and still his responsibility. As the points of the tents grew closer in their field of vision, he reached into his pocket and grabbed that ribbon tight.

~*~

Jake had a certain arsenal of skills, and one of them was the ability to project confidence even while everyone around him was staring at him like he’d taken leave of all his senses save the one that let him keep on talking. “Fifty, at least,” he said, holding his hands apart nearly two feet wide. “Could be as many as a hundred, it’s hard to tell when they’re all packed in so close.”

That was always Jake’s main dilemma with setting up a con: he never knew quite how far belief would carry him. He had the added advantage here that the men had not only seen but been attacked by the spectral force in question, and Jake knew if they doubted him, all he’d have to do would be to strike the rails and let Bao Yu’s fury scare up the proof. There was a point, however, where the human brain rebelled, when too much was too much even for demonstrable truth. Jake had first thought to pitch a story of a thousand ghosts, but scaled it back when even he couldn’t picture what that’d be like. “So what’s that mean for us?” asked the foreman named Swift, a man with a bushy black moustache and a lazy eye.

Jake wedged his cigarette into the corner of his mouth and grinned as he leaned back from the table, lacing his fingers behind his head. “It means, friends, that we’re about to set ourselves up for an exorcism.”

“An exorcism?” spat the one called Wheeler. He and Volk had been the ones who’d met them when they’d come back running scared the previous night, and Jake had come to learn they were brothers-in-law on account of having married a pair of sisters. He wondered which of them had been the idiot who’d gotten his idiot brother-in-law the job. “Like them Catholics do?”

“Of course not like the Catholics do! Gentlemen, you find fifty or more Indian souls buried so old there’s no trace, and you imagine a single one of them’s Catholic?” Jake shook his head, riding the conversation, letting the men get where he wanted ahead of him. He didn’t believe in a devil, but if he had, he would’ve imagined Satan’s best approach to be just feeding out rope until men up and hanged themselves.

Birch frowned, scratching at his scar. “Some sort of Indian ritual, then?”

“Some sort indeed,” Jake nodded, indicating Will, who sat at the end of the table, his hands folded. “Gentlemen, my associate knows the soul of the heathen and how to bring it rest, as he is the son of a beautiful Seminole princess and a medicine man from Darkest Africa.”

Will nodded solemnly, making his sternest wooden-Indian face. “I must require that at sundown tomorrow, every person in this camp gather out at the site of the disturbances.” He neglected to correct that his mother hadn’t so much as seen a princess of any stripe her whole life long, and his father’s medical knowledge began and ended with what little he’d picked up before he’d run away from the Alabama cotton plantation where he’d been born. But as Jake, a sharecropper’s son, knew, real genealogies were rarely impressive enough to fit the task at hand.

“Every person?” Hicks frowned and took down another mouthful of the camp’s wretched excuse for coffee, wincing as he did so. “You mean the Celestials too?”

“Well of course he does, gentlemen!” Jake poked in Will’s general direction with his cigarette. “Don’t you know they’re a mysterious and spiritual people?” The foremen nodded and muttered amongst themselves as though Jake had said something of great intellectual merit, and Jake shot Will a sidelong grin as Will barely kept from rolling his eyes straight out the door. “Now, this sort of thing can be a tricky business, so we’re going to need you to answer a couple questions about the time the events started.”

Hicks’ frown hardened into a genuine scowl, but he tried to play it off by lifting the corners of his mouth, making a combined expression that gave Jake the heebie-jeebies. “I do believe we have told you already everything we know, so unless you’re suggesting me and my men is lying to–”

“Of course not! No, no, no! No such thing!” Jake waved his bare hands in front of him and laughed, as though there needn’t have been an inch of offense in the world — when, in fact, it was more than a suggestion, it was to Jake damn near a certainty. “It’s just that there are often some circumstances of a haunting that are not immediately visible to the untrained eye. For instance,” he gestured to the various tin coffee cups on the table before them, “have any of you noticed a funny taste to your food? See, now, there’s something you might not have associated with ghostly encounters, but it’s true, gentlemen, it’s true.”

Wheeler’s eyes widened, and he turned to his brother-in-law, hitting him in the shoulder a few times. “Say, Abe! Weren’t you just saying the other day how Cook’s beans were a mite funny?”

“Hey, that’s right!” An identical expression of horrified recognition formed on Volk’s face. “They tasted like … like cabbage. Is that what you mean?”

“I see you, sir, are a most perceptive man,” Jake said, keeping his face perfectly serious and his eyes trained away from whatever face Will might have been making. “And it’s not just the effects either, no sir, it’s the causes as well. Sometimes the simplest acts can bring on a haunting unbeknownst to its poor victims. Now tell me, just before this all started up, did any of you men see someone reading a Bible backwards under a full moon?” The men looked amongst themselves, but none showed any recognition. “All right, then, how about did anyone put or see someone else putting clothing on an animal?”

Swift’s face spooked so fast even his lazy eye followed in a timely fashion. “I … I used an old coat to blanket a newborn foal, it weren’t but for a night….”

Jake shook his head. “I thank you for your honesty, sir, but I doubt that foal was a witch in disguise, so I don’t think we can blame you.” Under the table, he felt Will kick his ankle, so he kicked right back under the pretense of sitting up a little straighter. “Then was there some incident of violence? An attack, perhaps, or maybe even a murder….?”

He felt like he’d just raised at a poker game with a hand full of aces. Every tell in the book popped up around that table, from Swift’s scratching his beard to Volk’s swallowing hard to Wheeler’s twisting at his thick silver wedding band. Only Birch stared straight ahead with a stone-steady face, without moving a muscle or altering his breathing — the biggest tell of them all. “You gentlemen aren’t railroad men,” said Hicks, tapping nervous fingers against the edge of the table, “so you may not understand, but these workers, sometimes there’s tension, and boys’ve got to let off steam–”

“No, no, course I get that.” Jake shrugged as though he’d abandoned the possibility already. “And I wasn’t talking a fistfight anyway. I meant cold blood. But if you say there’s nothing, then, well, I guess there’s nothing. Ain’t that right, friends?”

“Of course,” agreed Will, pushing away from the table, and as he and Jake rose, the rest of the table stood with them.

“Oh, don’t get up on our account.” Jake waved them back down, and watched with no small pleasure as they settled their anxious selves back into their chairs. “We need to go make preparations anyway. Just remember: sundown tomorrow and we’ll get this all straightened out. You gentlemen have a pleasant day.” He tipped his hat to them and held the flap aside for Will to walk first out of the tent.

