The hem of Anne’s dress draped over a box of TNT. She’d been sitting in the shade of the wagon for most of the day while her father drove the horses forward. The flat plains had given way to the Black Hills mountains and the scent of fresh pine was a welcome smell. The change of scenery helped to bury the feeling of homesickness.
Beyond all the picks and tools an aspiring miner would need, Anne’s brother walked behind the wagon, holding the families old black-powder rifle. Ever since he had gotten it for his 13th birthday the gun had never been far. He’d long graduated from the sling of his childhood, but she thought he might have been more accurate with that strip of leather than the rifle.
She could hear the quiet quarrel of her parents at the head of the wagon. They never shouted, but the earnest whispers let her know it was serious. There had been talk that the road was closed to travelers without an escort, but after selling the home place in the plains territories they still couldn’t afford even the slightest armed escort, much less the Pinkertons. Then again they could have been arguing the finer points of scripture. She suspected their love for the gospel might have been what attracted them to each other in the first place.
She slipped out of the wagon to walk with Thomas, stopping occasionally to huck a rock into the distance. When she found a stone she liked she would hold onto it. Varmints skittered in the trees, rabbits and squirrels. Off the road maybe fifty feet away one of the squirrels rested on a branch, Thomas drew a bead on it, but knew better than to waste ammunition. Instead she stepped to the grass, felt the stone in her hand and launched it side arm. It traveled like a skipping rock through the air and blasted the squirrel off the branch.
Anne shouted when the squirrel toppled from the tree. Thomas ran into the woods. He came back carrying it by the tail, grinning. It would be another night without salted preserved meats that they had gotten used to on the long road.
The smell of the stew filled the air. If it weren’t for the squirrel they would have skipped the fire. They didn’t need it with the full moon glowing over the forest. Anne’s mother hummed a song while her father poked the fire with a smile and a cigarette in his mouth.
The humming stopped. Anne looked to her mother who stared into the darkness. When she turned her head the silhouette of a man stood on the trail, looking in. He sharply inhaled, causing the lit end of his cigar to illuminate his face. With a weary wave he said, “Hello folks, may I sit a spell?”
Thomas reached for his rifle. He didn’t raise it to the man but wanted it close. Anne’s father walked from his place by the fire toward the man. His posture was rigid, serious. The dark figure reached out a hand and her father shook it. Anne caught a glimpse of silver on his hip, the moon showing a gun and cartridges.
“Name is Hammond. Luke if you like,” the drifter said.
“Mister Hammond. Do you make it a habit to travel savage country on foot at night?” Mr. McCoy said.
“Only when my horse breaks its leg and has to be put down. I tell you, it’s been a day.”
Mr. McCoy looked to his wife, who gave a nod and the man came to the fire and sat. He pulled a bloodied rag from his pouch. Mr. McCoy unconsciously moved his hand toward the gun on his hip. The stranger unfurled the rag, showing red meat. “Horse was young enough, unfortunately wolves and coyotes are going to get most of the good parts. Can I share some meat with you folks for some of that stew?”
“I think that would be an unfair trade. It’s only squirrel,” Anne said.
“Well then consider it a trade for the warmth of a fire and the kindness of company. These are some lonely roads on your own.”
Anne stared over the fire at him. His features were handsome, but buried under the dust of the road and several days without a shave. A scar rode a few inches from the left side of his mouth. His hands and arms were well scarred.
“It looks like this trail hasn’t been kind to you,” Anne said.
He laughed and looked at his arms. Anne’s mother gave her “the look” saying that she was pushing too far. “Yeah, I suppose not. Fighting in the war, working out here, traps, Lakota, and all the rest. It takes its toll on the flesh.”
“North or South?” Mr. McCoy asked.
“North, but not out of patriotism. Young, dumb, and broke. Just seemed like the natural path. Turns out the money was bad, food was worse. You?”
