Excerpt: The devil would have to wait

Lucinda tried to pay the encroaching flames no mind. Wade had pulled his oil lamp trick again, tipping it back and forth with his boot to get the guard to admit there was dynamite rigged under the safe, and had instead set the floor afire. Now the puddle of flames was growing into a conflagration that threatened the entire train car, and every Higgs Boy was operating like the fire line Lucinda had seen put out the neighbor’s barn when she was a child — except instead of passing buckets of water toward the fire, they were passing cash and gold bars down the line and away from it. 

And the money just kept coming. Soon Elton and Job’s sacks were filled, and Job had yanked the bag he wore over his head off so he could use it to continue. The guard was unconscious in the corner, courtesy of a hard knock to the head from the butt of Squirrel’s gun, and the passengers were too concerned with escaping the burning train that they didn’t bother the robbers in the slightest — not even to try to retrieve the jewelry or pocket money that the Higgs Boys had already relieved from them.

“Must be bonus season,” Squirrel cackled as he passed a stack of what looked like bearer bonds to Trent.

The fire started popping and cracking its way up the train car wall. Lucinda wiped a sheet of sweat from her brow. Wade stood straight, backing away to survey the open safe. From this angle, Lucinda couldn’t see inside of it — but she could see the clocks working in Wade’s head as he balanced the wealth still available for the taking with the danger that the blaze was now posing to himself and his crew.

The sole glass lamp in the car fell off the wall and shattered on the floor, as if goading him to make the decision. 

“Everyone out,” Wade called. Squirrel, who was just on the other side of Lucinda, carried the message the rest of the way down the train car, and they started disembarking.

“You too, Luce,” Wade said, grabbing her wrist as he passed her. The carpetbag on her arm jangled with the valuables she had taken from the first class passengers.

“I’ve got room in the bag,” she said, yanking away from him and turning back to the safe. From her estimate, there were two more money bags inside, plus a couple gold bars and — much to her surprise and gratitude — a small crate labeled “Smith and Wesson.” They were low on bullets these days. 

“Lucinda!” Wade yelled as she crouched in front of the safe and scooped money, gold and bullets into the carpetbag.

“Get the guard out,” she yelled back. “I’ll be right behind you.” 

Wade’s frustration was palpable as he stepped around her and lifted the guard to his feet, looping one of his arms around the man’s waist. As soon as he had a good grip on the guard, Lucinda slid the last bar of gold into her bag and stood up. Wade slammed the safe shut so he could move around its heavy door. The guard’s legs dragged across the floor as he sputtered against the smoke and blood filling his nose.

The flames were almost to the ceiling now, and Lucinda’s eyes were drawn upward to a shelf above the safe, where something glittered. A heavy gilded paperweight sparkled in the firelight, and she reached up to grab it, her eyes beginning to water from the smoke.

“Lucinda!” Wade yelled from the door, and she turned back to him with the paperweight now in her bag. Trent was visible just outside, sitting on his horse and holding the reins of the two others. Lucinda watched as Wade pushed the half-conscious guard out the door so that he landed with a thud on the ground below: injured, but ultimately alive. Another witness to contribute a verse to the ballad of Wade Higgs and his Boys.

She moved toward the door, satisfied with her collection, but something stopped her. It wasn’t fear or greed — it was her petticoat, stuck in the sealed safe door.

“Wade!” Lucinda cried out as she tried to free it. 

The bag slipped on Lucinda’s arm, and a dozen bullets came rolling out of it directly toward the flames, cooking off and exploding in the conflagration. One grazed Wade’s arm, tearing the fabric but not drawing blood. 

Flames licked at her feet as she tried to pull her skirts up high enough to keep them away from the fire’s hunger. Wade ran back into the car, coughing and holding his arm up like a shield against the heat. He ducked down to where her skirt was caught in the safe and joined her in pulling it, but to no avail. 

“I’ll be right back,” he said, crawling across the floor to avoid the smoke collecting up toward the ceiling. Lucinda ducked down, too, continuing to yank at her skirts and pray the flames wouldn’t get much closer. Her skin was already starting to feel tight and raw, like she had been in the sun for far too long.

When Wade didn’t come back, Lucinda realized with panic that he had taken the carpetbag with him. 

So this was going to be how Lucinda Ellis of Crocus Falls died: on her third train robbery, with her skirt stuck in a safe and the money, jewels, gold and bullets she had collected now split among five men who had left her to be burned alive. At least she could get used to the flames of hell now, as she waited for the devil to take her. 

The paperweight shelf, now engulfed, fell onto the top of the safe. Burning wood flew everywhere, and Lucinda twisted around to avoid injury to her eyes. Part of it had landed on the sleeve of her dress, where it smoldered a hole in the cotton and left a shiny patch of red skin beneath.

The devil would have to wait, she decided, as she knocked the last of the burning wood onto her trapped petticoat. The fabric started to smoke, then light. But she had misjudged the flame: It wasn’t traveling across the petticoat to free her — instead, it was crawling up it, closer to her skin.

The skin above her bare knee blistered shiny and red as the fire got closer. Lucinda willed her mind to ignore the searing pain and kept pulling, but every yank of the skirt burned her hands or pulled the flames closer to her hip. Her eyes watered, either from the smoke or the pain, probably both, but they were still able to see it: A glint of silver amidst the golden glow.

“Move,” Wade yelled, raising the knife and bringing it down on the fabric just above where the flames had reached. It yielded, and Wade snatched Lucinda’s arm as he pulled her down the train car and out the door just before the roof caved in, sending a plume of smoke closer to the heavens than any of the fleeing forest birds dared fly.

Excerpt: Life as Wade Higgs’ Woman

Summer turned to fall, turned to winter, turned to spring again as Lucky fell into routine: Rob a train, return to camp for a celebratory fuck with Wade while Trent counted the loot, then wait for the two oldest Higgs Boys to take at least half the takings back to their ranch and return with cakes, jerky and other provisions packed by their mother. During that timeframe they robbed 18 trains, one roughly every two weeks, and averaged a haul of $3,000 in cash, bonds and jewelry every time. 

Once the money started to pile up, they began to stay in hotels during the quiet times between their robberies. Wade baulked at the notion at first, claiming that mattresses and running water would make them grow soft, but Lucky’s proposal that she’d have to dress the part of a lady if they stayed in town won him over. Almost 20 train robberies since her first one in men’s britches, and she still saw him shake his head in disagreement whenever she freely kicked a leg over a horse or hid her face and hair under the large bolero she had stolen from the man on that third robbery. As soon as they got into town, Lucky would be back to her petticoats and side-saddle demeanor, and Wade would look at her again with warm regard. 

The first few hotels they stayed at weren’t much more than austere boarding houses, with rooms each containing a narrow bed with a creaky mattress, a side table with a tin cup for gathering water at the pump outside, and maybe a stool or chair in the corner. Places like these were typically run by strict matrons who arched an eyebrow at Lucky until Wade asked if he and his wife could share a room, at which point the arch would either disappear into their hairline or soften in understanding. It didn’t matter if the landlady was suspicious or sentimental: the mattresses weren’t any softer. 

But there were also towns — typically close to the major train lines — where some wealthy East Coast hospitality man had built a hotel in the likeness to the ones he ran in New York or Chicago. These establishments dripped in red velvet and gold fringe, and hardly a footstep echoed in the plushly carpeted halls. The rooms that Lucky and Wade stayed in were closer to what she expected as Miss Mimi’s, with their large feather beds, upholstered furniture and soft gas lamps that reflected in gilded framed mirrors. And soon these were the only hotels that Wade wanted to stay in, so comfortable was he in this life away from the woods, where he could surprise his woman with dresses made of crimson satin embroidered in black roses or green velvet trimmed in cream lace.

