Copyright © 2012 by Brian Bixby.
Chapter 13: Different truths
When she opened her eyes, she was completely confused for an instant. Then she realized that she was no longer standing facing Rev. Wilson, but instead was several feet behind him, and unharmed. Mrs. Wilson was looking aghast at her husband. Rev. Wilson was reloading his pistol. Neither of them seemed aware of Rebecca in her new position.
She had not realized what was going on until it was too late for her to react. So how had she ended up here? What had happened to the bullet? And what was Rev. Wilson doing now? The head of the walking stick felt warm in her grasp. Some sort of magic had just been done. And there was more still going on. Rev. Wilson was acting under a spell. Rebecca was not very sensitive to magic, unlike Abigail, but Rev. Wilson had been directly in front of her. She had literally tasted the magic on him.
Rebecca wanted to intervene, to use some magic to stop Rev. Wilson. She found she had none to call upon. It was as if magically teleporting several feet had drained her of any power of her own. As she watched, Rev. Wilson finished reloading his pistol, and raised it to point at his wife. That spurred Rebecca to movement. She rushed toward the Rev. Wilson. At the last moment, Mrs. Wilson saw her, turned, and screamed. Rev. Wilson began to turn in response, but he was too late. Rebecca brought up her stick. The pistol went flying, and Rev. Wilson fell backwards and went sprawling onto the floor.
When her stick had struck Rev. Wilson, a shock ran through Rebecca’s body, a magical shock. She staggered, grounded her stick, and stabilized herself. Too weak from her efforts to continue standing, she just gradually let herself slide down the walking stick to the floor, until she was sitting right beside the prostrate body of Rev. Wilson. She could do no more for the moment.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Wilson was still screaming. Her oldest child came running and clutched his mother around her legs.
And then someone else appeared in the doorway from the hall to the parlor. Rebecca looked up at her. The woman was attired in a drab cotton dress. Rebecca wasn’t sure, but thought she might be one of the Miller girls from the south side of town. Rebecca tried to remember her name. Patience, maybe? The woman had apparently heard the shot or Mrs. Wilson’s screams and come running in. Now she looked about, saw the pistol on the floor, saw the parson, and saw Rebecca. Her eyes widened in recognition. She screamed, “The witch has killed the parson again!” An instant later she was gone, heading for the front door and the street to warn others.
Rebecca’s heart sank. Here she was. She had come here to redeem her reputation. And now some fool of a woman was going to tell the town she’d killed the minister, when all she had done was keep him from killing his wife.
Thinking of that, she turned and looked over at the Rev. Wilson. He was just lying there, his eyes closed. Rebecca couldn’t tell for sure if he was breathing or whether she just thought she saw his chest move. She reached over to see if she could feel Rev. Wilson’s pulse in his neck. It was there, slow, but there. So I haven’t killed him, despite what Patience Miller thinks, Rebecca thought to herself with a certain smugness. She turned to Mrs. Wilson, who had stopped screaming when she saw what Rebecca was doing. Rebecca said to her, “He’s alive. I think he’s just in shock and unconscious.” She felt some of her energy coming back, and turned around to look for the pistol. It had slid across the floor almost to the edge of a horsehair couch. Rebecca crawled across the floor to retrieve it, heaved herself up onto the couch, and took her time unloading the pistol. She stowed it in her bag that she kept attached to the belt around her waist.
Mary Wilson had gone to her husband and checked herself to see that he was all right. She didn’t understand any of what had just happened. But she was sure of two things. Her husband was lying here on the floor, and she could not wake him up. And he had pointed a pistol at her, something he never, ever would have done. She looked up, saw Rebecca, and the connection was obvious: the witch had put a spell on her husband to make him shoot at her. In a harsh voice, she said to Rebecca, “Get out of my house.” Her small boy, who had followed her and was standing beside her, was frightened by her tone of voice and began to cry.
Rebecca had no idea why Mrs. Wilson said what she did, and was too weary to care. She just shook her head, closed her eyes, and leaned back on the couch. “I’m too tired from trying to keep your husband from killing both of us to leave.”
Mary had taken her child in her arms to quiet him. She felt overwhelmed. But what Rebecca had said stuck with her. Her husband had tried to shoot at this Mrs. Maxwell. And he had pointed the gun at her. And Mrs. Maxwell had stopped him. It still made no sense to her. Not wanting to upset her son again, she lowered her voice to ask, “Why would my husband want to kill me?”