Outside, they walked back to the center of the camp’s otherwise empty common area, as Jake had learned long ago that the one place you could be sure you weren’t being heard was way out in the open. Will folded his arms across his chest and made as though he were trying to look stern, but a little smile kept tugging up the ends of his mouth. “I didn’t know you could offend a spook so bad it’d sour your supper.”

Jake rolled his eyes, but he was smiling too. “It’s probably in the Bible somewhere, right next to thou shalt not suffer a dog to wear a hat. Did you see the look on Birch’s face?”

“I wouldn’t mind helping him see his way into a fatal accident.”

“Don’t be a damn fool.” Jake punched Will’s arm, just light enough that he knew Will wouldn’t feel compelled to punch him back. “We ‘accident’ him, we don’t get paid. Simple economics. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking Hadleyville.”

Will made a face. “I’m thinking what we did in Hadleyville didn’t even work in Hadleyville. Or in Red Rock, or Porterville, or Apache Springs, or any of them. And don’t,” he said, as Jake began to open his mouth again, “even suggest what you tried in Durango, because that was an engine, not a track site. I think we have to revise our whole damn strategy when including the element of a cooperative ghost.”

Semi-cooperative,” Jake corrected, and Will frowned.

“Is she what got you all jumpy this morning? Or was I just dreaming I heard that sweet little voice insulting your pecker?”

“You know that sweetness she puts on? That little smile?” Jake shook his head. “All an act. I’ve met stray cats with more manners.”

Will put his hands on his hips and laughed, leaning back and barking the sound to the sky; it sounded so strange in the camp, echoing through the general hush of the place. Maybe it went without saying, but Jake had never quite gotten over just how much a spook could get a place, well, spooked. “Cut low by the truth from the mouths of babes! You are so fortunate I have no one to tell this to, or you would never live it down.”

Jake punched Will’s arm again, this time harder, but Will didn’t fire back, apparently considering it a fair price for the laughter. “Well, I’m sorry I’m not inclined to make my best showing first thing in the morning.” He played it off like it was all in fun, just a laugh like they always had between the two of them, but Bao Yu’s words had cut a little deep, and now he was sore about the entire conversation, nose to tail. “Anyway, here, can you take this?” He reached into his pocket and pulled out the ribbon.

“Sure,” said Will; he tucked the little trinket into the breast pocket of his shirt. “What for?”

“She’s tied to it. It’s how she got to where I was this morning. So I need you to take it beyond the edge of camp, where nobody’s going to bother you,” he said, pointing in the direction they’d made their beds the previous night, “and I need you to distract her.”

“Distract her?” Will frowned.

“Call her name once you get out there, get her attention, talk to her, ask her about things she likes. Light things. Dresses, hair, handsome boys, whatever little girls like. Keep her there as long as you can — an hour at least, until I get back would be better. Under no conditions are you to upset her in any way or make her feel like she has any business checking out the rails.”

It said volumes for Will that despite his obvious misgivings, he trusted Jake enough to do as he was told. “And while we have our little quilting circle, what are you going to do?”

Jake pulled his gloves from where he’d tucked them into his belt and tugged them on. “I’m going to figure out where that monster buried her body.”

~*~

Grimly enough, it didn’t take him twenty minutes to find her.

This time, Jake’s horse let him bring her straight up to the tracks, which confirmed for him that the area was at least for the moment ghost-free. He tied the reins to a heavy piece of mangled steel and climbed up atop a place where the rails had risen like ocean waves, then forgotten to settle again. The sun was already riding low in the sky, but there was more than enough light to get a sense of the landscape. He thought at first she might have been beneath where the track was slated to go, but the ground had been torn up so much by the force of the disturbances that surely anything buried beneath would have come up. There was a little clump of trees just to the west, though, so Jake picked up his shovel with a heavy heart and walked toward it.

A month of desert conditions had taken its toll on her, but the little barefoot body lying in the shallow grave had clearly belonged in life to Bao Yu. She was lying on her side with her arm twisted beneath her in a pose that looked like she’d been dead already when Birch had tossed her there, her long braids spread out behind her. Her skirt was bunched up above her waist, and though Jake didn’t want to get her attention by disturbing her remains too much, he pinched its hem between two fingers and tugged it down until it at least covered to her knees. Then he took the shovel and hacked some of the leafier branches from the trees, building her a little canopy to keep out animals and elements until the right moment.

That done, he took off his hat, brought it to his chest, and sank to his knees by her side. Despite his line of work, he wasn’t a religious man — not like Will, who’d been raised in a mission school and still went to church on Sundays provided they were in a town with one that would let him inside. In fact, Jake figured his own lack of sensibilities about the divine were because of his work, as just having evidence of the Beyond didn’t give him any real clues about what it looked like, who controlled it, or what kind of people got to go where. But damn it, if praying for a little murdered girl didn’t do anything, then probably there wasn’t anything to listen one way or another to him making a fool of himself, and that was all right too.

“Okay,” he muttered, figuring anything that controlled the universe could hear him no matter what the volume, “God or Jesus or whatever, I know I don’t do this very often or at all, but … she’s not such a bad kid. Kind of a pain, which I suspect you know already, right mouthy and doesn’t know her business from everyone else’s, but … anyway, she’s got a good heart. And whenever we sort her out here and she goes on to whatever comes next, if you could just, you know, keep an eye on her? Make sure she doesn’t get lost or something, like if wherever she’s going expects her to come from China, but she’s all the way over here, so you could give her a nudge in the right direction, that’d be … well, I’d be much obliged, is all. And I don’t deserve it, but she does. So that’d be mighty good of you to do her that kindness.” He cleared his throat and weighed his words on the air before giving a nod. “All right. Amen.”

He gave the foremen’s tent a wide berth on the way back, cutting through the Chinese encampment instead of the main camp; despite the good encounter he’d had with Mr. Lin the previous evening, the adults still looked at him with cautious stares, but the children ran up and laughed when he waved to them. He wondered if Bao Yu’s brother and sister were among them, but with their identical clothing and haircuts, he couldn’t really tell if one pair looked more like her than did any other. He was sort of glad that he couldn’t, though, because he already felt guilty about everything he already knew and couldn’t say. As much as families always thought they wanted to know, he knew they really didn’t.

