Webmaster Note: This fic was formerly archived on another website and was moved to blackraptor in October 2008
The title comes from James Beattie:
In the deep windings of the grove, no more the hag obscene, and grisly
Nor in the fall of mountain-stream, or roar of winds, is heard the angry spirit's yell.
- 1 -
Wednesday brought the regular stagecoach from the east. Its arrival always attracted some attention, with the townsfolk curious to see if anyone interesting had arrived. Today, it was unusually full.
A burly man stepped down heavily, causing the whole vehicle to shudder. He was a man who might once have been good-looking but now bore the marks of his excesses. Too much food had bloated his figure, too much drink corrupted his complexion.
The man held a hand up to a woman. She was beautiful but faded, swathed in translucent scarves and affecting an air of fragility. She fussed with a fan, complaining of the heat, the flies and all manner of other small nuisances. The man steered her towards the hotel.
A slight young woman, wearing a dark blue dress with her hair in a long braid down her back, made her own way to the ground. She turned back to help two small boys, aged perhaps five or six, to descend but they leapt enthusiastically from the top step, landing in a confused pile in the dust. She reprimanded them with a laugh.
'Young gentlemen do not roll about in the dirt.' She spoke with a soft English accent, educated but not upper class.
'Can we go riding, Abbey?' the smaller one asked.
'No, fishing,' the other one shouted, pushing his brother over.
'Will, there will be no fishing until you have apologized for pushing Eddie.'
The older boy reluctantly apologized and helped the younger one up.
'Thank you. We shall go riding and fishing, but now you will go inside and wash your hands and faces.' She shooed them on ahead of her.
Two men had watched the exchange with amusement from a table outside the saloon.
'It looks like she has her hands full,' the smart one said.
The longhaired man only nodded, watching the trio as they entered the hotel.
Abbey steered her charges up to their room and supervised their ablutions before taking them down for some dinner. The waitress in the dining room was enchanted by the boys and spoiled them with a sticky pudding. She was rewarded by two plates cleaned right down to the pattern.
'Well, lads, shall we go and explore?'
They rushed out of the dining room, only to wait impatiently in the hall. Abbey had forbidden them to go outside without her. She took their hands and they set out to see the town. They explored each street, looking in the store windows and petting the horses. Boys being boys, Will and Eddie insisted on dabbling in the horse trough. Abbey cast around for a moment, found an old newspaper and sat on the edge of the sidewalk. She took a sheet and folded it carefully until she had a paper boat. She floated it on the water.
'Show us how to make one,' Will demanded.
Abbey frowned at him.
'Please,' he added hastily.
She gave them each a sheet of paper and then slowly made a second boat, helping them to copy each fold. They soon had three more boats. The boys pushed them around for a while, before deciding to embark on a Naval battle. They battered the boats until they were no more than soggy scraps. Abbey cleared away the mess, then took another sheet and folded it into a triangular hat. She made a second and handed them to the boys.
'There we are. Fit for Admiral Lord Nelson himself.'
They set off for the hotel, holding her hands once more. She was already committed to her path when she saw her employer coming out. She braced herself and continued towards him.
'What crap are you teaching them now?' he demanded angrily.
'We were just playing with paper boats,' she said truthfully.
He knocked the younger boy's hat off fretfully. 'Well, don't. You spoil them.'
He shoved her out of his way and headed for the saloon.
The two men at the table were still watching events unfold.
'Charming,' the smart one said.
This time his silent companion shook his head.
The boy picked up his paper hat. He looked up at the girl, tears in his eyes.
She shook her head slightly and said in a low voice, 'Don't give him the satisfaction, Eddie.'
He managed a small smile, took her hand and they resumed their course.
Over the next couple of days, the trio became a fixture around town. The boys were boisterous but kept firmly in line by the young woman. Their father spent his time drinking in the saloon, while their mother rarely ventured from the hotel and went into a faint at every excuse when she deigned to take the air.
On Saturday morning, the boys emerged with pads and pencils. Abbey set them up at a table outside the saloon and charged them with drawing the horses hitched across the street. She began a more ambitious sketch of the view down Main Street. She was engrossed in her task when the two men took their places at the next table and she jumped visibly when she caught sight of them seated there. They touched their hats.
