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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Queen of Swords

Golgotha (Volume 3)

R. S. Belcher

Tor Books

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

1

The Devil (Reversed)


Port Royal, Isle of Jamaica

June 11, 1721

She swore an oath that the child would be born in freedom. The baby’s first breath would not be in the stinking air of the Marshalsea Prison, even if it took her last breath to see to it. The English guard had been true to his bargain, and that made it worth the pain. His price for the secret of escape, for looking the other way, was the gold in her mouth. She had ripped the back tooth out with her bare hands. After months of starvation, and, before that, a bout of scurvy on Jack’s ship, it was easy, and that pain was nothing compared to the contractions.

The trapdoor was where the guard had said it would be. It led to a small tunnel—a simple storm drain, designed to slow the overflow of seawater if yet another hurricane hit the island. She crawled through the damp darkness, unable to drag herself on her belly anymore with the baby, so she did it on her side, pausing every few feet in the pitch blackness to gasp in pain, and curl up as best she could as another contraction wracked her body. They were coming closer together but her water had not yet broken.

After what seemed an eternity, she caught sight of moonlight beyond the grate at the end of the drain. She heard the sweetest sound she had ever known: the crash of the waves, the hiss of the sea foam. The ocean did what it always did: it promised freedom.

The storm drain’s grate was loose in the crumbling mortar channel just as she had been told. If she were her old self, she could have kicked it free easily, but starvation, illness and the child in her belly had all conspired to sap her strength. She gripped the bars and pushed, then pulled, with all her might. She was so damned weak now. It made her angry.

As she gritted her teeth and struggled with the bars between her and the welcoming sea, that snotty bastard, Willie Goode, forced his way into her mind. He had thought he could have her, right there in that alleyway in Charleston. He was sixteen and she was twelve. He outweighed her by a good fifty pounds, the slobbering, full-gorged lout. He had pinned her and began to pull at her skirts. The pressure of him on her, the sour smell of his breath, and her heart was like a hare, thudding, kicking in her chest. He was so strong, so insistent, like his pego poking her stomach. She remembered London, what had happened there, and bit off Willie’s ear. When he screamed and rose up she drove her knee into his bollocks and was satisfied when she felt a pop. It took two grown men to pull her off the sobbing little git.

She wouldn’t let the bastards win then, and she had no intention of doing it now. With a final grunt and gasp, she tore the bars free. They fell with a dull thud to the ground, and her arms loose, like rubber, fell with them. Her water broke then and she knew she didn’t have much time.

The pain was intensifying. She crawled out of the pipe and let the cool, damp air of the beach caress her like a lover. It took great effort, but she stood, resting her hands on her knees for support. A contraction knifed through her, taking her breath away, but she refused to fall. She staggered across the wet, packed sand toward the tumbling waves. She stood at the edge of what the sea had claimed for itself; the rushing foam tickled her dirty, scabbed feet. She looked up at the moon, as swollen as her own belly. She smiled at the pockmarked orb burning silently with ghost light, its scars and wounds making it even more beautiful. “Good to see you too, luv. Been too long,” she whispered.

The water covered her feet now and grabbed greedily at her ankles as it sped past her. Tide was coming in, the sea’s way of telling any sailor worth his salt it was time to move on. The pain came up sharp and sudden; it made her feel as if she had to void herself. She breathed through it. The wind and the surf were her midwives. She gulped in air when the birth pain passed. She tasted blood in her mouth where once there had been gold.

She wandered farther out into the water, up to her waist. For a moment she thought of the nasty saw-toothed sharks—the wee ones—that prowled the shallows, eager for a tasty leg to claim. But after the night she had endured to be here, she knew she could wrestle any fucking shark and win, and probably claim a bite out of it too, she was so hungry.

The pain came again, like her insides knotting and trying to spill out of her hat. She gave a little shriek but muffled herself; the water lapping against her belly was helping. She began to time her breaths to the rhythm of the tide. She had once acted as midwife, along with Mary, to a hostage off a Dutch sloop. Neither of them knew a fucking thing about delivering a kid, but Calico Jack figured since they were both women it was instinctual or some such shit. She recalled that breathing through the pains seemed to help, and pushing—pushing was good—but Mary had argued with her that the girl had to wait to push. “Wait for fucking what?” she had said. “A goddamned invitation?” In the end it hadn’t mattered whether she pushed or not. The baby came on its own. It lived a few breaths longer than its mother.

There was a shiver down her spine as the pain stabbed her again, and then again, coming closer and stronger with each passing moment. The urge to push was maddening. The waves smashed against her and still she stood her ground; the cold water splashed across her face, the sea pulled at her trying to draw her deeper into its embrace, and still she stood.

She raised her head to scream; she forced her eyes wide open, looking up at the mute moon and the uncaring stars. In this moment she was the universe—her, a petty thief, a liar, pirate, adulteress, murderess. In this final effort of breath, she was a goddess, the creator, and all the cogs spun in the heavens just for her.

The baby arrived beneath the dark churning waters of Mother Ocean, and she did not fall; even as her knees buckled and her legs became like seaweed, she remained on her feet. The child arrived swimming, vibrant and hale. She gathered the infant up in her arms. As it broke the surface, the child snorted the saltwater from its tiny nose and let loose a scream, an angry howl of protest at life itself. She laughed as the baby spit, and cried.

“Ah, marriage music,” she chuckled. “You go right ahead and get it out, wee one. This might be your first, but it sure as hell won’t be your last cry.”

She held the child up to examine and tsked when she saw the tiny penis. “So, it’s a boy you are then. Well, lucky you, lad! This chamber pot just got a little rosier for you with that twig between your nethers.” She laughed and pulled the baby to her bosom, spinning and trying to dance in the waves. She was dizzy and weak but she also felt high, like she had been smoking the poppy. She hummed a tune from her childhood in Cork, “Molly Brannigan.”

