I'm giving the blog over to Mama Hog tonight. She's got a story to tell, and we both hope you enjoy it.
The Swindled Jenny
By Mama Hog
Now that Markhat has done took to writing down his troubles, I reckon on doing the same thing.
My name is Mrs. Hog. Folks hereabout calls me Mama Hog, prob’ly because I’ve spent the last hundred years wipin’ their behinds and making a big fuss over their skint knees and busted hearts. I has the Sight, and the knowin’ of the old ways, and what these city folks has all but forgot is still fresh as yesterday in this here mind of mine.
That’s what they pays me for. Clear sight, clear thinking, some of that old timey magic they scoffs at one minute and begs for the next. Ain’t no excuse for the messes these city folk get their selfs into.
Ain’t no excuse at all. But I’m a Hog. I has the Sight. It’s their business, I reckon, to stumble, an’ it’s mine to set them right.
It was just after sunup when a woman came knocking at my door. Now, I sets regular hours, and ain’t nobody in Rannit what don’t know that, but every now and then somebody comes to call before my biscuits is done or after I’m took to bed, hopin’ to pay me a visit without being seen and whispered about.
I adds an extra charge to their fee, cause that wastes biscuits or sleep and I ain’t usually got a surplus of neither.
I opened my door and she rushed in without an invite or a ‘How do ye do.’ That cost her extra too.
“Mrs. Hog,” she said, after she hid herself in the corner. “You are Mrs. Hog? The Mrs. Hog they call Mama?”
I shut my door.
“As fer as I know,” I said, all polite-like. “Do ye want a biscuit?”
She drawed up like I’d poked her with a snake. Now, she was a tall woman tryin’ to hide under a fussy black hat and half a dozen fine-made veils, so when she drawed up and looked down that long nose at me it was just plain comical.
“What are you laughing at?” she asked, all haughty-like.
“You. That ain’t your hat, cause it don’t fit.” I was right, cause it had dropped down nearly over her eyes. “And neither is that top-coat. I reckon you borrowed all that get-up from a maid or a cook, one what’s a stone heavier and near a foot taller. So you done made a spectacle of yerself, and prob’ly set the servants to talkin’, and if you was tryin’ to visit in secret you done made a right fine mess of that, yer highness.”
Now, when well-to-do folks gets their noses thumped, they usually get to puffin’ and blowin’.
And I figured she’d march right back out my door, which was just fine with me because I makes a damned good biscuit and I was of a mind to have my breakfast.
But she made the most angel-awful gobblin’ noise and started bawlin, right there. Bawlin’ and shakin’ like a young-un, one what’s been holding in a cry for a long, long time.
Well, even city folks don’t usually make a show of cryin’ in a stranger’s kitchen if there ain’t something powerful wrong. So I got her in a chair and got that hat off her fool head and talked all soothing-like to her till she settled down.
“My name is Jenny Wilkins,” she said, after a mess of dabbin’ at her eyes with a fancy linen handkerchief. “Of the Barrows Wilkinses.”
I nodded like I knowed all about a Barrows Wilkins. I knowed that if I asked for the particulars, I’d get a half hour of who begat who and what they done during the War and I knowed it weren’t likely any of that would pertain to the matter at hand.
‘Fore she caught enough breath to talk, I’d done figured on her problem. I didn’t need no Sight to tell me what I needed to know about Miss Jenny.
She was young, though she prob’ly didn’t consider herself young. Twenty and five, I reckoned, born midsummer, an only child. She was tall and skinny and pale, but she liked to mess about in her fancy flower-garden, cause her fingernails was all short and there was a callous where she worked the sheers.
She had big green eyes what was pretty when they wasn’t red from bawlin’, and good white teeth, and if the woman ever smiled her long narrow face would be a sight for the menfolk. Her hair was a mess, but if she dragged a comb through it she’d be a right stunning woman, and no mistake.
I knowed right off she was smart, too. My Sight showed lots of book-learning, fancy teachers, could read Kingdom and Old Kingdom and Church. I warmed up a mite at that. I likes smart folks, rich or poor, and I reckon rich folks can’t help bein’ born on silk sheets no more than a poor man on burlap.
“You got man trouble,” I said. Her eyes showed me I’d spoke the truth. She started to talk, but I raised up my hand and called up my Sight.
“It ain’t love,” I said, cause I knowed then it weren’t. “Oh, you liked him good enough, maybe even more than liked. But that ain’t why you’re here.”
“He stole from you.”
Damned if she didn’t commence bawlin’ again. I reckon all that ruckus woke Buttercup, cause she just appeared right there beside the woman and started huggin’ on her.
Now, Buttercup is what Markhat calls a banshee. But you hear me, my Buttercup ain’t nothing like the banshees of the old stories, what was frightful old crones who took to flyin’ about screaming and doin’ a fair amount of murder of a night.
Buttercup looks to be a child, and a wisp of a child at that. She’s got hair the color of ripe corn-silk and skin that don’t tan and green eyes it don’t pay to look at too long, cause they seems to get bigger the longer you looks at them. But there ain’t a mean bone in her body and that scream of hers is powerful, but it ain’t never hurt nobody, leastways not nobody what didn’t need a good hurtin’.
But havin a slip of a girl just appear out of thin air and lay hands on her was a might too much for Miss Jenny, cause she went from bawlin’ to screamin’ and that hurt Buttercup’s feelings, I reckon, cause she just took one of her banshee hop-skips and vanished like a magician’s white rabbit.