“Managed to avoid it. Army needed provisions, had to leave some farmers behind. For the best though, not the killing type.”
“Nah, you don’t look it. Your shake shows a working man, an honest man. Nothing honest in all the labors of war.”
“Are you the type?” Anne asked. This time her father shot her the look.
“Forgive my daughter, she’s inquisitive to a fault. Anne you don’t ask a man such things.”
Hammond stared into the fire for a moment, prodding the meat in its pan. “It’s alright,” he said, “A man has to be responsible for his deeds, no matter how ugly.” He turned to Anne. “Yes, dear girl. I am the killin’ type. A man’s soul never forgets his sins, no matter how righteous he is told they are. These hands have blood on them, and they’ll never unlearn the foul business of dealing death.”
Only crackling wood could be heard in the silence.
Thomas fidgeted in his seat. “Are you saved?” he asked.
“You mean am I baptized? Yeah. Lutheran. Don’t really find many churches out here. Used to know the words better,” Hammond said.
“Well, if God can forgive you, you should be able to forgive yourself. Especially for acts in war.”
“You may be right, but some things dig into you. It’s like these woods. They are restless with the long dead. Crow fighting Lakota, soldiers burning camps, and the violence man brings with him. It’s all in nature. This land is kill or be killed, and peace is an unwise luxury.”
“There’s peace in cities out here. Places like Deadwood a man can find honest work.”
“I don’t know who told you that Deadwood was a place of peace, but it is definitely one of work. Last time I was out there it was a lot of bitter miners, rich brothel keepers, and the odd shopkeep trying to make sure he doesn’t get robbed in the night.”
“That’s the growing pains of civilization. It takes examples of good folk living honestly to turn a place like that.”
“I hope you are right. I’d hate to see folk like you ground up in this wild greed. Especially this close to your destination.”
“Do you know something we should about the road ahead?” Mr. McCoy asked.
“Only stories. Highwaymen, Indian raids, some ghost stories,” Hammond said.
“Oh, tell us a ghost story.” Anne said.
Hammond smiled, feeling an out from the conversation. “Highwaymen out here, bandits, brigands, the ilk that ride these trails that you never hope to see only pick fights they can win. They aren’t like the Lakota who will run up to a garrison and steal horses. They’re out here in lawless territory because the hands of justice can’t always reach this far. They steal, they kill, they ravage.”
“This isn’t a good story before bed,” said Mrs. McCoy.
“What ghost story ever is? That’s the point. Send you to bed with a fright. Now. These highwaymen, gangs with ever-changing names and mottos, have different ways of stealing. Some follow the Indian method of waiting until darkness and just raid a camp. Some want their faces on bounty posters so they steal in broad daylight. It’s like a contest to see what they are worth. The worst of them, well they don’t leave anyone alive. They slide in and out of the woods and do their work completely. Not a soul nor bauble left.”
Hammond pulled a candle from his pack and lit it with the fire. “Problem is, sometimes a spirit is spiteful. The essence of a person gets wrapped up in that last act committed against them. It’s like the dark nights after Antietam, you’d see whispey men wandering, looking for something on those bloodied fields. I was never sure if it was their body or their friends, but they would never have rest.”
“Well these Black Hills are filled with those spirits. A gang came rolling up, a nasty one led by a man who called himself Cain, not his real name mind, just an alias. He came across a family not unlike yours. They had a whole slew of traveling supplies and a not so small amount of coin. Word of gold, in the ground or not, spreads in these woods faster than any horse could run. They marked the family at the fort and followed their wagon. Upon finding them, well scalping would be a nice way of putting it. He took everything including their lives. No warning, no bargains, just a violent act in the dark, over in moments.”
“Their daughter was out, walking with a single candle like this. Just an innocent walk to take care of necessities. They saw the candle, and they rode. Quicker than a candle in the breeze they snuffed the life out of her.”
