(also available in My Haunted Blender's Gay Love Affair, and Other Twisted Tales Anthology)
After leaving a trail of terror and death in his wake, the notorious “Missouri” Boone Jennings finally meets his match in San Francisco when US marshal Ambrose Shaw catches up to him. The story of his capture, and the marshal’s bravery, has already become legend back east by the time Pinkerton inspector Ezra Johns gets off the train from New York City to testify in the murderer’s trial.
When Ambrose is unable to give witness to the evils he’s seen, Ezra becomes their lone hope for putting Jennings in a noose. But if Ezra thinks that’s his biggest problem, he’s got plenty to learn about life—and the afterlife—in the spirited West.
Fortunately, Ambrose is there to assist, and more than happy to oblige Ezra—in the courtroom or the bedroom. He spent his life bringing justice to the Wild West, and if he has a say in it, that’s how he’ll be spending his death too.
In this Abigail Roux creation we have lawmen, outlaws, hanging, shootouts, all the elements of a great western and then of course we also have ghosts. Oh and for Roux fans, we also have a great little surprise treat near the end of the story. Knowing her work as I do and I never saw it coming, afterwards, I realized I should have had more of an inkling that it might happen, but I didn't and that made it all the more sweeter. Ezra and Ambrose have an instant connection that goes beyond their common lawmen occupation and it's just fun to watch unfold. In Marshall Ambrose Shaw you have the quintessential old west lawman, in Inspector Ezra Johns, you have the apparent bookish Pinkerton agent and you really don't expect their commonalities to go beyond the badge but boy does it ever. Throw in the evil ways of the outlaw Boone Jennings and you have the workings of a great western and of course love story doesn't go unnoticed. A perfect addition to your bookcase.
Marshal Ambrose Shaw shoved through the doors of the Continental Hotel, squinting into the dim interior. He headed for the rowdy saloon, following the sound of the piano, and gave the patrons a once-over before moving toward the bar and the dapper tender behind it.
The man greeted him with a nod, tossed a rag over his shoulder, and came over. “What can I get you, sir?”
“Top-shelf,” Ambrose said, jutting his chin toward the row of bottles above the mirror on the back wall. Anything from below the bar, even in an establishment as fine as the Continental, was sure to make a man blind. As the bartender moved away, Ambrose reached into his vest and pulled out a cigarillo he’d rolled the night before. He placed it between his lips, then patted himself down, looking for a light. He found none, which was why he hadn’t smoked the damn thing earlier. With a sigh, he reached in again for a folded-up piece of paper he’d been carrying with him clear across the country.
He spread it out on the bar, smoothing his fingers over the creases.
The bartender set his glass and bottle beside the paper, then silently lit Ambrose’s cigarillo for him.
“Obliged,” Ambrose said around the cigarello. He tapped the drawing of the man on the paper. “You seen this man hereabouts?”
The bartender raised both brows, then met Ambrose’s eyes again. He shook his head slowly, but his eyes darted to a dark corner of the saloon, to a table that was shielded from the doorway by the player piano.
Ambrose sighed deeply, smoke wafting from his lips. “Is that right?” he murmured.
The bartender’s eyes darted toward the corner again, and he moved away, putting as much distance between himself and Ambrose as the bar back would allow. Leaning to his left, Ambrose could see “Missouri” Boone Jennings in the mirror behind the bar, and he tracked the man’s movements. He took the cigarillo from his lips and set it down, then pushed back his overcoat, revealing the pommel of the six-shooter at his hip.
The saloon cleared almost by magic, with gamblers, grifters, miners, traveling businessmen, drunks, and dancing girls scrambling for cover or slinking away to safety in corners and behind solid tables. Even the piano had gone silent. Ambrose didn’t turn around; to do so would have been deadly. Instead he watched Jennings in the mirror, trying to judge the distance of the reflection.
Jennings stood from the table he’d been drinking at, his feet spread apart, his jacket pushed back to reveal twin sidearms. His fingers tapped the ivory butt of one gun. “You come to take me, Marshal Shaw?”