The reclining figure on the sofa didn’t even open her eyes. “He wouldn’t. Someone put a spell on him to kill me. I suppose whoever it was told him to kill all the witnesses. You just happened to be a witness.”
Mary Wilson looked back at her husband, uncertain. She did not want to believe that her husband would shoot at her of his own accord, not with their child here in her arms, and that desire won out. She turned back to the mysterious woman on the couch. “Will he try to kill you again when he wakes up?” She had thought to ask whether her husband would kill her, but that was not a question she could bear to ask, especially not to a stranger, and certainly not with her son there.
Rebecca tried to pull herself together and found that she was still recuperating. She did open her eyes and look at Mrs. Wilson, though. The woman looked so distressed, torn between her husband and her son, that Rebecca decided to make an effort to fix things. She softened her voice, too. “No. He’ll be fine, just the way he was before. I broke the spell on him. He’ll be fine when he wakes up.” She leaned forward, dropped to her hands and knees on the floor, and crawled over to the Wilsons. The sight of her awkwardly crawling on the floor in a dress and holding the walking stick in one hand caught the boy’s attention, and he started laughing, which won a smile from his mother. Rebecca looked up, realized why he was laughing, and made some silly faces at him before reaching out to check Rev. Wilson’s pulse. It seemed a bit faster and steadier than before. She turned again to Mrs. Wilson. “Get us both some coffee and pie or biscuits or something. He’ll be awake when you return and will want something.”
Mary still wasn’t sure what was going on. But this woman seemed to know, she was reassuring Mary, and, most important of all, she had actually tried to make her son laugh. That decided Mary in favor of Mrs. Maxwell, witch or not. She got up, took her son by the hand, and headed for the kitchen.
Rebecca debated trying to slap Rev. Wilson awake, decided she didn’t need anyone looking in to see that, and used what little magic she could summon to try to wake him instead. It worked. Rev. Wilson opened his eyes and sat up. He saw that he was in his parlor, then turned and saw Rebecca. She gave him a half-smile. “You missed,” she said.
Thomas Wilson stared at Mrs. Maxwell with his mouth wide open. He remembered that he had tried to shoot her with a pistol he didn’t remember having before he took it out of his desk in his study. And then he had intended . . . he did not want to think of what he had intended to do next. And he could not understand why he had done any of this.
Before he had a chance to recover and say anything, his wife came into the parlor carrying two cups of coffee, with son Thomas, Junior bearing a plate of cookies with great care, since he had been promised one if he succeeded in not dropping the plate. She lit up when she saw her husband was sitting upright, dashed to his side, put down the coffee, sat down and hugged him. He hugged her back, and then remembered what he had almost done. He pulled away, looked his wife in the face, and said, “Mary, I don’t know what I was about. Can you ever forgive me?”
“Of course, Tom,” she naturally replied, and hugged him anew.
Rebecca had taken advantage of this romantic interlude to grab one of the cups of coffee and a cookie, barely beating out Thomas, Junior for the latter, and wolfed them down as quickly as she could. She was washing down the cookie with the last of the coffee when Mrs. Wilson pulled away from her husband and said to Rebecca, “There’s a crowd out there in the street.”
Rebecca stood up and strode toward the front window in the parlor, but stopped as soon as she saw the crowd. She guessed maybe twenty people were in it. The town has grown, she reflected to herself. Couldn’t have found twenty idle busybodies in town on a weekday afternoon when she was a child. She turned to face the Wilsons. In a light-hearted tone that belied the bitterness she felt, she said, “It appears, Rev. Wilson, that a concerned body of the citizenry may decide to finish what you attempted to do.”
Thomas Wilson was nonplussed. “I don’t understand.”
Rebecca walked back over to them. “One of them came running in after I knocked you out and decided that I had killed you.”
Thomas Wilson was appalled. He still wasn’t sure what had happened, but he knew he stood for the truth. “I will go out and show them otherwise,” he said in a firm voice, and then tried to stand. He was less firm on his feet, and required the assistance of his wife to stand. Rebecca knew he would feel better with something to eat or drink, grabbed the other cup of coffee from the floor and offered it to him. (Thomas, Junior had made off with the other two cookies.) He took it, drank it, took a step, found out he could manage, and gave the cup to his wife. “Mary, you stay here. Mrs. Maxwell, if you will take my arm, we will go out and confront this mob and I will explain exactly what happened.”
