With a loud crash, wooden beams collapsed all around him as he fought through the smoke to find the door. Hands and flailing fingers grabbed at his sleeve. Coughing voices called to him to save them. Their screams pooled into a sea of sheer noise, enveloping him more with each step. He pushed them aside—those in his path, their plaintive wails ignored—as he made his way to the escape. For the first time, the door was still open, though clouded by the smoke choking the inside of the burning church. Stepping in front of his path was a woman—her hair and clothes engulfed in flame, her screaming mouth hanging wide open in anguish. He pushed her aside and as he looked back at the door, which was now swinging closed. The man behind it grinned in the way only Cyril could.
Galen woke in his bunk. The nightmare had come again—that he was sure of—though he could not remember the details. Unable to go back to sleep, he stared at the wooden ceiling and thought about what the Gypsy had told him.
“Hogwash,” his breath muttered, though he had a hard time convincing the rest of him. He tried to focus on something else, something distracting.
He thought of Daisy. He had lain with other women before—most times for money and hardly one who was any sight in the daytime. So his mind drifted to the hundred-dollar whore he’d seen at the bar. When it came to tail, he’d seen men throw money like that around. He’d seen prospectors pay an ounce of gold just for the pleasure of having a woman sit next to their stinking selves.
Through a window, he could see sunlight coming up over the city. Many of the other beds in the bunkhouse had been empty for hours. He’d probably missed breakfast while sleeping off last night’s binge.
Suddenly, he was struck with a twinge of panic. Reaching under the bed, he found his coat, his fingers pawing at the pockets until he felt it: the brown paper and twine securing the box that the rancher had given him to deliver. It was still there. Given all the detours he’d taken since arriving, Galen considered this a small miracle.
He held the box up and inspected it. The last thing he wanted was for it to seem like the packaging had been tampered with. And when he tilted the box to examine the underside, he heard it.
A sound from inside, moving from one end of the box to the other.
He put the box down on the bed and looked around. Nearby a dough-faced farm boy slept soundly, sawing heavy wood with each deep breath of slumber.
Galen looked down. In the eight days the box had been in his possession, not once had he ever noticed it making a noise.
Let alone one that sounded so—
Alive, he thought.
He sat on the bed for minute, stared down at the brown paper and twine wrapped box, waited for it to make another sound. Finally, he caught hold of his senses, picked up the box, and stuffed it back into his coat pocket.
He made it to the corner of Walnut and Main through the thin blanket of freshly fallen snow. As he had guessed, the bank was now open and fairly busy with early morning customers. Galen entered. One teller sat behind a window and loudly counted out coins for an old man.
“Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen—” she said in a clear voice.
Across the room, seated behind a large oak desk was a man with greased side locks who Galen immediately recognized as the person he’d come all this way to see.
The man caught Galen staring at him. “May I help you?” he asked. He rose from his desk and to Galen’s surprise, kept rising—until over two yards of him had gotten to his feet.
Galen removed the wrapped package from the pocket of his duster and held it out. “Mr. Dunburton?” he asked. “I believe this is for you.”
The banker stepped quickly to Galen, motioning for him to keep the package out of sight.
“Please, please,” he said.
“I don’t understand.” Galen replied. “My employer, Mr. Harrison, asked me to give this to you.”
"And give it to me you shall,” Dunburton said in a hushed voice. “But not here.” He guided Galen’s that hand holding the box back to the pocket from which it had come.
“Holt, Tom Holt,” Galen lied.
Dunburton spoke as he led Galen to the front door, all the while looking back at the teller who was too busy counting coins to even take notice. “Tonight, Mr. Holt, if you could come by my house and join me for supper, I would be most obliged. This way we could finish our— transaction.”
Dunburton gave him the address: 16 White Oak Lane, “a large colonial near the waterfront.” At seven o’clock that evening, Galen knocked on the door. A large Negro woman answered. Given the way the way she was dressed, Galen guessed her to be the servant.
“Mr. Dunburton invited me for supper,” Galen told her.
Wordlessly, the black maid invited him in and led him through the foyer to the study where the host waited. Along the walls were cases full of books, Old tomes that appeared to have left their shelves. The banker apparently had money. The house was well appointed in rich, dark furniture and fine brocade drapes.
