Prelude: Holden

Holden…

 

At first, you thought it was too much drink and not enough sleep.

Then you thought someone was playing tricks on you.

Then you began to think you were haunted.

 

Then you really started to get scared.

 

It was nothing really, at first.  You occasionally noticed something out of place: a cup, a coin.  You didn’t think much of it until you discovered your waistcoat on a different peg in your small room in the French Quarter than the one you always – even deliriously drunk – hang it on.

 

You took it out on Davis for a while – your one genuine friend (from childhood even) who has managed to stay in your orbit all these years – but he emphatically denied any wrongdoing.  Then, one week when he was away to Chicago pursuing some legal case or another, you found a small wad of Union bank notes stuffed in an old sock in the back of your wardrobe.

 

The world had gotten plenty strange, and you with it, so you found an old Houdun witch who managed to summon up a horde of tiny, fiendish little creatures which, while annoying, didn’t turn out to be the culprits.

 

You really didn’t have anything to go on until the letter arrived.  It had no addressee, no salutation, only a notice from a local bank that your assets had been transferred to a bank in Louisville.  Not aware you had any assets at a bank, or, indeed, assets, you inquired.  And thus you stumbled upon what would become a dizzying paper trail.

 

Davis helped a lot.  Together, you mapped out a fairly extensive network of monies, legal exchanges, small parcels of land, and transfers of mysterious goods – all seemingly related to the single letter that, at one point, you were sure came to your abode by mistake.  Davis assured you it was not, as your address was mentioned numerous times in the transactions.

 

At the center of the web, if a web it could be called, was a small legal house in Kansas City – Brooks, Forbes, & Whitney.  After numerous attempts at writing, several telegraphs, and even a firmly-worded summons from Davis went unanswered, and afraid that you were being set up as a patsy to a massive criminal conspiracy, in October of 1877, you decided to take the trip there and confront them yourself.

 

You had a decent enough time on the rail, found a game or two, and a woman who was almost, but not quite, too old for you, but it didn’t take long before you noticed the man watching you.  He was so nondescript as to stand out.  You got off the train in Little Rock and back on again just to be sure, and follow you he did.

 

When you moved to confront him that evening, he fled.  You chased the man through several cars until he locked himself into a cargo car near the back of the train.  Without breaking stride in your pursuit, you drew a glowing green ace from your pocket and flicked it at the lock, blowing it through with a POP drowned out by the rattling of the train.

 

You found the man in the back of the car, standing unnaturally straight, shaking slightly, with a fairly mad grin on his face and looking far from nondescript.  Between gritted teeth he muttered “Sorry mate, you’re not ready…there’s still-”  His voice cut off with a gurgle.

 

His eyes stilled, the shaking stopped.  A single scarab, its carapace glistening blue-black and speckled with blood, pushes out from between the man’s teeth, falls to the floor, and scuttles out under the door.  A moment later, you jump back as the corpse’s mouth is shoved open by a flood of hundreds upon hundreds of scarabs, flowing from the man and out under the door into the night, leaving behind them an empty bag of skin, deflated in a pile on the floor.

 

Shaken but not deterred, you find yourself in the offices of Brooks, Forbes, & Whitney the next morning. The waiting room was decorated finer than anything in London or New York, and the receptionist took your name in a polite, but cool manner, took your name down, and hand-delivered it to the office marked “Mr. Whitney”.  After a wait of over an hour, without any indication that she had received a cue of any type, the woman looked up and said, “Mr. Whitney will see you now, Mr. Cain.”

 

You stood up, straightened your coat, and stepped to the door.  You gripped the polished brass knob, turned, and pushed the door open.  It revealed an office of peerless elegance and luxury, and as your view crossed the desk…

 

…that’s the last thing you remember.

Prelude: Onesimus, Jacob, Seri

Onesimus….

 

“Any last words, boy?” spits the deputy from the lever at the side of the gallows.

“Yeah, I got something to say!” you shout.

“I think you’ve said quite enough, thank you,” mutters Jacob from the noose beside yours.