Soon they were signing hotel registry books as “Mr. and Mrs.” and dining in not just saloons but fine restaurants using some of their steal. Nights like these, she’d be Lucinda, swathed in whatever gift Wade had left for her on the bed. As heads turned to look at her when she walked into restaurants or shops, she worried that eventually someone would notice not just the finely dressed woman who had entered the room, but also the strikingly familiar face of the man next to her. If they could just flip the switch in their mind’s eye to look at him in black pencil strokes instead of flesh and blood, they would realize they had seen him papered up on the sheriff’s office wall.

As it was, Wade didn’t much seem to care once Lucky was wrapped in the finery he had provided. A proud smile would stretch across his face as he led her into dining rooms on one arm and used the other to hand the maître-d a few folded bills to guarantee a private table toward the back, where a sheriff or marshal would be less likely to interrupt their meal. Nights like these, Lucky missed the rest of the men — while Wade took her to sip wine from crystal glasses, Trent, Job, Elton and Squirrel would jovially shuffle to the nearest saloon or spend the night at the local cat house. The allure of being Wade’s woman wore away with each night she drank sherry with a roast chicken dinner instead of a shot of whiskey chased with tavern stew. She missed Squirrel and Job’s animated storytelling or Elton’s louder-than-life laugh that rattled the glasses stacked behind the bar. Most of all, she missed being just another Higgs Boy, and she wondered if they missed her, too.

There was something else gnawing at her. Despite all of Wade’s posturing around having her as a partner both in crime and in love, Lucky was anxious. Almost a year had passed since she accepted his proposition, and yet he still didn’t trust her enough to take her along to stash some of their treasure at his family’s ranch. She hesitated bringing it up do him — she didn’t want to sound like a silly girl fussing over not meeting her beau’s family. After all, she had hosted Jeremiah Bose, Jr., at her father’s table many nights without feeling any particular way about him.

Some nights when Wade was asleep, she would think of Jeremiah: Where he was, and if he had found someone new yet. She had no doubt that had she stayed in Crocus Falls, she would be in a bed similar to this one, sticky from the undertaker’s son and left to find pleasure at her own fingertips. In Jeremiah’s bed, her mind would likely have wandered to a life like the one she was living now, convinced that it would be a better life. As it was, she now lied in Wade’s bed, wondering if it really was the escape she had been seeking.

Axiom Thorne: Four days to die

I’m not sure what the word is for walking amongst people who are all expecting you to die in four days. I’d say “surreal,” but there’s nothing dreamlike about everyone around you, in a morbid mix of concern and curiosity, checking their pocket watches and captain’s logs to see how close you’re getting to your predicted expiration date.

“Everyone I sleep with dies in two weeks,” Everwick told me, as if it would scare me. As if he doesn’t realize what I had to do to get here, what I’ve had to overcome to become his counterpart. Give me a break, sailor boy, and show me to your bed. I’ve waited to die before.

When I was 15 the Man with the Colorful Scarf and the Diamond Shoes told me that what powers I had displayed up to that point — the death of the Baker’s Boy, my mother’s own suspended animation — was merely a two-step compared to the bolero I would be able to perform.

As long as I survived the metamorphosis.

I walked around for one week feeling nothing. On the eighth day, I had a migraine that grounded me to the back stoop of the house. No one found me for three hours until Momma arrived home, and it took a sip of soup and three cups of her mother’s Elven tea blend to get me back on my feet. For the next two weeks, I felt an odd twinge in my neck once or twice, heard an unexpected crack or pop of a joint here and there. Then came the invisible knife that inserted itself into my stomach and amused itself by twisting anywhere from an inch to five revolutions any time I let food or drink pass my lips. I could barely make it up the stairs to my bedroom when the fourth week began, and from then on I was confined as an invalid, with Momma as my nurse. She said I slept four days straight, then cycled between yelps and dozy whimpers on the fifth. My memory places Ansel at my bedside for some of the days, but who knows if it was him, my imagination, or the Man with the Colorful Scarf distorting his own appearance.

At the end of the fourth week’s sixth day, I awoke as Momma peeled a wet compress from my forehead.

“Still so pale,” she fretted, clearly to herself, as she hadn’t realized I was awake.

I opened my eyes, and she jumped backward, then recovered herself like any good mother does when shocked but afraid of alerting her child to any sort of danger.

“What is it?” I asked. My entire body was tingling, but the pendulum ticking down the time until my death had frozen mid-swing, To some, it may have been threatening: Any second it could drop, sending me into the dark abyss that I had stared into for the past 27 days.

Momma didn’t say anything. She squeezed my hand almost as hard as she squeezed her eyes shut, and rose from my bedside so she could turn her full back to me. I straightened up from my pillows with ease, all trace of weakness vanished. My heart’s metronome clicked steadily.

The mirror above my tiny dressing table betrayed what she was keeping from me. The muddy brown of my eyes had dissolved into an crystal green that glowed against the bright orange sunset exploding through my window. No other physical attribute had changed, but inside I could tell that nothing was the same. Just looking at the mirror, I willed the light to fade, and soon it was as if a large cloud had covered the sun’s fading light. I looked at Momma and wished that the fraying cuff of her sleeve would mend: As she bent to light a candle against the new darkness, I watched the threads weave back together and finish themselves in an intricate lace. I turned to the bowl on the bedside table and boiled away the water within so that the dry rag was plastered against the bottom of the basin, like it had been left there for months in the summer heat.

The Man with the Colorful Scarf and Diamond Shoes had promised that if I survived the metamorphosis, I would be more powerful than my mother. More powerful than her mother, or her mother’s mother. Their magic had diluted through the generations and was little more than amusements now, leaving me cursed with nothing but minor prestidigitation. I could barely conjur sparks, while my ancestors could blink wildfires into existence. But The Man with the Colorful Scarf and Diamond Shoes had promised that if I survived, I would awaken with capabilities that they had never even fathomed. And survived, I had.

“Axiom?” My mother had asked once she had steeled herself against my flaming eyes. Her tone was forceful as she tried to hide the quiver in her voice. “How are you feeling?”

“Momma,” I said, looking at her repaired sleeve, then at my own hands, pale and ghostly in the flickering candlelight. “I feel like a god right now.”

Excerpt: Now entering Polk Canyon

For the second time in her life, Lucky Ellis found herself being cinched into one of Penelope’s corsets. The bone and lace contraption had been lying at the bottom of the former prostitute’s knapsack, and at least one of the ribs had snapped over time.

“I don’t know why I bothered keeping it,” Penelope said. “Not much use for feeling pretty out here.”

As they were buttoning the back of Lucky’s dress, Rhiannon came riding back to camp. She caught sight of Lucky, gave her an approving nod, and turned to Ester to tell her what she had found. After traveling five miles along the singular road that made up Polk Canyon, she finally found the one person who was willing to help: A man named Mark Roberson who seemed scared to even talk about the Higgs Boys until she assured him she was no friend of theirs.

Lucky recognized the name for a story Trent had told her long ago at the saloon in Clarkstown. Mark was the older boy who had made fun of Wade — in some ways, it was because of him that the Higgs Boys even took to robbing the rails, which meant he had ultimately influenced Lucky’s own destiny. She wasn’t sure if she should thank him for it or shoot him in the gut.