“That I did,” Ambrose answered. He kept his back to Jennings, almost a dare for the wanted man to shoot him down like a coward. Jennings wouldn’t do that, not in front of people who would tell the tale.
“You been on my dust since St. Louis. Took you long enough, Shaw; I hit the damn ocean before you found me.”
Ambrose smiled sadly. “Had a handful of funerals to attend. You been collecting quite the bone orchard.”
“You find any witnesses to testify to my . . . ownership of that bone orchard?”
“Not any left alive.”
Jennings’s shoulders relaxed. “Then you’re wasting your time, ain’t you, Marshal?”
“Last one I saw buried was nothing but a boy.” Ambrose took a gulp of whiskey, then set his glass back down with a clink. “I decided I ain’t going to let you get in front of a judge.”
Jennings moved, his muscles tensing, his hands merely a flash. Ambrose pulled his gun and turned, firing. Bottles behind the bar popped and exploded. The glass in Ambrose’s hand burst into a million fragments. The mirror shattered, filling Ambrose’s vision with glittering shards of light like quartz dust on a sunny afternoon.
Jennings went to his knees, though Ambrose couldn’t say where he’d hit him. Then warmth and pain began to spread through his belly, and the shards of refracting light surrounding him turned blindingly white, brighter and warmer until he could see and feel no more.
Ezra Johns was hot, dusty, and sore. It had taken five rail days to make his way from New York City to San Francisco. After the chilly peaks of the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada range, with stars so large and bright Ezra thought he must have been taken to another world, the heat of the California coast was enough to knock him back.
He stepped out of the carriage in front of the Continental Hotel and Saloon. Down the street, he could see the monstrous frame of the Palace Hotel, where the trial would be held. Just two years old, it was arguably the most luxurious building west of the Mississippi, built in 1875 with all the modern fineries of the time. The Pinkerton Agency would never pay for a room there, though, so Ezra would make do with the Continental.
It would be but a short walk each morning to get there for the trial. Ezra had been summoned to testify against one “Missouri” Boone Jennings, a man wanted for murder as far back east as New York. As many as eleven deaths had been pinned on Jennings, who was notorious for his cruelty and violent nonchalance. None of those eleven murders, and there were probably even more than that, could be proved. None but the Irish dockworker Jennings had beaten to death in the streets of New York City.
Ezra had investigated that murder. He had a leather satchel full of evidence and witness statements. Proof beyond the shadow of a doubt that Jennings was the killer. And it would ultimately be Ezra’s testimony that would put Jennings in a noose.
That was what his superior had told him, anyway, to justify dragging him across the country.
Ezra entered the Continental. The saloon appeared to be under construction, with workers hanging an ornate mirror behind the bar. Ezra gave the dining room and saloon another glance before heading for the proprietor’s desk.
“We have one room available,” the attendant told him, casting a hesitant glance at his ledger.
“Is there a problem?” Ezra wiped down his spectacles so he could read the book.
The man winced and looked around, as if making sure no one else could hear him. “An injured lawman died in that room some time back. Our guests complain of there being . . . spirits.”
“Spirits?” Ezra couldn’t keep the amusement out of his voice. He smiled and gave the attendant a nod. “Well. I’m not opposed to double occupancy, so I’ll take it.”
He received his key and turned down assistance with his luggage, considering he only had his small canvas bag and the leather satchel full of evidence. He didn’t intend to let anyone handle that until it reached the court.
He trudged up the flight of stairs to his room, sighing in relief when he was finally able to close the door behind him and shrug off his frock coat. He’d not been prepared for the warmth out here; he might have to find a mercantile to purchase a summer coat.
The room was a nice one, almost comparable to his accommodations back east. It had a bed large enough for two, a washbasin and a private entrance to a water closet, not one but two armoires, and a sitting area. It was possible this room was the honeymoon suite. Considering the affordable rate, there must have been some powerful lore to keep it from being rented nightly. Ezra didn’t put much stock in spirits or hauntings, but he was grateful for the discount.