Calming Miss Jenny down took a while and nearly a whole pot of my special soothing tea. But I finally got her settled down, and even laughin’ a bit, and when Buttercup heard that and came back in I introduced them proper and me and Miss Jenny finally got down to business.
“He said his name was Oswalt Lichter,” she said. Buttercup had took to sittin’ in her lap, all snuggled up peaceful-like. “I met him at an art show, last October.”
“I reckon he was all smiles and sweets,” I said.
She nodded, and stroked at Buttercup’s wild hair. “I’m not an idiot, Mrs. Hog. I’ve been approached by men before. Men who pretended an interest in me when what they wanted was the family money.”
“I takes it your daddy is passed, then.”
She nodded. “I am the sole heir. My brothers both died in the War.”
I felt genuinely sorry for her, then. That there War left a lot of lonesome women behind in big old houses that was too dark and too quiet.
“So when Oswalt – when Mr. Lichter started showing an interest, I was naturally wary.”
She shook her head and couldn’t look me in the eye. “But he was so patient. So unassuming. Weeks would pass, and he wouldn’t visit, wouldn’t send word.”
“So you took to sending word to him.” I said it as gentle as I could, because there weren’t no need to make her start bawlin’ again.
“I did. I was so sure he wasn’t like the others. He was…nice.”
“No, girl, he was just a better grade of bastard.”
She swallowed hard. “He had his own money. Lots of it, it seemed. Carriages. Fine meals, in the best clubs. He bought me jewelry. He was renovating an old house on the Hill. He had friends I knew. I was so sure.”
“I reckon he was squattin’ in a house somebody else was payin’ for, and borrowin’ the rest as fast as he could spend it,” I said.
She nodded, still not lookin’ me in the eyes.
“The money – it wasn’t even his idea,” she said. “I swear to you it wasn’t. I almost had to force it upon him. It was a joint investment, in a series of silver mines out west.” She looked up at me then, and them green eyes was fierce with anger. “I didn’t invest heavily, at first. He wouldn’t let me. But we made money, Mrs. Hog. Lots of it. I doubled the family fortune, in a few months’ time. I was rich. The money was in my bank. In my name. We were so happy.”
She started tearing up. Buttercup stirred and put her arms around the woman’s neck and started hummin’ some old song I ain’t never heard. Maybe it was them foreign words, or maybe it was her voice, but she calmed Miss Jenny right down.
“So when the mines themselves came up for sale…”
I shook my head. “You had to talk him into buyin’ ‘em, didn’t you? After you threw in half, I reckon. Which just happened to be everything you had.”
She hugged Buttercup tight and just sat there and shook.
I didn’t need to make her tell the rest. My Sight showed me all of it, plain as day.
She’d given that man every last cent, and he’d smiled and kissed her and damned if he hadn’t walked away with the whole works in Old Kingdom gold coin, without a look back or a shred of human mercy.
I reckon he’d took something else too, and that’s when I got mad.
“Well, Miss Jenny Wilkins of the Barrow Wilkinses, that’s a hard thing what’s been done to you, and no mistake. But you done the right thing, payin’ Mama Hog a visit, because I tells ye right here and right now we’re going to get you your money back. Now, I know that ain’t all he took, but know this – Mr. Oswalt Lichter, or whatever he calls hisself these days, is goin’ to pay, and pay hard, for what he done, and he ain’t ever going to do it again.”
“Can you do that, Mrs. Hog? Really do that?”
“Can and will, Miss Jenny. Can and will.”
“I can’t pay you.”
“Ye can pay when we’s done,” I said. “Ten gold crowns, and ten crowns only. Now there’s one thing you needs to know, Miss. I aims to show this here rotten bastard the same mercy what he showed you. I ain’t to be moved toward kindness, when this starts. I won’t be asked to flinch, when the time comes to strike. You got to know that. You got to agree to it. Or you got to walk out that door and never come back. Is that clear?”
Give Miss Jenny Wilkins credit. She didn’t blink or play at dumb.
“Clear. No mercy. No flinching. Make him pay, Miss Hog. Make him pay.”
“Call me Mama,” I said. “Now then. Let’s eat us a biscuit. We got things to talk about.”
* * *
By the time Miss Jenny took her leave, it was noon, and Rannit was a stompin’ and a yellin’ all around me.
I don’t take to the streets much these days, cause my bunions pain me something awful after a long day of walking. But I’d made promises, and a Hog keeps her promises, bunions or no.
A hundred years, I been keeping promises. Some promises was kept to rich folks, whose names would surprise you. So I took to payin’ a few old friends visits, and remindin’ them of what I done, of debts owed me and never claimed.
Well, I claimed a few that day. I reckon the Hog name carries considerable weight with folks, because they was as eager to talk as they was as eager to send me on my way. And I reckon Mr. Oswalt Lichter hadn’t left many friends behind, because as soon as I took to callin’ his name they practically lined up to tell me all they knowed and then some.
Oh, he was playing an old old game, he was. Borrow from this one. Pay that one. Keep the money movin’, keep the lies coming. Hell, half of them didn’t know they’d been swindled yet, and Angels alive, the way their eyes bugged when they took notice of the fact!
I kept Miss Jenny’s name clear of it. But I made it hot for Mr. Lichter, I did. He’d have no place to rest, come sundown, if he was fool enough to still be in Rannit proper.
Not that I figured he was. He’d took his leave of Miss Jenny four days past, and I knowed he was slick enough to scoot before she could set the Watch on him. But something Miss Jenny had said stuck with me, and my Sight showed me where a greedy man might be likely to make a mistake.
