Chapter 14: Back in 1896, part I
Copyright © 2013 by Brian Bixby
This is the story Valerie Thompson told me:
In 1896, Abigail Lane was forty-four years old, and had been a practicing magician in the Office of Occult Affairs for not quite fourteen years. These were among the happiest years of her professional life, for the Office was in its nineteenth-century golden age. Brother Jonathan, for so he was called, headed the Office, and he was a wise and powerful magician. He knew Abigail well, and valued her for her true worth.
He called her into his office one day, and told her that the Attorney General had come to see him about a problem out west. It seemed that a group of miners had staged an insurrection against both a force of Pinkerton detectives and the state militia, and there was talk of sorcery or witchcraft being involved. It must be said that Brother Jonathan was more impressed with how the miners had managed to stand off two armed forces than with the rumors, for those were the days when Pinkertons and militia were often used to crush laborers on strike. That these miners were succeeding against both did seem improbable unless magic was involved. So he instructed Abigail to go out and investigate the situation, and borrowed a Secret Service agent named Charles Horner as her assistant and bodyguard. Horner and Lane had worked together before, and got along well.
They didn’t leave until Abigail had visited John Llewellyn Maverick’s heirs to get their side of the story. But once that was done, they sped out by train and stage coach to Decatur County. It didn’t take them long to catch up on the news at the county seat, even though Jacksonville was at the opposite end of the county. The miners in Jacksonville were led by a Spaniard named Alfonso Estevez y Rodriguez, who claimed to have title to the mine, and they were holding the mine against Pinkertons working for the Mavericks, and the state militia working for the local bigwig, Thomas Jackson.
Horner took charge of this phase of the investigation. He quickly found himself in a political quagmire. Horner had once worked for the Pinkertons, and so was quickly able to make friends with their representatives. They figured Horner was on their side. Meanwhile, Tom Jackson felt he had the law on his side, if only because he owned the politicians, so he felt Horner should be working for his interest.
Abigail was not idle. She posed as Horner’s secretary, a cultured lady in straitened circumstances, which was easy for her, for that is what she had been before she joined the Office. She worked her way through the county seat’s prominent women to find out what they knew. Now Horner had not found any allies of the Spaniard among the men in town. But Abigail found he had quite a following among the ladies, and that following was not just limited to demure smiles behind handheld fans. Alfonso Estevez y Rodriguez was said to be a handsome man, with dark coloring much like yours, Sanderson, if we can trust the surviving descriptions of him. But it was not just his looks that had captured the women of Decatur County. Abigail found that he had been using magic.
Abigail’s opinion of Estevez, as he was usually called, dropped dramatically when she found this out. As she said to Horner, it was bad enough that he was seducing the ladies with magic. But he was simply stupid not to have used magic to influence the prominent men in the county, and thus prevent any opposition to him from forming. Stupid, or it suggested limitations to his power that might be exploited. She thought they should proceed to Jacksonville immediately, unless Horner had some reason for staying. Though he was her assistant, Abigail trusted Horner to know how best to do his job, as he trusted her to do hers. Horner, for his part, was ready to leave. He had been juggling the Maverick and Jackson factions in the county seat for several days and wanted to get out while he was still on good terms with them both.
So they arrived in Jacksonville on April 3, 1896, though not without a sinister incident along the way. When they were but twenty miles from the town, Charles Horner pointed up in the air and said to Abigail Lane, “That’s a mighty large bird there overhead.”
Abigail looked at the bird. It was quite some distance away, but she began to get an uneasy feeling. “Charles,” she asked, “can you tell me what kind of bird that is?”
Charles Horner looked up again. “Can’t say what it is, Abigail, only that it’s an awful big bird.” He looked over at her. Working together had made him sensitive to her moods. “You think it’s trouble.”
“I do. Keep an eye on it while we ride, but don’t be too obvious about it. I’ll do the same.”
And so they did. The bird, if that’s what it was, followed them all the way into town, keeping its distance. Then it disappeared behind some hills to the west.
They got there to find Tom Jackson in a panic. A committee of miners had showed up at the hotel in town, and ordered him to leave in three days, or else he would suffer an unstated but certainly dreadful fate. Charles Horner set down with Jackson and tried to talk some courage into the man. Meanwhile, Abigail went out to do the real work, this time.
She went looking for the miners, and found them in the biggest saloon in town, Roy’s. How did she find them? They had magic on them, and Abigail could sense magic better than most. So she walked into the saloon.