He set his bag on the end of the iron-framed bed, but before he could begin unpacking, he heard a scratch at the door. He turned, frowning as he watched the doorknob rattle. After a moment, the door creaked open, and just as Ezra was beginning to second-guess his belief in the afterlife, a man pushed the door open.
He was handsome. Blond, with a well-groomed mustache, a tan that gave evidence of many days spent in the sun, and blue eyes so clear they seemed almost silver peering out from under the brim of his hat.
“Can I help you?” Ezra asked, flustered from the intrusion.
“Name’s Ambrose Shaw.” He pushed the door open wider. His saddlebag was draped over his shoulder. “Man at the front desk said you might not mind sharing a room.”
“Oh. Oh! Of course not.” Ezra gestured to the room, then walked forward and offered his hand. “Ezra Johns.”
Ambrose looked down at his hand and nodded, but he didn’t take it.
“Right.” Ezra backed away to allow Ambrose into the room. He wasn’t sure if the lack of a handshake was supposed to mean something in the west or not, but he was too distracted to be offended. “Ambrose Shaw. You’re a US Marshal, aren’t you? You’re the one who finally brought down Boone Jennings?”
“I suppose I am,” Ambrose said, gravel in his voice. “Where’d you hear that?”
“The telegraph wire. News reached the east two weeks ago; it was huge. I work for the Pinkerton Agency.” Ezra fumbled in his pocket for his badge and showed it to Ambrose. He’d heard about the steely-eyed western lawmen with their unflappable demeanors and six-guns strapped to their thighs, but he’d not been prepared to meet one. Or room with one. “I was brought in to testify against Jennings.”
“For the murder of the Irishman, right?” Ambrose nodded and tossed his saddlebags onto the delicate rocking chair in the corner. Dust rose around it.
“That’s correct, yes. I was told there was no one else to testify, that all the witnesses . . . But you tracked him across six states and two territories.”
“I did.” Ambrose grunted. “Man shot, strangled, beat, knifed, and poisoned victims all across the damn country, but I never could prove it was him.”
“But you were involved in a gunfight with him, were you not?”
“That’s what I’m told.”
“I don’t remember.” Ambrose gestured vaguely to himself and gave Ezra a crooked grin. “I certainly can’t testify to it.”
Ezra frowned in confusion, but nodded anyway, not wanting to appear inexperienced in front of the legendary marshal. “If you can’t testify, then why are you here?”
“To watch,” Ambrose growled. He glanced over his shoulder, his eyes catching the light from the hurricane lamp and glinting dangerously. “I came to see him hang.”
Ezra’s mouth was suddenly too dry for him to swallow. “I . . . I suppose that’s a good reason.”
Ambrose removed his hat and set it on top of the washbasin in front of the dainty mirror as he walked past. “You’re the prosecution’s golden bullet,” he told Ezra. They stood on either side of the bed, staring at each other. Ezra’s heart was beating harder than was healthy. Ambrose studied him from under lowered brows, his eyes magnetic, his jaw clenched. “Best not miss,” Ambrose said before turning and walking into the washroom.
Ezra put a hand to his heart and sat heavily. The bed squeaked beneath him. It wasn’t hot in here at all. In fact, he was shivering.
“God help my aim,” he whispered.
When Ezra awoke, it was to the chirp of birds outside the window, the creak of wagon wheels and shouts of merchants, and the gentle, husky breaths of the man sharing the room with him. Ezra sat up, rubbing his eyes as he reached for his spectacles.
Ambrose was sitting in the rocking chair in the corner, watching him.
“Good morning,” Ezra mumbled to the marshal. He received a grunt in return. “Did you sleep there?”
“I don’t sleep,” Ambrose told him. “Best get ready. I intend to see Boone Jennings hang today.”
Ezra swallowed hard, nodding as he fumbled out from under the bedcovers. He splashed tepid water from the washbasin on his face, shivering even in the heat of the summer morning. He glanced in the mirror at the rocking chair, but Ambrose had moved. The chair was still rocking, but the marshal was nowhere to be seen.