The baby screamed then slowly calmed himself. “I know,” she said, “as a singer, I’m a bloody fantastic dancer.” He nuzzled into her small breasts and she helped him find a nipple. The child drank eagerly and she could feel him sigh and relax in contentment. “Not much of a meal, I’m afraid, wee lord,” she said. “My milk’s gone dry from my stay in the governor’s digs, but take what you can.”

She looked at the tiny squirming thing in her arms and for a long moment she considered forcing it back under the dark waters until it was still. It had no life worth living at her breast, that was sure and true. She thought back to all that had come before this in her life, and how often she had prayed to never have been, yet here she was. She recalled hearing Mary’s screams a few cells down from her only a month ago, as her own baby arrived. After a time there were only the baby’s screams and Mary was silent. Eventually guards came and took the child and Mary’s body away.

She and Mary had both pled their bellies after the trial when they had been captured along with the other survivors of Calico Jack’s crew. But Mary had found her way to Hell anyway, and she knew it likely that if she tried to flee with a baby at her hip, she would soon be at Mary’s side again. So all reason, all her instincts, told her to drown the child and be on her way.

She glanced up at the moon again. The heavens were no help at all, as silent in their regard as they were beautiful. She sighed and looked down to the face of the baby boy. “You have any notions on this?” she asked. He grunted and released his first shit, dropping it in the ocean. “I couldn’t agree more, lad,” she said with a smile. “How could I drown anyone who already has such a perfect understanding of how all this works?”

She bit the birthing cord free as she walked slowly back to shore, the taste of the infant’s blood mixing with her own, and the brine of the sea, in her mouth. She spat and tied the cord off with a reef knot, muttering as she did, “Right over left, left over right, make a knot both tidy and tight. There you go—your first sailor lesson, my wee lord.”

She was exhausted, cold and starving. She needed to tend to those things and she needed to be off this accursed crown-kissing island by dawn. She tore at her filthy gown and used the fabric to clean and swaddle the baby. Off to her left, down the cove, she could see the silhouette of a town against the brilliant moonlight. There she would find roast pig, and bread and cheese and bitter grog and wine, sweet, sweet wine, and a proper bathtub, and loot, and sails to take her away from here. But first she would need to find steel, and with it gold, to make all the other things possible. She hefted her son, headed toward the sounds and smells of the port and plotted her first crime with her boy as an accomplice.

* * *

It was the devil’s hour when she entered the common room of the Witches’ Wrath. The Wrath was built on top of the corpses of the taverns Port Royal had once had in the golden days before piracy was outlawed on this island, and before the great earthquake had destroyed most of the city. The righteous claimed the quake was the anger of God Almighty, sweeping away the pirate nation and all their blood money had created. She knew well enough, though, that God annihilated saint as easily as sinner and didn’t give a fuck where the tithe came from.

The stink of the place—pungent human smells, the fetor of old ale, all poorly hidden behind the sickly sweet vapors of burning clove—was familiar to her. To her surprise, she found she had missed it, missed the parrots squawking as they drank their fill of ale from discarded flagons, missed the chattering of the monkeys and the booming laughter of the sailors, the tittering of the wenches. A good tavern was all of life on display, a sweating, mumbling, drinking, fighting, fucking museum.

She had acquired clothing—warm breeches, decent, if somewhat-too-large boots, a tunic and a vest. Her greasy red hair fell well below her shoulders. She wore a cocked hat she had crimped off the same fine fellow who had donated the rest of her clothes—he wouldn’t be needing them anymore. She wore the tricorne low, to allow the shadows to hide part of her face, but she made no attempts to pass for a man at present. Her sleeping son was strapped to her chest in a sling she had fashioned from her prison gown. She carried the dead man’s steel, a heavy and well-worn machete, in one hand, and rested the palm of her other hand on the butt of the pistol hanging from the wide sash wrapped about her waist. There was a subtle change in the current of conversation when she entered. Eyes flicked to rest upon her, sizing her up as a victim, weak and ready to be culled, or as one of the hunters. When she felt the attention, sensed the menace, she smiled a little. She was home.

“Port,” she said in the cant, the secret language of the old pirates. She dropped a few Spanish reales on the bar. The tavern keep frowned; then his face lit with surprise, and she knew he had recognized her. He slid the bottle to her. The tavern keep smiled. She saw most of his teeth were black or absent. He deftly pocketed the coins.

“Glad ta see you avoided gitting noozed,” the keep replied in the cant. “Din’t think they could git a rope about that pretty neck, Lady Calico. Too many brains in that skull of yours for the rope to fit about it. Sorry ta hear about your man’s demise.”

She took a long draw off the port. It was the sweetest thing she could recall after a year of stale water and maggoty bread. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “Shit,” she said. “I told Jack I was sorry to see him in the gallows with his lads, but if he’d fought like a man, he wouldn’t have had to hang like a dog.” The tavern keep had a laugh like a cannon going off. “Herodotus Markham? Where is he?” she asked. The tavern keep nodded toward the rear room. An old man with a mane of gray hair, and a tattered red velvet coat, sat on a bench, smoking a pipe.

“Makes his way here every few nights,” the keep said. “He’s dying, but it’s a slow kind o’ dying. Still the smartest man I ever knew—not that all skull music will keep him breathing one more day.”

She slid more silver to him, “For your service, and your silence.” The keep nodded and the coins vanished. She took the bottle and headed for the back of the tavern. A dirty hand shot out of the darkness as she walked past a table of men, grabbing her. “How much you selling the brat for, luv?” Her blade was at the man’s throat before the utterance had finished leaving his lips.

“A damn sight more than I wager you’re willing to pay,” she said. The hand slipped back into the smoky darkness.

“I told you it was her, ya tosspot!” she heard one of the other sailors hiss as she walked on. “Yer damn lucky she didn’t lop your sugar stick off.”

