Scott Huggins intermittently publishes fantasy and science fiction stories and teaches history. His latest honors include Runner-Up in the Baen Adventure Fantasy Contest of 2014 for his short story “Phoenix for the Amateur Chef” and publication in the upcoming Pernicious Invaders anthology from Great Old Ones Press.
The shout erupted through the smithy, and Jake whirled from the forge, holding the tongs before him defensively. He stood frozen as Mrs. Washington bore down on him, fury written on her face.
She pushed past her husband, who, despite weighing 250 pounds and holding a ten-pound hammer, scooted out of her way as she firmly planted herself between him and Jake.
Jake involuntarily swallowed. Mrs. Washington outweighed her husband, and looked like she might have been melted down and molded from discarded anvils. Her bright eyes bored into him, and before he could stop her, she wrenched the newly forged mattock blade from the tongs.
“Sweet Jesus,” she whispered, awed. “It cold as ice.” Her eyes grew wide and scared as she looked at Jake. Then she whirled on her husband. “It cold as ice, ‘Lijah! What you doin’ workin’ here? I told you this place is cussed and look at me, holdin’ a piece of metal right off the furnace and it cold, ‘Lijah. You wants to bring the devil down upon us all?”
Elijah looked from his wife to his employer. His mouth worked briefly.
“Get on home, ‘Lijah!” Mrs. Washington shouted. “Get home. There be more honest, safer ways for folk to make money. You dealin’ with the Devil, here.”
Elijah opened his mouth, stopped, nodded, and backed out the door. Mrs. Washington realized she was still holding the blade, threw it down, and whirled on Jake.
“You dealin’ with the Devil, Mr. Lomey. Don’t you come around my man again. In the Name of Jesus, don’t you do it; I rebuke you. You stay away from my house.” She watched him for a reaction, then picked up her skirt and ran after her husband. Jake followed to the door, trying to think of something to say.
He waited until they were out of sight and then threw his hat angrily down on the baked earth of Main Street. He walked back into the smithy, first dousing his head in the bucket of well water at the door. It felt cool, but didn’t extinguish his frustration.
“Dammit,” he announced to the empty room. “How’m I s’posed to get any heavy work done, now? Another striker? You been usin’ up strikers so fast I might as well not even bother training ’em!”
The shimmer above the forge rippled and seemed to take on more substance, if no more shape. “But, Jacob,” it thrummed. “We are many, now. You know our need. Surely we are more use to you than any number of strikers.”
“No, dammit, that’s the problem: you ain’t. Ain’t none of you can swing a hammer when I need a hammer swung.” No striker meant that heavy work would take twice as long. Under his guidance, his strikers did the brute-strength labor that let him save his strength for the work that required real mastery. He couldn’t just not have one. “Keep this up and… and I swear, I’ll put that horseshoe right back over the door, you hear?”
There was silence. The shimmer over the forge writhed uncomfortably. Finally it said: “That would be most inconvenient, Jacob. We apologize. It will not happen again.”
“‘S’what you said when the Carruthers boy ran off. Now this, and they’re already givin’ me strange looks every time I go to church.”
The shimmer whirled again, and diffused through the smithy. Strains of hal-heard music began to drift through the air.
“Now don’t start with me; that ain’t fair,” he said weakly. He blew a horse-sized sigh from between his lips. “Ah, hell.” There was work to do. And they knew his weakness: the music… He picked up a small hammer and gave the bellows a few pumps.
“All Creatures of Our God and King…”
The melody threaded through the air; back east, where he had been raised, his parents had taken him to symphonies and sung in the choirs of churches. He had sung too, until diphtheria had struck. His voice was and would always be a gravelly croaking now, and his parents had moved west partly for his health. He had become a smith because he was strong and quick as a young man… and because of the music of the forge.
He had never suspected that a greater music would meet him there.
The music swelled softly, gaining volume as the coals swelled from dark to cherry red. Just over the roar he could hear them. “Lift up your voice and with us sing…” The iron stock heated, first only dimly, then pulsing red; then orange. “O Praise Him, Alleluia!” He shook his head. They were still having trouble with those real fast notes.