 

Your scouting mission to Belmont, Nebraska turned sideways after discovering that the Mayor and Sheriff were vampires and feeding off the populace.  It went right over the cliff when it became necessary to lock them into the Mayor’s house and blow the whole thing straight to hell with a cart-full of dynamite.  If it hadn’t been for Sergeant Brady Sims of the Texas Rangers, who was sent to Belmont to investigate the same rumors as you were, you probably would’ve ended up dead days ago trying to face down two vampires alone.

 

Well…not strictly alone…there’s Jacob, who is equal parts strange, crazy, and occasionally not useless.  Jacob fell into your orbit a month ago on your way here, his curiosity drawing him into danger and you on the road alone too long to send him away.

 

The townsfolk hadn’t taken too kindly to their mayor and lawman being murdered, were completely unconvinced that they were the source of the mysterious disappearances, didn’t care a whit you were sent from Washington, and were downright rude when you admitted, quite honestly, that you had no idea where your third conspirator had gotten off to.

 

The cowled hangman had finished fitting Jacob’s hood and was pulling yours over your head and arranging your noose.

 

“This thing smells terrible,” muttered Jacob.

“Eyyyup,” replied the hangman in a very familiar Texas drawl.

You heard the wood creaking as the deputy pulled the lever on the trap doors.  You had to stifle a laugh.

 

 

Two weeks later at the edge of the Sioux nation, the three of you stopped within sight of an ominous-looking steam engine and four dark passenger cars parked on a siding of the Wasatch line.

“Well,” says Brady, offering his hand, “I reckon that thing can’t get me to Dallas, so we best be parting ways.”  You and Jacob both exchanged handshakes with the Ranger.

“Good working with you, Texas.”

“Don’t mention it, Washington.  Seriously, don’t mention it or I’m like to be hung!”  He rides off to the south, still chuckling.

 

It took just over three days to make it to Chicago, with a stop in Des Moines to pick up another small team of Agents at the end of their mission.  The Agency train is luxurious, so you found yourselves refreshed and reporting to a Grade 4 by the name of Williams behind the desk of a smoky office in the private Chicago train depot.  Jacob had used the time well, managing to talk his way into a temporary arrangement and small stipend for his (completely voluntary) troubles in Nebraska.

 

“Well then, since you’ve shown a penchant for solving mysteries, we have another one for you, though this time you’ll need to avoid blowing out every window in town.”

 

You cough uncomfortably at the appropriate moment.

 

“Abilene…and environs.  For the last ten years or so the place has been going straight to hell, and if it wasn’t for the sheer bloody-mindedness of the men delivering cattle on the Chisholm Trail, the whole region from Wichita to Lawrence would be a festering pit of horrors.

We know there’s a spider at the center of it, some big damned boogums goes by the name Joshua.  No one’s ever caught sight of ‘im, no one seems to be able to describe him, or claim to know anyone that’s seen him, but we know he exists, or, rather, did.

“There’s the thing, about six months ago, all chatter of Joshua simply stopped.  Sun came out, birds started chirping, everything starts looking up.  We thought maybe the Rangers had got ‘im, but reliable back-channels say they’re as confused about the developments as we are.  But hey, we’ll take it, right?

“Well, no such luck.  Last month, the whole area started getting weird again.  People started dissapearing, bumps in the night, all the usual signs.  Even the local Kiowa have started shooting first and asking questions never.  We don’t know if Joshua’s back or if another player is in town, but we need you to get there and see what you can find out.  The only lead I can get you is that one fellow we managed to get a squeal out of told us of a guy named Wu may have been one of Joshua’s lieutenants, so that could be a place to start.”
“Wu?” you ask.

 

“Wu.”

 

“That’s it?”

 

“Just Wu.  We’re also sending you in with a little help.  Word’s come down to send one of the ‘specials’ we have in the stable with you, to give you a hand.”

 

“Pardon my asking, sir, but at your rank, there’s not many places for word to come down from.”