Herodotus Markham looked as he had when she had last seen him just before she, Jack, and Mary had stolen the William. He resembled an old country squire—a gentleman of means who perhaps had fallen on hard times, or maybe had been laid upon by ruffians. His white wig was in disarray with faded ribbons of red still grasping on for dear life to the tail of it. His velvet coat was a deep burgundy marred by stains, faded by the sun and the salt of the sea. The coat had burnt patches and every cuff and collar was frayed. His face sagged like a half-empty sack of potatoes. His florid complexion was a combination of old rouge and too much drink. The only part of him that wasn’t sad was the wicked steel glint in his dark eyes. It was the last place anyone would care to look and the only place that told you this broken-down old man was still very dangerous.

Markham’s face lit up when he saw her. “Rough with black winds and storms,” he recited, “unwanted shall admire.”

“Always charm with you, Dot,” she said, sitting down next to the old man. He hugged her and she returned it. Markham gasped as the baby made a cooing sound from his hammock across her chest.

“A babe!” he exclaimed and she couldn’t help but laugh at his surprise and delight. “Oh my sweet girl! Is it Jack’s?”

“That’s the prevailing theory,” she said, adjusting the infant in his snug hammock. “Best I can figure he would have been conceived just before we took off with the William, or maybe on her.”

“If it was on ship that makes him a true son of a gun,” Markham said, “a sailor-born, just like his mother.”

“I wasn’t conceived on a ship,” she said, taking a long pull off the bottle of port, “more likely the scullery maid’s closet. Da gave Ma the goat’s jig in between her changing linens, sometimes during.”

Markham puffed his long churchwarden pipe and shook his head. “No,” he said, a wreath of tobacco smoke preceding his words “if ever I met someone born to the tides, it was you, Annie. You’re more a sea dog than old Calico Jack, Charlie Vane, or any of their ilk.”

She laughed. “One big difference,” she said, “I’m still breathing.”

“It’s the end of the golden age of the freebooters, lass,” Dot said. “The world will be less legendary, less wild, without them. We’re replacing pirates with politicians.”

“I always found pirates to be a damn sight more honest,” she said. “They tell you up front what they’re going to steal from you.”

The old man chuckled. It turned into a dry, booming cough. “Come to say good-bye, have you, girl?” She knelt and took the old man’s hands in her own.

“Yes, I have to be gone by first light. I need one last favor from you, Dot,” she said. “That chest Jack left with you before we took the William, do you recall it?”

“Aye,” Dot said. “The queer one, painted up with all those strange marks on it. Oh, yes, I recall it well. Sometimes … sometimes at night, I think I hear … singing coming out of it.”

“Singing?”

“A strange language, one I’ve never heard,” he said. “It sounds like a lot of voices, like women.”

“I need it,” she said.

“Of course, love, but are you sure? There’s something damned in that box—it’s the devil singing,” Dot said. “It makes me dream of some steaming, scorching place—of unforgiving heat, of a city made out of … dead things. I think I dreamt of Hell.”

“That box is this baby’s birthright and the final share due me from Jack,” she said. “It will lead me to a big enough score to lay down my sword. Can you fetch it for me, Dot?”

“Of course. Meet you here before dawn?” he asked. She stood and helped the old man to his feet as she did.

“No,” she said. “The north docks, near Fort James and the custom houses.”

“Done,” he said and headed for the door without another word. She got the impression Herodotus was glad to be ridding himself of the box and wanted to waste no time doing so.

She sat back on the bench and took another long sip on the bottle of port. The box was not natural—she knew that—had known it since she and Jack had taken it from the cargo hold of that merchantman headed back to England from Africa. One of Jack’s crew, a Spaniard named Thiago, had jumped from the crow’s nest onto the deck below, screaming of a city of monsters that was eating the dreams out of his skull. He screamed a name as he took his fatal plunge—“Carcosa.”

Both she and Jack had awoken from dreams of the necropolis squatting still and silent in the middle of some verdant, primal place. When they made it to port, they had consulted the smartest man either of them knew—Herodotus. He had no wisdom for them, but promised to keep the box safe.

She never told Jack but she, alone, had a final dream of the bone city. In it she stood in a sunbaked courtyard, vast like an arena. The floor of the place glittered with rubies, millions of them. She stood before a shining statue of a woman, flaring with the light of the bloated red sun. The statue was at the center of the arena, and was made of gold and ivory, diamonds and other precious stones, a king’s fortune a hundred times over, or a queen’s.

She was going to find that city and claim its treasures and its secrets, and she knew, she knew the first step on that path was the box, and then to head for Africa, from which it hailed. Now, sitting alone in the noise and life of the Witches’ Wrath, she recalled the eyes of the statue in her dream. They were terrible, the immortal gaze of a goddess—regarding her, judging her with eyes darker than a murderer’s soul, burning red at their core, hotter than any earthly forge.

She rubbed her eyes, and pushed the memory out of her mind. She realized then how much she wanted a pipe and some good tobacco.

“Now,” she said to the baby slumbering at her breast, “what do I do with you, you little snapper?” She noticed a man sitting alone at a table writing with an inkwell and pen in a ledger, occasionally popping his head up to look about, or to drink from his tankard. He was a slender man, his hair and beard the color of wheat. She rose, and moved toward him.

“Nate?” she said. “Nate Mist? I’ll be a fussock, it is you!” The man turned, frowning at first, but then broke into a wide smile once he recognized her.

“I heard your neck got stretched, Annie,” Mist said. She raised the port in salute and Mist raised his tankard.

“Haven’t found a rope clever enough,” she said. “I’m surprised to see you here. I heard you were back in England—a writer they said.”

“Publisher,” Mist replied. “Oh, and down here I’m going by Charles Johnson these days—Captain Charles Johnson. Ran into a spot of trouble back home. Thought I’d travel a bit and see if I could finish my research on the history of pirates I’m writing.”

“Well, ‘Captain,’” she said, laughing and taking another drink, “I’m a walking, talking expert on that lot.”