“It’s about seven miles out,” Rhiannon said. “A tiny ranch house with a half-painted picket fence along the front of its property. I rode past it real quick to get a look, and sure enough it’s there. Old tree, half dead, in the front yard, and a large barn out back. Not sure they raise animals anymore, but I spotted a woman in the kitchen window, so there’s certainly someone home.”

“You’re lucky you didn’t get shot,” Lucky said. 

“Guess that goodbye hug from you did me some good,” Rhiannon winked. “You’re looking real pretty, Miss Ellis. Penelope sure knows how to make a silk purse from– well, maybe not a sow’s ear, but definitely a leather-and-linen rough rider.” 

“Let’s hope I can still ride a horse in this,” Lucky said, hitching up her skirt and climbing on the horse behind Rhiannon. It felt odd to be wearing trousers underneath a dress, but it gave her more flexibility in transportation.

She and Rhiannon rode out with Ester and Penelope flanking them. Esperanza stayed behind to watch the camp and wait for Singing Bird to come by for her cut of the week’s take. 

As they approached the stretch of land called Polk Canyon, Lucky started to understand how a man’s original habitat can affect his behavior as an adult. The land was parched, the houses dilapidated. Even if this community had been thriving in his childhood, it hadn’t been one of grand ranch homes with lush gardens and pastures. It looked like the residents had landed in this spot of desert dirt and tried their best to make a living off of it, rather than move forward looking for better opportunities. The houses were sunbaked, many with roofs that had caved in and fences that lay flat on the ground. The barns out back all appeared abandoned, with whisps of hay tangling themselves into giant tumbleweeds that skated on the wind.

They passed one house that was still in operation: Laundry was hanging on a line, though the shirts and sheets were gray with age and tattered on the ends.

“That’s where Mark Roberson lives,” Rhiannon said, nodding to it.

If Mark had really been as wealthy as the Higgs Boys supposed he was, that fortune was long gone. Also in the yard was a single mule, braying for a supper that likely wouldn’t come, from the look of its ribs rippling its taught skin. Lucky thought she saw Mark in the window, glaring out at them.

“What if he warned her?” Lucky asked. 

“I thought you said Mrs. Higgs didn’t like men coming on her property.”

“But she knew Mark,” Lucky said. “He grew up down the street.”

“If he warned her, I guess we’ll soon find out,” Rhiannon shrugged, clucking her tongue at the horse to make it move quicker. 

They passed three more ranches, all boarded up or burned out. No wonder this was the place Wade had chosen to hide his riches: No one was here, and no one had any reason to show up. 

The Higgs ranch was no better off than any of the other houses in Polk Canyon. The fence was painted white on the right side of the house, but whoever had been charged with the task had stopped when they got to the front gate, as the rest of the picketing was a charred black wood. Past the gate was a yard of dirt and scruff. A lizard darted out from beneath a rock and under another. The tree in front of the house had likely died years ago but was too stubborn to fall. Two vultures perched in its skeletal branches, harbingers of misfortune on a house that was already as low as it could sink.

“Keep riding,” Lucky said quietly. “We’ll double back on foot.”

They hitched the horses to a fallen tree just down the road, and Lucky began to walk toward the house. The wind blew furiously down the street at her, pushing her back in a hot gale that reminded her of a screaming man. When she got to the house, she stopped at the front gate and looked down the path at the tiny house.

“Anyone home?” she yelled, hoping the wind would carry her voice to the window. “Hello?”

A tattered flannel curtain wavered, though whether it was the breeze or someone inside, Lucky couldn’t tell.

“I’m looking for Mrs. Mary Higgs,” she called. “Is she here?”

Nothing. She wondered if Mary Higgs had even heard her from this distance. If she hadn’t, it wouldn’t hurt to come closer. If she had, Lucky would just have to make a run for it.

The gate in front of her wasn’t locked, but it still felt like trespassing as she pushed it open. It pulled on its hinges, making the whole fence lean. Lucky wondered if anyone even used this gate, or if Wade and Trent just rode their horses over the low fence when they came home. As she stepped foot into the yard, she remembered the old house just outside of town where the entire family had died of scarlet fever when she was less than a year old. No one had moved into the house since then, so it became the stuff of legends: A playground of dares and self-made terrors for the children in town who would goad each other into taking one, two, three steps into the front yard to see how far you could get before the ghosts took you or your own nerves sent you sprinting back out to the safety of the street.

Here, Lucky took one, two, three steps into the Higgs’ front yard to see how far she could get before Mary Higgs shot her. No such gunfire came; pretty soon she was at the steps of the front porch, staring at a door that had recently been painted, though whether it was by Wade or Trent on a recent visit or Mary Higgs herself, she couldn’t tell.

The porch looked precarious at best, with wooden planks cracked or missing. Lucky decided to call from the bottom of it.

“Mrs. Higgs?” she yelled, but before she could get the next few words out, the door creaked open. 

Trent, Wade and Job’s mother was a tall, lanky woman: It was no wonder where her eldest son got his height. Her long red hair was mixed with so much white that it appeared pink in the daylight, left to fly free around her shoulders. She wore a black dress that had probably been too short for her the entire time she owned it: It’s hem skimmed her ankles, letting crimson wool socks peak out above her suede workboots. Around her shoulders was a dark blue shawl, and on her finger — the one finger Lucky was focused on, as it was wrapped around the trigger of a shotgun — was the emerald ring that Lucky had taken from Tilley that first day she robbed a train.

“You don’t look like so much,” Mary Higgs said, glaring at her over the gun. “Pull up your skirt.”

“Ma’am, I–”

Mary jiggled the gun at her as a means of encouragement. Lucky lifted the dress up to show her trouser-clad legs underneath.

“Higher,” Mary said. “I want to see your holster.”

Lucky lifted the skirt all the way to her waist, exposing the Dragoon at her hip.

“Well aren’t you the fancy lady,” Mary said, lowering the gun. “Wearing a goddamn corset all the way out here just to see me. If I knew you were coming, I would have baked a cake. Better get in her ebefore the wind blows you away. I just put some coffee on.”

For the second time in her life, Lucky found herself being cinched into one of Penelope’s corsets. The bone and lace contraption had been lying at the bottom of the former prostitute’s knapsack, and at least one of the ribs had snapped over time.

“I don’t know why I bothered keeping it,” Penelope said. “Not much use for feeling pretty out here.”

As they were finishing putting Lucky together, Rhiannon came riding back to camp. She caught sight of Lucky, gave her an approving nod, and turned to Ester to tell her what she had found. After traveling five miles along the singular road that made up Polk Canyon, she finally found the one person who was willing to help: A man named Mark Roberson who seemed scared to even talk about the Higgs Boys until she assured him she was no friend of theirs.

Lucky recognized the name for a story Trent had told her long ago at the saloon in Clarkstown. Mark was the older boy who had made fun of Wade — in some ways, it was because of him that the Higgs Boys even took to the rails. In some ways, he had influenced Lucky’s own destiny. She wasn’t sure if she should thank him for it or hit him in the mouth.

“It’s about seven miles out,” Rhiannon said. “A tiny ranch house with a half-painted picket fence along the front of its property. I rode past it real quick to get a look, and sure enough it’s there. Old tree, half dead, in the front yard, and a large barn out back. Not sure they raise animals anymore, but I spotted a woman in the kitchen window, so there’s certainly someone home.”

“You’re lucky you didn’t get shot,” Lucky said.