 

“No, Agent.  There’s not.”  He pushes a photo of a very dirty, very young girl across the table.  “Her name’s Seri, you’ll pick her up on the Union Blue a mile outside the Kansas City rail yard.  She got into a bit of trouble a few years ago in St. Louis and came out of it owing us a favor, it’s time for her to cash it in.  Assets we have monitoring her will get her to the proper spot for pickup, but after that she’s your problem.”

 

Jacob coughs politely,”Is she…err…going to be a problem?” he asks.

 

“From what I understand, that’ll depend entirely on the direction of the goddamned wind.”

 

Your blood-pressure rises a few points.

 

“I’m not going to ask if you have any questions, because at this point you know damn near everything I do on the subject.  So get out there and learn more.  Your ride leaves in an hour.”

 

 

The small Agency train pulls onto a siding in a dingy district of Kansas City warehouses sometime after midnight a few days later.  You, Jacob, and your coffee find the young girl, just a year or two older than the picture, waiting by the tracks with a bleary-eyed Agent who looks as if he’d been batted around by a kitten the size of an elephant.  He silently takes half a glance at your orders, in the dark, obviously not caring if they’re valid or not, breathes a sigh of relief, turns, and strides away.  The only words you ever hear him say are “she’s all yours…” before he disappears into the night.

Seri is somewhere in her late tweens.  She doesn’t appear dirty so much as imbued with grime; and she comes with a scent that, while not particularly unpleasant, you certainly wouldn’t want, say, the cabin of a locomotive to smell like.  She’s dressed entirely in a very worn suit of boy’s clothes purchased off the rack at Gutersnipes’R’Us, and carrying a worn but well-cared-for satchel on her back.  Around her neck is a small bit of slate with some chalk on a string.  She’s also got the biggest, mangiest, dirtiest rat you’ve ever seen in your life sitting on her shoulder looking at you with beady little rat-eyes.

You take a sip of your coffee.  She looks at you.  As does the rat.

“I’m Agent White.  This is Mr. Brown.”  She giggles a bit at that.

“I understand you’ve got some special talents, and you’ll be helping us on our mission to Abilene.”

She grabs the chalk and scribbles something on the slate.

MUST HELP FIND DESTINY

“Yes well, I don’t know anything about any destinies, but I suppose that’s as good a reason as any.  I wasn’t told you were mute….”

*scribble*

I’M NOT

“Oookay…well…yes….”

Jacob finally musters his voice, “I’m afraid though that your pet will have to stay here, we simply can’t let vermin loose on the train.”

With a quiet, tiny, sweet voice, she says “fuck fish shit-tonsil milk-tits”.

You blink.

“Er…,” says Jacob, “what was that?”

*scribble*

TEMPLETON COMES WITH

“Yes well, I’m afraid that’s not possible, you see….”

Jacob’s voice fades into the background as you happen to lock eyes with the rat.  Inside those tiny, beady orbs you’re swallowed by a raw vastness, a brief, terrifying sense of the whole of nature, a power so ancient and vast that you feel for an instant that you’re drowning beneath it.  You hear the sound of drums, of river stones shaking in tortoise shells, of chanting.  You feel the heat of the fire on your face, smell the smoke and the sweat and the tobacco.

“…so as representatives of the Government of the United States we have an obligation, you see to-”

“The rat can come,” you sputter, “just get on the train.”

 

 

Hours later, you and Jacob are having coffee (and Seri is having her third breakfast) watching miles of snow-covered Kansas nothing fly by the window followed by more miles of snow-covered Kansas nothing.

The train blows past a tiny, one road town, so small there’s not so much as a platform for the train.  It’s there and gone in your vision, but the picture it leaves you with is stark, deserted.  Dry snow blowing in circular flurries across the single road.  A door to a home or shop flapping open in the cold.  A lone figure standing in the middle of the road, its body at an awkward angle, as if half of it, from shoulder to foot hung lifeless.

“Did you see that?” you ask.