“That you are,” Mist said. He flipped to a fresh page in his ledger and dipped his pen in the inkwell. “Let me ask you about…”

“You’ll make a pretty bob off me and all my dead mates, won’t you, Nate?” Mist began to answer, but she waved her free hand to dismiss his reply as she sat at his table. “I’ll give it all to you, mate—you were always a good lad back then—always an honest sea dog. I’ll tell you the tale of the last days of Calico Jack and his crew. How old Eddie Teach supped with the devil and stole some of his cursed gold for himself. I’ll tell you the story of how we came across this great metal vessel the size of a hundred galleons! How it traveled under the waves and was captained by a mad genius.”

Mist leaned forward, frantically scribbling in his ledger.

“I’ll tell you the time I was stricken by the black mark—the one all pirates fear,” she went on, knowing she had Mist now, her eyes locked on his, her voice weaving her stories tight about him, “and how I had to filch wine from Neptune himself to dodge that curse. You want to know about the island where immortal cannibal children are led by a ten-thousand-year-old boy who has no shadow? I’ll give all the secrets of the pirates and the worlds they’ve been brave enough to sail through to you and you alone—enough for a hundred books—but first I want you to swear an oath to me, and do me a service, Nate. I want you to swear it on that god of yours that keeps getting you in so much trouble back home.”

“What’s the favor, Anne?” Mist asked.

She set the bottle on the table and slid her arms around and under the baby. “This,” she said. “Take him to my da in Charles Town, Oyster Point.”

“Carolina? The colonies?” Mist said. “I was thinking of sailing north in a few days. Why don’t you just go yourself?”

“I have something to tend to first,” she said. “You tell my father to keep him safe and I’ll be along once I’m finished.” She placed a bag of coins before Mist on the table. “For him and for you. Do you swear you’ll keep him safe and deliver him to my kin?”

Mist looked at the baby’s face, then to hers. “I swear it,” he said. They spit in their palms and shook to seal the oath. “Now,” she said, “let me start by telling you about the Secret Sea.…”

* * *

Night was unraveling in the East; threads of pink, orange and indigo frayed where the sky met sea. Herodotus hobbled along with the small chest. Sailors, eagerly preparing to leave with the morning tide, darted past the old man. There were shouts, curses, songs and orders in a dozen languages, all along the crowded row of docks and piers. Markham turned to look about and found himself facing a slender sailor, a man, his face shadowed with dirt that hinted at a beard. His long red hair was tied in a ponytail, the rest under a cocked hat. He wore a vest and tunic, a heavy blade and pistol held fast by a sash around his waist, breeches and boots. A ditty bag was hung over the man’s shoulder. The sailor smiled and Dot finally recognized her.

“You’re damned good at that, lass,” he said, keeping his voice low. She laughed and even that had a rough, male sound to it.

“Lots of practice.” She nodded to the box. “Thanks, Dot.” He handed her the oddly painted wooden cask and she held it with both hands. “My ship is off in a few moments.”

“You be careful with that twice-damned thing,” Herodotus said. “Where’s the boy?”

“Safe and on his way to my family in the colonies,” she said. “Here,” she said, handing him a purse full of coins. She had managed to increase her dwindling stolen stakes with a few games of bones on the docks while waiting for Dot. “There’s a ship leaving later today for the Carolina colony,” she said. “You remember Nate Mist? He’s a passenger aboard, and I’ve secured you passage as well. Nate has my boy, taking him to my da. I’d consider it a kindness if you’d accompany them and see to my boy until I return.”

“Nate’s a good man,” Markham said, nodding. He took the purse. “Very well, perhaps the change in climate will be good for what ails me.”

“Thank you,” she said. “And don’t worry. I’m taking this thing home, scoring one last haul of loot, and then I’m quits with this freebooter life.”

Herodotus laughed until he began coughing again. “I’ll believe that when I bloody see it,” he said. “You’re born to this, Annie, moon and tide, steel and gold.”

“Well, I’m retiring to be a proper lady,” she said with a grin. “One of goddamned means, to boot. Good-bye, Dot. Take good care of yourself and my lad.” They shook hands and she began to head for the gangplank of one of the ships.

“And good luck to you too, Lady…” Herodotus paused. “Anne, what the hell do I call you now? Lady Rackham? Cormac? What?”

She turned and gave the old pirate sage a wink. “I always liked my married name,” she said, “liked it better than I liked the fucking marriage. I’ll stick with that one, I think.”

“Fair enough,” Herodotus said. “Then good luck to you, Lady Bonny.”

2

The Queen of Swords

Northern Utah

December 5, 1870

(One hundred and forty-nine years later)

The train rumbled through the badlands, the ancient, snow-silvered mountains indifferent to its blustering advance. The Transcontinental Railroad was the great artery, the road connecting civilization to the wilderness, to the frontier.

With the planting of a single golden spike, a flurry of speeches, pomp and circumstance, the track had been made whole, and the gateway to the mythical West swung open. Alter Cline, sitting in the mostly empty passenger car, foresaw the railroad’s recent completion as a harbinger of death for that very myth.

Cline was twenty-four. His black hair fell to his shoulders in ringlets, parted on the side. He sported thick, stylish sideburns. Alter possessed a wiry, slender build with long legs. He stood a hair over six feet. His brown eyes were expressive and intelligent, and currently they were fixed on the striking woman sitting near the center of the passenger car.

The woman was traveling unchaperoned, which was queer. She was quite unaware of his notice, Alter was certain. Her hair was auburn, shot through with red-gold and silver strands. It was long, but she wore it up, away from her face, in a tight bun. Her skin was pale, her wrists small and delicate. Her figure was slight, and her overall appearance not the sort that would capture a man’s second glance in a crowd or a busy street. However, there was something—something that hid in this woman beneath her surface appearance. Alter enjoyed the mystery, the parlor game of guessing who she was, why she was here, where she had come from.