“Guess that goodbye hug from you did me some good,” Rhiannon winked. “You’re looking real pretty, Miss Ellis. Penelope sure knows how to make a silk purse from– well, maybe not a sow’s ear, but definitely a leather-and-linen rough rider.”

“Let’s hope I can still ride a horse in this,” Lucky said, hitching up her skirt and climbing on the horse behind Rhiannon. It felt weird to be wearing her pants underneath a dress, but it gave her more flexibility in transportation.

She and Rhiannon rode out with Ester and Penelope flanking them. Esperanza stayed behind to watch the camp and wait for Singing Bird to come by for her cut of the week’s take.

As they approached the stretch of land called Polk Canyon, Lucky started to understand how a man’s original habitat can affect his behavior as an adult. The land was parched, the houses dilapidated. Even if this community had been thriving in his childhood, it hadn’t been one of grand ranch homes with lush gardens and pastures. It looked like the residents had landed in this spot of desert dirt and tried their best to make a living off of it, rather than move forward looking for better opportunities. The houses were sunbaked, many with roofs that had caved in and fences that lay flat on the ground. The barns out back all appeared abandoned, with whisps of hay collecting in giant tumbleweeds that skated on the wind.

They passed one house that was still in operation: Laundry was hanging on a line, though the shirts and sheets were gray with age and tattered on the ends.

“That’s where Mark Roberson lives,” Rhiannon said, nodding to it.

If Mark had really been as wealthy as the Higgs Boys supposed he was, that fortune was long gone. Also in the yard was a single mule, braying for a supper that likely wouldn’t come, from the look of its ribs rippling its taught skin. Lucky thought she saw Mark in the window, glaring out at them.

“What if he warned her?” Lucky asked.

“I thought you said Mrs. Higgs didn’t like men coming on her property.”

“But she knew Mark,” Lucky said. “He grew up down the street.”

“If he warned her, I guess we’ll soon find out,” Rhiannon shrugged, clucking her tongue at the horse to make it move quicker.

They passed three more ranches, all boarded up or burned out. No wonder this was the place Wade had chosen to hide his riches: No one was here, and no one had any reason to show up.

The Higgs ranch was no better off than any of the other houses in Polk Canyon. The fence was painted white on the right side of the house, but whoever had been charged with the task had stopped when they got to the front gate, as the rest of the picketing was a charred black wood. Past the gate was a yard of dirt and scruff. A lizard darted out from beneath a rock and under another. The tree in front of the house had likely died years ago but was too stubborn to fall. Two vultures perched in its skeletal branches, harbingers of misfortune on a house that was already as low as it could sink.

“Keep riding,” Lucky said quietly. “We’ll double back on foot.”

They hitched the horses to a fallen tree just down the road, and Lucky began to walk toward the house. The wind blew furiously down the street at her, pushing her back a little in a hot gale that reminded her of a screaming man. When she got to the house, she stopped at the front gate and looked down the path at the tiny house.

“Anyone home?” she yelled, hoping the wind would carry her voice to the window. “Hello?”

A tattered flannel curtain wavered, though whether it was the breeze or someone inside, Lucky couldn’t tell.

“I’m looking for Mrs. Mary Higgs,” she called. “Is she here?”

Nothing. She wondered if Mary Higgs had even heard her from this distance. If she hadn’t, it wouldn’t hurt to come closer. If she had, Lucky would just have to make a run for it.

The gate in front of her wasn’t locked, but it still felt like trespassing as she pushed it open. It pulled on its hinges, making the whole fence lean. Lucky wondered if anyone even used this gate, or if Wade and Trent just rode their horses over the low fence when they came home. As she stepped foot into the yard, she remembered the old house just outside of town where the entire family had died of scarlet fever when she was less than a year old. No one had moved into the house since then, so it became the stuff of legends: A playground of dares and self-made terrors for the children in town who would goad each other into taking one, two, three steps into the front yard to see how far you could get before the ghosts took you or your own nerves sent you sprinting back out to the safety of the street.

Here, Lucky took one, two, three steps into the Higgs’ front yard to see how far she could get before Mary Higgs shot her. No such gunfire came; pretty soon she was at the steps of the front porch, staring at a door that had recently been painted, though whether it was by Wade or Trent on a recent visit or Mary Higgs herself, she couldn’t tell.

The porch looked precarious at best, with wooden planks cracked or missing. Lucky decided to call from the bottom of it.

“Mrs. Higgs?” she yelled, but before she could get the next few words out, the door creaked open.

Trent, Wade and Job’s mother was a tall, lanky woman: It was no wonder where her eldest son got his height. Her long red hair was mixed with so much white that it appeared pink in the daylight, left to fly free around her shoulders. She wore a black dress that had probably been too short for her the entire time she owned it: It’s hem skimmed her ankles, letting crimson wool socks peak out above her sued workboots. Around her shoulders was a dark blue shawl, and on her finger — the one finger Lucky was focused on, as it was wrapped around the trigger of a shotgun — was the emerald ring that she had taken from Tilley that first day she robbed a train.

“You don’t look like so much,” Mary Higgs said, glaring at her over the gun. “Pull up your skirt.”

“Ma’am, I–”

Mary jiggled the gun at her as a means of encouragement. Lucky lifted the dress up to show her trouser-clad legs underneath.

“Higher,” Mary said. “I want to see your holster.”

Lucky lifted the skirt all the way to her waist.

“Well aren’t you the fancy lady,” Mary said, lowering the gun. “Wearing a goddamn corset all the way out here just to see me. If I knew you were coming, I would have baked a cake. Better get in here before the wind blows you away. I just put some coffee on.”

Excerpt: “What kind of afterlife is this?”

Sylvia’s knees buckled under her as the ground met the soles of her boots. Her palms scraped across the cobblestones as she caught herself from fully face-planting, and once she had regained her balance, she saw Raff hadn’t been so lucky. He lay supine about five feet from her, one arm and both legs bent askew in a nasty, broken way.

Before she could crouch down to check on him, he straightened out and lifted himself on all fours. His face was dirty, but unharmed.

“What the fuck just happened?” He asked. “There was a car coming, and you appeared out of nowhere, and then the world disappeared.”

Sy chewed the inside of her cheek, trying to find the way to begin explaining, before Raff’s attention was turned elsewhere. She followed his gaze upward and realized he was looking at the same castle that had been embroidered into the tapestry that hung above her crib as an infant and bed as a child.

She had never seen it in person, but it lived up to the legend that passed through the witches in her family. The sky surrounding it was an ethereal lavender that reminded her of summer dawns captured through an extreme Instagram filter. The castle itself was sepia-colored stone, with tall glass windows and sharp spires lining the parapets.

“Erris,” she breathed in reverence. In doing so, she snapped Raff from his speechlessness.

“What the hell is this place?” He asked, turning to her. “Where have you kidnapped me to this time?”

His last two words and the emphasis he placed on them particularly stung, even if they weren’t accurate. She hadn’t kidnapped him at all, not this time nor the time before. That was all the Tersus’ doing.

“Well,” she said, canine teeth catching on to a particularly swollen piece of inner cheek. “Remember how you almost died last spring?”

“How could I forget?”

“Well, before you almost died, I gave you some medicine—”

“Spare me the euphemisms. Just call it a ‘potion.'”

“Right. A potion. So, it was a potion that would save you from dying—”

“So you did cure me with magic,” he scoffed, throwing his hands in the air. “You promised me you didn’t. You swore that I pulled through from — what did you call it? — ‘my own human strength.'”

