Ghost Blue, Ghost Red
Ridden by the devil, the Red Ghost kicked over wagons, trampled women and children for the spiteful joy of it, strode the earth from thirty dreadful feet up. Saw it myself, someone’d say, eating grizzly bears and knocking holes in train cars. Or, should you ask another man at the same bar, the red ghost was a big, mean horse with a corpse lashed to its back.
The world was lousy with monsters. That much Remembrance Wilson took on faith. But someone lashing a corpse to a valuable animal? That notion tasked credibility.
This town, though, was tense enough with haunting that even the vultures following Remmy’s wagon peeled off early. Too many twitchy fingers hovered too near triggers for comfort. Amazing how many people would try to shoot a spook.
Only the postmaster glad to gossip, once he’d assured himself that Remmy, in her customary guise of a slender young man, had no cadaverous riders hidden under her duster. The specter hadn’t just been sighted by a drunk. It had run down a man in the street, with witnesses aplenty. Not much of a man, just the hired bully of a powerful silver baron. Still, it had been no pleasure seeing him trampled by an unearthly apparition. Remmy herself spotted red hair caught in the splinters of a broken fence, and what remained of a very unusual footprint.
Town wasn’t a good prospect. Remmy gave some honest thought to passing right through, saving her show for the next outpost. But Dr. Bombastus’s Invigorating Tonic waited for no ghost. And she didn’t think Hardtack would forgive her if he didn’t get his few days’ idleness. Damn mule.
So as Remmy folded out her stage between the general store and the saloon she told herself this was a matter of fiduciary prudence and not her thrice-accursed curiosity luring her again into foolishness.
She strode the boards as though every eye that fell on her weren’t all ice and steel, and in striding made it so. Sure, the locals were brittle, hostile, liable to take out their terrors on an attractive scoundrel. But not much more than in every other town. Clusters of people bunched up against a desert they didn’t belong in got touchy. They were also guaranteed to be bored. And Remmy?
Remmy was very loud and had a fancy hat.
A half dozen women walked by, probably ranchers’ wives from their air of threadbare respectability. Good place to start. She began with practiced ease. The accent was neither hers nor anybody else’s. No mark would bend an ear to drink in the sweet sounds of Virginian coal country. She pasted her persona together with a splash of New Orleans, a slice of Georgia peach, a flight of fancy.
“Pardon me, ladies, you will have to excuse my rudeness, but I could not imagine that lovely flowers in the bloom of youthful elegance such as yourselves would wish to neglect an opportunity to preserve that glow with which nature has so amply blessed you,”
One let slip a rusty giggle. Only two stopped, which showed some real hardness of heart and would have hurt her feelings, were she so weak as to have any. To ignore the patter of a handsome young gentleman who was not technically claiming to be a doctor as he showered them with gallantries? But she’d worked with worse.
Remmy pushed on. “In sun so relentless as the one that shines on this great western expanse, with all the cares of hearth and home, it would take a member of the heavenly host to remain perfectly untouched, and not simply an angel on earth such as those I see before me.”
She had them all now. Remmy dropped to one knee at the edge of the stage, catching the eye of the most intimidating matron of the gaggle. “Do pardon me the impertinence, ma’am, but a medical man’s eye gets sharp as the finest steel. Do I perchance espy the maledictions of the tooth worm?”
Toothache was a good bet. Life wasn’t kind to teeth. There might not be a dentist in the territory, certainly not closer than Tombstone.
“You’re observant, Mister… Doctor…?”
No time for corrections of a silly misapprehension. “If I might apologize for my intrusion by offering a one-time opportunity to sample the absolutely panacean Invigorating Tonic for which Dr. Bombastus is so justly famed?” Remmy produced a blue bottle from her breast pocket.
Blue for water, blue for sky, blue for the sweet indigo paint that dusted porches and shutters back home. Blue for the bottle trees she’d tended as a child. Blue was a trick and a ward against a bad spirit, but a comfortable berth for a willing one.
The formidable matriarch’s eyes went still. Told to swish it around and swallow, she didn’t notice the ghost haze that went along with the spoonful she accepted, and a moment later was declaiming in a loud voice almost completely her own how entirely gone away was her toothache. In short order, Remmy had made, well, two sales.
Sales of clear glass bottles. Remmy didn’t lightly bestow her blues.
That batch was, if she recalled correctly, molasses, grain alcohol, peppermint, a dash of vinegar, a pinch of salt, and a drop of clove oil, cooked down over her campfire. The ghost-touch added some to the hours without pain.
“Thanks, Willie,” Remmy whispered. The haze returned to the bottle, the glass cold against her fingers, and black gimlet eyes met hers from its depths before fading to shadow.
But possession took it out of even such a battleaxe as Willie, and Remmy never overworked her ghosts. So Tommy took the next bunch, a loose drift of miners.
By evening she had precious little to show for her efforts. She’d been at her best. The ghosts were in fine form. Possession and the daze it left behind took the place of planted enthusiasts that her operation was too small to support. Even Hardtack did his part, looking mean at anybody who strayed too close to the wagon. But people were just too darn edgy to shell out for possible snake oil from a possible doctor. So Remmy made her way out of town, seeing another of those strange hoof prints on the way out. Didn’t look remotely like a horse’s, but not a whiff of the unnatural hung about it, either.
She tried not to think about it and succeeded long enough for a cold dinner and a rub down for Hardtack. This Red Ghost wasn’t her affair.
The moon was on her way down when Remmy’s meddling heart got the better of her. She left Willie behind, sitting by Hardtack under the stars, with her bottle at her side, the blue of it blackened by the night. Woman had been mean as spit in life, unlike sweet Tommy and shy Clem. Of the three, she was best equipped to keep a weather-beaten wagon and plug-ugly mule safe.
The prints were too scarce to track, but ghosts left their own mark on the world, wisps of cold and fog and sorrow in the air. Tommy and Clem helped her search, and so did the moon, one of Remmy’s first and most steadfast allies.
Even with all their aid, morning was close when Tommy finally spotted the Red Ghost grazing lazily on a hill. Remmy’d read One Thousand and One Nights as a girl, or she’d never have known what she was looking at. Two humps on its back like a buffalo gone greedy, gnarled-up stilts for legs, a great, shaggy wobble of a neck. Still, as she’d suspected, perfectly natural. As was the miserable mess of bone and desiccated flesh on its back.
But the shadow stepping around the camel was a ghost, a woman with hard edges and clear eyes. A woman clinging to the world with all the rage a stilled heart could and leveling a perfectly real shotgun. Not many spooks could muster such solidity. This one had barely admitted she was dead.
Remmy stifled an admiring whistle. “Town’s not big enough for the both of us, ma’am.” She tipped her hat with an elegance she usually reserved for the show. Politeness was key. That gun was probably empty and looked well past usefulness, but a haunt as angry as this one could influence the world as was in funny ways. The sheer wanting did it. “Going to have to ask you to move along.”
The ghost kept the gun level and hissed, “Did he send you?”
Remmy wouldn’t live the luxurious life of a mule-owning iconoclast if she couldn’t judge a mark on the fly. The ghost had attained maybe twice Remmy’s age before her clock ran down. Whip-thin and windswept, but without that air of deprivation hovering over a shade like poor Tommy’s. Her hat was a decent Stetson, and her overalls were nearly new. No boots, but then, she didn’t seem to have feet, which the dead frequently forgot. In life, this one had known a modest prosperity, one she’d fought for.
None of this registered on Remmy’s impassive face. “You after someone in particular?” Of course she was. Something was keeping her on camelback. Remmy just had to give her room to talk.
“Not your affair, little boy!”
Remmy sighed. That was the trouble with being short and unavoidably beardless, the reason she had to lean so hard on charm and fashion. No gravitas. “Dead men and terrified townsfolk are in no mood to make extraneous purchases, and that’s a problem for me, Missus…?”
“No offense intended, Miss Espina. Now, if you wish to air to your grievances? There is a chance I may be of some assistance.”
The ghost didn’t soften.
Remmy eyed her overalls. “You can call me Miss Wilson, if it puts you at ease.”
Good gamble. It earned her a different sort of attention, and the shotgun dipped a few degrees. Silence stretched between them, but for the sound of the camel chewing. Finally, Miss Espina let the gun drop to her side. “I suppose he wouldn’t hire you.”
“He might, Miss, as I am extremely convincing in my habitual charade, but I do not even know his identity, much less what he has done to warrant your ire…?”
“He wanted my father’s ranch. For the silver under it.”
“An understandable desire.”
The ghost snorted. She remembered very well what breath in her lungs felt like for someone who’d had time to fall to pieces. “I don’t think that even mattered to him in the end. Just that my father wouldn’t sell, and neither would I.”
Remmy found a rock to sit on. “And how did he take that, as a no doubt enterprising man of some fortune?”
“Hired away my hands. Poisoned my well and stole the livestock. Broke fences and set fires.”
Nodding along with her chin in her hands, Remmy looked as sympathetic as her face would take. It helped that she was quite able to imagine the effects of such a campaign. She’d just worn feelings like hats for so long that she had to make deliberate choices even for the real ones.
“And when that didn’t work he borrowed a few Pinkertons from the railroad to burn the place down.”
“I shot two of them. The rest regrouped. They broke my legs and left me bleeding in the barn.”
Remmy swallowed and wished she had her cigars on hand, just for a distraction from the snap of bones and flames and falling timbers. Here she’d thought Clem’s end was bad. Miss Espina’s missing feet struck her differently now. “How’s this fellow enter the tale?” She nodded at the camel.
“My father bought a few camels from the army years ago. Maximo’s the best of them.” The ghost reached up to pat a woolly flank. Her hand passed through. Neither she nor the camel seemed to mind. “The other animals ran off when the fire started. Maximo stuck around, looking for me. I crawled clear of the barn before I cooked, and then it took until sunrise to climb up him. I had to tie myself on. Could have saved the trouble. I didn’t live past noon.”
Remmy politely pretended not to hear the muttered apology the spook gave her beast. The ropes had rubbed him raw, and being ghost-ridden could only ease so much pain.
“Well, I do thank you for your confidence, Miss Espina,” Remmy said, rising. “And I am prepared to make you an offer.”
The shotgun twitched.
“Come now, we can’t have ghost-addled dromedaries rampaging in the streets.”
“Dromedaries have one hump.”
“I stand corrected,” Remmy granted with great magnanimity and a sweep of her hand. “It remains, as I mentioned, terrible for business. Now, your wrath is righteous, and I have no wish to take your revenge from you. Is the scoundrel in town?”
“Staying at the hotel. ” Miss Espina closed her eyes and went through all the motions of breathing deep. “He knows I’m coming for him. Never goes out at night anymore.”
“Then I suspect my offer will be especially welcome. I will lay your bones to respectable rest and ensure your access to this man. In return, I offer employment in Dr. Bombastus’s Medicine Show.”
Miss Espina blinked.
Remmy plowed ahead. “I cannot at this time introduce you to all your prospective colleagues, as Sister Wilhelmina McGrath waits behind, but Clement Lange and Thomasina Bennett here can attest to the treatment you may expect.”
Their merest suggestions hovered in the air behind Remmy. Tommy, fine features wasted to gossamer by consumption and a broken heart. Clem, handsome as the day but for the hole between his eyes where his bride-to-be’s father had expressed his opinion of a groom who’d spent his formative years in skirts and pigtails.
“By way of accommodations.” Remmy drew a blue bottle from her pocket. “Straight from the finest bottle trees of the east, blue as heaven, enough to prevent the sun from offering insult to the delicate dead while allowing clear views of the wide world, and freedom to come and go as you please.” She tipped the bottle carefully toward herself, wanting Miss Espina to agree, not be trapped.
“So my afterlife goes to selling your snake oil?”
“It’s a more real medicine than many, Miss Espina. And the ghost-touch lengthens the effect. Your duties would be light beyond that. Ride shotgun between towns. Ward the wagon and my person. By way of recompense, given the use for funds you would not anywise have, I offer the finest blue glass in various sizes, travel opportunities, and a comfortable retirement to what lies beyond whenever you should choose.”
Miss Espina looked at her levelly for a long moment. “What about Maximo?”
Remmy allowed herself to imagine the crowd work she could do with a camel, but didn’t want to seem too eager. “He can’t eat much more than a mule.”
Miss Espina nodded once and vanished into the blue. Remmy went to work on the ropes, hoping camels didn’t kick.
It was late. She’d followed the silver baron up the hotel’s grand staircase to the door of his room, where he now stood ready to be affronted. Remmy made him her very politest bow, however, and she’d polished her shoes and buckles sharp. Mollified, Jonathan Whitehall cocked his head with the mild interest of noblesse oblige.
“I do apologize for speaking without proper introduction, Mr. Whitehall, but I could not resist impertinence when I discovered I was sharing lodgings with such a pillar of the community.” This kind of man made the easiest mark, his attention cheap as flattery. “I understand you are a busy man with many demands on your time, Mr. Whitehall, so I will only trouble you so far as to offer you a sample of Dr. Bombastus’s Invigorating Tonic, for which I am the territorial representative. Following in the footsteps of his ancestor Paracelsus, it behooves the good doctor to ensure he makes his remedies available to the very best people.”
Mr. Whitehall’s hand closed around the blue bottle she offered. To take something without wrenching it from a weeping widow or orphan must not have pleased him quite as much, but free goods and flattery were a good second best.
In a matter of seconds he was pale and unsteady, mouth working in hopeless silence as the ghost eased into his very veins. “I do hope the trifle is to your tastes, Mr. Whitehall,” Remmy said sweetly.
He stumbled into his room, burns beginning to creep across his skin, in echo of the fire that had wiped away a ranch and a future under his kind auspices. With cracks like twin shotgun blasts, Whitehall’s legs shattered and he crumpled to the floor.
Remmy bowed low enough to snatch the blue bottle from his twitching fingers, then tipped her hat and spun on her heel. Miss Espina would return in her own time. Best Remmy be out of sight before he attracted attention.
And she was working against a bit of a limp. The Red Ghost did indeed kick.
“Ghost Blue, Ghost Red” © Malda Marlys. First published here in Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores, December 28, 2021
Malda Marlys teaches science just outside Chicago and writes the sort of speculative fiction that requires too many qualifiers for the normal flow of conversation. Fortunately the SFFH umbrella is wide (and kind of spooky and full of brass fittings and snakes). An out-of-practice black belt, mediocre birdwatcher, and terrible knitter, she spends most of her time being bullied by disreputable housepets and adding to a monumental TBR pile.
illustration by Fran Eisemann; stock used from public domain