Ezra turned, eyes sweeping the room. How the hell had he done that? It must have been a western lawman thing, like an Indian in high grass. The marshal’s saddlebags were nowhere Ezra could see either. Ezra shrugged and proceeded to dress, muttering to himself about the heavy frock coat he would be forced to wear through the first day of the trial.
As if he wasn’t going to be sweating already as the only witness capable of putting Boone Jennings in his grave.
“You seem nervous,” Ambrose said, his gruff voice just inches away from Ezra’s back.
Ezra jumped and turned, wide-eyed and blinking. “I am now, thank you! Do you make noise when you move?”
Ambrose pursed his lips and frowned. “Not really.”
“Could you try?” Ezra snapped as he shrugged into his vest and wrapped his tie under his collar.
Ambrose’s lips were still pursed, but one eyebrow slowly raised, and he nodded as if giving the request real thought. “Sure.”
Ezra turned to fix his tie in the mirror. He glanced up, expecting to see the marshal’s reflection, but the man was gone again. Ezra rolled his eyes and returned his attention to his appearance once more.
Once he’d finished, they made their way downstairs, Ambrose falling in step with Ezra. Ezra was clutching his satchel with the evidence for the trial so tightly his fingers were beginning to ache.
“You okay?” Ambrose asked. For some reason, he seemed to be fighting a smile, as if he found such serious business as life and death amusing.
Ezra gave him a tense nod.
“Still nervous,” Ambrose observed.
“You’re not helping,” Ezra said through gritted teeth.
Ezra gave him a sideways glare, then glanced toward the desk and offered the attendant a pleasant smile. “Good morning.”
“G-good morning, sir.” The man gave Ezra an odd, questioning look. What western custom had he violated now? “Is your room to your satisfaction?”
“It is, thank you.”
Ezra gave him a second glance as they walked past, then looked Ambrose up and down. “A little haughty of him not to speak to you.”
“I get that a lot,” Ambrose said with a shrug. He waved a hand at himself. “Folks don’t speak to the likes of me.”
“Really?” Ezra almost tripped over the doorway when they reached it. He turned and pushed the large wooden door open, holding it to let Ambrose walk out into the bright sunshine before following him. “Do people not recognize you as the law?”
Ambrose turned and squinted at him, his silver eyes sparkling in the sunlight. He laughed and headed off down the sidewalk. “That must be it,” he said over his shoulder.
Ezra stared after him, frowning for several moments before hurrying to follow.
The trial itself had drawn quite a crowd of onlookers, and though Ambrose seemed to have no trouble slipping through the rabble of curiosity seekers, journalists, and possible vigilantes standing outside the building shouting for Jennings’s head, Ezra could barely squeeze by.
He was jostled and pushed, and he held closer to his satchel of evidence. A hand reached out of the crowd and gripped his shoulder. Shivers wracked his entire body, and he closed his eyes against the inexplicable chill. But it was only Ambrose, who dragged him through the crowd, holding tightly to him as people complained and were shoved out of the way. Ezra tried to offer apologies, but he was hustled along too quickly.
He headed up the steps of the Palace Hotel, glancing sideways at Ambrose with a disapproving scowl. “That was quite rude. Do you make it a habit of dragging people along by their collars?”
“No, I usually use shackles.” Ambrose hooked his hand in his belt, tapping the butt of his gun with his index finger as he sauntered toward the doors.
“Please never do that again!”
“Sorry, did you want time to go put your bustle on?” Ambrose stopped at the doors to the hotel, turning to cock his head at Ezra and raise an eyebrow. His manner was still gruff and imposing, but his oddly silver eyes shone like he was amused.
Ezra was still clutching his satchel to his chest with both hands. He glanced down at the crowd, who were being held back by wooden barriers and two overwhelmed constables. Ezra straightened his shoulders and raised his head, jutting out his chin. “This is a more rowdy environment than I’m accustomed to,” he admitted. “Thank you for your assistance.”