“You did!” Sylvia exclaimed. “You did, Raff. The potion I gave you was just a precaution in case you didn’t survive. It was a potion that would save you from dying like a human. Instead you’d die like a witch, and you’d end up here.”

She waved around, and felt the sheer absurdity of it all as her eyes caught on to the dichotomy of the place. While the castle was exactly as she had expected, nothing else in this realm was as it had been described. The bridges that were once “shrouded with dark, lush forests” instead rose from clumps of ashy, empty dead trees and stretched across dried-up riverbeds. A carrion crow landed up the road and picked at a large carcass that Sylvia hadn’t even noticed. As it pulled meat from the bones, the body shifted, and the light glinted off something narrow and metal sticking out of it.

“What, in hell?” Raff asked, his voice echoing in the quiet. “What kind of paradise is this?”

“It’s not supposed to be like this,” Sylvia said. “It’s supposed to be lush and green. A sort of Witch Paradise.” She started walking toward the crow and its meal.

“Don’t walk away,” Raff said, giving in when she didn’t slow down and hustling to catch up. “This is really a great heaven, by the way. Great place to spend the afterlife. You witches really are fu—”

“Raff, something’s wrong,” she said.

“No shit,” he said. “If I’m in the place where you decided I should go if I died, then that means I’ve died. So since you’re here, too, that means you can figure out a way to magic us back or something so you can save me again.”

Sylvia reached the crow. Try as she might, she couldn’t shoo it away — instead, it glared at her with its red eyes before dipping its beak back down to take another bite. Now that she was closer, she could see that the body on the road was indeed human. The light had reflected off of a long narrow sword that had been plunged into its chest.

“I’d say pick the pockets for identification, but it doesn’t look like this guy has pockets left,” Raff said, crouching down next to Sylvia. His cold demeanor had started to thaw.

“Raff, it’s not supposed to be like this,” she said again, turning to him. “My grandmother is supposed to be here. My great-uncle, too. But it’s all destroyed. The forests, the streams — something terrible happened here.”

“I don’t think I’ll be much help figuring out what,” Raff said gently. “But why don’t you send me back before you start searching?”

“Raff, I can’t send you back,” Sylvia said. “The only way you got here is because you died. The same goes for me — my Earth body is pancaked out on Lake Shore Drive just like yours is right now. We have to stay here and figure out what happened before whatever got this guy,” she motioned to the body before her, “gets us, too.”

“How do you die in an afterlife?” Raff said.

Almost on queue, the body before them began to stir. Its arms unfolded themselves from around its head, and its neck straightened so that the face looked straight up at them. One eye socket was empty; the other was so coated in blood that the blue of its iris almost glowed against the deep black stain. The mouth opened, and from it came a gasp that should have been a scream, but for the slashed vocal chords dangling from its opened throat.

“You don’t,” Sylvia said, putting a hand on the body’s shoulder in sympathy. “And sometimes that’s worse.”

Axiom Thorne: Ghosts and Black Widows

Four days since assuring us he would arrive to assist the Hydra in its new mission, Everwick has yet to arrive. There’s been no word, no sign of the Reiver on the horizon. The crew looks at me, part worried and part suspicious, as if they pity me for his neglect but also believe it’s my fault he’s staying away.

And while I’d like to send him a glib message of “Are you dead?” I know that the answer is likely to be “yes,” which will obviously be impossible for him to send.

It’s not his death that I dread: Despite, or maybe because of, a single night’s tryst, I have very little to think of him. I can’t afford attachment, which is why I’m growing weary of how comfortable I’ve become embedded with the crew of the Hydra this long. At least they all seem to know how to take care of themselves. Ansel, for all his endearing strengths, was never truly self-reliant or -sufficient. At least, I don’t remember him being so, if he was ever real from the beginning. Maybe when the Man with the Colorful Scarf and Diamond Shoes planted his false memory in my mind, he made him some noble but needy human ease my sorrow at losing him. It’s easier to forgive the amputation of dead-weight tissue from the body than it is the removal of a living, loving portion of the heart.

No — I can wave off Ansel (and so many others that came after him) as possibly shadow puppets cast upon my brain by the backlit hands of my patron, but I can’t be able to wave off Everwick as another one of his mental torture devices. Everwick, like Darvin, is undoubtedly real, and if they’re both gone now — Darvin in the maw of a dragon, Everwick perhaps at the hands of a Thieves Guild member — they begin a pattern of men who leave my bed and turn up dead. Or maybe they continue it, if I can trust my memories to be my own and not a theatrical performance meant to keep me under the influence of the Man with the Colorful Scarf and Diamond Shoes.

He hasn’t appeared since I waved him away on the gangplank that morning after the Revier. His absence is cloaked in anticipation: Not my own, as I’ve found it quite pleasant not to have him materialize at the foot of my bed or in the dark of one of the seaside caves we traverse, but of his: He paces the tiny plot of my soul that he owns, waiting for the right moment to appear. Waiting for me to be wide-eyed and alone, like the first day he beckoned me into the alley to see “real magic” and left me talking to corpses and summoning flesh-eating clouds of insects.

So when the Hydra crew entertains the idea of any kind of journey into a ghostly realm, I get a little anxious. It’s not the scream of the ghosts that I fear — it’s the low-gravel voice of the man who calls them to order.

Excerpt: “No stars. Sky’s Still Pretty, Though.”

Spoiler alert: This is a character death scene from my National Novel Writing Month 2020 project. I cried twice — once while writing it, once while editing it for this post — which is either a sign of good writing or total exhaustion.

They stepped out into the spring night, the breeze pulling the sound of piano through the saloon’s closed windows to where they stood across the street. It must have drizzled — the ground had that smell of barely-wet dirt that made Lucky think of green leaves and damp socks. Far-off lightening lit up the sky with a soft glow accompanied by low rumbles of thunder. 

To the right of the hotel’s opulent porch, Trent had the horses, but there was still no sign of Elton coming out of the saloon. Squinting into the distance, Lucky couldn’t even make his figure out in the window, and hadn’t Job said he was keeping watch from across the street?

“Something’s wrong,” she said, pulling away from the group and marching across the street toward the saloon. A gunshot cracked, and a small stone five feet to her right jumped ten feet ahead: with no one else on the street at this early morning hour, there was no doubt who the shot was meant for, and from the way the rock moved, the gunman was shooting from behind and above her.

She turned at the moment another streak of lightening crossed the sky. The flash in the clouds and the lamplight illuminating the hotel’s sign glared off a wide-brimmed white hat perched atop Jeremiah Bose, Jr.’s, head. One of the guests had probably cut him free, and he now stood in a dark second-floor room with a rifle aimed straight at Lucky’s feet.

“You’re going to shoot me now?” she yelled up at the pointed gun. “You can’t save me, so you’d rather kill me?” 

Back toward the hotel, Job had stepped out from under the awning of the porch to see where the shot had come from. Wade still stood there, arms crossed, staring daggers at Lucky. If she didn’t know any better, she’d have thought he was enjoying watching her get what he thought she deserved. Trent’s hand was still clutching the reins of three of their horses, but his gun hand was at his belt, ready to draw.

She raised a hand to them to signal for them to stay where they were. Jeremiah wouldn’t kill her, she knew, but he was likely hungry to sink a bullet into one of the Higgs Boys who had (in his rendition of the story) likely defiled her.

“Fine,” Lucky said. “I’ll come back, if that’s what you want.”