The mental exercise helped Cline take his mind off his unease that this untamed place, this magnificent frontier, was living on borrowed time. He was happy to be headed back to New York, but there was a freedom, a spirit awake in these wild lands, something that slept in a lot of people back East. He’d miss that rawness, that primal feeling once he was home—not that there weren’t a few neighborhoods in New York City that he was sure the toughest cow-puncher or gunslinger would find daunting.

It troubled him to think that when this frontier was gone perhaps that raw part of the human spirit would die with it. However, what he had witnessed out on the plains suggested that the same old human stains—greed, cruelty, callous indifference—traveled hand-in-hand with our primal selves wherever, whenever we go. It gave him grim reassurance that mankind was far from domesticated just yet. It made Cline wonder, too, that perhaps “civilized” people didn’t respect the freedom and the splendor out here enough to deserve it, or keep it.

He had been sent out by his editor to cover the brisk expansion in the business of buffalo skinning, as a perfect example of man’s knack for destroying wonder. It wasn’t truly buffaloes that blackened the plains in their vast numbers, that made the ground shudder like thunder in their passing, but bison. Not that those killing them in the hundreds of thousands and leaving their skinned corpses to rot on the plains, leaving sun-bleached mountains of wide, horned skulls, cared a damn about the semantics of what they were killing.

Alter had ridden out with a skinning crew for several weeks, chronicling their lives and gory, lonely work. He had lived and worked as one of them, though they joked he had no stomach for it. The demands for the hides back East were bringing more and more men, mostly restless young soldiers from the war, out to the frontier.

Alter understood that gnawing restlessness all too well, an unseen wound of the war. It was like a metal spring—humming, made of bright, warm brass—wound too tight inside you. He had felt it after the war. Sitting in one place too long would wind the spring tighter, make it snap from the tension. A soft bed, a quiet meal, silence in the darkness could fill him with a tension that he could not voice or explain to anyone who had not seen the elephant, and men did not speak of such things to one another in polite conversation. Men didn’t speak of it at all, if they could.

The pressure, the restlessness, was one of the reasons, perhaps the primary reason Alter had taken the position offered to him by The Herald. It afforded him the opportunity to travel—movement, the hint of action, those things seemed to unwind the bright coil within him. His parents, who had objected to him joining the Union Army, objected to him working for the newspaper too. They thought it unseemly, cheap and far beneath him. He didn’t care; he loved it.

Alter had used the trip West for the buffalo piece as an excuse to work on a second story, one he thought even more indicative of the dark side of the great frontier. Chinese railroad workers for Union Pacific were making thirty-two dollars a month in wages compared to the fifty-two dollars their white peers earned, and this was causing a row among those whites seeking work, and a growing anti-Chinese sentiment that the immigrants were unfairly competing for jobs. Alter had seen this less as an insidious plot by immigrants and more of an underhanded act by the Rail Barons to exploit cheap labor from an alien people far from home and with no protection or advocates.

He hoped he could convince his editors to run both stories; however, The Herald had a reputation for leaning a bit to the nativist ideology of the Know-Nothing Party. Still, he was bringing back an adventure tale of roughing it on the incomprehensibly vast plains. He had even sketched a few decent drawings of the mighty bison to include in the tale. The public back home was eager for any stories of the Wild West. Alter thought he had a chance of getting the labor story out, before things got truly ugly for the Chinese, by piggybacking it on a ripping yarn about cowboys.

Alter opened his copy of Around the Moon and tried to read again, but his attention kept drifting back to the woman. There was … something, something about her—about her bearing—that fascinated him. Whatever it was, it made it very hard for Cline to focus on Monsieur Verne’s prose. He used his skills as an investigator and professional observer to remain unobtrusive, and the lady’s continued lack of notice seemed to indicate he was doing a fine job.

A few aisles away, the object of Alter Cline’s attentions watched the Utah mountains drift pass her window. Maude Stapleton felt the young man’s eyes moving over her. He was trying very hard to be discreet, behind his book, and to untrained eyes he was doing a fine job, but there were few upon the Earth with senses as keen as Maude’s.

Maude’s mind drifted to Constance, her daughter, and to Martin, her father, and to all that lay ahead of her. That made her think of Mutt, of Golgotha, and of what she was leaving behind. She was pulled from her thoughts by the young man’s eyes, as insistent to her as if he had tapped her on the shoulder and cleared his throat.

The attention was pleasant and, if she allowed it, her blood would act of its own accord and produce a physiologic reaction, and she would blush. Maude decided it was best not to encourage the stranger, so she didn’t blush. She had only allowed herself that freedom, that dizzy abandonment—out of control of her body and emotions—with one living man, and this train was taking her farther and farther away from him, possibly forever.

Maude did not consider herself a woman who attracted notice; in fact, she had been taught how to blend in, not even becoming a memory in the minds of others. However, the young man seemed rather focused in his attention on her. Her features might be called plain, handsome, or mannish by some men. Maude could give less than a damn what “some men” thought.

Besides herself and her admirer, a Chinese family—a husband, wife and their two small children—were the only occupants of the passenger car. When Maude had boarded the train at Hazen, the closest train station to Golgotha, the conductor, a corpulent man, sweating in his heavy, dark-blue coat with fancy brass buttons, had tried to roust the Chinese from the car.

“Don’t you worry your pretty little head, ma’am,” the conductor said, brandishing a wooden truncheon at the obviously terrified family, “I’ll chase these coolies straight back to the nigger car. They won’t give you a lick of trouble.”

The father stood, about to interpose himself between this ugly little man and his family. Maude caught his eye and silently entreated him for patience. She turned to the conductor.

“I’m sure that will not be necessary,” she said as she shifted her body language and vocal tone with the conductor, locking eyes with the odious creature. “You are a kind man, a merciful man, someone of great power and responsibilities. I can see that in your manner and bearing, sir. Obviously, such a menial chore is far beyond a man of your importance, isn’t it?”