What my Sight showed me, my talkin’ proved out. He had an eye for fancy paintings, and he’d been buying them up the whole time he was in Rannit. A dozen or so, I figured. And while he was smart enough to take hisself right quick out of Rannit, he’d have to have all them paintings crated up and shipped.
And if they was crated up and shipped, they’d have to be goin’ somewhere, and I aimed to follow.
So, like I said, I settled some old debts, with them what I’d helped before. Even the rich can be generous, and whether it’s out of plain old decent gratitude or a fervent wish to get shed of the past don’t make me no difference at all.
By suppertime, I knowed where them fancy-ass paintings had been stored.
By dark, I knowed the name of the man hired to crate them up.
By Curfew, I knowed what barge they was loaded on, and where they was headed, and what name he was using while he lived on Miss Jenny’s money.
By bedtime, I was soaking my feet in a tub of hot salt water, and Buttercup was playing dolls, and Mr. Oswalt Lichter who was calling himself Nabin Hodges was having one of the last good nights of sleep he was ever likely to get, in this life leastways.
* * *
“So we’s going to a place called Knob Hill,” I said.
Miss Jenny looked a might more pleasant in her green day dress and with a head of proper-combed hair.
“Oh yes. Me and you.” I poured her more tea while Buttercup showed her her dolls, presenting them one by one with little nonsense words what I reckoned was their names. “I can’t do this without you,” I said, lyin’ some, but for the good. “Don’t you reckon you’ll sleep better, knowin’ you had a hand in seeing justice done?”
She watched Buttercup and thought it over.
“I don’t have any money for traveling,” she said, after a time.
“Well, I reckon I can pay for us both, till we gets your money back. It won’t be no fancy travelin’, mind ye. A poor woman’s coin only goes so far.”
Give the woman credit, she might have been waited on hand and foot all her days but she wasn’t lacking for backbone.
“I can work to pay my way.”
“That’s the spirit! But here, we won’t need much. I got it all figured out. A day on a stage, maybe half a day on whatever wagon we can hitch, a night in the woods. You ain’t scared of sleeping outdoors, are ye?”
“Father used to take me fishing, down the Brown. I’ll manage.”
“Good for you, Miss Jenny,” I said, and I meant it. “We’ll have you put back to rights in no time.”
Now, I knowed that getting back her money was going to be a mite easier than healing her other hurt. But you gots to start somewhere, I always say, and I had a mind to start with the coin.
* * *
Getting to Knob Hill was the business of two days. Miss Jenny swatted at skeeters the whole time, but never once voiced a complaint.
Finding the man calling hisself Nabin Hodges wasn’t no harder than finding Knob Hill itself. There ain’t much to Knob Hill save a wide spot in the road, an inn what needs a new roof, a stagecoach stop, and a saloon what must have been fancy in its day but is about to fall over with the next big puff of wind.
A side road goes off into the pines, and winds up a big old hill, and at the top of that hill sits a Old Kingdom house, or what’s left of one. And since that’s the fanciest thing around, I knowed it was where that thievin’ rat had gone to ground, even before I started asking the innkeeper.
Lichter, now Nabin, had rolled into town a year past claimin’ to be the great-great grandson of the man what built that house before the War. Now, he wasn’t foolin’ nobody, cause that there Hoosten family got crossed with a wand-waver and was kilt one and all before Lichter was born, but he had coin and nobody cared about that old heap of stones. When he started rebuilding they took his pay and kept their mouths shut, as country folk is want to do.
Nabin had left a few months ago, claiming he had business out west. Now he was back, and all fired up about setting his house to rights, according to the gossips in the saloon.
I got me and Miss Jenny a room at the inn, and while she made a big show of not griping at sleeping on a straw bed I snuck off down that long stretch of road so I could get out of them woods before dark. There ain’t no Curfew in Knob End, and there ain’t no halfdead, but I reckon them woods was full of bears at least and I didn’t have time for no diversions.
That there fat innkeeper, name of Toad, was a blessing, and no mistake. He’d told me all about Nabin trying to hire a cooking woman, and how nobody with any sense would set foot in that house for fear of haints or curses. So when I marched up to the doors, which was standing wide open with brick masons and carpenters tromping in and out, I knowed just what to say.
“My name is Toker,” I said, to the first man I seen who looked like he might have a lick of sense. “I come to cook.”
I reckon them was magic words to a man who, from the look of the pot boiling in the yard, had been eating nothing but unsalted beans and moldy hard-tack for who knows how long.
“Boss man is up the stairs,” he said, hooking his thumb over his shoulder at the staircase in the shadows of the house. “I can round up the boys if you got bags or what-not.”
“I travels light,” I said. I stepped into the cool of the house, glad for the shade. “You say he’s up them stairs?”
“Second floor. Hanging painted pictures.” He lowered his voice to whisper. “He’s awful particular about them painted pictures. Gets riled up if you don’t make a big fuss over ‘em.”
“Thank ye kindly,” I said. “Be an extra biscuit in it for you, come suppertime.”
I took to the stairs. There was room for three of me and a pair of field ponies. They made houses big, before the War.
When I got to the second story, I followed the sound of careful hammering, and come face-to-face with the man what stole from Miss Jenny.
He heard me comin’, so he planted his back to the wall. He had a hammer in his right hand and a smile on his face, and I reckon he would keep his smile the whole time he was bashing my head with that hammer, if’n I give him reason to believe I was there to take some vengeance.
But he wasn’t the only one what knows how to smile and make it look real.