She turned and began to walk toward the hotel, but another shot landed at her feet, just a foot from her toes. She leapt back, tripped on a jagged stone, and the ground came up to meet her as she landed on her back.

She picked herself up quickly and took another step toward the hotel but was met with a fourth bullet, this time just two feet to her left. She turned back to Jeremiah at the window, threw a rude hand gesture his way, and turned back to the saloon. He’d shot twice — she’d have some time while he reloaded. She’d get there to warn Elton, even if it took a bullet in the leg. Her foot didn’t land its next step before another shot rang out and hit another rock just feet from where Lucky stood.

“What kind of gun is that?” she yelled. From this distance, she couldn’t see Jeremiah’s face, but she could imagine that he was smiling that mischievous grin he’d unironically flash when explaining some new technique he had learned in one of the new books on undertaking. Another crack of lightening and thunder answered her, spaced closer together as the storm moved closer and closer. To hell with what he wants, she thought. If he thought she’d walk closer to his fire, he had gone madder than she thought.

Another step, and another bullet landed next to her. This time Jeremiah was either not as precise with his aim, or was growing impatient. The bullet grazed Lucky’s shoulder, ripping through the tan leather sleeve of her jacket and white linen shirt underneath. It was a mere flesh wound, but the pain and shock at Jeremiah’s persistence made her stumble. She looked behind her and saw Job had stepped out a few more feet from the awning, aiming his gun upward and inching backward until he just had Jeremiah in his sights. Two more steps, and he was ready to shoot.

Jeremiah saw him first and pulled the trigger. The bullet missed, but it was enough to send Job scrambling back under the protection of the awning. Meanwhile, Lucky saw Squirrel starting to slide down the hotel drainpipe, his own gun lifted. If he could get level with Jeremiah, he could surprise him. Lucky turned back as to not give away Squirrel’s position and refocused on her target.

Another step, another crack. This one hit the wooden hitching post next to the saloon’s porch, splintering the wood. Any minute now someone should step out of the saloon, Lucky thought. The piano would stop playing; Jeremiah would shoot; and everyone inside would hear the crack of the bullet and come out looking for what all the fuss was about — unless they assumed it was thunder from the approaching storm.

This close, Lucky could see in the windows. The bartender was cleaning glasses, though he kept eying her suspiciously through the glass. The tables in the window were empty, though one still had a beer glass on it and a gray coat slung over the chair. If Elton was in there, he wasn’t by the window anymore. 

She knew that she couldn’t put a foot on the saloon porch stairs without Jeremiah potentially taking off the other one, so she stopped inches from the steps. 

“Elton!” she yelled just as another clap of sharp thunder rattled the saloon windows. The piano kept playing inside. She yelled his name again.

It all happened in a second. Elton appeared in the window, slung his jacket over his shoulder, and turned out of view as he neared the door. Lucky was sent back to Roachie’s saloon in Clarkstown — how she had snatched Trent’s jacket from the chair before heading out to meet him before the marshal could catch them, just as he vowed he would, if one of them stepped foot in his path.

Jeremiah hadn’t been shooting at her to make her stand still or come back to the hotel. He was shooting at her to make her walk toward the saloon, where she would coax out Elton into the open and he’d have a clear shot.

The saloon doors swung open, and time slowed. Elton stood with his arms spread wide as they pushed the panels wide. He turned back to shout his good nights to whatever barkeeps and barmaids he had commiserate with throughout the evening, then turned back to Lucky.

“Fine night, isn’t it, m’lady?” he asked, taking a step onto the porch, beer tripping his tongue and sending it sprawling over the syllables. 

“Elton, go back inside,” Lucky said, but he couldn’t hear her over the thunder overhead. He took another step out from under the awning and into the line of fire.

“I was hoping you’d stop for a drink with me,” he smiled. “Guess we’ll have to try again tomorr–”

The bullet hit him in the chest. Bright red blossomed like a carnation in his buttonhole. He staggered on the steps, gripping the railing to keep himself standing. The gray jacket landed on the stair and slid off its edge into the dirt, but he paid no mind. On his face was the look of a man who’s known exactly what has happened to him, but who refuses to believe its seriousness. 

“Dear god,” he said, looking at Lucky with half a laugh stuck in his throat. “I do believe I’ve been shot, Lucky.”

Another crack, and a second carnation bloomed on the left side of his stomach. A third, a fourth — he was a garden of red flowers blossoming before her eyes. She caught him in her open arms as he tumbled down the step, coughing a spray of blood that she felt hit her face. Now that she had wrapped him in her arms, she hoped Jeremiah would stop shooting long enough so she could get Elton back to the horses. 

“I thought I heard shots,” Elton sputtered into her ear. The heat of his breath and his blood seared more than the bullet to her arm. “But the barkeep said it was just the thunder.”

“We’ll get out of here,” Lucky said, starting to pull him forward, her back still to the hotel. She counted one, two, three steps without a shot. “We’ll get you taken care of.”

“Who’s going to do that, Lucky?” he asked, feet starting to lag behind. “I’m the only one who knows a single iota about the human body. Can’t very much operate on myself.”

“We’ll find a way,” Lucky said, feeling another burning. Her vision was getting blurry as her eyes began to fill with tears. Elton was growing heavier as the life was starting to leave his body. She recognized the signs from when she had to help her father up the stairs of their ranch house the night before she left: Every step seemed to shake a bit more consciousness out of him.

“Lucky,” Elton said her name quietly. “We’re not going to make it.”

Like hell, they wouldn’t. wouldn’t. She didn’t care if her ankles snapped — she was going to get Elton back to the cover of the hotel where his cousins could at least say goodbye. The shooting had continued behind her, filling the quiet night air with pops and explosions, but no one had screamed in pain yet: It was as if they were doing it all for show, like bucks beating against each other with their horns. Everyone was shooting, but no one was aiming to kill.

If only someone would just get Jeremiah already so she could lie Elton down on a soft feather bed in the hotel, where he’d pass in peace.

“Lucky,” Elton said again. “You need to stop.”

“I won’t,” she cried, a bubble of phlegm catching the words as they fought from her throat. 

“You have to,” he said. “Just lie me down so I can see the stars one last time.”

One last time. Lucky stopped pulling him toward the hotel. Her knees buckled, and down along with her came Elton, crashing to the ground with a thud. The wind knocked out of his lungs and took a blood clot with it, spraying Lucky again. She felt the warmth trickle down her face but wasn’t sure if was Elton’s blood or her tears.

To Lucky, and Lucky only, the shooting had stopped. The hotel and saloon disappeared. The horses stopped bucking and whinnying, and the thunder above dulled. The burn in her arm from where Jeremiah’s bullet grazed her cooled, and the only sensation she had anymore was the tight grip Elton had of her hand in his as he stared up at the sky.

“No stars,” he sighed as lightning illuminated the edges of the clouds roiling above. “Sky’s still pretty, though.”

“I’ll get you back to your family,” Lucky said.

“Don’t bother,” he wheezed. “What good will it do for Aunt Mary to have something else to bury in her field?”

“I’ll get your cousins,” Lucky said, twisting around. In this blank slate of space, she could still make out Job, Trent and Wade standing outside the hotel, little flashes and pops glinting off their guns as they shot away at the man who had wounded their cousin. Squirrel was hanging by one arm off the drainpipe, trying to get good aim. No one seemed to notice that their friend was bleeding out in the street.

Lucky called their names, hoping to get at least one of them to sit with Elton as he passed. Later on she would have many quiet nights to wonder if this was because she thought it was right, or if it was because she didn’t want to be alone with him when he died. Her own father had asked her to close the door on her way to bed that night: He knew she had no interest in being witness to death. 