“Er, I mean to say … yes?” the conductor muttered. He found himself absently nodding with each subtle movement of this woman’s head, her hands. Maude’s voice was gently playing upon his nerves like she might pluck the strings of a harp.

“In fact, don’t you think it’s best they stay here with me, where they won’t distress the other passengers?” In the end, the man had thought it his own idea, which was precisely what Maude had intended.

“Thank you,” the father had said, in English, as the conductor lumbered away, very pleased with himself. “We are returning to New York to work in my uncle’s business. My job on the railroad is complete. I did not know we were not allowed…”

“It’s a foolish rule, created by foolish people,” Maude replied in one of the Yue dialects of Chinese that Gran had taught her. “He won’t trouble you again. I hope you and your family enjoy your trip.” One of the children, the little boy, looked at her in amazement, having never heard the language of his parents coming out of a white person’s mouth before. Maude smiled. The little boy waved and Maude waved back. The boy hid his face in his mother’s lap and giggled.

The young man watching her had come aboard at one of the stations sometime later and began his furtive surveillance of Maude. In her own assessment of the young man, she noted that his clothing was of good quality. They spoke of some means but were not the clothes of the idle wealthy. He was obviously a working man in a field that left his hands smooth, but he had done a spot of rough work recently, and he had the blisters to show for it. She also saw in him the bearing of a man trained for war, but now looser, mostly relaxed or forgotten. He still carried the stress of combat in his lower spine, and that would catch up to him one day. He was handsome, though, she had to admit.

Gran entered Maude’s mind unbidden, swaggering, as she usually did. Maude knew what Gran would say about her admirer, if she were still alive. She’d cackle like one of Macbeth’s witches and say something like, “Go on, lass, have a go at ’im! Get all hot cockles with the pretty boy. Life is too damn short for mooning about and playing it safe. Nobody gets out of this world alive, ’cept for me, of course!”

The ghost she had summoned made her smile, and the young man almost dropped his book in response to it. Maude nearly laughed, but she lowered her eyes and held her composure.

The car’s rear door opened with a bang, and a group of men entered the compartment. There were seven of them. They were dirty with trail dust, and they reeked of the sweat of their horses and their own bodies, of leather and gun oil. All of them were armed—six-guns and knives; some carried rifles and shotguns too. They slowly advanced down the car’s center aisle. The leader, a burly man with a thick red beard and hooded eyes full of coiled violence, nodded to two of his men. They responded by dropping back from the pack and lingering near the rear door. The menace from them radiated like heat.

Maude silently prepared herself for what she knew was coming, had to come. She adjusted her posture subtly from one of avoiding notice to that intended to attract the eye, drawing the crew’s attention toward her and away from the immigrant family and the young man.

She altered her breathing, preparing for a fight with a fast-fast rhythm of breath—drawing on her abdominal muscles—just as she had been taught. She had practiced different styles of breathing for different purposes over many years and under a harsh teacher. Again she heard Gran’s cackle, saw the old woman beside the ocean with her wadaiko—her Japanese drum—on her lap, calling the tunes Maude’s muscles and lungs learned to obey.

“There is no learning before you learn to breathe proper, girl,” Gran had told her. “Technique’s called by many names in many lands. The Japanese call it Ibuki, and it’s the first step in making you truly free. The air in your lungs is the fuel.”

Her blood was filled with oxygen, now. Maude was ready. The menacing men were armed and, now, so was she.

“Excuse me,” the young man said, standing before her. “If I am not being too bold, may I join you?” He was pretty, to be sure. He was also the master of the worst possible timing imaginable.

“Of course,” Maude said, directing him to a seat with a nod, “please.”

“I’m not normally in the habit of being so forward,” Alter said as he sat, “but I was concerned.” He leaned closer and lowered his voice. “Those b’hoys coming in the car look like trouble, and a lady like yourself traveling alone…”

“That’s very kind of you, Mr.…”

“Cline,” he said, “Alter Cline.”

The men walked past Maude and Alter. She saw their brutal intent radiating from the tension in how they moved, ready for trouble, to explode, with every step. Cline was turning to face them—the worst possible thing he could do. The men each gave her a rapacious glance as they passed and then saw the grim look on Alter’s face. One of the men stopped before Cline and began to say something, his hand dropping to his six-gun. Maude placed a hand lightly on Cline’s shoulder and Alter suddenly shifted back toward her, a surprised look on his face. For such a slip of a woman, she seemed quite strong.

“If you want to stay alive, Mr. Cline, be still,” she said, whispering. Cline began to open his mouth. “And quiet,” she added.

“Leave this dude be,” one of the gunmen muttered to his kinsman whom Alter had riled, “We’re on a schedule. ’Sides, Nick and Jed will see to ’em. Shake a leg.”

The group of armed men opened the car’s front door. They stepped through, man by man. The leader looked back at the two men waiting in Maude’s car. He nodded to them and stepped through the door, shutting it behind him.

“Damn it,” Maude muttered. Only Cline heard her. The younger of the two gunmen, close to Cline’s age and with a lump of tobacco in his cheek, walked toward Maude and Cline. He paused, rested his hand on his holstered gun and looked Maude over like he was examining horseflesh to purchase.

“Well, ain’t you a little stick of an adventuress,” the boy said, laughing. The man by the rear door laughed, too, and turned toward the Chinese family. Maude’s face remained emotionless.

“She’s gotta be a whore, if’n she’s ridin’ in a car with these here yeller niggers, Nick,” the gunman, obviously Jed, said. He cradled a Winchester rifle as he looked at the husband and his family.

Nick grinned. His teeth were brown and stained. He looked over to Cline, who was reddening in response to the coarse words. “I hope you didn’t pay this scrawny little thing too much for her to upend her legs, boy. Or maybe you’re her pimp?”

“You filthy…” Cline growled. The reporter began to rise, his fists clenched. Nick drew his six-gun—a fluid motion as natural to the man as breathing. Nick cocked the pistol aimed at the young man’s face. Alter Cline was a dead man.