'Good morning, Miss,' the smart one spoke. 'If I may introduce myself, I am Ezra Standish. This is Mr Vin Tanner.'
'Good morning, gentlemen. I am Abbey Keyes. This is Will Jamison and Eddie Jamison.' The boys solemnly bade the two men good morning.
'Would you boys care to see some magic?' Ezra asked them.
They stared at him with wide eyes. Will finally nodded.
The man took out a deck of cards and waved them to the bench opposite him.
The boys looked at Abbey. She nodded so they lined up to watch.
Ezra ran through several tricks. The boys' shyness soon evaporated as they tried to follow how the cards appeared and disappeared. The man moved on to coins. Abbey smiled at the speed of his movements. She suspected he normally found more lucrative applications for his sleight of hand. She saw too late where he was going with a coin from behind the ear trick. He reached over to Eddie but the boy sprang away from his hand and cowered at Abbey's side. The men exchanged hard looks.
'Come on, you two,' Abbey said as lightly as she could. 'You'd better finish your drawings before dinner.'
They returned to their labors and she moved over to the other table.
'I'm sorry about that,' she said in a low voice. 'It was kind of you to entertain them.'
Vin gave her an uncomfortably direct look. 'Don't look like they're too used to kindness.'
She took a deep breath. 'It isn't for me to criticize my employers. I'm sure you can see how things are for yourselves.'
Ezra said, 'From what we see, their father is a good deal more fond of the bottle than he is of them.'
'He's their stepfather. We're traveling to their mother's parents in California. I'm told they are good people. I hope things will be better for the boys then.'
Vin asked her, 'You work for them long?'
'No. I came to America from England with a family about eight months ago. They were spending six months in New York. When it was time for them to return, I decided I would like to see more of this country and sought another position. It wasn't the best decision I have ever made but, on the other hand, Will and Eddie have far more need of me than the children I looked after before.'
'Better job?' he inquired.
'Much.' She smiled fondly at the memory. 'A lovely couple with five children and another on the way. I was part of the family there, employed to help the parents rather than replace them. This has been a rude awakening. Things are deteriorating faster than we are covering the ground and California doesn't seem to get any closer. We spend more time resting than traveling.' She filled the word with contempt.
'You gonna stay with them there?'
She shook her head. 'My appointment ends when we reach the grandparents and I would not wish to extend it. At present, the challenge is to avoid being dismissed before then.'
'He give you trouble?'
She shrugged. 'Nothing I can't handle as yet. Fortunately, like most bullies, he is a coward. Unfortunately, the drink helps him overcome that.' She looked guilty. 'I have said too much. Please don't repeat any of this.'
She turned to the boys, who held up their drawings for her to admire. 'Very nice. Perhaps we'll see about a ride this afternoon.'
The boys whooped around in circles at that.
Vin stood up, 'I'd be happy to sort out some horses and escort you, Miss.'
'Thank you. That's very generous.'
She nodded and ushered the still-whooping boys back for their dinners.
The two men looked at each other thoughtfully.
'There has to be something we can do about this,' Ezra said.
Vin scratched his chin. 'We lay a hand on him, they'll pay for it when we ain't around.'
'There's a way. I just haven't thought of it yet.' The ex-conman gave the tracker a knowing look.
'Well, Ezra, you let me know when you do.'
- 2 -
Later that afternoon, Abbey sat beside Vin on a log, watching the boys splash each other in the river. She sighed.
'Penny for 'em?' he said.
'It just seems a long time since I felt so relaxed, far longer than two months.'
'You get much time off?'
'Not really. I'm supposed to get a half-day a week but I don't even take that anymore. The last time I left the boys, there was an incident so now I stay with them.'
'What about their Ma?'
'What about her?' Abbey said bitterly. 'I despise her even more than I do him. They are her boys, after all. What kind of mother lets an animal like that near her children? If they were mine, it'd be over my dead body.'
He smiled, finding her protectiveness towards her charges appealing, but said only, 'They don't seem a likely pair. She sick?'
'Not physically.' Abbey let the implication of her words hang for a moment before adding, 'She is a foolish woman with money, a dream ticket for a man like him.'