“My name is Mrs. Toker, of the Pot Lockney Tokers,” I said, making a little curtsey. “I hears you are in the market for a woman what knows how to cook.”
He pretended to relax, but he kept his ears pricked, listening for feet on the stair. When he didn’t hear any, he let out his breath and looked down his nose at me.
“I’m not at all sure where you heard such a thing, Mrs. Toker,” he said, his voice as smooth as lard-slicked glass. “We have quite a competent cook.”
I made like I was a mite let down. “Well, I reckon I was told a tale,” I said. Then I let my poor old ignorant country eyes wander up to the line of fancy paintings he’d hung on two of the walls.
“Cor,” I said, bringing my hand up to cover my uncouth rural mouth. “If them ain’t the most marvelous things I have ever laid eyes on.”
And damned if that wasn’t all it took.
He spent a solid hour describing each and every one of them paintings to me. Every artist, every theme, every what he called technique – he knowed all about them, and he was aiming to talk about it, and for a little while the man was almost human, ‘cause you could tell he loved what he took to calling ‘his art.’
I asked a few questions, oohed and ahhed some, and before he knowed it I was hired as cook and give run of the kitchen.
Now, back in the day, that was some kind of fancy kitchen. It had three wood-fired cook-stoves and two big old roasting-pit fire-places and a cold well and a root cellar big enough to live in.
But the stoves was rusted through, and one of the fire-places had most of the chimney collapsed in a heap in the pit, the cold well spring had run dry, and bats had took over the root cellar.
But one stove worked, and there was pots and pans what had been put up dry, and a wagon-load of beans and salted meat and flour and meal sat outside. So by dark I had a meal cooked, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the sight of twenty menfolk eatin’ like wolves and praising my name the whole time, even if it wasn’t my name, strictly speaking.
Fancy-pants took his meal alone, up in his room, and he didn’t have nothing more than grunts for me when he was filling his plate. I reckon he didn’t want to be seen conversating with the help, and I snickered a bit.
Now you show a mob of able-bodied men-folk a stack of dirty dishes and I swears you can clear the room of ‘em faster than you could with a bear or a bucket of snakes. So I found myself alone after supper, and that was just fine by me, because after washing off the dishes in a sink of green copper I had the run of the first floor all to myself.
The working men was all sleeping in the shed that kept the mortar and the lumber out of the rain. I kenned from the talk at supper they was afraid of the house, which struck me as pure foolishness, because that shed didn’t have no walls and they was a lot more likely to come across bears as they was haunts. But there ain’t no reasoning with superstition.
I picked out a dusty room for myself and made sure it had a door connecting it to a room for Miss Jenny. I locked her hall door from the inside, even though from the dust I could tell nobody had been in or out of the room in years.
Then I spent an hour or two laying in some hexes, here and there, just to start the fun.
When the Moon set, so did I, because they’d be wanting an early breakfast, and I’d be expected to have it ready.
I heard the first moaning as I laid my head down on my pallet. It was a pitiful thing to hear, and no mistake, all plaintive and sad. I was wondering if I hadn’t spelled the hex too soft when I heard a door slam upstairs, and then I drifted off to sleep knowing Mr. Nabin’s comeuppance had begun.
* * *
Them workmen ate like they’d hadn’t seen a bit of ham or a decent biscuit since Yule. I had to damn near fight to save a plate for the box-man, as they called him, and then I had to keep his plate on the stove to keep his breakfast from getting cold.
By the time he came creeping down the stairs, breakfast was best called lunch but I didn’t point the fact out.
Nabin or Lichter was bleary-eyed and grumpy by any name, leastways until he got coffee and ham in his gullet.
“Sleep poorly, did you, Mr. Nabin?” I asked, all sunshine and wide country smiles. “I hope it wasn’t your supper that disagreed with you!”
He grunted, which might have meant yes or no or I prefer badger-meat to ham.
“Well, I shouldn’t wonder, a man of your education and standing must have a mind full of matters,” I said. “Would you like a fresh pot of coffee?”
He allowed as how he would, and I took to bustling around, chirping like a magpie about this or that as words presented themselves.
“You took a room here in the house, didn’t you,” he said at last, more to stop my descriptions of my grandchildren that anything else, I’ll wager.
“Why yes I did,” I said, all concerned-like. “Was I overstepping? I took one close to the kitchen, thinking you’d want me close to my duties…”
He cut me off with a wave. “No, that’s fine, perfectly fine. But. But, I heard noises last night. You weren’t singing, were you?”
“Singing? Me? Heavens no, sir, my late husband, rest his soul, he always said I had no voice for the singin’. I washed up and went to sleep, sir, and that’s the truth of the Angels. Maybe them work-men was singing around the fire?”
“Yes,” he said, frowning. “Yes. That must be it.”
“No, my second son’s youngest, the one they call Dooley, now he can sing, oh yes sir, voice of an Angel…”
I prattled on, though I was soon prattling to an empty room.
I got myself to work right then. Lunch and supper would be salt ham stew, so I filled up the two biggest stewers I could find and set them to boiling. Then I started me another couple of pots to brewin’, but it weren’t no stew.
The wagon-load of victuals from town showed up right before lunch. There weren’t no trick to getting Miss Jenny snuck into the house, what with all the rush and confusion. I put her in her room and she set about getting ready for the night’s business with a grim set to her jaw. I reckon being under the same roof as the man what done what he done to her wasn’t setting well, but she allowed as she would stick with the plan without taking no side-trips into the realms of stabbing nor bludgeoning.
