Chapter 1: that’s a good looking body
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When Cassin decided to follow the vultures during her patrol, she had expected to find one of Mr. Legba’s steer laid out dead with a broke leg or some such. The stranger stripped naked hanging in the Hossifer tree was a surprise. Hands tied behind his back, stretched straight, he seemed to be a man stood at attention, hovering above the ground. Pale skinned and carrot red through the blood in his hair, Cassin didn’t recognize him at all.
The earth was muddy and ripped up from horses and riders. Beyond that, Cassin couldn’t discern much else. But she could imagine three or more men putting a beating on the broad-muscled dead man, forcing him out of his clothes, ropes on, atop a horse. One sharp blow or maybe a crack of thunder and his horse would have sprung forward and left him dancing in the air.
The rain had passed but left gray skies and threatening rumblings.
She urged her horse closer to the swaying body, murmuring soothing nonsense to calm it as it scented death. The bay mare should have been used to it.
Cassin dismounted and nudged her horse into place below the body. She drew a knife from the sheath on her belt and carved through the rope, careful not to cut all the way through so that the rope was mostly frayed. She raised herself up on one side of the saddle in a stirrup, face to bloody face with the body. His eyes were stone green, red veins burst in the whites of them. Cassin grabbed a fistful of red hair in one hand and rope on the other, then dropped out of the stirrup. The rope gave under the weight, and the body dropped over the back of her horse that startled and sidestepped. His cold, slick skin caused him to slip, but Cassin managed to drag him securely onto the horse. She didn’t know if the coolness was from the rain or how long he’d been passed on.
“Don’t you worry,” Cassin said as she rubbed a hand down the mare’s face. “We just need to get him to Mr. Legba. He’ll get the answers for us.”
She took up the reins and led the horse away, mud sucking at her boots. The vultures swooped overhead, riding the wind as the storm clouds dithered on whether to rain more or roam. The vultures screeched, and Cassin watched them to try and spot whether they were plain or drifters from the Waste. Her hand drifted to her sidearm as she searched for the telltale silver streak. The massive birds that ventured out of the Waste grew big enough to carry off a horse carcass when so inclined. Opportunistic and cowardly, they wouldn’t challenge her if she put up a fight, but these seemed to be the average variety. The vultures from the Waste were getting bolder though, and had taken live prey and flown off with a number of Mr. Legba’s steers. It seemed that the Waste wasn’t providing for its beasts well, and they were exploring new territory.
Cassin drew the collar of her leather coat together to ward out the cold and water. The boss’s house was at the top of the hill from the valley she’d scouted, on his order. Mr. Legba was worried about the beasts of the Waste ravaging through his territory. If the scavengers were seeking new ground, the other creatures would surely not be far behind.
Rain decided to visit the land again, and it fell heavy as her path started uphill. Her feet slipped from beneath her more than once.
The land eventually evened out, the stretch of the Legba homestead open before her. Lantern light shone through the bunkhouse windows, the other ranch hands done with their patrols and safely sheltered. The others worked in pairs, but Cassin wasn’t burdened with a partner. The only girl on the spread, she had to work twice as hard to get half the respect. If not her, they at least respected her gun.
The ranch hands watched from the warmth of the bunkhouse as she trudged by. They had the odd idea that the boss favored her. Transporting a dead, naked man didn’t make her feel particularly favored at the moment. She had a room in the big house, but if she stayed in the bunkhouse with them, someone would end up shot every other weekend when the carousing happened. The new ranch hands always seemed to confuse her with a tavern girl.
She earned her keep, same as them. But unlike her, they could leave when they wanted. Her father’s bad luck with cards had landed her here, a down payment on his debt. He’d cut out years ago and left her behind. If she ever wanted a life of her choosing, it’d be a decades’ more work. But she was fed, clothed, sheltered.
Most days, that was enough. Some days, she wondered how far and how fast she could run.
Ahead of her, the corral stood next to the stable. Cassin urged her horse to continue past onward to the house. She promised the mare a blanket and oats so long as she cooperated and led her on. The big house stood two stories high with big white pillars all sides. Chairs sat on the porch that wrapped around the house. It looked like a plantation house from the far south, faintly out of place among these plains.
It was built to please Mrs. Legba, in preference to her taste, but the lady hadn’t lived very long to enjoy it.
Cassin spotted men loitering on the porch and grimaced. She recognized the lank form of one of them as he stood and leaned on the porch rail.
“Finally got you a man, Cassin?” Matthai hollered. He laughed and slapped his knee. “Shoulda figured you liked ‘em quiet!”
“Carry it in,” Cassin said and dropped the reins, ground tying the horse.
Hersh moved to stand, but Matthai pushed him back down. The other, Pol, settled more comfortably in his seat, like he was prepping for a show.
“We don’t work for you,” Matthai said.
“That’s fine. Then I’ll go in there and have Mr. Legba get up out his study in front of his fire and come out here in the cold and tell you to move your rotting, lazy carcass and carry in your kin. Should I do that?”