Not wanting to waste her free time on such unhappy thoughts, he changed the subject. They chatted about her previous jobs and travels.
'What is your living, Mr Tanner?'
'Vin,' he said, then thought before telling her, 'We keep an eye on the town. This country can still be dangerous.'
'You and Mr Standish?'
'And five others.'
'That's quite a lot of protection.'
'Ain't needed most of the time but we been stretched once or twice.'
When the boys announced they were hungry, Vin and Abbey led their steeds back to town. He intended to take care of the horses but she quietly told him it was good for the boys to do their part. They were too small to help much but she skillfully gave them the impression they were being useful.
When they had finished, she prompted the boys, 'What do you say to Mr Tanner?'
They piped up with their thanks and then headed for the street.
Abbey looked up at him. 'Thank you for a lovely afternoon, Vin. It's been good for me too. I'm sometimes in danger of forgetting that most men aren't like their stepfather.'
He touched his hat and watched reflectively as she left before heading for the saloon. Ezra was playing poker with Chris and Buck when he got there. Vin joined them and went through the motions but his losses testified to the fact that his mind wasn't on the cards. He frowned as Abbey's employer polished off half a bottle of whisky, then caught Ezra's eye on him.
'Are they all right?' the gambler asked him.
Chris raised an eyebrow. He'd been enjoying peace and quiet at his shack the past few days and hadn't seen the newcomers. 'What's going on?'
'Nothing,' Vin said. 'Yet.'
Chris looked across at the focus of Vin's attention.
Ezra examined the tracker's face. 'Is this becoming personal, Mr Tanner?'
Vin switched his gaze back to his friend but declined to answer.
Buck knew something of what had been going on. 'Ain't a good idea to get between a man and his family, Vin.'
Remembering the one time the tracker's personal feelings had caused problems, Chris prompted him. 'Vin?'
'Ain't what you're thinking, Chris.' Vin nodded towards the reeling man. 'He's just a coward who likes to knock his step-kids around, not to mention the hired help.'
Chris looked at the man and back to his friend. 'Buck could be right.'
Vin shook his head. 'He ain't getting away with it. Ezra, I'm waiting on that idea.' He folded and left the saloon.
Chris turned to Ezra for an explanation.
'He's right. The man is a slob. They're headed for California but things will get out of hand way before then. The young lady won't leave the two boys but she's not going to be able to hold him off forever. I'm trying to come up with something that'll put him off for good, not just while we're around to see.'
Chris thought on that for several minutes then nodded. 'Let me know when you do.'
- 3 -
The next morning, all four men were at the table outside the saloon when the trio emerged for their day's entertainment. The boys ran over to Vin as soon as they saw him. They showed a trust in the gentle, pensive man that Abbey had not seen from them before. She followed reluctantly.
She saw Vin eye a bruise on Eddie's chin then look up at her. She kept the left side of her face to the street when she greeted him but he caught her arm and turned her towards them. His face hardened as he saw her blackened eye and cut cheek. She tried to pull away but he did not release her. She waited until the boys had wandered out of earshot, following a beetle in the dirt.
'It's all right,' she insisted.
'No, it ain't. He'll kill you 'fore he's done.'
'We mustn't let him see us with you. He wasn't best pleased about yesterday.'
'Don't their Ma say nothing?' he pressed.
'She believes what he tells her. There are none so blind as those who don't want to see. Besides, she is preoccupied with other things at present.'
He raised his eyebrows.
'Spiritualism is the latest obsession. She wishes to contact her first husband.' She gave a scornful snort. 'I didn't know the late Mr Jamison but I would expect his first words to be "keep that pig away from my sons". She doesn't appear to have considered the nature of any message he might have for her.'
Despite himself, Vin smiled at her words. She had little room for fear when her anger burned so brightly.
Ezra leaned back thoughtfully.
'So the lady believes in the Great Beyond,' he speculated, as a plan began to form.
'She believes in every silly fad that comes along,' the girl told him scathingly then looked imploringly at Vin. 'Please, Vin, he mustn't see. He's been pestering me ever since we set out and now he has some stupid idea ' She left the sentence unfinished, ashamed to repeat the essence of the foul-mouthed tirade she'd endured from her employer the previous evening.