Hammond blew out the candle and paused for a bit. Then lit the candle again. “It was on this very road, not that far from here. Seems most travelers who come through here talk about the girl. A girl with no name walking in the woods, a single candle burning. Blood stains her night clothes as she hums a tune. She steps between the trees without so much as a branch snapping or footfall heard, but that song bites into you. It’s as mournful as a violin, sweet as morning dew, and if you hear it, some say you might as well start digging your own grave.”
Mrs. McCoy shivered in the dark, looking pale. Anne leaned forward and asked, “How can that be true? If they heard it and lived to tell then obviously she isn’t killing them.”
Her brother rolled his eyes, “Because that’s how ghost stories work, sis. That’s why they are called stories.”
Anne ignored him. “Have you ever seen her?”
“I’ve seen wayward lights in the trees, honest to God. Nights where I thought I heard a song on the wind, but never her ethereal face. Otherwise I wouldn’t be standing here presently.”
“Are you sure people didn’t vanish from something else? Like bears or a raid?”
“Just stories miss. Like your brother said.”
For a while Anne argued the finer points of his tale and one by one the family retired to their sleeping rolls. Anne spent longer than she cared to admit starting into the darkness looking for a single candle in the woods.
When dawn breached the horizon the family rose and took in their morning rations of salt pork and hard biscuits. Coffee was drank by the older folk, and Anne was surprised to see Hammond still with their party. Part of her had expected him to vanish in the night as smoothly as he’d come.
The inclines grew steeper, the road narrower. More often she could hear her father reassuring the animals. Each ridge they passed over gave a glimpse of unspoiled mountain views. More than a few times Anne herself was awestruck, not being able to do anything but take it in. Her life on the plains had only beautiful sunrises and sunsets, nothing like the endless trees or granite peaks that surrounded her.
Hammond walked in front of the pack always scanning the horizon. His hand sometimes rested on the Colt in its holster. She didn’t like it. She didn’t trust what he saw in the woods that eluded her.
She followed his line of sight most of the afternoon and into the twilight, skipping over sitting in the wagon. When she saw Hammon tense, she looked into the woods and caught a flash of something. The colors were wrong to be a deer, but in the setting light she didn’t get a clear look.
A deep chopping sound came through the wooded valley, followed by the crashing of a massive pine tree. The tree fell into the road about 50 feet ahead. When it thumped the ground Anne felt the thump as much as heard it.
The sound of tack and hooves barrelled into the valley as five horsemen rode up from behind. A sixth man walked slowly from the felled trees carrying an axe in one hand, pistol in the other. Anne felt a moment of abject terror and froze, then bolted into the wagon and hid with the dynamite and other supplies. She lifted the lid on the box and grabbed several of the sticks and bound them together like her father had shown her. He’d shown her with sticks and rope, but the memory was clear enough.
Hammond and Mr. McCoy drew their pistols. Thomas leveled his rifle. The men on horseback had their weapons drawn but hadn’t aimed. “Wait,” Hammond said. “Might be able to just bargain out of this.”
Mrs. McCoy began to mutter a prayer, wringing her knitwork and not looking behind the wagon at the oncoming trouble.
“These are highwaymen, bandits like you told us last night,” Mr. McCoy said.
“Just hold your damned horses and let me handle this.”
Hammond walked toward the horses riding up from behind, hands spread wide above his head, pistol in his right hand. As he walked by the side of the covered wagon he whispered to Anne. “If this goes south, you run into the forest. Don’t look back. Run to Deadwood if you have to.”
Anne couldn’t see him through the canvas but she nodded. Her heart pounded, her hands shook. In spite of the cool air she broke into a sweat. Looking around the back she saw her father’s shaving kit and the silver-handled straight razor inthe pack.
“Hello, Cain,” Hammond shouted.
The horses still charged forward. Now their guns were pointed. The first crack rang out, kicking up a pile of dust at Hammond’s feet. A second and a third. Still Hammond walked forward. Just before it looked like they were going to run Hammond down the horses slowed and whinnied in disapproval. The brown steed in front snorted and shook its head.