This was 1896, and a woman did not just walk into a saloon and order a drink. Abigail brought everything in the main hall to a standstill. Now Abigail was a proper lady. But she also stood five-foot-eleven, was dressed Western style, and had been down in Arizona Territory in the early 1880s, when it was a wilder place than the mining town of Jacksonville in 1896. So she simply ignored everyone’s looks, strode right through the crowd to the bar, and ordered whiskey.
The bartender tried to dismiss her. “We don’t serve ladies in here, ma’am.”
Abigail replied, “Who says I’m a lady?”
The bartender, looking up at her (she was taller than him), seeing those gray eyes staring him down, began having second thoughts. “Um, ah, well . . .”
And then a notorious card sharp who fancied himself a lady-killer, stepped up beside Abigail and said, “I say you’re a lady.”
He was taller and huskier than Abigail, but she just turned and swung on him. And he went down, knocked out by a single blow. That Abigail had used a little magic there, well, she had to be sure she’d knock him out. She stood there, mean expression on her face, and asked out loud, “Anyone else think I’m a lady?”
There was an almost immediate and silent agreement among the bar’s patrons that the question of Abigail’s ladyhood was no longer open for discussion, and that people might best mind their own business. So Abigail got her whiskey. She didn’t like whiskey, in fact she usually didn’t drink, but when duty required that she drink, she’d drink. And once people began to forget she was there, she went to work. There were miners there with spells on them. She broke the spell on one of them, and had him come over and tell her whatever she wanted to know.
What she learned was straightforward enough. Estevez was a magician and had taken over the miners using magic. He also had prior military experience from somewhere, and had arranged the defense of the mine to make it too costly for Pinkertons or the militia to take it. What further plans he had, the miner didn’t know. But he did reveal one important detail: while silver was being mined, the blockade by the militia meant that none of it was being shipped out and earning money for Estevez. When she was finished with the miner, she gave him some money and suggested that he get out of town.
That done, she debated whether to pump any of the other miners, and decided against it. Estevez might not miss one miner, but several going missing would certainly alert him that something was up. Instead she headed over to the hotel, and arranged a magical protection for Tom Jackson’s room.
Now came what she figured would be the most dangerous part. Abigail was determined to reconnoiter the mine and its approaches. She would wait until night. The difficulty was that the miners held the bridge. She would have to go down into the ravine much further up or much further down from the bridge and cut back. Charles Horner would accompany her into the ravine, but not out of it. He was supposed to keep her escape clear, if she needed one.
Horner expected to wait for several hours, and initially he was quite confident that Abigail would be back in a few hours. But midnight passed, and no Abigail appeared. Horner took out a token Abigail had given him. It was supposed to light up and alert him if she got into trouble. But it remained dark. Charles replaced it in his pocket with misgivings. Where could Abigail be? What had happened to her?
Horner wanted to smoke, but he wouldn’t reveal himself by anything so stupid. He debated trying to make his way to the mine entrance himself. But he decided he had to trust Abigail. She knew her business, and Charles ruefully acknowledged to himself that against a magician his best defense would be to run away quickly.
Dawn came, and still no Abigail. Horner chewed on jerky, washed it down with watered-down whiskey, and waited. He checked his revolvers for the eighth time since he had entered the ravine, consulted the token once again, and took up a position against the east side of the ravine, taking advantage of the shadows to stay out of sight.
Finally, at ten in the morning, a very dirty and dusty Abigail appeared. When she got down to the bottom of the ravine, she gave Horner a pained look. “You could have smoked all night for all the difference it would have made. Alfonso Estevez y Rodriguez and I had a nice little talk, if you call it talking when we were both trying to figure out whether we could kill each other. He thinks we can’t harm him. And Charles, he may be right.”
Charles forbore to ask further questions until they had returned to the hotel and gotten washed up. They sat down to a noontime meal, at which Abigail explained what had happened. Estavez had been expecting her. He had been the huge bird, or at least the bird was some sort of avatar of his.
“I don’t think he’s actually human, Charles,” Abigail explained. “And I can’t figure out what he wants. I pointed out to him his ridiculous situation, that he could make no money until he at least negotiated an agreement with the other claimants, and he just dismissed the matter. Making money doesn’t really seem to be his aim.
“What’s worse is that not only is he ready for an attack by conventional means, he’s ready for an attack using magic. It’s a silver mine, Charles. He says he’s prepared a chamber lined with silver to protect himself if I attack him with magic. And he’s at least partially right. He let me try to use magic to see into the mine, and I found it very difficult. It must be because of the silver.”