See, I knowed every last copper of Miss Jenny’s money was hid somewhere in or near that old house. I also knowed he wasn’t likely to just tell me where it was, even if I stuck his feet in a fire. No, we’d have to get him to show us where the money was hid, and that wasn’t going to be no easy chore since any man capable of spinning such artful webs of lies wouldn’t have much trouble seeing a lie himself.
So I tended my stew, and stirred my special pots, and Miss Jenny stayed hid and quiet till the sun was down and the hoot-owls were a hooting and the wolves was howling not much more than a stone’s throw away.
Then I made Mr. Fancy Britches a pot of most unusual tea and I ain’t ashamed to say I looked him in the eye and watched him drink it, and that’s when the fun really got started.
* * *
Midnight. There wasn’t a clock in that house to strike it out but I knows midnight well, and when I felt the hour stroll past I knocked on Miss Jenny’s door.
Damned I didn’t step back myself when she opened it.
She’d fixed herself up right, oh yes she had. Pale as Death. Dark circles under them big green eyes. Black lips. A few veins darked too, like she was a day or two past burying.
The dark bruise across her neck showed up real good against the pale. And her gown, oh it was a sight – all flowing and white and ethereal, just like what a ghost ought to be wearin’, when they is going out of an evening.
She was barefoot, and she knew how to walk without making a sound. She spun for me, and my heart nearly broke, seein’ the pain in such a creature’s big old eyes.
“Will this do?” she asked, in a whisper.
I allowed as to how it would. Then I told her where to walk, told her to make sure she was always listening for my knocks. Two knocks meant run for the room and bolt the door. One knock meant keep bein’ the ghost.
First things first. I gave her a candle and a match, and told her to sneak to the end of the walkway, light the candle, and stroll all ghost-like up the door. That would put her in sight of the shed and the working men. It would mean she’d have to walk in the dark, but she set her jaw and took the matches and ran for it, and if she ran across any bears I reckoned they was in for a bad night.
I seen her first, holding that flickering candle, gliding up that ragged old walk, lookin’ for all the world like a haint, and no mistake.
Miss Jenny walked. She was halfway to the doors there hadn’t been no stir from the shed. I was fretful, when she let out a pitiful long moan.
That done it. Men took to talkin’, then to shouting, and by the time Miss Jenny blew out her candle at the front doors they was all shoutin’ and cussin’ and saddling up horses and half a dozen of ‘em had took up lanterns and was running for the road, bears be damned.
I no sooner got Miss Jenny hid than I heard the ruckus at the door. I throwed on my nightgown and got there just as Mister Nabin took to cussin’ at the three working men standing inside.
“You’ll be paid when the job is finished, and not before that!”
“We are leaving. Right now. You’re gonna pay us the wages we’re owed, or there’s gonna be trouble.”
The man speaking put his claw hammer right up in Nabin’s face.
“Damn you.” Nabin took a step back. “Cheating a man in the middle of the night.”
I held my breath. I was hoping he’d have to dip into his secret stash right then and there, but he stomped off to a lockbox on a desk and snatched up a handful of silver and threw it in the other man’s face.
“Pick it up yourselves,” said Nabin. “Superstitious bumpkins.”
“We seen what we seen,” said the man, who didn’t stop as his fellows crab-crawled on the plank floor for the scattered coins. “A haint just took up in this house, mister, and we ain’t having no part in it.”
“You’re drunk. All drunk.”
“We ain’t. She was as dead as Tinker’s ox, mister, and she didn’t come here by accident.” He spat on the rich man’s floor. “Ain’t nobody ever believed that story about you being the lost son of the Hoosten family. I don’t know what you done before you come here, but it’s caught up to you, and we ain’t getting in the middle of it.”
I could have hugged that man’s neck right there.
His friends got the last of the money, and they hoofed it out of there, leaving the doors wide open.
I shut them, kicking them once as though having trouble getting the latch to catch.
“I suppose you want your wages too,” said Nabin.
“You firing me?” I let myself tear up. “I gots nowhere to go, Mister Nabin. A poor old woman in the middle of the night, ye won’t turn me out, will ye?”
He sat hisself down and put his face in his hands. “Go or stay. I don’t care.”
“What scared them men so?” I asked. “A spirit? Spirits from a bottle, I’ll wager.”
“Some nonsense about seeing a ghost,” he replied. “It took me weeks to find those men. Now I’ll need to find a new crew.”
Miss Jenny let out another moan. Nabin jumped up, his eyes wild, his hands shaking.
“You’ll find more men,” I said, as though I hadn’t heard. “Better ones, I’m sure.”
His eyes darted around the room, finally fixed on me, his pupils as tiny as pin-pricks. I reckon my special tea was adding to Miss Jenny’s moan a mite.
“Did you hear that?”
“I ain’t heard nothing,” I said. “You ain’t likely to sleep for a while. Can I brew you up another hot cup of tea? You might take it up in the picture room, to calm your nerves and all. Can’t hire no men tonight, and that’s a fact.”
He stood there breathin’ hard for a minute, before he slumped and nodded. “That’s a good idea, Mrs. Toker. I shall be in the gallery.”
I bowed like a good little kitchen woman and he took to the stairs and as the last of the workmen’s donkeys brayed at the edge of the woods road I set about heating my master a nice soothing cup of tea.
Nabin, lookin’ plain feverish and talking faster than he knew, set off for town right after sunup. He was aimin’ to hire more workmen, but I knowed after word of Miss Jenny’s midnight walk got around, all the gold in Rannit wouldn’t be enough to hire the town drunk.