“They’re not coming,” she cried to Elton.

“No matter,” he said, his voice even hoarser now. “You should go to them so you can get out of here alive.” 

“Not without you,” Lucky said.

“You won’t make it any other way,” Elton said. “Thank you, Lucky.”

“For what?”

“For finally cooking us a decent meal,” he smiled. “And for being a friend. All of them have to be friendly because I’m kin. It’s been that way since I landed on their doorstep as a kid with two dead parents and too soft a heart for their nefarious games. You always made me feel like you liked me for me. And I appreciate that. Don’t think anyone ever made me feel that way before.”

“Truth be told,” she said, bending inward. “You’re my favorite Higgs Boy, Elton Walters.”

Elton’s face broke into a broad smile that showed his bloody teeth. 

“Now that is a nice thing,” he said, and grew still.

Excerpt: One-and-a-half robberies

“Not bad for my second robbery, eh boys?” Lucinda said, shaking out her skirts of the dirt, leaves and pine needles that had collected when she rolled down the hill from the tracks.

“Second?” Wade scoffed.

“Yeah,” Lucinda said. “The one when we first met. That was my first.”

“You didn’t do anything to stop the Rosewood train,” Wade said. “You got on as a passenger and decided you liked the ring on the finger of the lady next to you. Doesn’t count.”

“I got on the train with an empty bag. You pulled us over, and I did my own looting of the first-class car,” Lucinda countered. “And I got off the train with quite a full bag, Mr. Higgs.”

“That’s only half the work,” Wade said, waving her away.

“Then fine,” Lucinda said. “Let’s call it this my one-and-a-half robbery.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Wade said. “You can’t commit half a robbery.”

Lucinda looked at him, then pulled from her bag one of the diamond bracelets she had taken off the old woman who had called her ugly. She jingled it in his face. “Maybe a little rounding is in order.”

He scowled at the swinging gemstones and snatched it from her hand.

“Fine,” he said. “Not bad for your second robbery.”

Excerpt from “Stet:” Agatha comes home

I walk back across the street to my apartment after two more beers. The summer days have started stretching into evening, so when I roll into bed I sink my face into the pillow against the orange sunlight streaking the wall through the slatted blinds.

A phone rings in the distance, getting louder. When I lift my face off the pillowcase in desperate need of a wash, I see that the orange has brightened into synthetic white as city lights replace the setting sun. Somehow I find my phone woven into my cocoon of sheets.

“This is Mary from Moundsville Mental Hospital,” says a voice on the other end, too happy with itself for conveniently holding a name alliterative with her place of employment. “We’ve got a Miss Agatha Lydecker here, and she needs to be taken home. You’re on her list of emergency contacts, so we thought you might be available to pick her up?”

We arrive back at my apartment in what seemed like no time at all, and I tuck her onto the couch in the living room. She falls asleep quickly, and I return to my room, this time flopping onto my back. I close my eyes and try to let my breathing drop into the same rhythm as the humming icemaker in the kitchen.

But I can’t fall into sync. I’m too busy listening to the silence coming from the living room, which screams that something’s not right. I get up and pad down the hall to the couch. Agatha hasn’t moved. I go back to my bed, assuring myself that she’ll be fine, at least until she wakes up in a stranger’s apartment in hospital scrubs, the only clothes they had for her. I don’t know why they couldn’t dress her in what she wore when she was admitted.

I’m finally an exhale away from icemaker meditation when I hear a creak in the living room. With a sigh I lift myself out of bed, but I don’t make it down the hall. Instead, I’m frozen at my bedroom door, looking down the ten feet of empty space at where the living room is, only to find that I’m not looking at empty space — I’m watching Agatha pirouetting on the other side.

Before I can call out to her, she stops spinning, facing the kitchen like a statue. She slowly pivots to face me, and a shaft of midnight city light slices across her face to illuminate her eyes, narrowed in concentration. Or is it anger? The pupils reflect the light like a cat’s, and there’s no other word for what I’m seeing:

Ghostly.

I back away, unsettled but refusing fear. Agatha continues to watch me, the light framing her scowling eyes before she starts to pirouette again, turning a few times, then stepping forward into another turn, slowly coming down the hall toward me. I hear panicked breathing and think it’s her. It’s me.

I inch backward into the bedroom, about to close the door, but decide to have one more peek. She’s just standing there, scrubs hanging off her slight frame like rags off a scarecrow’s frame.

I close the door anyway and get onto the bed, contemplating my options. My phone is on the kitchen table, where I left it after putting Agatha to bed. Below the window is a 30-foot drop. My walk-in closet is better defined as a gaze-in closet because it’s so full of boxes, clips and dirty laundry. As I sit among the sheets reeking from sweat spent on nightmares about what happened to Agatha, I realize that now that I’ve learned what happened to her, I’m terrified of her.

Then I hear her call my name. The voice is so faint that it must be coming from the couch. I hear it again. Part of me wants to answer — is sure that I must have just been seeing things, letting her recounts of ghost-hunting get to me, or letting guilt invade — but I can’t move. I try, but I can’t. This isn’t the sleep paralysis I usually have the night before going to press. This is being literally too scared to move.

She calls my name again. I can’t budge. Maybe she’ll roll over and go back to sleep, wiped out from her ballet interlude in the hallway. Maybe she’ll be confused and leave the apartment altogether. Either would be a win at this point, I think, but the Good Person inside slaps my conscience on the wrist. I’d answer her, but I can’t form words. My mouth is locked shut.

There’s my name again. It’s louder, but still a whisper. It’s right in my ear, and I feel breath on my face and eyelashes against my temple as I hear it. I gain the ability to blink, and I take the opportunity to crush my eyes shut against the sound, the feeling, the smell of sweat-rotted sheets steeped in insomnia. The knowledge that somehow, Agatha is right next to me, and I won’t be able to fight her off or even talk her down because I don’t know how I got this way. She got this way, I mean.

My fault, I whisper again in my head.

“Yes, it is,” I hear Agatha’s voice say, clear as day. My eyes explode open, and I see her illuminated by the light intruding through the windows, her face maniacal as she laughs at me, frozen on my bed. Dense smoke curls up the walls, creeping out from under her feet as it shrouds both of us but doesn’t stifle the sound of her laugh, which turns into angry screams, then just screams.

It’s me screaming. I’m screaming as I wake up in my apartment. The city lights illuminate stripes of the past tenant’s wallpaper dotted with wallflowers that refuse to dance to the icemaker’s hum. I’m drenched in sweat.

Telling myself it was a dream, I step into the hall. No pirouetting reporter at the end. I creep forward. No Agatha on the couch, either. My keys are still on the hook next to the door, and I take my phone from the kitchen table. Satisfied, I return to bed, trying to convince myself that I must have left the phone there when I walked in from the bar, even though I haven’t slept without it next to me in five years.

Why Wade Higgs decided to rob trains with his two brothers, his cousin and a man named Squirrel

When Wade Higgs was twelve years, four months and three days old, he made two discoveries that would change the course of his life for the coming two decades.

The first was that his family was poor. His new clothes, though clean and whole, were consistently handed down from his older brother, Trent, and his old clothes went to his younger brother, Job. Dinner, while hearty and tasty, was often a simple vegetable slop, as pork was pricey and deer was dear. Every season came with fewer cattle on the ranch, and every winter came with fewer logs for the fire. And when all of this came to his attention, he made the second discovery:

Whiskey tasted good and made him feel better.

