Here’s the news of the week: 1) A new story, King of All He Surveyed, is rolling out into e-bookstores right now and is up at places such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. It’s a science fiction tale about a seventh grader in the near future who figures out how to hack people’s mindcoms. 2) A short story set in the Dorelai Chronicles universe featuring Dorelai and Stuart will be published about a week from now.
Today is another double feature of posts. If you’re looking for Part One.15. of Soul Cages, scroll down the home page because it was posted first. Next up in this post is Shade Town. Widow Nell Wood longs to be reunited with the ghost of her prospector husband, Isaiah, after his lynching in the Arizona Territory. A dream from Madame Tournay points the way to a place in the New Mexico Territory called “Shade Town” where Nell can be with her husband again … for the right price.
Second edition copyright © 2014 by Lynn Kilmore
Copyright © 2013 by L. M. May
Published by Osuna Publishing
This story is a work of fiction. The characters, names, incidents, dialogue, and locales are either drawn from the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, and locales is entirely coincidental.
Nell buried the silver dollar under a clod of dirt on the edge of the wagon road, then tamped the dirt down with her feet in their lace-up boots. Once she was certain the coin was completely covered, she stood upon the buried silver, closed her eyes, and willed the stagecoach to Shade Town to come for her as she waited in the weak moonlight.
The air smelled of dead leaves and dust and coming snow. It was early November, and winter had crept into Albuquerque, the leaves falling from the narrow strips of cottonwoods running up and down the Rio Grande.
When she opened her eyes, she was disappointed to find no ghostly stagecoach racing towards her down the road. All she could see under the waxing moon were the piñon and chamisa bushes near the road, and farther to the west the dark shapes of the cottonwoods where the Rio Grande flowed.
The chill made her pull Isaiah’s canvas jacket tighter around her shoulders, glad for the warmth of the faded red flannel she’d sewn on the inside to keep him snug from the mountain cold.
His jacket no longer held his scent, only her own, but wearing it made her feel closer to him. That and his pocket watch. The watch hung on a chain around her neck, hidden under her widow’s weeds and corset and shimmy, next to her heart, the feel of its steady ticks a comfort, its smooth metal warmed by her skin.
Only the clothes upon her back would she take with her to Shade Town, for she never expected to return. Everything else—the homestead, the furniture, the cows, the few precious books—she’d sold to gather the silver dollars that would be needed to pay the coachman and Madame Tournay so that she could see her dead husband again.
She never wanted to come back to the unjust land of the living. Never. Better to live with the ghosts.
Half the silver she’d gathered was sewn into the hem of her black woolen dress, a fourth into her bonnet lining, and the rest in her reticule. She’d pay her way back to Isaiah, no matter the cost.
Her gloved fingers throbbed with blisters and sores, for she’d scrubbed and polished and cleaned and waxed as a maid these last few weeks to scrape together a few more coins for the journey.
Except for the faint yipping of coyotes from the arroyos, there was no sound of any other living creature nearby, nor any hoof beats or creak of wagon wheels. She’d snuck along one of the lesser-used roads out of Albuquerque, walking north as the sun set, until she reached a place far away enough from the town that she could try to call Madame Tournay’s stagecoach to her.
Now she was afraid. Afraid that the dream from Madame Tournay—the night after Nell found out that Isaiah was dead—had been a lie. Or that the coach would refuse to fetch her because of her brown skin.
Then came the sensation of weak ground tremors through the soles of her boots. The stagecoach was coming.
Looking south, she saw the coach appear upon the moonlit wagon road, and now a faint rattling could be heard. But no horses could be seen pulling it along as it bounced over the ruts and stones.
And the driver’s bench was empty.
“Hup!” A man’s voice urged the horses to slow. The driver was there, just invisible like the horses.
Nell could understand his stealth, for rumors about Madame Tournay had finally reached Governor Lew Wallace’s ears, and there were soldiers scouring the northern main roads of the New Mexico Territory for any sign of Tournay’s stagecoaches. So far all attempts to capture a coach had failed. From the whispered tales Nell’d heard while in Albuquerque, the dream with Madame Tournay only came to the bereaved. Tournay’s place, wherever it might be hidden, had gotten the name of “Shade Town” because she promised all dreamers the same thing—the chance to reunite with the shade of their dead loved one in exchange for silver.
It had been the dream from Tournay that had shown Nell how to call the stagecoach to herself by burying a silver coin in the road dirt.
The stagecoach rolled to a halt beside her, and while she could hear no whinnies nor smell horse sweat, she could see that four invisible horses were harnessed to the coach. A shadow seemed to congeal into a man-shape before her, and he opened the stagecoach door with his invisible hands.
This surprised her, for she’d expected to have to ride up on the driver’s bench.
“Thank you,” she said to the manshadow.
