Disclaimers: Those groovy Mag7 boys don't belong to me, and I'm not making any money off this. But if they did, and if I were... hellooo, Nurse!
Author's Note: Not a whole lot to say about this one, except feedback would be really keen. I wrote this on the plane trip home and finally got around to transcribing and editing it.
"Damn crazy witch!"
Vance Slade punctuated the invective with a shot of whiskey, draining the glass in one go and flinging it to the floor, eliciting a scowl from Inez. He ignored her gasp of indignation and drank directly from the bottle instead of asking for another glass, draining a good amount of it before coming up for air. Gasping, he set the bottle down and passed a dirty sleeve across his mouth. "Damn crazy witch!" he said again and shook his head.
Ezra and Vin watched Slade in silence, both poised for action should the man do more than drink and shout. Seeing this, Slade sat down heavily, but was not subdued. Instead, he turned to the two regulators and demanded challengingly, "You ever heer'd a' the Witch of Wilson's Pass?"
"Can't say as I have," Vin said calmly. He glanced at Ezra. "How 'bout you, Ez?"
"Indeed, Mr. Tanner, I must confess that I have not had the distinct pleasure of ever presenting myself before a lady of that... before a lady claiming that distinction. Although, now that I think about it, I do not believe that introducing oneself as 'The Witch of Wilson's Pass' would predispose one to receive a plethora of compliments," the gambler responded, idly tossing another coin onto the small pile in the middle of the table.
"You ain't never heard a' the Witch of Wilson's Pass?" Incredulity painted Slade's voice, and he took a fortifying gulp of whiskey, once more wiping his mouth with his sleeve. "Lives in the forests near the mountain passes?"
"I heard of her," chipped in Lewis O'Day, nodding his vehement agreement with Slade. "They say she makes soap out of babies' fat, y'know, an' that she calls up demons n' whatnot come Sunday mornin', 'stead of goin' to church like a proper widow ought to. An' they say," Lewis's voice dropped to a whisper, as if the woman herself stood among them, "they say she keeps the skeleton of her dead husband in her cellar."
"And she wears one of his fingers on a necklace," added Jed Reston from the other end of the bar.
"And she's put a spell over the woods- a man'll go crazy if'n he gets lost in 'em." This from Old Heyworth, a grizzled prospector who sat over in the far corner of the saloon. The man pulled himself away from his drink long enough to add that ghosts haunted the forests around the witch's house- angry sonsabitches they were, too.
"Yes, yes, and she keeps a fleet of large, flying monkeys in her stable," interrupted Ezra with great asperity. He glared at Vin, who stared raptly at Slade, and impatiently kicked the tracker in the ankle. "Mr. Tanner, if I may be so bold as to inquire, are you planning on raising, calling, folding, or otherwise participating in this game in the immediate future?" he asked.
"Just a second, Ez," murmured Vin equably before turning his attention back to Vance; he made a point of placing his cards face-down on the table, though. "What happened on the way back through the passes, Mr. Slade?"
"Damn crazy witch cast a spell over that pass! Cast a spell just like the one Heyworth says she cast," Slade sputtered and swallowed more whiskey. "I was 'bout halfway through it when there's this Godawful wail- sounded just like a soul straight from Hell, I'm tellin' ya- an' my team broke the traces an' took off. Left me stuck there with a load a' lumber. Mr. Larabee found me yesterday an' brought me back... Goddamn. All these voices howlin' fit to make a man mad." He shook his head and, overcome by his close brush with insanity, hell, or both, took another drink.
After absorbing the man's tale, Vin nodded and returned to the game, earning a sigh of relief from Ezra. The two men played in silence for a while until Vin asked, "You want to ride out there?"
"Out where, Mr. Tanner?" Ezra knew full well where Vin wanted to ride to, and wondered what had come over the tracker to suggest it. Not that he believed in witches of course, but the enterprise was redolent of possibly unnecessary effort, personal hardship, and even worse, time away from the gambling tables.
"Wilson's Pass. Y'know, just to look around a bit." To Vin's credit, Ezra thought, he didn't try to make it sound like a grand adventure, like St. George looking for the dragon. Unfortunately for Mr. Tanner, it didn't sway Ezra's conviction one iota.
"Mr. Tanner, I believe my time would be better served here, engaged in some useful industry, rather than haring off after the source of some rumor."
"We'll leave midmorning," Vin added coaxingly.
Ezra scowled. "No, Mr. Tanner."
