Episode 2: Redeye Gravy and Fellow Travelers | Scryer's Gulch
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Before we go on, I thought I’d best give you an idea what Scryer’s Gulch looked like in those days.
The first sight you saw about four miles out of town were the charcoal kilns, rising like giant beehives just off the road. Thirty-seven cords of wood per kiln every time they fired them up, and those things ran day and night--you need a lot of charcoal to smelt hermetauxite, and then there are the blacksmiths to think of. Jed Bonham owned those kilns, but I suppose that’s no surprise.
The miners’ camp was next, rank upon rank of bunkhouses, tents, tiny shacks and cabins, enough to hold the hundreds of men who worked at the mines. It wasn’t just the “BB”--the Big Blavatsky; there were the Honest Alastair, the Li’l Levy, the By-and-By, and those were just the major ones. Up in the hills, men worked small claims hoping for the next big strike, watching as they dug for their pendulums to tremble in the presence of hermetauxite ore--usually in vain.
Now, the greenhorn prospectors--there was box office business for the confidence men. They’d set up as seers, claim they could feel where the hermetauxite was. All seers can feel that, depending on how big the strike and how strong the seer. Problem is, all the real seers were either out prospecting for themselves, or working for Bonham. The tricksters worked in two-man teams. One would buy a worthless claim and pretend to be a prospector. Then some sap from back east would hire the other of them as a seer, and wouldn’t you know, he’d find a big strike right there on that empty piece of nothing. The first trickster would act all reluctant to sell, say (honestly) that the claim wouldn’t pay out, but that he liked the area and might build a little cabin there some day, right by the stream where “his ol’ dog were laid teh rest,” or some other piece of sentimental claptrap. The greenhorn always thought he was the smart one and the claim-holding con man was the hayseed. The sap would bid the price up to where the “reluctant” claim holder could not refuse. Then the con men would usually skip town for a while, until the greenhorn abandoned the claim and went back home. They’d come back, pick the claim up again for nothing, or buy another for a dollar, and be at it again.
But I digress.
At the low end of the main street stood the stables, the undertaker, the butcher, the office of the Voice of the Gulch newspaper--the one Bonham didn’t own yet--one of two general stores. Then Prake’s Hardware, a few saloons, a dressmaker, a haberdasher, and the ethergraph office among other businesses. Right about between the high end and the low end stood the Hopewell Hotel, which is why it was the stagecoach stop: convenient to everything, as Julian Hopewell liked to say. Above Hopewell’s was the office of the Independent Mountaineer--Bonham’s own paper--Mamzelle’s Palace, a few more saloons, the barber shop, the other general store, the assayer’s office, the bank, the Methodic Church (the Church of Our Lady of the Great Hullabaloo was just outside of town on account of the noise), and toward the end, the Hotel LeFay. The side streets branching out from the main street held the new schoolhouse, freshly painted red and white with its little bell tower atop it and the yard fenced in white pickets, and private homes. The Prakes and the Runnels lived next door to one another in graceful but relatively modest houses on Jackson Street.
Bonham’s house was another matter.
It sat up a ways on the hillside, looming over the town as if to put the whole in its shadow. At least one of its real glass windows always caught the sun, paradoxically glittering and blinding the folks down below. We’ll get a better look inside that pile of timber another time. Let’s go back to the Hopewell. If you were looking closely at the second floor of the new addition, you might’ve seen Miss Annabelle’s black cat slink out the window.
Misi curved his tail around the balustrade, then dropped lightly onto the kitchen porch roof. He could hear Ralph inside, half muttering, half humming as he fried ham; Misi could smell biscuits just about ready to come out of the oven, and heard the scraping of the pan that meant Ralph was making redeye gravy. Annabelle would be happy at breakfast.
He took a bigger lungful of the morning air. So many interesting smells: juniper and pinyon pine burning in the charcoal kilns down the road; dead dogs; dead men; live, extremely unwashed men; gallons, oceans of booze; the sour smell of Hoffman’s brewery; freshly butchered pigs--perhaps he might lap up the leftover blood if he finished his rounds for Annabelle quick enough. Ink from the newspaper offices; sex; money; and hermetauxite. The place stank, reeked of hermetauxite; it was almost more than he could bear. It made his whiskers quiver, and crackled through his fur.
It’s not that hermetauxite was unpleasant to a demon. Quite the opposite. Take catnip, thought Misi absently as he made his way unnoticed along the rooftops. When he was a cat, he found catnip nigh-on irresistible. He’d roll around, ecstatic and humiliated, in the little piles Annabelle would offer him. Hermetauxite was a thousand times more so; it took great force of will to resist it. All that kept demons from digging it out themselves and rolling around in it, so to speak, was that it made them vulnerable. If you were in a hermetauxite frenzy, and a nearby human had strong enough magic, boom, there you were, captured and enslaved. His mind went back, as it always did, to the trap Annabelle had set for him, how he’d howled and threatened as he tried to escape from her bonds until she’d said, “Be quiet!” and he found himself unable to utter a sound. Eight years of it. I’ll get free some day, and then I’ll kill her, he thought as he did every time he remembered that moment. Then a whiff of Annabelle’s scent came to him across the breeze, and he softened, as he always did. Maybe I’ll hold her captive for a while, roll around in her for a bit, and then I’ll kill her.
Normally, demons never came near this much hermetauxite; it was impossible to resist, and lying there soaking up the metal’s power in blissful lethargy led to capture. Better to avoid it in large amounts. Among Annabelle’s standing orders, apart from the whole dismaying cat thing, was that he could not let himself get all worked up in a hermetauxite fit. It strained every nerve in his body, what with all this ore just lying around; it made him antsy, as he liked to say, but the order held. When he was good, she gave him both permission and pebbles of hermetauxite to consume, until its shine disappeared and it faded into just another dull rock.