Alter and Nick were scarcely able to fully comprehend what happened next. The muscles in Nick’s arm, wrist and hand fluttered in response to the command of his brain to pull the trigger, the quicksilver language of nerves and electrical impulses. Maude’s eyes registered the movements; her body responded faster than thought allowed. Maude’s arm flashed out and clutched Nick’s wrist with a grip like iron. Her other hand chopped at his arm precisely above the elbow. Nick’s gun arm folded, the gun turned upward toward his face as he pulled the trigger. The sound of the .44 was a hammer shattering the world. Alter jumped back, his eyes squeezing shut, anticipating a spray of hot blood. It didn’t come. Nick crumpled to the floor. As he fell, Maude caught his still-smoking revolver. She flipped the gun in midair, clutching it by the hot barrel. She turned, using the strength of her pivoting hips as she hurled the gun at Jed like a tomahawk. Jed, just beginning to realize what was happening, raised his weapon. Nate’s six-gun caught him square in the face. There was a gush of blood from his shattered nose, and he collapsed in a heap against the train car’s rear door.

“How … how did you … do that?” Alter asked, looking down at Nick’s motionless form. “Is he…”

“Dead?” Maude stepped out into the aisle over Nick’s body. “No. The bullet grazed his chin, just knocked him out. The other one is alive too.” She knelt by Nick, tore a strip from her dress, and began to bind his hands behind his back. Alter looked out the window, so as to not gawk at the flash of Maude’s exposed leg. Nick groaned.

“Oh,” Alter said. “I’ve never seen anyone move that fast before. How—”

“We really don’t have time for that,” Maude said, moving down the aisle toward the other gunman and the Chinese family. “If it makes you feel better, you can consider it a lucky accident—a hysterical woman’s thrashing about that had a fortuitous outcome.”

“I will do no such thing,” Alter said. He knelt by Nick and examined the odd-looking but sturdy knot Maude had used to bind him. He did not recognize its make. “You are in complete control of your faculties, madame, and furthermore, your quick action saved my life. Thank you.”

Maude paused in tying the other outlaw up to look back at Alter. She looked mildly surprised and smiled. “You’re … quite welcome.”

“That smile,” Alter said, standing and adjusting his puff tie. “I imagine it gets you in a lot of trouble.”

“Apparently so,” Maude said as she stood. She handed Nick and Jed’s bloody revolvers to the immigrant father. She said something to him in Chinese that Alter didn’t understand. The father replied in his native tongue and took the guns. Maude knelt to retrieve the rifle. She spoke quietly to the little boy and ruffled his hair. His expression changed from fear to a smile. Maude stood and tossed the Winchester across the car to Alter. He caught it, and cocked the lever, chambering a round.

“You were in the army, and you know your way around a rifle, better than most,” Maude said. She was putting on Jed’s coat now and was tying his kerchief around her neck loosely. She walked past Cline, headed toward the door the rest of the outlaw crew had passed through.

“Yes,” Alter said. “But how on Earth could you possibly know that? Wait, I know, ‘no time.’”

“You’re a quick study, good,” Maude said.

She paused by the door and tore her dress in the front and back, giving herself enough freedom to run. Alter instinctively looked away again at the pale, bare skin. She tied the loose pieces of the brown dress together at each ankle—it now looked like she was wearing baggy ripped trousers. “Alter, I need you to backtrack, check the cars behind ours. See if they left any more men behind. If they did, I need you to deal with them, understand? Can you do that?”

“Yes,” Alter said, looking back at the rear door. “Where are you going?”

Maude slid the kerchief over her mouth and nose and tightened it. She picked up Nick’s floppy-brimmed felt hat from the floor and stuffed it on her head. Something in her posture, her way of walking, changed, and for an instant, Alter thought he was looking at a completely different person. “I’m going forward to do the same. Disarm these two completely before you head back.”

“I thought you already did,” he said.

“Nick has a knife in his left boot. This one has a parlor gun tucked in his vest pocket,” she said. Even her voice sounded different now, deeper—more like a man’s. “Be careful.”

“How do you know th—” Alter began. The car’s front door banged shut behind Maude. “The people you meet on the train, eh?” Alter said to the bewildered family as he pulled the blade from Nick’s boot.

* * *

Outside the passenger car the winter wind was bitter as the train sped along at over forty miles an hour. Maude directed the blood within her body, willing it to act against the decrees of biology. Her skin warmed. The condensation of her breath that had trailed away from her mouth in silvered streams vanished.

She crossed the narrow gap between the train cars, hearing the coupler, which held the cars together, clatter beneath her. The window on the door to the next car was painted in frost, so she crouched by the door and placed her palms against it.

The vibrations of the train car, the rattling, shaking song of the distant engine, became part of her. She closed her eyes and breathed through the filter of the outlaw’s filthy bandanna. Her senses began to reorder themselves—some growing still and silent, others opening wider … wider. She felt the pulse of the train, the hum of motion and vibration, the rhythm and pattern, and then she began to assign each pattern a distinctive identity.

One of the many games Gran had played with her when she was a young girl had involved three hard, thick, identical wooden boxes. She had to tell which box held the hornet’s nest by touch alone, by letting her hands drink in the vibrations and motion. Then she was to open the two boxes that didn’t hold the hornets. She had been stung so many times learning the game, but like all of Gran’s games, it served a purpose. Now Maude was thankful for the painful lesson. “Good!” Gran had said, clapping, when Maude had mastered the game, “Now, girl, tell me exactly how many hornets are in that nest…”

The vibrations that were counter to the heartbeat of the train were people—one was five feet north of her, on the other side of the door, the other twenty feet farther away—two more gunmen, pacing. The other counter vibrations were lesser and ordered in their locations—seated passengers, about fifteen. She could afford no mistakes in this or people would die.