He freed her and she hurried after the two little boys.
Chris looked at him. 'You're right, Vin. He ain't getting away with it. Ezra?'
Ezra was far away, his agile mind putting a new twist on a old con. He started on hearing his name.
'I wonder,' he asked Chris. 'Would you lend us your premises for a few days?'
The fair-haired man gave a slow, mean grin. 'Whatever you need.'
- 4 -
A couple of days later, Vin and Ezra were putting the finishing touches to the modifications they had made to Chris's shack with help from Josiah and Nathan. Vin had been astonished to see the gambler throw himself into the work with a vengeance, the first time he had ever engaged in manual labor in their presence.
Nathan eyed their handiwork doubtfully. 'You really think this'll work, Ezra?'
'It's a classic con. I've seen it part plenty of fools from their money. I don't see why it shouldn't serve a different purpose, although I admit I dislike undertaking a project without evaluating the mark for myself.'
Vin bit his lip. 'It's gotta work. We can't afford to make things worse.'
Ezra gave him a quick pat on the shoulder and said, 'No argument there but things seem to have reached a point where doing nothing isn't an option.' He consulted his timepiece. 'The young lady should be here soon.'
As good as her word, Abbey appeared on the hour. She had borrowed a rig to drive out and left the boys playing beside it in the trees, out of sight of the house. The men watched her approach across the rough grass. She was limping and holding one arm against her body.
Vin looked at Ezra. 'If it don't work, I'll kill him myself.'
Abbey was surprised to see two new faces but Vin quickly introduced the other men.
'What is this about?' she asked Ezra.
He settled her on a chair and explained their plan.
She looked up at him in astonishment but said nothing. She looked set to speak a couple of times but thought better of it. Eventually she said, 'You know, I think you could pull it off. She's been caught several times for money. Why not for this? But I'm not sure she can stop him, even if she rouses herself to try.'
It was Vin who answered. 'We figured we could stage a few stunts in town to convince him.'
She shook her head. 'Why are you going to all this trouble for us?'
'We ain't gonna stand by and let him kill you.'
She looked puzzled. 'It seems so elaborate. I thought men out here just shot each other.'
'Don't tempt me,' he said.
'It may be naïve of me but I was serious.'
'Shooting an unarmed man is murder here, same as anywhere else. You reckon he's gonna face me with a gun?'
She laughed. 'He wouldn't face you if you were holding a feather. I'm about his limit.'
He smiled. 'Believe me, we'd enjoy whaling the tar out of him but we figured you'd suffer for it later.'
'Yes, all my ideas end with the same fear of making matters worse.'
'Well, then?' Ezra prompted.
'I'll have her here tomorrow night. What time does it get dark?'
'Make it around ten.'
She nodded. 'Thank you, all, for trying even if it doesn't work out. I can't tell you how much I appreciate this. I was becoming afraid I wouldn't get Will and Eddie safely to their grandparents. If he wants to be rid of them, he'll do it before we reach California. It would be easy for an accident to happen.'
- 5 -
It wasn't difficult for Abbey to persuade her mistress to accompany her. In fact, persuasion didn't come into it. As soon as she mentioned the strange old woman she'd heard about in the dry goods store, Mrs Wheeler was hooked. Of course, she was too weak to make inquiries herself. Would Abbey mind making an appointment? Abbey smiled grimly to herself. No, she wouldn't mind at all.
The following night, she drove the borrowed rig out to the house once more, carefully feigning uncertainty about the route, even though her mistress was too busy fussing over the dangers of the night air to notice. She helped the useless woman to the door and knocked. In the moonless night, the small wooden house was spooky and Abbey was surprised to feel a shiver run down her own spine.
Ezra answered the door, unrecognizable under a convincing crone disguise. He soon had them settled at the table and began his medium act. Although he had never tried to pull this particular con, he'd been telling the truth when he said he'd seen it done more than once. As he worked himself up into a frenzy, Abbey was fascinated by his highly credible performance. Mrs Wheeler was transfixed.