“I think you owe me a horse, Cain,” Hammond said.
A large man with a thick mustache stared hard at Hammond. His hat shaded his eyes but the gaze was undeniable. The scowl burned deep lines in his face. A string of dark and light-skinned ears hung from his neck. It looked like the gore on one was still fresh. “Drop the gun. Been running long enough. You know how this story ends,” Cain said.
Hammond slid the gun back in his holster. “You kill me and the only stache you’ll find is the one stuck to your face. You’ll be searching the Black Hills until some Indian braves come to take their ears back.”
“We’ll see how long it takes you to talk when I crucify you on one of these trees and wait for the vultures to come. Unfortunately for you all I have are railroad spikes. You committed three acts of fratricide against us. You’re a dead man either way.”
A long moment passed between them. Hammond stood in front of them like a stone pillar. His hands didn’t shake.
Hammond broke the silence, “Way I see it you wrote your own epitaph when you started killin’ kids. They won’t even bother lying you in the potter’s ground. You’re walking pig feed if I ever saw it.”
Cain scoffed, “So what’s it gonna be then. You take your shot, but you die on this road. Then I’ll take out my frustrations on them.”
“Like you were planning anything different. I’m a bad man, but there are lines you don’t cross. So I’ll make you a deal, and I’m only offering once. You spare these people and let them on their way, and you can take me.”
“Sounds like a fair deal. Put the gun on the dirt,” Cain said.
Hammond grabbed his pistol. The men on the horses tensed, aiming their guns and rifles. Hammond dropped the gun to his feet. Cain dismounted from the horse and walked forward. He grabbed the pistol and shoved it down the front of his belt. Cain swung his fist hard into Hammond’s chin. Hammond’s hat went flying and he hit the dirt. Cain unholstered his pistol in a flash and pointed it at Mr. McCoy.
“Me and fair don’t quite get along, you understand? You really think they got the stones to end this standoff? The boy over there would sooner piss himself than fire that gun.”
A mumble came from behind Hammond. “What’s that child, I couldn’t hear you,” Cain said.
“I’ve got the stones,” Thomas shouted.
With a massive crack, the old black powder rifle went off. The .55 caliber ball whizzed past Cain and struck the shin of a rider, who screamed in pain. He raised up from the saddle and fell but the boot stayed in the stirrup. Thomas ran to the woods on the right of the path.
Cain burst into laughter and raised his hand. The men stayed poised but didn’t fire. “Impressive. That’s not how you kill a man clean. Try this,” Cain said, raising the pistol to Mr. McCoy’s head. McCoy raised his own pistol but before he could use it Cain fired. The report echoed over the hills. He slumped down without a word. Hammond charged forward from the ground, reaching for his pistol but Cain whipped him across the skull.
Mrs. McCoy screamed. Anne covered her mouth, a sharp pain running through her whole body. She recoiled, shaking, and found herself on the floor in the back of the coach.
“Take the rest of them alive, for now,” Cain shouted, and the remaining horsemen spread out. Two went to the forest after Thomas. More gunshots rang out. An errant bullet tore through the canvas of the wagon above Anne. She stifled another scream. She remembered Hammond’s words and pulled the straight razor out. The fine blade tore through the canvas like paper. When she peered through the tear she saw a horseman charge by, looking for her mother. She took her chance and ran into the setting dark carrying only her father’s pack and the dynamite.
She ran. She didn’t look back.
In the forest Anne wept. She stayed as silent as she could, but felt a hollow roar inside her. She wanted to die. She wanted to kill them, but she could hardly move. Her family was back there. Cain had wanted them alive, but that was nearly an hour ago.
The tremor in her hands had faded but she didn’t know if her sorrow had. She didn’t know how to navigate the forest and the path to Deadwood seemed like suicide. Over and over she ran through her head that she could never make it. She had no food, no water, she only had what? Anne opened the bag and went through it. A bottle of cologne, a razor, some soap, and a few small candles and matches. Five sticks of dynamite.