“The horrifying fellow standing alone in the middle of the road?  Yes.”

“What town was that?  Grab the map.”

Jacob pulls the Dickinson County map over to the table and you both trace the rail line.  Behind Jacob, Seri is standing at the window, babbling quietly to the rat as if in conversation.

“Enterprise?” Jacob asks.

“No platform, has to be Detroit.”

“That must be it, yes.”

 

Seri coughs quietly, getting your and Jacob’s attention.  She holds up the slate.

DESTINY

You shake your head.  “I’m sorry, girl, I don’t understand.”

*scribble*

BYE

 

Seri tosses the rat into the air and with a shimmer, the girl, the clothes, and the satchel melt into a huge grey hawk that, in one move, takes to the air, grabs the falling rat in its talons, and flies out the window.

“WHAT THE FUCK!?!?!

“DID YOU KNOW SHE COULD DO THAT??!!?”
“HOW THE HELL WAS I SUPPOSED TO KNOW SHE COULD DO THA-”

“STOP THE TRAIN!”
“I CAN’T STOP THE TRAIN YOU IDIOT PULL THE CORD!”
“SONOFABITCH DID YOU SEE THAT?  HOW’D SHE DO THAT?!?!”

“SHUT THE FUCK UP AND PACK YOUR SHIT, JACOB!”

 

The train screeches to a stop while you and Jacob rapidly pull together your kits and start the process of getting the horses out of the stable car over the vitriolic protests of the Agency engineer.  Twenty long, shout-filled minutes later you’re chasing down a small trail following in the general direction that Seri-hawk flew.

You catch sight of her twenty minutes of hard riding later, back in her dirty guttersnipe form, with an injun and a chinaman on the road, waving her arms at them emphatically.  From the distance you hear her tiny voice scream “FUUUUCK!”.

 

And then there’s the explosion.

 

 

 

Prelude: Ahiga and Chinese Ed

Ahiga…

 

You found Nizoni’s body in a barn outside Dead End, Arizona.  She’d been beaten, raped, but she’d fought back.  The band of men – a dozen or so in number – had stayed there for two days with their three captives.

The man at the trading post had traded with the men when they came through town.  He knew of them, called them the Drowned Coyotes.  Bandits.  Ghost Rock smugglers out of Lost Angels.  He said they were headed for Tombstone, though he wouldn’t say how he knew.  But he drew you a picture, a coyote, drawn the old Anasazi way, he said they all have one tattooed on the backs of their hands.

Weeks later, you arrived in Tombstone, sick from bad water you were forced to drink in the desert.  A Hopi man named Joe took you in and let you recover in the small house he shared with his aged grandfather whose name, as far as you could determine, was simply Grandfather.

You woke from a fever-dream one night to find Grandfather sitting quietly on the chair next to your bed.  He laid a papery hand on your arm.

“You will not catch the ones you seek this way,” he mumbled in passable Navajo, “I have had a dream.  Rest.”

 

For the next week as you recovered, Grandfather didn’t admit to the encounter, or, indeed, acknowledge your presence at all.  It wasn’t until you rose the morning you planned to leave and found him waiting with Joe and a young Chinese man in the home’s kitchen.

“Ahiga,” Grandfather says, this time in barely passable English, “I have had a dream.”

Joe slides a mug of coffee over to you with an ever-so-slight roll of his eyes.

“You will go to Abilene.  Raven has spoken to Lizard, who has spoken to Rat.  A guide awaits you there.  You will find what you seek.  But you must beware the howling wind.”

“I’m sorry, Ate,” you say, “Abilene is so far, how could those I seek be there?”

“Grandfather-” Joe starts, but the old man bangs his tin cup on the table.

In the distance you hear a steam engine on the Bayou Vermillion line blow its whistle.  Grandfather gives everyone a stern look with his blind, rheumy eyes.

“Abilene.”

“This man,” he points to the Chinaman, “has a destiny there as well.  You will travel there together and face it.  The men in town call him Chinese Ed.”