The crone bade them link hands. She began to moan and shake. The lamp guttered and failed, plunging the room into blackness. Abbey jumped as Mrs Wheeler squealed. The table began to rock ominously, a shutter banged and the door to the next room slammed shut. Suddenly, everything went deadly quiet. The medium froze for what seemed like an eternity. Abbey felt Mrs Wheeler's hand shaking in her own.
Ezra broke the silence with a voice so unlike his own that Abbey had to make a conscious effort to remember that it was only him. Of course, none of them had known what the late Mr Jamison sounded like but Abbey had been able to tell them that he came originally from Boston. In fact, she had been able to tell them a good deal more since one of her duties was to read out his old letters when her mistress was at her most maudlin. Ezra laid a neutral East Coast male voice over his crone impersonation to create a composite he hoped would not jar with Mrs Wheeler's memories.
'Katherine Katherine is that you?'
Mrs Wheeler reeled. She managed a dry whisper. 'Robert? Yes, I'm here.'
'I have been waiting so long for you to call me.'
'You have? Why? What is it that you want?'
'Don't you know, Katherine?'
She shook her head.
'I'm worried about my boys.'
'It is I about whom you should worry. I am the one who is unwell.'
'I see them playing with a kind young girl but then a cruel ugly man beats them. Who is he?'
'Robert, don't you care about me?'
'Something has happened to you, Katherine. You are no longer the woman I loved. She would never allow my sons to be harmed.'
Abbey felt her mistress's hand go cold. She was in danger of suffering a real faint, after all the swoons she had affected.
Ezra was into his stride now. 'Now you have invoked my spirit, I am free to roam the Earth again. I shall make you suffer as my boys have suffered.' The table rocked again. 'For every blow that falls on them, ten times that weight shall rain down on you and the ugly one.' The shutters banged. 'For every scratch that lovely young thing endures, I shall gouge your skins till the bones show through your tattered flesh.' The front door flew open.
Mrs Wheeler suddenly found her legs. She ran for the rectangle of night sky and flew across the grass at a speed of which Abbey would not have believed her capable. Stifling her giggles, Abbey tried to stay in character, squeezing Ezra's hand quickly then going in hot pursuit of her mistress.
Ezra swung back in his chair, pulled off his scarf and wig, then lit the other lamp - the one with oil in it. Vin, Nathan and Josiah looked at him through tears of suppressed laughter, their admiration evident.
'That was some show, Ezra,' Vin said, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand.
Ezra made a failed attempt to look modest, smiled and said, 'Mother would be proud of me. Except that I didn't get round to charging them.'
- 6 -
There was no rest for Abbey that night. Mrs Wheeler was hysterical, screaming incoherently at her husband. He was far too drunk to unravel her ramblings, though he finally managed to grasp the fact that they involved her late husband speaking from beyond the grave. He gave up at that point and locked himself in his room.
The following morning, Abbey took Will and Eddie outside straight after breakfast. She knew that, while the four men had been working on the crone's house, Chris, Buck and JD had been busy sabotaging various parts of the town. There were accidents waiting to happen at every corner. She needed to provoke confrontations at strategic locations so her new friends could inflict the retribution of a vengeful spirit on the ugly one.
She began by settling the boys at a bench and having them draw the Battle of Waterloo. Wheeler had a particular loathing for her stories from British history, particularly those that involved triumphs on the battlefield. His wife's screeching had been audible for some time when he finally emerged from the hotel and strode over to where Abbey sat.
'This is your fault,' he shouted. 'You told her about that crone, didn't you?'
'She wanted to contact Mr Jamison, sir.' Abbey told him meekly.
He scowled at the boys' drawings, snatched Will's and demanded, 'What's this?'
'The Battle of Waterloo, sir,' the boy answered dutifully.
As the man raised his hand to the boy, a shingle slid from the stoop roof and struck a glancing blow on his head. He staggered, partly from pain and partly from shock, then looked up in disbelief. Had he been a moment quicker, he might have seen JD hauling himself back into the second-story window.
'Are you all right, sir?' Abbey feigned concern and stood to help but he stormed away angrily.
Will and Eddie were giggling.
'You mustn't laugh,' Abbey told them but her heart wasn't in the words. They deserved to relish the man's pain as much as she did.