Ambrose nodded, then reached out and fixed Ezra’s collar, which had gone askew. He patted Ezra on the shoulder, knocking him sideways. Then he stood waiting for Ezra to get the door.
Ezra couldn’t help but laugh as he pulled the heavy wooden door open and gestured for Ambrose to enter first. “For a big tough western lawman, you sure do have some feminine sensibilities,” he said as he followed Ambrose in.
Ambrose merely laughed as he led the way to the courtroom.
They seated themselves on the left side of the room, in the only empty spaces in the very back row. The room was packed, and the heat was almost as oppressive as the tension in the room. When the side door shoved open and “Missouri” Boone Jennings shuffled in, chains rattling, two armed US Marshals following him, the room fell silent and still.
Jennings was dressed in a suit, his long hair slicked back and tied at his neck, his left arm in a cotton sling. He was clean-shaven and rather handsome—not at all the dirty, disheveled outlaw Ezra had been expecting.
A low hum started in the back of Ambrose’s throat, and Ezra glanced at him worriedly. Ambrose’s sharp eyes had gone cold, his shoulders tense. The mere presence of the murderer in the courtroom had caused all movement to cease, the temperature dropping by some trick of the mind. The man at Ezra’s side shivered.
The loudest sound in the room, other than the clanking of Jennings’s chains, was Ambrose growling.
Ezra patted his arm. “Be calm,” he whispered.
The man on his other side chuckled. “Ain’t nothing to be calm over, not being in the same room as that snake.”
An hour later, Ezra was called to take the witness stand. He carried his satchel up and placed it on the floor beside the chair.
“State your name and occupation for the record, please,” the judge requested.
“My name is Ezra Johns, of New York City. I’m a special investigator for the Pinkerton Agency.”
“How do you know Boone Jennings?”
Ezra took a deep breath, then described in detail the vicious assault he’d investigated a year ago. He pushed his satchel toward the prosecuting attorney. “All the evidence I collected is in there, including witness statements authorized by the district court of New York State.”
“Is there any doubt in your mind that Boone Jennings was the perpetrator of that murder?”
“There is none. He fled New York by rail, heading west to Chicago and then St. Louis. The US Marshals were brought in to track him down.” Ezra’s eyes strayed to the back of the room, where Ambrose sat, silent and stoic, his face enveloped in shadow.
The prosecuting attorney nodded, then retrieved a stack of telegrams from his table. He handed them to Ezra. “Can you tell us what these are?”
Ezra flipped through them. “These appear to be telegrams sent by Marshal Ambrose Shaw.” He glanced up at Ambrose again. The man had tracked Jennings clear across the country, sending out a telegram every time he found another body. A chill ran through Ezra. No wonder Ambrose was so invested in this trial.
“Can you find the last three, please, and read them for the court?”
Ezra nodded and paged through them, coming to the final telegrams. He cleared his throat. “Silver City. Victim thirteen years old,” he read, struggling with the telegram’s shorthand. He paused and glanced up, blowing out a breath of nerves. “Eighteen men, women, and children now in the orchard. Believe Jennings heading for California. Watch the ports.”
“Those are the words of Marshal Shaw,” the prosecutor said quietly. “The last telegram was sent from right here in San Francisco, a fortnight ago. Please read it, Inspector Johns.”
Ezra nodded, swallowing hard. He didn’t understand why they were having him read the telegrams with Ambrose sitting right there. The marshal would make a much more effective witness with his gruff drawl and haunting silver eyes.
He held the final telegram up. “Jennings in San Fran. I do not aim to let him leave. I bury him here, or they try him for . . . for my murder.”
The finality of those words echoed through the rapt courtroom, and Ezra shivered. He raised his head, staring at Ambrose with his lips parted in shock.
“This was a hardened US Marshal,” the prosecutor was saying to the judge and jury. “A man who saw war, a man who tracked murderers and thieves over deserts and mountains. The atrocities he witnessed in the aftermath of Boone Jennings’s wake drove him to forgo the due process of the law he had upheld all his life, to risk his life to take Boone Jennings off the face of this earth so no one else could be hurt by him.”