Not a single one of the workmen stayed, so Miss Jenny and I had our run of the place. We took to lookin’ for her gold, hopin’ it might be hid somewhere easy, but no such luck. He’d hid it and hid it good.
Miss Jenny was broken-hearted, but it was still a good heart. She’d caught sight of her former beau through a cracked door, and she’d seen the wildness about him, and she was hurt by it.
I had to remind her of what she’d vowed. And what that man would soon do to another woman, if we didn’t put a stop to him, once and for all. She saw the truth of that, ugly as it was, and we kept lookin’.
We heard his horse before he got in sight. Miss Jenny hid herself after I told her to get ready with her ghost make-up.
Well, Nabin was three sheets to the wind, and he got his boot tangled in a stirrup and fell off trying to dismount, and I thought we’d have a ghost on our hands for sure. But he cussed and rolled and got loose, stinking of the whiskey he’d spilled in his fall.
I hadn’t counted on him gettin’ lit in town. The fruit of the vine and the mushrooms in his special tea can be a mite unpredictable when they meets up in the gullet. But there weren’t no help for it, so I helped him up and set him in a chair.
He rambled on for a while, mad as the Devils that all his coin couldn’t hire daylight at noon. Mad at the town, mad at the house, mad at everyone and everything, I reckon. He drunk the rest of that bottle and went out cold about suppertime, and I left him there snorin’ and mutterin.’
Then I went through that room and all the others, making sure fireplace pokers and old swords on the wall and anything big and heavy enough to be used as a club wound up at the bottom of the old well.
I was throwin’ another load of maces down there when I seen a familiar little shape scamper across the rooftops, its wild blonde hair shinin’ in the late sun.
I cussed some. I was hopin’ Markhat and his lady-love would keep Buttercup occupied and in Rannit, but you can’t count on people to do as they ought when you needs it most. I called her name and she waved at me and one minute she was on the roof and the next she was behind me, goosin’ me in the fundament.
I turned and snatched her up and give her a hug. Ain’t no point in being mad at the creature, she’s been a child for so long I reckon it’s just her nature now.
And maybe having her run around in plain sight wasn’t such a bad event, I decided. Wasn’t no way Nabin could hurt her, and though I loves her like my own I know she can be a fearsome sight, glowin’ and a floatin’ like she’s prone to do.
So I took her by the hand and led her indoors and just turned her loose. She squealed and run off, lookin’ for mischief, and I reckoned she’d find it, soon enough.
Hadn’t an hour passed when Nabin came roarin’ out of the sitting room, his hands made into fists.
“Did you see her?” he said. “She ran into this room!”
I spied Buttercup right then, grinnin’ at me from behind them thick dusty curtains.
“Who?” I asked. “Mister Nabin, as Angels is my witness, ain’t nobody come into this room, save you.”
Right at that moment, I heard bare feet step behind me, walking past the open hallway entrance at my back.
Nabin’s eyes went big as plates. He flung up his hand, pointing and trying to talk.
I turned, caught sight of Miss Jenny, who was slowly walking past, white as Death.
“Who?” I asked, again. “Ain’t nobody there.” I walked to the hallway, stuck my head in it, pretended to look around. “Not a soul.”
Miss Jenny scampered off and darted into a room.
Nabin joined me. “She was there,” he said. Sweat dripped off the man’s chin. “I tell you I saw her!”
Then he whirled and swung. But you got to be awful fast to catch Buttercup when she sets her mind on the pinching game, and he wasn’t near fast enough.
“Mister Nabin, you ought to sit down,” I says, taking his arm. “You are over-wrought.”
“Something just touched me!”
“I reckon you was touched by a bottle of innkeeper Toad’s summer brew,” I said. “Now sit, before you work yourself into a fit.”
I got him planted in a chair. He took to talking about how he’d heard moaning all night, how he’d seen shadows moving, heard voices in his empty room.
He’d had two pots of mushroom tea and a bottle of rotgut. I was surprised he wasn’t having fist-fights with Angels and hearing his boots sing hymns. But I listened and wiped his face with a cool rag and had him talking nearly sensible when Miss Jenny glided through the room.
He went white. White as a sheet, they say, but I’d never seen it till then. He tried to talk but couldn’t and tried to stand but I kept him down and by the time Miss Jenny was gone I could feel his heart racing through his wrist and I knowed I had him hooked, and hooked good.
“Tell me you saw her,” he said. His voice was full of downright begging. “Tell me you saw her!”
I shook my head no. “I reckon what you’re seein’ is meant only for you.”
About that time, Buttercup drifted through. She was a couple of feet off the floor and glowin’ like a full moon and Nabin took one look at her and fainted dead away.
“Shoo, child,” I said. She giggled and flew right through a wall.
I sat up with Nabin all night, holding his fool hand and listening to him mutter. Watching him shake and sweat through nightmares. Now, fifty years ago I might have felt pity, but this is a hard world, and he’d done harm. Like my granny used to say, setting things right ain’t no sweet slice of pie for the one serving it.
By the time the sun come up, Nabin was ready, and I reckoned so was I.
* * *
Two cups of coffee is all it took for the lies to start spilling out.
Give the man credit, he was good at spinning lies. He told a wild tale of a cheating, conniving wife, how she’d bilked him out of half his hard-earned fortune and then run off with the banker he’d trusted as a friend. Oh, he painted hisself as the victim, he did.