She dug out from her reticule the required three silver coins, and held them out on her gloved palm towards where the driver would be standing if she could see him.
The coins disappeared from her hand.
As she stepped up into the coach, she noticed that it smelled like plowed earth. No one else sat within, so she had her choice of the hard leather seats, and picked the one in the far corner that faced the direction the horses would be going. The coach door was slammed shut behind her, and the stagecoach raced onwards down the moonlit road.
All she could hear was the creak and groan of the stagecoach itself as it rattled down the road at a speed that made that of live horses seem slow. She grabbed onto the nearest strap, trying to brace herself against falling out of her seat as the wheels jounced along the rutted road at a bone-jarring pace.
The horses weren’t flesh and blood, neither was the driver, and perhaps that was why no stagecoach of Tournay’s had yet to be caught.
And then the shaking stopped, and to her shock she saw through the coach window that they were skimming the tops of the piñon bushes like a bird.
Nell was shivering from the cold drafts that came through the cracks of the stagecoach as they flew above the mesas and canyons of the eastern edge of the Jemez Mountains. The coach rocked from side-to-side in the gusts of snow-flecked wind.
Snow clouds huddled around the Jemez, blocking out the stars, but when she looked back towards the Sangre de Cristo Mountains the night sky was clear. The winter storm was only over the Jemez.
Through the whirling flakes ahead there was a weak bluish streak of light; as they flew closer, she discovered that the light poured through a rip in the air itself like sunlight shining through a rent in a calico skirt.
The horses and coach slipped through the sky’s tear, and Nell felt stretched so thin she couldn’t breathe—then it was over and she sucked in air that tasted like pinesap and piñon smoke.
The driver gave a whistle, slapped the reins, and the horses whinnied in response.
Through the window, she saw that dawn would come before long, for the western skies above the Jemez were now strangely clear of snow clouds and brightening to a washed-out indigo as the sun approached the eastern horizon.
The wheels jolted her around in the coach as they touched upon land again, and the coach barreled down a pounded dirt road upon a mesa top that snuggled up close against the Jemez. When she peered out the coach window (which faced towards the south), she could make out the far away shadows of the Sandia Mountains near Albuquerque.
There was no snow upon the ground here, as there should have been, and the wild grasses between the red rocks were a lush green instead of a dried-out yellow.
The stagecoach rolled into Shade Town, and wooden shacks blocked her view off the mesa top. Up ahead she saw a plaza surrounded by adobe and wooden buildings, lit up by brown paper lanterns hung on hooks from ropes tied from roof to roof across the plaza’s open space.
Faint strains of music made their way through the coach’s cracks, and she tapped her toe to the tune.
As they got closer, she discovered that all the windows of the houses facing the plaza had lit oil lamps on their sills, and people filled the plaza to overflowing—laughing, singing, dancing—as three fiddlers and a banjo picker played. Men and women danced upon the pounded-down dirt of the plaza, whirling around in a waltz.
The driver slowed the horses so that they came to a stop before reaching the edge of the plaza’s crowd.
When the coach door was opened for her, she saw between the spinning shapes of the dancers that there was a large rectangular stone-bordered pond in the plaza’s center. Lit paper lanterns floated on tiny rafts on the pond’s surface.
The dancers were an intermixed group of whites, blacks, Spanish, and mestizos—even a Chinese man in a grocer’s apron could be seen dancing with his wife to the music.
She rubbed at her sore legs and arms, then stepped down from the stagecoach. Her coach driver was now visible: a pale cowboy barely old enough to shave.
“Thank you,” she said to him.
“My pleasure, ma’am.” He raised his hat to her, then climbed back onto the driver’s bench.
Laughter spilled across the plaza towards them, carried on a wax-scented breeze that felt warm from all the paper lantern candles. The lights flickered as the mountain breeze made the lanterns sway on their hooks from the ropes.
Even though she didn’t know him, she felt as if once the coach driver left she’d be all alone in a strange land. “What am I to do?” she called up to him.
He gathered the reins in one hand, and pointed with the other to a multi-gabled mansion on a slight rise at the far edge of town. “Go and pay your respects to Madame Tournay.” The horses (now visible, all four with glossy coal-colored coats) lifted their heads at Tournay’s name, and breathed out hot steam.
Their eyes, Nell realized, glowed like fiery furnaces.
Small carved stones hung from the harnesses and reins, and were also embedded in the body and wheel spokes of the stagecoach. They were made of lava stone, each shaped in the form of a coiled snake.
Dawn’s sunlight had not yet broken above the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, but it seemed to her that the horses looked more real than the stagecoach as it rolled away.
She herself seemed faded compared to the dancers around her, so she wove her way through the oblivious crowd to the pond to look at herself.