Her hands reached over the candles and remembered Hammond’s story. The girl and her candle. With any luck they hadn’t said anything about her. She hoped they had been gagged and felt a chill run through her wanting it.
Anne started her slow walk back to the camp. A thousand thoughts told her it wouldn’t work. Hard men like that weren’t superstitious. They’d gun anything down that came close. She saw their campfire in the distance, a single speck of light in the darkness. The sounds of men shouting echoed indistinct in the forest. She took a deep breath, struck the match on a tree and walked forward.
After a minute Anne heard the men go silent. She blew out the candle and shifted her angle. Behind another pine she lit the candle, approaching from a new part of the woods.
Anne heard one of the men shout, “It’s the fucking ghost! Told you those campfire stories weren’t all bull.”
She heard a man laughing then heard Hammond’s voice. “It’s a ghost of vengeance boys. We are truly fucked.”
Fifty yards stood between her and the camp. She heard Cain shout that there was no such thing as ghosts, that the stupid cowards needed to go investigate. He fired a shot that lodged itself in the tree to her left. She started to hum a hymn.
Voices dissented. She blew out the candle and changed her approach again. 15 yards. She was close enough now. She lit the final match and lit the fuse on the dynamite. She held the bundle like a candle, the fuse quickly running down. The clustered men spotted her again and she launched the dynamite with all her strength and dove into the trees.
The dynamite sailed end over end. It landed just beside the first man.
“RUN!” someone said, but before they could a blast ripped through the dark woods. It made the guns from earlier sound peaceful. Screams permeated the night. Anne dared a look.
Two men were in pieces. A third held his belly and was a few feet from the crater. Cain crawled, his hat blown off, dark hair frizzy and burned. About twenty feet further back she saw Hammond struggling with his bindings.
Anne ran toward Cain. She felt an inhuman fire rising in her. One that controlled her limbs, a rage that knew no thought. She pulled the blade out. Cain sneered at her, and reached for a silver pistol in the dirt. She got there first and kicked the gun away. He grabbed for her legs but missed, she went around him and grabbed him by the hair. The blade sunk into through meat and gristle. She sliced again, deeper and felt his lifeblood spill. The dirt quickly turned to black mud in the firelight.
In the two days since the attack, almost no one spoke. Anne’s mother sat in the carriage with the cologne bottle, occasionally opening it. She used the canvas to sew him a covering and they’d laid him to rest. They left the other bodies in the sun.
Hammond rode a horse behind the wagon, wincing occasionally from the beating he’d taken. Thomas did the same. At the final pass, a town came into view. It was dirty and the street bustled.
Hammond stopped in the road. He dismounted the horse and pulled a pistol from the saddle bag.. He came to her and handed her the gun.
“From this day on, you carry your father’s gun. Be careful in there, McCoy.”
“Aren’t you coming?” she asked.
“Only thing for me in that town is a hangman’s noose. I figure I’ll make my way down to Cheyenne, maybe Denver. You won’t hear the name Hammond on me again.”
Anne wanted to protest but only nodded. He got back on his horse and watched the wagon pass. He tipped his hat at the widow and she gave a mournful smile. Mr. McCoy had done his duty, somehow. His family was delivered to Deadwood, even if he only made it in spirit.
Tony Southcotte: Tony hails from the Rocky Mountains somewhere around the state of Colorado. Possibly raised by grizzly bears, this gritty denizen of the arena now spends most of his time grappling with Java updates and dysfunctional RAM. With not much fiction under his belt, it might seem tempting to bet against Mister Southcotte, but an impressive knowledge of everything from PVC pipe to psychedelic drugs makes Tony a storehouse of fiction waiting to hit the paper. Plus, you know, there’s the possibility of him ripping you apart like a grizzly bear.