From a distance, it looked as though Will was sitting alone facing the sunset, but when he got closer, he could see the light blue shimmer of Bao Yu beside him. “Where’ve you been?” she asked, looking up at him as he rode close, and before he could answer, she continued, “Will was telling me all about the time you stole a goat and painted it red.”

“Oh, right, the Devil Goat.” Jake dismounted and walked over to the rock where they’d settled, sitting himself down on the other side of Bao Yu. He waited until she looked away for a moment, then gave Will a quick nod. “That was fun, actually, until the damn thing kicked me. Left a mark, too,” he added, pulling up his right pant leg to show a little patch about mid-calf where the hair wouldn’t grow anymore.

Bao Yu glanced down and looked fully unimpressed by his war wound. “Wow, manly.”

Jake frowned over in Will’s direction. “Don’t know why I ever thought an afternoon with you might gentle her some.”

“What on earth are you talking about?” Will held up his hands in mock innocence, smiling down at Bao Yu. “This little lady is kind and decorous and a fine specimen of young womanhood.”

Bao Yu inclined her head toward Will. “He’s polite. I told him what my name means.”

“‘Tiny wild sow’?” Jake guessed.

“Don’t tell him, okay?” said Bao Yu, ignoring Jake’s foolishness.

“Cross my heart,” said Will, and he did just that, drawing an X with his finger over the pocket where Jake had seen him put the ribbon.

With a satisfied smile, Bao Yu lay back against the ground, folding her arms back beneath her head and staring at the sky. She was quiet, and after a full minute of silence, Jake kicked his legs out from beneath him and reclined alongside her, resting one arm beneath his neck and another across his belly; presently, Will did the same, until they were all three flat on their backs, staring up at the sky. The rocky ground was pleasant from the day’s heat, but the sky was clear, and he knew the minute the sun went down, all that warmth would escape into the dry evening air. Just slip away without a trace, like it was a ghost too.

Despite his reluctance to break the moment, Jake sighed. “You know, we maybe ought to talk about what’s going to happen tomorrow night….”

She vanished just as quick as she had that morning, and Jake sighed even louder this time, putting his hat over his face in resignation. “Yep,” Will laughed, “you’ve got a way with the ladies.”

Jake didn’t choose to dignify that with a response, because he did have a way with the ladies. He was charming and polite and sweet around them, and he could make them giggle and he could make them blush, and he’d had several ladies of good and ill repute alike ride him until he saw stars, and if he never dipped his wick in one of them again for the rest of his life, he didn’t think he’d much mind. They were nice, and the sex was always fine enough at the time, but it never really left him wanting more. Not like with Will.

He took his hat off his face and rolled on his side so nothing in his jeans started to tell he was thinking about anything but business. “Oughtn’t be too difficult getting the whole thing set up,” Jake said. “Just … bring everyone around, roll out the body for proof, tie that bastard up and bring him into the next town with us, and that’s it. Simple.”

“Simple?” Will propped himself up so they were face-to-face, with just enough ground between them that a little girl might have fit. “You can making drinking a beer complicated. Hell, you can make putting your boots on complicated. Simple doesn’t sound much like you.”

“Well, I’ve never much had to corral an ornery ghost for help before,” Jake said, to cover his omission of the second half of the sentence, and I don’t much want this one to go. She got his dander up so bad when she was around, but the thought of pitching her blindly into the Great Mystery made his heart ache.

Bless him, though, Will didn’t seem to need to hear it to understand. “She’ll be all right. She’s got lots of family waiting for her, she said. All her ancestors, her grandparents, her mother, a baby sister…..”

“Course, of course.” Jake nodded, though he didn’t sound certain, even to himself.

Will laughed again, though so gently Jake couldn’t bring himself to hate it, not when he loved that sound and the smile that went with it. Will didn’t smile enough, so far as he was concerned, much less laugh enough, and if Jake had to be the brunt of that for it to happen, well, he could live with that. “You’re a real soft touch, you know that?”

“Soft in the head, you mean?”

“And here.” Will leaned over and poked Jake in his chest, at a place that wasn’t soft so much as skin over breastbone, but Jake knew what he meant. And it was true, too. He had explained to Will, on that first full night of their free acquaintance, that he only conned the deserving, he only ever took the money of those who could spare it, and if he could right a wrong with his chicanery, he’d make sure that got done first. In fact, he was pretty sure that was the only reason Will had stayed with him as long as he had: Will Cooper was an honest man, and Jake Philips was the closest thing the world had to an honest con.

Jake smiled and looked down at Will’s hand, but didn’t pull away. “So, you thought about what you’re going to do with your share of the thousand?” It was, Jake felt, a fair question to answer, as they’d done cons for room and board mostly, and otherwise for fees ranging from the modest to the slightly immodest, but a thousand was four times more than they’d ever made on a single job before. That, Jake supposed, was what you got working for the government.

Will shook his head and settled back onto his back, looking up as the sky began to creep a darker blue. One bright star glowed in the eastern sky, sharp and lonely. “Almost doesn’t seem real. What we’ve had before was mostly good for getting us from one place to the next. A thousand’s house-buying, business-buying money.”

Jake felt like Bao Yu had taken one of her rail spikes and rammed it straight through his stomach. “Guess it is,” he said quietly, mirroring Will’s pose so he didn’t have to look at Will and Will couldn’t see him. He resolved right then to take his five hundred and leave it with Will when he went, after Will had found that house and that business and that girl that would surely come after. Will’d find it after Jake was gone, and he could think of it as a wedding present if he liked, or whatever he thought of it, Jake wouldn’t be around to care. He supposed he could think of it like a debt settled, back pay for keeping Will from a real life for three years. Put that way, five hundred dollars didn’t seem enough.

“Why, you got some big plans?” Will asked, shaking his head. “Maybe get a wagon or something, like those snake oil salesmen, paint your name real big on the side–”

“Got no plans,” Jake snapped, and he sat upright, dusting off the back of his shirt.

“Because I can see it now!” Will put his hands out in front of him, his arms lifted almost straight to the sky, thumbs at right angles to the rest of his hand like he were framing the bottom half of some sign. “Dr. Jacob C. Philips, it’ll say, spiritualist and medium, cure of all your spectral ills. Get you a fancy top hat and red velvet coat, even — folk do love a good top hat.”