Her own reflection wearing the canvas jacket was barely there compared to that of the pretty young señora in crimson silk gown and black lace standing nearby with her not-so-real male companion. He wore Spanish-tailored clothing with cascades of lace at his throat, a diamond stickpin holding the cascades in place. Silver embroidery outlined his black velvet jacket and he had slicked-back black hair and elegant mustachios, making Nell think of the old Spanish families that lived around Santa Fe.
The light from an oil lamp, in the window of the adobe house behind him, shone faintly through him like sunlight through a murky glass of ditch water.
As for herself, she found she appeared even more faded when she stood in the path of the light from a hanging lantern and looked down into the pond’s water.
Madame Tournay may be able to help me with that, she thought. Looking back up, she studied the plaza, and Tournay’s gabled mansion drew her gaze. It was three stories high, with a roofed porch that appeared to wrap all the way around; the front windows were bright with reflected light that didn’t waver and flicker like that from candles.
Feeling drawn to its bright lights and immense solidity, she walked down the dirt road that ran past the plaza of dancers and out of town.
Paper lanterns hung from the edges of the roof of the mansion’s porch, lighting it up so that Nell could see how fresh the white paint was on the porch boards as she walked across them to the front door. The thick oaken door was unpainted, instead polished to a gloss, and had carvings of four rattlesnakes with their tails in their mouths—one snake for each quarter of the door.
A silver knocker—also in the circular shape of a snake with its tail in its mouth—was nearly hot to her touch through her glove, warm as feverish skin. She lifted it, then let go to wipe her glove on her skirts, as the knocker whammed down with a strange echo that seemed to go on and on.
The door opened, but she could see no one.
She stepped into the entrance hall with its curved staircase going upwards, the sconces burning bright on the walls—the light source of each sconce was a tiny clear crystal with a magical glow. Blue velvet wallpaper covered the walls, and the wood floorboards were polished to so high a gloss that Nell could see the reflection of the walls in them.
But she herself made no reflection.
To keep from panicking, she concentrated on the feel of the steady ticks of Isaiah’s watch against her skin. For his sake I can face anything, she thought.
A silver platter on the hall’s sideboard held oranges spiked all over with cloves, so that the hall smelled of spiced oranges, but underneath was a faint scent of earth like that of the stagecoach.
Peering behind the still open front door, Nell was not surprised to find that no one was there. She moved deeper into the hall, and a puff of wind blew past her from the stairs, slamming the oaken door shut.
The tinkle of piano keys came from behind a closed door on the left.
No footsteps could be heard, no voices, no creak of floorboards, no scent of cigars and tobacco juice.
She reached out her hand to turn the crystal doorknob of the left door, and heard whispering from behind it. Something about the sound made chills run up and down her arms.
After pulling Isaiah’s jacket tighter about her, Nell reached out her hand again to open the door. It led into a fancy parlor with silver-colored wallpaper, blue velvet couches and chairs, and an upright piano in a far corner with music sheets scattered on the seat.
A woman dressed in a black silk gown that covered her arms, with thick black veils that hid her head, and black lace gloves on her hands, sat at a small round table covered with a blue satin tablecloth with silver tassels. A stacked deck of cards lay before her.
“Welcome, Mrs. Isaiah Wood,” the woman said in a liquid accent that was the same as the voice from Nell’s dream that had told her about Shade Town. “I am Madame Tournay. Come here and sit, if you please.”
As Nell got closer, she thought Tournay’s skin had a sheen to it under the lace that made her think of the belly scales of a snake.
The backs of the cards were decorated in blue and white with pictures of writhing snake forms.
Nell sat down upon a blue velvet chair at the table, and Madame Tournay shuffled the cards with a pfffffttt, to then flip the top one over to toss before Nell.
“The queen of clubs,” Madame Tournay said. She flipped again. “The knave of spades.” Tossing down the next card, she said, “The ace of hearts. You and Isaiah. You loved him, no?”
“Yes, I loved him.”
“You would do anything for him, go anywhere, to have him with you again?”
Tournay put the deck aside. “There is a price to pay, as for all things. Did you bring the silver?”
“Yes.” Nell dug out her reticule, and tossed it upon the table—it was faded to a ghost like herself, she could see the blue silk of the table through it, but then Tournay pulled off her laced gloves and touched it, and it became solid. As Tournay poured out the reticule’s ghostly silver upon the table, Nell dug out the rest of her hidden silver from her bonnet to add to the growing pile, and then rent the hem of her dress to obtain the last coins.
Once Nell was done, there was a glinting pile of silver under the magical white light of the sconces. But like herself and her things, the silver seemed only half-real, more like ghost silver than real silver.
Tournay waited until Nell was done, then stroked her palms across the silver. The first pass, her hands went through, but the silver became denser and more solid, and on the second pass, Tournay was able to scoop the coins up to fall into her silken lap with clinks as the coins hit each other.