“Fwied wice.” says Chinese Ed quietly, but cheerfully.

“Why do they call him that, Grandfather?” you ask.

“Because he is Chinese.  And his name is Ed.”

 

 

Unable to afford train fare, you and Chinese Ed head northeast through New Mexico.  For months, the man’s only words to you in English are “Fwied Wice!”, but you rapidly work out a series of Chinese words and gestures to get through the days.  You come to suspect, however, that he has a perfectly keen grasp of English.  You don’t press the issue.

One snowy fall evening in the mountains, you’re set upon by a madman with a rifle, a psychotic cackle, and the benefit of high ground.  Before you even have a chance to react, Chinese Ed vaults up the outstretched branches of the pines as a feather on the breeze and snaps the man’s neck with his bare hands.

He takes a long time to come back down the mountainside, during which you make camp and get a fire started.  He comes to the fire quietly, almost unnaturally so, bearing an armload of mundane survival items he must’ve taken from the dead man above.

“Rifle dirty, broken.” he says quietly.  You nod.

“People treat you like a fool, say things they don’t want you to hear, when they do not think you understand.”

“I understand,” you reply.

“Joe told me your story.  You think your woman lives?”

“I must.”

He nods at that.  “My master’s name was Gai Phan.  Raised me like a son.  One of Kwan’s Traid, a man named Johnny Wu killed him.  Johnny Wu left Kwan and now is in Abilene, or so I hear.”

“All this for vengeance?” you ask.

“For vengeance,” he says, nodding.

Later, after you’ve tamped the fire and laid down to sleep and Chinese Ed has walked away from the light in order to better keep watch, you hear his voice from somewhere in the trees above you, “If your woman is dead, I will avenge her with you.”

 

 

It is the dead of winter as the two of you walk down a dirt trail through Kansas farmlands some miles outside of Abilene.  A young girl, perhaps in her early teens bursts from the winter wheat and onto the road.  She’s dirty, wearing boys clothes of a style found back east.  She has a bit of slate on a rope around her neck, and a massive, mangy-looking rat clinging to her shoulder for dear life.  She skids to a stop at your feet, looking from the rat at her shoulder to you with wide eyes.

She grabs up the slate, scribbles something on it with a piece of chalk, and holds it up to you.

“I’m sorry girl,” you say, “I do not read.”

The girl deflates slightly and holds the slate up to Chinese Ed.

“Fwied wice!” he says.

The girl turns red.  She starts shaking slightly.  Then, in a tiny, sweet, clear voice she screams “FUUUUUUUUUUCK!!!!!”


And then there’s the explosion.

Prelude: William and Olivia

Olivia…

 

He found you on the side of the road, covered in your husband’s blood, dying of exposure in the plains sun.  He was gentle, but dark, cold, and terrifying.  He saved your life, tended your wounds, took you to Father O’Connor’s church in Abilene.  Alistair Dent, the county sheriff.

 

Patrick O’Connor was a good enough sort, for a Catholic.  He let you stay at the church, helped you find work ministering to the ill, the injured, and the pregnant.  Most of the townsfolk you met accepted you, but a few accused you of being too good, and rumors began to circulate.

 

As summer turned to fall, things in Abilene started getting worse – the nights were darker, the bumps louder, and more people went missing or worse.  But it was also when you met Ronald.

 

Ronald Patton, a widower, ran a small farm ten miles into the nowhere from Abilene with his son.  His nephew William and his family are staying with them with plans to head out West that were becoming increasingly unlikely as the months wore on.  You met him the night he lost his foot in a thresher, screaming and slowly bleeding to death.  Patrick was giving him last rights, but you prayed for something different.  The bleeding stopped, the stump healing-over before your eyes.

 

“Well, Father…I didn’t realize you’d brought an angel with you…” he said, grinning, before passing out.