Rebecca doubted he could clearly remember what had happened, let alone explain it, but took his arm anyhow and walked with him into the hallway to the front door. In fact, Rev. Wilson was discovering that he couldn’t explain what happened. So it was with great relief that he heard Mrs. Maxwell suggest, “Why not just tell them that we are going to the church to pray? You don’t have to say anything more.” Thomas Wilson was happy with that, since it explained what they were doing without any lying, and also meant he would be offering spiritual assistance to this woman. He turned to her, nodded, and then opened the door to show her out.
The crowd outside had initially formed on the new sidewalk just in front of the parsonage. It now spilled into the street and onto the parsonage lawn. There was some debate in the crowd over exactly what to do. A few brave souls wanted to enter the parsonage and apprehend Rebecca Farnsworth (as they still called her). Most, wary of confronting a witch who could kill people just by looking at them, wanted to wait for Ben Murphy. Both factions agreed that Rebecca should be hanged immediately, though.
The sight of the parson coming out of his house with the witch on his arm utterly confounded the mob. Rev. Wilson marched arm-in-arm with Rebecca right up the walk to the crowd, and then said, “Please step aside. Mrs. Maxwell and I are going to the church to pray.”
When confronted with a calm authority figure, many a mob will simply dissolve. This one began doing just that. However, Prudence Miller (Rebecca hadn’t quite got the name right), who had hated Rebecca as a child, was so sure that Rebecca was a witch that she came to the only logical conclusion. She yelled, “The witch has put a spell on the parson,” jumped forward, and tried to pull Rev. Wilson away from Rebecca. In a moment, the mob regained courage, and began closing in on Rebecca.
There was a shot.
The mob stopped, startled by the sound. They looked up the street, from where the sound had come.
There, putting a revolver back into a side holster, was Jeremiah Farnsworth. He calmly walked over to the crowd, looking as unconcerned as if he were on a Sunday stroll. He picked out one of the more reputable members of the crowd. “Good afternoon, Amos,” he said, “what’s going on here?”
Amos Hill might be poor, but he was still a proud member of one of the town’s founding families. He colored, coughed, and then said to Jeremiah, “Seems there’s some question of your sister shooting and killing the parson, Jeremiah.”
“I see,” Jeremiah replied in a tone that implied he certainly did not. “And where are my sister and the parson?”
Rev. Wilson felt the prayer for deliverance he had started when the mob closed in had been answered, and called out, “Over here, Jeremiah.”
Jeremiah casually walked over to the parson, letting the crowd move out of his way as he approached. He stopped before Rev. Wilson, clearly looked him over up and down, and then called out loud, “There seems to be some mistake here, Amos. I’m looking at the parson now, and he doesn’t look dead. Are you dead, Rev. Wilson?”
Thomas Wilson was a good man, but not noted for thinking quickly on his feet. For once, he belied his reputation. He answered, “While I live in the firm hope of the Resurrection, Jeremiah, I am not yet in need of it.”
The crowd laughed nervously. They were becoming embarrassed by the whole affair.
The Millers had never had much love for the Farnsworths, quite apart from Prudence’s dislike of Rebecca. Boundary disputes will do that to neighboring families. Prudence figured this was some sort of Farnsworth trickery. She shouted, “I heard a shot. The witch shot the parson. Somehow she’s keeping him alive with her witchcraft.”
The crowd was quite willing to believe that Rebecca was capable of such things, and began to get riled up again. Jeremiah could feel it, and waved his arms and shouted, “Wait! Wait!” The mob paused, its temper uncertain.
Jeremiah turned to Prudence and said, “Prudence Miller, are you saying my sister shot the parson?”
Prudence shouted out, “Yes! And she’s bewitched him, too.”
Jeremiah shook his head. “Now, now, Prudence. That story doesn’t make any sense. If my sister’s a witch, what would she need a gun for? Why use a gun,” and here he turned and took the walking stick from Rebecca, turned back and said, “when she can use this?” He held the walking stick aloft.
The sight of the dragon-headed stick, which had achieved legendary status in the town, was enough for the crowd to fall back. Jeremiah waited long enough for them to stop, and then broke out laughing. He tossed the stick up and down a few times, and said, “Silly people. It’s a walking stick, not a witch’s broom.” He tossed it back to Rebecca. “And where were you going, Rev. Wilson?” he asked.
Rev. Wilson replied, “I was taking Mrs. Maxwell to pray in the church.”