In a glass case near the fireplace sat what first appeared to be a brown turnip on a stand, but closer inspection yielded the truth.
It was a shrunken head.
“A colleague of mine brought that back from South America,” boomed Dunburton. His voice startled Galen, who hadn’t even noticed the host’s arrival.
“Very... interesting,” said Galen, not quite sure what to make of the relic.
“Savages, the lot of them,” Dunburton said. He gestured to a chair for Galen to sit.
“Have we met before?” Dunburton cocked his head and inquired. “You have a certain air about you that seems familiar.”
“Don’t reckon we have,” Galen responded, trying not to break eye contact as to be suspicious.
“Well then, nice to make your acquaintance, Mr. Holt. I am Elias Dunburton, of the Virginia Dunburtons.” He offered Galen a drink.
“Whiskey,” Galen said.
“Bourbon, actually,” Dunburton explained as he poured one for himself. “Pure Kentucky bourbon. Have you ever been to our fair city before, Mr. Holt?”
“My first time. And please, call me Tom.”
Dunburton sipped his drink, savoring it. “So, Tom,” he said, “did you bring along that package?”
Galen reached into his duster and pulled out the box, again feeling the unsettling sensation of something sliding within. He held the box out, feeling relief the moment Dunburton took it from his fingers.
“Now let us look inside, shall we?” Dunburton said. Galen thought that was the last thing he wanted.
With a sharp knife taken from his desk drawer, Dunburton cut the twine and eagerly unwrapped the brown paper.
Inside was a small box carved from a wood that was nearly all black. Dunburton gasped with delight. He ran his fingers over the engravings on the outside of the box, the detail of which Galen could not make out because he dared not get any closer than a few feet. Dunburton carried the box to a side table and stood with his back to Galen. With a soft click, Galen heard the ornate wooden box open, a slight squeal to its hinges. Dunburton clasped his hands —a single clap—before closing the box and stowing it inside a locked drawer.
With a wide grin on his face, he looked up at Galen.
“Now what say we have us some supper?”
The dining room held a table big enough for ten—but tonight it sat only two. Perched at the head was Dunburton with Galen’s reserved seat to his right. Galen looked down at the fine tablecloth, the fancy china, and pristine silverware. In his simple clothes he felt like tumbleweed that had just blown into a church dance.
Entering from the kitchen was the same woman who had answered the door. She carried a silver tray, which was piled with mutton chops and a bowl of roasted red potatoes.
Galen watched as she silently served the food onto their plates before picking up the tray to go back to the kitchen.
“Leave the tray, Matty,” Dunburton told her. Following her orders, she laid the tray down and left.
“Can’t let them leave with the food because sometimes they eat it,” Dunburton said, cutting into his mutton chop. “Matty’s a fine slave. Been with our family all her life, but you still have to keep a tight leash on her. Last week I caught another one of my slaves trying to teach her how to read.”
Galen nodded as he chewed. Not because he agreed, though, but because this was the best meal he’d had in as long as he could remember. With the back of his hand he wiped the juices from his lips.
“Tell me, Tom, where do you stand on the Negro question?”
“You don’t seem to have the kind of accent that would lead me to believe you’re from these parts. You from back east?”
“No,” Galen responded, taking another forkful of food.
“Then where do you stand?”
“Never thought about it much. Reckon it’s because I’ve never had slaves of my own. Been a poor man all my life; never owned much more than the clothes on my back.”
Dunburton laughed as he wiped the grease from his mouth with the corner of his linen serviette. “I’ll tell you this much, Tom. Now that this country has finally fulfilled that American promise called Manifest Destiny and that unnecessary, and some would say unjust, war we started a few years back in someone else’s country is over with, we are coming upon another itch that will have to be scratched: this whole issue of slavery—and I fear that time will come soon enough. For I am a veteran of two wars, the British re-incursion of 1812 and this last one in Mexico. Terrible business, both of them. Terrible.”
Galen said nothing and kept eating the delicious supper that had been prepared for him. As Dunburton drank more he continued his political musings with his houseguest.
“Tom, we are alive at the most exciting time in history. This is the birth of the modern age. The telegraph; the daguerreotype. We are more advanced than any civilization that ever walked the earth.” Dunburton drained his glass again and stared at Galen.