Matthai glared at her before yanking his cohort up helpfully off the railing and dragging him up by the collar. They stomped down the porch’s stairs. He spat in the mud at her feet. Cassin crossed her arms and gripped her biceps, to keep her hands off her weapons. Matthai wasn’t worth the fuss and the lecture she’d get from Mr. Legba if she hurt one of his worker’s without his approval. Matthai was a hard worker but his mouth worked twice as hard.
He and his friend dragged the body off the horse and carried it in between them at head and feet. Matthai swore under the weight while his friend huffed out a breath.
“Pol, why don’t lend a hand? This guy’s solid!”
Pol settled more comfortably in his chair and shook his head. “Nah, boy, y’all got it.”
Matthai hurled a few choice insults at Pol and his parentage as the pair struggled up the stairs under their burden. Pol leaned to the side and pushed open the door for them. Huffing, Matthai kicked at him as he passed but Pol laughed.
“Would you mind my horse?” Cassin asked the sniggering ranch hand left behind.
He went on laughing as he stood from his chair and walked down the stairs. Older than most of the men on the ranch, Cassin liked Pol. He did as asked, and he was quiet. He knew what everyone was up to, and no one could lay fault to him on anything. Kept to himself and never took sides on any dispute. He would lay the odd bet from time to time, usually on the under dog.
She felt they were a lot alike.
Pol took up the reins to her horse and led it away to the barn, whistling in the rain. Cassin walked up the stairs into the shelter of the porch and dumped her hat and dripping coat on a chair. She stomped mud off her boots and considered leaving them outside too. Matthai stealing them as a petty prank was too big a risk. The rain had seeped through to her clothes, and the damp cold followed her into the house.
The wide stairs to the second story opened up past the foyer, lit up by the high chandelier with conjured orbs of light. Rugs over hardwood floor silencing her footsteps, Cassin followed the trail of water and grunts to the dining room past the stairs on the right. Matthai and Hersh hefted the body onto the long dining table on the count of three, dropping it with a thud. Matthai shot her a glare.
“Coudn’t’ta killed a midget. Had to bag yourself a giant.”
She didn’t bother to correct him. Cassin leaned against the wooden sideboard and shrugged.
“Fetch Mr. Legba,” she said.
Matthai grumbled but went anyway while his friend bent over to catch his breath. The rain had washed off a bit more of the grime and blood from the corpse, and bruises and cuts showed more clearly on the skin. A curious thought floated through her head. She pulled her knife from her belt and approached the body. Cassin motioned for Hersh to roll the body. Most of the boys didn’t mind accommodating her, only Matthai gave her real trouble out of the hands.
On its side, Cassin grabbed the rope and cut it, freeing the wrists and examined the knuckles. They were bruised and bloody.
“He fought at least,” Hersh said and mumbled a prayer.
Cassin placed the hands on either side of the body.
“Cassi, welcome home!”
She whirled as Aleron sauntered into the dining room. He raised his glass in salutation and drank. Deliberately slow, Cassin sheathed her knife and gripped her belt tight. Mr. Legba’s son spared the corpse a bored glance. The ranch spread across a few thousand acres of lush land, and there was always someone who wanted to take a bit. That much property wasn’t kept without a bit of bloodshed now and again, not in territory as wild as theirs. Cassin knew that from experience.
A sharp gesture from Aleron, and Hersh moved away from her. Aleron’s gaze lazily roved over her.
“Aleron,” Cassin said. “I didn’t know you were back.” She shot a look at Hersh who shrugged and backed away even more.
Aleron smiled. “Once the business in town was taken care of, and the boys, uh, sated, there wasn’t any reason to stay away.” He raised his hand to caress her cheek. “I missed you.”
His eyes left her cold, his smile turned her stomach, and his touch…
Lord and saints above, if she could set her flesh aflame to remove the sense of his touch, she would. Cassin shivered, dripping water on Mr. Legba’s plush imported rug. He noticed, and he pressed close to her side, held tight across her shoulder. The leather creaked in her hands as she tensed.
“Cold, Cassi? May I offer you a drink?” He asked in a genial, smooth voice and offered the glass of amber brandy to her.
“I’m fine,” she said through teeth clenched so they wouldn’t chatter. “Thank you.”
“You’re half-froze. Now why don’t you come to my room and get out of those wet clothes?” He tugged on an end of her loc’d hair, twined it around a finger. “I can get a fire going and make it real cozy for us.”
Hersh cleared his throat, a lame attempt to distract Aleron. It didn’t matter. Mr. Legba wouldn’t approve of her stabbing his son, but her hand found its way to the blade handle.
A door slammed in the house, and sure footsteps thudded toward the dining room. Mr. Legba arrived from his study, and Aleron backed off. His father had warned him away from Cassin more than once, and there were times when he took a stricter method to enforce his word. Father and son looked little alike. Both were tall, but Mr. Legba had the broadness of years and muscle. Aleron was still lean and youthful at twenty, with the sand dune coloring of his departed mother. Matthai trailed in after him.