Jeremiah answered loudly, “An excellent idea. I think I’ll join you both. Anyone else who wants to join us in prayer is welcome to do so.” And with that, he set out toward the church, with Rev. Wilson and Rebecca right behind him. A few members of the crowd sheepishly followed, while the majority decided that they would rather not be identified with this business any more. One or two gathered around Prudence Miller and headed off down the street, discussing how the Farnsworths had tricked the people once again.
After they had prayed, Jeremiah invited the parson to bring his wife to dinner at the Double Eagle as Jeremiah’s guest, and then escorted his sister back to the hotel. Rebecca marveled at her brother. He had just faced down a crowd, but seemed completely unaffected by the experience. As they walked from the church to the hotel, Jeremiah greeted people in the street as if nothing had happened. He even stopped for a few minutes to talk with one of the selectmen about conditions at the town farm.
Rebecca expected him to drop the gay demeanor once they reached her rooms at the hotel, but Jeremiah’s insouciance seemed to be limitless. He plopped down into a chair, asked her what had really happened, and calmly listened to her account without showing any sign of concern. Rebecca found her ire, which had been directed at the townspeople, was beginning to encompass her brother as well, and ended her account by accusing him. “You seem to find this all so very amusing.”
Jeremiah stopped smiling, gave his sister a more concerned look. “I know you too well, sister. You knew they’d take the first chance they could to attack you, and yet you’re angered that they actually did so. I do not let myself be angered by behavior I expected.” He pulled out the pistol from its holster and tossed it to his sister, who was sitting at an angle only six feet away. “Count the bullets remaining in that, Rebecca.”
Rebecca examined the revolver. “There aren’t any.” She tossed the pistol back.
As he reholstered it, Jeremiah said, “That’s right. I knew I would need only a warning shot. That’s how well I know the town, Rebecca. And speaking of guns and bullets, mind if I see the pistol Rev. Wilson used?”
Rebecca got it out and tossed it to her brother, who gave it a quick look over. “Interesting. I don’t carry pistols like this. In fact, I don’t know any merchant outside of New York City who would carry a fancy pistol like this one. Whoever your enemy is, he’s either not from here or he travels a lot.” He tossed it back to his sister.
She put it aside and said, “Well, whoever he is, he’s the same person who attacked me in Stockbridge and almost killed Ellen Taylor’s brother. The feel of the magic in all three cases is so similar. And since he’s operating here, he probably killed the postmaster.”
Jeremiah gave her a quizzical look. “What do you mean? The postmaster died a natural death.”
It was Rebecca’s turn to be confused. “What do you mean? You wrote me about how he’d been found ritually killed in the Devil’s Acre.”
Jeremiah shook his head. “Rebecca, no. I never did.”
All of Rebecca’s repressed anger surged up. Without another word, she went over to her bags, found Jeremiah’s letter, stood in front of him, and held it out to him.
Jeremiah looked at the letter. It looked like his handwriting. He took it from his sister. Much of it was definitely his, but not the part about the postmaster. He did not write that. Somehow someone had reproduced a letter of his and altered it. He looked up at his sister. “This looks like my handwriting, and most of the contents are genuine, but I didn’t write that about the postmaster.”
His sister looked quite alarmed at his announcement. As well she should, Jeremiah thought to himself, since she had based her actions on a forgery. He’d have to help her investigate this.
Rebecca had an investigation in mind, but not the same as the one Jeremiah was considering. She asked her brother, “Did you write that letter?”
Jeremiah was taken aback, both that she would ask that question after he had denied it, and that she would use magic in speaking to him. But that was beside the point, he needed to answer her. Jeremiah tried to speak. But he couldn’t even think about what he was going to say. He kept reaching for the words, but they eluded him. He finally said something, but he didn’t even understand what he was saying. And then Rebecca was saying something more to him. He couldn’t understand that, either, but that made sense. Magicians often use dead languages such as Latin and Hebrew, and that must be what Rebecca was doing. Jeremiah remembered that his own name was derived from Hebrew, and became annoyed that he couldn’t understand what Rebecca was saying in that language. Maybe the postmaster knew Hebrew. There was something about him that suggested he did.
At that point, Jeremiah mercifully stopped being aware of anything.
If Jeremiah Farnsworth looked pale and nervous when he came down the stairs in the Double Eagle Hotel with his notorious sister Rebecca, he quickly regained his composure. He sat at his sister’s right hand, with Mrs. Frelinghuysen to his right, and kept up a cheerful conversation straight through dinner.
Barnabas Dawson was just as cheerful. As Jeremiah had predicted, everyone had wanted to sit at the main table with the town’s own witch. If Jeremiah did more talking than his sister, well, that was to be expected, and fit with the story he had told his guests about her desire for privacy. Barnabas was a bit sorry that Rev. and Mrs. Wilson were there, though the town’s parson was by definition a perfectly respectable person, for that limited his opportunities to gossip about what had happened earlier in the day. And Barnabas found his gaze repeatedly returning to Mrs. Maxwell’s walking stick, which was hanging by its head on the table between Jeremiah and Rebecca. Every time he looked at it, he thought the dragon head was looking at him as if he were one of its future meals, so he looked away as quickly as he could. Still, dinner was a success, bookings for dinner were going up, and he would come out ahead. For that, he was willing to put up with Rebecca Farnsworth’s . . . eh, Rebecca Maxwell’s evil walking stick.
Mrs. Maxwell declined to join the other ladies after dinner, offering as an excuse that she had become fatigued in dealing with so many people in one day. It gave the ladies a remark to fuel their gossip, so they were satisfied. They watched her brother accompany her up the stairs, and speculated on whether the association would hurt Jeremiah’s business. They hoped not.
Jeremiah dropped himself into the same chair he had previously occupied, and gave his sister the exact same smile. He did not feel so cheerful, but it was a matter of policy for him to look as if he were. He knew something had happened to him, but he had recovered so close to dinner time he hadn’t had time to get an explanation from Rebecca before they went down. Still smiling, he simply said, “Well?”
Rebecca did not sit down. She paced a bit before standing before her brother. She did not enjoy what she was about to do. “Brother, do you remember how the postmaster died?”
Jeremiah was puzzled. They had already covered this. “He died of natural causes.”
Rebecca inwardly cursed. She was going to have to take a more oblique approach. So she asked, “Who is Maria Lacroix?”
Jeremiah had to think a moment. “She’s a mill girl.”
“Why do you know her name? Why do you know who she is?”
Jeremiah’s smile died. “I don’t know, Rebecca.”
“How many other mill hands are like her?”
“How are they like her?”
Jeremiah considered the matter. “I don’t know. In fact I don’t know why I thought there were ten of them.”
“Ten who dis . . . ten who disappeared.” Jeremiah was surprised at himself.
“What happened to Maria Lacroix?”
Jeremiah didn’t hesitate for an instant. “I don’t know anything about what may have happened to her, if anything has.”
“Then why did you just say she was one of ten who disappeared?”
Jeremiah thought back to what he had said, what he knew. It did not make sense, and he said so. “I don’t understand what’s going on, Rebecca.”
Rebecca nodded. “Someone tampered with your memory, Jeremiah. He did a poor job of it. He eradicated every direct memory of his crimes, but forgot the references to those memories.” Seeing that an indirect approach had worked with the mill hands, she reverted back to the postmaster. “Here’s one more example: was Hiram Shepley’s throat cut? And did he die a natural death or was he murdered?”
Jeremiah replied, “It was cut wide open, and he died of natural causes.” He paused, looked wonderingly at his sister. “And I have no idea how I can believe both of those things at once, Rebecca, but I do.”
Rebecca sat down, gave her brother a tight grin. “It’s not you, Jeremiah. Just like it wasn’t Rev. Wilson trying to kill me this afternoon. Abigail Lane told me the magician who killed Shepley was eradicating the evidence, including people’s memories. He erased your memory that Shepley was killed, but not how he was killed. I tried to use magic to interrogate you and find out what you remembered. The internal conflict this caused drove you out of your mind for a while.”
Jeremiah trusted his sister. His memories were in disorder, though he acknowledged to himself he could not tell on his own. If Rebecca said it was magic, then it was magic. She would know. Now he understood why Abigail Lane seemed angry much of the time. He was angry now, too.
Jeremiah had lowered his gaze while thinking. He looked up to find her standing in front of him again. He was startled by the look on her face. He had seen it only once before, just before she had gone to church and killed the minister, ten years earlier.
“My adversary made three mistakes,” Rebecca said to Jeremiah. “He did a poor job of removing your memories about the postmaster. He also removed your memories about the mill hands disappearing. And while he didn’t tackle most of the related memories, he specifically made sure you didn’t remember writing about these things to me.
“The magician who attacked Sam Taylor, the magician who attacked me in Stockbridge, and the magician operating here are one and the same person, without a doubt. And he hasn’t killed just one person. He’s almost certainly killed several mill hands. And he’s tried to kill me twice.
“Until we know why, we have to assume he will kill again. He must be stopped.”
End of chapter thirteen