“Sir, I cannot help but continue to think yours is a familiar face to me. Did you say that you served in the war?”
“No,” answered Galen flatly.
“That’s quite peculiar,” the banker continued. “For as I live and breathe, there’s something about your face that strikes me as one I’ve seen on the battlefield. Must be this old bourbon and my flagging memory.”
Galen finished what was on his plate, noticing Dunburton had barely touched his. Finally the banker called for Matty to clean up the plates, barking at her harshly when she dropped a fork onto the floor.
As she left the room, Dunburton poured himself another drink, his unsteady hand shaking the neck of his bottle against the rim of the tumbler.
“You’re not Irish, are you Tom? Holt doesn’t sound Irish.”
“No, sir.” Galen realized that he had no idea where the kin of someone named Holt would actually hail from.
“That’s good, Tom, because the Irish are becoming a scourge in nearly every city. They infest like bugs. You see my hatred of the Irish goes back to the war. You ever heard of the San Patricios?”
“Can’t say as I have,” Galen lied.
“Goddamned cowards. Bunch of lily-livered Irish Catholics who defected from the U.S. Army to go fight for Santa Ana. Can you believe that? Joining up with those dirty Mexican bastards to fight their own countrymen?”
Galen could feel his toes curl inside his boots as the banker’s eyes stayed glued on his.
“They even took a bunch of regular boys with them, convinced them our Army was made up of devils of some kind and poisoned their minds with lies and false ideas. But in the end, we hunted down those San Patricios, nearly every last one, and you know what we did to them?”
“No,” Galen answered, gritting his teeth.
“We flogged ‘em and branded each of them with a red hot iron. Branded ‘em with the letter ’D’ right on their faces, and then hung every last one of them as a group. That’s what we do in this country to deserters and cowards.”
Dunburton put his glass down on the table with a bang loud enough that Galen nearly leapt out of his seat. The memories that lay buried—of those skirmishes; of the eyes of those American men he could see across the battlefield through the acrid smoke—surfaced much too easily in his mind, as did the atrocities those uncontrolled soldiers committed in their wake.
“You have to forgive me, for when I imbibe spirits, I often find my emotions get the best of me,” Dunburton said. He attempted to get up from the chair but his drunken legs buckled. The banker dropped his tumbler to the floor, causing it to shatter. Galen hurried to his host’s side.
The ruckus roused Matty, who rushed through the kitchen door to find Galen helping the master of the house back to his feet. The slave eyed Galen suspiciously before coming to his aid to help right Dunburton in his chair.
“It’s okay, Matty,” he told her. “I must have had one of my spells again.”
“Mr. Dunburton, I do appreciate the meal and the hospitality, but being as it’s late, I should probably take my leave,” Galen said, trying to conceal his desperate itch to flee this house.
“Tom, I do thank you for bringing me that package. Please tell your employer that his debt to me is now forgiven.” He turned to Matty. “Please take me up to my bed. Now.”
Galen thought that the rancher would have to get by without that reprieve, given his plan of never returning to that ranch.
“Goodnight, Mr. Dunburton.” Galen said, watching Matty lift the banker back to his feet—as his groping hands seemed to make quick work of finding her breasts. “I can find my own way out.”
“Goodnight to you, Mr. Holt,” he said without even looking back.
It was late and a cutting February wind blew through the street as Galen trudged back to the boarding house. His task done, he’d get the first coach going west in the morning. He had no intention of staying in this town—especially given the proximity to Dunburton, the closest reminder he’d had in years to that which he thought he’d left behind.
As he cut through the empty street, he stepped wide across the curb over the slush and piled dung from passing horses when he noticed he was standing no more than a hundred feet from the lit window of the Gypsy crone’s fortune telling parlor.
Again, she was seated there in the ornate rocker, her raven-colored hair shining in the lamplight. Galen thought of what she had said to him the previous night.
And now they’re hunting you. Her words echoed in his mind over and over like an endless loop.
And now they’re hunting you.
And now they’re hunting you.
And now they’re hunting you.
Suddenly, a new voice replaced the ones in his head: his own, telling him to go in there and kill that Gypsy bitch once and for all.