But he couldn’t fathom how the shade of his evil but still-living wife had come to haunt him here. She was alive when he left, he swore.
All helpful-like, I opined as to how she was certainly still alive, and he was just a sensitive artful man burdened by a world of cares, and how he could prove his haunt was just bad whiskey and nerves by confirming she wasn’t dead. I allowed as to how I had some small knowledge of such things, and since I was telling him what he wanted to hear anyway, he saw what he thought was the truth.
He was still middling sick from his bought with John Barleycorn, and I needed some herbs and spices from town anyway, so I obliged him when he asked me to go to town and hire a lad to travel to Rannit and quietly inquire about the well-being of a Miss Jenny Wilkins of the Barrows Wilkinses.
He looked relieved, after that. Got some color back in his cheeks. He took to sitting in that room what he called a gallery, smoking a big cigar, and when I left for town he looked his old self again.
Buttercup waved to me from the roof. I set off for town, snapping the reins, calculating how long it would take before Mr. Nabin started hearing moans and seeing women floating through his empty house.
I hired me a lad, told him to come direct to the house, paid him enough to make sure he did. I had me a beer while my wagon was loaded with bags of beans and flour and me and old innkeeper Toad had us a laugh about rich folks and their peculiar ways.
Then I headed back to the house, eager to see what state Nabin was in.
Damn, they had done a job on the man. He was holed up in a back room, screamin’ at the top of his lungs, swearin’ all manner of haints and spectres was roaming his halls. I reckon a man what lives by cheating and lying has a powerful burden of guilt stored up, even if he don’t know he’s adding to the heap, lie by lie.
Buttercup helped by adding her moans to Miss Jenny’s and there ain’t no sound more scare-ful than a genuine banshee’s moan. When she giggled at the end that just made it worse.
I kept denying I heard anything, kept being the voice of reason he clung to. We settled down into an easy routine. I made meals and set the table. Mr. Nabin drank hisself drunk and stumbled about shouting. Miss Jenny and Buttercup walked to and fro, Miss Jenny never making a sound, Buttercup moaning like a chorus of the damned, day and night.
Three days we done that. At noon on the fourth day, my lad came knocking at the door, right on time, and I made sure he handed Mr. Nabin the letter himself.
“Did you see her?” asked Nabin. The boy didn’t answer, but he did hold out his hand. Nabin slapped a silver coin in it and cussed.
“You’d best read what is wrote, Mister,” he said. “I’m getting away from here.”
And he did, showing us his heels as he ran for Knob Hill.
Nabin unfolded the paper and read silently. I watched his face, watched the color drain out of it, watched his shoulders slump and his hands start shaking.
I knowed what the letter said, since I’d writ the thing myself. I knowed it told how Miss Jenny hanged herself in her home, how she left a note saying she swore to take her vengeance on the man what wronged her. I’d even added a part about her being with child, since Buttercup had took to haunting with such a talent.
He crumpled the paper and let if fall.
“Well what did it say?” I asked. “She’s alive and well, ain’t she?”
He swallowed hard. I could see the lies churning in his head.
“No. She’s dead. Murdered by the man who helped steal my family fortune. She swore vengeance on us both, before she died. I tell you, I’ve seen her shade, right here, in this house.”
I pushed him back in a chair.
“If that’s so, Mr. Nabin, then there’s things we can do. You’ve been awful good to me. You took me in when I had nowhere to go, and if you hadn’t put a roof over my head I reckon the bears would have et me by now. So let me help you, sir. I’ve got the knowin’ of a few things. That’s why won’t nobody hereabouts hire me. My mother was a weird woman, and my granny, five times removed. That makes me a weird woman, and I reckon you could use the ways of a weird right about now.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean I can’t see nor hear this haint, but I can damned sure put paid to it,” I said. “I didn’t want to say nothing until I was sure. But if what you’re telling me is true, I reckon you’re haunted, and some.”
Question a liar about his lies, and you’ll hook him every time.
“It’s the truth, of course it’s the truth,” he said. “How? How can you possibly help me?”
“She followed you,” I said. “That ain’t easy, especially for a haint. Has she ever been here before?”
“Well, she had to use something, then. Something solid. Something special, what meant a lot to her. Them paintings, mayhap.”
“She never cared for those.” I seen him bristle up, watched him decide what it was poor dead Miss Jenny had come for.
“Money was the only thing she ever loved.”
I nodded, treading careful. “Might be,” I said. “But it would have to be coin she touched.” I looked toward the cash box on the stand. “Might it be that?”
I knowed it wasn’t. But his eyes were wary, even if he didn’t know why.
“No,” he said, licking his lips. “No.”
“I need a single coin,” I said. “Just one. Then there’s a thing I have to do. You’ll need to help. After we’re done, you won’t be troubled by her shade, and that’s a fact.”
“Just a single coin?”
“Just so,” I said. “You can have it back, when it’s over.”
On his best day, he would have laughed in my face. But Mr. Nabin was a long march from his best day, and about then Buttercup took to moaning, and he nodded and rose.
“Make up a fresh pot of coffee,” he said. “I’ll be back shortly.”
I curtsied and headed for the kitchen. I waited till I heard the doors shut, then I counted to ten and started peeping out windows.
He fetched a shovel and I watched him knock over the workmen’s outhouse and I laughed some when he started digging in the honey-hole, cause that’s where I would have hid it myself, and now I wouldn’t need to bother.
* * *
We waited for midnight again.