Under all other circumstances, this would have been a hilarious bit of fun — Jake was a man who’d get into a suit if business required him to and for no other reason, and he’d spent his life telling people (truthfully, so far as he could tell) that the reason they should trust his expertise over the claims of showmen was because it took more than a fancy song and dance to impress ghosts. Now, though, all joy in the ridiculous was cut low by how in every picture Will’s words painted, Jake could only see himself alone. “Maybe I’ll just go lose it all in a poker game and be done with it,” he grumbled. “Problem solved.”

Will sat up as well, moving closer as he did so, and he put a hand on Jake’s shoulder. “Would it make you feel better if we got matching hats?” he asked, his voice still light.

“Oh, that’s a fine idea, you can put yours on when you tell your children and grandchildren the story of that crazy white man you rode with for a time before you came to your senses.” Jake snapped his jaw shut as soon as he was done; he hadn’t meant that to come out, not a word of it, but sometimes there was just no telling what would and wouldn’t stay buried.

Of all the responses he’d expected from Will, that handsome laugh hadn’t been among them. “Lord love a duck.” Will shook his head and tightened his grip on Jake’s shoulder. “She’s right about you.”

Jake then realized the first question he should have asked when he returned was what did you two talk about? “If you mean the little bit, I hope you noticed she yaps an awful lot but doesn’t make much sense.”

“She says you think I’m fixing to leave.”

“Well, of course you are,” Jake said, trying to sound as casual as he might have if Will had told him she’d said the sun was going to rise the following morning, or some other fact that didn’t cut him to the quick.

Will scoffed. “No, I ain’t.”

“Sure you are. You’re young, and within the week, you’ll have money. Makes a world of sense.”

“All right, I knew you were a bit soft in the head, but this is ridiculous.” Using his leverage, Will spun Jake where he sat until they were facing one another on the hard ground, turning so Will couldn’t help looking him in the eye. “What put that nonsense into your brains?”

“Look, it’s all right,” said Jake, the clearest lie he’d ever spoken. “I know this ain’t a life for sane or proper people–”

“You think any part of my life has been sane or proper? Which part would that be?” Will’s voice rose, his tone sharp; Jake was hurt, but now Will was too, and where Jake would sulk and drink his pain away, Will just got angry. “Where I got stolen from my tribe as a little kid? Where I ran away and got caught robbing a chuck wagon? Where I got the choice of going to jail twenty years or busting my back tending cows for the same?” He squeezed Jake’s arm hard enough to bruise now. “Nobody in my life did a pure decent thing for me until you got me out of there. Nobody.”

“You paid me back! We’re even.” Jake tried to push him off, but Will held tight.

“You idiot, I don’t care about even!”

“Then why don’t you go?” Jake shouted the last word, and was glad they were well out of earshot of the camp; this wasn’t a fight he’d wanted to have, but now it was happening, it was like pulling a bullet out of a man’s leg: no matter what, you didn’t stop halfway. “We’re square, we’re set, so what are you hanging around for?”

Will look like he’d been kicked by a mule. “You want me to go?”

“No!” Jake barked before he could think better of it, but he bit his lips closed over the end of the word. “Yes! If you’re going to go, just go! Don’t linger on just for … for whatever you think is coming, I don’t know, because it’s not. It don’t get better than this. I don’t get better than this.”

“I don’t want to go!” hollered Will.

“Yes, you do!”

“No, I don’t!

“Yes, you do!”

“No, I don’t!” Will shook him. “You do not get to tell me what I do and do not want!”

“I’m not telling you, I–” Jake stopped as his brain caught up to his mouth and informed him that, no, he had been doing just that. “I can just tell, all right?”

“Enough with the telling!”

“Then enough with you pretending you want to be with me!” The sentiment cut hard enough that Will froze, and Jake used the moment to shove him away; he didn’t go far, of course, as they were both still seated on the ground, but it was the principle of the thing. “There’s no kindness in it that you’d be doing for me. I can take everything else; I can’t take that.”

Will stared at him for a moment with those eyes of his, those weird tea-brown discs that were almost the same shade as his skin, even a lighter brown than Jake’s own. He was so handsome, and that may not have been the most important thing about it but it was a definite part, and for three years what had killed him most was being able to put his hands all over Will’s body but never being able to tell him precisely why he wanted to so bad. They weren’t lovers, and some days they barely spoke to one another, and there was no way to tell a man like that, even right after pulling his prick out of your mouth, that this wasn’t just a way to bide time until the right girl came around, this was better than the right girl, better than any girl, and you’d burn down every chance at normal for the rest of your life if it meant you could make him stay.

So he was unprepared when Will grabbed both sides of his head, sliding his fingertips back up into Jake’s straight chestnut hair, and pulled their mouths together for a kiss that was so much like a fistfight Jake felt the urge to raise his hands to block his face from the next blow.

But instead he just grabbed the sleeves of Will’s shirt, because if Will was going to let him do this, Jake was going to make sure he followed through. Will, however, showed no signs of pulling away, and instead opened his mouth and stuck his tongue in to meet Jake’s. Jake felt his chapped lip catch on the edge of Will’s teeth and tasted his own blood, and he was suddenly aware that he was so hard he ached. All he knew was Will was kissing him, and he’d do anything in the world to keep it going, so he took Will and yanked him until they were both laying down in the dirt again, Jake on his back and Will on top of him.

Will’s knee landed between Jake’s thighs, and when he leaned forward and pressed into Jake’s erection, Jake gasped so hard he broke the kiss. He was half-tempted to shuck off his pants and go after his own cock right then and there — but that he’d done before, and this, this was new. He reached and grabbed at Will’s thick hair, getting an entire fistful of it before yanking him back close.

A sour thought did cross Jake’s mind, however, and insecurity compelled him to reach down between them, not to check his own arousal, but to make sure he wasn’t the only one benefiting from this arrangement — and nearly came right there in his jeans as he found Will’s cock straining as hard against its fabric confines as was his own. Will was turned on by just kissing him; Will wanted to stay with him; Will wanted him. As Jake found his prick, Will laughed into the kiss and redoubled his efforts against Jake’s mouth, kissing Jake like he was the only thing that mattered in the world.

Jake had seen Will with ladies before, of course, mostly when they’d had occasion to find both their purses full and a pair of willing saloon girls, or — and better, in Jake’s opinion — when there was only one such woman available, one perceptive enough not to object if an extra hand or mouth might find its way in to aid her in her work. He’d watched without much shame in letting it be known that he was doing so, only instead of looking at the girl as he supposed he should, he’d always kept his eyes trained on Will. He’d learned from these observations that Will was an enthusiastic but gentle kisser, never one to bruise or bite, as delicate with a girl’s lips as he was with her soft skin elsewhere, and Jake had always assumed that in the impossible scenario where he found himself kissing Will, things wouldn’t be much different.

He couldn’t have been more wrong. With him, Will was as aggressive and strong as he’d always been in every other aspect of their relationship — tender, perhaps, not enough to treat Jake as though the slightest part of him might have been made of glass. Jake was hit upon with the sudden, crazy urge to see him, so he yanked at the tails of Will’s shirt, pulling it over his head, vest and all, until Will’s bare chest and arms were free before him; Jake ran his fingertips over Will’s skin, feeling the rises of his muscles, the dark pebbles of his nipples. “You are the most handsome man in the history of the world,” he said, a simple statement of fact.

“And you are a damn fool,” said Will, but he was smiling. He shifted downward until he was sitting astride Jake’s knees, then began unbuckling Jake’s belt. “And I’m not going anywhere.” He undid all of Jake’s fly and pulled out his cock, which stood straight up at attention, slick already with sweat and precome. “Now,” he muttered, looking down at the configuration below him, “how does this work?”

The question seemed ridiculous to Jake at first — though Jake had up until now been the one to take charge of anything sexual, he’d still wound up spilling his seed into Will’s hand more times than he could count — but then he saw Will’s shoulders hunch as he curved his spine forward, and Jake felt his heart jump into his throat. “That ain’t strictly necessary,” he panted, just polite enough of a dismissal that he hoped Will didn’t get the sense Jake was saying no, thank you.

Will shrugged, tracing his fingers in a circle around the head of Jake’s cock in a way that made Jake shiver and gasp, and his other hand worked to unfasten Jake’s shirt. “Honestly? The idea of trying it myself just … hadn’t occurred to me until now. I could see where you’d get the idea that I didn’t want to, though.” His hands trembled a little as they made contact, a counterpoint to his cocky, confident tone that told of how new this really was. “I mean, it seems like you like doing it, so….”

“I love it,” said Jake, drunk with arousal and freedom, giddy up to the point of stupid. “I could do it for hours. I love it and I love sucking yours best, you son of a bitch.”

“Well, hm.” Will frowned, looking at the situation, and climbed off Jake — who for a moment entertained serious thoughts of killing his friend, before Will settled their bodies side-to-side but facing opposite directions, his mouth about the level of Jake’s hips and Jake’s mouth mostly reciprocally located. He took a moment to spread his shirt beneath him, then leaned forward and placed his lips around the head of Jake’s cock.

Jake didn’t need any encouragement beyond that. He undid Will’s jeans with a single skilled hand and took the thick cock that jutted out into his mouth, straight up until he knew he’d have little denim lines pressed into the soft tip of his nose. He heard Will moan at the sensation, but more than that, he felt Will moan, an exhalation of hot breath across his sensitive skin, and Jake needed no more encouragement to dive right in.

It would have been enough, just to have Will’s cock in his mouth — but now Will was sucking his too, and Jake was caught in the terrible trap between wanting to think about it because it was the most amazing thing in the world, and not wanting to think about it because if he did he’d come too quick and spoil the experience. He settled mostly on a middle ground where he gave most of his focus to the part of Will that was in his mouth, and less to the part of Will that had him. That, to him, seemed the most reasonable compromise.

His resolution didn’t last. Will was clumsy, obviously unskilled at the art of fellatio, but by God, he was trying — and in that trying, he was automatically better at it than any of the other dozen or so individuals, regardless of gender, who’d given Jake the same treatment. And really, it had been sheer foolishness to think that there was anything in the world at the moment that could be concentrated on more than Will’s mouth around his dick. His tongue flicked over skin as he sucked, and he grazed with his teeth every so often, an intermittent accident that made Jake see stars, but in a good way. Will’s hand came to rest on the lower part of Jake’s belly, and Jake gasped and ceased trying to hold on; honestly, he was shocked he’d lasted as long as he had. He tried to moan a warning, but he had Will’s cock practically down his throat, so he only just managed to draw his head back and gasp, “Pull back, I’m–” before he did.

Will got the message, though, and thus his mouth was only above Jake’s dick when Jake started coming; even so, neither of them moved quite fast enough, and though the majority of his seed landed on his own belly and chest, one white line crossed Will’s mouth, like a set of intersecting tracks, and seeing it there made Jake’s cock twitch and spit again even after he’d thought he’d been done. Will looked confused for a second, then darted his pink tongue out over his lips, cleaning himself with a sly chuckle.

That was all the encouragement Jake needed. He turned his mouth back to Will’s waiting cock and swallowed him deep, moving his mouth up and down with all due haste. Now that his attention was no longer divided, there was nothing in the world more important than this. He sucked Will hard, loving everything about him, and loving most of all the hope that was building in his heart that they’d get to do this again, and again, and as many times as he wanted, and Will wasn’t going to go away, and everything was going to be all right–

Jake,” Will warned, and instead of pulling away, Jake mashed his lips against Will’s jeans, letting as much cock into his mouth as he could, so that when Will did come, gasping, he came hot and heavy down Jake’s throat. Jake held his breath as he swallowed again and again, then took his time as his mouth withdrew, cleaning every inch of skin he could reach with his tongue. At last, the head of Will’s softening dick fell from his lips, and Jake looked up to see a new expression on Will’s face: heavily aroused, wide-eyed awe. Will opened his mouth as though to speak, but after a moment’s silence, all that came forth was a breathy laugh.

Jake returned the laugh and drew his handkerchief from his pocket, then wiped his chest and mouth. “Well,” he said, gasping a bit, “that … was nice.”

“Yeah.” Will nodded, taking another deep breath and ruffling Jake’s hair into his eyes. “So … why’d you have me back off?”

“It’s … a little much, the first time. Take it from someone who knows.” Wiped down to his satisfaction, Jake pitched the handkerchief into the wilderness; some things just could never get clean again. “But, hey, if you’d like to try again sometime…?”

“I really would.” With a smirk, Will leaned over and reached for Jake, and Jake came willingly, righting himself until they were both facing the same way, Jake’s head pillowed on Will’s shoulder. Will’s hand slipped inside Jake’s open shirt to pet his side, and Jake thought he might well be able to die happy right then and there. “…Say, you know what this reminds me of?”

“What?” Jake asked, nuzzling Will’s skin. He was dirty and sweaty and stinky, and he smelled so good it was giving Jake’s cock second thoughts about going soft.

“Our first time. Of course, this time I’m not bleeding from my nose….”

“And I’m not sporting the makings of a black eye.”

“And I’m not picking cactus prickles out of my hip.”

And now I got to kiss you,” Jake added.

Will lifted his head a fraction, until he was at a better angle to see Jake’s face. “It … wasn’t that I didn’t want to, so much as … I didn’t know it was important to you.”

“It really, really is,” said Jake, and he inclined his face until their mouths met. This time Will was gentle, not like he believed he might injure Jake otherwise, but just simple and slow and comfortable. Jake could taste himself on Will’s lower lip, so he sucked that spot, flicking his tongue over it until Will laughed and grabbed at his back, and Jake began to make wicked plans for a second round.

None of these plans, however, made it past infancy, as Jake became aware first of the sound of distant hooves, and then the sudden chill presence of a tiny ghost. “They’re coming, they’re coming!” Bao Yu waved her arms frantically in the direction of the camp. “I’m sorry, I didn’t see until they rode out, but they’re coming for you!”

It was a great testament to the urgency of the scene that Jake didn’t even spare a moment to be embarrassed that she’d found them half-dressed and post-coital. Instead, they both jumped up like the ground had turned to hot iron, hauling on clothes as fast as they could while the riders’ sounds grew louder. It was dim, but not dark yet by a long shot, and they had no hope in hell of being able to hide out here in the open. “What do they want?” Will pulled the vest loose from his discarded shirt, drew it over his shoulders, and let his shirt fall to the ground.

“You two. I don’t know. They’re angry, but they’re too far away. I couldn’t hear them talking.” Bao Yu looked back in their direction. “I … don’t know if I can stop them. I can scare their horses, maybe?”

Jake shook his head and began buttoning his shirt. “Wouldn’t do us any good; they’ve got our mounts, and there’s no walking out of this country. Go back to the rails and wait for us.”

She worried her apron in her hands. “But–”

“Go!” Jake ordered, and she vanished. His own shirt was untucked and half-fastened and Will’s hair was a fright, and they both smelled of sex, but there was nothing to be done for any of that now. Some things in the world were going to come whether you liked them to or not.

“Well, well,” a familiar hateful voice called out, and Jake didn’t need any more light to know the identity of the man leading the pack. Four horses pulled up in front of where they stood, with four foremen perched atop them, and Cameron Birch glared down, a bitter sneer on his face and a length of rope slung around his saddle horn.

~*~

Jake hit the dirt hard and tasted blood down the back of his throat as he looked back up at the horse from whence he’d just been pitched. Seconds later, Will thudded to the ground beside him, bound similarly at his hands and feet. Hicks, who hadn’t been among the retrieval party, hurried up, and Jake could see behind him that the whole camp had come to see what the commotion was. “What the hell are you fellows doing with these men?” he hollered, addressing the riders even as he looked down to Jake and Will.

Birch wheeled his horse around between them and Hicks, using his big roan stallion like a wall. “These men ain’t from the government, boss. I don’t know who they are, but they’re shysters and sodomists. We just caught them at their unnatural trade out there south of camp.”

“He’s lying to you, sir,” Jake called up from the ground, because as long as they were playing he-said-he-said with falsehoods, he might as well go whole-hog. “The telegram is in my saddle bag, folded up and stuck between the Old and New Testaments of my grandpa’s red-letter Bible.”

“That’s easy enough to steal,” Hicks spat at him, “which would make you boys thieves as well. Impersonation of a hired government official’s got to be worth, what, ten, fifteen years? Though I wouldn’t really worry about it, what with your crimes against nature being a much more serious offense.”

Will struggled to lift his face from the dirt. “There’s only one ghost,” he said, and Jake could hear from the way he slurred his words that one of the men had probably split his lip when they’d roughed them both up before bringing them back to camp; Jake just supposed they’d been lucky enough to be transported on, and not behind, the horses. “One of your men’s gotten away with–”

Birch brought his horse’s hoof down too close to Will’s face, and Will had to jerk his whole self away to keep from getting stepped on. “And we’re supposed to take you at your word now? First you tell a yarn about some Indian burial ground with fifty — no, a hundred — no, a million! — bodies, and now your story’s that it’s just one little girl spook?”

“What we said first was–” Jake started, and then he stopped, and as Birch’s words finally condensed into sense in his head, he barked a sharp laugh. “How’d you know the ghost’s a little girl?”

It was just for a second, but an expression of guilty shock contorted Birch’s face, plain as day in the lamplight to anyone near enough to see. No doubt by now the foremen knew at least the basic shape of Birch’s crime, but the fact that Birch continued to draw breath left Jake fairly certain that no one else in the camp suspected — and the fact that the white bosses still seemed friendly enough with Birch made it more likely that they didn’t know all what had happened, or what it had brought down on their heads.

Hicks stepped forward enough to get a clear look at Jake. “…What do you mean, a little girl?” he asked, his voice heavy with the horror of dawning awareness.

Birch tossed his reins to Volk and hopped off his horse, getting himself eye-to-eye with Hicks; he was taller than Hicks by half a head, and his hands were clenched into fists. “I caught that son-of-a-bitch,” he said, pointing to Jake, “sneaking out to the site and burying something in the dirt. My money’s it’s some sort of fake body, some puppet or dummy he’s using to frame me, so they can smear my good name–”

“He killed her!” Jake hollered over Birch.

“That lousy, lying sack of–”

“He killed her and he raped her first, and–” Jake shouted, and as he did, he felt that last little piece of the machine click into place, the one that spun up all the gears and let the big picture lurch, horrifying and grotesque, to life. “And he’d done it before, and she’d never said a thing or even cried out because he’d told her if she made a fuss, he’d do the same to her brother and sister–”

A boot to his gut cut him off mid-sentence, and he doubled over in pain, choking and gasping for breath; there was bile now mixed with the blood in his mouth, and even the fact that it tasted vaguely of Will didn’t do anything to improve Jake’s general opinion of his condition. “I will cut that lying tongue out of your head,” Birch growled. “You know, I bet it ain’t even ghosts or nothing out there. I bet what we’ve got is damned witchcraft. They’ve witched the rails, or they’ve witched us into believing it!”