 

None of the witnesses ever really spoke of that night, but Ronald came to town as many Sundays as he could, and regularly came up with a broad variety of ailments to entice you out to the farm, where you were always welcomed warmly by the Patton clan, offered more than you could possibly eat, and a warm bed in a guest room that was far more comfortable than your pallet at the rectory.  An impartial observer might say he was courting you, but he knew of your recent loss and was never anything but a perfect gentleman.  Still, you often thought, he’s a good man, maybe in time….

 

It was one such occasion on a snowy morning in late November, 1878, that you found yourself drinking strong, gritty coffee at the Patton’s dinner table with Ronald, William, and Emily, William’s wife.  Breakfast had come and gone while you slept, and the children cast out into the cold to perform what chores were required of a farm in winter.  Emily was scrubbing out a pot at the stove and you were busying yourself darning a pair of stockings.  Ronald and William were tinkering with a large, complicated, rusty metal implement at the other end of the table.

 

“I think,” said Emily hesitantly, not turning from her work, “that the McAllen boy might be paying a visit.”  William grunted.  “I reckon he may be asking your permission to marry Rachel.”

 

With a grumbled “Dammit!”, William dropped the metal whatsit on the table and stalked off to the far side of the room to glare out the window.

 

“Well hell, Billy, she’s seventeen, what did you expect?” said Ronald.  “And what’s so damned good about the West anyways?  Whole damn place is run by the warlords anyway.  Ghost Rock ain’t no way to make a living, not with a family.  And this farm can support three or four families easy – you know you’re welcome to settle right here – especially now that I can’t work worth a damn it sure would settle my soul some.”

 

William stood silently at the window.

 

“Billy?”

 

“There’re riders silhouetted up in the hills,” he said quietly, an edge to his voice you’ve never heard.

 

“What the-?” Ronald got up to join him at the window, you and Emily rushed over as well.

 

“Bill,” Emily whispered, “Junior’s out there mending a fence…”

 

“I know.  I think we need to-” and then there was an explosion.  Easily the loudest sound you’d ever heard, it cracked the window and rattled the entire house.  When you opened your eyes you saw a massive plume of dust and fire rise up from a spot out in the fields toward the eastern edge of the property.  William snatched up Ronald’s rifle from over the door and bolted out into the snow, yelling his son’s name.  You grab your shawl off its peg and give chase….

 

 

 

Playlist

Here’s what I’ve been listening to while working on the story…

  • The Preacher – Jamie N Commons
  • Lead Me Home – Jamie N Commons
  • One By One – Grey Reverend
  • She Is Like The Swallow – Lucia Micarelli
  • You Will Be My Ain True Love – Alison Krauss
  • Long Time Traveller – The Wailin’ Jennys
  • O Molly Dear – Dyad
  • The Foggy Dew – The Chieftains & Sinead O’Connor
  • Storm Comin’ – The Wailin’ Jennys
  • Big Sky – Two Steps From Hell
  • One Will Fall By The Way – W.G. Snuffy Walden
  • Dust In The Wind – Kansas
  • I Will Find You – Clannad
  • The Last Gunfight – Outlaws Soundtrack
  • The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly – Morricone
  • The Rhythm of the Horse – Thomas Newman

 

Coming This Fall…

Coming This Fall…

In 1863 it all went wrong.

They say that the dead at Gettysburg got back up.  I didn’t believe the stories…at the time….  Then California fell into the ocean, the Blues and the Grays hit a stalemate, and ghost rock is powering everything from cannon to automata.  Folk became afraid of the dark.   I think I started to believe.

Fifteen years since everything went a little sideways.  The USA and CSA both claim they’re stayin’ out of Kansas – but that ain’t stopped the Texas Rangers or the Agency from hangin’ folk.  Wild Bill was fired, the Wichita Witches are tearassing through the Union Blue Line, Chief Howling Wind and his Kiowa have lost their goddamned minds, and I’m pretty sure the new Marshall ain’t exactly…alive.

Were I you, pardner, I’d sell that herd and get out of here, cuz the high plains are becoming hell on Earth, and it’ll take some big damn heroes riding in here to keep the night at bay.

Welcome to Abilene.