Ezra’s mouth went dry as he stared out at Ambrose, trying to imagine what would drive the man to such action.
The prosecutor stopped pacing, his hands behind his back as he stood before the jury with a grim set to his jaw. “Marshal Ambrose Shaw died of his wounds the same night he confronted Boone Jennings. He gave his life to bring this man to justice, to end his reign of terror. You the jury must be just as brave in your convictions as Marshal Shaw was in his.”
Ezra’s heart stuttered, and his gaze shot to the back of the courtroom. Ambrose was still sitting there, his face hidden in the shadow of his hat. He raised his hand, and tipped the brim toward Ezra.
Boone Jennings began to chuckle.
“You’re a ghost!” Ezra shouted at Ambrose as soon as they were in the lobby of the Palace Hotel, the trial left to carry on without them once Ezra’s testimony was over. Ambrose was quite proud of him. He wished he could have sat up there himself, but he would settle for a front row seat to Boone Jennings’s hanging instead.
People stopped and stared at Ezra as he continued to rant at Ambrose, their scandalized murmurs growing louder the longer Ezra spoke.
Ambrose glanced around. “Most folks can’t see me. You might keep that in mind when you’re shouting at me.”
Ezra coughed and covered his mouth, glancing at the nearest hotel patrons. “Hello,” he said with a polite smile. He pointed at Ambrose. “He’s a ghost.”
The couple stared at him, and then the gentleman grabbed his wife’s arm and led her away in a hurry.
“I’m glad you find this funny, because I certainly don’t,” Ezra hissed. He stopped and narrowed his eyes. “Why can I see you and they can’t?”
“I don’t know. Maybe you got that second sight thing. Ain’t Pinkertons supposed to be all-seeing?”
“That’s not funny. Why did you choose me?”
“You were in my room, remember?”
“Your room?” Ezra spat. “It’s not your room, you’re dead!”
Ambrose reached for his arm, taking it in a pale imitation of the iron grip he’d once employed in life. “People are going to think you’re crazy, son. I’ll be damned if your testimony gets struck because you’re talking to air. Come on.” He dragged Ezra with him.
“Your hands are cold,” Ezra grumbled as he followed along.
“Of course they’re cold, I been dead for two weeks.”
“I’m dreaming right now. I’ve been slipped opium, and I’m in some sort of drugged daze.”
“Stop muttering to yourself, goddamn.” They got to the doors of the lobby, and Ambrose stood staring at them. Then he glanced at Ezra, who raised his eyebrows at him.
“Go ahead,” Ezra said, crossing his arms over his chest. “Open the door.”
“I . . .”
“You can’t, can you?”
Ambrose sighed at the grand doorway with its ornately carved wood and lead glass. “They’re awful heavy,” he said.
“Heavy,” Ezra echoed. His expression became more sympathetic. “I see,” he whispered, then opened the doors and let Ambrose walk through first.
The crowd was still waiting in the streets, but it had calmed. The rowdier element had drifted off to the saloons or the docks, and the curious had grown bored. The people waiting now were all silent, standing as if at a vigil. Ambrose’s hair stood on end, the air around him going colder despite his own state of ghostliness. He recognized every one of them.
“What’s wrong?” Ezra asked, finally remembering to speak under his breath so no one would notice him talking to nothing in the middle of the street.
Ambrose waved at the crowd. “You see them?”
Ambrose merely nodded. “I ain’t the only one he killed who’s been drawn here to see him hang. Guess that answers why I’m still here. They can’t get in. They’re left out here to wait.” He smiled sadly at Ezra. “Thanks for opening the door for me.”
His meaning seemed to hit Ezra suddenly, and the man looked out at the street again, going pale. “You mean . . . there are more of you? Spirits?”
“Men and women he killed.” There was a feeling in the pit of his stomach, the same one of helplessness and desperation that had driven him to sacrifice himself in a gun battle he’d known he couldn’t win. “A few little ones too. They look . . . they look confused.”