Charles knew his role in such situations. “Ready to give up, Abigail?” he asked.
She scowled at him, but it was a friendly scowl. “You have something in mind?”
“Maybe,” he replied. “Might he have picked a spot he knew would give you trouble?”
Abigail considered. “He might. I can’t think of any reason why he chose to meet me where he did.”
Charles leaned forward in his chair over the remains of a chicken. “Just because he says he did something possible doesn’t mean he did so. He may not be all that invulnerable. Let’s be very visible, throw our weight around, make it clear we expect to resolve matters very soon in a way that cuts him out. Maybe he’ll feel he needs to do something about us. And when he moves, we’ll know more about what his agenda is.”
And this is one reason Abigail liked having Charles as a partner. He was resourceful, and when they had little in the way of resources, he was ingenious. Indeed, he knew more about how to produce results by doing nothing with nothing than anyone else she knew.
So Charles and Abigail began an active program of doing nothing, which is to say they did a great deal. Charles worked with the Pinkertons and state militia to find a way to overcome the defenses of the miners. And he worked hard to keep Tom Jackson’s courage up; the notorious financial gambler with nerves of steel was less self-assured when faced with threats to his physical well-being. Abigail scouted among the miners’ women and children.
Charles Horner was amazed that the militia was preventing any silver from being shipped out of the mine, but they were letting the miners and their families go back and forth between the mine and the town. Capt. Ben Towson, the commander of the militia, explained to an incredulous Horner that it would be inhumane to keep the miners from the families. Clearly the man had been bribed by Estevez. And the Pinkertons wouldn’t move on the mine without the militia in support.
Abigail Lane found out that some miners were staying in the mine, but it took her four days to realize what was really going on. It wasn’t just the miners who were staying out at the mine, it was their families. Any family member who was going out there to the mine was not coming back to town. And no miner without family in town was visiting town anymore. This made no sense to Abigail, and so her sleep that night was troubled.
On the morning of the ninth, Charles got down to breakfast in the dining hall only to find Abigail already there, a mug of black coffee and the remnants of her breakfast in front of her. Charles shuddered. He found the coffee undrinkable, and questioned just how much of its flavor came from coffee, but Abigail resolutely refused to drink beer or whiskey at breakfast. For that matter, Charles found the clientele less than desirable. He had to admit that he’d gotten used to Eastern ways, most notably bathing at least once a week. It amazed him that Abigail, who had spent most of her life in the East, didn’t seem to mind at all.
Abigail greeted him with a frown, which he knew meant that she had more bad news. And she unloaded it upon him immediately. “Charles, I’ve figured out what Estevez is up to. He’s a soul-eater.”
Charles ordered his breakfast, and then simply said, “Explain.”
Abigail’s frown deepened. “A magician can try to increase his power by draining others of their souls. If he succeeds, and does it repeatedly, he becomes something inhuman, dependent on eating souls to survive, not just to gain power. Estevez is drawing the miners and their families into the mine, where he’s eating their souls. That’s a few hundred souls. If he eats them all, he can burst right through the forces opposing him. And a few hundred people will be dead. What he might do after would probably be even worse.
“On top of that, killing him may not be enough. Since they are no longer human, soul-eaters can detach themselves from their bodies. It weakens them, they’ll need souls every day to survive, until they can find and take over the body of another magician.”
Charles frowned. “So we have to kill this thing, and keep it from getting loose, too. You say this thing could take over a magician. Could this soul-eater take you over, Abigail?”
Abigail’s look changed to one of frustration. “I don’t know, Charles. I don’t know of anyone who’s ever confronted a soul-eater before. They’re really the stuff of legends, not history, which is why I didn’t think of Estevez being one until I put a lot of facts together in the middle of the night.”
“Well, what can we use to imprison it?”
Abigail gave a sad chuckle. “That’s the irony, Charles: silver. The one thing handy I could use to confine it is the one thing that’s protecting it from magical attacks.”
Charles gave Abigail a smile. “Then, Abigail, we’re going to have to go into the mine.”
Abigail wondered at his smile. “You know a way we can get in without being seen?”
Charles’s smile grew wider. “No, there’s no way to get into that mine without being seen. And Estevez knows it, the more fool him. So we’re going to be seen, Abigail. We’re going to be seen by everyone. We’re just not going to be noticed. That’s not quite the same thing, not the same thing at all.”