Now, there is a ritual for calling up and banishing vengeful spirits. But it ain’t nothing to be played with, so I just made one up. If you lights a few candles and burns some sage in a copper bowl most folks is perfectly satisfied that they’ve seen themselves some magic done, and Mr. Nabin wasn’t no different.
It helped that Buttercup appeared in the corner, glowin’ like a just-snuffed candle wick. Nabin wanted to stand up, but I held tight to his hands and told him if he broke our circle I couldn’t help him none.
When Miss Jenny walked in, he damned near bolted, circle or no.
She looked the part. Paler and deader than she had before. A trail of something thin and black ran down from her ears and the corners of her mouth. The dead possum she’d dropped on the other side of the door set off the mood like a treat.
Nabin leaned over and vomited.
“I calls you what troubles this here man,” I said, good and loud.
Nabin wiped his mouth. “She’s here,” he said. “Both here.”
“I conjure you to speak, spirit,” I said. “Make plain your grievance, or forever be silent and unseen.”
Miss Jenny raised her hand and pointed at Nabin.
“He slew me,” she said, and damned if she didn’t raise the hairs on my neck. “He wronged me, stole from me, left me in despair.”
“Is she speaking?” I asked, playing like I couldn't hear.
He nodded. “Lies,” he said. “All lies.”
“I will not rest while he lives on my fortune,” said Miss Jenny, still accusing him with her pointing finger. “I will never rest.”
“Damn you,” he said, his grip on my hand hurtful. “Damn you, I never laid a hand on you!”
Miss Jenny shrieked. She’d been listening to Buttercup and she laid it on long and loud, and then Buttercup chimed in, and Nabin started screaming too.
“Hear me dread spirit!” I yelled, over and over until I was hoarse. When they finally stopped all the bellowing I spoke. “You have no place here, among the living. Say it after me, Mr. Nabin. You got to speak the words.”
He managed to croak them out.
“I heard your words. I deny them. I give you the object of your desire, and adjure you to take it, and return to the land of the dead. Say it.”
He spoke, stumbling but getting the words out at last.
“Now put the coin in the pot, like I showed ye.”
He let go of my hands. This was the most dangerous part, him being so close to Miss Jenny, but he took the gold crown and dropped it in the ashes of the sage and put his hands down flat on the table.
“Now spit on it,” I said, and he did.
“Get thee gone, foul spirit,” I said. “You have spoken. You have been offered your due. Get thee hence, and trouble us no more. By the Angel Markhat, I conjure you. Begone, begone, and begone.”
I dropped a pinch of flash powder on the coin. The room lit up, and if I hadn’t closed my eyes before the powder lit off I’d have been as blind as Nabin for a spell.
When he could see again, Miss Jenny and Buttercup were gone. The coin was still there, and so was the stink, but it was fading fast, and he could tell.
“Is she gone?”
“Gone and at rest. You won’t be troubled again, Mr. Nabin. You has the word of a Toker on that.”
He sat there, staring and silent, for the better part of an hour. I reckon Miss Jenny played dolls with Buttercup, cause there wasn’t a moan, wasn’t a knock, wasn’t a sound to hint at ghosts in the walls.
Finally, he took up the gold coin, wiped it on his jacket, and pushed it across the table toward me.
I let my eyes light up. “Mr. Nabin, I don’t know what to say!”
He didn’t answer. He did get a bottle out of a cabinet and take to the stairs with it. I heard him kick off his boots and heard the bed creak when he laid down on it and I waited for the whiskey and the terror to take their toll.
Then I fetched Mr. Nabin’s shovel, and me and Miss Jenny did ourselves some digging while Buttercup glowed a bit so’s we could see. We was gone by first light, on the horses my lad hid in the woods. We had us a time dragging all them paintings with us, but Miss Jenny insisted, and I reckon she had cause.
Old Toad had them paintings crated up and shipped back to Rannit. We had some hard ridin’, Miss Jenny and I, but we got back in town in just two days, safe and sound if a bit bug-bit.
Markhat, he made a big fuss when I told him what I’d done. He said what’s to stop Nabin or whatever his name is from coming after Miss Jenny? What’s to keep him from showing up at her door some night with a knife and an intent to do some murder?
Well, I tells him, two things. First of all, Miss Jenny has hired herself a bunch of body-guards. Good men, honest War vets, with watchful eyes and keen sharp swords.
Then there is the letters I sent to a certain mob of rich folks. Letters about a man calling himself Nabin, who just took up in a big house overlooking Knob Hill. Letters about him bragging and showing off paintings and being free with coin. Coin he stole from them.
It’s a matter of chance, I reckon, whether the bears in the woods or the hard men the rich folks send will get to Nabin first, or whether he’ll make it to the river and spend his last handful of coppers on barge-passage south.
I likes to think, some days, that Nabin did just that, and that he found honest work somewhere, and that he had repented of his evil ways and even feels bad about what all he’s done.
But you and me both knows it’s a damned sight more likely some bear spent the winter chewin’ his bones, or that a rich man’s hireling silenced his lies with a sword and a stab.
Either way, it ain’t no concern of mine. Men makes their own fates, day by day, step by step, word by word. Comes a time when there ain’t no turning back, and I reckon Nabin was long past that, when I brewed him that first cup of mushroom tea.
I takes meals with Miss Jenny, once a month. She looks good. She found her smile again, after a time. She even give me one of them fancy paintings. I don’t much like it, to tell the truth, but it hides a crack in my wall and reminds me that clinging to things you don’t have no real need for brings your ghosts a-runnin’.
The end, and whatnot.
(top image © Olga Osadchaya | Dreamstime.com