Abbey took the boys over to Ezra and Vin at their regular table. She wasn't sure what her employer would do next. They watched him return to the hotel. He cross-examined his wife on the spirit's exact words, getting a garbled but reasonably faithful rendition of the message. He immediately decided to test the waters again, convinced that the shingle must have been simple coincidence.
When they saw the man coming back, Vin and Abbey headed for the livery stable, leaving Ezra showing the boys more tricks. Wheeler strode up and demanded to know where Abbey had gone.
'I believe Mr Tanner intends to show her something in the livery stables,' Ezra replied innocently.
'I'll bet he does,' the man seethed. 'I don't pay her to leave these two with strangers while she runs after every man in town like a bitch in heat.' He grabbed Will and Eddie and threw them bodily towards the hotel. 'Get in your room and stay there,' he growled.
Prostrate under the sidewalk, two men timed their moves perfectly. Nathan used a catapult to launch a small stone at a horse hitched to a heavy cart while Josiah released the rope that held its load in place. Wheeler turned as the horse whinnied and reared in the shafts. With half a second to spare, he managed to leap out of the path of the barrels that crashed down around him.
Vin and Abbey watched from the stable entrance then drew back as the man turned in their direction. He stopped twice on his way over, anger and jealousy fighting fear and confusion.
Vin held Abbey close and kissed her tenderly. She was torn between her desire for him and the inhibition of knowing Chris and Buck sat in the rafters above them. It was only a few seconds before Wheeler charged in. He had no intention of taking Vin on but he could threaten the girl with dismissal.
'What the hell do you think you're doing,' he demanded. 'Get back to your work now.'
To the bully's surprise, the man in the fringed jacket made no move to stop Abbey as she reluctantly obeyed the order. Dismissing Vin as no more than an opportunist, Wheeler cuffed the girl as she passed. She slid quickly forward, as if propelled by the blow. There was an ominous creaking above but Wheeler had no time to react before two beams fell, smashing to the ground either side of him. He was dazed for a moment, then staggered out through the dust into the sunlight beyond, cradling his right arm.
Vin grinned up at his two friends. They were going to have some repairs to do when the day was out but he hadn't enjoyed himself so much in a long while.
The Wheelers stayed out of sight for the rest of the day. Abbey returned to the hotel to find them packing. Mrs Wheeler told Abbey they were taking the next day's stage and would now be making the fastest possible progress to her parents. Mr Wheeler had little to say. He sported an extensive splint that Nathan had fitted to the arm broken by the falling rafters.
The boys' mother even helped them to pack their things, though her ineffectual assistance made matters worse than if they'd been left to their own devices. When she had filled her own cases, Abbey slipped out quietly to the saloon. The seven men were playing cards but stopped their game as she approached.
'We're off on tomorrow's stage. Mrs Wheeler wants to reach her parents as soon as possible.' Her bruised face shone with relief and happiness. She leaned down and kissed the gambler on one cheek. 'Ezra, you were amazing.'
'I was, wasn't I?' he smiled.
She stood beside Vin, a hand on his shoulder.
'You be okay now?' the tracker asked.
She half-shrugged. 'I don't suppose he'll be a reformed character but we only needed more time. I think you've bought us that.'
Nathan gave a wide smile. 'That broke arm'll slow him up a bit anyway. Weren't that bad but he won't be doing much with it in that splint. Just smack him on it if he tries.'
She nodded, savoring the thought of doing just that. 'I don't know how to thank you all for what you've done.'
Ezra spoke for the seven when he said, 'No need for thanks. Just get those boys safely to their grandparents.'
- 7 -
The next morning, the men watched from outside the saloon as the stagecoach filled up with the Wheeler family's possessions. Abbey emerged from the hotel with Will and Eddie and headed over to them. The two boys hugged Vin and Ezra, no trace of fear in their little faces. Abbey embraced Ezra and kissed Vin fondly. She smiled to the other men, then led her charges to the coach.
Ezra smiled. 'A very brave young lady.'
Vin nodded. 'The sort a man'd want to have his children.' He grinned wryly when he caught their eyes on him. 'If he was thinking of having any.'
'Don't reckon she'd take too much persuading,' Chris remarked.
Vin shook his head. 'She can do better.'
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