"Want to make a wager? If'n you win this hand, you don't have to come. If'n I win, you're at the livery by ten. Deal?" The blue eyes of the sharpshooter bored into the pale green ones of the gambler- challenging, demanding, and inescapable.
Ezra met Vin's gaze squarely and nodded his agreement. "You have yourself a bet, Mr. Tanner. Now, I believe that, in order to end this as quickly as possible in order to expedite the process of your getting over your imminent disappointment, it is incumbent upon me to call."
Vin shrugged casually and spread four of a kind on the table. Ezra stared blankly at the four queens arrayed in a neat row on the worn wood, and then shifted that blank stare to the two pair in his own hands. Coherent thought deserted him as he contemplated the prospect- and the likelihood- of his being awake and functioning at ten in the morning.
+ + + + + + +
Afternoon saw the two men well on their way to Wilson's Pass, and about another half-hour away from their destination. Ezra, disconsolate over losing the bet and still half-asleep after an unexpected (and belated, he thought bitterly) streak of luck, slouched in his saddle and cantered behind the tracker. At length, they came up on Wilson's Pass and pulled up just before entering the forests.
"Chicken, Ez?" asked Vin.
Ezra snorted. "Certainly not, Mr. Tanner."
As if on cue, a keening wail cut through the air, an eerie, breathy moaning that seemed to emanate from the entire forest before them, carried on the wings of a cold, clammy breeze. The horses spooked, going stiff-legged and whirling on their haunches to escape the haunting sound. Soothing words and firm hands steadied the creatures, but they still shifted uneasily, eyes wide and ears pricked toward the forest. Slowly, the cry and the wind died down, leaving the woods and the men wreathed in an expectant silence.
The two men exchanged looks, and Ezra finally said, "Well, it appears that Mr. Slade and his cronies may be right after all." He darted a nervous glance at the forest, at the trees and undergrowth that now seemed to lie in wait for him. Ezra dismissed the thought as best he could and gathered up his reins. "Shall we depart, Mr. Tanner?"
"Hang on, Ez." Vin swung off his horse and led it toward the forest. He led Peso just past the fringe of the wood, stopped in front of a large oak, and peered up into the branches.
His soft exclamation of surprise barely reached Ezra's ears; intrigued, the gambler dismounted and wandered over to join Vin in his inspection of... whatever it was that he inspected. When he saw what Vin saw, he grunted with a shock of his own. Vin turned toward him and grinned.
"Smart lady, huh?" he asked, indicating the dozens of small windchimes hanging in the tree's branches, all of them made of hollowed sticks, stones, glass, and pieces of painted metal. The thick foliage of the tree hid the chimes, and they were positioned high enough so that even a man on horseback wouldn't notice them.
"Indeed, she certainly possesses a keen aptitude for deception," Ezra said admiringly. "I daresay that many of the other trees in the vicinity have been equipped with similar objects. But how did you know? Or suspect?"
"That noise started only when the wind came up, an' it stopped when the wind did," Vin explained. "Slade prob'ly wouldn't've noticed it, just bein' too anxious to git through there. Same with Jed an' all the others. You want to keep goin'?"
"We might as well, Mr. Tanner, seeing as we have successfully demystified one myth concerning the lady in question. Consider me officially intrigued." Ezra looked around and added, "Of course, if we could find a trail of some sort, it would make our vocation considerably easier."
Vin nodded and quickly ground-tied his horse before peering around to ascertain a trail. His search took him about twenty feet from Ezra, and Standish found himself somewhat unnerved at how the tracker appeared to vanish into the foliage. The sun trickled fitfully through the heavy canopy, dappling the forest floor with confusing shadows that undulated in time with the ever-moving branches. Another haunting lament arose from the wind chimes, its echoes trailing into nothingness once more as the wind died down.
Eventually, Vin returned and pointed off to the north. "That looks t' be the likeliest trail, but it still ain't much of one. Should be enough, though, to take us somewhere." He remounted and turned his horse down the almost invisible track, Ezra in close pursuit.
The two men rode without speaking, reluctant to break the heavy cloak of silence that settled over them. Creaking tack and the rhythmic thuds of their horses' hooves broke the quiet, though, with all the sharpness of gunshots. Every now and then, the chimes would sound, and the horses started a little when the cry came up seemingly out of nowhere.
"Hey, Ez, you see that?" asked Vin with barely-suppressed excitement. "Up ahead there?"