“What’s more likely?” Will asked, trying to appeal to logic — a bit of a lost cause at the moment, Jake wagered, but whatever made him feel better. “That we’ve been lying in wait for a month, keeping out of sight, only to ride in yesterday claiming we’d received summons to be here, or that the murder that happened the night before the trouble started brought it on you?”

“Nigger, you shut your God-damned queer mouth.” Birch drew a gun from his belt and pointed it straight at Will’s head.

“All right!” cried Jake, tossing himself as best as he could in his hobbled condition between the gun and Will. Every bit of common sense in his body was screaming that he was a damned fool — but he told it to shut up, he knew that about himself already, and if a fool was what he was, well, he might as well be the smartest fool he could be. “You got us! We’re witches!”

That caught Birch off-guard enough that he lowered his gun in confusion, giving Jake the frown that said he hadn’t seen that coming. Hicks and the other men stepped in closer, and Jake could hear a murmur from the far-off crowd as his claim was no doubt translated appropriately. Even Will, against whose chest he was leaning, seemed taken aback. “We’re what, now?” he asked quietly.

“All the trouble, all the problems, it was us!” Jake raised his voice so everyone around could hear. “But if you kill us right now and right here, we’ll … well, we’ll just plain haunt you. Shoot us here, and your troubles multiply.”

“That true?” Swift called down from atop his horse.

“True as can be,” Will nodded from beneath Jake, who loved him even more in that moment for being as smart as he was handsome. “In fact, you couldn’t kill us right if you tried. We’d just spook you all to death.”

“Don’t knock sodomy magic.” Jake winked at Birch, and was more than gratified when Birch took a horrified step back. “So since you all don’t have nothing approaching a hanging tree around here — which would be, of course, the only appropriate way to dispose of a pair of witches such as ourselves without fear of post-mortem reprisal–”

“Of course,” Will agreed.

“Well, then, gentlemen, I fear you’re going to have to let us go.” Jake shrugged and lifted his bound ankles. “Now, we will be glad to be on our way and without bothering you or your railroad ever again, if one of you’d be good enough to untie us–”

“Now wait just a minute!” drawled Volk. “Those twisted rails are more than high enough to hold a body for hanging!”

“Hey, that’s right!” said Wheeler, adopting the same dumbfounded tone as his brother-in-law. “We’ll hoist them on their own pee-tards!”

Birch frowned — and Jake had to give him credit for that, that he wasn’t quite as dumb as Jake had made him out to be — but the meaning of the exchange had apparently permeated the crowd, and they were pressing in louder now, approaching the two men who now appeared to be the cause of all their woes. Hicks pushed past him, though, and pointed to Jake and Will. “String them boys up on the rails for their unnatural acts!” he announced.

Hands grabbed Jake and hoisted him up over the back of Wheeler’s horse, and then they were off. He hollered the whole ride there as he bounced and jerked, and more than once begged anyone in earshot specifically not to throw him into the briar patch, for all he expected anyone was listening to the particulars of his demands. He couldn’t see Will, and on the one time he shut up for thirty seconds he couldn’t hear Will either, so he resumed his caterwauling in the hope that Will would be able to keep tabs on him at least. He couldn’t recall a time his chances had been hanging on by such a frayed thread, but he tried to console himself by reasoning that at least if it all went wrong, he’d be too dead to regret his bad decisions.

At last they came to a none-too-gentle halt, and Jake went tumbling to the ground again, this time cutting his shoulder on a sharp rock as he fell. It hurt, but the pain gave him a focal point, and he leaned against the rock again until he was gasping with agony and his mind was clear. “You’ll regret this!” he called out, something he’d said more than a few times on the way over.

“Shut up,” he heard, then he was pulled to his feet by a rope expertly tossed around his neck. Birch was at the other end of it, looking pleased with himself; obviously the man had decided that it didn’t matter if Will and Jake wanted themselves hanged as crooks, sodomists, or heathens, they’d still be dancing the hangman’s jig at the end of it, and that’d be enough to get them out of his hair.

There was a slight scuffle next to him, and he saw Will standing there, having been given no more graceful help standing than Jake had. In the distance, he could see the rest of the Negro and Chinese workers following close behind on foot, hurrying to see. “You’ve got one chance left to tell the truth,” Jake said, turning to face Birch. “After that, I can’t be held responsible.”

Birch yanked on the rope and drew Jake close to him, stumbling, until their chests bumped against one another. “I don’t care who you are or why you came here,” he hissed through tobacco-stained teeth, “but you are going to die tonight. I followed you out here, I saw you digging up her body. I know what you think you know.”

“What I know is, this ain’t going to solve your problem.” Despite the tight choke around his neck, Jake turned to the twisted rails, focusing on the sharp ache in his arm and not what it looked like to see Swift toss over one end of a rope that caught Will at its other side. “Killing us won’t get rid of your ghost, and they all might think it will, but I know you don’t. Confess now, we’ll burn her body together in the proper way, and I’ll see you get a fair trial. That much I promise you.”

“You think I’m some sort of backbirth? I ain’t facing a rope for killing her any more than I’d consent to face a rope for killing a dog.” Birch pushed Jake away again, closer to the high, ominous metal. “But it’s sweet you two are so close. I’ll tell you what, I’ll toss you both in there with her and burn you all together.” He pitched the end of the rope over the same high, flat beam that held Will’s, and Swift gathered both ends, giving one each to Volk and Wheeler, both mounted. “And if that ain’t a solution, I don’t know what is.”

Jake had only a second to register the sudden drop in temperature, but it was the most glorious thing he’d ever felt.

When the steel came down, it came down like the fist of God, smashing into the earth and severing the hanging ropes. The horses spooked and scattered, whinnying in terror, leaving their hapless riders sprawled on the ground. Grateful that the men tying them up had been idiots instead of cowboys, Jake slipped his hands loose, then looked over and saw Will do the same; they pushed the ropes off their legs and necks in unison and scrambled to their feet, running toward the rails as everyone else ran away.

Everyone else, that was, except Birch. The great beam that had caused the crash had trapped him close, cutting off all hope of escape. He had a look of pure, pale terror on his face, and Jake knew in that moment he was wishing he’d taken his chances with the judge. However, it was — for that as for so many other things — too late.