“When you said Cassin brought me a present, that’s not what I expected, Matthai,” Mr. Legba said.
Mr. Legba was a tall, dark man in black. He had a broad face with a strong jaw with a mouth that usually held a frown and cigar. His almost-black brown eyes catalogued the body on the table.
“You strippin’ the men you kill now, Cassin?” He asked around the cigar.
“Found him like that, hung up in a Hossifer tree. You know him?”
Mr. Legba stared at the ruined face.
“Can’t say that I do. Any you boys?”
The ranch hands who dropped him on the table grunted their No sirs. Aleron sipped his brandy, sulking. Mr. Legba put his hands on either side of the body and leaned over it, almost on top of it.
“That’s a good lookin’ body,” Mr. Legba said around the cigar in his mouth. He grabbed the corpse’s chin and moved the head. “Hung, you said? More strangled than broke, maybe a fracture or the like. Not yet a day old either.”
Cassin swallowed thickly. The smoke from Mr. Legba’s cigar blended with the scent of damp and blood. He examined the other wounds on the body, most of them superficial and not life-threatening. They were certainly painful enough when they’d been inflicted.
Mr. Legba blew out a trail of blue smoke into his hand, fingers curled like a cage. Wisps of smoke escaped the circle of his hands as he moved them to the body’s face. He cupped his hands over the mouth and crushed nose and held them there. Mr. Legba leaned over the body and spoke low into the shell of its ear.
“Why were you killed?” He asked.
He moved one hand to the chest and held his ear near its mouth. His hand forced the chest down and a whispered answer was expelled from its mouth, aforced puff of air that Cassin almost didn’t hear even standing by its head.
“Gold,” it said.
Mr. Legba stiffened, and his eyes gleamed. Cassin knew that if there was gold to be had, enough worth beating and killing a man for, Mr. Legba wanted to know about it.
“Gentlemen, grab a limb,” Mr. Legba said. He manouvered the head and neck, a straight a line as he could. “Cassin, the head. Just like that.” She placed her hands where he’d indicated.
Aleron made no move to assist whileHersh and Matthai each grabbed an arm.
“Firm,” Mr. Legba ordered. “Be ready, put your back into it. Boy, grab the legs.”
Aleron grimaced. “But Father, I —”
Aleron rolled his eyes then downed the rest of his brandy, is setting the glass on the table as he took up his position at the feet. Mr. Legba puffed on his cigar and blue smoke billowed out of his mouth and nose like a dragon. It gathered around his head like a storm cloud. He leaned over the corpse and put a hand on the forehead and chest, over the heart. He blew out and the smoke swarmed around the corpse’s head. Cassin’s eyes watered, and she choked. Mr. Legba murmured a word, one of those strange unutterables that prefaced some dark and wondrous miracle.
The smoke swirled around the face. Mr. Legba pushed down on the chest, and bones creaked, ribs bending under the force. A little puff of lingering hair was forced out, a small wisp of smoke in. A long still moment, tense, anticipation growing. Cassin had seen this before, but it wasn’t something she was used to.
The head shifted under her hands, and a soft but definite crack split the silence. The cold skin under Cassin’s hands moved. Mr. Legba shuddered. He backed away toward to the wall, panting and sagging against it. Cassin and the others looked between him and the body, waiting.
The clouded eyes opened wide, and the back arched. The mouth dropped open and it gasped, trying to drag air through its ruined throat, as flesh and bone healed.
It — he lashed out with arms and legs. A foot caught Aleron in the chest. The blow sent him crashing back into the cabinet, dishes clattering and shattering inside. The prone body struggled and wheezed, limbs flailing. A wretched, desperate groaning came from his mouth as he fought them.
Cassin raised her hand and slapped him across the face, the impact sounding like a whip. Everyone stilled.
“Stop it!” She hissed at him. His wild green eyes focused on her, and she saw the fear and anger there. He struggled for air, hyperventilating and panicking. Heart pounding in her ears, Cassin carded her fingers through his wet, blood streaked air. “Just breathe. No one’s gonna hurt you.”
He listened. The ragged, desperate breaths steadily calmed as Cassin continued her ministrations. Mr. Legba pushed off the wall and approached. The table runner extended down the length of the table several more feet. Mr. Legba casually draped it over the man and waved off Hersh and Matthai’s restraining grip. He dragged a chair around and sat backwards on it. Somehow in the chaos, Aleron’s glass remained poised on the edge of the table while almost everything else had been knocked to the floor. Mr. Legba tipped it over to shatter on the floor. The stranger ignored him, fully focused on Cassin and matching her breaths. Mr. Legba snapped his fingers in front of the man’s face, and he turned his head and winced. The angry red mark across neck lingered, like a brand, while the superficial wounds slowly but visibly healed.
Mr. Legba took the cigar out of his mouth before he spoke. “It’s good to see you among the land of the living again, sir. I’m Tellis Legba.” He tapped a finger to his temple as touching the brim of a hat. “And you would be?”
When the stranger spoke, his voice was hoarse and low, raw at the edges.
“I…I don’t know.”