Ezra squinted, following the line of sight provided by Vin's finger. He couldn't see anything for a moment, but at length, he thought he could see a clearing and a small house that sat in the middle of it. No sooner did the thought cross his mind when the house and clearing vanished, and Ezra considered the possibility that an advanced state of fatigue had brought on a mirage. He was about to voice his opinion to Vin when the forest parted around them and they stood in that same clearing, and Ezra saw that same house in front of them.
Smoke drifted lazily from the chimney, and a few chickens poked around the yard. Two horses stood in the corral, both nondescript bays, and a small plot of garden hugged a corner of the house. The house itself reminded Vin of Nettie's place, probably just a few rooms but well-built with a porch encircling it. A curtain parted briefly and Vin tensed; an unseen hand dropped it, and a few seconds later, the door opened and a lone figure stepped out onto the porch.
The woman moved out onto the porch and, after staring at her visitors for a few moments, descended the stairs to meet them. A heavy cable of dark brown hair shot with gray twisted down her back, and a few errant strands of it wisped around a lined face. Just an ordinary face, Vin thought, lined from nothing more than age, and he made her out to be around forty-five- hardly the ancient hag Slade had made her out to be. A plain blue skirt swirled in the light breeze that drifted through the clearing, and that same breeze tugged on an intricately woven shawl the woman had wrapped around her shoulders.
"My name is Abigail Gentry. May I help you gentlemen?" she asked in a mild, ordinary voice and her green-brown eyes regarded the two men without expression or judgment from behind a pair of spectacles.
Ezra saw a blank, panicky look come over Vin's face and quickly intervened. "Madam, my name is Ezra Standish; we heard a noise that seemed to be coming from this locality, and my associate - that would be Vin Tanner - and I decided it would be prudent to investigate."
"Indeed," Abigail said slowly. "Well, everything is quite all right here, and I apologize for you coming so far off the trail to investigate for nothing. Might I invite you in for water, or a cup of tea or coffee? I haven't much, but you are welcome to it."
"We would be delighted, Madam," Ezra replied, dismounting as he spoke. Vin followed suit, trying to watch the woman as discreetly as he could, but sensing that she knew very well that he watched. He ground-tied his horse near the corral, but not near enough for Peso to harass the two horses in it. The black nudged his arm reprovingly, as if silently demanding that Vin climb back on so they could get out of there. Vin rubbed the gelding's nose and turned to follow Ezra and the woman into the house.
Ezra walked a few paces behind Ms. Gentry, and tried desperately to think of conversation, wondering why the task had suddenly become so difficult. His tongue tripped over itself as he tried out half a dozen different opening gambits, and he wanted to kick himself when he realized he long ago should have asked her name.
They had entered the house at the moment of that realization, though, and suddenly, such trivial questions didn't seem to matter.
Her house, like many frontier houses, hugged itself close together so as to be small in the face of wind and storm, but the inside of this place seemed almost palace-like, large and warm and welcoming. Vin, usually edgy upon entering enclosed spaces, felt relief wash over him and didn't wonder at it. Potted plants dotted the floor, some bearing flowers and even fruit that Vin didn't recognize. He felt badly about getting dirt all over the heavy rugs beneath his feet, but the embarassment vanished as he looked around.
Beautiful paintings covered the walls, some framed, some not; unframed canvases were propped against any available piece of furniture. A riot of color spilled out of them, almost obliterating their subjects in avalanches of eye-searing reds and yellows, the richest greens and purples. Ezra managed to focus on one enough to pick out a mother embracing a child- a blond haired woman clasping her auburn-haired little boy to her breast, her bright head bent over her son's darker one. Her dress swept around them both, a wave of blue just as rich and deep as those of the ocean.
Something constricted in his throat, and he darted a nervous glance at his friend, who seemed just as caught up in the paintings as Ezra himself. A sad sort of distance had entered Vin's eyes as he stared at a canvas; Ezra looked, but couldn't pick out any recognizable form. The tracker's lips moved as if in whispered prayer, and his right hand half-lifted as if to caress a ghostly face.
"Tea or coffee, gentlemen?"
Abigail Gentry's prosaic question shattered the spell gripping the two men. Vin felt as if he'd been physically yanked back from a cliff, Ezra like he had awoken abruptly from a deep sleep. Both men looked blankly at her for a moment, a plain woman setting a tray of cups down upon an exquisitely carved oaken table, seeing something else instead of her for the barest of heartbeats.
"Ah... very interesting paintings, if I may say so, Madam. Very well done," Ezra managed to say, trying to bring them past the moment and feeling utterly unsuccessful at doing so. He gestured vaguely to where he thought the picture of the woman and her child hung.