The outlaw by her door was facing away from her now. She had felt the wobble in his vibration, the subtle shift of his weight as he turned to face his comrade and the passengers. She stayed low and leaned in as she swung the door open violently. Maude’s leg shot out like a snake striking and swept both of the outlaw’s legs. The gunman fell hard on his face. Maude was up and moving, a blur. As she stepped over the fallen man, she drove a well-placed heel into a cluster of nerves at the base of his spine. The man moaned in pain but then was abruptly silent—he’d be powerless to move for at least thirty minutes.

His companion was twenty feet away and less than a second from firing his pistol at Maude’s heart. The passengers were screaming and shouting, just beginning to comprehend the stimuli their brains were receiving. Maude launched herself off the paralyzed man, using his body like a ramp.

Her eyes read the language of the gunman’s muscles as the pistol barked. In midair she twisted, tumbled, changing her trajectory using the canvas support straps mounted vertically above the seats along the length of the car. Angry, buzzing heat fluttered past her cheek as she came down feet-first on the outlaw’s chest. Her legs folded and she followed him to the floor. With a single strike from the heel of her palm, she knocked him out.

“Thank the Almighty for you, stranger!” one of the passengers said as Maude stood.

“I’ve never seen a body move like that, fella,” another man said, starting to rise. “You with the carnival or circus or something?”

Maude moved quickly past them toward the next door. Four down, three to go. She pointed toward the forward car door. “The other men who went this way,” she asked, her voice still disguised as a man’s. “Did they say anything, anything at all?”

“They said something about the mail car and then coming back to fleece us,” a woman said, her children clinging to her. “The Lord be with you, brave sir.”

“Disarm these men,” Maude said. “Bind them. Stay here until you hear something from the conductor or the engineer. Any of the others come back, shoot them.”

“Don’t you need a gun?” one of the men called out, picking up one of the outlaw’s pistols.

“What for?” Maude asked. She was through the next door and gone.

* * *

Connolly “Big Tooth” McGrath held the shotgun to the head of the postal clerk in the mail car. The boy had wet himself when they had shot through the door and now was on his hands and knees, shaking like a sick dog. “I know you got the damn key to the lock box,” McGrath told the clerk. He gestured with the still-hot scattergun toward the mostly headless body of the other clerk that lay beside the locked and chained heavy metal chest. “He thought he’d play at hero, too, and you see what that got him.”

“They didn’t give me a key in case something like this happened!” the clerk screamed, looking down at the blood-soaked floor. “I’m no hero!”

McGrath stroked his heavy red beard and sniffed the air, catching the stench of gun smoke and piss. Even with the cold December air whistling through the car, it still reeked of fear. “Clearly,” he said. “Well, then,” McGrath said, addressing his two men—one gathering up the canvas sacks of postage, the other standing watch by the now-destroyed rear door. “I guess we blast the chains off the chest and carry it, then. That means we don’t need you, hero, so say so-long to your hat rest.”

McGrath glanced up at his men. The one by the door had vanished. There was a rapidly diminishing scream, then a sound like meat hitting the tracks at forty miles an hour. The scream stopped.

“What the hell?” McGrath snapped his head toward his other conspirator. The outlaw’s motionless body was slumped on a mattress of scattered mail sacks. A masked man stood beside the body, a postage envelope in the stranger’s hand. “Who the fuck are you?” McGrath asked.

“Postmaster General,” Maude said in her counterfeit male voice. “You’re in a great deal of trouble.”

“I don’t care if you’re General fuckin’ Forrest!” McGrath shouted. “You picked the wrong desperado to mess with, stranger.” He brought up the shotgun, leveling it at the masked man. Maude flicked her wrist, and the letter whizzed across the room accompanied by a snapping sound. McGrath felt a sharp sting at his wrist, and his trigger finger no longer worked. He strained, but the finger drooped in the trigger guard. He struggled to shift the gun to his other hand, now seeing a slender line of his blood trailing from the wrist of his gun hand. He never had a chance to complete the task before Maude crossed the room, grabbed the shotgun barrel, and jerked downward on it. The butt of the gun caught McGrath in the face, and he collapsed in a heap.

“There any more?” Maude asked the terrified clerk.

“N … no,” the clerk said. “Whoever you are, thank you. I was sure I was dead, like … like Henry over there.”

“He’ll never shoot anyone with that hand ever again,” Maude said, picking up the letter from the floor and dropping it back into the pile of mail.

“Are you a passenger?” the clerk asked. There was no reply. The masked stranger was gone.

* * *

The train halted on the tracks near Promontory. The robbers were bound and gathered together by the train’s crew, then forced into one of the passenger cars and guarded at gunpoint. The passengers were all taken off the train while it was searched to make sure no additional members of McGrath’s crew had escaped notice. Alter, rifle still in hand, was talking with the conductor and the engineer.

“We were damned lucky you were on the train, Mr. Cline,” said the engineer, a balding man in greasy coveralls. “You have any clue who that masked fella was? He seems to have vanished just as quickly as he showed up.”

“And we didn’t even get a chance to thank him,” added the burly conductor, still managing to sweat in the numbing cold.

Cline glanced over his shoulder toward the throng of passengers milling about, cussing and complaining about the cold. He spotted Maude standing in the cluster of Negro and Chinese passengers. She had removed Jed’s coat and wrapped it around the two shivering Chinese kids. Somehow, she had managed to replace her skirt with an undamaged one, and she looked like she was shivering, just like the other passengers, but Cline noted no line of visible breath trailing from her lips. Maude’s eyes found Cline’s, and she nodded to him. He nodded back, and that hint of a smile returned to her face. Cline looked back to the engineer and conductor.

“Not even a notion, I’m afraid, gentlemen,” Cline said. “I suppose I’ll chalk it up to another mystery of the West.”

“At least you’ll get a hell of a story out of it,” the conductor said. Cline looked back toward Maude. She had vanished.

“Yes,” Cline said, “that I shall.”


Copyright © 2017 by Rod Belcher