Ghosts had their own ways of earning their peace. Sometimes it was something as simple as uncovering a lost item or passing on a brief message. Others wanted more complex situations righted, debts repaid, wrongs punished, relationships restored, and so forth. Bao Yu, however, bore the weight of not one injury, but countless wounds: all the times she had survived, each threat she’d succumbed to, every fear Birch had ever put in her young mind. Jake didn’t know what had brought Birch to kill her that last time, and he didn’t suppose he ever would, but in the grand list of sins Bao Yu had the right to demand Birch answer for, Jake didn’t suppose something as quick and merciful as killing her even broke the top ten. As he watched, she raised up every beam, every nail, every tool, every tie, and held them aloft for the span of a single breath, still as a spring morning, before bringing it all crashing down.

It made him sick to his stomach, and even Will turned away, but Jake made himself watch; someone had to be a witness. Birch’s body twisted as the first small objects hit, then disappeared entirely beneath the great pile of debris, buried so deep nothing of him showed. There was a great noise of collapse followed by silence, until that too was broken by a slow, deep creak that grew louder with each passing second; Jake looked up to see the twisted tree-beams right themselves into two lines that stuck high up into the sky, then fall like thunder to the earth, straight-laid as though they’d been measured out by God’s own engineers.

A final breeze wafted through the air, and Will’s hat, lost to him since the previous evening, floated over on it and deposited itself gently atop his head, slightly crooked; Jake reached up and righted the brim, setting one more thing right.

In the stillness that followed, Jake stepped forward and grabbed a lantern that had been left on the ground, then tossed it whole onto the pile; it broke and the oil inside caught light, and soon the ties were a bright bonfire, belching dark smoke into the night sky. He didn’t expect any further trouble from that, of course, but one could never be too careful. A plank of wood popped and he staggered back, and he might have fallen had Will’s hand not been there to catch him, steady and sure around his waist. Will gave him a smile that plain as day said you are the craziest idiot ever to live, and Jake just grinned.

~*~

Despite exhaustion and injury, they were on their way again well before daybreak, having stopped only long enough to gather what things were theirs. Jake had grabbed Bo and found Mr. Lin, telling them both as best he could that if they looked beneath the clutch of trees, they would find Bao Yu’s body, and if they gave her a decent burial, she’d be able to rest. He felt an ache in his heart as he gave the instructions to be completed in his absence, but he knew it had to be done, and that her family would know how best to make sure her spirit got on its proper way. Besides, there was nothing keep her here anymore, and when you had nothing left to stay for, Jake had learned the hard way, you might as well just go.

The matter of settling accounts was a little more complicated. Hicks scrawled a note telling anyone who cared to read that they’d done what had been asked and deserved their money and bonuses; he suggested they take it to the railroad offices in St. Louis, though he didn’t know to whom they might have to speak, something the telegram had also neglected to include. However, Jake could see the shake in his penmanship, and felt confident nothing like this would go unanswered on his watch ever again, and if that had to be payment enough, Jake figured he could live with that.

By the time the first rays of sun hit his face, Jake was falling asleep in the saddle, and thus he nearly fell out of it entirely when he heard a cheerful voice by his ear chirp, “Hello!”

Jake bolted upright and startled his horse, which ran a few feet before settling down. For his own part, Will looked just as surprised by the little girl that floated between them at eye level, wearing her pretty braids and a bright grin. “I told them to bury you!” Jake shouted, pointing an accusatory finger.

“They did!” Bao Yu nodded. “It was nice and everything, and I cried a little, and I was about to go on, but then I thought: you two would be lost without me! And besides, we make a pretty good team! So I figure my ancestors would understand if I stuck around here for a little while longer. You know, just as long as I might have in the first place without all this unpleasantness.”

Jake opened his jaw, shut it, opened it again, shut it again, and finally looked to Will, who seemed to have no more answers than Jake did. “And just how did you get here?” Will asked.

Bao Yu pointed to Will — more specifically, to Will’s chest, and Will followed her line of sight to his breast pocket, where he stuck his fingers in and withdrew her ribbon. “It makes you pretty easy to find. So what say, partners?”

“I say you are a weird little girl,” said Jake, whipping the neck of his mount with his reins until the beast stepped forward again. It didn’t seem to be quite as afraid of her this time; maybe, he guessed, that big burst of activity at the end had burned some of the scary out of her. Or maybe his horse was just as tired as he was.

“That’s a yes, right?” she asked, keeping pace alongside him in a way that was annoyingly effortless.

Will laughed and bowed to Jake, then handed him the ribbon. “You caught her, you keep her.”

Jake scowled to keep a smile from his face as he took it. “I caught you,” he reminded Will, and Will laughed again, handsome and wonderful, and Jake wanted nothing more in the world than to kiss that laugh right off his lips. Well, and also to sleep. But some kissing could be worked in there, he was sure.

Bao Yu clapped her hands together. “This is going to be just the best time!” she giggled, hovering along. “I can be useful, you’ll see.”

“Useful?” Jake scoffed. “What can you do that’s useful?” He unfastened his shirt a few buttons down and reached inside; one-handed and clumsy, he wrapped the ribbon around his left bicep and tied its ends in a rough knot. It was awkward having something there, but comforting all the same, and at least its constant contact with his skin meant he wouldn’t lose track of it — or her.

“Well….” Bao Yu put her fingers to her lips as she thought. “I can scare people! And maybe I can figure out how to haunt other things. Oh, and I can be a fine lookout!”

“A fine lookout?” It was Will’s turn to look skeptical. “Fine lookout you were last night!”

“Well, I didn’t know I was supposed to be doing the looking! Otherwise I would have. Oh, and I can spy on people! And maybe walk through some walls! See, I can do a lot of things you can’t.”

For a dead girl who’d survived some truly horrible circumstances and been responsible for the messy murder of her killer the night previous, she seemed to be doing well enough. “All right, all right,” Jake conceded, knowing when he shouldn’t let on how glad he was that he’d been beat, “we can try it. On a very temporary basis,” he added, poking his finger through her diaphanous body, as though that might somehow make his point as clear as she was.

Shaking his head, Will moved his horse closer to Jake’s, until they were riding almost side-by-side, with just enough room between them for a little spook. “A spiritualist with a pet ghost. You’ll definitely need a wagon now.”

“Keep that up and your name’s going right on the other side,” Jake threatened, tipping his hat to shade the morning sun from his eyes, but when Will and Bao Yu both laughed, he couldn’t keep from doing the same, and presently they were all in tired but high spirits as they crested the ridge and pointed their horses east, into the sunrise.

Author’s Notes

 

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