Ezra put both hands out as if to ward off the image of Boone Jennings’s victims wandering lost in the streets of San Francisco. “Oh this . . . this is so beyond my experience,” he said, then headed down the steps, still muttering to himself.
Ambrose watched him wade through the crowd, even walking through a few people. They shivered violently when he contacted them, then disappeared into the ether as if smoke to Ezra’s touch. The ones who remained didn’t seem to notice, all of them staring at the hotel, waiting. One by one they began to fade, pulled back to wherever they were doomed to spend their afterlives, just as Ambrose was sure to return to the bar of the Continental.
Ambrose glanced back at the doors, then lowered his head and followed after Ezra. For some reason, Ezra’s presence allowed him to travel off his tether; if he let Ezra get too far away, he’d surely be pulled back to the Continental and get stuck there again. He’d been trying to get out of there for two weeks now, but the damn doors were as solid as walls.
“Stop following me,” Ezra barked when Ambrose appeared at his side again.
“I’m not hurting anything being here.”
“Except my sanity!”
People on the street took pains to avoid Ezra, whispering or darting their eyes at him.
“You got to stop talking to yourself,” Ambrose reminded.
Ezra growled and gritted his teeth.
“Look, I don’t know why, but I can follow you out of the Continental, see? It’s the first time I’ve been able to leave the place where I died.”
“What about all the people you said you could see in the street, hmm? How’d they get here if you’re attached to me?”
“I don’t know! I don’t know the damn rules, I’ve only been dead a couple weeks!”
Ezra snarled and stopped in the middle of the street, shooing his hands at Ambrose, heedless of the attention he was drawing to himself. “Stop following me! It’s . . . it’s unsettling! I don’t wish to know there are ghosts roaming the streets, I don’t wish to know what happens after death, do you understand? I don’t need to know these things!”
“I don’t wish to know this!” Ezra shouted. “I gave my testimony, I even read yours for you, and there’s no chance Boone Jennings will be anything but hanged at the end of this. I did exactly what you wanted, so stop following me.” He turned on his heel and stalked off.
“Thank you, Ezra,” Ambrose called after him.
Ezra didn’t turn around.
Ezra shoved through the doors of the Continental so hard that one of them banged against the wall, rattling the frames hung there. People turned to stare. He cleared his throat, straightening his coat.
Aside from the fact that he’d just learned his roommate for the evening had been dead, he wasn’t sure why he was so upset. Yes, befriending a ghost was the most unusual thing that’d ever happened to him, but at least Ambrose had been pleasant company. It was the fact that he was here at all that was rocking Ezra’s normally placid mind. Was that what happened when you died? No Heaven? No Hell? Just . . . an eternity of hoping someone could see you?
Ezra shook his head and rubbed his eyes. “Good Lord.”
He didn’t head for his room, instead making a beeline for the saloon. If ever a drink was warranted, it was now.
The new mirror behind the bar had been hung, and the bartender was busy stocking bottles above it. It hit Ezra that this must have been where Ambrose had finally tracked down Boone Jennings and challenged him. Bullet holes littered the lower part of the bar, and one in the back wall must have gone right through a bottle of whiskey. This was where Ambrose had been shot. This was where he’d died.
“Best to order top-shelf,” Ambrose said to him.
Ezra jumped, holding a hand to his heart to calm its frantic beating. Ambrose was leaning on the bar, sipping from a shot glass and staring into the mirror on the back wall.
“You almost frightened me to death,” Ezra hissed.
Ambrose chuckled and took another sip of whiskey. “It’s not so bad, you know. Being dead.”
Ezra drew closer to him, still exasperated by his presence but beginning to truly ponder the implications of his being there. He stepped up the bar beside Ambrose and turned his attention to the mirror. Only his own reflection stared back at him.
He lowered his head sadly, glancing sideways at Ambrose. Was he stuck here? Doomed to forever haunt this hotel where he’d lost his life? If no one else could see him, was Ezra his only company? The thought made Ezra cringe at his earlier reaction on the street.