One good thing about not having a striker, he thought as he transferred the metal to the anvil. I can listen to ’em anytime I want. He raised the hammer.
“Thou (SLAM) burning sun with golden beam! (tap)”
“Thou (tap) silver (tap) moon with softer gleam (SLAM)!”
“O Praise Him!”
He held up the rod.
“O Praise Him!”
The shimmer coalesced and thickened about it
And it was black and cool. Tempered perfectly.
“Alleluia,” he whispered, finishing the verse with them.
No, the ghosts couldn’t lift a hammer; for that they were useless, but what they could do, no striker had ever dreamed of. He smiled tightly, the heat vanishing into unimportance as his movements became a dance, rising and falling to the music.
He couldn’t really blame Elijah, or the Carruthers boy, or any of his other strikers; he’d been scared the first time, too.
November, it had been, with snow two feet deep in the street, and drifts tall enough to block the doors. He’d come downstairs and found the ashes from the forge scattered all over the floor. Damn kids, he’d thought, as he’d swept the ash into the stable. Nothin’ to do, so let’s go make trouble. He had trouble and warmth enough for anyone who wanted some. That night he’d let the furnace burn and gone upstairs for dinner.
Then he’d sat down at the foot of the stairs looking through a knothole in the door. No lantern. Just a shotgun loaded with rock salt. He’d sat and waited. Waited a long time, until the soft glow of the forge seeping through the door had put him into a doze. The scraping had awakened him.
Floating before the fire had been a shimmer. A shimmer in the shape of a woman; beautiful. Her hair was done in intricate, looped braids and she had on a dress that was more flash than substance. In her hands she held, very precariously, a double armful of brick-red coals. She turned from the forge and threw them, strewing them all along the hardwood floor. Twice more she did this, while Jake had sat rooted to the spot, lip trembling and hands paralyzed.
When the forge was emptied, she turned and seemed to call, soundlessly. Instantly the air was full of shapes; men and women and others too diffuse to recognize. They settled on the coals like vultures on a dead calf: a swirling grey mist, full of arms and legs, clinging to the floor. The coals went black, and the mist grew… fuller. More substantial. The shapes began to drift away, until finally only the original ghost was left. She hesitated before fading, looking outside. Then she turned and saw him through the door. Saw him watching her.
As if the gaze had been a brand burning through ropes, he leapt up, yelling. In what he considered later to be an amazingly smooth motion, he had kicked open the door, leveled the gun, and fired. The apparition had fled through the wall.
There were still bits of salt in that wall.
Jake had crept to the coals, bent down, and picked one up. It had been as cold as the snow outside the smithy. He found himself standing where the ghost had. She had been looking… that way. At the outside door frame. Shivering, he had examined it. There had been nothing unusual about it to attract the attention of a ghost. Nothing at all.
It had been a week before he realized that “nothing at all” was what was unusual. His horseshoe was gone. Someone had stolen it.
But by then he knew too much about the ghosts to want to put it back. And there were lots of them. All blacksmiths had horseshoes over the door; all of them. To find one that didn’t, well… Jake had gotten the impression that he was somehow at the center of a ghostly California Gold Rush. Why a horseshoe should matter so much he didn’t know. “Forges are magical places, Jacob,” was all the old man’s shade would say. “Things happen there that can be done nowhere else; and I don’t mean just with metal.”
The ghosts came for the heat; they needed it for some reason, like food. One of the ghosts, a young man who’d completed half a college degree before he’d died of pneumonia, had tried to explain why. It made no sense to Jake, and he didn’t think it did much to the kid either. What did make sense was that the ghosts could feel metal, inside and out. They could take the heat from it all at once, and yet it didn’t go brittle. And, fed on the heat, they didn’t dissipate. Didn’t lose their minds and become moaning specters without memory or purpose.
It took time to teach them, but they didn’t mind. “Not much to do when you’re a ghost,” Clara had told him. She was the ghost he had seen the first night; the only one who had ever told him what her name had been. And when he’d finished teaching them, they could temper steel to any toughness and hardness that Jake needed.
For that alone, they could have had all the heat they wanted. But they could also sing. Sing better than the ladies in the dance halls and all the symphonies and choirs that Jake’s memory could pull from the past.
“It’s because we don’t have any vocal chords,” the college boy had explained. “We just set up the vibrations directly in the air.”
If they would only shut up and stay out of sight when other people were around. But they couldn’t. Jake supposed he wouldn’t like it either if he were told he could only speak or eat or be seen when no one was watching. But they would show up in front of the strikers. Clara had even tried to talk to the Carruthers kid, and the next day the boy had gone for a soldier. The rest had seen things, and heard things, and Jake was once more without a striker.
The sun was setting when Jake finally let the billows rest. The last of ten barrel hoops cooled on the anvil, and he untied his apron before dousing his face again in the bucket of water. As he came back in, he could hear a soft canticle: Kyrie eleison, over and over, just audible.
“Why is it you always sing church music?” he muttered. “Not that I mind, but what’s wrong with varying the program?”
“Hmmm,” came an amused drawl, “like f’r instance, with what else? Drinkin’ songs? Wine an’ women?” The shade of the thin man in black clothes with a gun on his hip chuckled. “Afraid I ain’t equipped to appreciate those anymore.”
“It is appropriate, don’t you think?” said an old man’s shade. “`Kyrie eleison.‘ Lord, have mercy. We cannot enter heaven… yet we have, at least for the present, escaped hell.”
Jake felt the back of his neck crawl. He didn’t like it when they started talking like this. Made him feel… small. Vulnerable. Temporary. He nodded casually and walked out the door. He had no sooner put his hand on his horse’s bridle when the voice stopped him.
“Excuse me, suh.” He turned.
The man was Old Southern aristocracy, no doubt about that. If Jake had been deaf, he still would’ve known it. The man looked like Stonewall Jackson done in oils, but leaner; hungrier. His eyes were dark, and blazed. The grey coat he wore carried no medals. No rank insignia, no epaulettes, and no gold braid.
Not any more.
Behind him stood two horses. One was a military charger, and beautiful, almost white but with a tinge of some color. Pale. The other looked… different. Whip-thin and wiry. Mare. Black as night, with eyes big as lakes.
“Mr. Lomey, is it?” The man extended his hand. “Colonel Farquhar, of South Carolina. I’m told that you shoe horses.”
His voice was rich and powerful. Somehow, Lomey felt wrong even answering. “I do, sir. During the day, that is. The hotel has nice rooms, I’m sure I can get to you first thing tomorrow…”
“Now.” The word was wrapped in enough silk that it didn’t even sound like an interruption. “I realize that my request is unusual, suh, and a bit… eccentric, but I am in haste. I am also willing to pay you quite well for your troubles.” He opened a bag at his waist and let the neck fall open. The setting sun revealed the contents.
Jake had never seen so many golden eagles in his life. One would more than pay for shoeing a horse, but there must have been twenty. Was he being offered them all?
Hell, he didn’t care. Just two would be fine. Maybe three.
“Yes, sir. Please come in, sir,” he heard himself saying. He looked at the Colonel’s horse. “Now I estimate he’ll take a number…”
“Not him. Her.”
Jake went over to look at the mare. She worked her mouth nervously at him. She had the smallest feet Jake had ever seen on a horse. Like a deer, but no, the hooves were solid enough. One look told him that this horse had never worn shoes in her life. He could probably do it if. . . he took one of her hooves; the horse didn’t move. But she quivered. Frightened. Poor dumb beast. Probably bought from a bad master; surely the Colonel knew how to take care of horses. He measured. That’s what I was afraid of. He shook his head.
“Sir,” said Jake, “You truly have no idea how I’d like to help you tonight, but I don’t carry shoes that small. I’d have to make ’em all from raw stock. Plus, my striker just up an’ quit on me. It’d take all night if we were lucky.”
The Colonel shrugged off his jacket easily, revealing bulging muscles underneath his thin shirt. “I will strike for you, suh. I am used to working in the fire. You just do the job I know you can, Mr. Lomey.”
Jake opened his mouth to object, saw the look on the Colonel’s face, and thought better of it. There was expertise in those eyes. Not a smith’s expertise, no, but that of a man whose failures had been few and far between. Jake motioned him inside.
The forge had already cooled down to brick red again by the time Jake had selected four pieces of mild steel for the job. He handed the Colonel an apron and tied his own. At least the ghosts were quiet, he thought, as he began to pump on the cord that worked the overhead billows. With his other hand he reached down and passed the Colonel an eight-pound sledge. He took it in one hand, holding it easily, like a sword. Pumping vigorously, Jake took the first bar in the tongs and held it over the forge.
He blinked. Was it his imagination, or were the coals actually duller now? He looked again. They were almost black. He coughed, gave the Colonel a grim smile, and began to pump harder. “It’s the bellows,” he said, searching for an excuse. “I’ve been needing to get them fixed for awhile now, but it’s not usually this bad.”
The Colonel stepped forward. His face had not changed, but something about his eyes made Jake almost want to drop the tongs. “It’s very bad manners to lie to a customer, suh. Especially one paying as much as I am. I’ve been lied to many times. Even had to tell a few myself, much as I regret it, and I know a lie when I hear one. Please do not lie to me again.” He half turned, then looked back. “But there is something wrong. What is it, Mr. Lomey?” The dead eyes impaled him.
Desperately, Jake looked to the forge. The coals glowed cherry red. Barely cherry red, and his arm was about to fall off! The coals should have been at sun heat; he should have been able to weld at this forge! He looked back into the Colonel’s impassive face.
“I don’t know. I swear, I don’t know.” Jake was dimly surprised at the fear in his own voice. But it felt… natural to fear this man. The Colonel blinked slowly. Then he nodded.
“Anyway, they’re, uh, hot enough.” The sweat that broke from his brow as he turned to lay the metal and tools over the forge was in no way caused by the temperature of the coals.
It was still slow going. It seemed every time he turned around he had to pump the bellows fiercely. It was as if something was sucking the heat out of the forge. . .
The hairs on the back of Jake’s neck began to stand up. No time for that. The first bar was ready. He held it in the tongs and turned to the anvil. Quickly, he took up the hot chisel and cut the nailhead grooves. Then he bent the bar into shape around the horn of the anvil. Setting down one pair of tongs, he transferred the shoe to the flat. He tapped the hammer on the shoe once. SLAM! The Colonel’s big sledge hit with the precision of a master. Jake raised an eyebrow. Beginner’s luck was always good. Tap. SLAM!
Jake looked up at his customer.
The Colonel was unchanged, but seemingly entranced, watching the half-made shoe with a concentration Jake knew only from his own days as an apprentice. He had misjudged the man. No jack of all trades, this, but a master blacksmith wielding his sledge. He’d probably had his own business before the War. But the man was young for such skill. Tap. SLAM. Tap. SLAM. Before Jake knew it, he was lost in the rhythm of the work. No apprentice he had ever had could match the man across from him. In no time, it seemed, the shoe was finished. It was with reluctance that he took up the pritchel to punch the nail holes, close-hammered the ends round, and held the shoe up.
“What the hell are you doing, Mr. Lomey?”
Jake looked. Nothing was happening. The shoe was still hot. Black, but hot. The ghosts he had come to rely on were nowhere to be seen. Frantically, he looked around. His bosh was empty, he hadn’t needed the thing in months. Finally he found it and ran outside, awkwardly, still holding the hot shoe. Coming back inside with the full bucket of water, he quenched the tiny shoe briefly, and set it aside to cool. The Colonel’s gaze was heavy and edged.
“Very amusing, Mr. Lomey. How long have you been a blacksmith?”
“Ten years, sir?”
“And you still don’t know enough to keep your bosh filled? And yo’ fire hot?!” The Colonel roared on the last sentence. Jake looked back in panic. The coals were almost black. Only the full moon shining in the window was allowing him to see at all in the dark of the Kansas night. Trembling in spite of himself, he lit a pair of lanterns, then began to pump the bellows again.
Slowly, ever so slowly, the coals began to turn red. They should still have been blazing. Under his breath, he muttered, “Is that you? What are you doing? You trying to ruin me?” There was no answer. No shimmer, save for the heated air. The heat absent from the forge began to build inside Jake. First they’d driven his striker away, and now this! The first chance he’d had to make some real money in ages, and they were ruining it.
He grabbed a hammer, a nail, and a large horseshoe. Turning from the forge, he stepped toward the door. . . and found himself blocked by the solid figure of the Colonel.
“Where you going, Mr. Lomey?”
Trying to calm himself, Jake answered, “I just noticed that the horseshoe above the door fell down, Colonel, and it seems we’re having a bit of bad luck, so I thought…”
“I doubt that, Mr. Lomey. I doubt you’ve had a thought in your entire poor white trash life. Now you listen to me, you sorry excuse for a blacksmith: the people of this town may well have found it funny to send me to the most incompetent sonofabitch in this territory. But I am in a hurry and I am not,” the word rang like a gunshot, “paying to watch the dancing of a superstitious fool. Do I make myself clear?”
Jake felt his lip curl under the tirade. He had been frightened. Now he was angry. “What? Who d’you think you are, coming in my smithy and insulting me? I don’t care how much gold you’ve got in that pouch of yours. Get out before I throw you out.” Jake hefted the hammer in his hands.
The Colonel’s face went stony. “Are you challenging me, Mr. Lomey?” He casually lifted his jacket from the stool where he had let it fall. Two pearl handles gleamed in the light of lantern and moon. “Are you truly that stupid?” He picked up one of the pistols. “It would be my choice of weapons, of course.”
The steel was polished and worked in intricate design. The Colonel handed it to Jake, butt first. Jake swallowed, but there was no saliva. His gaze was locked on the weapon; on the stubby cylinder protruding beneath the barrel. A barrel with five notches in it.
Le Matt. New Orleans. His brother had picked up a Le Matt pistol off the body of a Confederate horseman at Gettysburg. The center pin had been fashioned into a second barrel and was chambered for one sixteen-gauge shotgun shell.
Looking in his eyes, Jake could see the Colonel planning to shoot him in the belly with that shell. Jake had never fired a gun in anger in his life. His hand was shaking and his face red as he handed it back to the Colonel.
“No, sir,” he muttered.
“Good. Now, we have some work to do, and, as I said, I am in a hurry. Get that fire hot, Mr. Lomey.”
The night crawled by in alternating periods of agony and ecstasy. His arms burned from trying to keep the recalcitrant forge hot; a couple of times he almost fainted, trying to force it past a soft cherry red, whispering curses at the ghosts he knew were there.
Yet each time, after the grooves were cut and the small shoes bent, he tapped his guide hammer and the Colonel answered in such perfect rhythm that it was almost as if the ghosts were singing. No. Better. The heat the fire lacked seemed to flow from the Colonel’s hammer, and Jake’s mind went away under its blows, forgetting his fatigue, forgetting the insults, forgetting everything as he and the Colonel played percussion finer than any drum.
Finally the four shoes were done. The moon was peering in the west windows as he gathered the shoes and his farrier’s tools to stagger drunkenly into the adjoining stable where the strange black horse waited. As he touched her hind leg, she let loose a vicious kick that brushed his hair.
Before he could do more than gasp, the Colonel barked a command. It wasn’t in English. The word seemed to take a shape through the air, and the horse went slack so abruptly that she nearly fell over.
“Get on with it, Mr. Lomey,” the Colonel snapped. “I have to leave before morning.”
Numbly, Jake took the black horse’s rear hoof and began to fit the shoe. He stumbled, and righted himself.
“Work, damn you!” the Colonel’s words were a lash. But Jake saw something else behind those dead eyes. Fear? No. Anxiety. Then he remembered what this anxious man was armed with. He fitted the shoe experimentally.
It fit perfectly.
Jake gaped. No shoe ever fit perfectly. He had his shoeing anvil, hammer, rasp, hoof knife. . . and none were needed. The shoe fit as if it had been machined. He looked at the Colonel. . . and then hurriedly selected hammer and nail and began to attach the shoe.
By the time he had clipped the ends of the nails from the right rear hoof, the moon had set, and the Colonel was tapping his foot. By the time he had clipped them from the left rear foot, the sky was gray, and the Colonel was pacing. He was reaching for the right front foot when the Colonel spoke.
“That’s enough. I must leave now. I’ll take the shoes and have them fitted elsewhere. Good day, Mr. Lomey.”
“What?” Jake protested blurrily. “Colonel, you can’t ride—or even walk—a half-shod horse. You’ll ruin her!”
“That is my affair and none of yours, Mr. Lomey.”
Fatigue flared into anger. Lomey raised his hammer. The Colonel had left his pistols inside the smithy, and they wouldn’t do him any good there. And he wasn’t about to let anyone ruin a perfectly good horse. “It’s my affair until you’ve paid me, Colonel.”
“Pay? You? For this… this… half-assed, Yankee shit job? A blacksmith who can’t keep a fire lit? A farrier who can barely nail straight? Take the wage you’ve earned.”
And in his hand appeared—Jake would swear he couldn’t have drawn it—the Le Matt pistol. The huge barrel looked big enough to swallow him. The Colonel’s thumb came down on the hammer, and there was a noise like the end of the world.
The stable spun and his knees collapsed. Sitting there as the darkness closed in, Jake thought how odd it was that the flash should seem to come from everywhere but the gun.
And continue. The flash—flashes!—were streaking through the air, fast as rockets on the Fourth of July, but almost opaque.
And singing. Singing war. Singing death.
The Colonel’s mouth was open, the gun held limply in his hand. He tried to run, to knock one of the blurs aside, and recoiled, screaming. Not in pain, but in rage and hate. He clutched his smoking hand to himself and glared.
Jake shuddered. The glare was black, and more than black. It had in it the fires of the forge and of frustration and of something else. These eyes were red, but no blood had ever run inside them. The flashes slowed. Stopped.
Facing the thing that had been the Colonel was the thin man, his hand resting lightly over his pistol, cocked in the manner of a professional gunfighter. He was solid now, no more a shimmer of grey mist, but a statue of lava, with every detail etched in yellow and orange fire. He grinned at his adversary. “Your gun seems to have a problem, Colonel.”
The Colonel-shape looked at the gun and howled. It was not a human sound. The barrels had run and fused. It fixed the gunfighter with its gaze. The ghost snorted amusement.
“Here. Take mine.” It tossed a pistol carved of light and heat underhand, and the Colonel caught it reflexively, screaming this time in pain as the ghost of the pistol dissipated, burning its way into its palms. Through to the bone.
All the ghosts were there. The gunfighter, the college boy in his torn city clothes, and Clara, resplendent in a red dress that literally blazed, and others. Twenty? More. Others that he’d only heard or half-seen in the long days of hammering and singing. All finally solid shapes. Creatures of fire. Salamanders.
Suddenly Jake knew what they had been doing all night, with all his heat. His coals blazed in their eyes as they looked down at the dark, half-burned creature. Its human form was distorted, now, like an ill-fitting suit. Sharp teeth glistened from its mouth. Demon, thought Jake, too frightened to do more than stare.
And now the spirits parted for a plain man made of dark fire, his hairs like moonbeams. The worn clerical collar at his throat glowed like a diamond as he spoke.
“Deceiver, your time has come.”
The ghosts converged. The complete energy of Jake’s forge, pumped all night to what should have been a white heat, exploded into the demon. Its clothes burst into flames, flesh charring black instantaneously. It threw up arms, but they burned like paper. The scream issued from a throat that was half-carbonized, going on and on in the stillness of the dawn, from a torch shaped like a man that staggered in the stable, in the middle of a whirlwind of fire.
It collapsed. Charred muscle fell from it and the smell hit Jake for the first time: bile and acid from his empty stomach flooded his mouth. Bones cracked and collapsed into powder.
Slowly, a shape coalesced, like smoke but heavier, gelid. It humped miserably away, bubbling something that sounded like curses, full of teeth and hooks.
The whirlwind pounced, and the remains of the demon boiled away in the light of the risen sun. Evaporated. Destroyed.
Jake came to hands and knees. He felt his chest, then his stomach. He hadn’t been hit after all.
“And how could we let harm come to you?” asked a voice, rich and vibrant. He looked up. Clara stood over him in flaming perfection, dress rippling in the heat. “You who fed us such food as we were still able to have, and took us in. Even though you did do your damnedest to get yourself killed, anyway. We tried to warn you.”
“You never… said anything,” he gasped.
“Said? And have a demon know where we were hiding? Of course not. He could have taken us all with him. Without you. Without your heat. I don’t know what good this little brawl will do us with the Man Upstairs, but we much prefer to remain here, given the alternative.” She tossed her fiery hair. “Damn, that felt good! Hiding is smart, but it lacks a certain something.”
A chorus of voices echoed from the whirlwind, not in words, but impressions:
…finally got one o’ those bastards fooled me into thinkin’ guns made me tough…
…after ages of endless talk, to finally fight….
…gotta lie and cheat a little to get ahead in the real world, huh? Well, take that…
“But why?” Jake croaked.
“Why?” she repeated. “I told you, it felt good! Those demons ain’t just some cock and bull story cooked up by a preacher, Jake; they’re real; don’t you get it? They’re the Enemy. Of all of us.” Her color was already fading. The whirlwind was beginning to dissipate.
But Jake was shaking his head. “Why him? Here?”
“That I don’t… oh my God. I do know.”
Jake followed her gaze. There, twitching feebly and bleeding from the tips of her toes, was a thin, naked young woman, the shoes fallen beside her feet where Jake had nailed them. As in a nightmare, he heard the ghost saying: “No horseshoe, Jake. He could come in just like we could. I’m sorry.” But Jake was through the door and riding hard for the doctor.
Dr. Halloran put his hand on the door as he turned to Jake. “She should be fine. It looks nasty, but new nail grows quickly. There’s no permanent damage.” He paused, as if tasting something bad. “It looks just like someone pried up every one of her toenails with pliers.”
Or a hammer and nails, thought Jake.
“What’s that?” said the Doctor. Jake colored at having spoken aloud. He shook his head. Halloran shrugged. “Who would do such a thing?”
Jake swallowed. “Better not to know, I suspect.”
“Amen.” Halloran said, as he closed the door behind him.
Jake waited a moment, then went out to the smithy.
The forge was cold this morning. No burns, except for some scorches around the pile of ash that had been Colonel Farquhar. Other than that and the girl—Harriet, that was her name—there was nothing to tell that he had ever existed.
“Now what the blazes do I do?” he muttered, as he started to pick up the tools that lay where they had been dropped.
“The same thing you have always done,” a thrumming whisper replied. “Good smithwork. And other good works.”
“If Harriet doesn’t say enough to have me lynched.” Somehow, he didn’t think she would. She hadn’t been panicked. Hurt and frightened, yes, but not panicked. The worst had already happened to her.
“No fear of that,” the voice said. “We have explained your role to her. She knows you are not to blame for her father’s sins.”
“What…? What did he do?”
“He gave bad measure. He cheated his customers. Eventually, he made a bargain he should not have made.”
“I never thought… I never thought that was… possible. Can a man sell his children to pay for his sins?”
“And wives their husbands and children their parents. It happens more than you’d like to know… but only rarely are actual demons involved.”
“Good thing I didn’t put that horseshoe back on the door.”
The thrumming increased in intensity. “It would have been better if you could have. Such things have power over demons. Put it back, Jake.”
Jake felt a hurt look spread over his face. “No. You’d have to leave if I did that.”
“Jake, we have come to say goodbye. We are leaving.”
“Be happy for us, Jake. We have been pardoned. We are free. We go to the place prepared for us. We’ll wait for you, Jake.”
Jake felt the bottom drop out of his stomach. Leaving? His mouth worked. Then: “Damn your invisible hides! If you were going to leave, couldn’t you have done it before you scared off my last striker?”
The vibration could only be described as a laugh. “We are sorry, Jake. But you may find that we have left you a bit of compensation by speaking to Harriet for you.”
“What good would that be to me?”
Again, the thrumming laugh. “That’s up to you to discover, Jake. And now, goodbye; we must…”
But then there was a gust of wind, and Jake never found out what it was they had to do.