And catnip. She gave him catnip.
As he stepped onto the roof of Mamzelle’s Palace, the smells of sex, booze and money intensified. Not surprising. He came upon a small hermetauxite shield, and pissed on it in contempt; far inferior to Annabelle’s little spiders, the particular magic animating this shield was weak enough for humans, but not for demons. Badly cast, too. From a distance, Misi couldn’t see all the way through it, but at this range it was as if the building were made of glass. He stretched out his senses, listening for anything unusual, feeling for any trace of strange magic, and froze. Shivers washed over him.
There was a demon in the building below him.
Demons never came near this much hermetauxite on their own. It was too dangerous. Someone had to have compelled it. The unexpected truth came crashing down on him: There’s another captive demon here.
Meanwhile in the Hopewell Hotel’s restaurant, Annabelle was sitting down to Ralph’s ham steak and redeye gravy, while Mr Hopewell hovered in the doorway. She saw him, nodded and smiled, then tucked into her breakfast with an obvious appetite. “She likes your cooking! You done good, Ralph!” he tried to whisper behind him.
Ralph nodded. “I gave her the last of the good butter, boss, just like you said!” he wheezed back.
Annabelle pretended not to hear and kept on eating. It really was an excellent breakfast; the redeye gravy was some of the best she’d ever had, but if what she was spreading on her biscuit was the “good butter,” she pitied the rest of the guests.
Many eyes watched her surreptitiously, but she sensed a pair more persistent, and turned toward the window to meet the hard gaze of Sheriff Runnels. Her heart fluttered in recognition, and she kept herself from staring back with the same frank suspicion and interest. Instead, she gave him her shyest, sweetest smile, and gestured hesitantly at the empty chair opposite her. Runnels frowned and hesitated, looking around the street as if for something else that might need his attention, then nodded and came through the door. Ralph saw him coming, and hurried up with a cup of coffee; Runnels murmured a thanks as he removed his hat and sat down opposite Annabelle.
“Good morning, Sheriff,” she smiled.
“Morning, Miss Duniway. I expect you’re off to see your schoolhouse today?”
She consulted the little watch that hung upside down from a brooch on her breast. “I have one-half of an hour before Mayor Prake will come to hand over the key. I am anxious to get started, though I imagine the children are indifferent at best!” she laughed. The remark got only a small, tight smile from Runnels, and she took another tack. “Well--is Jamie looking forward to school? He does seem a shy boy.”
“Here is my question, Miss Duniway,” said the Sheriff, ignoring her conversational gambit. “What is a very pretty, obviously bright young woman like yourself doing in this town?”
“I beg your pardon?” said Annabelle, opening her blue eyes wide. “I--I’m here to teach school, sir, why else would I be here?”
“With what I assume would be a pick of assignments, that’s what I wonder.”
Annabelle blushed, and put down her fork. “I took the assignment, if I may speak frankly, because Mayor Prake offered a great deal of money for the position. I was first in my class, my professors recommended me, and Mr Prake took their recommendation. I must ask you, sir, what else you might be implying,” she added stiffly.
“Nothing that would imply moral turpitude, I assure you, Miss Duniway,” he answered, finally breaking into a full smile. He took a long pull on the coffee, rose, and returned his hat to his head. “I’m not so impertinent as to ask what you might need all that money for, but now I wonder that as well. Good day, miss.” He tipped his hat, gave her one last look of meditative speculation, and left, boots firm on the floor planks.
He flusters me, she thought, and here’s hoping I played off that well enough to throw him off the scent.
Annabelle was still turning over her conversation with Sheriff Runnels when Mayor Prake appeared at her side, took off his hat and gave her a warm, paternal smile. “Good morning, Miss Duniway. Are you ready?” Annabelle smiled up at him with a greeting, let him pull out her chair, and accepted his offer to help her with her shawl.
Annabelle kept a discreet eye toward the rooftops on the short walk from the Hotel to the schoolhouse, spotted a familiar, small black figure silhouetted against the sky near the whorehouse, and returned her full attention to the Mayor. “--Growing all the time,” he was saying. “It never stops. Some of the new folks’ll work through the night, getting a building up. No hammering last night, but if you hear it, don’t be surprised.”
“I heard quite a bit last night as it was,” she said with a rueful laugh.
“I don’t know how the men can work in the morning, the way some of them carry on all night,” said Prake, with a shake of the head. “But when there’s nothing to come home to--a man gets restless, I suppose.”
“Tell me about you, Mr Prake. How did you come to be here? Surely you weren’t a prospector?”
“Me? Goodness, no, miss,” he chuckled. “I’m too old for that. Can you imagine your own father, gone down the mine? No, Simon came first, had a look around. College made him restless, I suppose. He couldn’t seem to settle in, so I staked him the money to open up a hardware store here. I’d hoped he’d realize his foolishness and come home, but Prake’s Hardware did so well we all came out shortly after. I do think Mrs Prake was the first honest--” he stopped, and shot her an embarrassed sideways glance. “I think I’m the first one who brought family with me,” he amended. “Simon had a partner at first, but I bought him out and he headed back east. Simon went back home to Jackson to work at my old ethergraph firm as an engineer. He’s got serious talent in that direction, but he got bored. He was too used to life out here, and he missed us--Oh! Oh!” he suddenly cried.
Annabelle followed his horrified gaze. The white pickets surrounding the schoolyard were torn up, black paint splashed on the crisp red and white paint, and in big black letters: “NO SCOOL TECHER GO HOME!!”
Annabelle put her hand to her throat. “Oh, my,” she said in a faint voice. Who would vandalize a school? Or had someone already guessed why she was here and was sending her a warning?
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