“What can I get you, sir?” the bartender asked him. Ezra tore his eyes away from Ambrose and gave the man a weak smile.
“Top-shelf,” Ambrose said. “Order top-shelf.”
“Top-shelf, please,” Ezra managed to say.
The bartender nodded and turned away. The smell of tobacco smoke wafted through the air, followed by a whiff of gunpowder. Ezra glanced around, frowning. The saloon was nearly empty, and no one had lit a cigarette.
“You here for the trial?” the bartender asked.
“They going to hang him?”
“I believe so, yes,” Ezra said, a hard edge creeping into his voice.
“Good.” The bartender set a glass and a bottle in front of him. “He killed that marshal right here in front of me.”
Ezra had to force himself not to glance at Ambrose. He nodded instead. “Why wasn’t Marshal Shaw’s murder prosecuted? His case seems far more compelling than the one being tried.”
“Self-defense,” the bartender grunted. “Marshal didn’t draw first, but no one who saw it was willing to say that. And the only other man still alive to tell it is Jennings.”
“What about you?”
The bartender smiled sadly. “Boone Jennings is a devil. Takes a brave man to stand toe to toe with him. And if I’ve learned one thing of myself, it’s that I am not cut from the same cloth as men like Marshal Shaw. I just serve the drinks.”
He took his leave then, stocking new bottles at the other end of the bar. Ezra turned his attention back to Ambrose, who was staring at the bar top.
“Are you here to protect me?” Ezra asked. “Is that why you won’t leave me alone?”
Ambrose spoke quietly. “I don’t know why I’m here. You left me standing in the street; next thing I knew I was sitting here.” He put his glass down and narrowed his eyes at Ezra. “Maybe you’re the one following me.”
There was a hint of amusement in his features, and Ezra found himself fighting a smile. He poured himself a glass of whiskey, then set the bottle between them. They sat in silence for some time, drinking together.
“I’m quite sorry you’re dead,” Ezra finally offered.
Ambrose laughed. “Me too, partner.”
It made Ezra chuckle. At least the man wasn’t a morose ghost. Ambrose pulled a cigarillo from his vest and frowned at it.
“I keep smelling those,” Ezra said. “Is it you?”
Ambrose shrugged. “Alls I know is it’s damned hard to light one when you can’t hold a match.”
He placed it on the bar. A moment later, it was gone. Ambrose stared dejectedly at the empty space, then reached in his vest again and pulled out the same cigarillo.
Ezra watched in fascination. “All you have on you is what you died with, isn’t it?”
Ambrose nodded. “I keep finding myself here, saddlebag over my shoulder. Pulling out a smoke. No one will light it for me though.”
Ezra wanted to reach out to console him, but he had the presence of mind to know that he’d likely reach right through him. He licked his lips instead, looking away. “I’m sorry I shouted at you. I was distraught by the thought of the afterlife you describe.”
“Yeah, well . . . I’m sorry I haunted you.”
They both chuckled softly. Ezra studied him, thinking of the sacrifice the man had made, the guts and bravado it had taken to walk into this saloon knowing he might die and not caring as long as Boone Jennings went with him. Ezra nodded. “I’ll open your doors until he’s hanged, Marshal Shaw.”
Ambrose tipped his hat, lips quirking. “Much obliged, Inspector Johns.”
Abigail Roux was born and raised in North Carolina. A past volleyball star who specializes in sarcasm and painful historical accuracy, she currently spends her time coaching high school volleyball and investigating the mysteries of single motherhood. Any spare time is spent living and dying with every Atlanta Braves and Carolina Panthers game of the year. Abigail has a daughter, Little Roux, who is the light of her life, a boxer, four rescued cats who play an ongoing live-action variation of 'Call of Duty' throughout the house, a certifiable extended family down the road, and a cast of thousands in her head.
The Bone Orchard
My Haunted Blender's Gay Love Affair, and Other Twisted Tales