Surprisingly, Ms. Gentry blushed, giving her face a youthful glow if for a second only, and she smiled brightly - again, strangely young - at the gambler. "Thank you, sir. I studied at L'École des Beaux-Arts in Paris as a young lady."
"The School of Fine Arts? Well, that's quite an accomplishment." Ezra tried to place her accent, and couldn't. "How do you get the supplies for your work?
"I have a nephew who lives in Eagle Bend, and he brings me supplies every few months," she said briefly. "Tea or coffee?"
"Coffee," both men said in unison, and she smiled.
"Well, coffee it is, then!" She stood and made her way to a small kitchen that both men had failed to notice before, but it seemed small and ordinary compared to the bright, brazen colors of the room in which they stood. Ezra looked around once more for the painting that had captured his eye earlier, and frowned when he couldn't find it. He glanced at Vin, and realized the younger man must be doing the same thing.
Abigail returned with the coffee pot and poured two cups of it for them, and tea for herself, asked them about sugar and cream and received a negative from both from Vin and Ezra alike. She handed them their cups; Ezra took his and swallowed a mouthful, grateful that the woman knew how to make a perfectly-nuanced pot of coffee.
Vin took his and swallowed a mouthful, grateful that the woman knew how to make coffee stronger than dirt.
Impulsively, he asked, "Why do they call you the Witch of Wilson's Pass? An' why don't you do anythin' about it?" He ignored the scathing glare Ezra directed at him and the fiercely whispered curse as well.
Abigail gazed at him from over the rim of her teacup. "I'm a woman of middle years who lives alone in a forest - appearances must be kept up, Mr. Tanner," she murmured, and Vin blushed; she laughed, a strangely young and girlish sound for such a face. "I do nothing about my reputation because it keeps me safe here," she explained. "My nephew finds my story entertaining, and does nothing to disabuse the people of Eagle Bend of their beliefs. I might say that you, Mr. Tanner, cling to a few convenient illusions yourself."
Vin looked down and away, unable to meet her eyes, but she said gently, "Illusions are part of everything and everyone, Mr. Tanner. To some extent they are part of the fabric that makes us who we are- there need be no apologies for it." He glanced hesitantly up at her and found only friendship and conciliation in her seamed face; she smiled and he offered her a quick grin of his own.
Ezra found himself at a loss, feeling that the brief conversation between Vin and Ms. Gentry had taken place somewhere far beyond his depth, even though he should understand what she'd just said. Still, the full import of her words remained past his grasp, just as far beyond his depth as that painting, which he could not find now, for the life of him. A strange, prickly feeling worked away at his spine, a sensation he only got in times of immediate danger to either life, property, or both. He stared hard at the woman, uncaring if she noticed his scrutiny. What was it about her? Something tugged at him, something of long-forgotten instinct, maybe, that told him this woman was something more.
Something more than what? He turned the question over and over in his mind.
"Is something troubling you, Mr. Standish?"
Again, that sensation of waking up from a deep sleep by a rough, demanding hand. Ezra blinked uncertainly and managed to say, "No, nothing at all. Although we should be going before we impose too much on your hospitality." He stood quickly, mentally willing for Tanner to do the same. Fortunately, Tanner did.
"I am sorry to have you put out in such a way," Abigail apologized as she followed the two men out of the house and to the corral. She paused beside one of the bay horses and stroked its nose as she watched them prepare to ride out.
"Was nothin'," Vin assured her quickly, picking up Peso's reins and mounting. Beside him, Ezra did the same, in thoroughly uncharacteristic silence. In unison, both men touched fingers to hatbrims, turned their horses, and rode away into the forest.
In silence and alone once more, the woman watched them go, still rubbing the nose of the creature next to her.
"Do you think they know anything?" Sgeulaiche asked, voice a sharp and discordant hissing. A forked tongue flickered between his teeth as he spoke, and wise black eyes probed the woman's face for a premonition of an answer.
Abigail wearily passed her hands over her face, though not to hide it from Sgeulaiche's scrutiny, and turned to gaze at the small dragon that perched atop the corral fence, its tail entwined around the rough wooden plank of the top rail. The dragon stared back at her, unabashed at its effrontery and unamazed at the woman's now-unlined and youthful skin, the clear and unclouded hazel eyes.
"They might," Abigail said at length, running slender fingers through her hair. It shook in the breeze like a living thing, like dark mahogany, freed from the leather cord that had imprisoned it. She watched the flickering shadows of the forest reclaim the two riders and at length repeated, "They might."
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