There was something strange about Madame Tournay. Lord only knew what hid behind all those veils, which fell so low that they covered Tournay’s bosom as well as her hair, face, and neck.
Tournay’s skin was definitely snakelike, and when Nell listened hard, she thought she heard soft hisses from under the veils, as well as a soft sss to the end of Tournay’s words. A snake drawl.
“You have paid it all,” Madame Tournay said. “If you had held anything back, even the smallest silver coin, I would have turned you out. But you are honest, and have given me it all. I am fair, you see. I only demand what silver one can earn, not a particular price. Both rich and poor can come to me with their broken hearts, as long as they do not cling to what they own.”
Her fingers have no nails, Nell realized with a shiver.
Tournay gestured with her outspread palms in the direction of Shade Town outside her mansion. “This is my town. I have the power to provide a place for the dead to return. Your husband will return to you at dusk. Go and wait for him at the plaza.”
Nell’s heart felt like it would pound its way through her ribcage, it was going so hard.
Her body of its own volition seemed to walk away from Tournay, to open the parlor’s door into the hall. Again the front door opened without anyone being seen to do it, and she wandered down the porch steps and back to the dusty plaza, which was empty of revelers under dawn’s light.
Nell felt no hunger, no thirst, all that day and it convinced her that in this town, she was the shade, not those who resided here.
Near dusk, the Spanish gentleman she’d seen before strode across the empty plaza towards her. When he reached her, he bowed, and said, “Señora, good evening.”
“Good evening, sir,” she returned. “I am Mrs. Isaiah Wood. Have you met my husband?”
“I am sorry, but I have not made your husband’s acquaintance,” he said. “I am Señor Rodrigo Esteban Chavez y Vigil. My wife and I journeyed to Santa Fe to visit her father’s family, and she died of a fever sickness. I had the dream of Madame Tournay the night after my loved one’s death.”
“Same here,” Nell said. She held her hands up before the setting sun in the west, to show him how the light mostly passed through her.
Rodrigo nodded, then copied her gesture so that she could see how the light passed through him. “We are shades here,” he said. “You and I never hunger or thirst.”
“How long have you been here?” she said.
He frowned, concentrating, then sighed. “I am not sure. Two or three days, perhaps. Not long.”
“Are there others here like us?”
He shook his head. “No longer. Many were once shades as we are.” She saw a dazed look in his eyes. “We can change by the magic within the pond. Madame Tournay will tell us when it is time.”
Nell strode over to the plaza’s rectangular pond, and Rodrigo followed. Looking down into the water, she noticed that the artificial pond’s four sides were made from large hewn stones neatly fitted together, and that the water ran much, much deeper than she had first noticed.
No matter how she stared into the clear water, she couldn’t see the bottom. Perhaps under the noon sunlight she’d be able to see into the depths.
She stripped off her gloves and dipped a finger in the water. Warm to the touch, not cold as one would expect for a mountain pond. She held her droplet-covered finger under her nose and sniffed. Smelled like well water, no scent of decay or rotting grass.
Moving her finger, she made to put a droplet onto her tongue, but Rodrigo’s hand seized hold of her wrist, stopping her.
She froze, and he let go. “Pardon me, señora,” he said, “I don’t know why I did that.” His brow furrowed in thick lines like a deeply cut ravine. Confusion and sorrow mixed in his expression.
She shook the droplets off her finger and slipped her hands back into her gloves. With excitement she noted how dark the sky was getting. Dusk was coming. Isaiah. Soon we will be together again.
Rodrigo bowed to her. “Please pardon me, señora, I am to speak to Madame Tournay before this night’s dancing begins.”
As she watched Rodrigo walk away, she thought of how she would dance with Isaiah all night long under the stars.
The dancers slipped onto the plaza at dusk as the hanging lanterns magically came alight, and Rodrigo’s wife appeared amongst them; the Spanish lady went to stand by the pond as the other dancers began a jig. So far, no matter what direction Nell looked in, she could see no sign of Isaiah.
Then, abruptly, the music stopped. Nell saw Rodrigo sleepwalk with his eyes open into the plaza, alone, from the direction of Madame Tournay’s mansion. He trembled like a cottonwood leaf in a breeze.
He stepped up onto the nearest stone edge of the pond, which had not yet been lit with floating paper lanterns. He stared long into his wife’s face, not saying anything to her, and then tipped face-forward, arms down tight at his sides, into the pond to sink down.
The crowd cheered and grabbed hands, and the music started up, so that rings of dancers circled around the still sloshing pond waters as Nell ran to kneel at the edge to check on the poor man. If his head broke above the surface, she’d do her best to drag him out.
He’d plunged out of sight.
He’s drowned, she thought. Gone. …
********** End of Shade Town – Excerpt **********
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Until next time, L.M.