Clark Roberson from two ranches over had come by on a new horse, newly sired by his father’s workhorse and another neighbor’s mare. He was 14 and mean as a horsefly, never leaving behind an opportunity to gloat in the face of those who worshipped the ground he walked on. Until this day, Wade was one of them: Convinced that Clark was the epitome of young manhood.

“Like it?” Clark asked as Wade’s eyes widened big enough to take in the horse. “Pa says he’s mine. Bet you’ve never seen one like this, Higgs.”

By this time Trent had come out of the house. Trent was the oldest and biggest, and yet somehow the good Lord hadn’t found the time or space to fill him with wisdom. As tall as he was, at nearly 6-foot-6, he was dreadfully short on temper, except when it came to animals. No one had seen such a skilled horse and cattle wrangler. Terms like “prodigy” didn’t get used often in Polk Canyon, but it was a common synonym for Trent Higgs and his ability to tame any mustang or drive any herd when he was just ten years old. Now cresting 16 years old, he dreamed of having the money to start his own ranch, but spent his days scrutinizing the ranchers and farmhands in the region who showed little respect, let alone skill, in their trade.

So naturally, Trent wasn’t impressed by the way Clark kept standing in his stirrups.

“Horse won’t like that,” he grumbled, glaring up at him.

“Horse doesn’t know what it likes,” Clark said. “Because I haven’t taught him yet. He’ll get used to it. That’s the nice thing about being able to afford a new horse — he can be anything I want him to be, not some ratty old hand-me-down.”

Trent must have decided arguing with someone two years younger and likely smarter wasn’t worth his time, because he turned back toward the barn. But Clark wasn’t done yet.

“All those mangy beasts you keep on this ranch, I’m surprised you haven’t all got fleas,” he shouted. “Especially considering you’re so poor you all wear the same clothes. Tell me, Wade, you wearing your brother’s old underwear?”

Wade’s cheeks grew hot. Until now, it never occurred to him that families didn’t normally pass everything among one another. He couldn’t remember the last new shirt or pair of trousers that had come into the house, and wondered if, indeed, any had since Trent had grown to his full size.

Sensing his work was done, Clark stood in the stirrups and kicked his horse in the sides, making it rear and charge away. Wade coughed in the dust they kicked up.

“Trent?” Wade asked, voice cracking. It was that time of his adolescence. “Are we poor?”

“Yeah,” Trent shrugged. “I guess.”

Wade didn’t know why it bothered him so much now. Nothing had changed about the way they lived since that morning when he woke up under a quilt that his mother had sewn from scraps of flour sacks and old shirts. The only difference was that now someone had given it a name, “poor,” and the shame of it all came crashing down on him.

Job came limping out of the house. He was nine, and the Biblical origins of his name seemed to determine his luck. Just six months before, he had tried to climb the large tree out back and fallen, breaking one of his legs. It hadn’t healed properly — it was now shorter than the other one — and Job was still getting used to walking around on uneven legs.

“Ma says Mr. Gilligan is coming for dinner,” he said. “She says we have to wash up.”

Mr. Gilligan was from the bank in town — a friend of the family and a quiet investor in the Higgs Ranch, even when it had its rough years. Whenever he came for dinner, there was sure to be a ham at the table. The promise of sweet, salty meat made Wade’s mouth water, even as his stomach churned at the thought that the only reason his family would be eating something so valuable was because someone else had given it to them.

That night, Mr. Gilligan did arrive with a ham, as well as a bottle of whiskey. Sitting around the table, he told funny stories from the town in Polk County, joked with the boys, and played checkers with Job until Mrs. Higgs announced that supper was ready. The bottle of whiskey stayed in the kitchen, incentivizing the diners to finish their meal quicker than usual. When the plates were cleared, Mrs. Higgs rose to take them into the kitchen and retrieve two glasses, one for her husband and one for her guest.

“Mary, get yourself a glass,” Mr. Gilligan admonished when she returned. “I want both of you to be in on this toast.” She did, and when she came back Mr. Kelly lifted his drink and proclaimed “To old friends, whose bonds can never be broken by hot words or acute adversity.”

Trent had gone out back to put the horses away before the wolves came out. Job was playing checkers against himself — something he had become quite accustomed to during his recovery — in the corner. And Wade’s ear was pressed to the door. Something about the uncharacteristic gift Mr. Gilligan had brought to their home was weighing on him.

“Mary, that was one excellent meal,” he continued. “It breaks my heart that this could be my last one for a while.”

“What do you mean, Sam?”

“I mean to say that the bank is moving me on,” he confessed. “They’re concerned with the amount of train robbing going on in these parts, so they’re shutting down the Polk Canyon office and moving me out to Kodak City to open a new branch that’ll serve both areas. That area’s got a couple of marshals that’ve been keeping an eye on things. Only one robbery in the last two years, actually.”

Wade new his father was too proud to ask what would happen to the family with out Sam Gilligan’s monthly dinners, but not tonight.

“That’s the end of the money, isn’t it?” John Higgs said.

“I’m afraid that with the new branch, the bank’s going to be keeping a closer eye on my expenses.” Sam shrugged. “I know I wasn’t giving you much, but it was still more than I care to try to slip under their noses. I’m not saying this is the absolute end — just an intermission.”

“Winter’s almost here,” Wade’s mother said wearily. “What are we supposed to do for food?”

“I’ll send some goods down,” Mr. Gilligan said, his voice fading away behind the pumping of blood inside Wade’s ears. No money from the bank meant no food. No food meant they’d starve. If there was ever a time to try whiskey, now was it, he reasoned, and he took a full swig from the bottle.

It burned so bad his eyes watered, but he liked it. He liked the distraction the pain gave him from the even more searing reality that his family might not survive a winter without crawling to people like Clark Roberson’s family for help. Once it subsided, he took another swig. Then another.

By the time Mary Higgs went back into the house, her son had finished half the bottle and was sitting under the worktable, hiccuping. She eyed the remaining whiskey, understood immediately what had happened, and led him across the room to his bed tucked under the stairs to the upstairs loft. Wade’s mouth was too numb to tell her he was sorry.

The next morning, he picked up the newspaper that Mr. Gilligan had used to wrap the ham. Despite the haze of meat grease and a hangover, Wade made out the words of an article about a train that had been robbed by a small group of bandits just outside Fort Jerusalem and remembered what their so-called family friend had said about Kodak City being relatively safe from such nefarious activities.

And that’s when he decided he would change that.

He saw Mr. Gilligan one more time, twenty years later. He’d lost count of how many trains he’d robbed by then, but this was the first one he’d stopped on its way to Kodak City in which a bank employee was charged with sitting with the safe in the front. In this case, it was the man who had abandoned the Higgs family before the longest winter in history — who had sent a single box of goods before disappearing from their lives entirely. He hadn’t even shown up to bury his old friends John and Mary Higgs when they died just before spring broke that year.

Struggling under the weight of age and guilt, Mr. Gilligan’s slow hands and old gun were no match for Cousin Elton and The Squirrel, who subdued him easily. When Wade opened the safe, he emptied it into his bag and made sure to take the bottle of whiskey from Mr. Gilligan’s own satchel bag.

“Here’s to friends,” he said, uncorking it with his teeth and spitting the stopper into Mr. Gilligan’s lap. “Whose bonds can never be broken by hot words or acute adversity.”

Wade Higgs’ theme is “Old Number Seven” by The Devil Makes Three: