Read Dead Reckoning Online

Authors: Mercedes Lackey,Rosemary Edghill

Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Horror & Ghost Stories, #Westerns

Dead Reckoning (10 page)

Quickly skimming the last several years of the paper, Gibbons discovered that what had happened to Alsop, far from being an isolated incident, was merely the latest in a long series of puzzling incidents. Entire homesteads had been going missing in the surrounding area for at least two years. The first occurrence had involved a hermit whose name (according to the paper) was “Spanish Pete.” Reverend Southey had discovered his absence as he went to make a monthly delivery of supplies. After that, a new disappearance was recorded every fortnight or so, though none of them had been extensive enough to attract out-of-state attention. In every case, Mister Harrison reported the event not
as an unexplained disappearance, but as a “leaving for greener pastures.” That wasn’t surprising: every single episode following that of Spanish Pete had involved a homesteader, a sodbuster, or a sheep-farmer—all people the ranchers would be happy to see gone.

Then the cattle drive vanished—cattle, cowhands, chuck wagon, and all. The
Yell and Cry
had published two editions since then. The first devoted a page and a half to the disappearance. Mister Harrison’s editorial called for the return of law and justice to Menard County—and the return of the cattle to their owners. The following week, the
Yell and Cry
ran a full-page editorial excoriating Sheriff Mitchell and calling for his removal from office if something wasn’t done. It said Sheriff Mitchell put the blame on Indians “to conceal his incompetence in bringing this matter to a swift and favorable resolution.”

If he did, he didn’t record any such notion in his Charge Book,
Gibbons observed thoughtfully. And while Ahasuerus P. Harrison might think the homesteaders had just moved somewhere else for the convenience of the ranchers, Gibbons did not. There were simply too many of them—every small homestead in an area covering almost three thousand square miles.
Even at the most conservative estimate of the numbers per homestead, that’s at least a hundred people. It seems to me that whoever attacked Alsop last night started small, with those the
people in power—the ranchers—would be glad to see gone. But whoever is behind this must have seen that Sheriff Mitchell would investigate soon, and struck first.

Jett’s description of “zombies” didn’t quite jibe with that motive. But Gibbons knew perfectly well there was a long history of whites dressing as Indians to commit crimes and place the blame elsewhere. It was possible the “zombies” were simply an ingenious variation on that tactic. Certainly terrifying one’s victims would be a good way to discourage resistance.

She checked her watch. It was time to keep her appointment at the telegraph office. Perhaps her father had information that would help her unravel this mystery.

CHAPTER FOUR

The “prayer meeting” finally drew to a close, though Jett didn’t think it fairly deserved the name. There hadn’t been any prayers—despite what Brother Raymond had said—or even hymn-singing (despite the presence of the pipe organ in the corner). The entire event had been nothing more than a long unnerving harangue from Brother Shepherd. She supposed you could call it a sermon if you were feeling charitable, but she’d been to more than a few services offered by “holiness movement” settlements. There was usually singing. And more than one person preaching.

Maybe this was just an everyday holiness meeting. Maybe they have more churchly services on Sundays.
She
wanted to believe that, but the combination of Brother Shepherd’s description of “the army of the Blessed Resurrected” and his knowledge of Alsop’s destruction wouldn’t let her. He
could
have ridden to Alsop and back before she and White Fox had reached Jerusalem’s Wall today. But why would he? And White Fox would have seen the fresh tracks.
I’ll be just as glad to give this place the air
, she thought. She’d slip out after dinner. There was no way she could bolt just now without raising suspicion.

When she followed Brother Raymond back to the dining room, the men sat down while the women headed for the kitchen. Jett hung back in order to sit as far from Brother Shepherd as she could. Some of the women returned immediately with plates and cutlery and began setting the tables. A place wasn’t set for Brother Shepherd at all. Once the tables were set, the women sat down at one of the other tables. Apparently men and women didn’t eat together at Jerusalem’s Wall.

Supper consisted of beef and bean stew, tortillas, and pitchers containing “Revelation” herb tea and water. The table settings were the cheapest kind of tinware, and the pitchers were clay, but when the food was brought out, a silver pitcher and a crystal glass were set at Brother Shepherd’s place. Jett expected a prayer to start the meal, but all that happened was that Brother
Shepherd filled his glass with some kind of pale amber liquid and everyone fell to.

The portions were generous—whatever else was going on at Jerusalem’s Wall, they didn’t stint on the victuals—and Jett expected at least to find the meal palatable, if not enjoyable. But one spoonful of stew was all she needed to discover it was as awful as the herb tea had been.
No salt. There’s no seasoning in anything here. That’s why they’re serving tortillas. Bread needs salt to rise …

Which was when she remembered something else from Tante Mère’s ghost stories. Salt would kill a zombie. It was one of the few things that could. Well, not kill it, precisely, since they were already dead, but Tante Mère said the taste of salt reminded the creatures of who and what they had been when alive, and they would either turn on their creator or lie down and die again.

Or both.

Every hair on her body stood straight up, or tried to. She began to calculate, urgently, just how fast she could get herself out of here.

“So, Mister Gallatin, what brings you to Jerusalem’s Wall?” Brother Shepherd set down his tumbler and regarded her inquisitively.

“Just passing through,” Jett answered. She felt a surge of panic, since for a moment she couldn’t remember
what she’d told Brother Raymond, and she knew he and Brother Shepherd would have compared notes. “Looking for work, I guess, but mostly looking for news of my brother.”

“Perhaps we’ve seen him,” Brother Shepherd said smoothly. “What’s his name?”

“Um … Horace,” Jett answered. “Horace Gallatin.” She didn’t know why she lied. It couldn’t matter if she gave either “Philip” or “Jasper” as her brother’s name. But somehow she didn’t want to tell more truth to Brother Shepherd than she absolutely had to. “He’s got my look to him,” she added reluctantly.

“No, he hasn’t stopped here,” Brother Shepherd said, shaking his head. “You’re more than welcome to join our Fellowship, though.”

“But you will have to renounce your ways of violence if you do so,” Brother Raymond announced. “They have no place here at Jerusalem’s Wall.”

“I’m a man of peace,” Jett protested mildly.

“Who carries a gun,” Brother Raymond said harshly.

“Any feller goin’ as a sheep among wolves in these parts is going to find himself skinned,” Jett answered inarguably. “I’m not especially fond of the idea of dyin’ so some varmint can—can lead himself further into sin.”

She couldn’t tell whether Brother Shepherd believed her or not, but her act of desperation turned out to be
an inspired one. Brother Raymond wasn’t the trusting sort, and she couldn’t get any kind of a read on Brother Shepherd, but now some of the other brethren joined the conversation. In response to their comments, she spun a story that contained a little truth and a lot of what she’d just heard Brother Shepherd preach. Part of it was Philip’s story. She knew she looked far too young to have fought in the War of Northern Aggression, but her twin brother hadn’t been too young to go with the regiment as its drummer boy. Jett claimed to have been sickened by what she’d seen, and to have returned home after the war to find her family scattered. She said she’d known “Horace” had gone to Texas—as so many soldiers of the Confederacy had—and so she’d followed him, only to be shocked at the sin and lawlessness she encountered here.

“I’m right glad to hear about Alsop,” she added. “Once Sister Agatha told me you folks weren’t looking to take on a new hand, I figured to push on into town. But it sounds like the kind of place I’d rather steer clear of. Guess I’ll head on up north instead.”

“A wise plan,” Brother Shepherd said. “You’re welcome to stop here overnight,” he added.

“Brother Shepherd will be Witnessing again before supper. We might even be privileged to receive a Revelation!” Brother Reuben added enthusiastically. He was
the youngest man at the table, and Jett was willing to believe that whatever was going on among the Fellowship of the not-so-Divine Resurrection, Brother Reuben was wholly innocent of it.

To her relief, the meal was quickly over. Jett hadn’t been able to force herself to eat more than a few bites, though the others had emptied their bowls. When Brother Shepherd rose to his feet, it seemed to be a signal. Everyone else stood as well, and the women began to clear the tables.

“Figure I’ll unsaddle my horse and turn him out if I’m staying,” Jett said, picking up her hat and moving toward the doorway. She didn’t add—as she would have otherwise—that she could just go ahead and put her gear wherever she’d be sleeping. Somebody might follow her to show her the way, and that was the last thing she wanted.

She settled her hat on her head as she stepped outside. The sight of Nightingale waiting patiently for her was the sweetest thing she’d seen in a long time. With a few quick strides she reached his side and tucked a toe into the stirrup. A second later she’d vaulted into the saddle and was heading up the ranch road at a brisk gallop. She didn’t care what the Fellowship thought about her abrupt departure: she never meant to come back here if she could help it.

Once she was well away from the compound, she headed for the stand of pines she and White Fox had used earlier to spy on Jerusalem’s Wall. She’d told White Fox she’d wait for him back in the pines, but what she’d do if he didn’t show up by dusk, she didn’t know. The sound of hoofbeats behind her made her put a nervous hand on her pistol, but to her relief, it was only White Fox and Deerfoot. She brought Nightingale to a halt and waited for Deerfoot to catch up.

“I got some bad stew and worse news back there,” she said when he joined her. “Looks like this place is some kind of commune calling itself The Fellowship of the Divine Resurrection. Their Brother Shepherd says it was
angels
in Alsop last night.”

White Fox looked worried. “My discoveries were equally troubling. Perhaps between us we can make sense of our findings.”

Jett nodded and quickly told him what she knew, from Jerusalem’s Wall having enough livestock that it needed forty men to wrangle them, to the bizarre “service” she’d attended, to being served a meal prepared entirely without salt.

“And Br’er Shepherd wasn’t shy about saying Alsop had been ‘cleansed’ by an army of the ‘Blessed Resurrected,’ and he said it was just the first town on their list, so I guess he’s playing things close to the vest,
iff’n your troubles are connected to Alsop’s,” she finished grimly. “And I don’t know about you, but where I come from, a man bragging on something like that is responsible for it.”

“You may be right,” White Fox said. “Though I know not how a living man could have done all that you describe—or I have seen—nor do I believe the
wasichu
can summon spirits of vengeance that will act in such a fashion.”

“If prayin’ could wipe a town off the map, there’d be a lot fewer folks in a lot of places,” Jett agreed, and White Fox nodded briefly before he began his own story.

* * *

White Fox had waited in the trees until he’d seen Jett enter the house, then circled around until he was concealed by the bunkhouses before riding down to investigate. He left Deerfoot behind one of the new buildings and moved cautiously on foot until he reached a place in a direct line from the gate. A working ranch was a busy place, but this one was both silent and nearly deserted.

Whatever he’d been tracking had always moved in a straight line: it had turned down the road heading into the ranch, so his first thought was that it had
continued on the same path. But to his frustration, the ground here was just as hard as that of the ranch road had been, and whether his quarry had come this way or not, he could find no sign of tracks. He could continue southward and try again to pick up the trail there, but before he did there were some things he wanted to investigate here.

“When I approached the dormitory buildings, I could see what had been invisible at a distance. The buildings have shutters, but they cover only wood.”

“No windows?” Jett asked. “The chapel’s windows were bricked up too. Why?”

“I have no explanation,” White Fox admitted. “But when I went to see if all the buildings followed the pattern of the first, I saw the original bunkhouse’s windows had been boarded up as well. And further, the door was barred—from the outside.”

He’d listened carefully at the door for some minutes, and when he was certain the interior was empty, he’d removed the bar. Just as he’d been about to open it, he’d heard the bell ring for dinner, and ducked hastily inside.

“It was empty of furniture,” he said. “Even the stove had been removed. And in the center of the floor there was a second set of doors—chained shut.”

“Sounds like you had more fun than I did,” Jett
observed. “But why bar the door from the
outside
? And if you did, why chain the inside doors shut? Where do they go, anyway? No bunkhouse I’ve ever heard tell of came with a storm cellar.”

“Once more I have no answers, Jett, only questions. Yet I can tell you this much: the trail we followed from Alsop stops at Jerusalem’s Wall. Once I saw all the members of the ‘Fellowship’ had entered the ranch house and were likely to remain there, I spent more than an hour casting about to see if I could find the trail once more. I could not.”

“Well, if you couldn’t find it, odds are it wasn’t there to find,” Jett said. She inspected the sky. “I suppose we could wait around until night,” she said reluctantly. “Do some more poking around when everybody’s asleep in their beds.”

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